13 Jun

Jack Rogers

Come, all you tender Christians, I hope you will lend ear,
And likewise pay attention to those few lines you’ll hear,
For the murder of Mr. Swanton I am condemned to die,
On the twelfth day of November upon the gallows high.

My name it is Jack Rogers, a name I’ll ne’er deny,
Which leaves my aged parents in sorrow for to cry,
It’s little did they ever think, all in my youthful bloom,
That I would come unto New York to meet my awful doom.

My parents reared me tenderly as you can plainly see,
And constant good advice they used to give to me,
They told me to shun night walking and all bad company,
Or state’s prison or the gallows would be the doom of me.

But it was in play houses and saloons I used to take delight,
And constantly my comrades they would me there invite,
I oft times was told by them that the use of knives was free,
And I might commit some murder and hanged I ne’er would be.

As Mr. Swanton and his wife were walking down the street,
All in a drunken passion I chanced them for to meet,
I own they did not harm me, the same I’ll ne’er deny,
But Satan being so near me, I could not pass them by.

I staggered up against him, ’twas then he turned around,
Demanding half the sidewalk, also his share of ground,
’Twas then I drew that fatal knife and stabbed him to the heart,
Which caused that beloved wife from her husband there to part.

It was then I went to Trenton, thinking to escape,
But the hand of Providence was before me, indeed I was too late,
It was there I was taken prisoner and brought unto the Toombs,
For to die upon the gallows, all in my youthful bloom.

I am thankful to the sheriff, who has been so kind to me,
Likewise my worthy counsellors, who thought to set me free,
And also to the clergyman, who brought me in mind to bear,
For to die a true penitent I solemnly do declare.

The day of my execution it was heartrending to see,
My sister came from Jersey to take farewell of me,
She threw herself into my arms and bitterly did cry,
Saying, “My well beloved brother, this day you have to die.”

And now my joys are ended, from this wide world I must part,
For the murder of Mr. Swanton I’m sorry to the heart;
Come, all you young ambitious youths, a warning take from me,
Be guided by your parents and shun bad company.

Sometimes doing the research into an old song’s background unlocks emotional weight that is hard to access from the words and melody alone. I found that to be the case with this grim ballad that was sung by Minnesotan Michael Dean, printed in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud and subsequently recorded from Dean’s singing by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1924.

When I first came across it, it seemed like a tragedy in the form of a classic Irish come-all-ye like “The Croppy Boy” but without a noble cause behind the punished crime. It turns out that “Jack Rogers” describes a real and widely-publicized New York City murder from October 1857. Though there is no worthy motive here, the song sheds light on the hard and sometimes violent culture of Irish immigrant youths who came to New York in the wake of the Great Hunger.

Newspapers of the time reported that the “respectable old gentleman” John Swanston was returning from a market on a Sunday evening with his wife when they met three young Irish “loungers about the corners” at the corner of 10th Avenue and 21st Street. One of the three, 19-year-old Irish immigrant James Rodgers, allegedly provoked Swanston by letting his elbow stick out and hit him. An altercation ensued in which Swanston was fatally stabbed. Rodgers fled to a sister’s home in New Jersey but was apprehended and jailed in The Tombs – the Manhattan House of Detention of that time. After many appeals and much publicity, Rodgers was sentenced and hanged at The Tombs on November 12th, 1858.

Rodgers maintained throughout his captivity that he remembered nothing of the crime. This was generally attributed in the press, and in the subsequent ballad, to his being heavily intoxicated under the encouragement of his two friends. The song’s admonition to “shun bad company” sums up the newspapers’ take on the crime and the song could well have been written by someone who had access to the November 13th, 1858 New York Herald which lays this all out in detail.

Articles also talk about how exceptionally young, gentle and handsome Rodgers was and that he was always restrained and, if anything, sad when interviewed. He was well-loved by his family and the newspaper descriptions of their heartbroken hysteria at his execution are painful to read 115 years later. It is easy to see how the story inspired public sympathy. A prominent author of the time, Caroline Kirkland, even lobbied New York’s governor in hopes of staying the execution. In the end, Rodgers’ fate was held up as a warning to other potentially violent young men on New York’s streets.

The Library of Congress has a broadside ballad sheet of “The Lamentation of James Rodgers” that is clearly a match for the version sung by Michael Dean. Dean’s version (where the names have changed somewhat) is one of only a couple found in circulation among US singers. Another version was collected in Newfoundland and, interestingly, two versions turned up in Ireland. Sam Henry’s unpublished collection has one from the north and a snippet of a version from Kerry can be heard via the Muckross House Research Library site online.

Also, this is a good blog post about the James Rodgers crime and execution.

05 Dec

The Lady Leroy

Bright Phoebus arose and shone o’er the plain,
The birds were all singing, all nature seemed gay,
There sat a fair couple, on the old Ireland shore,
A-viewing the ocean where billows did roar.

“Fair Sally, fair Sally, the girl I adore,
To go away and leave you, it grieves my heart sore,
Your father is rich and is angry with me,
And if I longer tarry, my ruin he’ll be.

She dressed herself up in a suit of men’s clothes,
And to her old father disguised she did go,
She purchased a vessel, paid down his demands,
Little did he dream ’twas from his own daughter’s hands.

