Some Background

In the days before commercial recordings and electronic media, songs were sung for entertainment around the house, on the job, and in public community settings. A talented singer possessing a repertoire of songs was held in high regard for ability to be “the television of the day.”  Ancient British Isles ballads of love and war were sung alongside comic songs, broadsides, songs of historical events, religious/sacred songs and newer creations about local events.   

Far from being the staged event it so often is today, singing in earlier America was something ordinary people did to pass time, to help the work go more quickly, to comment on a recent event, to provide a bit of humor, or to entertain self, family, friends and/or co-workers after the day’s work was done.

“I never gave it much thought when I was a kid to home, and grew up.  Dad would sing for entertainment; we never had radio in those days....he’d get out on the porch and sing. Smoke his pipe, you know. Take a few puffs of it and sing another verse or two....mostly during the week, any warm weather.”

-- Claude Guthrie, Fiddler, Canton   

The style of singing was quite straightforward generally, with little or no ornamentation and a strong emphasis on the song itself and the story that it told.  The singer took a backseat to the song.   

“Rachel (a second cousin) was in the kitchen and she was working around and she was singing....and she was adding all little grace notes and going up and going down and, gee, I thought that sounded good.  So, when I went home a day or two later I’m out in the kitchen doing the dishes at the sink, and I’m singing Mom’s ‘Nobleman’s Wedding’ and I decided that would sound pretty good with all those little ‘doo dads’ in it, so I’m giving it everything I can find to put in it.  About that time Mom comes to the dining room door and she looks out at me and said ‘Who did you hear singing like that?’...(I told her it was Rachel)...she said, well, maybe her songs sound alright like that but mine don’t, and if you’re gonna sing my songs you sing them the way they belong or you shut your mouth. Needless to say, I shut my mouth.”

Sara Cleveland, Ballad Singer, Brant Lake

Not everyone sang, certainly, and only some were thought of as “good singers,” but that label often had more to do with the quantity and quality of songs the singer knew, and less to do with vocal quality.  Accolades for older singers so often contain some variation of the phrase “boy, I’ll tell you, he could sing all night and never sing the same song twice.”

The general repertoire of oral tradition songs in the Adirondacks numbered in the thousands, with some pieces found more frequently than others.  It was not uncommon for traditional singers to have 100 or more full songs in their memories at any given time, with a few singers (that we know about) possessing repertoires of over 200 songs.

Typically, no two singers outside of an immediate family--and sometimes within one--would have identical versions of the same song (there being exceptions, of course). Because of the nature of the oral tradition, the changes one makes to a given song during and after the time it is committed to memory, conscious or not, result in infinite variations on both lyrics (text) and melody (tune).

Barrooms, lumber camp bunkhouses, front porches, parlors, work bees (quilting, husking, barn raising, etc), fireplaces, kitchens and general stores would each provide an atmosphere and context ripe for the singing and sharing of these tales set to music.

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Lumbercamp Singing

By the mid nineteenth century, New York State had surpassed Maine as the preeminent  lumbering state in America.  With the main logging season occurring in the fall, winter and early spring months, lumbermen and camp cooks would trek miles into the woods in October or so, often not to see the outside world again until April, or later.  Working six days a week for twelve to fourteen hours a day in the wintry woods left precious little time or energy for recreation, although to say that entertainment was prized in these off hours would be an understatement.  We have many  accounts of lumber camp employment bolstered by one’s ability either to sing a song, tell a story, fiddle a tune or dance a dance.

“An interesting story is told concerning (Theodorus Older’s) arrival in Keene Valley, where he settled about 1870.  At dusk of a winter day a powerfully built stranger stopped into Crawford’s Store and, without saying a word to anyone, walked to the stove and began to warm himself.  After a few minutes, with his back to the stove, he began softly singing to himself.  In short order more people were entering than leaving the store and those who had business to transact did so in lowered voices.  The tall stranger remained singing until 10 or 11 o’clock at night when he finally spoke to ask: ‘Any work around here?  I’m a chopper.’  A job was quickly found for him in the area.”

-- Peter McElligott, referring to singer/fiddler Lawrence Older’s grandfather

Occasionally on weekday evenings, and most often on Saturday nights (with Sunday being the  traditional day off), singing lumbermen in camp would take their turn on the “deacon seat” in the bunkhouse, offering songs old and new in an unaccompanied (“a capella”) declamatory style for the entertainment of themselves and their co-workers.  The songs in a typical Adirondack lumberman’s repertoire contained a mix of logging and non-woods themes, and with the variety of men one worked with from camp to camp and year to year, there were endless opportunities to pick up new songs.

