13 Jun

Jack Rogers

Come, all you tender Christians, I hope you will lend ear,
And likewise pay attention to those few lines you’ll hear,
For the murder of Mr. Swanton I am condemned to die,
On the twelfth day of November upon the gallows high.

My name it is Jack Rogers, a name I’ll ne’er deny,
Which leaves my aged parents in sorrow for to cry,
It’s little did they ever think, all in my youthful bloom,
That I would come unto New York to meet my awful doom.

My parents reared me tenderly as you can plainly see,
And constant good advice they used to give to me,
They told me to shun night walking and all bad company,
Or state’s prison or the gallows would be the doom of me.

But it was in play houses and saloons I used to take delight,
And constantly my comrades they would me there invite,
I oft times was told by them that the use of knives was free,
And I might commit some murder and hanged I ne’er would be.

As Mr. Swanton and his wife were walking down the street,
All in a drunken passion I chanced them for to meet,
I own they did not harm me, the same I’ll ne’er deny,
But Satan being so near me, I could not pass them by.

I staggered up against him, ’twas then he turned around,
Demanding half the sidewalk, also his share of ground,
’Twas then I drew that fatal knife and stabbed him to the heart,
Which caused that beloved wife from her husband there to part.

It was then I went to Trenton, thinking to escape,
But the hand of Providence was before me, indeed I was too late,
It was there I was taken prisoner and brought unto the Toombs,
For to die upon the gallows, all in my youthful bloom.

I am thankful to the sheriff, who has been so kind to me,
Likewise my worthy counsellors, who thought to set me free,
And also to the clergyman, who brought me in mind to bear,
For to die a true penitent I solemnly do declare.

The day of my execution it was heartrending to see,
My sister came from Jersey to take farewell of me,
She threw herself into my arms and bitterly did cry,
Saying, “My well beloved brother, this day you have to die.”

And now my joys are ended, from this wide world I must part,
For the murder of Mr. Swanton I’m sorry to the heart;
Come, all you young ambitious youths, a warning take from me,
Be guided by your parents and shun bad company.

Sometimes doing the research into an old song’s background unlocks emotional weight that is hard to access from the words and melody alone. I found that to be the case with this grim ballad that was sung by Minnesotan Michael Dean, printed in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud and subsequently recorded from Dean’s singing by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1924.

When I first came across it, it seemed like a tragedy in the form of a classic Irish come-all-ye like “The Croppy Boy” but without a noble cause behind the punished crime. It turns out that “Jack Rogers” describes a real and widely-publicized New York City murder from October 1857. Though there is no worthy motive here, the song sheds light on the hard and sometimes violent culture of Irish immigrant youths who came to New York in the wake of the Great Hunger.

Newspapers of the time reported that the “respectable old gentleman” John Swanston was returning from a market on a Sunday evening with his wife when they met three young Irish “loungers about the corners” at the corner of 10th Avenue and 21st Street. One of the three, 19-year-old Irish immigrant James Rodgers, allegedly provoked Swanston by letting his elbow stick out and hit him. An altercation ensued in which Swanston was fatally stabbed. Rodgers fled to a sister’s home in New Jersey but was apprehended and jailed in The Tombs – the Manhattan House of Detention of that time. After many appeals and much publicity, Rodgers was sentenced and hanged at The Tombs on November 12th, 1858.

Rodgers maintained throughout his captivity that he remembered nothing of the crime. This was generally attributed in the press, and in the subsequent ballad, to his being heavily intoxicated under the encouragement of his two friends. The song’s admonition to “shun bad company” sums up the newspapers’ take on the crime and the song could well have been written by someone who had access to the November 13th, 1858 New York Herald which lays this all out in detail.

Articles also talk about how exceptionally young, gentle and handsome Rodgers was and that he was always restrained and, if anything, sad when interviewed. He was well-loved by his family and the newspaper descriptions of their heartbroken hysteria at his execution are painful to read 115 years later. It is easy to see how the story inspired public sympathy. A prominent author of the time, Caroline Kirkland, even lobbied New York’s governor in hopes of staying the execution. In the end, Rodgers’ fate was held up as a warning to other potentially violent young men on New York’s streets.

The Library of Congress has a broadside ballad sheet of “The Lamentation of James Rodgers” that is clearly a match for the version sung by Michael Dean. Dean’s version (where the names have changed somewhat) is one of only a couple found in circulation among US singers. Another version was collected in Newfoundland and, interestingly, two versions turned up in Ireland. Sam Henry’s unpublished collection has one from the north and a snippet of a version from Kerry can be heard via the Muckross House Research Library site online.

Also, this is a good blog post about the James Rodgers crime and execution.

22 May

Lost Jimmie Whalen

Slowly and sadly I strayed by the river,
A-watching the sunbeams as evening drew nigh,
All alone as I rambled I spied a fair damsel,
She was weeping and wailing with many a sigh.

Sighing for one who is now lying lonely,
Mourning for one who no mortal can save,
As the dark foaming waters flow sadly around her,
As onward they roll o’er young Jimmie’s grave.

“Jimmie,” said she, “won’t you come to my arms,
And give me sweet kisses as oft times you gave?
You promised you’d meet me this evening my darling,
O come dearest Jimmie, love, come from the grave!”

Slowly there rose from the depths of the river,
A vision of beauty far fairer than sun,
While red robes of crimson encircled around him,
Unto this fair maiden to speak he’s begun.

