An Introduction to the Vernacular Song Tradition of BC’s Southern Interior

by Jon Bartlett, 2008

They stand by the cold deck just wasting my time
Not setting no chokers nor tending no line
When up comes a feller, and he says, “I suppose
You works on the rigging by the looks of your clothes.”

This is a fragment of a song collected on Vancouver Island. It is part of a long tradition in BC of song-making. We don’t know who made the song, or why, though we can say that the maker had no intention of selling it to Tin Pan Alley—he (and it was almost certainly a “he”) made it for his own pleasure, or for the pleasure of his workmates, or both. We know what he made it out of, too—the words are not original. Those whose memories go back to the 1930s will remember Curly Fletcher’s “Strawberry Roan”:

I”m a-layin’ around, just spendin’ muh time,
Out of a job an’ ain’t holdin’ a dime,
When a feller steps up, an’ sez, “I suppose
that you’re uh bronk fighter by the looks uh yure clothes.”

In Fletcher’s own words, “Most of this work is in the vernacular of these early pioneers of the traditional West. The phrases and idioms are a part of everyday conversations which are still common among these virile, independent, free-hearted, generous men and women …”

This cowboy ballad started life as a poem “The Outlaw Broncho”, first printed in an Arizona newspaper in 1915 and later set to music by a person or persons unknown. By the early 1920s it was being sung all over the southwest and as far north as the Dakotas. Our BC version has been found just twice, with slightly different words.

This paper is by way of an introduction to this tradition of “home-made” songs in southern BC. The tradition has lasted from the 1880s to today, though it is often invisible. It could be likened to an underground river, appearing here and there and disappearing again.

Our best knowledge of this tradition comes from Phil Thomas (1921-2007). From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, Thomas, a schoolteacher, spent his summers travelling the province looking for such songs. He found approximately 400 of them. His informants were loggers, miners, farmers, early settlers, and fishing folk. His collection became the foundation of his book, Songs of the Pacific Northwest.

From a historical point of view, the material uncovered by Thomas might be termed ‘history from below’—a view of the world not from the upper reaches of literate society but from the working community. In the same way that westerners identified with cowboy songs (in their original form or as gentrified by commercial singers) because the songs contained the realities of their lives – horses, saddles, the semi-desert of the American west – so did BC pioneers, farmers and loggers sing of the realities of their lives. If the language is more impenetrable than that of cowboys, it’s merely because American TV glorifies the south-west, not the north-west, with its fishing and logging jargon. Those who logged between the wars and even up to the 1960s would be familiar with the terms ‘cold deck’, ‘chokers’, and the like.

These songs have been called ‘folk songs’. They share much with the academic notion of folk (being widely distributed, almost always anonymous, existing in several different variant forms, etc.), but the term ‘folk’ has been so completely annexed by the professional music industry that it now means almost anything. We could use the word ‘traditional’, with its suggestion of how the song moves through the community (most often orally), but the word used by Fletcher – ‘vernacular’ – is perhaps the best one to describe this type of song. It emphasizes that the speech used is ordinary everyday speech, and not the elevated language of ‘poetry’ or the image-laden pop or folk song.

Some of the material Thomas found was in written form, either as manuscripts or as printed in newspapers, but most of his material came from live informants. Recent work in the Princeton Archives suggests that there is a significant amount of the tradition that was reduced to paper.

Princeton has had a multi-faceted existence. It began life in the 1860’s as a ranching and cattle-drive centre. With the discovery of gold at Granite Creek in 1885, and the pursuit of coal and copper mining in the 1910’s, it became a mining town. The mines encouraged the building of two railways, which converged at Princeton. When mining was played out, a continuing interior logging industry became the chief source of income. Throughout this period, the town has had at least one newspaper.

An examination of the holdings of the first thirty years one of the newspapers in the Princeton Archives uncovers some forty songs. Almost all of these songs use vernacular language, and where ‘poetic’ language is found, it is almost always ironic or sentimental. The songs are often structured along the lines of known songs: nursery rhymes, hymns and popular song form the basis of the music. By way of an example here is a song that appeared in the third edition of the paper, 23 June 1900:

How dear to my heart my remembrance of milling,
Reproduced in the scenes of my fancy so true;
The leaky ore-feeders that always were spilling
More rock on the floor than they ever fed through.

The wobbly old pulley, our cam-shaft adorning,
The menacing ore-bin that threatened to kill:
The two old cracked cams that were keyed every morning,
And the grease-reeking hang up stick used in the mill.

That grease-garnished weapon I’ve grasped with a feeling
When often at noon from my luncheon I flew;
What a gift of profanity I was revealing
As I hung up a stamp that had broken a shoe!

The greasy old ‘cam-post’ the chain blocks hung near it,
The sledge and the drifts and the shims that don’t fill;
And George’s shrill whistle – a dead man could hear it –
As we rushed for the hang-up stick used in the mill.

But now far removed from that grease-smeared condition,
No tears of regret do my eyes ever fill;
Yet I hail as an old friend this pigmy edition
Of that grease-festooned hang-up stick used in the mill.

