02 Nov

The Hunter’s Death


Ye hunters brave and bold I pray attend
To this relation hear what I have seen
’Twas of a hunter bold
’Twill make your blood run cold
To hear the story told
How he suffered there.

To hunt when he was young was his delight
And when to manhood grown his favorite
To hunt the fallow deer
The roe buck and the bear
The turkey coon and hair
With smaller game.

As people settled round on hill and dale
No ven’son to be found his hunting failed
He went in forty nine
Towards the northern line
It was his hull design
To hunt the grove.

And now comes on the day that was his last
Old Boris [Boreas?] blew away an awful blast
It both rain hale and snow
The stormy winds did blow
They chilled his nature so
Poor man was lost.

All in the drifting snow laid himself down
No further could he go there he was found
His powder so complete
Was strewed from head to feet
That the vermin might not eat
His body there.

You’d wish to know his name and where he’s from
And of what stock he came and where he’s born
He’s of as noble a race
As any in the place
His name ’twas John Lomace
Born in Westfield.


We stay on the hunting theme this month with a wonderfully obscure and fascinating song from the repertoire of Reuben W. Phillips of Akeley, Minnesota. “The Hunter’s Death” was one of 22 handwritten song texts Phillips sent to collector Robert W. Gordon in March 1924. Upon receiving the songs from Phillips, Gordon was drawn to “The Hunter’s Death” in particular for its “peculiar stanza form.” He published the song’s text in the August 20, 1924 edition of his pulp magazine column “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” calling it “a curious little song, particularly in its use of the short but effective line without rime at the end of each stanza.” Soon after, Gordon hauled his Edison cylinder recording machine from Berkeley, California to Akeley to record Phillips singing the song himself. Gordon remembered the song several years later when fellow song-catcher Joanna Colcord sent him another song collected in Vermont called “The Damsel’s Tragedy” with much the same form:

Indulgent parents dear I pray attend
To this relation hear which I have penned
A deeper tragedy
You never knew, for why?
A mother’s cruelty
Ruined her son.

Given that both songs can be traced to Vermont, “The Damsel’s Tragedy” may have been the template for “The Hunter’s Death.”

Phillips told Gordon that “The Hunter’s Death” was composed in northern New York around 1849 in the vicinity of Hopkinton where Phillips himself was born. It was based on an actual man, John Lomace, who lived in the area. Westfield, Vermont is about 100 miles east of Hopkinton on the other side of Lake Champlain. Both towns are quite near the “northern line” where one crosses into Canada.

Last month, I launched the Minnesota Folksong Challenge. This is your chance to get involved in reviving the folksong heritage of Minnesota! Learn a song from the Minnesota Folksong Collection and post a video on Youtube of yourself singing it. Send me the link and I’ll add you to the growing collection of videos here! St. Paul singer John Wenstrom took the Challenge and learned “The Hunter’s Death.” You can see John’s video at the Minnesota Folksong Collection site along with the new video of the Lost Forty doing our version of this song.

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.

legacy_logo_bw msab_logo_bw

20 Jan

A New Name and a New Project for 2016

Brian Miller and Randy Gosa will now perform under the name The Lost Forty. We have a new site as well: www.thelostforty.com.

This site, www.evergreentrad.com, will continue to be the home of this blog (Northwoods Songs) along with other information and updates about my research, performing and teaching work.

Also, this month marks the launch of an exciting northwoods folksong revival project that will run throughout 2016: The Lost Forty Project. The Lost Forty Project will celebrate and make accessible forgotten field recordings of Minnesotan traditional singers recorded almost a century ago.

A bit about the name(s):

In November of 1882, a surveying crew in the north woods of Minnesota accidentally plotted Coddington Lake a half-mile further north than it was actually located. Today, the happy result is the Lost 40 Scientific and Nature Area—a rare and wonderful stand of old growth pine, some trees now over 300 years old, that was overlooked by logging companies due to the error. It is a breathtaking time capsule from Minnesota’s past.

Much of Minnesota’s early folksong traditions (including some songs as old as those trees) have been similarly overlooked. For almost ten years now, I have sought out the forgotten songs of farmers, Great Lakes sailors, lumbermen and saloon-keepers that carried Old World ballads to the North Star State back in the 1800s. These songs are what Randy and I perform as The Lost Forty… and a very special group of these songs is the focus of The Lost Forty Project.

In September 1924, pioneering folksong collector Robert Winslow Gordon traveled from Berkeley, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts with his Edison wax cylinder recording machine in tow. A month after arriving in Cambridge, Gordon wrote a letter in which he gave a brief account of his trip:

I made a very leisurely trip east with many stop-overs and side trips collecting material. I got some immensely good stuff up in northern Minnesota, lumber-jack material…[1]

The “good stuff” Gordon recorded on this September 1924 trip was overlooked for decades—much like the pine trees north of Coddington Lake. Gordon’s 1924 recordings of singers from northern Minnesota, documenting 47 songs, were preserved by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress but not cataloged as having anything to do with Minnesota. Gordon did extensive recording in North Carolina, Georgia and California and must not have kept notes on his brief adventure “up north.”

Through my research, I was able to track down and identify Gordon’s forgotten “Minnesota” recordings. This spring I will be creating The Minnesota Folksong Collection—an online digital library for the songs Gordon recorded from Michael Cassius Dean of Virginia, Minnesota and Reuben Waitstell Phillips of Akeley, Minnesota. The recordings will be free to listen to for anyone with an internet connection. These are some of the only existing recordings of traditional folksong from Minnesota and some of the earliest from anywhere in the Great Lakes region. The 47 songs include regionally-composed songs about woods work, Irish come-all-ye’s, songs about sailing the Great Lakes, railroading songs, deer hunting songs and old British ballads dating as far back as the 1680s—a similar age to those trees up by Coddington Lake! In addition to the recordings and background on Dean and Phillips, song texts and transcriptions will be provided to encourage people to learn these songs and make them their own.

As part of the project, Randy Gosa and I (The Lost Forty) will perform and teach our arrangements of songs from the collection at concerts and workshops throughout the state. We will also post online monthly videos of us performing our arrangements. The first video will be posted here on February 1st! In addition, an online “song forum” connected to The Minnesota Folksong Collection will invite others to post their own videos of themselves doing songs learned from the collection.

This project has been a dream of mine since July 2012 when, late at night while scouring a set of digitized newspapers for information about singer Michael Dean, I found an article implying the existence of these recordings. Seventy-five percent of the funding for this project is coming from a Folk and Traditional Arts Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. In February, I will be launching a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to help make up the rest of the funding needed to make this dream a reality.

Please check back for more information on the launch of the Minnesota Folksong Collection site, the Kickstarter and to see the first song video when it posts on February 1st!


[1] Gordon, Robert W. Robert W. Gordon to C. L. Canon, October 31, 1924. Letter. From American Folklife Center, Gordon Manuscript Collections, Gordon Mss, #769.