The honourable gentleman made a speech which drew tears from the eyes of the ladies, and awakened the liveliest emotions in every individual present. He had visited the houses of the poor in the various districts of London, and had found them destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin… — Nicholas Nickleby
Some people campaign against the misuse of the word hopefully; some people feel strongly that leggings are not pants; some people advocate for world harmony. I personally am on the warpath about muffins.
Remember when muffins were bread instead of cake?*
This abstruse historical fact came to mind after I had expensively renovated a fireplace and then discovered the historical toasting forks in the pantry of my old family house. Toasting muffins! All the old muffin memories came flooding back. Remember when you put butter on muffins? Putting butter on a modern muffin would be like putting butter on cake. Actually it wouldn’t be like putting butter on cake; it would be putting butter on cake.
Muffins are the canary in the coal mine of modern American food practices. The canary is now the size of a chicken and imparts a sweet flavor. That is to say, over the past sixty years food in the United States has gotten enormously larger and sweeter.
I remember when “giant” muffins were first invented. They came into stores in the early 1980s, along with “giant” (now known as “regular size”) cookies six inches in diameter. The giant muffins were extravagant, outsized, comical. Look how much muffin! A whole meal of muffin!
Then, of course, they became normal. They were also sweeter than traditional muffins: much like gargantuan cupcakes with no frosting.
Since then they’ve grown even larger. Many muffins you buy in American coffee shops and supermarkets have a top as large as a dinner plate. In many instances they’ve also acquiring icing. The evolution to a cake variant is coming to its culmination.
But back to primordial muffins. Finding the toasting forks, I remembered the muffins of yore, those small, modest, only hintingly sweet muffins, and I determined to make some. The way to find an old-fashioned muffin recipe is to consult an old cookbook, in my case the 1946 Joy of Cooking, which was given to my mother as a wedding present.
In the 1946 Joy of Cooking, the regular muffin recipe calls for 2 cups of cake flour or 1 3/4 cups of bread flour, and 1/4 cup sugar, and makes 24 muffins.
The blueberry muffin recipe in the same book increases that to 1/3 cup sugar, and makes 36 muffins.
I will pause, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, while you absorb these facts. 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar.
So I go straying around the internet looking at modern muffin recipes.
The “Best Ever Muffins” recipe at Allrecipes.com — a recipe for plain muffins — calls for 2 cups of flour and 3/4 cup sugar, and makes 12 muffins. Note that the proportion of sugar in each muffin has tripled, and the amount per serving has increased by six.
I’m wondering precisely why we have these debates about why Americans are so heavy. The truth is in blinking neon lights. By their muffins ye shall know them.
And the Allrecipes.com muffins are the little bitty muffin size of yesteryore, the cupcake size — not even the coffeeshop Brobdingnagian size. That’s a lot of sugar for a bitty muffin.
So I turn to the locus classicus of muffin making. The recipe from the new Best Loved and Brand-New Joy of Cooking calls for 2 cups flour and 2/3 cup sugar. Again, three times as much sugar.
So I made the 1946 blueberry muffins and they were dandy, and mmm so good hot and buttered. But the recipe didn’t make 24 muffins. I could only get 16 out of it, because my sense of normal muffin size has been warped. So even the muffins that I think are very small are 50% bigger than the original muffins. Original muffins — let”s call them heritage muffins — should be two inches in diameter and about an inch high. Those are muffins the size that nature intended. Modern muffins are like titanosaur muffins, striding the earth with a footprint the size of a small nation.
On the page across from the 1946 muffin recipe is the muffin recipe that really put me to shame. CRUMB MUFFINS. “Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.” It would be amusing to make these and officially title them “Acceptable Muffins.” But the whole tradition of making Acceptable Muffins out of stale bread crumbs has died away with the end of World War II, rationing, and shortages. And note: the Crumb Muffins have no sugar at all! They are wholly a bread item! But they are no more. The end of a long evolutionary line, vanished. A muffin dead end, like their cousins, Sour Milk Muffins, the next in the book, a whole necropolis of extinct baked goods.
But right now there are little old-fashioned blueberry muffins in my kitchen. So here’s to old-fashioned small and bready things. May they never perish from the earth.
(Stay tuned for recipes and brutal interrogation.)
*Let’s be clear about the terminology here. The United States and Britain are two countries divided by muffins. Right now the things I’m complaining about are the cupcake-shaped things made in North America. The other constituent of the catgeory of “muffin” is what Americans call the English muffin, which is approximately analogous to what the English call crumpets. English muffins and crumpets don’t taste the same, and you don’t split a crumpet, but my guess is that if you home-made English muffins and crumpets they would be very similar, much closer than their industrial versions. Both English muffins and crumpets have stayed on the bread side of the bread/cake divide, although I say this with the proviso that all American breads are so sweet that English people make faces and say “Can’t I get some bread in this country?”
