Song Notes

Notes on the sources of the songs, in alphabetical order, from the printed songbook.

A la claire fontaine

A typical voyageur song, originally from France and first published in 1704. Fowke/Mills/Blume declares it to have been popular in Quebec “since the days of Champlain.”

Note that the French version of this song and the next repeat the last line of the previous verse to start the next verse. This makes the song much longer, but it’s easier to remember.

Source: I learned this mostly from the singing of Lillian Labbé. The French text (identical as far as I can tell at a casual glance) can be found either in Fowke/Mills/Blume (who had it from Gagnon) or Nute (who had it from Gibbon).

Note that this is voyageur French, which is not the same as the language of modern France; I’ve followed Fowke’s and Nute’s texts even where it looks funny to a French speaker.

The Banks of the Little Eau Pleine [Laws C2]

Not all lumbering ballads were tragic — not while William N. Allen was around! Allen, according to Rickaby, pp. xxx-xxxvi, was born in New Brunswick in 1843, but his family soon came to Wisconsin, and he settled in Wausau. He worked in the logging industry for most of his life, and began to write songs around 1870 under the name “Shan T. Boy” (the workers in logging camps were called “shanty boys”). His specialty was a sort of dark comedy — he would take the plot of a tragic ballad, and surround it with absurd images. “The Banks of the Little Eau Pleine” is typical — the plot is precisely that of “The Pinery Boy,” but it doesn’t take itself at all seriously. This seems to be the most popular of all Allen’s songs, having been collected in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ontario, Quebec, and several times in New Brunswick. He set it to the tune of (one of several songs called) “Erin’s Green Shore.” The Little Eau Pleine is a real river in Marathon county, Wisconsin.

Source: Dean sang a version of this, somewhat shorter, under the title “The Little Auplaine,” and Rickaby collected his tune, but since Rickaby also collected Allen’s own version, I have followed that.

The Bigler’s Crew [Laws D8]

Sailors seemed to like to put together narrative songs about their voyages. Dean — who was himself a Great Lakes sailor — had four such (“The Bigler’s Crew,” “The Dreadnought,” “Paul Jones, the Privateer,” and “Red Iron Ore”) besides songs of sailing disasters such as “The Persian’s Crew” and “Lost on the Lady Elgin.” The latter songs are much more interesting, but of course they are all sad, and we didn’t want to make every song in this collection a “weeper.”

Unfortunately, those we-took-our-ship-somewhere songs tend to be about as dull as your cousins’ slide show about their trip to Disneyland. This one at least makes a slight attempt at humor (consider the line “We might have passed the big fleet — if they’d hove to and wait”), and it seems to be about a real ship; Julius F. Wolff Jr.’s Lake Superior Shipwrecks says that a ship named the Bigler was wrecked at Marquette in 1884. Steve Gardham tells me this ship was built in 1866.

Source: Rickaby, from Dean. Even Rickaby implicitly admits that this is a pretty monotonous song. Rather than bog it down, I’ve chopped Dean’s eleven verses down to five.

The tune is almost certainly derived from a piece called “The Knickerbocker Line,” which was in existence by 1859; there are also some related British songs. It’s an unusual tune — it is transcribed here as if in the Dorian mode, which sounds “minor,” and yet the thirds are often sharped, putting it in Mixolydian mode, which sounds “major.” This wavering modality can be seen in the guitar chords. The timing is also strange — note how many measures feature notes held for two and a half beats. In typesetting it, I wondered about the accuracy of Rickaby’s transcription, but most of the other collected tunes are similar except that some eliminate those major thirds. So I’m giving the tune as taken by Rickaby.

Billie Johnson of Lundy’s Lane

The Battle of Lundy’s Lane took place on July 25, 1814, during one of several American invasions of Canada in the War of 1812. General Jacob Brown took his forces across the Niagara River on July 3. After some minor fighting, Winfield Scott’s brigade ran into a British force, and both sides brought up reinforcements. The battle was bloody, and both Brown and Scott were wounded (as were the top British generals). Both sides claimed victory, but the officer left in command of the American forces decided to retreat. It was the last time the United States seriously threatened to capture part of Canada.

Brown would be important for Minnesota history; he sent the troops that founded Fort Snelling. Scott would go on to even bigger things: He was the American commander in chief during the Mexican war, and was responsible for the campaign that captured Mexico City and won the war; he was still in charge of American forces at the start of the Civil War 47 years after Lundy’s Lane. (He would retire within a year, but his strategy would largely be responsible for winning the war.) Clearly the veteran was going to visit General Scott to ask to fight for the Union again — though no sane general would have wanted him; even had he been fit, his insistence on using his old musket (which could hardly hit the wall of a barn, let alone an enemy rifleman) would have made him completely useless in Civil War-era combat.

This song, said to be by Bayard Taylor, was written in the Civil War seemingly to encourage patriotism.

Source: The words are from Dean, one of only three collections in tradition. The melody is based on the tune collected by Frank Warner from “Yankee” John Galusha, 1941 and printed in Warner, p. 69. Galusha was very old at the time he was recorded, and his timing seems to have been influenced by his need to breathe. His pitch is known to have been affected by his age. I have fiddled slightly with the tune somewhat as a result, both as to timing and pitch.


This song is interesting both for its form and for its content. In form, it is a sea chanty (or shanty; however you spell it, it’s pronounced “shanty”). These were songs sailors used for a particular task — for example, to help them time their hauls on a rope or their shoves on a capstan. Stan Hugill, the last real expert on chantys, thought this both a halyard song and a short haul chanty. This version is a short haul chanty; the sailors would pull on Yup! and Swar! To get the feeling across, you could have kids clap on the haul syllables.

The song is a good short summary of the later career of Napoleon: His chief enemies on land were Russia, Prussia, and Austria (all of whom also allied with him at one time or another as well). In 1812, he invaded Russia, and reached Moscow, but saw his army destroyed. Two years later, having failed to defend France, he went into exile on Elba, only to return for the “Hundred Days” in 1815, ending in the Battle of Waterloo. He fled into British custody, was taken into exile on the Bellerophon, and died on Saint Helena.

Source: I have heard many recordings of this; I think the one I know best is by John Roberts and Tony Barrand. I have used their tune. The fullest set of lyrics is in Hugill’s authoritative Shanties from the Seven Seas, but this text is a combination of what I remember with the version in Joanna C. Colcord’s Songs of American Sailormen.

Brave Wolfe

James Wolfe led the attack on Quebec in 1759, while still in his early thirties and unmarried. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that courtiers said before his appointment that he was mad. King George II, irritated at the ineffectiveness of most of his other senior officers, supposedly declared, “Mad, is he? Then I wish he would bite my other generals.”

Part of this song is true: Shortly before the Quebec campaign began, Wolfe hurried back to England to propose to Katherine Lowther. Then he returned to Canada. Not all historians are impressed with his performance there; it was quite some time before he dreamed up the campaign that led his troops up to the Plains of Abraham. Never very healthy, he seemed on the brink of death before the final campaign. It was a high-stakes gamble which paid off: He put eight or nine thousand troops on the Plains of Abraham without the French stopping him. The defenders had many more troops in the area, but the French commander, Montcalm, hurried to confront Wolfe with the troops he had immediately at hand. These were relatively few, and not very well-trained; Wolfe’s regulars beat them easily, though Wolfe was killed in the battle and Montcalm mortally wounded. Contrary to the song, they did not meet before the battle.

Source: The text is a composite based on versions I’ve heard; I started from the text in Fowke/Mills/Blume, Canada’s Story in Song, pp. 48-49. Music: There are several tunes for this song. This is probably the best-known, originally sung as “The Blacksmith.” The song has not been found in Minnesota, but versions were known from Michigan and Ontario, so there is a high likelihood that it was heard here.

C’est l’aviron

This song originated in France, although the chorus is from the voyageurs. It’s the kind of song they liked, given that they lived far away from women: The guy got the girl, she was pretty, and he didn’t really have to do much to deserve her. La Rochelle is a city on the Bay of Biscay in southern France.

Source: The words are from Edith Fulton Fowke and Richard Johnston, Folk Songs of Quebec, pp. 72-73. The French version was collected by E. Z. Massicote. The music is as I learned from the singing of Lillian Labbé, compared against Fowke/Johnston.

