10 May

By Trait I’m a Raftsman (Jack Haggerty)

By trait I’m a raftman, where the white waters roll,
My name is engraved on each rock and sand stone,
From Greenvill to Grandvill I am very well known,
My name is Jack Hagidy the pride of the town.

My troubles I will tell you without any delay,
Of a dear little damsel my heart stole away,
She was the black’s Smith only daughter by the flat River side,
And I always intended for to make her my bride.

I dressed her in jewels embroiderys and lace,
And the costliest velvet her eyes could embrace,
I took her to dances to parties and Balls,
And Sundays boat riding where the white waters roll.

I worked on the River till I made quite a stake,
I was sturdy and steadfast neither gambled nor drank,
I gave her my wages the same to keep safe,
I begrudged that girl nothing that I had on this earth.

One day in Plat River a letter I received,
Saying defy all good promises, my self I realise,
She was married to another not long delay,
And the next time I saw her she would ne’er be a maid.

Her mother Jane Tucker I lay all the blame,
She has caused her to leave me and blackened my name,
She has cast off the rigens that God soon would tie,
And have left me a rambler untill the day that I die.

Not it is here in Plat River for me there’s no rest,
I will sholder my Pevie and I will go West,
I will go to mont Sagin [?] toward the red setting sun,
Leave behind me Plat River and the false hearted one.

Now come all ye bold Raftmen with hearts brave and true,
Don’t depend on a women for your left if you do,
And when that you see one with chestnut brown curls,
Just think of Jack Hagidy and the Plat River girl.

Over the last 17 years I have performed Minnesota-sourced folksongs in over a hundred venues spread over 32 counties in Minnesota, primarily with Randy Gosa as The Lost Forty. I love bringing these songs back to the communities they came from and, occasionally, an audience member will share a story of music in their own family with me after the show.

In 2022, Eleanor Hall of Clearbrook, Minnesota found me after a performance in Shevlin to tell me about a handwritten songbook kept by her mother Alma Pitsenburg Doten. Alma was born in 1904 in Moose Creek Township, 12 miles west of where I grew up on Grant Lake west of Bemidji! This April, I was able to meet up with Eleanor and make scans of her mother’s fascinating book. There are over one hundred songs written in pencil in an old ledger book kept with love and reverence all these years.

Alma Pitsenburg Doten. Photo courtesy Eleanor Hall.

I was delighted to find a few lumberjack ballads in Alma’s book. “Jack Haggerty” was the first song in Franz Rickaby’s 1926 book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy. Rickaby wrote that the song “is native to the Flat River in southern Michigan” and that it “was a great shanty favorite and is still widely met with in the Lake states.” Rickaby printed four versions of the song including two collected from Bemidji-based singers. Alma called the song “By Trait I’m a Raftman.”

First page of “By Trait I’m a Raftman as it appears in the Alma Pitsenburg Doten book.

Above, I have transcribed Alma Pitsenburg Doten’s text complete with some irregular spellings found in her songbook. I matched it with a rather unique (and nice!) variant of the song’s melody recorded by Helen Hartness Flanders from the singing of Jack McNally at Stacyville, Maine in 1942. The McNally recording is available online via archive.org.

10 May

The Zenith of the West

They may sing about Killarney’s lakes and the little shamrock shore,
Where the River Shannon gently flows, Arrah Gra Machre Asthore,
But when a tot, a charming spot filled me with joy and zest,
Duluth you are the brightest star, the Zenith of the West.

Come for a stroll where the white caps roll, to the place where you confessed
To be my bride, my joy and pride in the Zenith of the West.

They may sing of bonnie Scotland and the heather in the glen,
Let Harry Lauder sing in praise of the Highlands and his kin,
But let me dream of that beauty stream and the scenes that I love best,
Where Lester flows in sweet repose through the Zenith of the West.

So let them sing of other lands but I will sing of mine,
As I go sailing “’Round the Horn” while the silvery moon doth shine,
O take me back to Fond du Lac where my true love I caressed,
I loved her there for she’s as fair as the Zenith of the West.

Come out with me for a “joy ride,” come for a row or sail,
Then after dark see Lester Park, see the aerial without fail,
Take the “Incline” for a sight sublime when you reach the mountain crest,
The electric rays will you amaze in the Zenith of the West.

