Backwoodsman (The)


This terrific song was collected from Emerson Woodcock in 1957 by Edith Fowke. If we can believe the the first verse it comes from the mid-19th century. It was well-known in many parts of Canada and the United States - especially in areas where logging was done. The place names in the lyrics are usually "localized" to the locale in which it is being sung. In this version it takes place in the Omemee and Downeyville in Ontario's Kawartha Lakes region. Alan Lomax believed this song originated in Vermont.

One of the details I like about this song is what the guy is doing in the first couple of verses. He's hauling cordwood - firewood, to sell to people. Unless you lived in the bush or were a rural landowner in the 19th century, you had to buy firewood just like we have to buy oil, natural gas, electricity or...firewood today. I first learned the song about 40 years ago, but didn't really understand the importance of what he was doing until I read a great essay called The Winter's Tale: The Seasonal Contours of Pre-Industrial Poverty in British North America, 1815-1860 by Judith Fingard. It's part of a book called Interpreting Canada's Past - Vol. 1 Before Confederation, Oxford University Press edited by J.M. Bumstead. It's worth a read.

The other thing is the "ethnicity" of the dance in Downeyville. When I went to the Catholic Cemetery there a few years ago I looked at the names on the stones and thought to myself that it looked like just about any of them could have "played the rounds of old Ireland for four hours long". There have continued to be fiddle sessions at the hall in Downeyville in recent years.

There are links below to two recordings of the song - Mr. Woodcock's 1957 field recording, and a video of Anne Lederman and me in 2013. I learned the Woodcock version but I seem to have changed the tune a bit in the 35 or so years I have been singing it. We also left off the last verse in this arrangement - just because the verse before it led into the fiddle tunes better.


Details

Title Backwoodsman (The)
Subject On the Farm & In the Bush
Year 1860
Locale Central
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