Cole Younger [Laws E3]

Henry Washington Younger, who lived in Missouri before the Civil War, had no fewer than fourteen children, of whom Thomas Coleman (“Cole,” 1844-1916), James (“Jim,” 1848-1902), John (1851-1874), and Robert (“Bob,” 1853- 1889) became outlaws. They had an unusually good excuse; their father was a Unionist in the Civil War, but Missouri was having its own war-within-a-war, and Union troops killed him and ruined his land (hence, presumably, the reference in the song to the Youngers avenging their father and fighting the anti-guerillas). It is little surprise that Cole joined the Confederate forces (where he met Frank James); he ended the war in California, although there is no evidence that he robbed anyone there.

Little is reliably known about what the Youngers did in the decade after the war, but they were thought to be implicated in bank and train robberies in and around Missouri, and John Younger was killed in a scuffle with police.

The trip to Texas mentioned in the song may be real, though documentation is again weak; Belle Starr would claim that she met Cole in this time, and that she had a child by him. What is certain is that, in 1876, the three surviving Youngers, Frank and Jesse James, and three other outlaws (who used the names Charlie Pitts, Bill Stiles, and Clell Miller) came to Minnesota. On September 7, they tried to rob the Northfield Bank. Three of the robbers went inside, the others stayed at various points outside. The robbery failed (they picked up less than $30 in cash), but one of the robbers (no one knows who; we don’t even know which three outlaws went into the bank) killed cashier Joseph Lee Heywood.

Meanwhile, the townsfolk were attacking. Bill Stiles (their main guide) and Clell Miller were killed outside the bank, and Cole and Bob Younger badly wounded. The six survivors tried to flee. But the Youngers were not in shape to move quickly. Eventually Frank and Jesse James split off (and succeeded in escaping); the three Youngers and [Charlie Pitts] were spotted near Madelia and pursued. Pitts was killed in the gunfight; and all three Youngers suffered additional wounds; Jim’s jaw wound was so bad that he lived on a semi- liquid diet for the rest of his life.

Although the Youngers denied any part in the Northfield robbery, they eventually pled guilty because Minnesota law at the time was such that a prisoner who admitted a crime could not be executed. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment — and became model prisoners. This song was presumably written in this period, though assuredly not by Cole, since he denied the role of the Jameses in the Northfield affair. Bob Younger died in prison of tuberculosis. Cole and Jim were then given parole, but Jim killed himself because he was denied the right to work or marry. Cole was the last of the Northfield robbers to die, in 1916. Jesse James, of course, had been killed more than two decades earlier; Frank James, who was never convicted of anything, died in 1915.

Source: This song has a strange history. It must have been composed after the Northfield Raid of 1876, and Vance Randolph met people who claim to have heard it in the 1880s, but the earliest verifiable text is found in John A. Lomax’s 1910 book Cowboy Songs, with no source listed. It was collected and recorded repeatedly in the two dozen years after that. Yet the texts are diverse, and the tunes even more so — about half of them are in common time, and half in triple time! The most reasonable guess is that someone published the song as a broadside, without a tune, and several different singers fit tunes to it. But the original broadside seems to have been lost completely.

There are no known Minnesota versions of this piece, despite its Minnesota setting. My favorite version is a bluegrass setting done by the group Kane’s River (which, like almost all bluegrass songs, is in 2/2 time), but I do not know their source, so I didn’t think it right to use it. The best- known recording is probably that by Edward L. Crain, which is one of the versions in triple time; I have used it even though it is much more monotonous than the bluegrass version. But Crain’s recording was on a 78 rpm record, so he didn’t have time for a full text. On that basis I’ve started from the lyrics as sung by Glen Ohrlin and transcribed in his book The Hell-Bound Train; this does have some Minnesota ties, because many of Ohrlin’s relatives lived in Winger, Minnesota, and he shared the song (which he learned from Ollie Gilbert) with the people who lived there. I’ve added a few lyrics from other sources to give as full a version as possible.

The Colorado Trail

Source: For many years, only one version of this was known: The one given here, printed on page 462 of Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag. Dr. T. L. Chapman learned this single verse from “a hoss wrangler” who was injured while stunt riding in Duluth. More recently, Max Hunter found a version, and there is one from New Mexico, but it’s likely both derive from recordings based on Sandburg’s Minnesota version.

Dance, Boatman, Dance

Two names tower above American music in the mid- nineteenth century: Stephen Foster (author of “Camptown Races,” “The Glendy Burk,” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Swanee River,” and many more) and Daniel Decatur Emmett (author most especially of “Dixie,” and also “Old Dan Tucker”). Both were associated with something that could only have originated in nineteenth century America: the Minstrel Show. Emmett actually was part of a show; Foster was not, but he wrote for the Christy Minstrels, one of the most important shows.

A minstrel show was a musical performance in which white men painted their faces black and played music allegedly associated with the slaves of the period, using instruments such as banjos and bones that the slaves would play. It was a rather disgusting art form, but it gave us most of the brilliant and memorable songs listed above.

Often these songs were about riverboats. Foster’s “The Glendy Burk” and Emmett’s “De Boatman Dance” are both associated with the Mississippi and its tributaries, especially the Ohio River — the real Glendy Burk was wrecked at Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio joins the Mississippi, in 1855. Cairo is a small town, but it is mentioned in a lot of songs, because there was so much traffic on the two rivers.

This song was almost certainly heard in Minnesota in 1855. According to George Byron Merrick’s Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, p. 260, the first “show boat” to reach Saint Paul was the Banjo, which arrived in Minnesota in 1856 with a minstrel troupe. Since “De Boatman Dance” (Emmett’s title, in the “dialect” that white musicians pretended Blacks used) was very popular at the time, chances are high that they played the song during their performances.

Source: The excellent tune of this song has caused it to remain well-known among “pop folk” musicians to this day. This version is roughly the way I learned the song, compared against the text on pp. 566-567 of B. A. Botkin’s Mississippi River Folklore. The tune has wandered a little over the years, though it is still recognizably Emmett’s; I’ve eliminated the dialect from the text.

The first folk publication of the song, interestingly, is from Minnesota; it was included by Captain John Robinson in “Songs of the Chantey Man,” which was published in the Minnesota literary magazine The Bellman, July 14, 1917.

Darling Nelly Gray

By B. R. Hanby (1833-1867). Published in the mid-1850s, it was surely his most popular song, and became a major hit. Mostly in the North, among those who opposed slavery, of course (though there were southern rewrites which plastered over the anti- slavery message). It is said to have been based on an actual event: a runaway slave named Joseph Shelby died at the Ohio home of Hanby’s father. Shelby was hoping to raise money to win the freedom of another slave named Nelly Gray.

Source: Known to Dean, but his version lacks the key third verse which explains the tragedy of the song, as well as the fourth verse. He may have learned one of those cleaned-up southern versions. Laura Ingalls Wilder also quotes a fragment of the song in Little House in the Big Woods, chapter four, but not enough to be useful (and this was one of the more fictional parts of her book anyway). I have, therefore, largely followed Dean’s version but with insertions from the original sheet music; these are marked in [brackets]. The music is as I learned the song, primarily from Bob Bovee and Gail Heil.

The Day That I Played Baseball

Written by Pat Rooney, a stage Irish performer, and published in 1878 — though the song, and Rooney, have been so thoroughly forgotten that I found only one printed reference to the song other than the text printed here, and it said only that the tune had been used in for a more popular folk song, “The Horse Wrangler” (also known as “The Tenderfoot”). Paul Stamler found an online version of the song and discovered the attribution to Rooney, who performed in the 1870s and 1880s and was best known for writing “Is That You, Mr. Riley?”

Source: The text is Dean’s, with a few obvious typos corrected. In the original, the singer is named “O’Halloran.” The tune is Sandburg’s version of “The Tenderfoot.”

Es Klappert die Mühle Am Rauschenden Bach

How could we possibly do a Minnesota songbook without a song about milling? Minneapolis is the Mill City!

Of course, this song is about a small mill, and milling in Minneapolis was done on a large scale. The first mills in Minnesota were the traditional small streams with a mill pond and a water wheel found in Europe, but when the first commercial mill was founded on Hennepin Island in 1854, it used the water power of Saint Anthony Falls (Risjord, p. 112). The falls also supplied power for the sawmills that were so important to the Minnesota lumber industry.

