The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #49340   Message #744585
Posted By: Joe Offer
08-Jul-02 - 04:40 PM
Thread Name: Lyr Req: Red Iron Ore / Derry down, down
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Red Iron Ore / Derry down, down
Here are the less-than-helpful notes from Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America:
A mining engineer, named George Sturz, who was a dreamer and a stubborn man, came into the low-lying hills west of Lake Superior with the conviction that he would discover valuable mineral deposits there. He and his Negro servant, Bonga, fought through the tamarack, endured the attack of hordes of mosquitoes during long summer months, until Sturz found the iron deposits he was looking for. In 1884 he watched the first schooner laden with almost pure iron ore put out from a Minnesota port bound for the iron foundries of the East. Other iron pits opened back of Duluth and, before Sturz died, he saw on the Lakes a fleet of vessels of larger tonnage than the combined Pacific and Atlantic maritime fleets of the U.S.A., carrying the iron for the sinews of the nation east along the Lakes.
This ballad, set to the ever-fresh Irish derry-down tune, stems from the days of sailing ships and shovel loading. Today the leading docks of Duluth can pour twelve thousand tons of iron into the hold of an ore-carrying steamer in a quarter of an hour. Then with her decks nearly awash, the great vessel surges out into the wicked chop of Lake Superior to race her sister ships for the ports along Lake Erie's shore.
SOURCE: North Star Country, Meridel le Sueur.

Here is what Sandburg says in American Songbag, which is somewhat more helpful (although I wonder why he tells us twice to "see any atlas"):
Three of the Great Lakes (see any atlas) are traversed in this odyssey of red iron ore. It is a log, the diary of a ship and its men on one cruise. The facts are specific. The E. C. Roberts was a boat. So was The Minch. Riding up Lake Michigan, they passed through death's door; the lake storms were ugly. At Escanaba loading red ore, they "looked like red devils." The crew of The Minch thumbed their noses and taunted, "We'll see you in Cleveland next Fourth of July." But the E. C. Roberts got there ahead of the fleet. A crew of "bold boys" they were, even if they say so themselves. The singer is humble, "Now my song is ended, I hope you won't laugh." The tune is old Irish; the repeated line with each verse, "Derry down, down, down derry down," is in old ballads. It is a virile song, a tale of grappling with harsh elements and riding through, a rattling tune and a devil-may-care timebeat. It may, at first, seem just a lilt with a matter-of-fact story. It is more than that; it is a little drama; the singer should know what it is to shovel red iron ore; the singer should know the wide curves of that ship path from Chicago to Cleveland on three Great Lakes (see any atlas).