Wednesday, August 12, 2020

2020-2121 Folk Song List for Term 2

Term 2
The Cruel War
The Alberta Homesteader or Starving to Death on My Government Claim 
Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

  The Cruel War 

 This song is often called a traditional American tune from the time of the Civil War, but it's not originally American and we have the wrong Civil War.  The original war which birthed this song is likely one of The English Civil Wars,  200 years before the American one.  It was refurbished and put to use during the American Civil War and then was modernized by Peter, Paul, and Mary. This is the Peter, Paul, and Mary version.
The Cruel War is raging, Johnny has to fight. 
I want to be with him from morning to night .
I want to be with him, it grieves my heart so. 
Won't you let me go with you? 
No, my love, no.

Tomorrow is Sunday,
Monday is the day 
That your Captain will call you and you must obey.
Your captain will call you it grieves my heart so.
Won't you let me go with you? 
No, my love, no.

I'll tie back my hair, men's clothing I'll put on,
I'll pass as your comrade, as we march along.
I'll pass as your comrade, no one will ever know.
Won't you let me go with you? 
No, my love, no.  

Oh Johnny, oh Johnny, I fear you are unkind.
 I love you far better than all of mankind.
 I love you far better than words can e'er express.
 Won't you let me go with you?
 Yes, my love, yes... Yes, My Love, Yes 

Some versions add this heart-wrenching verse:

They marched into battle, she never left his side 
'Til a bullet shell struck her and love was denied 
A bullet shell struck her, tears came to Johnny's eyes 
As he knelt down beside her, she silently died. 

 Peter, Paul and Mary version from Amazon: 
Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, etc, from Amazon:

  The Alberta Homesteader 
Alberta is a province in Canada.  In order to get the land settled by farmers and worked as active farms, contributing to the food supply and establishing settled communities, the governments of both Canada and the US offered free land in exchange for filling certain conditions- filing claims, building a structure that could be called a house, and farming a set amount of land.  It was a hard life, but at the same time it was an opportunity for poor people who otherwise never would have a chance to own their own homes to gain land.  Many failed, as you had to have a lot of grit, resilience, stamina, strength, and luck to succeed.  

This is a comical, satirical song about the experience. 

You can purchase this rendition by Alan Mills at Amazon, or listen to it as part of your monthly music unlimited plan- I can't call it free since you pay a monthly fee for that. Youtube:
'According to Hoyle' means according to the rules.  The house could be a soddy, a hole in the ground with a roof (dug-outs, essentially). It had to meet gov't specifications, but those specifications were pretty meagre in terms of resulting in a thing of beauty or a joy forever.

 The Alberta Homesteader
1.  My name is Dan Gold, an old bachelor I am
    I'm keeping old batch on an elegant plan
    You'll find me out here on Alberta's bush plain
    A-starving to death on a government claim.

2.  So come to Alberta, there's room for you all,
    Where the wind never ceases, [and] the rain always falls
    Where the sun always sets and there it remains
    Till you [we] get frozen out of your [our] government claim.

3.  My house it is built of the natural soil
    The walls are erected according to Hoyle
    The roof has no pitch, it is level and plain
    And I always get wet when it happens to rain.

4.  My clothes they are [are all] ragged, my language is rough
    My bread is case-hardened and solid and tough
    My dishes are scattered all over the room
    And [] my floor is [gets] afraid of the sight of a broom.

5.  How happy I am [feel] when I roll into bed
    The rattlesnake rattles a tune at my head
    And [] the little mosquito, devoid of all fear
    Crawls over my face and into my ear.

6.  The little bed-bug, so cheerful and bright,
    He [It] keeps me up laughing two-thirds of the night
    And the smart little flea with the [] tacks in his toes
    Crawls up through my whiskers and tickles my nose.

7.  You may try to raise wheat, you may try to raise rye
    You may stay there and live, you may stay there and die
    But as for myself, I'll no longer remain
    A-starving to death on a government claim.

8.  So farewell to Alberta, farewell to the west
    It's backwards I'll go to the girl I love best
    I'll go back to the east and get me a wife
    And never eat cornbread the rest of my life.

Various scores and notations are available here, which is the source for the above lyrics as well:;ttIRISHWSH.html  

There's also an American version sometimes called Greer County Bachelor, or Starving to Death on my Government Claim. It's essentially the same, with a few words changes here and there. I included some of those renditions in the youtube playlist.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah

Sister, help to trim the sail, hallelujah
Sister, help to trim the sail, hallelujah

Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah!

River's deep and the river's wide, hallelujah!
milk and honey on the other side.hallelujah!

If you get there before I do, hallelujah!
Tell my people I'm coming, too, hallelujah!

Michael's boat is a music boat, hallelujah!
Michael's boat is a music boat, hallelujah!

Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!

The first written copy of the song is from the American Civil War period. It comes from St. Helena Island, one of the South Carolina Sea Islands, Gullah country.  Southern slave owners abandoned the island, the now freed by default former slaves stayed behind. Shortly after, Navy ships from the Union Army came and used the island as a base for a blockade.  One of the Union soldiers in charge was an abolitionist interested in in the musical traditions of the former slaves, and he noted it down. It continued to be a common work song of the area, and there are various mentions of it over time. Fishermen sang it while rowing back to shore, families sang it together while working, or some evening while spending time together.   It was first widely popularized in the mid 20th century by The Highwaymen- you can purchase the recording from Amazon here.  Ella Jenkins and friends sing it here.

Youtube versions-

I share this for nostalgia, curiosity, and fun. It's a bit odd, but in an episode of the old Tarzan television show, Diana Ross and the Supremes don nun's habits and sing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore- you should only listen to it once you already know the song or your younger kids may be confused.  Nothing wrong with jazzing it up once you've got the basics down, tho.

It was published in 1867 in the book Slave Songs of the United States- here is one online version.  It is free in several places on the internet.

Please do remember the purpose is to *sing* the songs, not just to listen to them.  I would love to have families singing these and other folk songs together, restoring an old and revered, delightful tradition of singing together.  This tradition is as old as Creation. I know you've heard me say this before, but it just seems so significant to me.  There are illiterate cultures, and always have been people with no written language.  There are no cultures I know of, however ancient, that never sang songs.  We have lost something precious, but we can regain it, starting with you, in your home with your children.
Please sing with us, with your children.  


  1. I grew up in Alberta and am thrilled to be able to teach an Albertan folk song to my kids! Among the Dutch immigrants in the communities I grew up in, there are bitter stories of settling the land. Government reps coming to the Netherlands or sending brochures of wide open fields, offering a better life, more space, etc. So many of them bought in to it and settled in central Alberta ... only to find it was all a lie. Yes, they could have wide open fields for their farms BUT first they had to clear the forests!! Not quite the bargain they signed up for! LOL But apparently the ancestors of everyone I grew up with was happy to have moved there, in spite of the hardships! :)

  2. I am from coastal South Carolina and I appreciate the shout out to Gullah culture. I've never heard of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." My children will appreciate the background story.

  3. Hey! Are you familiar with the old television show Gullah Gullah Island?