What Americans call muffins were first introduced to England in the 1990s, under the terminology “cake muffins,” which gives you a historical snapshot of the situation right there.
(In case muffin mass exinction has gotten you down, here is a cheering clip of the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man about the doings of the Muffin Man, from Shrek):
Here are the 1946 recipes — little time capsules:
About 24 two inch muffins
Sift before measuring:
2 cups cake flour or 1 3/4 cup bread flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 2 teaspoons combination type
["combination type" is the modern "double-acting" baking powder, now the norm]
Beat in a separate bowl:
Combine and add:
2 tablespoons melted butter
3/4 cup milk
Stir the liquid quickly into the dry ingredients, taking only 15 or 20 seconds in which to do it. Make no attempt to stir or beat out the lumps. Ignore them. Unnecessary handling of the batter results in tough muffins. Pour the batter at once into greased tins or paper baking cups. Fill them about 1/3 full. Bake the muffins from 15 to 20 minutes in a hot oven 425 degrees. Remove them at once from the tins. To reheat them, place in a paper bag and close the bag and place it in a hot oven 425 degrees for about 5 minutes.
About 36 two inch muffins
Follow the preceeding rule for Muffins.
Use in all:
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
Fold into the batter:
1 cup blueberries, slightly floured, or 1 cup canned, well-drained blueberries, slightly floured
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind or orange rind (optional)
12 two inch muffins
Acceptable muffins that help to utilize stale bread.
Soak for 10 minutes:
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
3/4 cup milk
Sift before measuring:
1/2 cup bread flour
2 teaspoons tartrate or phosphate baking powder or 1 1/2 teaspoons combination type
["combination type" is the modern "double-acting" baking powder, now the norm]
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon butter
Beat it with:
Add the sifted ingredients to the dry bread crumbs. Add the egg mixture and stir the batter with a few swift strokes until the ingredients are blended. Partly fill greased muffin tins. Bake the muffins in a hot oven 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
When you buy fake tombstones at a Hallowe’en store, they always look the same, don’t they? Old-timey slabs standing crooked, with R.I.P. written on them. This was the form of many eighteenth-century gravestones, and in England the convention continued into later centuries. In the U.S., though, the nineteenth century saw a profusion of gravestone inventiveness, in almost psychedelic abundance.
Of all these, I think tree-stump gravestones were maybe the most startling.
In saying this, they have a lot to compete with. A nineteenth-century gravestone might consist of a life-size statue of a departed one, like the one of Mary Ellis McGinnis in Edinburgh, Indiana (from the eerily fascinating blog Gravely Speaking).
There were also square monuments, towering monuments, pillared monuments, bronze monuments, flat monuments, and of course the notorious weeping angels.
Tree-stump gravestones were poignantly fashionable for perhaps fifty years. They were used for people who had died young — the symbolism was that of a tree cut down in its prime. They originated in the second half of the nineteenth century, most concentrated in the American Midwest. They were carved of stone or, in later years, made of concrete. Sears and Wards offered catalogues of gravestones, and so tree-stump gravestones became so popular that you can could buy them by mail order.
From 1890 to 1900, insurance policies from the Woodmen of the World (a fraternal benefit society) provided a free tree-stump gravestone, and from 1900 to 1920, a $100 rider assured one. (This latter information is from the addictive blog A Grave Interest.)
This first impressive example (over at the right) that got me looking out for tree-stump gravestones was one I came across at the cemetery in Newbern, Indiana — the grave of Olive L. Newsom, who died in 1891 at the age of 34 years, 10 months, and one day. The trunk is tall and a basket of posies hangs over one limb. The inscription is carved directly onto a bare space on the trunk. It rhymes but the carver was clearly worried about space, so he didn’t align the lines with the rhymes:
SLOWLY FADING LINGERING
DYING, LIKE A LEAF SHE
PASSED AWAY, HEEDING NOT
OUR TEARS OF ANGUISH,
HEAVEN HAS CLAIMED ITS
OWN TO DAY.
Olive’s gravestone is a particularly beautiful example, with ferns, winding vines and even toadstools over at the side.
In other examples the inscription is on a scroll hung from a branch:
Sometimes the inscription is on a slab leaning against the trunk, as you can just about see on the grave of “Our Little Zoe”:
Sometimes the scroll is mysteriously blank —
Some, like the signalman’s tombstone above, denote particulars about the life of the person. The tree-stump gravestone of Nathan Fahler (1845-1887), below, has so many symbols that it’s almost like a totem pole. At the top is the Union cap that signified that Fahler had served in the Civil War. The three chainlinks below the hat signal that the deceased was a member of the Order of Odd Fellows. The next sign down is a symbol of the Masons.
