10 May

By Trait I’m a Raftsman (Jack Haggerty)

By trait I’m a raftman, where the white waters roll,
My name is engraved on each rock and sand stone,
From Greenvill to Grandvill I am very well known,
My name is Jack Hagidy the pride of the town.

My troubles I will tell you without any delay,
Of a dear little damsel my heart stole away,
She was the black’s Smith only daughter by the flat River side,
And I always intended for to make her my bride.

I dressed her in jewels embroiderys and lace,
And the costliest velvet her eyes could embrace,
I took her to dances to parties and Balls,
And Sundays boat riding where the white waters roll.

I worked on the River till I made quite a stake,
I was sturdy and steadfast neither gambled nor drank,
I gave her my wages the same to keep safe,
I begrudged that girl nothing that I had on this earth.

One day in Plat River a letter I received,
Saying defy all good promises, my self I realise,
She was married to another not long delay,
And the next time I saw her she would ne’er be a maid.

Her mother Jane Tucker I lay all the blame,
She has caused her to leave me and blackened my name,
She has cast off the rigens that God soon would tie,
And have left me a rambler untill the day that I die.

Not it is here in Plat River for me there’s no rest,
I will sholder my Pevie and I will go West,
I will go to mont Sagin [?] toward the red setting sun,
Leave behind me Plat River and the false hearted one.

Now come all ye bold Raftmen with hearts brave and true,
Don’t depend on a women for your left if you do,
And when that you see one with chestnut brown curls,
Just think of Jack Hagidy and the Plat River girl.

Over the last 17 years I have performed Minnesota-sourced folksongs in over a hundred venues spread over 32 counties in Minnesota, primarily with Randy Gosa as The Lost Forty. I love bringing these songs back to the communities they came from and, occasionally, an audience member will share a story of music in their own family with me after the show.

In 2022, Eleanor Hall of Clearbrook, Minnesota found me after a performance in Shevlin to tell me about a handwritten songbook kept by her mother Alma Pitsenburg Doten. Alma was born in 1904 in Moose Creek Township, 12 miles west of where I grew up on Grant Lake west of Bemidji! This April, I was able to meet up with Eleanor and make scans of her mother’s fascinating book. There are over one hundred songs written in pencil in an old ledger book kept with love and reverence all these years.

Alma Pitsenburg Doten. Photo courtesy Eleanor Hall.

I was delighted to find a few lumberjack ballads in Alma’s book. “Jack Haggerty” was the first song in Franz Rickaby’s 1926 book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy. Rickaby wrote that the song “is native to the Flat River in southern Michigan” and that it “was a great shanty favorite and is still widely met with in the Lake states.” Rickaby printed four versions of the song including two collected from Bemidji-based singers. Alma called the song “By Trait I’m a Raftman.”

First page of “By Trait I’m a Raftman as it appears in the Alma Pitsenburg Doten book.

Above, I have transcribed Alma Pitsenburg Doten’s text complete with some irregular spellings found in her songbook. I matched it with a rather unique (and nice!) variant of the song’s melody recorded by Helen Hartness Flanders from the singing of Jack McNally at Stacyville, Maine in 1942. The McNally recording is available online via archive.org.

01 Mar

Farewell to Nancy

*my source singer for this transcription, Carrie Grover, varies her pitch selection on the asterisk-marked notes throughout her beautiful performance. Consult the online recording to get a feel for this and other aspects of her singing. A transcription can’t do it justice!

I’ve travelled this country both early and late,
I’ve travelled this country when hard was my fate,
Fell in love with a pretty fair maid, but she does me disdain,
Oft times she has slighted me, but I’ll try her again.

Oh, your parents are rich, love, and you hard to please,
I would have you take pity on your heart-broken slave,
I would have you leave your father and your mother also,
And through this wide world with your darling boy go.

“Oh, Johnnie, dear Johnnie, such advice will not do,
For leave my own country and to go along with you,
My friends and old sweethearts they would mourn my sad fate,
If I’d leave my own country and go follow a rake.”

