Lawrence Older: Adirondack Minstrel, Transcription with a Comment

Edited by Daniel W. Patterson

This film offers an introduction to Lawrence Older, lumberjack and traditional fiddler and singer of Middle Grove in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The viewer can get a deeper acquaintance with his remarkable musical repertory in the album Adirondack Songs, Ballads and Fiddle Tunes: Lawrence Older. Recorded by Sandy Paton and issued originally in 1964 on his Folk Legacy Record label, this album is posted on the Smithsonian Folkways website. Its twenty-four musical selections can there be sampled or downloaded. The album is the source of the account by Peter McElligott (whose name got misspelled when he appeared in the film). With the songs the Smithsonian website also streams the album notes on all the individual songs, which include most of those in the film, even “En Roulant,” the enigmatic shard of a long and lovely old French song.


LAWRENCE OLDER: A lot of the songs we used to sing were based on events that took place right up here in the Adirondacks. A murder that occurred over here in Big Moose Lake in 1906 was chronicled in a book, The Great American Tragedy, and the murder ballad was taken from it.

Was a hot sultry day in the summer
When the flowers were all a-glow.
They started out on their vacation,
he lakes and the mountains, the view.

They gathered the sweet water lilies
That grew near the shores of Moose Lake,
And nobody thought he'd be guilty,
The life of the poor girl to take.

He now sleeps in Auburn's dark prison
And soon will give up his young life
That might have been filled with sunshine
Had he taken Grace Brown for his wife.

Two mothers are praying and watching--
One praying that justice be done,
The other one praying for mercy
And God to take care of her son.

VAUGHN WARD: His music has that archetypal ring. You feel as if you've known it always, even if you're hearing it for the first time. And it's a great pleasure to hear Lawrence not only fiddle but deliver the old songs. He has a way with the story, and a way of presenting them.


There's a city of light
Where there cometh no night
And the sun never sets in the sky.
In the Bible we're told
That the streets are pure gold
And a cool, clear river flows by.
I'm bound for that city,
God's holy white city.
Oh yes, I am.
I'll never turn back to this world anymore.
No matter how rough may be my way,
No matter how oft I kneel and pray,
I'm bound for that city
On that evergreen shore.

PETE SEEGER: I still sing the version.

Rattle-attle lingle, lingle, ling.
Rattle-attle lingo, Daisy.
Sang so loud the wild woods rang,
He charmed the heart of a lady.

It's a wonderful version, and Lawrence the guy who taught us all that version of the song. I've sung it all over the USA.

OLDER: I'm not an entertainer. I like the old music for the stories and the history and the geography that are heard in them. And there was so much of the history right here in the Adirondacks, things that had happened and . . . oh, the bear fight over in Keene. There was songs about river drives and river men and lumberjacks. And there was a lot of good old-time songs. And even though some of the songs might've been made up somewhere else, we always did local names. And another thing, you could be working in Wells and never get to, we'll say, Tupper Lake to work, but you'd hear the stories and songs about Tupper Lake, and you could almost see it in your mind. Another thing is that you could go into a camp and, after you've been there for a while, and get up and start singing and sing a few songs and sit down. Somebody else would be reminded of something. They'd get up and sing. And that was one way that we learned the whole geography of this side of the 'rondacks. And there's just no end of the songs that you might sing that's picked up here. This atmosphere right here is natural. Though I could be in the city and I could be in the top, an apartment, I could take my fiddle, and then I could see these woods. It makes me feel like a full human being, and that's the way I made it. I'd satisfy my inner craving for beautiful sounds in music, and I have another feeling for the art in nature. Scholars started coming to Howells, notably with Peter McElligott. When I'd sing something and his eyes would sparkle, and he'd say, "That's a Child ballad!" And Pete Seeger came there and collected me, as each one would ask a question and elaborate a little bit on the song, I was able to have a knowledge of it.

PETER McELLIGOTT: I first met Lawrence about 1961 or 62, I was teaching at a guitar and folksong course at a local church in the city. And some students in there knew Lawrence and got us together. Thing that first struck me about Lawrence, I believe, was his repertoire. I was on a ballad kick at the time, very interested in the so-called Child ballads, the canon of the classical ballads. Ordinarily, folk singers like to believe that the Child ballads are localized primarily in the Southern Appalachians, but here was a guy, a woodsman in the northeastern woods, who had about, probably, I'd guess 20 very unusual versions of these ballads. And I think that was the thing that drew us together right off.

SEEGER: Larry Older, I met him over 20 years ago. There was an old-timers day in the Adirondacks, and he was there along with a number of other local people, singing the old lumber songs. And it was the real thing. It wasn't somebody just learned the song out of a book. So I went up and introduced myself and asked him if he'd come and sing for us, while I was putting on a little folk festival in the Adirondacks. And later on he invited me to his home, and his sister and he and the wives and children, we sat around the whole evening, singing. And, well I realized this was what it was like in the old days before they didn't have TV, didn't have radio or anything. The people would make their own music. And I just think it's the best music in the world. You could have four and 20 opera singers, highly trained. You could have the greatest pop artists. But I don't think you'd have any more fun than a family that's sung together, getting together, and singing once again some good old songs.

OLDER: First one I'm gonna play is one I made up myself, so I think I know how it goes. It's called "Light and Airy Reel". My earliest memories are being transported, you know, with my folks in a wagon when they'd go to a house dance. They'd take us into a large room and lay us out on the beds. We were too small to dance, you see. And we'd lay there and hear the music coming from the other room, even if they had a pump organ or a piano and fiddle, or some other instruments, a bass viol. I wouldn't hear anything but the fiddle, that's all I ever heard. And my father and mother played fiddle too.