You also get two tree trunks together:
Or as here:
Some were not tree trunks but truly stumps:
Others combined the tree-stump theme with the cross:
Others took the theme in different directions:
The most spectacular is unquestionably the elaborate monument to Henry Smith and his wife Ella Ann Smith Brackett, in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis:
You could buy several kinds in the Sears Catalogue of Sepulchral Monuments, which you can browse through at Archive.org. It even includes suggested poems and epitaphs!
They also offered the rustic tree-stump crosses:
These monuments are all fascinating, but no question that some of them are just heartbreaking:
The trend had largely disappeared by the 1930s, but a few later ones appear. The most recent one I’ve found is from a Jewish cemetery in New England:
No question it is melancholy looking at many of these. To quote Somerset Maugham: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” Gravestones, though, are a different matter.
Susanne S. Ridlen, Tree Stump Tombstones: A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana (Kokomo, Indiana, 1999)
Warren Roberts, “Investigating the Tree-stump Tombstone in Indiana,” in American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue, ed. Simon J.Bronner. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992)
“Cemetery Fascination” on Pinterest — Scrabble boards, armchairs, Snoopy doghouses, cradles, faithful dogs…
And the Association of Gravestone Studies does fascinating work.
History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like. — J. G. Farrell
Sometimes they live in eras and decades that regularized humanity has abandoned … they have come to have a cavalier way with time. What is wrong with that? If regular people are finished with those days and times, why may not others use them?
— R. A. Lafferty
In Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again, an artist named Simon (Si) Morley takes part in a secret expensive government project to send a person back in time. The idea is that it might just be possible to slip between ages by replicating all aspects of the past. So to get back to a certain point in the 1880s, Si is sent to stay in a room in the Dakota building in New York, furnished for the period, with a view from the window that shows nothing from the modern age. He wears nineteenth-century clothes, reads nineteenth-century books, and when he opens his door in the morning, the experimenters have left the newspaper for that day in 1882 on his mat. Then one day Si opens his door — and walks out into the nineteenth century.
For some people this sounds like a tedious and gimmicky literary device. For me it always sounded like the utmost heaven. As a kid I experimented with the idea: could I make a dinner using only dishes from the nineteenth century? (We had a lot of old dishes, which is why I started with dishes.) Could I furnish a room using only furnishings from the nineteenth century? What about a house? This has led to a certain large-scale experiment along these lines in Indiana, but that’s another story.
The idea that surrounding yourself with things from another period leads to time-slip is really just a concrete expression of what happens when we read books from the past. But the trouble with books is that they’re not three-dimensional. You enter the world of the past, but that world stays inside your mind.
This is where Dennis Severs’ house comes in.
Dennis Severs was a Californian who left the land of palm trees and bright tan landscapes and came to London in the late 1960s.* After giving up on studying law and driving a horse-drawn carriage, in 1979 he bought a derelict eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields, the most poverty-stricken area of historic London. He already knew that he wanted to slip backward in time. So he renovated the house slowly and in keeping with the age. He washed the floors with tea, he acquired the right furniture, he toasted bread on the fire. When I first heard of him in the early ’80s, the house was only partly renovated and he had just started showing people round. As you might guess, I jumped at the chance to visit. You walked through the down-at-heel streets with old burger wrappers blowing around your ankles, past badly kept-up eighteenth-century houses with bare bulbs at their doors, until you came to 18 Folgate Street. There in the cellar window you could see the flickering light of a candle. When I saw the candlelight, I began to get that tingling at the back of the neck that Si Morley must have had when he opened the door in the Dakota that one morning.
In those early days, Dennis Severs had obviously memorized a script, and as he took visitors from room to room he went nervously through his script until someone sidetracked him with a question, when he had to start up again several paragraphs back. But he answered spontaneously when a woman pestered him for bibliography. “But what books did you read?” she said. “You have to read books to know how things work.” He was spluttering with dismay. “I don’t read books,” he said. “I live it.”
I’m sure he did read books, but I’m also sure he lived it. He would talk, for instance, about men’s coats that had elaborate embroidery on the inside — what use could it possibly be for coats to be embroidered on the inside? He’d take a seat on an chair with rolled arms and, still talking, calmly fold the bottom of his coat back over the arms, displaying the embroidery on the inside of the coat. The chair was designed for the coat; the coat was designed for the chair. There’s a reason reading about it isn’t as powerful as seeing it.
