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
02 May

Jerry Go Oil the Car (revisited)

Jerry Go Oil the Car 2016.musx

**Hear the source recordings for our version of this song at the Minnesota Folksong Collection site: Jerry Go Oil the Car (1) and Jerry Go Oil the Car (2)

Come, all you railroad section hands, I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention to these few lines you’ll hear,
Concerning one Larry Sullivan, alas, he is no more,
He sailed some forty years ago from the green old Irish shore.

For four and thirty weary years he worked upon the track,
And the truth to say from the very first day he never had a wreck,
For he made it a point to keep up the lower joints with the force of the tamping bar,
Joint ahead and center back and Jerry go oil the car.

To see old Larry in the winter time when the hills were clad with snow,
It was his pride on his handcar to ride as over the section he’d go,
With his big soldier coat buttoned up to his throat, sure he looked like an Emperor [rarr],
And while the boys were shimming up the ties, sure Jerry would be oiling the car.

When Sunday morning came around to the section hands he’d say,
“I suppose you all know that my wife is going to Sunday Mass today,
And I want every man for to pump all he can, for the distance it is very far,
And I’d like to get in ahead of number ten, so Jerry go oil the car.”

“And now when my friends are gathered around, there is one request I crave,
When I am dead and gone to my rest, place the handcar on my grave;
Let the spike mawl rest upon my breast with the gauge and the old clawbar,
And while the boys are lowering me down, leave Jerry to be oiling the car.”

“Give my regards to the roadmaster,” poor Larry he did cry,
“And rise me up so I may see the handcar before I die.”
He was so weak he could hardly speak, in a moment he was dead;
“Joint ahead and center back,” were the very last words he said.

For this month’s Lost Forty Project song arrangement and video, Randy Gosa and I worked up this song from the repertoire of Minnesota singer Michael Cassius Dean. I wrote about “Jerry Go Oil the Car” in Northwoods Songs in November 2012. Together with last month’s song, “To Work Upon the Railroad,” it is one of five railroading songs/recitations in Dean’s known repertoire. The others are “O’Shaughanesey,” “The Arkansaw Navvy” and “The Grave of the Old Section Hand.” The transcription above is my version for which I pared down Dean’s text a bit and used a melody based the 1924 cylinder recording of his singing.

Since writing about this song back in 2012, my research has revealed more on Dean’s personal connection to railroading. Dean wrote that he “gathered up” his repertoire in his “wandering around on the Lakes and in Lumber Camps and Rail Road Construction works.”[1] Though I have yet to find evidence that he worked on the railroad himself, Dean ran a succession of saloons across the street from the St. Paul and Duluth depot in Hinckley where he catered to (and perhaps swapped songs with) railroad men employed by the St. Paul and Duluth line in the 1890s.

Also, Michael Dean’s brothers Charles Dean (St. Paul) and James Dean (Milwaukee) were both conductors for the Milwaukee railroad. In fact, his brother James’ 1910 obituary echoes the song’s praise of a man who, through a life of dangerous railroad work, “never had a wreck.”

He was the oldest conductor in the point of service, on the Milwaukee road, having been employed on the railroad for forty-nine years,… Mr. Dean has never h[a]d an accident in which a person was killed through his long term of service, although he himself has had many narrow escapes when the railroad equipment was inferior to that of today. …Railroad men in this city were greatly depressed when they heard of his death as he was one of the most popular railroad men on the system and was regarded by other trainmen as a man of good luck because he never had an accident in so many years of service.[2]

For the above video, The Lost Forty performed our arrangement of this song at the Minnesota Transportation Museum aboard an actual “drover’s coach” built in the 1890s.

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.


[1] Dean, Michael C. Michael C. Dean to Robert Frothingham, September 16, 1922. Letter. From American Folklife Center, Gordon Manuscript Collections.
[2] “Oldest Conductor Dies Last Night,” Janesville Daily Gazette (Janesville, WI), June 2, 1910.

01 Apr

To Work Upon the Railroad

To Work Upon the Railroad.musx

In eighteen hundred and sixty one
The Yankee war had just begun,
I put my corduroy breeches on
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty two
My corduroy breeches they were new,
I took my pick with a navvy’s crew
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty three
I sailed away beyond the sea,
I sailed away to Americay
To work upon the railroad.

In eighteen hundred and sixty four
We landed on Columbia’s Shore,
Bad luck to the ship that brought me o’er
To work upon the railroad.

It’s “Pat do this” and “Pat do that”
Without a stocking or cravat,
Nothing more than an old straw hat
When Pat works on the railroad.

We left Ireland to come here
And spend our latter days in cheer,
Our bosses they did drink strong beer
And Pat worked on the railroad.


Minnesota singer Michael C. Dean sang one verse (“In eighteen hundred and sixty four…”) of the above song for Robert W. Gordon’s wax cylinder recording machine in 1924. Of the more than 30 song fragments Gordon recorded from Dean, “To Work Upon the Railroad” is the only one that does not correspond to a more complete text in Dean’s self-published 1922 songster The Flying Cloud. For that reason, we do not know what other verses Dean knew, if any. My guess is that they resembled the first three verses I chose to include here which come from a version printed in Joanna Colcord’s Songs of American Sailormen. The verses collected by Colcord line up well with Dean’s in the years they use and the fact that they are not split up by a chorus. Versions of this song are plentiful and I decided to throw in two additional verses at the end which I adapted from Alan Lomax’s Folksong U.S.A. Dean’s melody does seem to be unique and it gives the song a more mournful tone than other versions (to me at least).

If Dean knew this song in 1924, why didn’t he print it in his 1922 songster? We can’t know for sure, but my suspicion is that he actually learned the song in the interim. My research, using the Robert W. Gordon collection at the American Folklife Center, turned up ample evidence that Dean, then in his late 60s, was actively seeking out old folk songs to add to his repertoire in those years. The printing of The Flying Cloud helped connect Dean to a network of academic song collectors and other old traditional singers who swapped songs with Dean—sometimes by mail. He was likely seeking out old songs from his co-workers at the Virginia Rainy Lake Lumber Company mill in Virginia, MN where he worked as well. In my research, I have found multiple instances of singers who built up a large repertoire before the age of 25, did not learn many songs during the middle of their lives and then resumed adding to their repertoire when, late in life, they realized the value of their old songs. Based on other cases I know of, my guess is that Dean’s later years were enriched by the realization, supported by feedback from Gordon and others, that his songs were worth preserving. Along with that realization came energy to learn new songs and to build friendships with other singers.

For this month’s video of The Lost Forty’s arrangement of “To Work Upon the Railroad,” we performed the song aboard Northern Pacific Caboose 1631 at the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul. Thanks to Danielle Enblom at the the museum!

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.