“Why did you rise me from the realms of glory,
Back to this place where I once had to leave?
To clasp you once more in my fond loving arms?
To see you once more I have come from my grave.”

“Jimmie” said she, “why not stay on earth with me,
Don’t leave me here for to weep and to rave,
But if you won’t mind me and bide here beside me,
Oh Jimmy take me to your cold silent grave.”

“Darling to me you are asking a favor
That no earthy mortal can grant unto thee.
For death is the dagger that holds us asunder,
And wide is the gulf, love, between you and me.”

“One fond embrace, love, and then I must leave you
One loving kiss, pet, and then we must part.”
And cold were the arms he encircled around her,
While cold was the bosom she pressed to her heart.

Then straightway the vision did vanish before her,
Straightway to the sky he then seemed to go,
Leaving his loved one distracted and lonely,
Weeping and wailing in sadness and woe.

Throwing herself on the banks of the river,
Weeping and wailing her poor heart would break,
Sighing “My loved one, my lost Jimmie Whalen,
I will lie down and die by the side of your grave.”

Norah Rendell and I have been singing this beautiful song for several years but somehow it has never made it onto Northwoods Songs!

It is one of two songs that commemorate the tragic drowning of a raftsman named James Phalen around 1878 in Ontario. Collector Franz Rickaby, who prints both songs in his book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy, corresponded with multiple informants who knew the details of the Phalen drowning. It happened at King’s Chute on Ontario’s Mississippi River–a tributary of the Ottawa where the rafting crew was working for a boss named Peter McLaren who went on to be a senator. Phalen and two others were attempting to break a log jam at the “Upper Falls” section of the Chute. Phalen fell in and was swept under the logs.  

Rickaby’s informants told him that the other popular “Whalen” song, “Jim Whalen,” was definitely based on the Phalen tragedy (apparently the name was pronounced “Whalen” in that part of Ontario). They said it was written and sung “with much pathos” by a local songsmith in Lanark, Ontario named John Smith.

Rickaby was not certain that the ghost-visiting narrative of “Lost Jimmie Whalen” referred to the same drowning victim as the more journalistic “Jim Whalen.” Rickaby collected only a three verse fragment “Lost Jimmie Whalen” from Will Daugherty of Charlevoix, Michigan in 1919. A version collected in the 1950s in Ontario from Martin Sullivan by Edith Fowke clearly makes the Phalen connection by including an additional verse:

“Hard, hard were the struggles on the cruel Mississippi,
But encircled around her on every side,
Thinking of you as we conquered them bravely,
I was hoping some day for to make you my bride.”

The above-transcribed melody comes from yet another Great Lakes region singer named Robert Walker who lived in Crandon, Wisconsin (Walker’s version appears on this wonderful Folkways album). Walker’s melody, a relative of the one frequently used for “Lass of Glenshee,” is similar to that used by Sullivan but I prefer the way Walker sings the opening bar. The text above is primarily from Walker with a few lines borrowed from the Daugherty and Sullivan versions and a couple changed of my own in the sixth stanza.

22 May

Jocky to the Fair

Was on the morn of bright May day when nature painted all things gay,
Taught birds to sing and lambs to play and guide the meadow air,
Then Jocky early in the morn,
He rose and tripped it o’er the lawn,
His Sunday suit he did put on,
For Jenny had vowed away to run with Jocky to the Fair.

The village parish bells had rung with eager steps he trudged along,
His flowery garment round him hung that shepherds used to wear,
Tapped at the window, “Haste my dear,”
When Jenny impatient cried, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me my love, there’s no one here,
Step lightly down, you need not fear with Jocky to the Fair.”

“My dad and mother is fast asleep, my brothers are up and with the sheep,
So will you still your promise keep that I have heard you swear?
Or will you ever constant prove?”
“I will by all that’s good, my love,
I’ll never deceive my charming dove,
Return those vows in haste my love with Jocky to the Fair.”

Then Jocky did his vows renew, they pledged their words and away they flew,
O’er cowslip bells and balmy dew and Jocky to the Fair,
Returned there’s none so fond as they,
They blessed that kind perpetual day,
The smiling month of blooming May,
When lovely Jenny ran away with Jocky to the Fair.

[repeat first verse]

In the world of competitive Irish step dancing, the tune “Jockey to the Fair” is one of the seven approved and strictly regulated traditional set dances. The tune, it turns out, originated with a popular English song of the 18th century. It is somewhat ironic that the melody has ended up on this short list of official tunes in a realm so historically sensitive to maintaining Irish cultural purity! Of course, recent cultural historians have been increasingly willing to admit that melodies (and lyrics) have travelled back and forth between the two islands for centuries and that the Irishness of a song or tune is complex to calculate (and possibly not worth the effort). To this day, “Jock(e)y to the Fair” is a favorite of uilleann pipers and Morris dancers all over the world.

The song that accompanies the melody (or at least a close variant of the dance tune) is rarely heard in Irish circles so it was interesting to find it in Helen Creighton’s Nova Scotia recordings as sung by Irish-Canadian Edmund Henneberry of tiny Devil’s Island—a now-deserted island in Halifax harbor. You can hear Henneberry sing it on the album Folk Music from Nova Scotia which is available online via Smithsonian Folkways. My transcription was made from that recording.