Bunkhouse Bards: Some Notes on Songs of the Timber Beasts
LLyn De Danaan
Scratch the urbane surface of just about anybody I know, and stories of a grandfather or great grandmother who worked in coalmines or the woods come pouring out. I suppose that’s in part due to the company I keep (often determined by my affection for those who share or appreciate my own Irish-Welsh working class heritage). Or maybe it’s a fascination I have for people who have stories to tell. A few months ago, I listened to a fellow musician tell tales about his grandpa’s fiddle which he played with a cello bow when he joined in with the Quebecois instrumentalists in his logging camp. From another pal, I heard the story of a banjo playing father and a pair of grand parents who ran a big logging camp near Spirit Lake, Idaho. That story was embellished with tales of the team of horses that hauled logs out of the woods and a pet bear that lived on kitchen leftovers. Many of these anecdotes are based real or inflated but inevitably fond memories of ancestors who not only lived in the rough but also filled their evenings with music as they lounged beside warm stoves in the evenings. These were the dark, after work hours when laborers fetched their instruments from under their bunks or off the rough iron hooks on walls that held their duffels and gear. Those work calloused hands, sometimes missing a few digits, fetched fiddles, spoons, banjos and musical saws and joined in joyous harmony. Feet scuffled and clogged in time with the melodies and, sometimes, instruments, that traveled with them and their fore bearers from across the Atlantic and then migrated with them over the vast North American continent all the way to the Pacific Northwest. These were tunes that bonded the working people, entertained them, and gave them a barrelful of laughs at the end of arduous and danger filled days underground or in the woods.
Perhaps the most evocative telling of such sessions in literature is one written by Alistair MacLeod in his brilliant novel of Cape Breton called “No Great Mischief”: “The sun moved higher and heatedly across the sky, yet no one seemed to think of sleep. It was as if we had missed the train to sleep and there was nothing we could do about it in our present state. The music dipped and soared and the leather-soled shoes snapped against the reverberating wood. Sometimes a fiddler would announce the name of a tune and the others would nod in recognition and join him in “The Crooked Stovepipe” or “Deeside” or “Saint Anne’s Reel,” “The Farmer’s Daughter,” or “Brandy Canadien.” At other times the titles seemed lost or perhaps never known, although the tunes themselves would be recognizable after the first few bars. “Ah yes,” the fiddlers would nod in recognition, “A ha,” “Mais oui,” and they would join one another in the common fabric of the music. Gradually the titles from different languages seemed to fade away almost entirely, and the music was largely unannounced or identified merely as “la bastringue,” “an old hornpipe,” “la guigue”, “a wedding reel”, “un real sans nom.”
The stories, these songs, are filled with the awe and heartache. Their evocative themes reminded a singer or player of all the people with whom one had played this tune before. They could make a fiddler’s heart beat faster or bring a tear to the eye.
The songs played in the “old days” were far different from those recorded and produced in the past 50 years. Indeed the “logging song” genre, starting with “The Frozen Logger” by James Stevens, is rife with “pseudo-folklore.”
The newer songs are composed by “singing loggers” who came from the woods but became known as individual performers and recording artists. Their songs are based upon their experience in the woods but draw heavily on the conventions of country and western music, and, interesting as they are, seem not to have captured or transmitted the spirit of the coarse lives of the woodsmen or ”shanty” boys in the east or during the early days of the Northwest logging. The singing logger genre seems disconnected from the woodsmen’s music’s 19th century roots. Those roots, admittedly, are not easy to find. Even folklorists have been accused of “censoring” or rewriting what they heard from the old timers for they were often bawdy songs and even the names of tools and the work in the woods were loaded with sexual innuendos that made the greenhorns blush.
Sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s I visited Camp Grisdale. It was called the “last” of the logging camps and was situated up near the southern boundary of the Olympic National Forest. The men and women who lived there were surrounded by steep slopes and were slammed by up to 160 inches of rain a year. It was a clear day when I arrived. I was hauling a reel-to-reel Sony Portapak camera and video tape recording outfit with me. It seemed heavy as heck but in reality was only about a 7-pound weight slung from my shoulder.