It may have been just as well for the young ladies of Minneapolis. Millers in British song had a reputation for lustiness; one song, “I Am A Miller Tae My Trade,” began,
I am a miller tae my trade, sae wanton, sae wanton,
I am a miller tae my trade, hey sae wanton he.

Source: The words to this are said to be by Ernst Anschütz (1780-1861), who is also sometimes credited with “O Tannenbaum,” though there is some doubt about that (there are hints of older versions). The music is sometimes said to be by Heinrich Carsten Reinecke (1824-1910), though others have claimed it was collected from tradition in 1770. There seems to be very little variation in the words, so for most singers it probably shouldn’t be counted as a folk song — but it is extremely well known. The tune and most of the text is from Norbert Linke and Brian Bagnall, Kein schöner Land; Das Große Buch der beleibtesten Volkslieder. lent to us by Susan Kocher. Marcie Zachmeier-Ruh and Sharon Wilson also helped us in sorting German material.

The Farmer Is the Man

Malcolm Douglas tells me this was written by Knowles Shaw (died 1878), who called it “The Farmer Feeds Us All.” A version for piano and four voices was printed in 1897. The earliest “folk” sources are Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, published in 1927, and a 1923 recording by Fiddlin’ John Carson — one of the very first country recordings. Sandburg says the song was known in Illinois in the 1890s.

Internal evidence suggest that the song dates back to the Grange, an organization founded by Minnesota’s own Oliver H. Kelley. Kelley himself was mostly a “scientific farmer” who in 1867 founded the Patrons of Husbandry (which came to be called the Grange) “to promote education in agriculture and to provide social and cultural opportunities for farmers” (Blegen, p. 291). The group spread fast — within three years, there were forty Granges in Minnesota. It also started to be active in politics: “The Grangers worked for reasonable railroad rates, opposed discriminations, and favored railroad regulation through state laws” (Blegen, p. 292). Ignatius Donnelly, the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, was largely responsible for their organization at this time (Lass, p. 169). The Panic of 1873, and later a series of Supreme Court cases, weakened the group, but they continued to exist into the twentieth century, though less as a political than an educational group. In any case, the real problem of the farmers — that they produced more food than there was demand for it — has been a problem, off and on, from that day to this; it produced things such as the Free Silver movement championed by William Jennings Bryan.

Source: The tune is as I learned it, somewhere. The text is from B. A. Botkin’s A Treasury of American Folklore, pp. 879- 880 (he calls it “The Farmer Comes to Town”), apparently from a version compiled (and, I suspect, touched up) by Charles Seeger, the father of Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger. I’ve made a few changes to Botkin’s words to fit the tune.

First Minnesota Song

Of all the songs in this volume, this is the one about which the least is known. Stephen Osman, then of the Minnesota Historical Society, found a copy a few years ago, and donated it to the Historical Society archives. It is believed to be the only surviving copy of a poem printed by the members of Company G of the First Minnesota before they shipped out for the Army of the Potomac. But we don’t know who printed it, who the author was (apart from the nickname “Mac”; Company G contained soldiers named McKistry and McCulloch), or what tune (if any) was used.

Of the people mentioned in the song, “Gorman” is Willis A. Gorman, the original colonel of the First Minnesota, later promoted to brigadier; “Dike” is William H. Dike, the regiment’s first major, “McKune” is Lewis McKune, the first captain of Company G, killed af Bull Run, “Messick” is Nathan S. Messick, first lieutenant and later captain, killed at Gettysburg, and “Smith” is probably William E. Smith, briefly second lieutenant until he quit in July 1861.

Source: We’ve printed the original broadside. The tune is one of those myriad old tunes I have floating around in my head — probably Irish. It’s one of two tunes I thought of when I looked at the piece (the other being “The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee”). The chorus is to be sung to the same tune as the verse. Observe that it ends on a “hanging” note to bring you right into the next verse.

[The Jam on] Gerry’s Rocks [Laws C1]

This is one of the most popular logging songs of all time; over a hundred versions are known. It has been found in every part of the United States and Canada where loggers worked, and even three times in Scotland. Around the Midwest, at least six versions have been collected in Wisconsin, ten in Michigan, one in North Dakota, and Minnesota boasts two. Also, there are seven or more versions from Ontario, and one from Manitoba. The theme of a worker killed by a logjam is very common among lumbermen; there are many songs which commemorate a man killed in a similar way. This is probably the most popular, though, especially in the United States; in Canada, the true story of Peter Amberly is perhaps slightly better known.

“Gerry’s Rocks” (or Geary’s, Jerry’s, Garry’s Rock[s]) have never been located, though various locations have been suggested; about all we can say is that very many versions mention Saginaw, presumably the town in Michigan.

Source: Collected from Mr. A. C. Hannah of Bemidji, and printed in Rickaby, pp. 11-14. There is also a version in Dean. Note the tune in the Mixolydian mode — there are several common tunes for this piece; this one is excellent.

The Glendy Burk

Few states depended on the steamboat more than Minnesota. When Fort Snelling was founded, there was no way to reach it except by rowing. The first steamboat to reach the Fort was the Virginia of 1823. At last the Fort had contact with the rest of the United States — at least during the time when the water was high and the river unfrozen.

This song of a riverboat was written by Stephen C. Foster. The Glendy Burk was a real boat, working the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the 1850s; she hit a snag and sank near Cairo, Illinois on May 24, 1855. I have no idea why Foster wrote about this particular boat, but this is a good sample of the sort of “River Romanticism” which attracted people such as Mark Twain. This is surely among the best songs of this type, and has been found as far away as Australia — though, ironically, I know of no versions collected anywhere along the Mississippi itself.

While this particular Foster song has not been collected in Minnesota, his songs were certainly popular in the state; Dean knew four of them, and Bessie Stanchfield thought she had collected another, though the notes in her papers are not sufficient to prove that it was actually Foster’s song as opposed to another song with the same name.

Note the interesting fact that this song seems to refer to Dan Emmett’s song! [i.e. “Dance, Boatman, Dance.”]

Source: The words are taken from Foster’s 1860 sheet music in Saunders/Root, except that I have eliminated the dialect. The tune is as I learned it from (I think) Debby McClatchy; her melody is clearly derived from, but not quite identical to, Foster’s.

Hälsa Dem Därhemma (Greet the Folks at Home)

Although America was populated by immigrants, few left home entirely voluntarily. Most were forced away. Some pre- Revolutionary colonists were British prisoners transported across the sea. Some Germans and Irish fled persecution. But most fled poverty and hunger. Often a young man would come to America alone, hoping to earn enough money to bring the rest of his family — or even hoping against hope to earn enough to go back home. (An Irish song concludes, “If fortune it ever should favor me, and I should have money in store, I’ll go back and I’ll wed the sweet lassie I left on Paddy’s green shamrock shore.”) Sometimes he managed to find the money, sometimes he didn’t, but almost always he was very lonely when first he reached the United States. The Irish had countless songs on this theme. The Scandinavians had — Hälsa Dem Därhemma. So great is the beauty of this song that it has been translated into all the Scandinavian languages, and is said to be the most-requested song by Swedish audiences in America.

The notion of the singer wishing he were a bird is common in folk song: In Australia, they sing, “Oh had I the wings of a turtle dove, I’d soar on my pinions so high, Slap- bang to the arms of my Polly love….” In Ireland, it’s “I wish I had wings of a swallow, Fly out over the sea; Fly to the arms of my true love, And bring him home safely to me.” In the United States, we hear “I wish I were some little sparrow, And I had wings and I could fly, I would fly away to my false true lover.” In England, during the Napoleonic wars, they sang, “Had I the wings of an eagle, through the air I would fly, I would fly to the place where my true love doth lie.” But probably none of those songs was as popular as this.

The song is not traditional in origin. The words are listed as by Charles Bengtsson, with music by Elith Worsing. Indiana University has sheet music copyrighted 1922. There is no variation in the Swedish text. But it’s very popular.

