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Larry Gorman: The Man who Made the Songs by Edward Ives

Larry Gorman: The man who Made the Songs, Edward D. Ives

Lawrence Gorman

Lawrence (“Larry”) Gorman, poet and woodsman, was born 10 July 1846 in Trout River, Prince Edward Island, and died 31 August 1917 in Brewer, Maine.

Known as “the man who made the songs,” Gorman was the best-known poet in the folksong traditions of the lumberwoods of the Maritimes and New England, with eighty songs reliably attributed to him. He was one of a large number of Maritimers who travelled through Maine and New Brunswick to work in the lumberwoods in the late 19th century, spending his early career in the Miramichi region of New Brunswick before relocating to Maine in the early 1880s. Although memories of him circulated in oral history into the mid-20th century, the life and work of Larry Gorman are best known through the scholarly work of folklorist Edward D. Ives.

Larry Gorman was the second son of Irish migrant parents who settled in western Prince Edward Island. His father, Thomas Gorman, arrived on the Island from County Kilkenny before 1820 and settled in Lot Thirteen on the Trout River, becoming prominent as a storekeeper, schoolteacher, and member of the PEI House of Assembly from 1839-1842. Gorman’s mother, Ann Donahue, migrated from Ireland to the Miramichi region of New Brunswick and married Thomas Gorman in the early 1830s. They had ten children who survived. James, the eldest son, remained in western PEI as a farmer; Charles and Thomas both became journalists in central Canada; John, the youngest, moved to California and was the father of Thomas K. Gorman, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dallas-Fort Worth.

Larry Gorman attended the local school in Trout River as a child. From reports of his youth, he was curious and had penchants for caricature and poetry. He followed a familiar pattern of seasonal employment for young men from Prince Edward Island, working for farmers or fishermen in the summer, and going across the Northumberland Strait to New Brunswick to work in the lumberwoods in the winter (Ives, Larry Gorman 12-3). Ives estimates that Gorman worked in this manner from the mid-1860s until the mid-1880s, and probably started his career as a maker of satirical songs around this time as well (Larry Gorman 13). Some of the earliest examples of his biting satire were penned when Gorman worked in the Yeo family shipyards in the Trout River-Bideford River area (Ives, Larry Gorman 17-9). Numerous examples of Gorman’s satirical folksongs from his days in PEI still existed in the mid-20th century, when Ives conducted his research.

Many of Gorman’s best-known songs dated from his periods of work and residency on the Miramichi, beginning in the mid-1860s. He worked in a wide variety of capacities in the lumbering industries of the region: in Jabez Snowball’s Chatham sawmill, for the Southwest Boom Company near Newcastle, and in the woods upriver in Renous and Blackville (Ives, Larry Gorman 54-64). He made up songs as he went. By the early 1880s he had found his way to Ellsworth, Maine to work at Cushman’s mill (Ives, Larry Gorman 81). Because he was not skilled at lumbering work and often tasked with menial jobs, he had the time to devote his mind to poetry (Ives, Larry Gorman 81-2). By 1887 he had bought a house in Ellsworth, and in 1891 married a widow, Mary Mahoney, who died of illness in 1896. For the almost twenty years that he lived in Ellsworth, Gorman worked on the annual Union River drive, sometimes working for Cushman, sometimes for Roderick McDonald (Ives, Larry Gorman 83-5), with a brief but memorable interlude in New Hampshire (Ives, Larry Gorman 101-108). It was his habit always to make up songs about the activities and personalities of the region. In 1897 he married Julia Lynch, the daughter of Irish migrants to Bangor, and the couple moved to Brewer in 1903 (Ives, Larry Gorman 109-10). Gorman continued to write satirical songs through this period, even having some printed for distribution (Ives, Larry Gorman 112-4). He worked at a number of odd jobs in Brewer, and Ives remarks that he was “poet first, workman second” (Larry Gorman, 126). He died in Brewer of a heart attack, aged 70, and his widow destroyed copies of every poem he had ever written (Ives, Larry Gorman 136-7).

