05 Dec

Banks of the Nile (Laws N9)


Starting this month, I will be videotaping myself singing the Northwoods Songs song of the month and posting it on Youtube.  I am excited to add this new dimension to the column!

Here I am singing Mike Dean’s “Banks of the Nile” while on vacation in the pines of beautiful Bowen Island, British Columbia last week. [Listening now, I realize I have considerably changed the first line of the melody on every verse but the first!  The many other variations and deviations are my own creative interpretation as well.]

Banks of the Nile


Hark! hark! the drums are beating, my love, I must away,
I hear the bugle calling, I can no longer stay;
We are ordered out from Portsmouth for many a long mile,
To *[join the British army] on the banks of the Nile.

Oh, Willie dear, don’t leave me here behind to weep and mourn,
So I may curse and rue the day that ever I was born,
For the parting from my sweetheart is like parting from my life,
So stay at home, dear Willie, and I will be your wife.

The Queen she calls for men, love, and I, for one, must go,
The Queen she calls for men, love, I dare not answer No;
We must away to face the foe while cannons roar the while,
To fight with Briton’s heroes on the banks of the Nile.

Then I’ll cut off my yellow hair and go along with you,
I will put on men’s clothing and go see Egypt, too;
I will cherish and protect you through hardship and through toil,
And we’ll comfort one another on the Banks of the Nile.

Your waist it is too slender, love, your fingers are too small,
I am afraid you would not answer when on you I would call,
Your delicate constitution would last but a short while,
Among those sandy deserts on the Banks of the Nile.

Oh, cursed be the cruel war and the hour it first begun,
For it has robbed old Ireland of many a noble son;
It robs us of our sweethearts, protectors of the soil,
And their bodies feed the wild fowls on the Banks of the Nile.

But soon the war will be over and we’ll all be coming home,
Unto our wives and sweethearts we left behind to mourn;
We will kiss them and embrace them with their little winning smile,
And we never will return again to the Banks of the Nile.


Once again this month we have a song I transcribed from a 1924 recording of Minnesota-based singer Michael Cassius Dean (with the full text taken from Dean’s 1922 songster The Flying Cloud). Versions of “The Banks of the Nile” have been collected all over the English-speaking world. The scenario of the girl pledging to dress as a man to follow her love to war (or sea) will be well-known to anyone familiar with traditional folk song.

As for the historical context, there were several British campaigns in Egypt (and Sudan which is also bisected by the Nile) throughout the 1800s culminating in Britain’s takeover of Egypt in 1882. This song likely dates from early to mid 1800s. Of course, two centuries later, western governments are still sending soldiers to that part of the world and the “cruel war” is far from over.

*Some versions of  “The Banks of the Nile” mention the dark skin of the Eqyptian/Sudanese adversaries in the fourth line of the first stanza.  Dean’s version does so in a rather offensive way so I opted to borrow a variant fourth line from other versions.

05 Dec

The Banks of Boyne (Laws P22)

The Banks of Boyne


I am a bonnie lassie and I love my laddie well,
My heart was always true to him for more than time can tell;
It was in my father’s castle where he gained this heart of mine,
But he has left me here to wander on the lovely banks of Boyne.

His coal black hair in ringlets hung, his cheeks were like the rose,
His teeth were like the ivory white, his eyes were black as Sloes,
His countenance it was sincere, his speech was bold but kind,
But he has left me here to wander on the lovely banks of Boyne.

I understand my false young man to England sailed away,
I picked up all my jewels, all on that very day,
I left my aged parents, they now in sorrow pine,
I forsook my father’s castle on the lovely banks of Boyne.

No more down by those purling streams that swiftly glide away,
Where me and my true lover for pleasure used to stray;
Come, all you pretty fair maids, mind how you spend your time,
Just think of the fate of Flora from the lovely banks of Boyne.

We return to the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean this month. As in previous months, the above melody is my own transcription of Dean’s singing on a 1924 wax cylinder recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon. The full text above comes from Dean’s own songster The Flying Cloud.  “The Banks of Boyne” was printed as a broadside in London by a few different publishers in the early to mid 1800s. It is fairly rare in tradition outside of the Great Lakes lumbering region where it was sung by Dean and Ontario singer O.J. Abbott (though Abbott’s melody is different).  The Traditional Ballad Index (a fantastic online index of songs) lists just two other versions: one from Nova Scotia and another collected in Ulster.

I am often asked about the “Irishness” of music in the lumber camps—if and why there was such a strong Irish influence.  Both the “if” and “why” questions are difficult, and also quite important to me and my research.  I will not attempt a complete answer here but I am repeatedly struck by songs like this that are clearly set in Ireland, make no reference to lumbering or northwoods themes, and yet seem to have survived so well in the lumber camp singing tradition. Without analyzing singing style or the ethnic demographics of lumber workers, it is clear from the repertoire alone (at least as it’s represented in printed collections) that the Irish loomed large in songs of the lumbering regions.

More detailed information on this song from the Traditional Ballad Index