The Bayou Sara

BayouSara

Up the river, I cannot stay long,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down,
She burned down to the waterline,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.
Bayou Sara, she burned down,
(Yes, the) Bayou Sara, she burned down,
She burned down to the waterline,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.

Whistle went Whee! and the boiler went Whomp!
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down,
Deck blew off and I had to jump,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.
Bayou Sara, she burned down,
(Yes, the) Bayou Sara, she burned down,
Deck blew off and I had to jump,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.

All the people got to squeal and squawk,
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down,
They looked up; they were about to fall.
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.
Bayou Sara, she burned down,
(Yes, the) Bayou Sara, she burned down,
They looked up; they were about to fall.
And the Bayou Sara, she burned down.

Similarly:

Look over yonder and what did I see,
Captain and his mate were swimming toward me.

Swam till I couldn’t swim no more,
Till the City of Arkansas took me on board.

Who could say it would be her last trip,
Finest boat on the Mississipp’.

The Bayou Sara was a mighty fine ship,
But when she got to New Madrid.

Up the river, I cannot stay long,
She burned down to the waterline.

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

Although songs like “The Glendy Burk make river boating seem like a glamorous occupation, it was in fact a very dangerous job. Boatmen faced hazards rarely or never confronted by deep sea sailors. The river itself periodically changed course. Boats had to sail close together, raising the possibility of collisions. Snags and sandbars were common and shifted position regularly; snagging seems to have been the most common cause of sinkings on the Upper Mississippi. Plus there was ice, which (the Titanic notwithstanding) was rarely found on the ocean outside the far north. It was a real worry on the rivers, though — the Arcola was sunk by ice on Lake Pepin as early as 1857 (according to p. 259 of George Byron Merrick, Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863, Arthur H. Clark, 1909, reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press 2001), and the Falls City was destroyed by ice in that same winter (Merrick, p. 268). The Fanny Harris was lost to ice at Hastings in 1863 (Merrick, p. 268). Ironically the Fanny Harris had two years earlier rescued the crew of the Fire Canoe from the ice (Merrick, p. 269).

And riverboats, unlike ships at sea, had to supply all their own power when going upstream; the oceangoing vessels used steam, but almost all deep sea cargo vessels could still proceed by sail until the early twentieth century. Not so when fighting a current! Which meant that the boilers had to be going all the time. Which meant, all too often, that they exploded.

Even ships that did not burst their boilers could be destroyed by fire, as happened to the Galena at Red Wing in 1857 (Merrick, p. 270) and the War Eagle at La Crosse in 1854 (Merrick, p. 292, with the date from Bruce D. Berman, Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks, Mariner’s Press, 1972, p. 243).

So the story of the Bayou Sara is not atypical. According to Belden, p. 423, the Bayou Sara (elsewhere called the City of Bayou Sara) went into service on the river in 1884, being part of the Anchor Line of steamboats. She was burned on Saturday, December 5, 1885, near New Madrid, Missouri (right about where Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet).

Source:

The known versions of songs about the Bayou Sara are extremely diverse — so much so that it is entirely reasonable to ask whether they are actually a single song. But I know of no other song about a riverboat disaster with a better tune, so I decided to offer this one even though it does not seem to have been found in Minnesota. The basis for this version is that sung by Sara Grey and Ellie Ellis on “Making the Air Resound,” slightly modified so that the song does not require a banjo accompaniment (on the Grey/Ellis recording, the last four lines of the verse instead become a chorus, with no repetition of the third line, and the second line of the chorus is played by the instrument — no singing). I’ve taken a few words from other sources to give a more complete story.

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