Simpson Timber Company owned Grisdale. It was opened in 1946 and represented, company reps said a, “departure from traditional living arrangements,” in the Washington forests, “where lumberjacks bunked in ragged railroad cars perched on sidings.” These camps in the early to mid 20th century may have been much like that one described by Molly Gloss in her tale of the Northwest called Wild Life:
“It was a highballing twentieth century camp, not an ox to be found , but a shed for storing piles of heavy chains and coils of wire cable under cover, and a great long machine shop where men were mightily engaged keeping the mechanical devises and enginery in working order. In other respects a camp entirely ordinary for its size: the commissariat fifty feet in length; the cookhouse and dining room perhaps ten feet longer than the store, and wide in proportion; five bunkhouses with accomodations each for twenty-five or thirty; to say nothing of meat house, oil house, smithy, stables, filing house, and a tent church of the Northwest Lumbermen’s Evangelical Society. ozens of tents and shacks stood at the perimeter, homes of men who valued solitude or men whose families were were with them in camp.”
Grisdale was built to be permanent and to, “serve a wholesome, stable community for a man and his family.” The company men’s characterization of the old logging camps was at least a tad hyperbolic and that of the new was loaded with feel good words: wholesome, stable, and family. Loggers would have described their old lives differently as well as their goals for a better working situation. Indeed, it was the hard work of the unions, not the largesse of companies like Simpson, that got the workers the “modernized” camps like Grisdale. The unions, including the I.W.W. or Wobblies , worked hard in the 19-teens to assure 8-hour days and better, healthier, and economically more just work climate for the loggers.
Insert http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6OQVjKUBPg (Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks)
The song “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks,” sung to the tune of “Portland County Jail”, describes exactly what the loggers wanted and it could have served as a blueprint for Simpson and Grisdale:
“Take a tip and start right in—plan some cozy rooms Six or eight spring beds in each, with towels, sheets and brooms; Shower baths for men who work keeps them well and fit A laundry, too, and drying room, would help a little bit.”
The recording (cited above) on YouTube is Joe Glazer’s rendition. Glazer was called “labor’s troubadour.” He published “Songs of Work and Freedom” and was a founder of the Labor Heritage Foundation to “curate and promote the culture of the American Labor Movement. He recorded many of the songs from the I.W.W. period in the Northwest. A second version of the song was recorded in St. Maries, Idaho. It is sung by Earl Gleason whose family had over 100 years of experience in the Idaho woods where Harold Barto of Ellensburg, Washington collected the song in 1917. William Alderson. who got the song from Barto, says it is sung to the tune of “A Son of a Gamboleer.” The words vary somewhat from the published I.W.W. version:
Fifty thousand lumberjacks Goin’ in to eat Fifty thousand plates of slum* Made from tainted meat, Fifty thousand lumberjacks All settin’ up a yell To kill the belly robbers And damn their souls to hell. There is also a recording of Gleason’s version on line:
James Stevens notes that before “radical college and newspaper sociologists got control of the I.W.W.” in the Northwest, the language organizers used to talk about the injustices visited upon loggers was full of the sound of “timber.” Employment offices were called “slave markets,” and “the first gang of logger delegates to go to an I.W.W. convention called themselves ‘the overall brigade.’” They went home with new jobs for the educated leadership: the “pink-pretties.” That language is reflected in Gleason’s version of “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks”.
It was because of the unions and the effectiveness of the protests (that big logging outfits faced during strikes by the workers during 1917 and 1918) that the circumstances for the laborers began to change. Even then, Seattle and Centralia lumber timber owners, for instance, had not happily agreed to institute an eight-hour day and to improve the workers’ lot. The strike was long and ultimately bloody. You’ve got to read the history of the Everett Massacre and Centralia Massacre to put this period into some perspective and understand better the role that loggers and shingle workers played in insisting on better wages and working conditions.
By 1946 Simpson had to do better if they were to attract people who would stay in this soggy wet forest where the rain forest conditions would grow moss on your boots and mushrooms in your ears if you stood still long enough.
