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
10 May

To the Maids of Taconite

I have traveled up and down a lot,
From St. Paul to the Coast,
And I have met a lot of charming girls,
I fancied I liked most.
But the fairest bunch I ever saw,
That fairly dazed my sight,
Are the girls, so sweet, none can compete,
With the maids of Taconite.

They always look so graceful,
Each wears a pleasing smile,
They are just the size to take the prize,
They dress in neatest style.
And if you are fond of dancing,
It would fill you with delight,
To have a whirl with any girl,
From the town of Taconite.

But I feel sorry for the boys,
That are sticking to their Ma,
For what is life without a wife,
And a tot to call you pa?
My college chums, take my advice,
And you will find this world more bright,
If you will set the day, not far away,
With a maid from Taconite

If you are just her cousin,
Give some other guy fair play,
Don’t aggravate and have her wait,
Until her hair turns gray.
So, girls, don’t be too patient,
Demand what’s just and right,
The girls are few that equal you
You maids of Taconite.

So, here’s good luck to each fair maid,
In that little mining town,
When you are in their company,
No face could wear a frown.
May each one wed some level head,
For love, and not for spite,
So, now, adieu, good luck to you,
The maids of Taconite.

Readers of this column will know that I am always on the hunt for Irish-style songs that include Minnesota place names and stories. In 15 years of searching, I have found a handful here and there. In my experience, Minnesota singers were more likely to sing about Ireland or places in Michigan or Ontario than they were to reference the North Star State itself.

Last month, I found a real gold mine! I first saw the name J.J. Somers when local piper Tom Klein shared a fascinating paragraph found in the Duluth Herald of June 17, 1911:

There are a lot of intriguing references in that piece!

It turns out that James J. Somers was born to Irish parents in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario in 1865. His home address was in Bottineau County, North Dakota in 1911 and his job on the bridge crew was one of many seasonal gigs he took from Seattle to Iowa to Minnesota during his life. He left North Dakota for the Twin Cities permanently in 1913, settling eventually in Robbinsdale. He also, I recently discovered, published a book of songs and poems he had written in 1913. The book, Jim’s Western Gems, is fully available on the Internet Archive!

“To the Maids of Taconite” appears in the book and is dated 1911 so it must have been composed around the same time as the raucous party described in the Duluth newspaper. Most songs in Somers’ book do not reference any melody. For this one, I took a melody from an unpublished songbook Songs of the Dogwatch compiled by Joseph McGinnis, another Irishman from Ontario and from the same generation as Somers. The air is that used by McGinnis for “The Banks of Claudy.”

I expect to share more songs and research on Jim Somers in the months to come!