03 March 2012

#103 Roll the Woodpile Down

In Shanties from the Seven Seas, Stan Hugill wrote,

This was the sea version of the Negro song Haul the Woodpile Down. It was popular right to the end of sail...it is fairly obvious it originated in either the West Indies or the Southern States of America, most probably in the latter, being, perhaps, one of the many rivermen songs that reached deep-water.

The Black-dialect song of which Hugill speaks appears to have been actually composed by the New York-based lyricist Edward Harrigan and composer David Braham in 1887 for the theatrical show Pete (Franceschina 2003:234). It was evidently intended to represent a work-song. Lyrics ran as follows:

De red cow brushing de old blue fly
     Away down in Florida
De white man laugh when de coon go by
     Now haul de wood-pile down
De steamboat ready to burn dat pine
     Away down in Florida
De grape am ripe on de old black vine
     Now haul de wood-pile down.

Den traveling, den traveling
As long as de moon am round
Dat black girl mine on de Georgia line
Now haul de wood-pile down.

De muskrat hide in de old burnt log
De chipmunk laugh at de old house dog

Dars Captain Jim of de old Bob Lee
He drinks more rum den he does hot tea

De old roof leaks and de rain comes thro'
De nig done die if he touch hoodoo

When I grow wear den I lay down
De wench looks sweet in a new clean gown

Over on Mudcat.org, J. Lighter (19 June ’07) posted a reference to a work by W.E. Dexter ("Rope-Lines, Marline-Spikes and Tar," 1938) in which the author claims to have been part of adapting this very song as a chanty in the 1890s.

Popular perhaps it was, but it does not turn up in other writings on chanties that I am aware of. The one other record of a related song, and an excellent one at that, is the recording made of an anonymous sailor of the SF Bay Area in the 1920s by R.W. Gordon. This is available for free on-line at the Library of Congress site. The sailor is singing a one-verse “Haul the Woodpile Down.”

Yankee John with his sea boots on,

Haul the woodpile down.

Yankee John with his sea boots on,

Haul the woodpile down.

Way down in Florida,
Way down in Florida,
Way down in Florida,

Haul the woodpile down.

Unlike Hugill’s capstan or pump chanty, however, this is one for “sweating up”—a short chant, that might not have had m/any more verses.

Hugill himself did hear about it from at least two different informants. A chantyman called “Woodward” was said to have sung it in 1920—or so claimed Hugill’s informant at the Sailor’s Home in London, later on. The informant evidently “could not remember many verses,” however, which means it was not necessarily a familiar song. Hugill’s other informant was an unnamed “West Indian seaman.” The version has a grand chorus, like the theatrical piece.

 I would say that most or all renditions sung in Revival context nowadays go back to Hugill’s book. In recent years the song has been very popular. I’ll admit that though it’s a wonderful song, I got sick of hearing it sung from all corners of the campus at Mystic’s Sea Music Festival a couple years back! People seem especially fond of the fermata on “Georgia Liiiiiiiine!,” approaching it with a fat s-l-o-w-d-o-w-n and relishing the harmony like they do in modern interpretations of “Roll, Alabama, Roll.”

Traveling, as long as de moon am round,

Ranzo :{

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