I visited Grisdale that day before it closed with my friend, Karen James and her father, Dave James who served as Simpson’s PR man and historian for many years. The Grisdale camp, James said, was a big investment for the company. It featured freestanding family homes, “a two-room schoolhouse, a gymnasium, and a grocery in the middle of the forest.” When it closed in 1985 it represented the decline and demise of a way of life and the end of an era. “To the rigging-slingers and grapple-loaders, chokers and chasers, Camp Grisdale, lying at the end of a twisted, rutted road between civilization and rawest nature, was more than a job.” It was, locals said, a sad day for the men in the cork boots and red suspenders. Some had known nothing but the camps as had their fathers and grandfathers.
That day in the woods 40 miles up the Wynochee above Montesano in the Olympic Mountains, I stood near a team of men as they prepared to fell a behemoth of a fir tree. They made a huge undercut down low on the tree. Years ago, loggers notched the tree up high, inserted a springboard, and cut the tree from that position. You can still see tall stumps all around forests in the Northwest. On the stumps, you can make out the notches where the springboards were inserted. I watched these seasoned laborers in awe. Norman Maclean described their work and the altered state that loggers experienced as they engaged the trees, the saws, and their buddies:
“… A [lumberjack] could not remain a logger and be outworked. If I had to ask for mercy on the saw I might as well have packed my duffel bag and headed down the road. … Sawing it is something beautiful when you are working rhythmically together— at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness—maybe even something more disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”
Those were the days when trees were felled with axes and long crosscut saws pulled with one faller at either end. The modern chainsaw was patented in 1926. The woods, subsequently, changed dramatically. But the chainsaw was here to stay and even cut its way into modern poetry, in the form of its earlier iteration, the cordwood or buzz saw:
“The buzz saw** snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood…”
These are the opening lines of Robert Frost’s ‘Out, Out—‘ in which a poor lad loses his hand and then his life to technology as it “snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled” just like a wild animal that turns on a man and leaps out at him. And just that quickly, the saw can take a life. The saw becomes a symbol of the modern world, of modernism itself, a kind of image for the rural wooded world as powerful and frightening in its implication as Metropolis was for the urban world. Man versus machine. Metropolis the film came out in 1927, the year after the chainsaw was patented.
In Grisdale that day, as the men I watched cut deeper into the tree, great gushing buckets of sap flowed as easily as a waterfall out of the center of the tree. Like the boy’s blood in the poem, the life spills away. It was astonishing to see that much liquid coming out of what seemed to be a tower of dense matter, all fibrous substance to the core. But as I watched, millions of sap cells exhausted their carefully held supplies all at once and poured out their life stuff as the saws cut deeper and deeper. When the great wedge was finished to the satisfaction of the team, the team made a back cut. The sound of the chainsaws, an angry sound of a thousand troubled mosquitoes, was insistent. The team would have their way with the tree, no doubt. Then, there was a heavy, surprising earthquake, a ground trembling moment, as the colossus fell. Nothing could prepare me for the finality of that fall. It was like, I thought, the day I saw a grand, shining marlin I had caught die and turn dull and blank before my eyes. I was moved and afraid at the same time. I was afraid at what I was capable of doing to such majesty. A little voice inside me said, “this just isn’t right”. But even if those voices speak in the woods, or even scream in protest, they are ignored. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly men, have made their livings and fed their families pursuing and bringing down these giant trees or damming rivers, or slaughtering buffalo or chasing whales. It is the stuff of myth and song and great literature. Think Hemingway and Melville. Man and nature: the small insignificant man standing up to and conquering (or being conquered by) the mighty. The book of Genesis exhorts, “Go forth, multiply, and subdue the earth,” and we’ve been doing it ever since. There is danger, death, impossible odds, the risk of the gamble, in short, a human life against the great “it”.
We went back to camp that day at Grisdale and were escorted through a lunch line where raw men shoveled t-bone steaks on to their plates, some piling the steaks even higher than the precarious stacks of pancakes they’d had for breakfast. I didn’t hear what James Stevens heard when the loggers sat around the table and called out, “chase that java and canned cow over here, Stub” or “chase us a slab of that bull, will you Slim” or “chase along a bowl of strawberries” (beans) or even “chase down the punk and the skid grease” (bread and butter).
