James Whalen

Laws C7


Come all ye jolly raftsmen, I pray you lend an ear,
[It’s] of a mournful accident I soon will let you hear,
Concerning of a noble youth, Jim Whalen he was called,
Was drowned off Pete McLaren’s raft below the upper fall.

[Well], the rapids they were raging, the waters were so high.
Says the foreman unto Whalen, “This jam we’ll have to try.
You’re young, you’re brave and active when danger’s lurking near,
[And] you’re just the man to help me now these waters to get clear.”

Young Whalen he made answer unto his comrades bold,
Saying, “Come on boys, though it’s dangerous, we’ll do as we are told.
We’ll obey our orders [manfully], as young men they should do…”
But [as] he spoke, the jam it broke, and Whalen he went through.

[There were] three of them were in danger, but two of them were saved,
But noble-hearted Whalen met with a watery grave.
No mortal man live in such a raging watery main,
And though he struggled hard for life, his struggles were in vain.

The foaming [billows] roared and tossed the logs from shore to shore.
Now here, now there his body [goes] tumbling o’er and o’er.
One awful cry for mercy — “Oh, God, look down on me!”
And his soul was freed from earthly cares, gone to eternity.

[So] come all ye jolly raftsmen, think on poor Jimmy’s fate,
Be careful and take warning before it is too late,
For death is lurking near you, ever eager to destroy.
The pride of a fond father’s heart, likewise a mother’s joy.

(Click here for a PDF version of the music) * (Click here to hear the song performed by Brian Miller)

O'Connor's chute of Chats Falls, Ottawa River,...

O’Connor’s chute of Chats Falls, Ottawa River, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s really unfortunate that someone didn’t make a recording of A. C. Hannah of Bemidji around 1920 (or perhaps earlier, since by then he was about 58 years old). He knew such great tunes! He provided Rickaby with the brilliant version of “The Jam on Gerry’s Rocks” in the Heritage Songbook, and he also sang this song. The general plot is very much like “Gerry’s Rocks,” but this is based on an actual historical incident. Rickaby had a letter from Christopher Forbes of Perth, Ontario, describing the Phalen brothers, James and Thomas. The name was pronounced “Whalen.”

Phalen supposedly died at King’s Chute on the Mississippi — not our Mississippi, but the Ontario river of that name, which flows into the Ottawa River. The accident took place somewhere near Palmerston township, where the river is particularly rough. The date was some time in the 1870s (Forbes seemed to think the date was 1878, but Edith Fowke later checked with Phalen’s grand-niece; she thought Phalen died in 1876).

Pete McLaren went on to become a Canadian senator, dying in 1919.

A. C. Hannah was born in that part of Ontario in 1861/2, and still lived in the area at the time Phalen died. It is quite possible that he learned the song from the author, or from someone close to him.

Few folk songs have sequels, but this one may have. There is another song, “The Lost Jimmie Whalen,” in which a girl laments for her raftsman lost on the river (one version even mentions the Mississippi). His ghost comes to talk to her, but they cannot be reunited; she is living, and he is dead and cannot stay:

“One fond embrace, love, and then I must leave you,
One loving farewell, and then we must part.”
Cold were the arms that encircled about her
And cold was the form that she pressed to her heart.

In many versions, she drowns herself so that she may join him.

Ottawa River and raft

Ottawa River and raft (Photo credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library)

The form of “Lost Jimmie Whalen” is older than James Whalen himself; Fowke thinks it is an adaption of a (no longer known) lost love song, and the typical tune is an old Scottish melody, “The Lass of Glenshee.” “Lost Jimmie Whalen” has not been found in Minnesota, but is widespread in Ontario and much of eastern Canada, and has also been found in Michigan, Wisconsin, and several places in New England. As far as I know, no young woman actually drowned herself in response to Whalen’s death.

Source: From Rickaby, as sung by A. C. Hannah. I have repitched the tune, and written it in 2/4 rather than 4/4 (frankly, I was tempted to put it in 1/4; the chord changes on almost every beat!). The words in [brackets] represent places where Brian Miller’s recording differs from Hannah’s version. Brian’s tune also differs slightly from Hannah’s.

It is possible that there is another version of this from Minnesota. Walter Havinghurst’s Upper Mississippi: A Wilderness Saga prints a two-stanza fragment in which the hero becomes Swan Swanson. But he does not indicate where he learned this version.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s