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
06 Jun

You Pretty Girls of Michigan

[As I was learning this song over the last few weeks, a different melody for the 4th line came into my head that *I think* I’m stealing from another Great Lakes song with a similar melody.  I liked it, so that’s how I sing it here.]

You Pretty Girls of Michigan

You pretty girls of Michigan, give ear to what I write,
Of sailing on the stormy Lakes, in which we take delight;
In sailing on the stormy Lakes, which we poor seamen do,
While Irishmen and the landlubbers are staying at home with you.

They’re always with some pretty girls a’telling them fine tales
Of the hardships and the hard day’s work they’ve had in their cornfields;
And when it’s eight o’clock at night it’s into bed they crawl,
While we, like jovial hearts of oak, stand many a bitter squall.

You pretty girls of Michigan if you did only know
The hardships and dangers we seamen undergo,
You would have more regard for us than oft you’ve had before;
You’d shun to meet those landlubbers that lounge about the shore.

For oft at twelve o’clock at night when the wind begins to blow;
“Heave out, heave out, now lively lads, roll out from down below!”
It’s now on deck stands every man, his life and ship to guard;
“Aloft! Aloft!” the captain cries, “send down the tops’l yard!”

And when the seas are mountain high and toss our vessel ’round,
And all about does danger lurk, the vessel may go down!
Now every man is on the deck, all ready to lend a hand
To shorten sail to weather the gale until we reach the land.

We sail the Lakes from spring to fall from Duluth to Buffalo,
While landlubbers are home with you or about their fields they go;
We sail the Lakes and money make for the girls that we adore,
And when our cash is getting low, we ship again for more!


This month’s song comes from a blend of sources. The prolific collector of Great Lakes folksong Ivan Walton put down the above text based on versions gathered from Pat Banner of St. Clair, Michigan, and Captain A.E. Baker of Dunkirk, New York in 1933. Walton’s composite text is published in the wonderful book Windjammers (Walton, Ivan and Joe Grimm. 2002. Detroit: Wayne State University Press) which I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in songs of the Great Lakes. Walton did not collect a melody for this song.

A closely related song, “Ye Maidens of Ontario,” was collected in Bemidji, Minnesota in 1923 by collector Franz Rickaby from the singing of Albert Hannah. Above, I have married the words collected by Walton to the melody sung by Hannah. Normally, as a proud Minnesotan, I would stick to the words also collected in Minnesota but, in this case, it is the Michigan/New York text that contains a rare reference to a Minnesota place name: Duluth. Of course, Duluth was (and is) Minnesota’s gateway city to the Great Lakes and, as the phrase “Duluth to Buffalo” implies, it was the end of the line for these rough and tough freshwater sailors.

The pairing of “Irishmen and landlubbers” in the first verse is interesting. Irishmen certainly sailed the Lakes themselves and Irish names appear in other Great Lakes ballads (see N.S. Apr. 2014).