The Old Songs
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Old Songs

The pioneers and early settlers who hacked clearings in the Warren County woods, built their chinked cabins of logs and began the business of living in the new country, brought with them many old songs from other lands and regions. Scotch, Irish, Swedish and English ballads, born centuries before across the sea, were crooned over cradles along the Conewango and Brokenstraw and Tionesta in the old days when all the region 'round about was a wilderness of shadowy woods and the crying shriek of the panther came from the hidden fastness of the hillside. Women sang and hummed at their work much more than they do today. Men sang too, as they pushed the heavy keel boats up the long windings of the Allegheny, planting the poles on the river bottom and walking along the runway from one end of the boat to the other. Men sang as they swung their flails on the floors of log barns, or in the open fields, threshing buckwheat. John Logan, making pine shingles by hand in a lonely clearing in Spring Creek township, seventy-five years ago, sang the old Methodist hymns he loved so well, and probably made all the better shingles for it. Raftsmen, pushing the long, heavy oars that protruded from either end of river rafts often sang at their work. It may have been partly because they were lonely that the pioneers often sang as they swung their axes and worked long days in forest and field alone, save for the company of birds and rabbits and the whispering friendship of the forest, or the songs may have sprung from that wholesome heart-happiness that comes to strong, healthy men working out of doors. When a man sings at his work he makes it easier and the task is likely to be well done.

Of the songs sung by the hard-working pioneers of Warren County, it must be admitted that many were mournful in theme and melody. In fact more of the ballads were dolorous than gay. Terrible tales of strife and murder were often sung to children, with little thought of the real meaning of the words. Little boys and girls have been sent to bed by dim candle light to dream of the awful deeds of "Sailor Dan" who was a pirate bold, and would not have hesitated to kill an old lady for her bag of peppermints. The Irish ballad, "Maggie Hennesy", relating the devilish deceptions practiced upon poor Maggie in the years of her virgin innocence was enough to wring tears from the most callous audience, but it seldom did because it was so forlorn it was funny.

Guy Irvine, when he'd had a few rounds of drinks at a tavern, liked to cock up his heavy boots on the table, tip back his chair and regale the company with a song. Guy knew a number of wild old ballads, hardly any of which could be sung in the presence of ladies, or put in a book. But one of his favorites would pass the approval of any censor. "The Maid On The Shore" was sung to a dolorous tune that moaned up and down like the mournful wail of wind in a wide chimney. Picture Guy Irvine, sitting in Jackson's Tavern on the East corner of Hickory and Front Streets, where the Citizen's Bank now stands. A winter's night, the river frozen across and hidden under deep snow. Wind howling through the oak woods across the river. The barroom in the old tavern a-reek with fumes of rum, real Jamica rum, brought up the river on a steamboat, whiskey, ale, strong tobacco smoke from pipes. Back of the bar two candles in iron sconces, two extra ones stuck in the necks of bottles adding their dim light to the smoky atmosphere. In the midst of this Guy Irvine, richest lumberman on the river, hard-hitting participant in many an early barroom brawl, Guy Irvine, famed for his fists, his wit and his wealth, mellowed with plenty of drink, waving time with a whiskey glass and singing in a sonorous, wailing bass.

The Maid On The Shore
There was a fair damsel once cross-ed in love
And she was sank deep in despair-o,
All the way she could find to ease her sad mind
Was to rove all alone on the shore,-shore, shore shore,--
Was to rove all alone on the shore.
There was a sea captain who followed the seas,
The winds they blew high and blew low,
I shall die, I shall die, the sea captain he cried,
If I don't get that maid on the shore,-shore, shore, shore,
If I don't get that maid on the shore.
It is I have got jewels and I have got rings
And I have got costly ware-o,
All these I will give to my jolly sea men
If they'll bring me that maid on the shore-shore, shore, shore,
If they'll bring me that maid on the shore.
With a long persuasion on board she did go,
The captain he sat her a chair-o,
He invited her down to the cabin below
Saying farewell to sorrow and care,-care, care, care, Saying farewell to sorrow and care.
She says I will sing you a song if you all think it best, Which caused all the seamen to stare---o,
She sang it so sweet, so neat and complete
She sang all the seamen to sleep,-sleep, sleep, sleep, She sang all the seamen to sleep.
She robbed them of jewels, she robbed them of rings, She robbed them of all costly ware--o
And with the captain's broad sword she made her an oar And she paddled her boat to the shore,-shore, shore, shore,
She paddled her boat to the shore.
Oh, were my men sleeping, or were my men mad, Or were they sank deep in despair-o,
You've deluded your crew and yourself likewise, too, And again she's a maid on the shore,-shore, shore, shore,
And again she's a maid on the shore.
Your men were not sleeping, your men were not mad, Your men were not sank in despair-o,
But you led her away with her beauty so gay
And again she's a maid on the shore,-shore, shore, shore,
And again she's a maid on the shore.

