Woods and Water: Folksongs from Michigan History

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1. Michigan-I-A (2:08, 2.9MB)

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The impulse to move west was not limited to the rush to California. "Michigan-I-A" was a commercial appeal to the farmers of the East to prove their manliness and settle where a little healthy labor would insure that everything put in the ground would grow like "Jack's bean." It is interesting that the writer felt he must reassure his listener that the wolves and bears had been frightened away around Pontiac. Records state that between 1827 and 1834 more than three hundred and fifty wolves had been killed. In some versions of this song, La Plaisance Bay has been rendered "a pleasant bay," and even a hundred years ago people were being confused by the name Ann Arbor, while "Typsylanty" may have left the impression of a main street lined with saloons. "Michigan-I-A" is only one of many "I-A" and "1-O" songs, such as "Canaday-I-O" and "Coolie's Run I-O" The impulse may have come from the Scots deportation song "Caledon-i-o."

2. The Bigler (3:16, 4.5MB)

The men who "chanced to get a site" on the Bigler were destined for a slow voyage. While other ships were competing for the honor of being first in port, the Bigler plugged along "plowing" Lake Michigan. The men held their pride and countered the jokes by making a virtue of bringing up the rear by claiming, We drove them all before us the nicest you ever saw, Clear Out into Lake Huron through the Straits of Mackinac.

The song so abounds with references to speed that it is easy to be convinced and miss the irony that the description is the opposite of the fact. After the slow crawl to Lake St. Clair, the Bigler gets into one trouble after another, being grounded, breaking the tug's towline, and finally smashing broadside into another ship. A humorous song was the only salve left to the sailors' wounded spirits.

3. The Little Brown Bulls (2:17, 3.1MB)

A contest between two ox teams was an exciting diversion, particularly if the contestants happened to be of different national allegiances. In this case one was a Yankee and the other a Scotsman apparently from Canada. No location is given in the song, but it was known and sung all through the northern woods. Everywhere oxen were used contests were sure to be staged, and anyone who has seen photographs of the loads these teams pulled cannot help but be awed by their strength. The pile of logs on the sled was immense and impressed the writer of "Turner's Camp" sufficiently for him to comment,

In loading up those darned old sleighs, of course I being so green,
The piling up of those top logs I never before had seen.

The reference in the song to "his best mackinaw," refers to the popular blanket coat similar in construction to the Hudson's Bay blanket coat.

4. Red Iron Ore (4:33, 6.2MB)

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Probably the finest of all Lakes ballads, "Red Iron Ore" is more than a story of the ship first into port. It is a miniature image of the era when Great Lakes shipping carried more tonnage than all of America's ships in the Atlantic and Pacific. The route led through "Death's Door" (Porte Des Morts, Wisconsin) to load at Escanaba, cursed by the sailors because of the unpleasant and backbreaking labor involved in loading the ore. The very fact that sailors should be required to perform such unseamanlike tasks seemed to them an insult. After Beaver Island was reached, the E. C. Roberts followed the same route as the Bigler, but with more success in the race.

The one reference not located on the map is Louse Island. No charts show this island, and it may have been dubbed "louse" because of its small size. It was probably in the vicinity of Summer Island south of Fairport.

5. Once More a-Lumbering Go (3:04, 4.2MB)

According to this song, all was sunshine and roses in the lumbering woods. There a man could pass the winter among good comrades, hunt deer in the beautiful forest, frolic in the towns all summer, and still save enough money to purchase a model farm and support a wife in comfort. There is a mixture here of wry jest against the songs used to entice workers into the woods, music like the appeals of "Michigan-I-A," but also the shantyboy often did feel a favorable comparison with the land-bound farmer relegated to earning "the family food.."

Even if the dream of plenty was remote, it was still a good song, and the chorus was sung with gusto by many a bunkhouse baritone.

There is a lumbering song from Maine that uses the same tune, varying only in the details of location:

Come all you sons of freedom
From the gallant State of Maine
Come all you gallant lumberjacks
And listen to my strain.
Upon the old Penobscot
Where the rapid waters flow
We'll range the wildwoods over
And once more a-lumbering go.

