01 Jul

The Arkansaw Navvy

Come listen to my story and I’ll tell you in my chant
It’s the lamentation of an Irish emigrant,
Who lately crossed the ocean and misfortune never saw,
’Till he worked upon the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

When I landed in St. Louis I’d ten dollars and no more,
I read the daily papers until both me eyes were sore;
I was looking for advertisements until at length I saw
Five hundred men were wanted in the State of Arkansaw.

Oh, how me heart it bounded when I read the joyful news,
Straightway then I started for the raging Billie Hughes;
Says he, “Hand me five dollars and a ticket you will draw
That will take you to the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

I handed him the money, but it gave me soul a shock,                                                                   
And soon was safely landed in the city of Little Rock;
There was not a man in all that land that would extend to me his paw,
And say, “You’re heartily welcome to the State of Arkansaw.”

I wandered ’round the depot, I rambled up and down,
I fell in with a man catcher and he said his name was Brown;
He says “You are a stranger and. you’re looking rather raw,
On yonder hill is me big hotel, it’s the best in Arkansaw.”

Then I followed my conductor up to the very place,
Where poverty was depicted in his dirty, brockey face;
His bread was corn dodger and his mate I couldn’t chaw,
And fifty cents he charged for it in the State of Arkansaw.

Then I shouldered up my turkey, hungry as a shark,
Traveling along the road that leads to the Ozarks;
It would melt your heart with pity as I trudged along the track,
To see those dirty bummers with their turkeys on their backs.
Such sights of dirty bummers I’m sure you never saw
As worked upon the railroad in the State of Arkansaw.

I am sick and tired of railroading and I think I’ll give it o’er,
I’ll lay the pick and shovel down and I’ll railroad no more;
I’ll go out in the Indian nation and I’ll marry me there a squaw,
And I’ll bid adieu to railroading and the State of Arkansaw.

“Navvy,” from “navigational engineer,” was a common 19th century term for a railroad worker. Singer Michael Dean, the source of the text above, had many connections to the railroad and railroad work. Dean tended bar for years at saloons that catered to railroad workers in Hinckley, Minnesota. His older brother James was a lifelong conductor for the Milwaukee Road based in Milwaukee and older brother Charles worked for the Milwaukee Road in Minnesota and South Dakota based out of Minneapolis. According to The History of South Dakota, Vol. 2 by Doane Robinson, Charles Dean helped build the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad from Glencoe, MN to Aberdeen, SD from 1879-1881.

Dean’s songster, The Flying Cloud, includes four lyrics about railroad workers: “Jerry Go Oil the Car,” “The Grave of the Section Hand,” “O’Shaughanesey” and “The Arkansaw Navvy.” A fifth, “To Work Upon the Railroad” appears among the 1924 wax cylinder recordings of Dean singing.

Since Dean’s melody for “The Arkansaw Navvy” is unknown, I used a melody sung by Newfoundland singer Paddy Duggan as recorded by MacEdward Leach and available online. The song was likely North American in origin and it appears in many collections from the US. Interestingly, an Irish version does appear in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People. Henry’s informant was Jack McBride of Kilmore, Co. Antrim who learned it from a sailor.

Railroad section gang in Crow Wing County, Minnesota circa 1910. Courtesy Crow Wing County Historical Society
30 Jun

The Heights of Alma

It was in September, the eighteenth day
In spite of the salt sea’s dashing spray,
We landed safe on the Crimea,
Upon our route to Alma.

That night we lay on the cold, cold ground,
No peace or comfort could be found,
And by the rain were nearly drowned,
To cheer our hearts for Alma.

Next morning when we did arise,
Beneath those gloomy Russian skies,
Lord Ragalan, our Chieftain cries,
“Prepare to march for Alma.”

And when the heights they hove in view,
The strongest hearts they would subdue,
To see that motley Russian crew
Upon the heights of Alma.

They were so strongly fortified,
With batteries on each mountain side,
Lord Ragalan viewed their works and cried,
“We’ll have tough work in Alma.”

The Scotch Greys were the first that came,
And turned their fire in like rain,
But many a Highland lass will mauirn,
For that day’s work at Alma.

The Twenty-second Fusileers,
They gained the heights and gave three cheers,
With joy each Briton’s heart did cheer,
Hibernia’s sons at Alma.

Back to Sebastapool the Russians fled,
They left their dying and their dead,
The rivers that day did run red
With the blood that flowed at Alma.

This is one of four songs referencing the Crimean War (1853-1856) that were printed by Minnesota singer
Michael C. Dean in his songster The Flying Cloud. See earlier Northwoods Songs columns for the other
three: “Patrick Sheehan,” “The Tidy Irish Lad” and “As I Rode Down Through Irishtown.”