The ballad was so touching, and aroused so much sympathy for the fair damsel everybody in the barroom had to have another drink when Irvine finished the last wavering line. As it was only half past two o'clock and a long time yet till morning the late lingering merrymakers at Jackson's insisted Irvine pipe them another song. The broadshouldered Guy, with his bushy beard, and wearing a heavy woolen overcoat with bright brass buttons which made him resemble a Russion officer, responded to the encore with another ballad of the salty sea, known in many a lumber camp and raftsman's shanty and tavern in the days when Warren County was young. In his powerful bass voice with which he could roar like a bull, and often did, he sang

The Jolly Boatsman
There was a jolly boatsman
In London did dwell;
He had a loving wife
And the tailor loved her well.
She went down street
The young tailor for to meet,
`My husband dear has gone to sea
And these long nights you can stay with me." Trum-a-laddy, trurn-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy-o.
It happened to be just about twelve o'clock
When up come the boatsman, so loudly did knock, It wakened this couple both out of their sleep,
Said the tailor, "Good woman, now where shall I creep."
"My husband's chest is by the bedside
And in that chest you may hide,"
Trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy-o.
We've neither come to rob you Nor deprive you of your rest, We're bound for the seas
And we've come for the chest.
The boatsmen being both stout and strong
They picked up the chest and carried it along, Trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy-o.
Before they got half way through the town
With the heft of the chest the sweat rolled down, Says one to the other "Let's take us a rest,"
And they all sat down on the old sea chest.
They tried to unlock but they couldn't undo
Till up came the captain and the rest of the crew, They unlocked the chest, a sight for them all,
There Iaid the tailor like a hog in the stall. Trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy-o.
Then up spoke the captain, said he "My fine men,
We have opened the chest,-now we'll close it again, It's my kind, good fellow, I'll take you to sea,
And I won't leave you here to make baskets for me. Trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy, trum-a-laddy-o.

There were no early closing regulations in Warren that wintry night when Guy Irvine foregathered with his bibulous cronies at the old tavern on Front Street. There were more songs and some dances, done with no other accompaniment than the clapping of hands. Val Larson could do the "shuffle" better than any man on the Conewango, he had ridden down the creek with Irvine in his sleigh. Val did a lively shuffle and then a stamping buck-and-wing which brought out wild applause. "But pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flower the bloom is dead, or like the snow-falls in the river, a moment white, then gone forever."

The gay night in the old tavern barroom ended at last and Bill McAllister, the bartender, took the money from the till, put it in a bag he always kept under his pillow, shut and barred the door after the departing guests and blew out the candles.
Dan McQuay, whose name was known to every Warren County settler from Tidioute to Sugar Grove, was keeper of the Holland Land Company's store house at Warren. McQuay was a real Irish wit, a bit of the "ould sod" if ever there was one. He smoked a blackened clay pipe and would have carried a blackthorn shillalah if such a thing could have been cut in the neighboring thickets.

Dan McQuay was fond of fun, fight and whiskey and bits of his rollicking Irish wit still linger among the Warren County hills. It was McQuay who was credited with the story of meeting a stranger at a tavern who asked him his nationality.
"Oi'm an Irishman," said McQuay, quite unnecessarily.

"Well," replied the stranger, "I'm proud to say I'm an American."
"Is that so," says McQuay, "Well, I'm mighty glad to hey met ye. I've always wanted to see a real Injun."

It is a matter of record that Dan McQuay made at least two rafting trips from the Brokenstraw Valley to New Orleans and made the journey back afoot. His first trip was in 18O6, when Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville were small river towns and all else between a wilderness, with trails traveled only by Indians and wild animals. When one considers for a moment the terrific hardships of such a trip, one realizes that Dan McQuay must certainly have considered Warren County a pretty good locality. If he'd been a Scotchman you would have said, some one in Warren owed him a dollar.

Dan McQuay had a whole repertoire of old Irish ballads brought direct from County Kerry. He had a deep chested, powerful voice but rarely let it out. When there was whiskey available, McQuay always managed to have some and a certain amount mellowed him with thoughts of old Ireland. When in this mood he sang the old ballads for anyone who would listen, or sang them alone in the woods, swinging his stout axe on some hidden hillside. Some of McQuay's songs sung on the rafts, in the early taverns, in the forests, were picked up and sung by other men at their work, or amusements. A few of these quaint old ballads brought to Warren County by Dan McQuay in the days of log cabins, tallow dips and flintlock rifles have been handed down to men and women still living. When Dan McQuay sang his old Irish songs, he closed his eyes and sang in a low voice; he was like a medium in a trance, lost to the world, carried away by the song. When he finished the last line he would suddenly open his eyes, straighten himself and snap out "That's all." One of McQuay's prime favorites was

'Twas airly wan marnin' Young Willie arose, Straight away to his comrades
Right airly he goes. O comrade, O comrade
Let nobody know,
'Tis a foine summer's marnin',
A-bathin' we'll go.
So they marched straight away
Till they came to a lane,
There they met the gate keeper Who advished them in vain,
He advished both of thim to return back again,
For there's death in salt wather, The lakes o' Colfien.
'Twas airly next marnin'
His sisther arose,
Straight away to her mither's
Bed chamber she goes Cryin' O mither, O mither
I had a sad dream;
'Twas my brither was drownin'
In the lakes o' Colfien.
'Twas airly nexht marnin'
His mither went there,
She had rings on her fingers
And tearin' her hair,
Cryin' "Murther, O murther,
Was there nobody by
That would venture his life
For me own darlin' boy !"