Source: Learned mostly from Ross Sutter and John Berquist, though I’ve heard it elsewhere. The text was checked against Mike & Else’s Swedish Songbook (a pop Swedish songbook by Mike & Else Sevig), which was used as the basis for the hyphenation in the sheet music. The translation, as usual in these things, is not literally accurate; I have, to an extent, used imagery from English-language (especially Irish) songs about homesickness to replace the Scandinavian ones (including a line about the girl the singer left behind). There are plenty of literal translations around the Internet you can find if needed, and also some other singable translations.

The Harry Hayward Song

One of the few folk songs about an actual Minnesota event: Harry Hayward arranged for the killing of his fiancee Katherine “Kitty” Ging in 1894 to collect her life insurance. The actual murder was committed by a not-too-bright fellow named Clause A. Blixt, who left Ging’s body near Lake Calhoun. Hayward’s alibi was feeble, and he was convicted and executed in 1895. There is a fairly full account of the event in Walter B. Trenerry’s Murder in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press).

Source: Trenerry prints a three-verse version, without a tune. Olive Woolley Burt’s American Murder Ballads and Their Stories has a four-verse version, with a tune, but one of those verses is a partial duplicate. These appear to be the only two versions known (at least, Burt’s is the only one printed in any folk song catalog). I’ve combined these two versions to give a coherent text. The original tune was “The Fatal Wedding,” copyrighted in 1893 by Gussie L. Davis (with words by William Windom), which was very popular at the time of the murder; Burt’s tune is a slightly decayed variant of Davis’s original.

NOTE: since the Heritage Songbook was published, I have learned significantly more about the origin of the song; see its song page for details.

The House Carpenter [Child 243]

This song is #243 in Francis James Child’s monumental collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and it has a curious history. The earliest known copy is a broadside believed to come from the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), and it differs both in meter and in content from the American versions. Child called the song “James Harris (The Dæmon Lover)” because, in the early versions, it was a ghost, or even the Devil, who came back to lure the girl to her death. This plot element has been completely lost in the American versions, which are extremely widespread (I count at least 103 American texts in my personal library, and have citations of hundreds more) but almost all appear to go back to a single “House Carpenter” text.

Source: The song has been collected twice in Minnesota, once from Dean and once from James Merrick Drew of Saint Paul. The text here is Dean’s (he calls it “The Faithless Wife”), which is a pretty typical American product. Adding the tune was interesting; Bertrand Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads counts 147 melodies known from tradition, almost all of them American. Bronson’s notes indicate that he thinks all of them more or less related, though they include tunes in Ionian (major), Mixolydian, and Dorian modes. The tune I have chosen is in the Mixolydian mode, and the one I know best (I don’t know where I first learned it). I used it because, if it’s familiar to me, it’s perhaps the most familiar to users of this book, even though the handful of other Midwestern versions aren’t particularly close to this version.

In Good Old Colony Days

This is, I believe, the only English-language folksong known in Minnesota which describes the Colonial period. Like “The Pinery Boy” on page 55, it shows how much change a song can undergo. The piece is well-known in England, and probably was first sung there, with the three rogues servants of the King (possibly even King Arthur). After the Revolution, presumably, people didn’t want to talk as if the monarch of Britain were still king, so someone grafted on the prologue about “In good old colony times,” now found in almost all American versions. But the “three scamping rogues” or “three rogues of Lynn” (King’s Lynn in eastern England) are still the same, and they still steal food and cloth, and they still come to the same bad end.

Source: There are two Minnesota versions of this, both short. Belden, p. 269, prints two verses (roughly the last two) which were collected in 1915 from Mrs. W. J. Whipple. And John D. Healy Jr. of Saint Paul put together the version known in his family. I have conflated this from assorted versions to produce a coherent (if short) text which fits the tune I learned years ago, presumably from a recording in my parents’ library.

Jack Haggerty [Laws C25]

Although this song is well-attested in Minnesota (Rickaby has two versions from the state), I included it for other reasons. One is its excellent tune, the other, its peculiar story, which shows just how odd the history of a folk song can be. Geraldine Chickering discovered and published the story of how a gag became a very popular rejected-lover song.

Jack Haggerty and Anna Tucker, the characters in this song, were real. Anna, who presumably was born in the 1850s, was the belle of Greenville, Michigan, on the Flat River. She was engaged to one George Mercer. Mercer worked at a lumber camp along with Jack Haggerty and Dan McGinnis. McGinnis was jealous that Mercer had been promoted over his head — and, in one of the strangest attempts at revenge I’ve ever heard, wrote this song “as a means of hurting him.”

The curiosity is that Jack Haggerty, though he was real, had absolutely nothing to do with Anna Tucker. McGinnis threw in his name as a joke. Still, when Rickaby was collecting versions of this song in Michigan and Minnesota, he met many men who swore they had known Haggerty. Some of them may have. But they certainly didn’t learn the song from him.

Source: I learned the tune years ago from a couple of Wisconsin singers; I can’t tell you much about it, because I’ve misplaced the recording. The texts of this song have usually become somewhat damaged (e.g. a lot of traditional singers couldn’t make heads or tails out of mentions of Cupid, and tried to figure out some other reading). So this is a composite sort of text. I began with the version collected by Rickaby from W. H. Underwood of Bayport, Minnesota, but put in various corrections. These have been consistently marked in brackets.

Note: The way I sing this is in long eight-line verses. This is unusual. Most though not all versions use four-line verses. You can sing it that way by simply using the second half of the melody printed here.

James Bird [Laws A5]

Chances are, if you’ve heard anything about the War of 1812, you’ve heard of the Battle of Lake Erie, at which Oliver Hazard Perry declared, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This is a song about a sailor in the battle — one who fought bravely, but then deserted out of, it seems, boredom.

Source: Though it was composed as a poem, “James Bird” became a very popular song. Several tunes exist. This one, which is peculiar in its lack of modality, was sung by George M. Haskins of Gordon, Wisconsin; he told Rickaby that he learned it in Minnesota around 1874. The tune is as given by Rickaby, though I suspect that measures 7 and 8 should be combined into one. I have supplied chords, but I think this tune works best when sung a capella. Rickaby did not give Haskins’s full lyrics, so I have used a text furnished to me by Doris Chriswell of Palmyra, New York, who found a copy written by her great-grandfather John James Johnson in 1881. He reportedly was farming near the Ohio/Indiana border at the time, making it the oldest known traditional version from the midwest. The text is written rather poorly; I have corrected errors and supplied missing lines in brackets.

Jefferson and Liberty

These days, politicians have television ads and public debates. In the early days of the Republic, they had campaign songs; the candidates sat at home and wrote letters, while local people staged rallies on their behalf. John Adams had a song called “Adams and Liberty,” notable for being absolutely terrible and for using the tune of the drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven”; the “Adams and Liberty” version was the basis for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Versions of Jefferson’s song also had lousy lyrics, but it was easier to sing.

The “reign of terror” reference is almost certainly to the Sedition Act of 1798, probably the strongest attack on the rights of American citizens in history — it was an overt attempt to suppress freedom of speech and the press. Jefferson was firmly against it, and it was not renewed.

Source: Known from broadsides (single-sheet printings of the words). I’ve selected a subset from the text on page 165 of Vera Brodsky Lawrence’s Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. The tune is said to be the Irish melody “The Gobby-O.” I learned the song in my youth, from a forgotten recording. Appropriately, the form is a Virginia Reel.

Jesse James [Laws E1]

Outlaws are usually cruel and violent men. Billy the Kid boasted of killing 21 men “not counting Mexicans,” though most of these murders are unverified. Dick Turpin robbed his victims at the point of a gun. And Jesse James had violent rages that make it seem likely he had post-traumatic stress problems from his experiences as a guerrilla (read: terrorist) in the Civil War.

But in a society in which the rich keep getting richer and the peasants keep getting trodden on, anyone who resists the authorities can become a hero. So the British invented Robin Hood, and then turned Dick Turpin into a trickster who could boast, “No poor man did I plunder, forever yet oppressed — no widow, no orphan.”

In America, the folk made Jesse Woodson James (1847- 1882) a “friend to the poor.” This allegedly noble man (who admittedly had had a tough childhood — his father left home when he was still very young, and Union troops had half- hung his stepfather during the Civil War) joined Quantrill’s Raiders — a guerrilla band. He ended up with a bullet hole in his chest, but he survived — and, after the war, turned robber.

