I first heard this catchy song of woe and misfortune, “Poor, Poor Woodman,” in East Benton, at the fiddlers convention. Jeff “Smokey” McKeen sang it with the Old Gray Goose band. It must have been something like ten years ago. I’ve heard him sing it many times since.
The song rings true. It’s not overdone. It’s got a killer chorus. It’s a wry list of rhyming complaints about the old-time woodsman’s life: bad weather, bad money and broken equipment. It predicts a bit divine payback for the landowners in the end. It’s got the shrugging tone of someone who knows what they’re talking about.
That’s because it was written by a real woodsman. I know his name is Harold Jackson of Allagash because Jeff always tells the crowd who wrote it.
I freely admit I’m jealous. I’ve written a song or two and I wish I’d written this one. I’ve always wanted to learn it from Jeff but I never have a recording device on hand when he’s singing it. When I heard Harold, himself, was coming to Bangor to perform “Poor, Poor Woodsman” on the Maine Folklife Center stage at the American Folk Festival on Saturday, I made plans to be there.
I wasn’t the only one. A significant contingent from the St. John Valley followed Harold and fiddler Martin “Mark” Morris down and took their places under the tent with other festival-goers, spilling out into the grass on either side. Pauleena MacDougall, director of the Maine Folklife Center, interviewed the pair between songs and fiddle tunes. Harold seemed a little baffled at how well known his song is in Maine.
“They keep hearing us play over and over again and sometimes I say, ‘Don’t you get sick of that?’ and they say, ‘No, we just love that,’” he said Saturday. “A lot of you have heard it, a lot of you haven’t heard it and a lot of you want to hear it again.”
Both Mark and Harold did their time in the woods. Mark spent 25 or 30 years cutting wood. It started when he was 11-years-old with a team of horses. Later, it was tractors and skidders. He even a did some log rafting. Harold wielded a chainsaw for a decade, through the 1970s.
“About ten years,” said Harold, who now lives in Fort Kent. “I had enough of it.”
He wrote the song when he was cutting wood. It recounts the woes of a poor, poor woodsman, like himself. It was a very physical job. The chainsaws were giant. The weather was bad. The blackflies were worse. The money was sometimes shorter than expected and gone in a flash.
“I suppose it wasn’t any worse than picking cotton. But I never picked cotton. I just thought working in the woods was one of the hardest jobs there was,” he said. “When you went in the woods, your job was to pile up piles of wood. The bigger the pile, the better.”
The mornings were early and the days were long. Mark remembered his father as always being the first one to work in the morning, sometimes before it was light.
“He would be very, very embarrassed if he wasn’t the first,” he said. “There was times when my father took his skidder in the woods, and it was still dark, and would come out with the wrong species of trees with his first twitch of wood, just to be sure he got the first twitch.”
Both men agreed woodsmen of today have it easy compared to their day, sweating it out in the summer and shivering through the winter. Gone are the chainsaw-versus-man days. Today it’s modernized and mechanized.
“They’re setting inside the heated cab, the air conditioned cab. They got Sirius (satellite) radio, they got a phone to call mum when they want to. They don’t suffer from the frost, the blackflies or the heat. So, the today’s woodsmen are a quite a lot different from the woodsmen of our era” Harold said, nodding to Mark. “I don’t know if you could find a woodsman today that could file a chainsaw.”
That sent a titter through the crowd.
In Harolds time, weather could dictate terms to a woodsman.
“If there come a big snowstorm, you knew you weren’t going to get much scale that week,” he said.
These days, woodsmen get paid for their trees by the ton. Harold explained, back then, they got paid by “scale.” It was a complicated formula of measurements and calculations based on factors like the diameter of the butt of each tree. The man known as the “scaler” gets some strong words in Harold’s song.
“Sometimes his scale and my scale didn’t add up,” he said.
McDougal asked how he solved that problem.
“I wrote a song and quit working in the woods,” he said.
The crowd slapped their knees in unison, laughing out loud. Jackson allowed himself a dry smile.
Then Harold asked Mark to play a mournful fiddle tune for those days when life in the woods was a challenge.
“That’s a tune when the scale wasn’t good and there was two feet of snow that week,” Harold said. “The fiddle will do the talking.”
Mark nearly stole the show with his fiddling. It was emotional without being schmaltzy and not overly fancy. You could dance to it, and that’s the best kind of fiddle music. Near the end of the show, he played “Paddy on the Turnpike” accompanying himself with his feet in the Acadian tradition.
Mark grew up in the town where he still lives, St. Francis. If you had a strong arm, he said, you could throw a rock across the St. John River into Connors, New Brunswick. He remembered going to parties with his parents as a kid and hearing fiddle music. He liked it, alot.
“I kept saying someday I’ve got to try that,” he recalled.
Finally, when he was 26-years-old he approached Harold and asked for help finding a fiddle and getting started.
“Mark came to me and there was music notes bubbling out of his ears,” said Harold.
So, Mark learned fiddle music from local fiddlers, many of them from over the border. He said some were well-known, like Simon St. Pierre, but others, just as good, were unknown outside the valley.
Harold got into music when he was a kid, listening to the radio. Those magical sound waves brought country music into his ears, compressing the space between the St. John Valley and Dixie.
“I’d sit in Allagash and pretend I was in Wheeling, West Virginia,” he said.
The nearly hour-long presentation was rounded out with a couple more fiddle tunes and a song Harold said was a real old-time woodsman song. It was about sometimes having bread and gravy, sometimes having gravy and bread, and sometimes (just for variety) having gravy without the bread.
I remember my grandfather singing me that song. He learned it while working in the woods with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He’s been gone for going on 20 years. Hearing Harold sing it made my day.
Near the end, Pauleena asked Harold, given that “Poor, Poor Woodsman” dwells on the downside, what was good about working in the woods. Was there anything?
“One good thing about it was you never punched a time card and you never had someone breathing down your neck,” he said. “You were, more or less, your own boss.”
“Poor, Poor Woodsman” is another good reason, Mr. Jackson.