If we use this song as an exemplar of the genre, we become immediately aware of several intriguing facts. Firstly, the song’s characteristic language is typical of the songs Thomas collected: it is packed full of language unfamiliar to those outside of the mining industry. It is a visual recollection of a stamp mill, and a fairly primitive one at that. The earliest stamp mills we know of in the area were at Fairview (1901) and Hedley (1902), though a small one came into Boundary Creek near Greenwood in 1892, and another was brought to Camp McKinney in 1896. The author is unknown, and we have not collected or discovered it elsewhere.

We know too that it is a song rather than a poem. Those familiar with the Victorian pop song “The Old Oaken Bucket” will see the parallel.

Our song is thus a parody, a gentle mockery perhaps, of the sentimental pop song: but at the same time, one can imagine it being sung (“with much success”, as they used to say) to a roomful of stamp mill workers.

The song appeared, as noted, in the third edition of the town’s paper. No explanation of the song or any indication of where it came from accompanies the text. What was its source? Did the editor perhaps hear it from the worker who made it? In Princeton in 1900, there were farmers, placer miners, quartz miners, and road construction workers. There were no mill workers, and as the language is so technical, it would be unlikely that a worker in another trade would know or even understand the song. It seems most likely that the editor brought the song with him from wherever he had been before. Nonetheless, the song was sufficiently familiar (because it was a parody of a well-known pop song) for him to believe that it would go over well.

Forty-odd songs in thirty years is not a huge number, but it is a significant one. It is a great deal larger than the number of poems and songs one would find in the most recent thirty years of any paper. Why the popularity of such songs? We believe it to be caused by three main factors: first, the character of interior BC mining and smelting towns; second, the greater independence of editors of such papers; and third, the tradition, far more widespread that now, of “home made” song.

Mining towns have much in common with each other. Their life stories are identical in outline, and only the details are unique to each town. First, there are prospectors, looking for good showings. On finding such, they stake the area. Mines need capital, something almost never possessed by prospectors, and so the mining claims are sold to mining companies. Where prospects are good, a mine is dug. This requires workers, who need housing, food, and transport to the mine. The ore from the mine has to be milled, transported, refined and smelted. This requires transportation, most conveniently a railway. Parasitic on this micro-economy are the businessmen who move to satisfy the needs above outlined, and who also need a secure town to make it worth their while to establish themselves. A worker can pack his tools and move on when the mine is played out, but the grocer, the printer, and the publican have capital tied up. Thus the businessmen become boosters, to try to ensure that the town has some permanence. This appeared in Princeton’s paper of 5 June 1912:

Do you know there’s lots o’ people
Settin’ round in every town,
Growlin’ like a broody chicken,
Knockin’ every good thing down?
Don’t you be that kind o’ cattle,
’Cause they ain’t no use on earth,
You just be a booster rooster,
Crow and boost for all you’re worth.

If your town needs boostin’, boost ’er;
Don’t hold back and wait to see.
If some other fella’s willin’—
Sail right in, this country’s free.
No one’s got a mortgage on it,
It’s just yours as much as his,
If your town is shy on boosters
You get in the boostin’ biz.

—with two more verses (and there were many such poems and songs over the years). The other side of boosterism – using the positive drive of greed, rather than the negative drive of fear – encourages the purchases of town lots because money is to be made when the boosting is successful and the prices go up. Thomas found an excellent example of this is a pre-first World War song made by B.C. Hilliam titled “Lottie Has Lots and Lots of Lots”.

Central to boosting is the newspaper. The owner and editor share in both the positive and negative drives of boosting—more businesses mean more advertising revenue, and the owner has significant capital invested, as it were, in the town, through owning a printing press. The newspaper comes out on a regular schedule, and whether there is news or no, must contain something for the reader. The editor was in those days by and large an independent businessman, sometimes answerable only to the owner (which he may have been himself). He was free to say what he liked, subject of course to his readership. He brought to the task his printing skills and his wide general knowledge, and he had to know and satisfy the working-class tastes of his subscribers. The Princeton editor, for example, noted in April 1908 “the miners of Hedley have organized a union and are now connected with the Western Federation of Miners. The new union starts off with a large membership, and the Star editor, who is a Union man, wishes the Hedley miners every success.”

The tradition of “home made” song formed part of the cultural capital brought to the new southern interior towns by workers in the early years of the twentieth century. The song tradition of the British Isles, from which three quarters of the Princeton population hailed, transformed to a degree by the popular commercial songs of the music halls, formed the musical vocabulary. There was, too, a widespread knowledge and appreciation of Robbie Burns, for example, and many a Burns supper was held with poems, recitations and songs contributed by the attendees.

To describe in detail the history of BC’s vernacular song culture is beyond the scope of this paper. It is hoped that the outline provided above outlines the scope of the task before any cultural historian. The difficulty of doing ‘history from below’ is that the subject is often invisible. It is easier to discover what King John did on a given day in 1205 than what a Princeton miner did on a 1905 evening. We cannot know except by inference what was typical and what was not. Newspapers in the early years of the century, when closely read for their cultural content, can greatly enlarge that knowledge, and it is our belief that a close examination of the cultural content of newspapers, particularly from mining towns, will flesh out the lived experiences of BC workers and provide the basis for a more thorough understanding of the province’s history.

Fletcher, Curly W. Songs of the Sage. Los Angeles, 1931: Frontier Publishing Company
Thomas, Philip J. Songs of the Pacific Northwest. 2nd rev. & enlarged ed. Surrey, 2007: Hancock House