Jesse and his older brother Frank James, and their confederates the Younger Brothers, spent most of their careers working in Missouri (so much for being a friend to the poor and their neighbors — it was their neighbors’ bank deposits they were stealing!). For ten years they managed to avoid capture. In 1869 they robbed the Gallatin Bank (mentioned in some versions of this song); it was not until much later, in 1879, that Jesse would knock over the Glendale Train (by then the Younger Brothers were in prison and Frank James was turning away from robbery).

But the single most notorious act of Jesse James and Company took them far from Missouri; in 1876, they headed for Minnesota, where they attempted to rob the Northfield Bank. “Attempted” is the correct word; although they had been repeatedly successful in Missouri, they were foiled in Northfield; two of the robbers died there, and another was killed by the posse that chased them; the Youngers were captured and imprisoned; only Frank and Jesse James escaped. (For more details, see “Cole Younger” [elsewhere in this collection].)

Frank would try to settle down (he would eventually be tried for his crimes, but was acquitted on all counts!). Jesse never did. He was a bandit until the day he died, though he did assume the name “Howard” and settle into the home where he was murdered in 1882 — by two members of his gang, Charlie and Bob Ford (though somehow only Bob Ford gets mentioned much).

At least five folk songs about Jesse James are known; this is the most common, though there is hardly a word of truth in it (and none of the known versions mention Northfield). Even the number of Jesse’s children is wrong, and the alleged author, Billy Gashade, has never been identified.

Source: I don’t know how many versions of this I’ve heard — it’s a lot. The song, ironically, has never been found in Minnesota (though it is likely to have been sung here, since it has been repeatedly collected in Iowa and Michigan). But because Jesse James is so well remembered, and the song is so well-known, I decided I had to include a version. This is the composite that I remembered from all those recordings I’ve heard over the years.

Last Winter Was a Hard One

Words by Jim O’Neil, music by Jack Conroy, and published in 1880 under the title “When McGuinness Gets a Job” — though the situation [described in the song] sounds rather more like the Panic of 1857. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos 1857-1859, p. 194, tells of how economic activity halted — and how New York mayor Fernando Wood proposed action: “Pointing out that two hundred thousand New Yorkers depended directly or indirectly on manual labor, and that mid-winter would find fifty thousand men out of work, he suggested a resort to public works projects. Central Park needed improvement [it had not been created yet; Wood helped create it]; a new reservoir had to be built; enginehouses were needed; and streets required paving.” Little came of his proposal. But financial panics were common in the nineteenth century, so this could have resulted from some other financial problem. That the song was written in the 1880s is nearly certain, since the sheet music carries a dedication “to comptroller John Kelly” — the man in charge of municipal employment for Tammany Hall’s regime in the 1870s.

Although the song was popular enough to inspire the publication of Johnny Roach’s When McGuinness Gets a Job Songster, the piece is rare in tradition — only four collections. Dean’s version is the earliest. The “old three-cornered box” of the last verse is the construction worker’s hod for carrying bricks and mortar; Cazden, Haufrecht, and Studer’s Folk Songs of the Catskills, p. 364, notes that this means McGuinness is a semi-skilled construction worker who is so desperate that he is willing to do unskilled road work.

Source: I learned this long ago from John Berquist and from a long-defunct Twin Cities group called Walking on Air, then found it in Dean. I use the Walking on Air tune, with Dean’s words (slightly modified in a few places where I couldn’t figure out how to make them fit the tune). Dean calls it by the original title “When McGuinness Gets a Job.” I have changed some spellings to make the pronunciation clearer.

Den Lille Ole

Danish lullaby, with original words by Peter Lemche and music by Ole Jacobsen, written in 1873. Ole Lukøie was a character in a Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name; the story tells how Ole and his umbrellas spend a week bringing good dreams to a boy Hjalmar. The English translation is based on one by S. D. Rodholm; I’ve made it a little less absurdly saccharine.

Source: This song is a favorite among Danish emigrant groups, though I have no record of a field collection of this song — in fact, I doubt it is a folk song in the sense that it was ever handed down from person to person. This is based on the melody. It has a very wide range, making it difficult to sing. (If you want a more singable Danish song, we will include a cumulative song, “Langt Udi Skoven,” on the web site.) Second, the tunes I have seen are identical. There is no sign of the modifying effects of oral tradition. It’s interesting to note that the tune bears a resemblance to Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” but with the intervals lengthened.

If the music of the versions are invariant, the words vary. I have seen a five-verse Internet version which agrees with the text given here only in the first verse. The tune is also from the Net, with English translation from A World of Song, with help from Signe Betsinger and Rita Juhl, who tell us that this is the most popular song with their Danish singing group.

Lincoln and Liberty

There were several Republican campaign songs from the Election of 1860 — they published a whole songster of them (a songster being a book of words for people who didn’t read music) — but this is the only one most people remember. I’d guess it’s because of the tune, usually known as “Rosin the Beau” (or “Rosin the Bow”). This has been used for many different songs; Pacific Coast settlers sang of “Acres of Clams,” and it was used in any number of political songs — the other party sang “Straight-Out Democrat,” and Henry Clay had at least three campaign songs to this tune, and William Henry Harrison had another; during the Civil War, it would be used for a song called “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” Plus fiddle players played it as an instrumental.

The text is sometimes said to by Jesse Hutchinson, but I can’t find any evidence for this prior to Silber. At least one source lists F. A. Simkins.

Source: The tune is “Rosin the Beau” as I know it. The words come from Irwin Silber’s Soldier Songs and Home-Front Ballads of the Civil War, but (since the song came from a printed source) most of the printed copies are very similar.

Lost on the Lady Elgin

The Lady Elgin was a Great Lakes “showboat,” with a long career before her end. In 1860, captained by Jack Wilson (who had earlier been one of the first captains through the Soo canal), she was carrying a touring load of passengers, mostly Irish militiamen on a holiday after a quarrel with Wisconsin authorities. On the night of September 8, a storm struck. In the course of the storm, the Augusta, which was illegally running without lights, rammed the Lady Elgin. With her paddlewheels ruined and her hull breached, the Lady Elgin was doomed. She sank within twenty minutes, taking most of her passengers (including Wilson). The number of casualties is uncertain, but at least 250 died and no more than 150 were saved. The Lady Elgin became a legend of the lakes, mentioned in almost all the histories.

Peculiarly, there is dispute over who wrote the song. The name most often mentioned is Henry Clay Work (author, in this collection, of “Marching Through Georgia”), but this was before his commercial songwriting career. It does sound like Work’s style.

Source: The song has been found twice in Minnesota: Dean sang it, and Bessie Stanchfield collected a version from her star informant, Elma Snyder McDowell. The McDowell version is not to be found in the Stanchfield papers, so this version is from Dean. The tune is from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folksongs, collected from Katherine Ollinger of Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1941; slightly regularized. Ollinger’s version is almost identical in text to Dean’s. Sadly, the tune is not the best; I will admit to singing this song to the tune of “After the Ball.” It is easy to learn, though.

The Maid of Prairie du Chien

This is a unique song, about which nothing is known with certainty. But the only known informant, who was an old man in 1903 when the song was collected, said it was popular when he was young — i.e. in 1850 or earlier. The best guess of the collectors is that it arose out of the fur trade — meaning that, very likely, the singer left Prairie du Chien to head into Minnesota. In any case, the song is probably early; Prairie du Chien had a population of about 370 in 1805 when Zebulon Pike came there, but in the two decades following, the population fell by about half (Folwell I, p. 92).

Source: The words were submitted in 1903 by Maude Williams from the singing of “an old man in Clinton County” and printed on page 201 of H. M. Belden, Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society. There was no tune. But several of the lyrics are reminiscent of “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which was so popular in the early nineteenth century that the legend arose that Mexicans called Americans “Gringos” because they were always singing “Green grow….” Since the tune also fits the lyrics, I think it not too unlikely that this was the original tune.