The lumberwoods of New Brunswick and Maine fostered a vibrant folksong tradition during the 19th and early 20th centuries that included a wide range of genres, from Child ballads to murder ballads, from sea shanties to songs describing life in the woods, from love songs to satires. Gorman’s specialty was the satirical, from the light-hearted to the frankly insulting, with “all shades of vilification” (Ives, “Satirical Songs” 65). Ives has noted that a feature of the satirical song tradition of the Maritimes and Maine is that particular songs and their creators are closely associated (“Satirical Songs” 66), so that after a song was performed a singer might comment “And THAT’S by Larry Gorman” (Manny and Wilson 139). As a result, and coupled with Gorman’s penchant for self-promotion, he developed a widespread reputation throughout the northeast for his lyrical skewering of people he knew and met: “the jilted lover, the pompous employer, the dishonest inn keeper, the miser, the silly girl, the vain young man, were neatly impaled on Larry’s wit” (Manny 6).

Some scholars go so far as to characterize Gorman’s songs as positively libelous, “a text deliberately intended to insult, to malign, and to ridicule....that quality of libel gave substance to the persistent threat with which Gorman confronted all who knew him, to beware lest he wrote a song about them” (Cazden 33). Although legend had it that Gorman’s songs could actually affect an employer’s ability to hire men to work in the woods, Ives disagrees with this assessment of Gorman’s influence (“Satirical Songs” 67). Nevertheless, there seems to be little doubt that Gorman’s compositions put people on their guard lest they become his victims. True to form, Gorman did not miss this opportunity to promote his status as a poet:

     And when they see me coming,
     Their eyes stick out like prongs,
     Saying, “Beware of Larry Gorman!
     He’s the man who makes the songs. (Ives, Larry Gorman 145)

Indeed, almost everything Gorman wrote can be classified as satirical, and he seems never to have written a serious ballad (Ives, “Satirical Songs” 67). He operated within a healthy tradition of songmaking in which satirical songs were a well-recognized genre, deriving from a similar tradition in the British Isles and spreading across the United States and Canada, and being widespread in the Miramichi, where many of his best-known songs originated (Ives, Larry Gorman 168-71).

A recurring debate within folksong scholarship pertains to the place of individual creativity within the ballad tradition: that is, are ballads best understood as the work of many hands, and therefore anonymous, or do they spring from the same individual spark that creates literature? Ives’s own opinion is quite clear: “the poet is the true alembic. It is through him, not through any superorganic process, that experience and tradition are fused (along with something of the poet’s own) to form a new ballad. That ballad then gets passed on, and while subsequent singers almost certainly will alter its details, both its individuality and its “balladness” are the gift of the original creator” (“Individual Creativity” 93).

It is therefore necessary to consider the literariness of Gorman’s compositions in order to understand their unique place in the folksong traditions of the northeast. As Ives writes, “To think of Larry Gorman as anything but a poet, then, is to miss the whole point of his character, for that is not only the way his contemporaries saw him, it is the way he saw himself. He was not a woodsman and river-driver who wrote poems; he was a poet who worked in the woods and drove logs on the river” (Larry Gorman 187).

Ives especially points out that an appreciation of Gorman’s oeuvre must take into consideration the music to which the songs were sung, as the integration of music and text accounts for any irregularities in scansion (Larry Gorman 154). He displayed a metrical dexterity not common among woods poets of his day, using not only the more common iambic metres of the ballad and “come-all-ye” forms, but also a range of anapestic metres (Ives, Larry Gorman 154-6). He had a special skill for rhyme, with Ives noting that “[h]e delighted in setting himself difficult tasks—internal rhymes, feminine rhymes, triplets, repeated rhymes running through entire songs, and the like—and he brought them off well” (Larry Gorman 157-8). Ives also notes that Gorman eschewed many of the clichés common in 19th- and early 20th-century broadsides, preferring straightforward language to the overtly “poetic” (Larry Gorman 158).

