Ontario lumber camps played a significant role in the preservation and distribution of folk songs in Ontario. They provided a vivid picture of what it was like to work in the Ontario woods in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Loggers often made up lyrics that reflected their own camp, fellow loggers and geography. Songs come from as far away at British Columbia, but many are unique to Ontario, from as nearby as Peterborough, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, West Guilford – even Kushog Lake!
Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke says that despite the hard work, poor pay and lack of creature comforts, songs of the lumbering era were often celebrations of pride in a job well done, camaraderie and good humour.
One of the most widely known songs is The Shantyboy’s Alphabet. It is also one of the oldest, having been traced to about 1904.
The Shantyboy’s Alphabet:
A is for axes that you may all know;
And B is for boys that make them all go;
C is for choppers so early begun
And D is for danger we often stand in.
‘Tis merry, ’tis merry, ’tis merry are we
No mortal on earth, so happy as we.
A derry, Lo derry, Ring derry dum
Give us shantymen’s grog and there’ll nothing go wrong.
E is the echo that through the woods rang:
F is the foreman, head one of our gang;
G is the grindstone so merrily goes round
And H is the handle, so smoothly ’tis worn.
I is the Iron that mark-ed the pine;
J is the Jov-al that’s never behind;
K is the keen edge our axes we keep
And L is the lice that over us creep.
M is the moss we patch-ed the cracks
And N is the needle we patch-ed our pants;
O is the owl that hooteth at night
And P is the pine that always falls right.
Q is the quarrel we never allow;
R is the river we float our logs down
S is the sleds so stout and so strong
And T is the teams that go jog ’em along.
U is the use we put our teams to;
V is the valley we draw our logs through;
W is the woods we leave in the spring
And this is all I am going to sing.
The language of the logging industry is all but gone today. Below is a sampling of some of the most interesting – and entertaining, terms.
Brush monkey: An entry-level logger; usually the newest member of the crew
Boom: A floating corral of logs chained together.
Buck: To saw a felled tree into short lengths. Bushed: Slightly crazed from being in the woods too long alone.
Calk Boots: Pronounced “cork”; high-cut boots with short spikes in soles and heels for secure footing in slippery logs.
Chickadee: The person who maintains the logging road; also called Road Monkey.
Crazy Wheel: The device anchored at the top of a hill to brake a loaded sleigh down an icy hill in winter (the Barienger Brake).
Cruiser: Person who conducts surveys of timberland.
Crummy: Vehicle used to transport loggers in and out of the forest.
Donkey: Machine used to haul and load logs, powered by steam or diesel.
Drive: The annual spring flush of logs downstream.
Feller: An axeman or sawyer who fells timber by hand.
Gut Hammer: The triangle the cook used to signal mealtime.
Hewer: The broad-axe man who hewed trees into square timber.
Logger’s Smallpox: the scars caused by fights between loggers wearing caulked boots.
Muzzle Loader: An old-fashioned bunk whose only entrance was a narrow opening at the end.
Rosser: The person who peeled the bark from timber before it was squared.
Sandpiper: The person in charge of spreading hot sand on the hill of a winter logging road.
School Marm: A forked tree with two tops.
Turkey: A lumberman’s bag or packsack of clothes
Walking Boss: The person in charge of several bush camps who walked from camp to camp.
Widow maker: A loose limb, top, piece of bark or anything loose in a tree that may fall on a logger.