Marching Through Georgia

In late 1864, the army of William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta from the Confederates. Had he not done so, it’s just possible that Abraham Lincoln would not have been re-elected President, and history would have been very different. But having taken Atlanta, Sherman had to decide what to do next. He decided to “March to the Sea.” He sent half his army back to Nashville under George H. Thomas, there to defend against whatever the Confederates in the region might try, and took the other half on a romp through Georgia — he “made Georgia howl,” causing a lot of damage and making the people hate him. But his march, and Thomas’s victory at Nashville, spelled the end of the Confederacy. And Minnesota troops were in both armies.

Henry Clay Work wrote this song afterward, and it became famous — loved in the North and hated in the South, where the people felt the sting of Sherman’s wrath. Contrary to the song, there were no Union men left in Georgia after Sherman destroyed their property!

Source: Found in Dean, but his version differs from the original in only two places that I noticed, both minor, so I’m using the original (with the music moved to a more comfortable key). Laura Ingalls Wilder also quotes the song, with a change in the words, in chapter 8 of Little Town on the Prairie, showing how well-known it was in the Midwest.

Old Granny Wales

This is one of the curiosities of Minnesota folk song: It’s a song of Irish origin about the American Revolutionary War which somehow made its way to Minnesota.

Granny Wales, or Granny O’Whale, is a distortion of the Irish name “Granuaile.” Granuaile was a real person, Grace O’Malley, who lived in the time of Elizabeth I, but her Irish name came to be used as a symbol for Ireland. Around her grew up a whole genre of poetry called the “aisling”; they are poems about visions — usually a vision in which Granuaile meets the poet by the river and talks about Ireland’s wrongs.

Obviously this version has undergone a lot of changes; it refers to American grievances against Britain in the 1770s. The song mentions several high officials of the period. Lord North was Prime Minister under George III from 1770- 1782, and passed the Tea Act which resulted in the Boston Tea Party (though, contrary to what most Americans think, the Tea Act in fact reduced most taxes on the Americans!). Granville is clearly George Grenville, the Prime Minister 1763-1765. It was he who imposed the much-hated Stamp Act. “Infamous Bute” was the Third Earl of Bute, a former tutor of George III, who was Prime Minister 1762-1763 and continued to have power behind the scenes after that. Collectively, the three of them were largely responsible for implementing the policies of George III which caused so much trouble with the colonies.

Source: This is a rare song, although a few printed copies are known. It appears that only one tune was ever found. Bessie Mae Stanchfield collected the song from Elma Snyder McDowell of Saint Cloud, who learned it from her father in the nineteenth century. Stanchfield published the text in the October 1945 edition of California Folklore Quarterly, along with some rather misleading annotations (none of the people she asked about the song had ever heard of Granuaile, so she conjectured that the song was about Benjamin Franklin!). The text is as she published it, except as noted. But she did not print the tune with the text. As best I can tell, it has never been published; Stanchfield left several manuscript copies of it in her papers in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.

Unfortunately, it seems very likely that the transcription is wrong. Oh, it’s probably what McDowell sang, literally transcribed. But I’m sure it’s not what she learned. It’s two measures too long for the text! I’m guessing that Stanchfield was fooled by the tendency of some folksingers to play fast and loose with the timing — especially since Stanchfield didn’t realize the Irish roots of the song. Once it is regularized, the Irishness is especially clear. I have cut two verses from the (very long) text, and used the melody I think McDowell meant; if you want to see the original tune and the full McDowell text, it is in the online appendix.

(For more about this song, see its song page.)


Ole Bull (1810-1880) was an expert violinist, as well as a folk performer on the hardanger fiddle, who wanted Norway to be independent of the other Scandinavian countries. He had a funny way of showing it: He encouraged Norwegians to leave home and settle in America.

Bull was in great demand as a performer, and travelled the world giving shows. He used the money he earned to buy a large plot of land in Pennsylvania, and in 1852 he started recruiting people to live in his new colony.

It didn’t work very well. The land Bull had bought wasn’t very good, and his claims to it were weakened by some dirty deals by the sellers. The settlers themselves were not really equipped to build a settlement from scratch. Several hundred Norwegians eventually came to Oleana (or Oleanna), as the town was called — but by 1853, the whole thing was falling apart. In that year, Ditmar Meidell published “Oleana” in his journal Krydseren, lampooning the wild claims made for the colony. Soon after, the whole thing was abandoned, and the Oleana settlers started looking for new homes. A very large portion of them settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin; they were among Minnesota’s first Norwegian settlers.

Although the song is satiric, its excellent tune and clever lyrics have kept it alive to this day; very many people will have heard the translation made by Pete Seeger [and which is the version recorded by Ross Sutter]. Many of them don’t even realize it’s about an actual event.

This song also seems to have gone into Danish tradition; Rochelle Wright and Robert L. Wright, Danish Emigrant Ballads and Songs, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, pp. 222-223, prints a text very close in meaning to the Norwegian but with a somewhat different tune; it begins

I Oleana der er det godt at være!
I Norge vil jeg inte Slavelænken bære!
(Note the very close similarity between Norwegian and Danish words!)

Source: The tune and a few scraps of the words are from Odell Bjerkness, whose father came from Norway in 1905 and whose mother arrived in 1912; they were married in Granite Falls in 1915, and the song became part of their family tradition. To produce a full text, I have taken a subset of the 22 verses in Theodore C. Blegen and Martin C. Ruud’s Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, pp. 192-198. Blegen and Ruud’s tune is not quite the same as Bjerkness’s (which is also the one I have usually heard), so be careful about which syllables go with which notes.

In singing this, remember that “Ole” has two syllables, O-lee.

On the Banks of the Wabash

You don’t often see a tearjerker become a state song. This is an exception. “On the Banks of the Wabash” is now the state song of Indiana. But it was originally a nationally-loved Tin Pan Alley song. The author was Paul Dresser, the older brother of the author Theodore Dreiser, who according to Douglas Gilbert, Lost Chords, p. 311, was “a decent man who dripped his weight — 300 pounds — in sentimentality.” Following a suggestion by his brother that he write a song about his native state’s rivers, Dresser produced this piece in 1899. It went on to immortality.

Dresser’s own story (like that of many great songwriters) is at least as sad as this song. Born in 1857, he ran away from home as a schoolboy. Sigmund Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America, p. 276, writes that “Whatever he had he shared with others, and most of his debtors never paid him back.” He died poor in 1906, all his royalties squandered.

Source: Dean sang two Dresser songs, this one and “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me”; Dresser’s “The Letter That Never Came” and “The Pardon Came Too Late” also seem to have some part in tradition, though perhaps not in Minnesota. Dean’s version is close enough to the sheet music that I have just followed the original Dresser version as found in the Library of Congress’s American Memory sheet music collection.


Yes, that’s “O’Shaughanesey.” At least, that’s how Dean spells it. If you like, you can call the song “Brakeman on the Train.” That’s the usual title.

The fact that this song talks about brakemen implies that it is fairly old, before the invention of airbrakes, when brakemen had to run between cars on a train screwing down the brakes. It was a dangerous and uncomfortable job — often filled by Irishmen, who ended up with a lot of the dangerous and uncomfortable jobs in nineteenth century America. But they let the nation grow — and helped a lot of immigrants reach Minnesota.

Source: Text is from Dean. I have omitted two indelicate verses: the fifth (Dean censored it, but you knew what word he meant) and the seventh [you can see the full text on its song page]. The tune is from MacEdward Leach’s Folk Ballads & Songs of The Lower Labrador Coast, #99 — one of only two tunes apparently known in tradition, and the only one printed. It can be a little hard to make the words fit sometimes; you may want to fiddle around a little.

The Pinery Boy [Laws K12]

This ballad is an amazing demonstration of the power of the people to make a particular folk song their own. It originated in Great Britain under the title “The Sailor Boy” (or something like that). The plot was the same: The girl’s lover is gone, and she goes out to seek him. She learns that he has been drowned, and she herself dies of despair. Often those British versions use the very same words we find in this version: “Father, O father, build me a boat” — but the girl takes the boat to sea to search for her young man.

The ballad is very popular; there are probably close to two hundred versions known. In most, the missing young man is a soldier or a sailor, but sometimes the song will be adapted for some other occupation. That’s what happened here; the sailor became a lumberman, and the ocean became the Wisconsin River, just across the border from Minnesota!

