Sad and dismal is the story that I will tell to you,
About the schooner Persian*, her officers and crew
They sank beneath the waves deep in life to rise no more,
Where wind and desolation sweeps Lake Huron’s rock-bound shore.
They left Chicago on their lee, their songs they did resound,
Their hearts were filled with joy and glee, for they were homeward bound.
They little thought the sword of death would meet them on their way,
And they so full of joy and life would in Lake Huron lay.
In mystery their dooms are sealed;** they did collide, some say,
And that is all that will be revealed until the judgment day;
But when the angels take their stand to sweep the waters blue,
They will summon forth at heaven’s command the Persian’s luckless crew.
No mother’s hand was there to soothe the brow’s distracted pain,
No gentle wife for to caress those cold lips once again;
No sister nor a lover dear or little ones to moan,
But in the deep alone they sleep far from their friends and home.
Her captain, he is no more; he lost his precious life.
He sank down among Lake Huron’s waves, free from all mortal strife.
A barren coast now hides from view his manly, lifeless form,
And still in death is the heart so true that weathered many a storm.
There was Daniel Sullivan, her mate, with a heart as true and brave
As ever was compelled by fate to fill a sailor’s grave,
Alas, he lost his noble life, poor Daniel is no more;
He met a sad, untimely end upon Lake Huron’s shore.
Oh, Daniel, Dan, your many friends mourn the fate that has on you frowned.
They look in vain for your return back to Oswego town;
They miss the sly*** glance of your eye, your hand they’ll clasp no more,
For still in death you now do lie upon Lake Huron’s shore.
Her sailors’ names I did not know, excepting one or two;
Down in the deep they all did go; they were a luckless crew.
Not one escaped to land to clear the mystery o’er,
To lie adrift by Heaven’s command in lifeless form ashore.
Now around Presque Isle the sea birds scream their mournful notes along
In chanting the sad requiem, the mournful funeral song;
They skim along the waters blue and then aloft they soar
O’er the bodies of the Persian’s crew that lie along the shore.
* Dean’s text here reads Persia, but elsewhere Persian.
** Dean prints the improbable text “In mystery o’er their fate was sealed”; correction from Colcord.
*** Dean reads “love”; correction from Colcord.
This song describes a mystery, but it’s even more mysterious than it sounds. You would think there would be some clear record of a ship being lost with all hands — but there isn’t. William Ratigan’s Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals mentions this song, and thinks it refers to the Persia which sank with all hands in a great storm in November 1869. Yet other books I have checked show no records of this ship.
The composer is uncertain; Horace Beck heard that it was composed by the daughter of first mate Dan Sullivan. But it could well be that this was folklore based on the fact that Sullivan is the only crewman named. Norm Cohen, who research is always meticulous, thinks the author was Patrick Fennell, concludes that the ship was lost in a collision, and states that the ships involved were the Persian and the E. B. Allen.
In practice, of course, it hardly matters; other ships suffered fates much like the Persian’s, so the song could as well be about them. And the song was known primarily around the Great Lakes; two field collections are from an unknown site, but the rest are from Dean (Virginia, Minnesota), Tim McGrath (Erinsville, Ontario), Dick Richardson (Napanee, Ontario), C. H. J. Snyder (Toronto, Ontario), Stanley Baby (Toronto, Ontario), and J. W. Green (Beaver Island, Michigan).
Source: Both text and tune are Dean’s; Rickaby and Peters printed Dean’s tune (with Peters using Rickaby’s transcription, so I’ve followed Rickaby here) and of course Dean printed his own lyrics.
It is interesting to note that Dean’s tune is a rather worn down variant of one of the Great Tunes of the British Isles, usually known as “Tramps and Hawkers” or “Paddy West.” One suspects an ancestor of his version was sung to the correct “Tramps and Hawkers” tune, because the melody of “The Persian’s Crew” was never settled — just about every tune ever transcribed is different! Since, of the songs using this tune, “Paddy West” is one best known to sailors, I suspect Dean (or the person he learned this song from) heard someone singing “Paddy West” and misremembered the tune slightly.
“Paddy West” is a tale of a “boarding master” — a man who supplied sailors to ships about to set out for sea. The standard method of a boarding master was to collect sailors just back from a trip, liquor them up (assuming they weren’t already drunk), and hold onto them until they could be shipped off on another trip. In return the boarding master took a rather exorbitant cut of the sailor’s pay.
Paddy West had an even more efficient method. Most boarding masters at least supplied trained sailors — which meant they were out the expense of keeping the sailors in hand until they were needed. Paddy West didn’t bother with experienced sailors; he just took guys off the street and coached them in how to sound nautical:
Oh, as I was walking down London road, I come to Paddy West’s house.
He gave me a feed of American hash, and he called it “Liverpool scouse.”
He says, “There’s a ship that’s wanting hands, and on her you’ll quickly sign.
The skipper’s a bastard, the mate is worse, but she will suit you fine.
Chorus: Take off your dungaree jacket, and give yourself a rest,
And think of them cold nor’westers that we had at Paddy West’s.
Now when we’d had a feed, me boys, the wind began to blow.
He sent me to the attic, the main royal for to stow.
But when I got to the attic, no main royal could I find,
So I turned around to the window and I furled the window blind.
Now seeing we’re off on the Sabbath, to Frisco we was bound.
Old Paddy he took a length of rope, and he laid it on the ground.
We all stepped over and back again, and he said to me, “That’s fine.
Now if they ask if you’ve been to sea, you can say you’ve crossed the line.”
And so forth, through a whole series of tricks that sounded like training but weren’t. Pity the poor captain who accidently hired a set of Paddy West Specials thinking they were real sailors….