That was my day with the “timber beasts” of Grisdale. Their fathers’ and grandfathers’ history included tales of hardship, heroism, loss, and periods of radicalization including strikes called by the I.W.W. and, of course, these stories and tales were carried forward and informed by music.
The tape I recorded that day is, if I could find it, no doubt as nearly unreadable as the reel to reel tapes I found of singing loggers in the Evergreen State college archives. The Washington State Folklife Council has deposited audio and video recordings of singers such as Hank Nelson who grew up near Coos Bay, Oregon and worked as a timber faller in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, and Woody Gifford, known as a logger poet. During the performance I viewed on one damaged tape, Nelson wears a plaid shirt and suspenders. These and hemless jeans or “stag trousers” are so associated with loggers they are easily parodied. Suspenders and the cut offs are said to be safer in case of snags among other comfort and security features they provide. He has dark curly hair and expressive eyes. The person who introduces him says it was, “like getting a beast out of the woods,” to get him to appear. Nelson pays homage to Buzz Martin and sings a Buzz song, “I’m sick of settin’ chokers in the rain.” During his act, he brings his pal, Woody Gifford, on to the stage. Gifford provides percussion for the next tune by hitting an iron wedge with a sledge. I’ve used this gimmick myself now several times. People love it. Some of the video in the archives was shot during a logger poet’s event sponsored by the Folk life Council. The audio tapes seem to have been, for the most part, collected by Jens Lund and features individual interviews. Although I have studio recordings on long play platters of Buzz Martin and Bob Antone, it was a joy to see a live tape of Nelson in performance with Gifford and hear his unvarnished tales of his work and life in the woods. The tapes are in poor condition but Randy Stilson, the archivist at Evergreen, assures me that they are not a loss and can be restored and copied for those who want more. …..
My first introduction to logging songs of the Pacific Northwest was listening to “The Frozen Logger” sung around the piano at the James house in the Seattle area during the late 1960s. Dave James had an original copy of the sheet music arranged and sung by The Weavers and signed by the writer, James Stevens. Stevens spent his young years in the woods and sawmills of the Pacific Northwest. He called himself a “hobo laborer.” We have him to thank for the popularity of the Paul Bunyan stories, first published in 1925.Stevens’ telling of the stories was based upon tales that had circulated among lumberjacks for years. The Weavers, who recorded The Frozen Logger, were out of New York’s Greenish Village and came together in 1946. At the advice of their manager, they softened their political rhetoric during the McCarthy era and the “red scare.” This was the early 1950s. It was not safe to be radical in the United States.
In spite of toning down their speech, two Weavers, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, were denounced and called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The group had embraced pacifism and internationalism and pro-labor sympathies in the 1930s. Seeger was found guilty of contempt of court. The Weavers had recorded Frozen Logger on Decca Records in 1951,two years after it was published. Subsequent to the HUAC hearings, the group lost their contract with Decca the same year Frozen Logger came out and were banned from appearing on television and radio. As late as 1962, the Weavers were not allowed to appear on the Jack Parr show when they refused to sign a political loyalty oath. ….. Songs about unemployment and economic hardships among those who still work in the woods continue to be a theme of more contemporary singing loggers like Bob Antone and the late Buzz Martin. This one (below) on YouTube was recorded by Buzz Martin on the Ripcord Music label:
Martin made his own guitars, and, influenced by the Grand Ole Opry, began writing his own country western songs, most of them on logging themes. He worked in the woods as cutter, high climber and whistle punk and began performing in logging camps and in dances in the Northwest. He toured with his family ensemble called, appropriately, “Chips off the Old Block.” He died in 1983. …..
Don’t Call ‘em Lumberjacks!!!! Sandy Boys, Shanty Boys, and Timber Beasts
“George H. Rogers was instantly killed at Bosewell’s logging camp on the 25th of January,” the Manistee Times reported in February 1869. “The deceased (was) with a large load of logs that turned partially over, when in the haste of the moment he seized an ax and severed the cord that held the binder. The released binder flew back with such a terrible force to crush his skull… This makes no less than eight men who have been killed in the lumber camps north of Manistee this winter.”
