Monday, April 17, 2023

Folk Song for March 2024: The Log Driver's Waltz

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 


Video Links

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.

Here is the NFB cartoon in French!

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.

Our helpful intro post is sure to liven up your folk song adventures.

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links to purchase individual songs, see our AO Folk Songs page.
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