Now my love she won’t have me, and away I must go,
To the wide spreading ocean where the salt breeze does blow,
To seek a companion, it is all my design,
Fare you well, dearest Nancy, must I leave you behind?

Fare you well, dearest Nancy, and merry may you be,
I will always think of you wherever you be,
But since you’ve proved unloyal to the one that’s so true,
May the wide spreading ocean separate I and you.

We return to the wonderful repertoire of New Brunswick/Maine singer Carrie Grover this month for a song you can hear online via the Carrie Grover Project website. Grover’s singing is full of character and nuance and is definitely worth hearing. As I say above, the recording does a far better job of conveying her style than anything I can transcribe (or describe!) here.

Grover’s “Farewell to Nancy” contains some “floating” lines in the first verse that turn up in versions of other songs including “Green Grows the Laurel” and the Scottish Bothy ballad “Airlin’s Fine Braes.” Steve Roud classifies “Farewell to Nancy” along with a song called “Little Susie” that was sung in parts of the southern US. A version of “Little Susie” collected by Max Hunter in Arkansas does share many words with Grover’s song.

It is Carrie Grover’s striking melody that I find most attractive here. I love the big leaps and interesting pitch variances in her performance.

01 Mar

The Cuckoo

Our meetings are pleasure, our partings are grief,
But a false-hearted young man is worse than a thief,
For a thief can but rob you and take all you have,
But a false-hearted young man will bring you to the grave.

The grave it will rot you and bring you to dust.
A false-hearted young man no maiden can trust,
They will kiss you and court you fair maids, to deceive,
And there’s not one in twenty that you can believe.

Oh, I can love little or I can love long,
I can love a new sweetheart when the old one is gone,
I can tell them I love them to give their hearts ease,
And when their back’s to me I will love whom I please.

Most of my song-sleuthing is aimed at finding English language songs that traveled across the north Atlantic with Irish immigrants and took hold in the north woods regions of North America. This particular Irish repertoire spread throughout the white pine belt as logging and other industries moved westward through the 1800s. While the songs can be traced, with almost no audio recording evidence of singers recorded pre-1920, it is harder to speak authoritatively about singing style in the lumber boom years of the 19th century. Still, it is safe to state that Irish singing style, as it existed in that century, did mark the approach used in the north woods. I think it is also safe to say that the blends of Black American and Scots-Irish song traditions that formed the folk traditions in Appalachia and further south were less present in the north woods historically. There was an Irish-influenced “woods style” of singing that was distinct from styles prevalent to the south.

Of course, singers of those earlier times didn’t worry as much about these distinctions as we do! And the songs themselves crossed from community to community regardless of origin. This month we have a song that began as a broadside ballad in England and, skipping Ireland almost entirely, took hold in the American south where it became a standard of the Appalachian repertoire (and Americana music today). Whether “The Cuckoo” stopped in the lumbercamps before going south is unknown but it did end up in the repertoires of several woods singers in New England and the Canadian Maritimes. It is interesting to compare the stylistic differences between how it was sung by northern singers and the more commonly heard southern versions (for a quintessential southern version see this amazing video on YouTube of Clarence Ashley). 

Thanks to the massive collection of recordings brought together by Helen Hartness Flanders and now available freely online via archive.org, we have several northern versions of this song to enjoy. The melody and first verse above are from Hanford Hayes at Stacyville, Maine as recorded by Flanders in May 1942. The additional verses are from Nova Scotia/Maine singer Carrie Grover. A similar melody (basically a pared down version of lines 3 and 4) was used by singer George Edwards in the Catskills area of New York.

I love Hayes’ dark and quirky melody and his leisurely style. I’d recommend listening to the online recording to hear the way he ornaments the long note in the first bar of each line. His style is masterful and reminiscent to me of the great Angelo Dornan of nearby New Brunswick.