This month we have a lively song from Canada that celebrates the old occupation of log driving, that is, moving “convoys” of timber down rivers, usually from the forest to the sawmill. When the river was wide enough, the logs could be bundled into rafts; but in narrower stretches, the logs would have to be steered through in smaller groups, or one at a time, to avoid log jams. The log drivers stood on the logs, walked along them, ran from one log to another and pushed them along the river with poles, with the strength and agility of dancers. It might have looked like fun, but it was a dangerous job, and the log drivers risked being injured or killed.
Just after World War II, Canadian folk singer Wade Hemsworth was working as a surveyor in the northern parts of Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador, and it was there that he found inspiration for many of his songs, including “The Log Driver’s Waltz.”
What is Birling?
The log driver goes “birling down the white water,” but this is often misheard as “whirling” or “twirling.” “To birl” is a Scottish word to spin or whirl, and the word “birling” became used to describe the action of trying to stay upright on a rolling log.
1. If you ask any girl from the parish around
What pleases her most from her head to her toes
She'll say I'm not sure that it's business of yours
But I do like to waltz with a log driver
For he goes birling down and down white water
That's where the log driver learns to step lightly
Yes, birling down and down white water
The log driver's waltz pleases girls completely
2. When the drive's nearly over I like to go down
And watch all the lads as they work on the river
I know that come evening they'll be in the town
And we all like to waltz with the log driver
3. To please both my parents, I've had to give way
And dance with the doctors and merchants and lawyers
Their manners are fine, but their feet are of clay
For there's none with the style of my log driver
4. Now I've had my chances with all sorts of men
But none as so fine as my lad on the river
So when the drive's over, if he asks me again
I think I will marry my log driver
The song became very popular in 1979 when Canada’s National Film Board produced an animated version, featuring singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The film begins with footage of real log drivers, then transitions into animation.
This version, by Captain Tractor, goes a little faster.
Here is a cheerful version with the Toronto SymphonyOrchestra. (The soloist is Heather Bambrick.)
And a really fun bonus link: The Fiddleaires.