Discover more from Michiganography
Blood, Sweat, and Tunes
Michigan's Song of Work: 1850–1950
In the period from 1850 to 1950, Michigan music was a song of work, sung to a borrowed melody, with words retooled for the flicker, the swamp, and the line. Michigan’s singing schools were her union halls, the mess decks of late-season down-bound freighters, and every rank-smelling bunkhouse from Saginaw to Sidnaw.
On the Lakes, the songs of work were the freshwater ballad and the chantey, as jury-rigged and disposable as the slab-sided scow schooners that once hauled cargo from Houghton to Wyandotte. (1) Like sea chanteys, Lake chanteys, helped sailors maintain a specific working pace. The “golden” age of sail on the Lakes (1865-1890) was far shorter than on saltwater, however. (2) Many of the longer, more complicated ballads (interesting for their topical and regional content), sadly ended their lives in the unsteady memories of old Lakermen, despite the best efforts of Michigan folklore collectors like Ivan Walton, Earl Clifton Beck, and Thelma Gray James, who criss-crossed the state in the 1930s, frantically sweeping up fragments of verses in dim waterfront bars. (3) One of the few songs that was rescued nearly intact, was the ballad “Red Iron Ore,” which recounts the brutal hand labor required to load and unload small schooners (4):
Some sailors took shovels and others took spades, some went to sluicing, each man to his trade. We looked like red devils; our backs they got sore. We cursed Escanaba and the damned iron ore. The dust got so thick you could scarce see your nose. It got in our eyes and it got in our clothes. We loaded the Roberts ‘til she couldn’t hold more, right up to the gunwales with red iron ore. (5)
Loggers in Michigan seemed to prefer maudlin ballads about injury and death, the gorier the better. A representative ballad, “The Wild Mustard River,” describes the gruesome remains of an unlucky river-hog who was crushed in log jam:
His flesh was all cut up in ringlets/And rolled out as flat as your hand (6)
Sawmill accidents provided equally gory fodder, as in the ballad “Harry Bahel”:
In lowering of the feed bar, He threw the carriage into gear Which drew him up onto the saw And cut him so severe It sawed him through the shoulder blade And halfway down the back. (7)
As with Lakes ballads, the authorship of logging songs was often unknown or disputed. However, “Harry Bahel” (or sometimes “Bail”) is thought to have been written by Bahel’s brother, not long after the accident in Lapeer County in 1879. (8)
(1) “The songs were seldom put to paper…[but] passed orally, person to person, vessel to vessel.” Joe Grim, “Any Tune that Fits,” Michigan History Magazine, July/August 2002, 30. Sometimes the work of “local poets,” the ballads were published in “port-town newspapers near the location of the tragedies.” David D. Anderson, “Great Lakes Chanteys,” in Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, ed. Jill B. Gidmark (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 167.
(2) “By 1930…commercial sailing and chanteys passed from the Lakes.” David D. Anderson, “Great Lakes Chanteys,” in Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes, ed. Jill B. Gidmark (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 167.
(3) Ivan H. Walton and Joe Grimm, eds. Windjammers: Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 16.
(4) Composed sometime in the 1870s, the ballad is variously attributed to “Billy Clark of Buffalo, who composed it and dozens of others,” and Beaver Islander, Peter O’Donnell. Walton, 120.
(5) Walton, 121.
(6) Emelyn Elizabeth Gardner and Geraldine Jencks Chickering, eds., Ballads and Songs of Southern Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1939), 276.
(7) Gardner, 279.
(8) Norm Cohen, ed., American Folk Songs: A Regional Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 413.