American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GREAT LAKES BALLADS. The history of ballad-making, reciting, and singing in the Great Lakes region began after the Battle of Lake Erie on 10 September 1813, itself the subject of a number of Great Lakes ballads, when the Lakes became American-dominated, and shipping grew rapidly. That history and its ensuing ballad-making continues today, incorporating such events as the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald* (built 1958) on 10 November 1975, which gained fame in the song by Gordon Lightfoot.

Like other ballads, those of the Great Lakes usually become anonymous in their authorship as they are transmitted orally or in informal print. They are usually of four-line ballad stanzas, alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, and they are often set to simple, familiar tunes, frequently with a simple, sometimes meaningless refrain. Their language is almost always colloquial. Peculiar to Great Lakes ballads is that most of them are concerned with Great Lakes tragedies, usually shipwrecks,* and many of them were originally published in port-town newspapers near the locations of the tragedies. They were usually the work of local poets, often of the school of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who was so sharply caricatured by Mark Twain as Emmeline Grangerford in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In some cases, no records of the subject shipwrecks exist outside of the ballads, and these subjects themselves may be fictitious, but many of them, real or not, have become the substance of Great Lakes legend, myth, and folklore.

Such a ship was the schooner Antelope, which, late in the season, probably in 1894, was bound for Chicago from the Upper Lakes, loaded with grain. Lines from the ballad, apparently written by a survivor, describe the course of events that doomed her in the storm: “With our canvas gone, both anchors out,/ We were drifting on the shore./ . . . Our mainmast by the deck was broke,/ Our mizzenmast was gone!/ . . . And only one of that gallant crew/ Was in life once more to stand.”

Countless other ballads mark the deaths of Great Lakes schooners during the three-quarters of a century when sail dominated Great Lakes shipping: the City of Green Bay, sunk off South Haven, Michigan, in the 1880s; the Gilbert Mollison, sunk with all hands off North Manitou Island late in 1873; the Oriole, wrecked with all hands off the Pictured Rocks, date unrecorded. With the coming of steam, the tradition continued, and ballads commemorate the collision of the steamer Lady Elgin with the schooner Augusta on Lake Michigan on 8 September 1860, with the loss of 287 lives, including the entire Union Guard and a Milwaukee Democratic group returning from a rally in Chicago for Stephen A. Douglas. Other ballads record the loss of the City of Alpena off Holland, Michigan, on 17 October 1880; the Erie, lost in Lake Erie in 1841 with 180 as her boiler exploded; the Atlantic, which took 250 lives on the night of 20 August 1895. With the domination of steam over sail, the casualty lists grew and lost their anonymity as the wrecks entered recorded history.

Not all of the ballads record the tragedies of shipwreck. Others record steamer races that sometimes ended tragically, and some record the daily lives of the sailors and of the peculiar relationship between steamers and the geography of the Lakes. One such, still heard in Great Lakes bars, records the experiences of the trade that dominated Great Lakes shipping for much of the twentieth century: that of the ore shipments from the Upper Lakes, where the great Mesabi Range provided iron ore for the then-dominant steel industry, to Lower Lake ports—Cleveland, Lorain, Ashtabula, and others— for refinement and steelmaking there or transshipment to Pittsburgh. One such ballad, “Red Iron Ore,” excerpted next, records in detail the course of the down-lake journey:

The tug Escanaba, she towed out the Minch,

The Roberts, she thought, had been left in a pinch,

And as they passed by us, they bid us goodbye,

Saying, “We’ll meet you in Cleveland next Fourth of July.”

 

The Roberts rolled on across Saginaw Bay,

And over her bow splashed the white spray,

And bound for the rivers the Roberts did go,

Where the tug Kate Williams took us in tow.

 

Now we’re down from Escanaba, and my two hands are sore

From pushing a wheelbarrow; I’ll do it no more.

I’m sore-backed from shoveling, so hear my loud roar,

Now I’m ashore in Cleveland, I’ll shake iron ore.

This ballad, like many of the others, exists in several versions. In this case the text is appropriate for sail (another extant version records a steam voyage); in both cases the ballads record a way of life and a pattern of work that have vanished as mechanization and unionization have come to the Lakes.

Other ballads celebrate historical events, significantly the 10 September 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, in which Captain Oliver H. Perry “met the enemy and they are ours” in an American victory that was the turning point in the war in the Northwest. “Perry’s Victory” is a rousing patriotic air that began life as a penny broadside* and was widely sung during the Perry Centennial celebrations in 1913. Another ballad records the last journey and the death of Dr. Douglas Houghton, who made Michigan’s Upper Peninsula known to science and to the nation.

Both the writing and singing of Great Lakes ballads have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years as Great Lakes tragedies continue to occur, and ballad singers, amateur and professional, make their voices heard in the cities and towns of the Lakes and beyond. But the century between Perry’s victory in 1813 and the Great Storm of November 1913, in which nineteen vessels were destroyed or sunk and twenty stranded, at a cost of 248 lives, marked the richest period of Great Lakes ballad writing and singing. [See also CLEMENS, SAMUEL LANGHORNE; GREAT LAKES CHANTEYS; GREAT LAKES MYTHS AND LEGENDS; SEA MUSIC]

FURTHER READING: No anthologies of Great Lakes ballads are in print, but the ballads themselves are found in folklore anthologies and collections, as well as in the repertoires of Great Lakes singers. The ballad tradition remains an oral one, passed on to me by my grandfather, William E. Foster (1896-1951). An important contemporary singer is Lee Murdock, who appears in concert and whose recordings include “Folk Songs of the Great Lakes,” “Freshwater Highways,” and others, available from Depot Recordings, Kaneville, IL 60144-0011. The Bentley Historical Library has a good collection of ballads, some of which are recorded in David D. Anderson, “Songs and Sayings of the Lakes,” Midwest Folklore 12 (Spring 1962): 5-16.

David D. Anderson