Many of the songs composed by Gorman during the time he spent on the Miramichi (or believed to have been composed by him) demonstrate the range of his satire and the ways in which he worked creatively within the tradition. “Morris Ellsworth” has been attributed to Gorman, and opens with formulae common to many woods ballads:

     My name is Morzie Ellsworth,
     The truth I’ll tell to you;
     I’m the pride of manhood,
     My age is twenty-two.

     I left the darling of my heart
     On that fair Island shore;
     Here’s adieu to my aged parents
     I never will see them more. (Ives, Larry Gorman 58)

The second stanza is strikingly akin to similar stanzas in what is still the most famous of Miramichi ballads, John Calhoun’s “Peter Emberley.” From here, though, Gorman’s satire becomes more pronounced as the narrator describes arriving on the Miramichi and hiring on with a crew to work in the woods, receiving from his employer equipment for the task:

     He gave to me a sheathing belt,
     Likewise a bowie knife,
     A battle axe and carabine,
     For to defend my life. (Ives, Larry Gorman 59)

The need for such implements is described as the narrative unfolds:

     A voyage into the forest,
     Just at the break of day;
     I found myself surrounded
     By birds and beasts of prey.

     There’s the lynx, the mink, the dingbat,
     And the roving caribou;
     The muskrat and the otter,
     The savage owl there too. (Ives, Larry Gorman 59)

As the list of ferocious beasts gets longer, Ellsworth confesses to his abject dread at the prospect of working in such a hostile environment:

     ‘Twould fill your flowing ebb of life
     And your heart terrify,
     To see the wicked robins
     That through the forest fly.

     But if I live through this winter,
     And danger do survive,
     There’s a harder job ahead of me,
     I’ve got to stop and drive. (Ives, Larry Gorman 59)

Gorman’s satire here is double-edged. There is no doubt that work in the Miramichi lumberwoods was dangerous, but Gorman takes a good-natured poke at such dangers by focusing his character’s terror on animals that are either comical (the dingbat), harmless (the muskrat), or extremely common (the robin), and all entirely out of proportion for his diverse arsenal. Gorman also seems to be satirizing some of the stereotypes of the come-all-ye form by opening with the standardized poetic formulae of the first few stanzas, but proceeding to lampoon them as the song develops.

He likewise demonstrated both his mastery and his subversion of the ballad form in another song composed on the Miramichi, “Young Billy Crane.” As Ives points out, he uses the well-known narrative pattern of a girl wearing a man’s clothes in order to follow her lover, which appears in folksongs on both sides of the Atlantic (Larry Gorman 66):

Ye gods of love, look from above on a broken hearted maid,
Who by false Cubit’s burning flames and dart that I’m betrayed.
I am left behind with a heart confined, bound down in Cubit’s chain,
All by a thoughtless young man whose name was Billy Crane.  (Ives, Larry Gorman 68)

The narrator, a young woman named Nellie Harrison, describes the object of her affection using poetic phrasing that is both clichéd and tongue-in-cheek:

Now the lad that I love dearly, he’s of a medium size.
His hair is light, his skin milk-white, two dark and rolling eyes.
He dresses neat from top to feet, speaks elegant and plain,
And many’s the maid he has betrayed, that false young Billy Crane. (Ives, Larry Gorman 68)

The next two stanzas are devoted to describing how their affair unfolded, and how he promised to marry her when he returned from some mysterious journey; the song then continues:

Now, since I’ve learned where he has gone, much pain have I to endure.
He shipped aboard of the Andover; he’s cooking there for steward.
And I hear that he has placed his mind all on some fairer dame,
And onto me has proved unkind, that false young Billy Crane. (Ives, Larry Gorman 68)

The song finishes:

Now, on board of some gallant ship or bark I mean to go straightaway.
I just declee [majestically] in that great ark I’ll rock with yielding sway.
I’ll dress myself in man’s attire, I’ll scorn the raging main;
I mean to ride the swells and tides till I gain young Billy Crane. (Ives, Larry Gorman 68)