She went to her true love and unto him did say,
“Make haste and get ready, no time to delay,
Make haste and get ready, let bright colors fly.”
And over the ocean sailed the Lady Leroy.

And when her old father came this to understand,
He swore his revenge on that worthy young man,
Saying, “My daughter Sally shall never be his wife,
And for her disobedience, I’ll take her sweet life.”

He went to his Captain and unto him did say,
“Make haste and get ready, no time to delay,
Make haste and get ready, let bright colors fly.”
He’d sworn by his maker, he’d conquer or die.

They scarcely had sailed past a week or ten days,
When wind from the southeast it blew a fine breeze,
They saw a ship a-sailing, which filled them with joy,
They hailed her and found ’twas the Lady Leroy.

They bade them return unto old Ireland’s shore,
Or broadsides of grapeshot among them they’d pour,
But Sally’s true lover he made this reply,
“For the sake of fair Sally I’ll conquer or die.”

Then broadside for broadside most furiously did pour,
And louder than thunder, bright cannon did roar,
At length the Irish beauty, she gained the victory,
Hurrah for the sons of sweet liberty!

We close out 2022 with one more that was part of Michael Dean’s repertoire. Dean printed his version of “The Lady Leroy” in his 1922 songster and sang it for collector Franz Rickaby in 1923 and, again the next year for collector Robert Winslow Gordon. From Rickaby’s brief notes we know that Dean learned it from his mother Mary McMahon Dean (1821-1907) who emigrated to Smiths Falls, Ontario from County Mayo in about 1842 (later crossing into northern New York). Other family members knew the song as well. Dean told Rickaby that “all his folks sang it.” You can hear and see Dean’s version on the Minnesota Folksong Collection website.

The Lady Leroy was collected in several parts of the United States and Canada and, while sifting through other versions this week, I fell in love with one collected in Springfield, Vermont from singer E.C. Beers. Beers was recorded in 1930 by Alice Brown and the recordings can be accessed on archive.org as part of the Flanders Ballad Collection. The above is my own transcription of Beers’ version based on the recording. Another transcription appears in the book Vermont Folk-Songs and Ballads. I was drawn to the twists and turns of Beers’ melody which is quite different than other melodies I found in use for the song.

A recent book, Bygone Ballads of Maine, Volume I compiled by Julia Lane and Fred Gosbee has another unique version from Maine singer Carrie Grover with the closing line: “Here’s a health to all fair maids; may they always go free!”

The only Irish source I found is Sam Henry’s Songs of the People which has a version from the north of Ireland. More recent performers such as The Battlefield Band and Jimmy Crowley have recorded “The Lady Leroy” with a melody similar to what Dean sang here in Minnesota 100 years ago.

25 Oct

My Eileen is Waiting for Me

I am always light hearted and easy, not a care in the wide world have I,
Because I am loved by a Coleen I couldn’t help like if I’d try;
She lives away over the mountains where the little thrush sings in the tree,
In a cabin all covered with ivy my Eileen is waiting for me.

It’s over, yes over the mountain where the little thrush sings in the tree,
In a cabin all covered with ivy my Eileen is waiting for me.

The day I bid good-bye to Eileen, that day I will never forget,
How the tears bubbled up from their slumber, I fancy I’m seeing them yet;
They looked like the pearls in the ocean as she wept those tears of love,
Saying, “Barney, my boy, don’t forget me until we meet again here or above.”

Though mountains and seas may divide us and friends like the flowers come and go,
Still these thoughts of my Eileen will cheer me and comfort wherever I go,
For the imprints of love and devotion, surrounded by thoughts that are pure,
Will serve as a guide to the sailor while sailing the wild ocean o’er.


With the passing of beloved musician Martin McHugh this past month, I chose a song that was a favorite of his. Martin played “My Eileen is Waiting for Me” as a waltz at countless sessions and dances and would sometimes sing bits of the words if you were lucky!

It turns out this song has a long history in Minnesota. Mike Dean printed his version in his 1922 songster The Flying Cloud under the title “Allanah is Waiting for Me” (a curious and possibly misprinted title because in Dean’s actual song lyric the name is Eileen). It was also in the repertoire of Ontario singer O.J. Abbott who called it “Over the Mountain.”

“Over the Mountain” was the original title when, in 1882, the song was composed by celebrity tenor William J. Scanlan, a second generation Irishman from Springfield, Massachusetts. Scanlan sang it in the play “Friend or Foe” which he performed at the Grand Opera House in Saint Paul in April 1885. The song reached Ireland by the early 1900s where it was found in a County Cavan manuscript in 1905.  By the 1920s, the song’s melody and sections of its lyrics began a new life in American country music after a recording by Uncle Dave Macon and a rewrite, by Fiddlin’ John Carson, called “The Grave of Little Mary Phagan.”

Dean’s melody is unrecorded but Abbott sang it to a similar melody to that used by Martin McHugh. The above is a marriage of Dean’s words from 1922 with McHugh’s melody circa 2022 (based on McHugh’s album The Master’s Choice.)

William J. Scanlan
Ad for Scanlan’s performances at the Grand Opera House in St. Paul from the April 12, 1885 Minneapolis Sunday Tribune