The Lumberman’s Alphabet

The Lumberman's Alphabet

A is for axes you very well know;
B is the boys who can swing them also.
C is for chopping we first do begin;
D is for danger we oftentimes are in.

E is the echo that through the woods rang,
And F is the foreman, the boss of our gang.
G is the grindstone that swiftly does move;
And H is the handle, so slick and so smooth.

Chorus:
So merry, so merry, so merry are we
No mortal on earth is as happy as we.
(Sing) hi derry, ho derry, hi derry down,
Use a shanty boy right and nothing goes wrong.*

Well, I is the iron to mark all the pine,
And J is the jobber who’s never on time.
K is keen edges our axes do keep,
And L is the lice that keep us from sleep.

M is the moss that we stuff in our camp,
And N is the needle that mends our old pants.
O is the owl that hoots in the night;
P is the pine that we fell in daylight.

Well, Q is the quarreling we never allow,
And R is the river in which our logs plow.
S is the sleds so stout and so strong,
T is the teams that do haul them along.

U is the uses we put our teams to,
And V is the valley we drive the logs through;
W the woods which we leave in the spring,
And X, Y, Z, that’s all I’m going to sing.

* This line is very often sung, “Give a shanty boy whisky and nothing goes wrong,” which sometimes becomes “Give a shanty boy whisky and his head will spin ’round.”

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

Many, many occupations have “alphabet songs” — there are Sailor’s Alphabets (see at right), Soldier’s Alphabets, and Fishermen’s Alphabets among others. All use the alphabet to lists off the various needs of a particular trade. But this may be the most popular of them all. The song has been found almost everywhere lumbermen worked — in Canada from the Maritimes to Ontario, in New England, in the Catskills, and repeatedly in the Midwest.Although the earliest version known to me comes from Michigan in 1916, the song is almost certainly at least half a century older, since it refers to axes and not to saws. True, some people still cut trees with axes. But by the 1860s, professional loggers had adopted the crosscut saw, which was at once faster and safer than the axe for felling a tree.Source: Brian Miller found the words of this version in logging records from the John G. Nelson camps in the Saint Croix valley, and matched them to the tune in Edith Fowke’s Lumbering Songs from the Northern Woods, which she collected in 1958 from Emerson Woodcock of Peterborough, Ontario. Note that the tune here is Fowke’s, with the timing regularized; Brian’s differs in a few note values (that’s folk music…). I’ve heard several other tunes for this piece, each slightly different, but all are quite close; it’s clear that they are all based on the same original. The Sailor’s Alphabet may have been sung on Lake Superior. Ivan H. Walton found two version sung by Great Lakes sailors, the earlier being from Manus J. Bonner of Charlevoix:

A is the anchor of our gallant ship,
B is the bowsprit that in the seas dip,
C is the capstan so merrily goes ’round, and
D is the davits to which our boat’s bound.
So merry, so merry, so merry are we,
No mortals on earth are as happy as we;
Hi derry, ho derry, hi derry down,
Give sailor boys rum and there’s nothing goes wrong!

In addition to the Nelson version Brian found, Frank Covell (who at various times lived in Minnesota at Beaver Bay and Split Rock Lighthouse and in Manilla, Iowa) had a version, reprinted by Gray (without a tune):

A is the axe that cutteth the pine;
B is the jolly boys, never behind;
C is the cutting we early begin;
And D is the danger we ofttimes are in.Chorus
And it’s merry, merry, so merry are we;
Not a mortal on earth is more happy than we.
Then it’s a hi derry derry and a hi derry down,
The shanty boy is willing when nothing goes wrong.

E is the echo that makes the woods ring;
And F is the foreman, the head of our gang;
G is the grindstone we grind our axe on;
And H is the handle so smoothly worn.

I is the iron that marketh the pine;
And J is the jolly boys, never behind;
K is the keen edges our axes we keep;
And L is for lice that keep us from sleep.

M is the moss we stick in our camps,
And N is the needle we sew up our pants;
O is the owl that hoots in the night;
And P is the tall pine we always fall right.Q is the quarrels we do not allow;
And R is the river our logs they do plow;
S is the sleighs so stout and so strong;
T is the teams that haul them along.

U is the use we put our teams to;
V is the valley we haul our logs through;
W is the woods we leave in the spring.
I’ve told you all that I’m a-going to sing.

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