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!

05 Mar

Johnny Jarmin

He says “Dear honored lady, what makes you so cast down?”
Right modestly she answered, without a tear or frown,
“My true love’s gone and left me, he’s sailing to and fro,
And he left me no true love’s token, whether he would return or no.”

“Perhaps I saw your darling, when I was last at sea,
And if I do describe him, the truth you’ll tell to me,
And if I do describe him, I hope you’ll tell me so,
That you’ll agree and marry me, let him return or no.”

“Your true love’s tall and handsome where ’er he turns his back,
He’s comely in his features, and they call him Handsome Jack,
He’s away on board the Rainbow, he’s sailing to and fro,
Your true love’s Johnny Jarmin. Is he the lad or no?”

“He’s just the very sailor lad that you have mention-ed,
Pray tell to me, kind sir, is he alive or dead?
He was away on board the Rainbow, and sailing to and fro,
Your true love John Jarmin, is dead nine months ago.”

When she heard this doleful news, she fell in deep despair,
To the wringing of her hands and the tearing of her hair,
She fled unto her chamber, all for to make great moan,
It’s expected any moment, that death wil claim it’s own.

He has dressed himself in scarlet red, and is away to her again,
To ease her of her sorrows, and cure her killing pain,
“Cheer up, cheer up, my Mary, for there’s none so blithe as thee,
There’s not two doves in all the world, to equal you and me.”

“The moon exceeds the sun, the sun exceeds the rose,
And upon your bosom, darling, that flower both buds and grows,
There is none shall e’er enjoy me, but you that feels the smart,
And I’ll bid adieu to the Rainbow, since Mary has won my heart.”

The Minnesota Historical Society has an oral history interview made in the 1950s with Mary Orr O’Neill who cooked meals in her father’s lumber camps on Tamarac River, Loon Lake and Sioux Portage, Wisconsin in the 1880s. In it, Orr O’Neill recalls hearing several songs in her father’s camps including “Johnny German.” Versions of this song were once sung across the Great Lakes and in the Canadian Maritimes as well as in Ireland where Sam Henry collected a version. The above text come from an unpublished typescript compiled by New York singer Joseph McGinnis in the 1920s and titled The Songs of the Dogwatch. The melody is adapted from McGinnis as well with some modifications (McGinnis did strange things with key signatures and rhythm that I believe are more a function of his understanding of staff notation than a representation of what he actually sung).

Like the more well-known “Banks of Claudy,” “Johnny Jarmin” is what folklorists term a Riley Ballad—a story in which a man leaves his girlfriend behind, returns years later and tests her faithfulness by pretending to not be who he is. I was first introduced to this plot line as a kid by Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride which I must have watched a thousand times. The trick seemed cruel, confusing and strangely romantic to me then and now. I think McGinnis’ “Johnny Jarmin” deals with the resolution in a very satisfying, poetic way.

01 Sep

The Bold Privateer

Bold Privateer

Farewell lovely Ellen, it is now we must part,
Must I leave you behind me, the love of my heart,
I must leave you behind me, and all that I hold dear,
Once more to go a-roving, in the Bold Privateer.

The foe they are treacherous, right very well you know,
Did they not kill their own poor king, not so very long ago,
You had better stay at home, with the girl that loves you dear,
Then to roam the wild ocean, in the Bold Privateer.

Our boat lies on the strand, and our ship lies in the bay,
Farewell my dearest jewel, for I can no longer stay,
Our ship she lies awaiting, so fare you well my dear,
I must now go on board of the Bold Privateer.

There is no one can tell, what hazards you may run,
So many have been slain, since this cruel war’s begun,
You had better not go, and leave your Ellen here,
For I dread to see you leaving, in the Bold Privateer.

Fear naught lovely Ellen, I fain would with thee stay,
But gold I must gather, for our wedding day,
We will soon beat down the pride, of the lofty Mounseer,
And will soon let them know, she’s the Bold Privateer.

Then since you are a-going, Good Luck attend to thee,
May kind Heaven protect you, on land or at sea,
May kind Heaven protect you, wherever you may steer,
And send you safe back, in the Bold Privateer.

Now the prizes we have taken, are from France and from Spain,
And my true love at home, she shall share the gain,
And when the war’s are over, I’ll return unto my dear,
And go no more a-roving, in the Bold Privateer.



On Februray 20th, 1927, the New York Times “Queries and Answers” section ran a request from one Joseph F. McGinnis for a full text of the above ballad to which McGinnis knew the melody but only the first two verses. McGinnis (featured in last month’s Northwoods Songs) was born in Kingston, Ontario and learned songs as a sailor on the Great Lakes before settling in New York City. McGinnis’s New York Times request was answered by none other than renowned Derry song collector Sam Henry. Henry supplied McGinnis with the missing verses and went on to correspond with McGinnis over the next few years. Henry even printed two songs contributed by McGinnis (“The Deserter” and “The ‘Crummy’ Cow”) in his “Songs of the People” column that has since been published in book form and is regarded as one of the finest collections of Irish traditional song in the English language.

McGinnis, who traded songs by mail with Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean, also sent Henry a copy of Dean’s songster The Flying Cloud. Irish song scholar John Moulden theorizes that Dean’s songster had a significant influence on Henry’s subsequent “Songs of the People” columns! (see this 2007 talk by Moulden)

The above text comes from a typescript prepared by McGinnis for “Songs of the Dogwatch”—his own collection of songs which was never published. The above melody is also based on the transcription that appears in the McGinnis typescript but I have taken liberties with rhythm and key signature to conform the air to what I believe is more probable.