GEORGE WARD: Of course he has a prodigious memory for songs and tunes, I don't suppose anybody's ever heard his whole repertoire. It would be something to try to inventory it, because different experiences and settings bring different kinds of things back. He's just--music has been a part of his life, all of his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He has been able to document and recreate the legends of the Adirondacks, and logging in particular. And it's only really through history that we learn how to cope with the future, and I think Lawrence's great contribution, for this part of the country, is the fact that he's taught us how his people lived in the Adirondacks.
(fiddle music)

OLDER: The first working that I did in the wood, I was nine years old. My stepfather took, I think two of my other brothers and myself into the woods with him, and they started me on a crosscut saw. There was a sign right over the table, "No talking while you eat," because the idea was to eat and get out. And then you'd avoid quarrels and fights too. The main work started in the fall, after the leaves were off, and it was just a matter of getting the tree down on the ground, getting it cut into sections, cut out the small brush and anything that would be in the way of skipping those logs out into a clearing somewhere. They were an independent bunch. They had certain codes, but for the most part they were good natured. The only thing is they were proud of their strength and proud of their ability to swing an ax all day and pull crosscuts all day long, and there was a lot of competition amongst them. I don't think there's anything left of the old days. Men go in with chainsaws, just knock them down, take the limbs off with the saw itself, walk right up the tree and saw them off, buck them up. He has his own home to stay in at night, has TV and carpets.

(fiddle music)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a great pleasure for me to introduce Larry Older, who'll tell you something a little bit further about tonight's concert.

OLDER: This first one's gonna be "The Wild Mustard River." It concerns a log drive and a big jam, and we call it "The Wild Mustard River."

Come all you true boys from the river.
Come and listen to me for a while,
And I will relate you the story
Of my true friend and chum, Johnny Styles.
But the day his luck went against him,
His foot had got caught in a jam,
And you know how that stream runs a-howling
When you flood from the reservoir dam.
His flesh was all cut up in ribbons
And rolled out as flat as your hand.
We hope he's found peace for his body
While the Lord hold his soul in command.

We have "Ma Boule" now, and that is what the old Canadian voyageurs, they called them, used to sing, they'd tell me, when they'd paddle their long canoes up and down the rivers. It's only the one verse repeated, I'll do it twice. But it's a beautiful old type of French song.

En roulant ma boule, ma boule,
En roulant ma boule qui roule,
Et elle a tué son canard blanc.
Rouli, roulant, ma boule, Maman,
Roulant, ma boule, ma boule,
En roulant, ma boule qui roule.

En roulant, ma boule, ma boule,
En roulant, ma boule qui roule,
Et elle a tué son canard blanc.
Rouli, roulant ma boule, Maman,
Roulant, ma boule, ma boule,
En roulant, ma boule qui roule.

In rolling my ball, my ball,
In rolling my ball that rolls,
And she has killed her white duck.
Rolling roll, my ball, Mama,
Rolling, my ball, my ball
In rolling my ball that rolls.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (suggesting another song): "Once more”....

OLDER: Oh yes. "Once more, a-lumbering go." I think every old lumberjack would love this song, because he knows he's too doggone old to cut the mustard anymore, but he can sing it and feel as if he were young, heading back into the big timber.

Ye mighty sons of freedom
That round the mountains range,
Come all you gallant lumber boys
And listen to my song,
On the banks of the sweet Saranac
Where its limpid waters flow.
And we'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go
Once more a-lumbering go
And we'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go.

To the music of our axes
We'll make the woods resound,
And many tall and lofty pine
Come tumbling to the ground.
At night around our good campfire
We'll sing while cold winds blow.
We'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go,
Once more a-lumbering go,
And we'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go.

When winter it is over
And the ice-bound streams are free,
We'll drive our logs to Glen's Falls
And we'll haste our girls to see.
With plenty to eat and plenty to drink
Back to the world we'll go,
And we'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go,
Once more a-lumbering go,
And we'll range the wild woods over
And once more a-lumbering go.

Probably this had more meaning back in the old days when every crick in the country had at least one peg mill on them, making shoe pegs and clothes pins, and all kinds of wooden products. It's just called simply "Peg and Awl," and refers to mass production when they put the one home jobber out of work, I guess.

In the year of 18 and 1, peg and awl,
In the year of 18 and 1, peg and awl,
In the year of 18 and 1
Pegging shoes is all I've done.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

In the year of 18 and 2, peg and awl,
In the year of 18 and 2, peg and awl,
In the year of 18 and 2
Pegging shoes is all I do.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

They've invented a new machine, peg and awl.
They've invented a new machine, peg and awl.
They've invented a new machine.
Prettiest thing you've ever seen.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

Make one hundred pair to my one, peg and awl.
Make one hundred pair to my one, peg and awl.
Make a hundred pair to my one,
Pegging shoes ain't any fun.
Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.

SEEGER: The old time singers were always making up new songs, and I think making up new songs is part of the tradition. If you simply sang the old songs, you're not carrying on the tradition. You gotta make up some new ones. So I tell people, make up a song. They say, "What do you make it up about? There's no more lumberjacks." Well, life is going on. Make it up about the life you know-- Might be trying to save your town from the bulldozers. It might be trying to get Washington to spend money on peace instead of war. But if it's something that you're doing, something's life. Make a song about it.

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