Source: I learned this from the singing of Art Thieme of Illinois, though my version has probably wandered over the years. I don’t know where he learned it. As far as I know, there are no Minnesota versions, but it seems nearly certain that it was sung here; Rickaby had a version from Mrs. M. A. Olin of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is quite similar to this one, and there is another logging version from Pennsylvania; in addition, there are “Sailor Boy” versions from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska, and almost every other state which has been extensively collected.

Pium Paum (Kehto Laulu)

A Finnish lullaby; the first verse and the melody are traditional, though the poet Kustaa Killinen (1849-1922) added the remaining verses to suggest the “circle of life.” “Pium paum” is a phrase, like “bye bye” or “night-night,” used to rock a child, having no particular meaning.

Source: As “Pium paum,” this is #13 in the Edgar collection of Finnish songs found in the Midwest. She collected it in Ely in 1928 from Laina Haavisto, and later in Cloquet from Olga and Sue Simi. I learned it primarily from the singing of John Berquist (who calls it “Kehto Laulu”). The tune here is Berquist’s; the text is a conflation. The translation is not very exact; my goal was to retain the rhyme scheme in which every line of every verse uses the same last syllable.

The Presidents in Rhyme

A typical “teaching rhyme” — that is, a song some teacher made up to help someone remember something. You almost certainly know at least one of these: The Alphabet Song (“A-B-C-D E-F-G, H-I J-K L-M-N-O-P”). There are other alphabet songs (“A is for Apple Pie,” for instance), and multiplication songs, but the best are the history songs. This one has been popular, though this seems to be almost the only version that has been formally “collected.” Sundry versions have been documented, and I know people who have updated it as far as George H. W. Bush. Children can easily make up their own verses, though it’s probably a good idea not to say too much about the presidents of the last few decades. (As a friend told me around the time Monica Lewinsky became a household name, the verse about Bill Clinton would certainly be “interesting.”)

Source: Vance Randolph, Ozark Folksongs, volume IV, p. 407. Supplied by Pearl Craig, Hartville, Missouri, 1939. The tune is listed as “Yankee Doodle.” This version, obviously, stops with Grover Cleveland, so you can add verses for McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, and so on. I have made one emendation to Randolph’s text: “Arthur” was “Another” in Randolph’s text.

Red Iron Ore [Laws D9]

This is one of the most famous songs of the Great Lakes, and almost certainly the most famous song of the Great Lakes ore trade. Whether this is about an actual voyage is not certain; earlier folk song scholars never managed to locate a voyage with this exact itinerary, and the author is forgotten. There were several ships named Roberts on the Great Lakes, but (as best I can tell) only one E. C. Roberts; Julius F. Wolff Jr.’s Lake Superior Shipwrecks says that she was trapped in port in Marquette in 1872 during a storm and had to be scuttled to prevent her from blocking the harbor. She was carrying coal rather than iron ore. There was definitely a tug Escanaba operating around Mackinac at this time. There is little more that we can say after this much time.

Although we rarely think of any sort of mining in Minnesota other than iron mining, mining activity in fact long predates the European exploration of the Iron Range. In 1700, Pierre Le Sueur led a small expedition up the Minnesota River accompanied by carpenter André Penicaut and others. Penicaut tells of how they stopped at the mouth of what would later be called the Blue Earth river to “mine” the brightly-colored soil, which they thought was a copper ore. They shipped a great deal home, but it turned out to be just blue clay (Jones, pp. 20-25; Blegen, pp. 52-53).

Source: The song has been collected in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, but the oldest version is Dean’s. The Morris collection at the Minneapolis Public Library also includes at least a partial text. We are fortunate to have Dean’s melody as well as his text; Rickaby collected it from Dean (and this version was reprinted at least three and perhaps four times by other scholars). So I have used the Dean/Rickaby version (even though this tune is not quite the way I learned it), transposed to a more comfortable key and written in 3/4 rather than 6/8 time. The tune is ancient, and known simply as “The Derry Down Tune.” Dean’s original version is twelve verses long, so I’ve shortened it a little.


Immigrants to the United States left their homelands for many different reasons. Some were fleeing political repression; this was true of some of the Germans and many of the people from southeastern Europe. Others were younger sons, with no land to inherit. Others fled poverty and hunger. Some were squeezed off their land by the great lords who wanted the property for their own use.

The Irish suffered all of these. Ireland in the 1840s was the most overpopulated country in all of Europe — possibly in all the world. And English laws, written to keep Catholics out of power, saw to it that the farmland was all in very small holdings — too small to be “improved” to make farming more efficient. The only way the families could survive was by growing potatoes, because the potato allowed a lot of food to be grown in a small area.

Then, in 1846, came the first of three years of potato blight. The crops were ruined. Those days are still remembered as “The Great Hunger,” and they are famous in song. Of more than eight million people in Ireland, between one and two million starved, and many more emigrated; the population of Ireland fell by roughly a quarter from 1840 to 1850. To this day, social scientists use these events as an example of how mismanagement can ruin an economy — and ecologists use the blight as a warning on the dangers of overpopulation and over-reliance on one crop, the sources of what are called Malthusian catastrophe.

Not that the landlords cared that their renters were starving. Ironically, the British by 1846 were finally starting to liberalize the laws, making it harder for landlords to evict the smallholders. But even under the new laws, if the tenants could not pay their rents — which, with no food, few of them could do — they lost their lands. And Ireland had few industries for them to work in. It was emigrate or starve.

Ireland had long resisted English rule; there were revolts every few years. The greatest had been in 1798, and it was long remembered in song (so long, in fact, that Dean thought this song was about 1798 rather than 1848). In 1848 came the “Young Ireland” revolt. It was a farce. There was only one actual fight, the “Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch,” which resulted in only two deaths (and they may not have been rebels!). Still, the British transported several of the leaders to Australia. The singer of this song might have been transported also, but he managed to flee to America instead, sharing a grudge which lasted for many years in the Irish community (and is still not entirely gone today, as The Troubles have kept bitterness alive in Ulster).

Skibbereen is on the south coast of Ireland, in County Cork (a county which lost 26% of its population in the 1840s). Curiously, it is not particularly close to Ballingary, site of the Cabbage Patch battle. But maybe that’s why the singer was not captured.

Source: The text is Dean’s, with a few corrections noted at the foot of the page. The tune presented a particular problem. I know of three types of tunes for this song. One is Irish, and interesting, but the range is so large that few Americans will be comfortable singing it. Another is known from Australia, and appears to be a version of the Irish tune, worn down enough to be singable — but the result is monotonous, almost a chant rather than a melody. The third tune type is in triple time, and doesn’t fit Dean’s text. As a compromise, I have used something resembling the Australian tune, with some features of the Irish tune to make it more interesting to sing.

Sparkling and Bright

It may come as a bit of a shock to realize that one of the very first English-language songs attested in Minnesota is a drinking song. Though we should remember that drinking songs have a long history in English and other languages — indeed, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung to the tune of a drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” This particular song is reliably reported to have been sung in Minnesota by future governor Henry Sibley in the 1850s. There can be no doubt that other English-language songs were sung here before that, but not by such distinguished people.

Source: The original version of “Sparkling and Bright” is by Charles Fenno Hoffman, a popular poet of the nineteenth century though now almost forgotten (this and “The Maid of Monterey” are probably his best-remembered pieces). We don’t know, but odds are that Sibley and friends sang the original lyrics:

Sparkling and bright in liquid light
Does the wine our goblets gleam in,
With hue as red as rosy bed
Which a bee would choose to dream in.
Then fill tonight with hearts as light,
To loves as gay and fleeting
As bubbles that swim on the beaker’s brim,
And break on the lips while meeting.

That version is perhaps not the best to be sung in schools. This seemingly-anonymous rewrite, found for us by Stephen Osman of the Minnesota Historical Society, probably comes out of one of the temperance movements of the nineteenth century, and is entirely suitable for younger singers.