The drawing room had a table before the fire— a feature modern design has lost, and which I personally aspire to. Severs talked about how people would play cards at the table, and a little scrap of fur would be hung under the table. As the people played, fleas would jump off the people and onto the tempting scrap of fur. At the end of the evening the host would throw the scrap into the fire. A flea-catcher — ingenious! And under the table at 18 Folgate Street there hung a scrap of fur. As far as I’m aware, real fleas were not supplied, but you never know.
Severs invented a family who had lived at 18 Folgate Street, the Jervises, Huguenot weavers who had immigrated from France. French weavers were abundant in Spitalfields, and the Jervises were a realistic invention. As you moved higher in the house, which has five stories, the Jervises got more prosperous. Mr. Jervis’s wig-powdering corner was in one room, where Dennis powdered his own wigs. The idea was that the Jervises had left each room just before you entered. When you walked in, the beds were mussed, the tea
was hot, the bread crusts were still on the plates. And this was not just stage-management with fake props, because it was genuinely Dennis’s bed, Dennis’s tea, and Dennis’s crusts. The house was genuinely lived in, halfway in the eighteenth century and halfway in the twentieth.
I went back to the house throughout the 1980s as renovations proceeded and Dennis Severs’ presentations become more assured (and less patient with visitors who demanded bibliography). At a certain point he acquired a footman. Pretty much every scrap of social history I know, I learned at Dennis Severs’ house. (The rest of it I learned from the astoundingly well-informed guides at Mary Arden’s house outside Stratford. Ask them someday about smocks or windows.)`
At Dennis Severs’ house, we would all go down to the servants’ sitting room — a dank, low room with an uneven brick floor and a small fireplace — and sit while Dennis Severs told us stories. He mentioned that Spitalfields comes from St. Mary’s Hospital fields. As the fire burned, he mentioned that such was the danger from fires in earlier eras that there were laws specifying the time they should be banked or put out: the couvre-feu (cover-fire), or curfew.
This past winter I taught a course in London on the rich and their servants. We read a lot of good stuff, including Margaret Powell’s spirited memoir of being a servant, Below Stairs. (It was this book that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.) But one of the students told me that she never really got it about servants until she saw the servants’ sitting room in Dennis Severs’ house.
One of the joys of the house is that not everything is tidy. Going into conventional historic house museums, you’d think everyone in the past lived waiting for House Beautiful to come round and take photos. In Dennis Severs’ house, beds might be unmade and things jumbled on the bureaux. The house smells like a house. It is not antiseptic. The light is real. There are the clip-clops of horses outside the window. Surely those are real too? Is time beginning to slip?
The New York Times wrote about Dennis Severs’ house, “Historical accuracy was no more important to his presentation than it would be in a lowbrow historical novel.” I wish I could get hold of this writer and shake him. For one thing, in terms of furnishings, renovation, and upkeep, it is accurate. And in terms of experience, even more so. As another maverick would say, “Facts do not illuminate. The Manhattan phone directory has four million entries which are factually correct, but as a book it doesn’t really illuminate you.” Send the New York Times critic to me, and we’ll have a talk.
But the other joy about the house is its playfulness. If you peer carefully at a shelf you’ll see a miniature tableau from a Beatrix Potter book. There’s a drama going on about Mrs Jervis, and clues are here and there. Mischievous invitations are found on mantels and bulletin boards. Another room features a Hogarth painting of mayhem at a card party,
and when you look around the room, you realize it is the room in the painting, mayhem intact. Up in the attic, where a Dickensian poverty has begun to reign, Marley’s chain hangs beside the door. In one bedroom is an eighteenth-century engraving of a domestic scene. The caption says “YOU ARE HERE-ISH.”
“I’m going to bombard your senses,” Dennis Severs said in an interview. “I will get the 20th century out of your eyes, ears and everything.” The Guardian said it was as if you are transported into a dream. David Hockney described the house as one of the world’s greatest works of opera.
Dennis Severs said, “You either get it or you don’t.”
Dennis Severs died on December 27, 1999 — on the brink of the new century — at the age of 51, from cancer related to AIDS. There was initially great worry about whether the house could continue as it was. Finally it was saved, and visitors are still welcome, although there is no longer anyone to narrate the way through the house. So the fur scraps, the embroidered coat, and the couvre-feu are no longer explained to visitors. But the house is still used, so that when you enter the room and there is still tea in the tea cup, it is not staged tea — it really was someone’s tea. The house still shows that the Jervises were in the room only a moment before. And now, in a very real sense, the house also shows that Dennis Severs was in the room only a moment before. Christopher Wren’s epitaph might also apply to him: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” He has slipped wholly into the past. For the rest of us, 18 Folgate Street is still there for anyone who wants to try the door.
