31 Oct

Driving Saw Logs on the Plover

There walked on Plover’s shady banks one evening last July,
A mother of a shanty-boy, and doleful was her cry,
Saying, “God be with you, Johnnie, although you’re far away,
Driving saw-logs on the Plover, and you’ll never get your pay.

“Oh, Johnnie, I gave you schooling, I gave you a trade likewise.
You need not been a shanty-boy had you taken my advice.
You need not gone from your dear home to the forest far away,
Driving saw-logs on the Plover, and you’ll never get your pay.

“Why didn’t you stay upon the farm and feed the ducks and hens,
And drive the pigs and sheep each night and put them in their pens?
Far better for you to help your dad to cut his corn and hay,
Than to drive saw-logs on the Plover, and you’ll never get your pay.”

A log canoe came floating a-down the quiet stream.
As peacefully it glided as some young lover’s dream.
A youth crept out upon the bank and thus to her did say,
“Dear mother, I have jumped the game and I haven’t got my pay.

“The boys called me a sucker and a son-of-a-gun to boot.
I said to myself, O Johnnie, it is time for you to scoot.’
I stole a canoe and I started upon my weary way,
And now I have got home again — but nary a cent of pay.”

Now all young men take this advice: If e’er you wish to roam,
Be sure and kiss your mothers before you leave your home.
You had better work upon a farm for a half a dollar a day,
Than to drive saw-logs on the Plover, and you’ll never get your pay.

This month we have a rare instance of an old traditional song where we know the identity of its composer. “Driving Saw-Logs on the Plover” was written in 1873 by William Allen of Wausau, Wisconsin. William Bartlett, a local historian in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, knew Allen personally and connected him with song collector Franz Rickaby in the early 1920s. Thanks to notes and documents saved by Bartlett and Rickaby we know a lot about Allen, who put some of his songs out under the pseudonym “Shan T. Boy.”

Allen was born in 1843 in St. Stephen, New Brunswick just across the river from Calais, Maine. His parents were both immigrants from Ireland. The family moved to the western shores of Lake Michigan in 1855 where they lived first in Cedar River, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula and then Manitowoc, Wisconsin before heading inland to Wausau. After apprenticing with a timber cruiser near Green Bay, Allen returned to Wausau in 1868 (age 25) to begin a long career as a cruiser himself. Cruisers would roam the woods estimating the quantity and quality of trees for harvesting.

Allen’s work as a cruiser provided a context for singing and song writing. In a letter to Bartlett, he wrote “I had occasion to visit a great many logging camps in the course of each winter, and it was customary for me to sing for the lumber-jacks in lumber-jack style… …Several of my poems are sarcastic descriptions of characters and failings of our respectable (?) citizens, and I have been threatened with libel suits and shot-guns on several occasions.” “Driving Saw-Logs on the Plover” does not name any particular crooked boss but it certainly paints a grim picture of a shanty boy who, after enduring the labor and danger of a log drive, realizes his employer has no intention of paying him.

Allen based the song text and melody on a popular broadside ballad called “The Crimean War” or “As I Rode Down Through Irishtown” (see Northwoods Songs #10). It is a well worn melody in the Irish tradition. Ontario singer Bob McMahon had a nice twist on it when he sang it for Edith Fowke in 1959. I have blended McMahon’s melody with the melody and text given by Allen to Rickaby here.

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.