21 Nov

The Pokegama Bear

One cold frosty morning, the winds, how they blew,
We went to the woods our day’s work for to do,
Yes into the woods we did quickly repair,
It was there that we met the Pokegama Bear.

Now, Morris O’Hern was a bold Irish lad,
He was building a fire all in a pine stub,
The ring of his ax filled the cold winter air,
When out popped the monstrous Pokegama Bear.

With a roar like a lion O’Hern he did swear,
Saying “Run boys, for God’s sake, for I’ve found a bear.”
When out of the brush Jimmy Quinn he did climb,
“To hell with your bear, kill your own porcupine.”

Now, into the swamp old bruin did go,
Bold O’Hern, and Hasty did quickly pursue,
As on through the brush those bold heroes did tear,
To capture or kill the Pokegama Bear.

Old bruin went mad and for Hasty did steer,
He braced for the blow without dread or fear,
With his teeth firmly set and his ax in the air,
He slipped and fell on the Pokegama Bear.

Now out on the tote road old bruin did go,
He thought that was better than wading in snow,
But little he knew what awaited him there,
For fate was against that Pokegama Bear.

There was old Mike McAlpine of fame and renown,
A noted foot racer on Canadian gound,
He ran up the road, raised his ax in the air,
And he dealt the death blow to Pokegama Bear.

When out to the camp poor old bruin was sent,
To skin him and dress him it was our intent,
And we all agreed that each should have a share,
Of the oil that was in the Pokegama Bear.

And next it was sent to the cook and it fried,
It was all very good it cannot be denied,
“It tastes like roast turkey,” Bill Moneghan did swear,
As he feasted upon the Pokegama Bear.

Now my song is ended, I’m dropping my pen,
And Morris O’Hern, he got the bear skin,
Here’s long life to you, boys, and long growth to your hair,
Since it’s greased with the fat from Pokegama Bear!

I am not the first Minnesotan to be fascinated by old songs that drifted into our state during the old time logging era of the 1800s. Iron Ranger John Berquist (once Minnesota’s state folklorist) was very active for much of his life in the revival and performance of regional folk music and performed several logging camp songs including “The Pokegama Bear” (pronounced “po-KEG-uh-muh”). I only had the pleasure of meeting John once before he passed away in 2016 but he was a friend to many in the Twin Cities music community and collaborated many times with Twin Cities mandolin player Bob Douglas.

I am not sure where John found the text of “The Pokegama Bear” but it is printed in Agnes Larson’s wonderful 1949 book The White Pine Industry in Minnesota as contributed by Michael McAlpine of Grand Rapids, Minnesota (who appears in the song). The song was composed by Frank Hasty (who also appears in the song) in a logging camp in 1874. The bear’s namesake, Pokegama Lake, is just south of Grand Rapids. John Berquist set the text to the “Sweet Betsy from Pike” tune so common in the lumbercamp tradition. John performed the song and gave it to Chicago folk singer Art Thieme who recorded it. I use a variant of the same tune with a couple tweaks inspired by “The Journeyman Tailor” – another song with the “Betsy from Pike” tune that was collected in the north of Ireland and printed in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People.

20 Nov

Morzie Ellsworth

My name is Morzie Ellsworth the truth I’ll tell to you,
I’m in the prime of manhood and my age is twenty-two,
On the fourteenth of October last, I boarded on a train,
And bound for Pennsylvania, I left the state of Maine.

I landed safe in Williamsport, a lumberman’s rendezvous,
And there I hired with Jacob Brown as one of the winter’s crew,
We agreed upon the wages, as you shall plainly see,
And the time of term it was six months to serve him faithfully.

He gave to me a sheathing belt, likewise a bowie knife,
A battle axe and carbine gun for to defend my life,
But woe be on the morning when I did undertake,
A voyage to the forest for gold and riches sake.

There’s the tomtit and the moose-bird and the roving caribou,
The lucifee and partridge that through the forests flew,
And the wild ferocious rabbit from the colder regions came,
And several other animals too numerous to name.

And when the snow began to melt the foreman he did say,
“Lay down your saws and axes boys, and haste to break away,
For the broken ice is floating now in business we will thrive,
And you able-bodied shanty-boys are needed on the drive.”

It would melt your heart with pity, it would make your blood run cold,
To see the work that Nature did in all her rudest mould,
And to see those overhanging rocks along the ice-bound shore,
Where rippling waters fierce do rage and cataracts do roar.