* His name is pronounced “Seevers,” not “Sehvers.” No one believes me on this. I know because I embarrassingly pronounced it the wrong way to the man himself. Go ahead, ask one of the people who shows you around the house. They’ll tell you: Seevers.
The website for the Dennis Severs’ house, 18 Folgate Street, with visitor information: http://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/
The Guardian obituary: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2000/jan/10/guardianobituaries
The New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/31/world/dennis-severs-who-lodged-london-s-ghosts-dies-at-51.html
Today you were wondering, “What is the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs?” The answer is that the most amazing song in the history of campfire songs is “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” It might even be the most amazing song in the history of any kind of song. And I’m here to prove it.
In case it’s been a while since you sang around the campfire, here’s Pete Seeger singing the song with a large crowd.
Singing it in a group is appropriate, because “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” comes from one of the oldest traditions of songs — perhaps the oldest of all — which is work songs: songs you sing while you work, usually communally. They tend to accompany rhythmical activities, such as walking, chopping wood, and the like, and they tend to have a call-and-response structure. Work songs have pretty much died out in Western culture, but reminders of the tradition turn up in various byways. In the U.S. the strongest survival of the tradition was among prison work gangs and slaves, who had brought the tradition over from Africa. The African tradition shows up in the porter scene of the Stewart Granger version of King Solomon’s Mines (1950), a clip which annoyingly does not show up on YouTube, but which you can watch if you want to pay $1.99 for the full movie on YouTube.
But for those with less time and money, there’s a wonderful thirty-minute film made by Pete Seeger and others in 1966, capturing the tradition of prison work songs just before it died. It’s called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, and you can watch it free here. It’s worth sampling just the opening for the song the prisoners sing while chopping wood.
And in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou?, the chain gang that opens the film are singing as they work, and the recording is taken from an actual chain gang, recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959. It can be heard here. The prisoners were singing “Po’ Lazarus” (lyrics here) as they chopped wood, led by a prisoner named James Carter. They were recorded by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, and the song appeared on Lomax’s 1959 album Bad Man Ballads. Skip ahead forty-one years and the recording found its way into O Brother Where Art Thou? Subsequently Alan Lomax’s daughter became determined to find James Carter, the prisoner who had led the song, and finally located him in Chicago. She flew there to present him with a royalty check from the film soundtrack, as well as the news that his singing was outselling Michael Jackson’s latest CD. Carter replied, “You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.” More details about all of this here.
Work songs are known worldwide; another type in the Western tradition is the waulking song, a type of song sung in Scotland while women waulked cloth. Waulking consists of beating newly woven cloth to make it denser, an activity that was performed communally and that has the rhythmic properties necssary for a work song. Here’s a nice example: “Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast” (“Horo Once More I Would Shout for Joy”), a Gaelic waulking song from Nova Scotia, where they call them milling songs. (Lyrics and translation here.)
By now you can see where this is leading. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” is a gorgeous example of a work song, a rowing song first sung by slaves. It was first collected by Charles Pickard Ware in two versions, both from South Carolina. Ware included both versions in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States.
The preface of the book describes some of the slave work songs:
I have stood for more than an hour, often, listening to them, as they hoisted and lowered the hogsheads and boxes of their cargoes; one man taking the burden of the song (and the slack of the rope) and the others striking in with the chorus. They would sing in this way more than a dozen different songs in an hour; most of which might indeed be warranted to contain ‘nothing religious’–a few of them, ‘on the contrary, quite the reverse’–but generally rather innocent and proper in their language, and strangely attractive in their music; and with a volume of voice that reached a square or two away. That plan of labor has now passed away, in Philadelphia at least, and the songs, I suppose, with it. So that these performances are to be heard only among black sailors on their vessels, or ’long-shore men in out-of-the-way places, where opportunities for respectable persons to hear them are rather few.
These are the songs that are still heard upon the Mississippi steamboats–wild and strangely fascinating–one of which we have been so fortunate as to secure for this collection. This, too, is no doubt the music of the colored firemen of Savannah, graphically described by Mr. Kane O’Donnel, in a letter to the Philadelphia Press, and one of which he was able to contribute for our use. Mr. E. S. Philbrick was struck with the resemblance of some of the rowing tunes at Port-Royal to the boatmen’s songs he had heard upon the Nile.