Many writers have dissected the language of the people who work in the woods. Translating the embedded codes and expressions used by loggers is essential to understanding the songs. Even the History Channel has a site with terms. In that glossary, we learn that a binder is “a hinged lever assembly for connecting the end of a wrapper to tighten the wrapper around a load of logs. Of course, we have to know wrappers are to make sense of this. You can’t find that definition on the History Channel site. I searched around and found the answer: They are the chains or wire ropes that encircle the load of logs. Now we can understand something of what happened to George Rogers in 1869. The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest is another good place to learn the lingo and read essays specific to logging on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s and 1930s. James Stevens wrote an article called “Logger Talk” for a 1925 edition of American Speech. In it he said, “Never call the worker in the woods of the Pacific Northwest “lumberjack.” In certain humors he may admit being a timber beast or a savage, but ‘logger’ is the name he has made for himself. He uses the term lumberjack” only in referring to the worker in the ‘toothpick timber, the small second-growth pine and hemlock, in Minnesota, Michigan, an Maine.” The men who bring down the trees are NOT fellers but “fallers” and to call them fellers brought a lot of laughter once when Stevens employed the term in the bunkhouse.
Stevens notes that the language changed with the change in technology. So if you are listening to old songs, such as those collected in the earlier part of the 20th century from old timers, you may find the language hard to decipher even if you know the terms used in the industry in the past fifty years. Even by 1925, when Stevens penned the article on logger talk, the, “bunkhouse bards and minstrels are no more; the old ballads and stories are forgotten.” The old culture of the woods was quickly passing. ….. “Shanty Boys” is what the men in the woods in Michigan were called before lumberjack became popular according to one historian. Shanty Boys were a awesome lot: “Life was tough and the work was hard. It still is. The real money went to a bank back out east while the blood sweat, and cooties were here. It’s still that way except maybe for the cooties. They walked tall, dove deep, swung a broad ax, and helped build a nation”
Franz Rickaby, who collected “pioneer” lyrics of North America and published them in several volumes, wrote that the term Shanty-boys was the preferable term for those who worked in the woods of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota during the 1870-1900 period. Rickaby also bemoans the loss of the old songs. It happened suddenly, he wrote. With the change in technology, “the romance of logging was gone. Gone were the feats, the prowess on the drive, for gone was the drive: the age of steel was upon lumbering—the impersonal age, the non-singing age.”
Rickaby collected “The Shanty-man’s Alphabet” as sung by Mr. Joe Bainter of Gordon, Wisconsin. Rickaby published it in his book “Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boys.” The lyrics he printed include:
A is for axe as you all very well know, And B is for boys that can use them just so. C is for chopping and now I’ll begin; And D is for danger we oft times run in. Chorus And so merry and so merry are we. No mortals on earth are so happy as we. Hi derry hi, and a hi derry down. Give the shanty-boys grub and there’s nothing goes wrong Alan Lomax and Harry B. Welliver also collected the alphabet and published it in their archive of folk song volume called Songs of the Michigan Lumberjacks. Lomax says that the singers they recorded during this project’s life were “grizzled veterans of the Michigan forests.” The version they printed was sung by Gus Schaffer at Greenland, Michigan and recorded in 1938.
This recording is sung by Brian Miller and performed at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison in 2011. Lomax notes that the alphabet song was sung/and being sung in many regions of North America and that no two versions are the same. The Lomax and Welliver volume is a treasure trove of logging songs, some of which date back to “the days of square-timber logging.” Lomax and Welliver include a good list of references for further study.
Another classic recorded in two versions in the Lomax and Welliver collection is the “Jam on Gerry’s Rock.” Many have performed it. Here is one YouTube version sung by Dusty Leer. Dusty gives a good introduction to this tune.