6. On Mee-shee-gan (1:40, 2.3MB)

The American immigrants who entered the woods found many skilled French-Canadians already working. Their accents were the raw material for this propaganda-in-reverse, telling the prospective worker from north of the border that he would be happier not working "on Mee-shee-gan." After all, the song threatens, Frenchmen don't like to die in the fall, when the woods are full of game, fat bullfrogs and muskrat. The admonition that the foreman might say "go sak" (sack) was indeed to be feared, as sacking involved wading in the icy water up to the armpits to round up logs that had drifted into the eddies or caught on the edges of the streams. "Ague" is a disease of malarial character with symptoms of chills and shaking, almost as unpleasant as the "remedy," an ounce of quinine and two pounds of calomel.


1. Turner's Camp on the Chippewa (2:14, 3MB)

E. C. Beck, in his book Lore of the Lumber Camps, writes that this song was composed for Charlie Turner in the winter of 1871 by a boy from New York. Several interesting references are found in the song. A mention is made of the "boys from Quee-bec" the French-Canadians who were made light of in "On Mee-shee-gan." Also, three of the popular ballads sung in the woods are named, "Johnny Troy," "The Cumberland Crew," and the one the writer "loved best was ‘Bold Jack Donahue'." "The Cumberland Crew" was a ballad of 1862, telling of the destruction of the Union ship Cumberland by the Confederate ironclad Merrimac.

Let each good Union tar shed a tear of sad pity
When he thinks of the once gallant Cumberland's fate.

Johnny Troy and Jack Donahue were both Irish felons who were deported to Australia. There each broke his confinement and provided the populace with acts of banditry and legend similar to our own Jesse James. Troy seems to have been hanged in Sydney, while the more famous "Bold Jack Donahue" was shot by a party of bush police in 1830. Both ballads travelled all over the world, including the woods of Michigan and the ships of the Great Lakes.

2. The Beaver Island Boys (3:26, 4.6MB)

Sudden changes in weather were much feared on all the Great Lakes, particularly under sail, and the Lookout was appar- ently only 24 feet in length. Laden with supplies she foundered in a sudden gale at night. The "X" on the map south of Beaver Island signifies the sinking. "Stand by for your halyards, let your main halyards go" refers to the tackle used to raise or, surely in this case, lower the sails.

3. The Persian's Crew (5:05, 6.8MB)

On November 18, 1869, the schooner Persia was lost with all hands on Lake Huron due to foundering. There is evidence that the storm that claimed her was more than a local disturbance as two other wrecks are listed for the same day, the Steamers Equator and Thomas A. Scott, both lost on Lake Michigan. The "X" on the map near Presque Isle Light records the approximate position of the sinking of the Persia, called in the song the Persian. Daniel Sullivan's home "Oswego town" is Oswego, New York.

4. The Jam on Gerry's Rock (2:57, 4MB)

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This song was one of the best loved of all the shanty ballads. It was known wherever lumber was cut, and Gerry's Rock is claimed by folklorists and old-timers in every lumbering state and Canada. The fact that "the fairest lass of Saginaw" was in attendance lends some credence to Michigan's claim, and the most likely location is on the Tittabawassee River. Wherever the accident happened, Michigan lumbermen sang of it and listened, sitting on the "deacons' seat," the board bench running around the inside of the shanty where the men could sit and smoke and talk. The line of shantyboys and the similar positioning of Deacons during church services may illustrate the humor of the term.

5. Jack Haggerty and His Flat River Girl (3:03, 4.1MB)

The participants in this story of true love gone awry are known, even though the names were changed by the man who wrote the song. Ann Tucker (Anna) lived with her blacksmith father across the street from his shop in Greenville. She was courted by an Irishman named Dan McGinnis. He and his friend Jack Haggerty were forbidden to associate with Ann, as she already was engaged to George Mercer. When Mercer was promoted to woods' boss, McGinnis was irate and composed the song, using Haggerty's name to conceal his identity. The Tucker family was properly enraged and would not permit the song to be sung in camp. McGinnis, alias Jack Haggerty, shouldered his peavey, an iron-tipped pole with a hinged hook used to roll logs, and went to the wicked city of Muskegon "Some pleasures to find."

This recording is the third in a series produced for the Aural Press by WMUK (FM). Station Manager Glen Bishop was the audio engineer. Cover by Mary Frances Fenton.