So when the song calls upon Michael to help row the boat ashore, it is referring to its immediate situation — it’s not hypothetical; the singers are genuinely rowing as they sing. But who’s this Michael? He’s the archangel Michael. Christian tradition had long considered Michael a psychopomp, the angel who conveyed the souls of the dead to heaven, based on Luke 16:22 and other passages. The later verses of the song make the religious character of the journey very evident.
Being a folk song, there are innumerable versions, but the one I learned back at Whispering Pines Camp was this:
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore. Hallelujah!
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah
Sister help to trim the sail. Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is muddy and cold, hallelujah!
Chills the body but not the soul. Hallelujah!
The river Jordan is deep and wide, hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side. Hallelujah
Michael, row the boat ashore, hallelujah!
Michael, row the boat ashore. Hallelujah!
Some versions follow “The river Jordan is deep and wide” with “See my mother on the other side,” which makes the point even more clearly. The river Jordan is the river that must be crossed before coming to Paradise and the afterlife — the land of milk and honey. (Numbers 14:8: “If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.”)
So the song equates the rowing of the boat in the here and now with the rowing we do through life, asking the help of Michael to make us strong enough to reach Paradise. I’ve seen poetry with this symbolic dimension — it’s what poetry does for a living — and I’ve heard working songs, but I’ve never heard a working song with this symbolic dimension, made all the more material because the singers would be pulling at the oars while singing.
The words are somewhat attenuated in the modern versions, and here we should look at the versions collected by Ware. He notes that the wording is very fluid and sometimes improvised. The version he heard near Port Royal went as follows:
Michael row de boat ashore, Hallelujah!
Michael boat a gospel boat, Hallelujah!
I wonder where my mudder deh ( = there).
See my mudder on de rock gwine [=go/going] home.
On de rock gwine home in Jesus’ name.
Michael boat a music boat.
Gabriel blow de trumpet horn.
O you mind your boastin’ talk.
Boastin’ talk will sink your soul.
Brudder, lend a helpin’ hand.
Sister, help for trim dat boat.
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh.
My fader gone to unknown land.
O de Lord he plant his garden deh.
He raise de fruit for you to eat.
He dat eat shall neber die.
When de riber overflow.
O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.
In my campfire days I always wondered who the sister was and why Michael’s sister had no name, but this makes it clear: the sister is any of us, as is the brother.
Ware collected an alternate version from Hilton Head:
Michael haul the boat ashore.
Then you’ll hear the horn they blow.
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound.
Trumpet sound the world around.
Trumpet sound for rich and poor.
Trumpet sound the jubilee.
Trumpet sound for you and me.
The English actress Fanny Kemble married the plantation owner Pierce Butler and wrote a shocking exposé of plantation life. She described slaves singing boat songs as they rowed on the Altamaha in 1839, and one of the songs sounds very much like the Hilton Head version of “Michael, Row”: “Another ditty to which they frequently treat me they call Caesar’s song; it is an extremely spirited war-song, beginning ‘The trumpets blow, the bugles sound — Oh stand your ground!”
On these boat songs she wrote:
The way in which the chorus strikes the burthen, between each phrase of the melody chanted by a single voice, is very curious and effective, especially with the rhythm of the rowlocks for accompaniment. The high voices all in unison, and the admirable time and true accent with which their responses are made, always make me wish that some great musical composer could hear these semi-savage performances.
William Francis Allen, the cousin of C. P. Ware, heard it in 1864, as he noted in his diary:
Sunday, March 20, 1864…. we had wind and tide against us, and a heavy load, so we were not home till near seven … there was a full moon and the men sang most of the way as they rowed. It was curious to see how their rowing flagged — for they were quite tired — the moment the singing stopped. It wasn’t a very good set of singers, still I was very glad to hear them, for I have heard very little boat music. They sang “Michael row,” “Hold your Light,” and several others… (from Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, p. 353)
Even gathered into collections, the vast majority of these songs have died out of popular tradition, and the voices of the slaves, convicts and workers are silent. But isn’t it amazing that one of their songs has endured? Simultaneously you can see them pulling on the oars in the great waters of South Carolina and as they enter Paradise. And when you listen to the song in your mind, you can still hear them singing.
Extra bonus info:
A wonderful page on work songs, from Shakers to the Song of the Volga Boatmen, with some recordings.
On early American black music: Dena J. Polacheck Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War
And a memory of a solitary English maiden singing her work song, in a poem that expresses the unknowability and the haunting qualities of the past —
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;–
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Crowdsourcing is really the most exciting development in historical research in, oh, the last jillion years. Sometimes institutions set up crowdsourcing efforts, like the toothsome University of Iowa effort I mentioned last time. But sometimes things just crowdsource themselves. The family history movement is a wonderful source of transcribed documents. Just recently I happened upon some murderous doings aboard the side-wheeler steamship Ohio Belle, transcribed out of the Cairo (Illinois!) Weekly Times and Delta, by one valiant Darrel Dexter on Rootsweb. The Ohio Belle itself has an interesting history; it was a Confederate steamship seized by the Union after the Battle of Island Number 10 in the Civil War, as described in this first-hand account. (Note that that account is privately transcribed too!)
