America Books History Music Nature Review

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.


Why I Love The Midwest

Originally printed in the North Central Chronicle on April 3, 2009.

A friend of mine grew up with the California itch. Her family was from San Francisco but she was stuck in Wisconsin for most of her life. She always complained about it and talk about wanting to be an actress and live the life in Hollywood, get out of the Midwest and all that.

She eventually went to college in Los Angeles. But after a few years there she became disillusioned with the West Coast life for some reason. I thought nothing but a family reunion every decade would bring her back to the Midwest, but now she says she is coming home after graduation.four_seasons

What brought her back? Maybe it was the bratwurst and quality beer. Midwesterners know how to eat and drink, that’s for sure. Maybe it was the sports teams. God knows the Packers are way cooler than the San Diego Chargers.

I don’t know exactly, but my point is we have a great thing going here in the Midwest. It’s hard to appreciate this when, if you’re like me, you have lived here your whole life. But we have seasons. Actual seasons. Californians don’t know the meaning of the word. All they get are sun and 70s. Some of you think that’s the perfect kind of weather. But when you get that all day, every day, it gets boring. You start thinking you’re entitled to perfect weather. Maybe that’s why West Coasters get that stereotype of entitlement.

Right now we are starting to enjoy the fruits of spring. There will be green grass and flowers and rebirth and sun. We get thunderstorms, baby rabbits, and puddles in which we can gleefully splash. Then summer will come with its freedom and fun and humidity and even more sun. Summer is a great season, sure, but our version doesn’t distinguish us from the rest of the world. Summer then leads us to autumn, the season that makes you think philosophically about life and death and bobbing for apples while you watch the colors fall from decaying trees.

And then, winter, the most polarizing season. The lovers love the snow, the sledding, the snowballs, and Christmas, while the haters hate the cold, the cold, and the cold. I am a self-proclaimed winter-lover. Yes, even the cold. It toughens us. It doesn’t allow us to take for granted the warmth of the summer. It makes the spring all the more beautiful after months of cold and dreariness.

You can’t go 10 minutes without hearing someone complain about the weather here. Like the weather is the only thing stopping them from enjoying their life. When did that become the case? June and July don’t have a monopoly joy. January has a share of it too. We are just exiting winter, so I suspect the complaints will subside-for now. Another year and the yelping will come back again, just as annoying as ever.

That’s why, amongst those who bemoan the trappings of winter, I exalt its virtues. I say I love it for all the reasons they hate it. It’s too cold, they say. All the better the warmth will feel. It’s too dreary, they say. All the brighter the sun will shine. In spite of all the bad things that are happening around us, I’m just trying to look for the good. We’re supposed to be living in the age of hope, after all.

So come November, as the temperatures drop and your nose hairs begin to freeze, turn that frown upside down and remember that Californians will never know how it feels to walk on ice. Or how it feels to get a snowball in the face. That, my Midwest friends, is something that is reserved for us.