Some of the more commonly found songs in the Adirondack lumbercamp repertoire, circa 1880-1930,  are: “The Wild Colonial Boy,” “The Wild Mustard River” (aka “Johnny Stiles”), “The Ballad of Blue Mountain Lake,” “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” “The Darby Ram,” “Barbara Allen,” “The Days of ‘49,” “The Little Mohea,” “The Flying Cloud,” “Johnny   Sands,” “The Lass of Glenshee,” “The St Albans Murder,” “The Cumberland and the Merrimac,” “Once More A-Lumbering Go,” “The Shanty Boy,” “The Farmer Boy,” “James Bird,” “The Woodsman’s Alphabet,” “The Flat River Girl” (aka “Jack Haggerty”), “The Backwoodsman” (aka “One Monday Morning,” “The Dance at Clintonville”), “Joe Bowers,” “Lord Lovell,” “Kate and Her Horns,” “John Riley,” “The Banks of the Sweet Dundee,” “Lord Randall,” “Cole Younger,” “A Shantyman’s Life”, and perhaps the most ubiquitous of all…The Jam on Gerry’s Rock .

“I probably sung that thing maybe 5,000 times…That was the big one for a majority of the fellas.  ‘Course, it was a  lumberjack song, you might say...”

-- Ted Ashlaw, referring to “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock”

“Anyone  that ever worked in the camps, after they’d heard that 60 or 70 times in one winter, they’d heard it enough.”

-- Lawrence Older, referring to “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock”

“Those deaths occurred in so many areas…in fact, I’ve heard that name changed to an area death...because it matched so perfectly the happening that they knew of, they used a different name.  When I married my first husband…his mother sent me all the words, and they were a little bit different (from the version sung by my grandmother).”

-- Ermina Pincombe, referring to “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock”


The importance of lumber camp singing and song repertoire cannot be overemphasized in any  look at Traditional Adirondack Music.  Singing lumbermen highlighted on this website include “Yankee John” Galusha, Ted Ashlaw, Eddie Ashlaw, Steve Wadsworth and Lawrence Older, although we see the influence of the woodsman’s repertoire for numerous other Adirondack singers.

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Barroom Singing

Often an extension of lumber camp singing, barroom or tavern performance was an art form all its own in Adirondack towns and outposts of old.  The barroom, if we are to believe old stories told by woodsmen and others, was the first place many loggers would steer in the springtime, or on weekends, once they had a little change in their pockets.  A singer with a decent repertoire of songs, once discovered and called upon, would sing song after song to the delight of the other patrons, and would be treated with special status for the remainder of their stay at the tavern.

“Draft beer was ten cents.  You could go in there with one little dime in the  afternoon, and you’d come out that night walking sideways.”

-- Dick Law, Traditional Singer, Hermon

On a lucky night, one might encounter several singers of the old-time songs congregated at a woodsmen’s tavern.

“… Tupper Lake was always pretty good for singing.  You’d get in there, and the group would be singin'-- five or six of us, sometimes more.  (At the Grand Union Hotel) there was a big bunch would come that were all good singers.  We’d get in a huddle at the end of the bar, and we’d whoop her up there. Tupper Lake is shot start singing in a bar and they turn the jukebox on.”

-- Eddie Ashlaw, Traditional Singer, Parishville Center

The tavern setting, like the lumbercamps, also gave singers the opportunity to “pick up new pieces,” to hear major change versions and minor change variants in texts and tunes of their own songs , and to experience other styles of singing in a relaxed, informal setting. 

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Home Singing

Some of our most important and well-known Adirondack singers, including Sara Cleveland and Lawrence Older, mention hearing and learning their first songs at home from members of their family.  In the home setting, singing ranged from a solitary activity while washing dishes or tending gardens to a group activity with family members gathered around on a winter’s night.  If the “family around the hearth” image sounds a bit romantic, this is how Sara Cleveland described it:

“In the wintertime, when the snow was blowing and it was cold and you were sitting in the living room around the old pot-bellied stove, she (my mother) would tell these stories and she’d sing the songs, and then you’d get up and go to was a way of didn’t have radios and you didn’t have television....(I learned the songs from) just listening to her....she never once told you how to do it.”

-- Sara Cleveland, Ballad Singer, Brant Lake

Singing around the house was a natural part of life in many homes, and Adirondack singers and musicians have often mentioned that “you didn’t think anything of it at the time.”  The songs would become part of the rhythm of home life, and without much effort at all, some of them would end up in the next generation’s repertoire.  Other more lengthy  songs would be carefully gone over time and time again until the new singer had “gotten it all together." Songs learned from family members in this way tended to stick with the singers, and would bring back special feelings when sung.

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Community Singing

Outside of the tavern/barroom setting mentioned above, there were several other important public places within Adirondack communities where singing would take place.  These include work bees, family gatherings, Grange meetings, talent shows, local school events, minstrel shows and more.

“You’d take around Christmas time.  Why, you don’t see it no more, but we’d be three weeks (visiting) from one house to the other.  Team on a set of sleighs.  And probably fifteen or twenty people on it.  We’d go from one relative to the other...and you’d always find about ten up singing all the time, ten drunk.  There was once in awhile a fiddler, but that’s about all.  Singing in French and English. And… there was a lot of songs...and they’d go to the week after New Years. They called that ‘little NewYears’...Well, that’s the way they spent Christmas years ago.”

-- Eddie Ashlaw, Traditional Singer, Parishville Center