But without further ado, the murderous dealings aboard the Ohio Belle, and what happened afterward. I reproduce the bolded names of the transcription, which help one follow the dastardly developments. And one has to admire the spirited Miss Heron!
Wednesday, 19 Mar 1856:
Last Friday, Capt. Ed Stevens, clerk of the steamer Ohio Belle was shot through the heart by a man named Joseph B. Jones. All the facts we could gather are as follows: Jones got on the Belle at Smithland, Friday morning and when the boat was opposite Cache Island about six miles above Cairo, Jones went to the office to pay his fine. He handed Mr. Stevens a bill, which Stevens pronounced counterfeit and handed back to him. Jones, at this, became very indignant and commenced using the most violent and abusive language. Stevens took him by the arm, walked him to the door of the social hall and pushed him out, remarking as he did so that his language would not do in the cabin. Jones attempted to return to the cabin, but was met by Stevens, who shoved him back and told him that he should not go into the cabin again. Jones then drew a Colt’s revolver and placing it about against Stevens’ breast, fired. Stevens threw up his arms to knock the pistol off, but missed it. The ball entered between the fourth and fifth ribs passing through the left lung and in all probability through his heart. After the explosion of the pistol, Jones ran on the guard outside the cabin toward the stern and Stevens followed after him until he reached the middle entrance to the cabin, where he fell. An elderly gentleman who was witness to the murder pursued and overtook Jones before he reached the stern of the boat. He knocked him down and held him in durance until the officers of the boat and some of the passengers took possession of him. He had cocked another barrel of his pistol to shoot Stevens the second time. He said it was his intentions to get to the stern of the boat, jump overboard and drown himself. He was under the influence of liquor.
As soon as he was captured, one end of a strong rope was placed around his neck and preparations were rapidly making to string him up, at the juncture. Miss Heron, the actress, who was on board, appeared and made a strong appeal to them in behalf of the young man and insisted upon their turning him over to the laws of the country to be dealt with. His execution was abandoned and he was taken to the engine room, securely lashed to a stanchion and a guard placed over him. The greatest excitement prevailed and it was feared that the friends of Capt. Stevens would take summary vengeance. The boat left here about 5 o’clock with the intention of lodging Jones in jail at Hickman. Capt. Stevens was beloved by all who knew him. He leaves a wife and three children at Newport, Ky.
Jones is an intelligent-looking, handsome young man, apparently about 22 or 23 years of age, says he lives in Marshall County, Mississippi. We do not know how true the statement is. We feel somewhat inclined to doubt it, as he did not seem inclined to communicate anything respecting his name or family connections. We think from what he said, that he has connections in both Memphis and Nashville.
Wednesday, 2 April 1856:
The Columbus Citizen states as a report and the Hickman Argus as a fact, that the body of Jones, the murderer of Stephens [sic], was found floating in the river near Hickman, tied to a chair. The Argus states that on the authority of a wharf boatman, that one of the officers of the Belle, as she was leaving the landing, said that they need not be surprised if they found a dead man floating there about. The only presumption is that Jones was thrown overboard from the Belle, tied in such a manner as to prolong his sufferings and thus drowned. The killing of Stephens was manslaughter; that of Jones was cold-blooded, deliberate murder.
16 April 1856:
The name of the young man who killed Capt. Stevens on board the Ohio Belle was not Jones as he represented, but Cocke. Some years ago he killed a man in Mississippi named Anderson and has been a fugitive from justice ever since. The name of Jones was assumed. His parents live in the northern part of Mississippi, near Memphis and are of the greatest respectability. The father and sister of the young man came up as far as Hickman, looking for his remains, but returned after an unsuccessful search.
The grand jury of Ballard Co., Ky., have indicted Capt. Sebastian of the steamer Ohio Belle for the murder of Cocke.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” — Oscar Wilde
Even better than one’s own diaries are other people’s diaries. So when I found out that the University of Iowa needs us all to spend a little time poking through other people’s diaries, I said Sign me up! That is, I said it to myself, since you don’t actually have to say it to the University of Iowa. You just go to the website and start poking through a bewildering line-up of fascinating documents. And here’s the thing — it’s not nosiness, it’s scholarship. Disguising nosiness as scholarship — my modus operandi!