So to conclude and finish, I have one thing more to say,
When I am dead and in my grave, a-mould’ring in the clay,
No artificial German text you can for me sustain,
Just simply say, “Here’s a roving wreck that came from Bangor, Maine.”

Ninety-five years ago, in the summer of 1923, Franz Rickaby collected a version of the above song in Bayport, Minnesota (south of Stillwater) from former lumberjack Hank Underwood who called it “The Maine-ite in Pennsylvania.” Underwood’s four verse version (verses 2, 4, 6 and 7 above) likely descended from the New Brunswick song “Morris Ellsworth” which satirizes a greenhorn logger from Prince Edward Island who comes to the Miramichi woods to log. The St. Croix Valley where Underwood was born, had a high concentration of immigrant loggers from the Miramichi region – including Underwood’s parents. 

Jokes and stories making fun of inexperienced men in the logging camp – especially their fear of animals – were common in the woods. According to folklorist Edward Ives, PEI men were looked down upon in Miramichi. Interestingly, Rickaby reported that “State of Maine” men were often foremen or bosses in Minnesota. Underwood likely learned his version while logging in Pennsylvania where, perhaps, Maine-ites had a different reputation. For a biography of Hank Underwood see the liner notes to my CD Minnesota Lumberjack Songs which also includes an arrangement of this song.

For the version above, I use a melody very close to Underwood’s melody and extend his text with extra verses added in from one of the Miramichi versions and one verse pulled from “Jim Porter’s Shanty Song” also collected by Rickaby.

20 Oct

Barney Blake

[as usual, I mis-remembered a few bits of the melody in this recording… I’d redo it, but the location was too good!]

Barney Blake

O me name is Barney Blake, I’m a roving Irish rake
I’m considered by my neighbors good and handy
I was brought up to the spade til I learned the tailor trade
And I think myself as good as Ben or Sandy.

O it’s Biddy Donahue sure I caught my eye on you
If you marry Barney why be damn you’ll never rue
You’re the apple of me eye and my Irish cocateau
Mr. Cupid’s knocked me stupid over Biddy Donahue

It’s at a wedding of Pat Malare, sure I first met Biddy there
As I sat beside her at the wedding supper
How I felt I couldn’t say when she handed me the tay
For my heart it melted like a lump of butter.

Now she’s handsome and she’s mild she’s a dacent father’s child
She’s the pride of all around our Irish nation
You would go from here to Spain to hear her sing Napolean’s Dream
And for dancing, boys, she has a lovely carriage.

Now some folks they do try, for to poke out Barney’s eye
But in this I’m sure they all will find a failure
She would not see me fooled, she’s as good as guinea gold
And she’ll marry none [hold on “none”] but Barney Blake the sailor.


This is another song I transcribed from a reel-to-reel recording made in Beaver Island, Michigan while I was at the American Folklife Center in Washington, DC this summer. Singer Dominick Gallagher (1867-1954) sang this for collector Ivan Walton in 1940.

A wonderful aspect of field recordings can be the chat caught on tape before and after songs. Walton made a point of asking Gallagher where he got each song and when he asked him about “Barney Blake,” Gallagher replied:

Gallagher:            “I learned that in the lumber woods about 45 or 50 years ago from a Canadian Scotsman.
Walton:                 “What lumber woods was that?”
Gallagher:            “Up in Grand Marais [pronounced Marase] on Lake Superior shores.”

The song itself seems to have its origins in the Irish music halls of the 1870s where I have found evidence of it being performed by (and perhaps written by) a song and dance duo by the names of Devlin and Tracy that were active in Boston and New York in that era. It was very common for singers to pick up Irish music hall songs and sing them unaccompanied in lumber camps. In fact, another version of Barney Blake was collected from Ottawa Valley singer O.J. Abbott.


CORRECTIONS FROM PRINT VERSION: I made a couple mistakes in the version published in the IMDA October newsletter and they are correct above. Here’s what I got wrong the first time around:

First, I misidentified the singer as John W. Green instead of Gallagher who actually sang the song for Walton.

Also, I was a bit over-eager to claim a Grand Marais, Minnesota connection for this song based on this mention of “Grand Marais on Lake Superior shores.” After I sent in my column to be published in the IMDA October newsletter, a friend reminded me that there is another Grand Marais on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is much more likely that Gallagher did his logging in the locality of the Michigan Grand Marais, not on Minnesota’s north shore.