The Swede from North Dakota

Source: I don’t know where I learned this, it probably was not from a “folk” source. Glenn Ohrlin, though, did learn it from his father. The original author is unknown. I’ve tried to put together a version that approximates what I learned, using Ohrlin (pp. 20-21) as a crib. The tune, “Reuben and Rachel” (“Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking What a fine world this would be If the men were all transported Far beyond the northern sea”) is very well-known; it was written by William Gooch and published in 1871, with words by Harry Birch. It has been used in a number of parodies, mostly rather silly, such as “The Winnipeg Whore” and “Caviar Comes from the Virgin Sturgeon.” The text of this song goes back to at least the 1920s; Milburn published it in the Hobo’s Handbook in 1930. A very similar song, “Ole from Norway,” is found in Rickaby and said to have originated around 1895.

Uncle John is Sick Abed

The singing game is an ancient tradition, usually played by children; in some areas, they were the main means by which young people courted. In others, they were the only form of music, since musical instruments were banned.

This seems to be the only English singing game attested in Minnesota (and that attestation is weak), but we know that Scandinavian immigrants sang them. The Edgar collection of Finnish songs features “Rosvo, Rosvo” (“Robber, Robber”):

Rosvo, rosvo, olit sa
Kun varastit mun kultani
Rosvo, rosvo, olit sa
Kun varastit mun kultani
Luulen saavani,
Luulen saavani
Luulen saavani
Toisen paremman
Robber, robber, over there
You stole my girl away from here
Robber, robber, over there
You stole my girl away from here
I think I shall
I think I shall
I think I shall
Go and find a prettier girl.

Source: Laura Ingalls Wilder quotes about a verse and a half of this in On the Banks of Plum Creek (chapter 21); this seems to be the only Minnesota collection. However, it’s hard to trust her version. For starters, it is in the chapter “Nellie Oleson,” and Nellie Oleson is in fact a composite of several of Laura’s schoolmates. Plus Laura printed cleaned-up versions of many of the less delicate songs she knew. Since this may have been a kissing game, I suspect she modified the song. Given the fact that her version appears incomplete anyway, I have therefore used the words from Leah Jackson Wolford, The Play-Party in Indiana, Indiana Historical Commission, 1916, p. 97. The tune is given as “Yankee Doodle.”

Uncle Sam’s Farm

The Hutchinson Family came from New Hampshire; one of their most famous songs was “The Old Granite State.” They were an unusual family, abolitionists (in 1844, Jesse Hutchinson wrote “Get off the Track,” which began “Ho, the car Emancipation Rides majestic through the nation”), prohibitionists (another song [now available here] was “King alcohol is very sly, A liar from the first…”), and firm believers in universal equality (the town of Hutchinson in 1855 agreed to give women the vote; Jordan, p. 108); one verse of “The Old Granite State” runs, “Liberty is our motto, And will sing as freemen ought to, Till it rings o’er glen and grotto, From the old Granite State. ‘Men should love each other, Nor let hatred smother, Every man’s a brother, And our country is the world!’” There were also a lot of them: sixteen brothers and sisters — so many that they were called “The Tribe of Jesse” after father Jesse Hutchinson Sr. (Spaeth/History, p. 95).

In 1855, the Family came to Minnesota and performed in Saint Paul (Jordan, p. 107). They then selected the site of the current town of Hutchinson. It was not to be their last stopping place (the last of the Hutchinson Family Singers, John, died in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1908 at the age of 87; Spaeth, p. 97), but the settlement is associated with them.

This song was written by Jesse Hutchinson Jr. and published in 1850, and it proved prophetic. At that time, the American government was not giving away land. The proposal had been made to offer the territory of the west to settlers at minimal cost, but the South was absolutely opposed — the territory opened up in this way would surely have been “Free Soil,” as the song says, and eventually would have formed states which would have voted down slavery (Randall/ Donald, p. 81). It was only after the South seceded that the first Homestead Act was passed, in 1862, but once it was passed, it proved an astonishing success. You may have read about the frenzied competition for land claims in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake; Laura in fact quoted this song, with some alterations, in chapter seven.

The other historical primary reference, to Europe’s monarchs being “in a fret,” is probably to 1848, the “Year of Revolutions,” in which almost every European country saw some sort of democratic agitation — though most of the protests failed.

Source: The use of the song by Laura Ingalls Wilder, plus the fact that this song was sung by the Hutchinsons, is our justification for including this piece; it has not been collected in tradition in Minnesota. Indeed, it barely qualifies as a folk song; the only version with guaranteed roots in tradition is from the Brown collection of North Carolina songs. I have used the version from Silber/Robinson, p. 215, which is based on the original publications. The original had eight verses; I’ve used the five that seem to me to best express the feeling of the time.

Vem Kan Segla Förutan Vind? (Who Can Sail without a Wind?)

A curiosity about this song is that every version anyone can find has the same two Swedish verses, which on their face seem to be about leaving a friend.

I’m not sure I believe this. I can’t prove it — not on the basis of the surviving evidence — but this sounds very much like what ballad scholars call a “revenant ballad.” A revenant is the spirit of someone who has died without fulfilling a promise (typically to marry). The revenant walks on earth, rather than resting in the grave, seeking someone to release him from his promise.

The typical plot of a revenant ballad has a girl weeping. A shadowy shape comes to her. She asks who it is. He tells her he is her dead lover, unable to sleep because he has promised to marry her. She begs to join him; he says that his body is decaying, or his touch would be fatal, or gives some other reason they cannot reunite. She releases him from his promise. She may then find his grave and die by it. I’ve included a broadside print of one of the best-known revenant ballads, “The Unquiet Grave” [Child #78]. There is a high likelihood (though not absolute proof ) that at least one other revenant ballad, “Lost Jimmie Whalen” [Laws C8] was sung in Minnesota lumber camps. [Note: “Lost Jimmie Whalen” is not the same as “James Whalen.” They involve the same dead man, but are different songs.]

Note how much this song resembles the middle of a revenant ballad: Someone shows up, claiming to be able to do things only a ghost can do. And he must leave behind the one who listens. If it is not a revenant ballad — some think it’s about emigration — it could easily be made into one.

Source: Learned primarily from Ross Sutter, a Twin Cities folksinger. He says that this is one of the two most popular songs among Swedes in America. Texts and translations of the song are common on the Internet. Although it is sung in Swedish, it is said to be from the island of Åland, now part of Finland. Jerome Epstein tells me that there is also a Norwegian translation.

The melody may not be — in fact, probably is not — Swedish in origin. It is nearly identical to the melody of “Im Eshkachek,” or, “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem,” a song of the Jews of Eastern Europe (one of several musical settings of a very sad Psalm text). Probably a Swede somewhere heard the tune, presumably from Jewish travelers, and created a set of words in his native language.

Note to guitarists: I’ve shown this in B minor. This is because it lays out very nicely in A minor, but that’s too low for most singers. You will probably want to play it in A minor and capo up, unless your voice is high enough to play it in Em (which also works well on the guitar).

When This Cruel War Is Over

Determining how popular a song was in the nineteenth century is almost impossible. Sales reports, if kept at all, have often been lost, and often a song would be republished covertly (the author has a songster from 1865/1866 which contains a copy of this very song, with the authors not listed because the song belonged to a competitor; clearly no royalties were paid). The famous Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote on page 171 of Mr. Lincoln’s Army, “[The soldier’s] favorite was a song called ‘When This Cruel War Is Over,” by Charles Carroll Sawyer: a song which might well have been, momentarily, the most popular song ever written in America. It sold more than a million copies during the war, which would be equivalent to a sale of seven or eight million today.” The words, as Catton said, were by Charles Carroll Sawyer, and the original music by Henry Tucker.

After the Civil War, there was a tendency to ignore the more maudlin songs, and this one in particular seems to have been almost forgotten; there are only a few traditional collections. But so many people mention it in journals that we know that it was widely sung.

Source: I learned this long ago from a recording by a group that called themselves (if I remember correctly) the Union Confederacy. They sang only two verses (omitting notably the last verse, which is rather more “jingoistic” than the rest of the song). They also had the tune “wrong”; what they sang was not the melody Henry Tucker wrote in 1862. I have no idea where they found this tune, or whether it’s traditional; I don’t know what became of the record, but I seem to recall that it had no source notes. But it’s a great melody; I’ve transcribed their tune and chorus as I remember it (it may have wandered a little over the years), and used the Sawyer words as I learned them (from page 63 of that 1860s songster). I’ve also included the Tucker melody, with a piano arrangement because it’s much more a “piano” than a “guitar” song.

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