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 The above text come from an unpublished typescript compiled by New York singer Joseph McGinnis in the 1920s and titled The Songs of the Dogwatch.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.

28 Nov

Sweet Recale

I am a rich merchant’s only son, my age is twenty-two,
I fell in love with a handsome girl, the truth I will tell you,
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown and prove my destiny.

They sent me to Americay, my fortune for to seek,
I was shipwrecked on the Austria, that now lies in the deep,
But Providence to me proved kind, a plank brought me to shore,
I’m in hopes to see my handsome girl at Sweet Recale once more.

It was on the morning of the fourth just by the break of day,
This handsome girl stepped up to me and this to me did say,
“Where are you from, my nice young man, come quickly tell to me,
Or are you from the heavens above, where is your country?”

“Oh I am a stranger in this place, the truth to you I’ll tell,
For loving of a pretty fair maiden in the town of sweet Recale.
And because that I had riches great and she was of a low degree,
Which caused my parents for to frown which proved my destiny.”

“Oh come tell me are you married to that girl you left behind?”
“No, but I’m already promised and a promise that’s good and kind,
I am already promised to that girl in sweet Recale,
And except her no other fair maids will ever my favor gain.”

And this fair maid fell a-weeping tears rolled down her rosy cheeks,
“Oh here is twenty guineas in gold for to bear you o’er the sea,
For love is better, I do find, than gold or earthly store,
May heavens above return you love, to sweet Recale once more.”

In 1934, Minnesota music teacher Bessie Stanchfield put out a call for old St. Croix Valley lumbermen to send in songs for publication in the Stillwater Post-Messenger. A man living in North Dakota who said he had been a lumberjack on the St. Croix Valley fifty years before wrote saying “I spent two winters working in one of Isaac Staples’ camps on the Apple River [WI]. The foreman was Andy McGrath. Every Saturday night we had a dance. Every Sunday night we sang. Tom Harrington, the camp blacksmith, was a fiddler, and the singers included Hendy Lane, James Riley, and young Jim McGrath.” The letter writer referred to one old song once popular in the area and remarked “Jim McGrath sang it fine.”

This Jim McGrath may likely have been James E. McGrath, son of John McGrath from Wicklow, Ireland and a successful (for a time) lumber company operator for whom the town of McGrath, MN is named. In any case, singer Jim McGrath was still in the Stillwater area in 1934 and in Stanchfield’s unpublished papers at the Minnesota Historical Society, she writes that, though he was a reluctant singer, “after one old-timer, then another, dropped into the office to tell of [McGrath’s] clear tenor and his great memory for the old songs” McGrath finally relented and began recalling for her “those pleasant evenings in the bunk house” and the songs that went with them.

The Stanchfield papers include part of McGrath’s text for “Sweet Recale.” I have mixed the McGrath text with melody and text again recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 from Beaver Island, Michigan singer John W. Green (you can listen to Green’s version online via the Library of Congress) and a few lines nabbed from a third version collected in 1935 in Alger, Michigan by Gardner and Chickering.

I have found three 19th century broadside versions of this ballad from Ireland where the place name is either Belfast, Derry or Limerick instead of Recale. Lomax spells it Raquale and Gardner spells it Recail. I assumed it was a Great Lakes place name until another version recently turned up on the Irish Traditional Music Archive from Inishowen Penninsula singer Denis McDaid who sings Rycale. I’m at a loss as to the location of this mysterious place name!

29 Jun

Lovely Minnesoty

I’ve taken some liberties with text and melody in the above performance! 

Come all ye noble emigrants that feel inclined to roam,
Into this western country, to seek a pleasant home,
Just take a pioneer’s advice, he’ll point you out the best,
Go to lovely Minnesoty, that Lily of the West.

In eighteen hundred and fifty four, I left my native shore,
My worthy friends and native home never to see them more,
Besides, my aged parents I left among the rest,
And sailed for Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

When I viewed this pleasant country, it filled me with surprise,
To see those spreading prairies, and fields of grain likewise,
You call into a cabin, you are always a welcome guest,
That’s the fashion of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

I viewed those jolly farmers, a-toiling at their ploughs,
Likewise the pretty fair maid, a-milking of the cows,
I viewed those lovely house-wives with tempers of the best,
They’re the darlings of Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our lands they yield spontaneously potatoes, corn, and grain,
The climate’s also healthy, with cooling showers of rain,
There is plenty of fish in every stream, and game in the forest,
We have pleasures in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Our pleasant burgs and villages they decorate the soil,
The architect, mechanic most manfully doth toil,
We have churches here of every sect, and schooling of the best,
We’ve industry in Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

We have a flowing commerce upon our inland seas,
Where lofty ships and steamboats do sail continually,
We have mariners here both stout and bold, and masters of the best,
We have all things in Minnesota, the Lily of the West.

O, Michigan is not the place, nor Illinois the same,
The soil and climate can’t compare in raising of the grain,
A land of milk and honey, and temperature of the best,
And they call it Minnesoty, the Lily of the West.

Again this month we have one of the very few songs I’ve found that mentions my beloved home state. In this case, it’s a song of praise, advertising the wonders of pioneer-era Minnesota to prospective “emigrants.” Bessie M. Stanchfield collected a version of the song, titled “The Beauty of the West,” from Mrs. Elma Snyder McDowell of St. Cloud in 1936. Stanchfield went on to gather three other Minnesota-sourced versions and all four texts were published in her article “‘The Beauty of the West’ A Minnesota Ballad” in the September 1946 issue of Minnesota History. The Snyder McDowell version was the only one collected by Stanchfield that came complete with a melody.

The above melody comes from the singing of Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight who was recorded by song collector Ellen Stekert at his home in Cohocton, New York in the 50s. The text is primarily one of the texts published by Stanchfield that she found in the Saint Peter Courier of June 26, 1857. It is quite different than the other three published by Stanchfield but similar to Barhight’s fragment. I mixed in some lines from Barhight and the other Stanchfield texts to create the version above.

In her Minnesota History article, Stanchfield wrote that “this song, and others collected later, made me realize the fallacy of the belief that there is no Minnesota folk music.”