by Edward Harrigan / Original tune by David Braham
I am a decent lab’ring man that works along the shore,
To keep the hungry wolf away from the poor longshoreman’s door.
I work all day in the broiling sun on ships that come from sea,
From broad daylight till late at night for the poor man’s family.
Give us good pay for ev’ry day, that’s all we ask of ye,
Our cause is right, we are out on strike for the poor man’s family.
The rich man’s gilded carriages with horses swift and strong,
If a poor man asks for a bite to eat they’ll tell him he is wrong;
“Go take your shovel in your hand and come out and work for me,”
But die or live they have nothing to give to the poor man’s family.
They bring over there Italians and Chinese* from the South,
Thinking they can do the work, take the bread from out our mouth;
The poor man’s children they must starve, but to this we’ll not agree,
To be put down like a worm in the ground and starve our families.
* Dean’s text reads “Nagurs,” but most versions read “Chinese” or “Chinamen” or something similar.
The song was written by Edward Harrigan, of the famous team of Harrigan and Hart, and was put to music by David Braham. Strangely, although it sounds like a labor-movement song, and it comes from the period when labor activism was most common in the United States (as workers tried to gain fair wages and an eight hour day), the song actually derives from the musical theater.
The strike it refers to is real, and took place in 1875. The longshoremen, who were mostly Irish immigrants, tried to gain better conditions.
The song was performed by the troupe of Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart, with Harrigan writing most of the productions and his father-in-law David Braham writing the music and conducting the orchestra. Hart was less involved in the management and staging of the organization, but was one of their finest performers. They became famous for works such as “The Mulligan Guard Ball.”
Source: The text is from Dean. The tune is a problem. Dean’s melody is unknown. And Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer, p. 378, says that they could not find the original melody. This is hard to believe, but I wasn’t able to find a copy of the music either. That leaves us with the two tunes known from tradition, by George Edwards of New York (reprinted in Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer) and by “Yankee” John Galusha, printed in Warner. These two have no real resemblance; the Edwards tune is in 4/4; the Galusha tune is in 6/8 with a few measures in 9/8. The Galusha tune appears a slightly better fit for the song (it has verses of four long lines, whereas the Edwards tune has verses of two long lines) — but the Galusha version also appears very tricky for those not used to dealing with slip jigs. And the meter of the song seemed easier in 4/4. So I took the Edwards tune and repeated it to cover four long lines. With one change. This is a very familiar musical strain (Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer note half a dozen songs which use this general tune shape; I observe some similarities to the beloved “Star of the County Down”), and in a large majority of cases, the third line differs from the first, second, and fourth. So I have slipped in a tenth measure typical of songs of this type. If you don’t want to do this (or if a measure that high is uncomfortable), plug in the melody of measure 2 for measure 10.