The complete version of this ancient Irish ballad, contains no less than thirty verses, with a great deal of repetition. Such songs as these, set down in cold print, give but slight hint of the effect they produced when sung by the first permanent resident of the town of Warren. The hardy old Irishman, with memories deep rooted in the "ould sod" was said to weep copiously when rendering this quaint ballad, his voice trailing up and down in a tremulous quaver. A good deal of McQuay's singing was done on warm summer evenings when a group of men would be loitering on the river bank, or on a raft. It is said he had always worked up a more or less emotional state in his audience when he reached the last verse.

Twas airly nexht marnin'
They stood by his grave,
How his mither did schream And his mither did rave.
But not all of her ravin'
Could bring back again,
Her own darlin' boy
That was drowned in Colfien."

A song that was sung in the lumber camps and aboard the rafts, around the taverns or wherever men worked or found sociability was a strange little ballad about an Indian girl. That she was not a Warren County Indian is betrayed by a reference to a "cocoanut grove." Where the song originated would be difficult to ascertain today, but one thing is certain, it was sung and resung in the early days of Warren County, and enough of it handed down to residents of the region living today to allow of complete piecing together of the old song. Original singers often added verses of their own composition to these ballads, but the accepted version of Little Mohee is complete in these few verses.

The Little Mohee
As I was amusing myself on the grass
Who should come along but a fine Indian lass, She sat down beside me and took me by the hand
Saying, "You look like a stranger, not one of this
If you will consent love, and stay here with me And no more go roving all over the sea I'll learn you the language of Little Mohee.
O my pretty, fair maiden, that never can be For I have a sweetheart in my own country And her heart beats as true as the Little Mohee.
Together we wandered, together we roamed
Till we came to a cottage in a cocoanut grove, Said my Little Mohee, now this is our home.
The last time that I saw her was on the sea sand, As the ship sailed by her she wav-ed her hand, And wished me farewell to my far-away land.
And now I'm safe landed on my native shore,
My friends and companions, I see them once more, I see the old faces that I knew before.
My friends and companions they gather 'round me, And I say! In my travels not one did I see That could ever compare with my Little Mohee.

There were raftsman's songs that could never be put in print for polite readers, sung, probably, when the raftsmen were ashore and having a few drinks. There were other songs considered a bit "Spicy" in their day, but hardly to be classified as debasing. One of the most popular of these had no title. It ran

Madam I am come a-calling
For to be your friend.
And if this night you entertain me Next Sunday night I'll come again.
Sir, and I will entertain you, But I'll not be your friend,
I will shut the door upon you That you may never come again.
For it's Madame, you're a creature
That is very hard to please;
When you get old and pinched with the cold I hope to the Lord you freeze.
When I grow old and pinched with cold
It's not you that will keep me warm, So when I am young I will warm myself
And keep myself from harm.
For rambling boys are the boys for pleasure
And getting pretty girls is their delight,
But the girls know how for to keep their treasure,
Don't you think that they serve them right.

"The Old Arm Chair" dates not so far back as the Irish ballads. It was first sung in this region about 186O, by traveling entertainers who gave shows in the halls in Warren, Tidioute, Youngsville, Sugar Grove, Sheffield and Kinzua. But the song won a place for itself in the hearts of the people, as proven by the fact that three old residents sang the ballad, for this volume, and got it almost word-for-word alike.

The Old Arm Chair
My grandmother she, at the age of eighty-three,
One day in May was taken ill and died,
And after she was dead, the will of course was read
By a lawyer as we all stood by his side.
To my mother, it was found, she had left two thousand pounds,
The same unto my sister, I declare,
But when it came to me the lawyer said I see
She has left you her old arm chair.
How they tittered, how they chaffed,
How my brothers and sisters laughed When they heard the lawyer declare,
Grandmother only left me the old arm chair. I thought it hardly fair, but I said I didn't care And in the evening took the chair away.
My neighbors at me chaffed, my brother at me laughed, Saying, "It will be useful, John, some day
When you settle down in life,
Find some girl to be your wife
You'll find it very handy, I declare
On a cold and frosty night
When the fire is burning bright,
You can then sit in your old arm chair."
What my brother said was true, for in a year or two,
Strange to say, I settled down in married life
At first a girl did court, then took her to the church
And she became my lawful, wedded wife.
My sweetheart then and me were as happy as could be, For when my work was over I declare,
We ne'er abroad would roam, but each night would stay at home
And be seated in the old arm chair.
One night the chair fell down, when I picked it up I found
The seat had fallen out upon the floor
And there to my surprise, there lay before my eyes,
A lot of notes, two thousand pounds or more.
When my brother heard of this, the fellow, I confess,
Went nearly mad and raved and tore his hair
But I only laughed at him and said unto him "Jim,
Don't you wish you had the old arm chair."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 233-246: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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