It works like this: archives with piles of unedited material post the photos online, and civilians like you and me do the transcription. To give it its official description, the transcription is crowd-sourced. The page is open before you on the site, and you just type your transcription into a little box undernearth. You do as little or as much as you want. Someone will come along later and check your transcription — or you can spend some time checking someone else’s.
The University of Iowa library’s “DIY History” site is bulging at the seams with documents to be transcribed: diaries, letters, and cookbooks. Or you can go for pictures and tag historical photos.
They have a whole collection of Civil War diaries waiting to be transcribed. Among the other diaries is a set called the Iowa Byington Reed diaries. Here the “Iowa” is misleading — the author of the diaries was named Iowa. This leads me to think of all kinds of lame jokes, but thankfully I’ll move on to a description. Iowa Byington was a housewife, teacher, and seamstress who married a farmer named Will Reed. She left eight boxes of diaries — 2.25 linear feet — covering her courtship, wedding preparations, news, family, wars, celebrations, and everything in between, from 1879 to 1936. She’s not a particularly elegant or effusive writer, but somehow her ordinariness speaks volumes. As you can imagine, you could easily get resolve only to peek into a page or two and end up getting lost for an afternoon.
The part I’ve been transcribing comes from 1920, when Iowa (the person, not the state) was 69. She appears to be living with her daughter. What was there to do in the long winter months? No television, of course, and apparently no radio. Visitors drop by, she goes on visits, and she spends much of her time making coverlets and writing letters to her sister Hattie. She doesn’t seem to note Valentine’s Day. But her late husband Will is never far from her mind. She writes:
Thursday February 12 1920. Fourteen months today and same day of the week since we put Dear Will away. I looked over our papers and crocheted.
Friday February 13 1920. A cold day. Read my papers in forenoon and worked on Venes spread in afternoon and evening.
Saturday February 14 1920. A very cold unpleasant day. Lora went to Peoria. I crocheted some. Wrote Hattie and sent papers to Aunt Sarah. Vene and Edith busy with the work.
Sunday February 15 1920. Still cold. I read the papers some. Wrote … Lawrence. We had our dinner in the kitchen. Lora went to church.
Monday February 16 1920. I was home all day. I kept busy with my crochet work. It was 19 years ago today since Will and I moved to Coralville, to make the house that he loved so well and now I have neither him or that house.
Browsing around in her earlier life provided some flashier spots, but somehow I found the sameness of her later life quite moving. Similarly moving was the Civil War diary I transcribed. In the part I tackled, the man hadn’t yet left home; he was a bachelor doing farm chores, rising at dawn, to bed at nine o’clock. He didn’t know that soon he would be off to war and that the hard round of farm chores would soon seem paradisical.
The handwritten cookbooks are equally fascinating. From an American cookbook of 1850-1870: “Pickled oysters. Take a hundred and fifty-five large oysters…” A cookbook from the 1920s features Divinity Pie and Butterscotch Pie.
And here for your delectation is a recipe from the euphoniously named Penelope Pemberton, dating from 1716. I’ve added punctuation, but this is otherwise a faithful transcription. You can tell how Penelope pronounces her words by her phonetic spelling, e.g. “crame” for “cream.” “Orring” must be an orange. A “pudin” is of course a British pudding, i.e. a dessert, not the creamy American kind of pudding. I wonder if biskits/biscuits refers to American-style baking-powder biscuits or British-style cookie-like objects? “Sack” is wine. But — what is suckit? Or have I transcribed it wrong? Suggestions? (The original is down below, atop the rest of the transcription.) The suckit doesn’t actually seem to figure in the recipe, so perhaps you have to bring your own suckit to the feast.
Biskit Pudin with Suckit.
Take 1/2 pound of savi biskits, poiver [?] one gill [?], a quart of crame boyld, when coldd masht too gether.
Beat 8 eggs, lave out 4 whits, mix with yr biskits, sweeten it to yr tast. yr have rady cut in thin short slises 2 ounses of canded Lemmon, 2 of orring. Stir it with yr outher things. If it be too thick, ad some spoonefolls of crame more too stir it up, when yll put it in yr dish which must be butterd and past laydd a bout. Be quick with it into oven when it is stord up, 1/2 an ouer or 3 quarter will bake it. Sarve it with sack, butter & suger. If yll plase yll may make 1/2 pudin and put in 3 ounses of all Lemon or 3 ounses of all orringe or 3 ounses of sittron.
Those spare minutes and hours spent noodling around on the internet can now gratify your nosiness be both entertaining and helpful! As you eat yr Biskit Pudin, wander over to the University of Iowa “DIY History” project and have yrself a look.