25 Feb

Ye Noble Big Pine Tree

‘Twas on a cold and frosty morning
When the sunshine was adorning
The boughs of ev’ry lofty pine,
Making them in radiance shine.

Through the forest lone I wandered
Where a little brook meandered,
Gurgling o’er the rocks below,
Wading deep through ice and snow.

On its banks and right before me
Stood a pine in stately glory.
The forest king he seemed to be.
He was a noble Big Pine Tree.

I gazed upon his form gigantic.
Thoughts ran through my head romantic.
These were my musings as I stood
And viewed that monarch of the wood.

“For ages you have towered proudly.
The birds have praised you long and loudly.
The squirrels have chattered praise to thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“When the lumberjacks first spy you,
They’ll step up to you and eye you.
With saw and axe they’ll lay you down
On the cold snow-covered ground.

“Your fall will sound like distant thunder,
And fill the birds and squirrels with wonder.
The snow thy winding-sheet will be,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“Were you punky, were you hollow,
You had been a lucky fellow;
Then they would have let you be,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“But seeing you’re so sound and healthy,
You’ll make some lumberman more wealthy.
There’s scads of wealth concealed in thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“They will measure, top, and butt you.
Into saw-logs they will cut you.
The woodsman’s chains will fetter thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“When your branches cease to quiver,
They will haul you to the river,
And down the roll-ways roll you in
Where you’ll have to sink or swim.

“In spring the agile river-driver
Will pick and punch you down the river.
There’ll be little rest for thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“Up the mill-slide they will draw you.
Into lumber they will saw you.
Then they’ll put you in a pile,
Where they’ll let you rest awhile.

“In spring, when gentle showers are falling,
And the toads and birds are squalling,
They will take and raft you in
Where once more you’ll have to swim.

“Over dams and falls they’ll take you,
Where the rocks will tear and break you,
You’ll reach the Mississippi’s breast
Before they’ll let you have a rest.

“Then they’ll sell you to some farmer
To keep his wife and children warmer.
With his team he’ll haul you home
To the prairie drear and lone.

“Into a prairie house he’ll make you,
Where the prairie winds will shake you.
There’ll be little rest for thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.

“The prairie winds will sing around you.
The hail and sleet and snow will pound you,
And shake and wear and bleach your bones
On the prairie drear and lone.

“Then the prairie fires will burn you.
Into ashes they will turn you.
That will be the end of thee,
O ye noble Big Pine Tree.”


In the early 1920s, the above song text was sent in to collector Franz Rickaby (then English professor at UND in Grand Forks, North Dakota) by the song’s writer, Billy “Shan T. Boy” Allen of Wausau, Wisconsin. Allen, a 2nd-generation Irish-Canadian from New Brunswick, fed the northwoods song tradition of the Upper Midwest by composing new ballads based on old song types and repurposing old melodies for stories about his work as a lumberman. His song “The Banks of the Little Eau Pleine” became quite popular in the lumbercamps across the northwoods region.

Rickaby was unsure if “Ye Noble Big Pine Tree” entered tradition at all. However, I found a reference to it in an article about life in northern Minnesota logging camps written by J.C. “Buzz” Ryan:

During the winter of 1918-1919 in a camp north of Mizpah, Patty McLaughlin, a witty Irishman from Northome who could play the violin and loved to sing, would go into the bunkhouse on Sundays and some evenings and would play and sing and get the boys singing with him. He knew all the old songs and sang them very well. However it was “The Banks of the Little Eau Plaine,” “Ye Noble Big Pine Tree” and “The Foreman Young Monroe” that the boys liked the best.

I did some census research on Patty McLaughlin and discovered that he, like Allen (and many others), was also a 2nd-generation Irish-Canadian from New Brunswick who followed lumbering jobs to the St. Croix Valley region. It’s possible that the two men even met eachother and swapped songs in the Wisconsin woods. McLaughlin was a foreman in a camp near Hayward, WI in 1900 (according to the 1900 US Federal Census). Unlike Allen, who stayed in the Wausau area, McLaughlin followed his employment further north to the woods north of my hometown of Bemidji, MN.

Allen sang Rickaby a melody he said came from the song “Will the Weaver.” I heard a recording of Catskills singer Walter Wormuth doing “Bill the Weaver” and preferred it so I took the liberty of swapping it in for my own version above.


19 Mar

As I Rode Down Through Irishtown [The Crimean War] (Laws J9)

As I Rode Down Through Irishtown

As I rode down through Irishtown one evening last July,
The mother of a soldier in tears I did espy,
Saying, “God be with you, Johnnie dear, although you are far away,
For you my heart is breaking since you went to the Crimea.

“Oh, Johnnie, I gave you schooling, I gave you a trade likewise.
You need not have joined the army if you had taken my advise,
You need not go to face the foe where cannons loud do roar,
Think of the thousands that have fallen now upon that Russian shore.

He joined the Fourteenth regiment, it was a splendid corp,
They landed honorable  mention upon the Russian shore;
He fought in foreign engagements with the loss of men each day,
And there is many a mother shedding tears for sons that are far away,

“You fought at Kurksharosko where you did not succeed,
Likewise at the valley of Inkerman, where thousands there did bleed,
You fought at Balaklava, too it was there you gained the day,
And my darling is a hero although he’s far away.

“It was when we attacked Sebastapool, it was there you’d see some play,
The very ground we stood upon it shook, the truth I say,
The clouds were black with heavy smoke from bomb shells firing there,
And thousands weltering in their blood that went to fight the Bear.

“The English said they would gain the seas whate’er might be their doom,
And thousands there a-falling, cut down in their youthful bloom,
There Paddy’s sons with English guns their valor did display,
And together with the sons of France, thank God, we gained the day.

“Had your heart been made of iron for them you would shed tears,
To see those heroes falling, cut down in their youthful years,
To see those heroes falling and weltering in their gore,
Far from their home and friends, my boys, upon that Russian shore.

“So now to end and finish and to conclude my song,
I thank the God above me for having survived so long,
Likewise my poor old mother, ’twas her I did adore,
And I hope, dear mother, to meet you safe in Garryowne once more.

Every town is an “Irishtown” on St. Patrick’s Day but there are also a few places scattered around the world actually named “Irishtown” including a small town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The above version of this song lamenting the sad fate of Irish soldiers in the Crimean War (1853-1856) was sung by Minnesotan Mike Dean (1857-1931) who was born just north of the Adirondacks. “Irishtown” could refer to the Adirondack town, or it could be a simple reference to an Irish neighborhood somewhere else. Versions collected in Ontario and Michigan say “Irish town.”

Dean’s melody is a nicely turned version of the usual one for this song in tradition and it is a well-travelled air associated with many traditional songs including the Scottish “Tramps and Hawkers.”  It was also used by song-maker and lumberjack Billy Allen (1843-1929) of Wausau, Wisconsin for his song “Driving Saw Logs on the Plover.” Bob Dylan (born in Duluth just ten years after Dean’s death up the road in Virginia, MN) also seems to have been inspired by this melody in the air he used for his song “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.”

“Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads.” Accessed February 20, 2013. http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/


More detailed information on this song from the Traditional Ballad Index.