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georgeward American Canal Builder's Songs (49) RE: American Canal Builder's Songs 04 Apr 05


Ed,

The song Dave Ruch mentions, "We are digging a ditch through the mire,.." MAY be about as old as they get. It has also been bowdlerized. The original substituted "Dammit!" for "By heck!"

Here's the note on it, from my album 'Oh! That Low Bridge!":

'In December of 1942, Walter D. Edmonds sent the text of this song to Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress (now a part of the Library's American Folklife Center). Edmonds had the song from Samuel Hopkins Adams, who sent it to him with the following note: 'Song found by Prof. J.D.Ibbotson, then Librarian of Hamilton College, written in pencil on the flyleaf of an old book in the library. He thinks it dates from about 1825. As the digging was completed before then, I should think it might be earlier.' "

If the names are not familiar (though I imagine they are), Adams and Edmonds were (and remain) the two giants of Erie Canal storytelling. Adams used the text of the song twice in canal stories, but not - in the mid-twentieth-century - with its "dammits" in place. Such feigned innocence!

I made a tune for the thing, sing it on the album and have sung it ever since. The song should really be in the DT. I'll try to do that. Failing that, Folk-Legacy sells my album. I try very hard not to do mail orders (but...).

"Paddy on the Canal", mentioned above, was - I'm just guessing - the most widely-distributed navvy song of the 19th century in this country ("navvy" = "navigator" = wry Irish term for a canal digger). It was published in broadside in at least Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Although everything that has been said about working conditions was true, it is also the case that work on the canals was just that...work... and a better prospect than some alternatives for impoverished immigrants. And, at some point, the somewhat-established immigrants become a market for penny broadsides. "Paddy on the Canal" may be the only surviving example, but the very fact of its reprinting suggests to me that it struck enough of a nerve that there may have been more.

I will disagree a bit with Brian, too, about the possibility of songmaking by those at the bottom of the social pyramid. Literacy is no barrier to songmaking. Problem is, we are them dependent upon a continuing oral tradition (or later literacy) if they are to survive.

There's a fiddle tune called "The Navvy on the Line," too.

- George


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