In Virginia (and arguably those in Kentucky and West Virginia) the loggers along the Sandy River were called Sandy Boys. Though the song was published as a minstrel tune in Phil. Rice’s Correct Method for the Banjo in 1858. A Facsimile reprint is available from Elderly Instruments. But be forewarned: the book is full of “the worst kind of racial stereotypes (and anti-Mormon sentiment) common to the era.” One of my current favorite tunes is an old time one called Sandy Boys. There are many recorded versions out there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlYntM3_m7c
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGNOJ9-Biws The chorus lyric is: Hey Hey Sandy boys Hey get along those boys Hey Hey sandy boys Waitin’ on the break of day
I can’t finish this little review of the logging song genre without a tip of the hat to the term “timber beast.” Once source says that the I.W.W. used this term to describe how big timber industry boss men treated the men in the woods. Loggers, singers, and writers picked up the term. It’s used as the title of a book written by Archie Binns who was a Shelton, Washington High School graduate, graduated Stanford, and later, taught writing at University of Washington and Western Washington when it was still a college. “Timber Beast” was one of several novels to his credit. It was published in 1944. Another source, Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland,” also associates the term with the I.W.W. U.Utah Phillips, a laborer organizer, folk singer, Wobblie, and train hopper, recorded the “Timber Beast’s Lament” on his album “Utah Phillips: We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years”, released in 1984 by Philo records, a company that published many folk artists.
“I’m on the boat for the camp with a sick and aching head; I’ve blowed another winter’s stake, And got the jims instead. It seems I’ll never learn the truth that’s written plain as day, It’s the only time they welcome you is when you make it pay. And it’s ‘blanket-stiff’ and ‘jungle-hound’ and ‘pitch him out the door’, ‘ But it’s “Howdy, Jack, old-timer,’ When you’ve got the price for more. Oh, tonight the boat is rocky, And I ain’t got a bunk, Not a rare of cheering liquor, Just a turkey full of junk. All I call my life’s possessions is just what I carry `round, For I’ve blowed the rest on skid-roads, of a hundred gyppo towns. And it’s ‘lumberjack’ and ‘timber-beast,’ and ‘Give these bums a ride,’ but it’s ‘Have one on the house, old boy,’ if you’re stepping with the tide. And the chokers will be heavy, just as heavy, just as cold, when the hooker gives the highball, and we start to dig for gold. And I’ll cuss the siren skid road, with its blatant, drunken tune. But then, of course, I’ll up and make another trip next June.”
Some key resources: Woods Men, Shanty Boys, Bawdy Songs, And Folklorists in America’s upper Midwest. James P. Leary, University of Wisconsin http://scandinavian.wisc.edu/dubois/Courses_folder/Folk_100_readings/Folk_100_Week_3/Bawdy_Songs_Leary.pdf
Leslie Anne Johnson, Logging Songs of the Pacific Northwest: A study of three contemporary artists, A thesis submitted to College of Music Florida State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music, 2007 Norman Cohen, Greenwood Guides to American Roots Music: Folk music: a regional exploration. Greenwood Press, 2005 Songs of the Michigan Lumberjacks Recorded by Alan Lomax and Harry B. Welliver Edited by E.C. Beck. Library of Congress: Washington, 1960 http://www.loc.gov/folklife/LP/AFS_L56_opt.pdf Some other recordings of tunes collected by Lomax and Welliver are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAIctAXCibE a recording of The Falling of the Pine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roo1czGemBk a recording of Once More Lumbering Go
*Slum probably from the Irish…used to describe something bleak. The origin of the word slum is thought to be the Irish phrase ‘S lom é (pron. s’lum ae) meaning “it is a bleak or destitute place.” From Wikipedia.
**Cordwood saws were once very popular in rural America. They were used to cut smaller wood into firewood in an era when hand powered saws were the only other option. Logs too large for a cordwood saw were still cut by hand. Chainsaws have largely replaced cordwood saws for firewood preparation today. Still, some commercial firewood processors and others use cordwood saws to save wear and tear on their chainsaws. Most people consider cordwood saws unsafe and outdated technology.
..Molly Gloss, Wild Life. Excerpt from page 93 of the 2001 Mariner Book edition.
 Who knows how many instruments didn’t make it. Dave Tarras, the klezmer virtuoso, had a wooden clarinet that was destroyed during a fumigation process on Ellis Island in 1921.