Woods and Water: Folksongs from Michigan History

Woods and Water, front cover I lived in Michigan for a dozen years from the late 1950's at the time I was most interested in American folk music. So, it seemed natural to research the folk music associated with Michigan, songs about the lumbering and shipping of its past. As luck would have it, Western Michigan University had an excellent FM radio station (WMUK) and was just beginning the publication of phonograph recordings, the first of local poets and, the third release, the recording now available on this website. The album has long been out of print but, as it was partly intended to be used in schools in their teaching of Michigan history, I thought it might gain a bit longer usefulness by adding it to the wealth of information on the World Wide Web.

All of the songs are in public domain. My own performances are now fifty years old and the album was never considered a commercial venture. It was more of an aural academic publication intended for an audience in Michigan and around the Great Lakes where the events in the songs took place. Feel free to use the material as needed, but don't edit or otherwise alter the performances. Part of the value of the songs is contained in their style. They were often sung unaccompanied or with a single instrument and don't lend themselves to arrangements in more modern presentations.

Duane Starcher

Album Notes, Folksongs from Michigan History (1965)

Duane Starcher, 1965

Duane Starcher grew up in the Cascade Mountain town of Chelan, Washington, earned a B.A. in Music at Washington State College and, after a tour in the Air Force, received his Master's degree and worked toward a Ph.D. in Musicology at the University of Michigan. Also studying television at the University, he decided to earn his livelihood in this field and is now Manager of Television Services at Western Michigan University. Music is still a way of life and his interest in American folk music led him to prepare this album of songs from Michigan's past. Mr. Starcher has also appeared on many television programs and has given talks and concerts for college and adult groups interested in American folk tradition.

The songs in this album tell tales of the people who passed through and around Michigan in the 19th Century. Michigan folksongs are predominantly songs of a migrant population. They tell of cutting lumber and of navigating the lakes; they are the entertainment of people on the move, and the records of the lumber camps show that the names are mostly of men from the British Isles. Many a shantyboy had come to Michigan's forests from an Ireland stricken with famine, and he brought with him a heritage of story-telling. Like the familiar "Once upon a time," the call of "Come all ye" begins a revelation of wonders of work and play, death and disaster, and true-love proven false. Of the eleven songs presented here, nine either begin with or contain the line "Come all ye" in one form or another. "Come all you true-born shantyboys," "Come all you bold sailors," "Come all my boys and listen," and even the comic dialect song, "Come all you great beeg Canada man." In most of the songs the stories are pinpointed with names, dates and places, even to the measurements of the victorious "Little Brown Bulls." Most of the locations are known, and these are presented in map form on the record cover, both as they were sung and as they are more commonly known. Other references are now less distinct, such as "Gerry's Rock," or "Turner's Camp"; still others fall outside the area shown, notably Cleveland, Ohio, and Buffalo and Oswego, New York.

Woods and Water, back cover

In these songs, the melody is primarily a vehicle for carrying the narrative, and a good deal of similarity may be noted in the tunes. The situation is not quite as drastic as one writer has implied, that all lumber tales are sung to the same wretched tune, but the pattern found in "Turner's Camp," "Michigan-I-A," and "The Persian's Crew" is quite common. And all of the songs recorded are set to melodic patterns characteristic of British folksong of the period, while most are distinctly Irish. In the woods and on the ships the singing was usually unaccompanied, with group singing in the choruses. With the exception of "The Little Brown Bulls," I have used folk instruments and folk playing techniques, but without trying to recreate any particular historical sound. Those interested in hearing the singing of old-time lumbermen and sailors should investigate the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress.

These songs range from records of death and disaster to a comic protest song warning competing lumbermen of the undesirable features of coming to work in the woods of Michigan.

Propaganda encouraging settlers was also spread by song, however inaccurate from a geographical point of view, to the "Yankee farmers" who might have the urge to move West. The men of the ships sang of their routes and their contests to be first or fastest, and even the piggish Bigler is celebrated in song to compensate for her inevitable position of last. In short, these are songs of action and adventure created and related by men of action in their new and busy land.