Though I have wandered far away in other lands so fair,
Dear old Duluth I ne’er forgot none could with you compare,
In future days I’ll sing your praise for you have stood the test,
In 1916 we’ll crown her queen the Zenith of the West.

The nights are cool in summer time each day there comes a breeze,
So balmy and refreshing from the Queen of unsalted seas,
Duluth for health, Duluth for wealth, and when I’m laid to rest,
Just let me sleep near Superior’s deep in the Zenith of the West.

We have a third song this month from the prolific pen of James Somers who spent a sizeable portion of his life in Duluth and composed this song in praise of that place. Somers opens his 1913 book Jim’s Western Gems with a Foreword in which he lists “Zenith of the West” as one of his several composed “songs with their music” that he hoped to publish “in the near future” (seemingly, with melodic transcriptions added?). I have yet to find evidence that Somers did publish a song-focused book but, luckily, the words for “Zenith of the West” appear in Jim’s Western Gems. I have set them here to my adaptation of the tune used by Maine singer Carrie Grover for “The Lily of the West.”

Aerial Bridge in Duluth before it was replaced with a lift bridge in 1929. Detroit Publishing Company.

Duluth’s nickname has long been “The Zenith City.” Beautiful Lester Park is on the east side of Duluth where the Lester River enters Lake Superior. The “aerial” must be Duluth’s famous aerial bridge connecting mainland Duluth to Minnesota Point. At the time Somers published this song (1913) the bridge was an “aerial transfer bridge” where cars and people rode on a suspended gondola across the span. The reference to 1916 (three years in the future when the song was published) is intriguing. It is possible it could be referencing the upcoming 44th annual regatta of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen which fascinated Duluthians in 1916 but it is hard to imagine that event was already hyped so far in advance. Maybe someone with more Duluth history knowledge than me will have a guess!

I have always loved Duluth and this is a wonderful text full of nods to other Irish songs and conventions of English language ballad-making!

10 May

The Day We Rode Behind McArthur’s Blacks

Four Hibbing sports so gay
To Chisholm made their way—
Not knowing Longyear Lake was full of cracks.
They all got quite a soak,
And some of the boys went broke—
The day we rode behind McArthur’s blacks.

There was Gullicson and me,
And Brother Will, you see;
We tried our best to cover up our tracks;
But we made too big a break
In the ice on Longyear Lake—
The day we rode behind McArthur’s blacks

The road was rather wavy,
Some jolts were mighty heavy—
It was lucky we had cushions at our backs.
I took swift rides before.
But I don’t want no more—
Like the one I took behind McArthur’s blacks.

At Riley’s we did stop.
Then went to the plumbing shop,
Got fixed up and gladly paid the tax.
Then we telephoned Joe Zant,
We’d like to but we can’t—
The day we rode behind McArthur’s blacks.

The town we did survey
Before we came away
We inspected every building but the shacks.
The postoffice looked the best
To the farmer from the west—
The day we rode behind McArthur’s blacks.

When I awoke next morn
I looked somewhat forlorn—
I was shy a lot of North Dakota flax.
In spots I felt quite sore,
And vowed I’d ride no more—
Behind McArthur’s noted span of blacks.

We have a second song from the pen of Irish-Minnesotan poet and songsmith Jim Somers this month. The text appears in his book Jim’s Western Gems where Somers leaves us the note that it was “written at Duluth in 1912.”

The shores of Longyear Lake are in downtown Chisholm, Minnesota. Jim and his brother William Somers both lived in Hibbing at various times in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Jim moved to Minneapolis from his farmstead in North Dakota in 1910 and seems to have spent time in Hibbing and Duluth throughout these years. The story of falling through the ice behind McArthur’s black horses must have taken place around this time. (And who knows how much it was exaggerated in the song!)

No air is indicated for this song in Somers’ book. I used the air for “Down Went McGinty” which Somers indicated he used for another one of his songs in his book: “The Night That Miller Milked the Mooley Cow.” “Down Went McGinty” was sung in Bemidji for song collector Franz Rickaby in 1923 by Irene McCrady and it’s McCrady’s version I adapted for the above with a few changes.

from Jim’s Western Gems