The song describes some accurate details of the Battle of Alma, which took place on September 20, 1854.
Lord Raglan was the English commander and his men had no tents their first night after landing. The
“Scottish Greys” were the Royal Scots Greys – a famed Scottish regiment in the British Army. I have not
found any historical reference to a 22nd regiment at Alma (exact numbers don’t always survive the folk
process!) but what little glory there is in Dean’s version clearly goes to “Hibernia’s sons” on the
battlefield. Irish soldiers made up a third of the British Army in the Crimea, resulting in much heartbreak
and many songs back in Ireland.

Other versions of this song use the well-known and cheery-sounding “Rakes of Mallow” melody. The duo of Irish fiddle player Michael Coleman and flute player Tom Morrison recorded that tune as “The Heights of Alma” on a 78rpm record. Dean’s more mournful melody resembles versions found in New England collections. An especially nice variant was sung by Newfoundland singer Cyril O’Brien and recorded by MacEdward Leach. My duo, The Lost Forty, used the O’Brien melody for our arrangement of this song.

28 Jun

The Town Passage

The Town Passage is large and spacious and situated upon the say,
It is nate and dacent and quiet, adjacent to the cove of Cork on a summer day;
There you can slip in to take a dipping forninst the shipping that at anchor ride
Or in a wherry cross o’er the ferry to Caregoloe on the other side.

Mud cabins swarm in this place so charming with sailors’ garments hung out to dry,
And each abode is snug and commodious with pigs melodious in their straw-built sty;
Oh, the pigs are sleek and well contented, their odor fragrant it scents the air
Oh, the beef and biskie, the pork and whisky, it would make you frisky if you were there.

It’s there the turf is and lots of Murphies; Dead Spratts and Herring and Oyster Shells,
Nor any lack of good tobacco, but what is smuggled by far excels;
It’s there you’d see Peg Murphy’s daughter peeling praties forninst the dure,
With me aunt Delaney and Bridget Haney, all blood relations to Lord Donoughmore.

There is ships from Cadiz and from the Barbadoes, but the lading trade is in whiskey punch,
Or you can go in to where one Molly Bowen kapes a nate hotel for a quiet lunch;
But land or deck on you can safely reckon, whatever country that you came from
On an invitation to a jollification by a parish priest called Father Tom.

Of ships there is one fixed for lodging convicts, a floating stone jug of amazing bulk,
And the hake and salmon playing at back Gamon swim for diversion all around her hulk;
There English peelers keep brave repalers who soon with sailors must anchor weigh,
From the Emerald Island ne’er to see dry land until they spy land in Botany Bay.

“The Town Passage” (aka “The Town of Passage”) is one of a tight-knit family of songs, all sharing the same melody and poetic style, that came out of eastern County Cork in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first song in the chain seems to have been one written by a forgotten poet in praise of the famous Castlehyde in Fermoy which was composed by a local poet in the late 1700s when the building was newly built. (Castlehyde was the seat of the Hyde family that would later produce Ireland’s first president Douglas Hyde. It is also currently owned by famed Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley!)

Another Cork poet, Richard Alfred Millikin (b. 1767) is believed to have taken “Castlehyde” as a model for his song “The Groves of Blarney” which he composed around 1798 in honor of that town located southwest of Castlehyde and just northwest of Cork City. Millikin’s song became a sensation among the singing classes of Ireland and crossed the ocean to North America where it was printed on song sheets. Thomas Moore (b. 1779) took the melody from “The Groves of Blarney” for his hit “The Last Rose of Summer” around 1805. Moore’s song is not related to Cork aside from taking this melody.

Father Prout

A third Cork poet, Francis Sylvester Mahony (aka Father Prout, b. 1804) used the melody and style of “The Groves of Blarney” in 1834 to create “The Bells of Shandon” – the only song in the bunch to celebrate an icon within Cork City itself. “The Bells” is also more earnest in tone with less of the tongue-in-cheek faux-praise present in “Castlehyde” and “The Groves of Blarney.”

Interestingly, poet Mahony/Father Prout returned to the more light-hearted approach when he created yet another song “The Town of Passage” to the same melody and form. Passage (now called Passage West) is just southeast of Cork City on the way to Cobh. This song was printed by Thomas Crofton Croker in 1839

“The Town of Passage” has not been found often in tradition. It does, however, turn up in Michael Dean’s 1922 songster printed here in Minnesota! Above I have married Dean’s text to the melody used for an oral tradition version of “The Groves of Blarney” collected in Newfoundland in 1975 by Aidan O’Hara from the singing of Ellen Emma Power which you can hear via the Irish Traditional Music Archive online.