On the surface, “Young Billy Crane” seems to conform to very standardized come-all-ye poetic formulae and narrative forms going back hundreds of years. It is only with the benefit of local knowledge—and it was to a primarily local audience that most woods poets directed their creative energies—that the satire becomes clear. Ives notes that the ship that Young Billy joined, and which Nellie will heroically pursue, was not a seagoing square-masted ship braving the Atlantic, but rather the Andover, a small stern-wheel passenger boat that used to slowly ply the waters of the Miramichi in the 1870s and 1880s (Larry Gorman 66). The satire is effective here for two reasons: first, its parody of the come-all-ye form is subtle enough to be delivered with a straight face; and second, because it relies on the “in-joke” about the humble Andover, which a local audience would recognize and appreciate, but which an outside audience might not recognize and therefore take seriously.

A standard interpretation of Larry Gorman’s songs holds that his satire is effective because he targets known individuals and subjects them to a send-up, either good-natured or biting. This is certainly true of a large number of his songs. However, certain songs in the Gorman canon also seem to operate on the comedic principle identified above in “Young Billy Crane”: that a familiar song form is used and subverted, which adds an extra layer of humour for those who are “in the know.” Gorman incorporated both principles in his earliest known song, “The Shan Van Vogh,” based on an Irish patriotic song that translates from the Irish language as “poor old woman.” Gorman composed the song on Prince Edward Island about a local woman who frequented his mother’s store and ran up a bill that she always wanted to pay in barter (Ives, Larry Gorman 13). Here is a typical stanza, of which there are twenty:

I want a yard of crepe, said the Shan Van Vogh
Some matches and a pipe, said the Shan Van Vogh
You’ll have no need to fret, for your pay you’re sure to get
When the berries will get ripe, said the Shan Van Vogh. (Ives, Larry Gorman 15)

In the original song, the Shan Van Vogh represents Ireland in her quest for liberation:

“And will Ireland then be free?” says the Shan Van Vogh;
“Will Ireland then be free?” says the Shan Van Vogh;
“Yes! Ireland will be free, from the center to the sea,
Then hurrah for liberty!” says the Shan Van Vogh. (Ives, Larry Gorman 165)

As Ives astutely points out, “Larry’s changing this patriotic rouser to a song about an old woman ordering her groceries is pure anticlimax” (Larry Gorman 165), and notes that the same song was the subject of parodies in Ireland as well. I would go a step further and suggest that a good part of the humour derives from the fact that this parody would be more recognized within a particular in-group. Gorman was from an Irish Catholic family, one of a very few such families in the largely Protestant community in Trout River, and his father Thomas was rumoured to be a Fenian (Ives, Larry Gorman 10). One story concerning “The Shan Van Vogh” related that it was an Irish woman with a thick brogue who came into the store, prompting Larry to compose the song (Ives, Larry Gorman 16). It is quite possible that Irish families in western Prince Edward Island were aware of both the state of Irish politics and of songs about it as well, providing an in-group within Gorman’s larger audience who would appreciate both the subject matter of the song and the parody of the Irish patriotic song tradition.

One of the best-known Larry Gorman songs, which was still performed in New Brunswick into the 1960s, is “The Scow on Cowden Shore.” The song describes the personalities and events that took place on the shores of the Miramichi River upstream from Newcastle, at the farm of the Cowden family. This stretch of the river was the site of a large boom where logs were sorted once they had been driven downriver from the woods, and the scow refers to a large vessel anchored near the boom where the workmen used to sleep (Ives, Larry Gorman 61). According to Louise Manny and James Wilson, “In The Scow on Cowden Shore we have Larry at his wicked best—a pinprick here and a pinprick there, while his listeners gloated as their friends were pilloried, and quaked when their own turn came. There are many such satires in the Miramichi tradition, but the Gorman ones excelled them all” (174).

In a typical act of self-promotion, the song begins:

     My name is Larry Gorman, to all hands I mean no harm;
     You need not be alarmed for you’ve heard of me before;
     I can make a song or sing ’un, I can fix it neat and bring it,
     And the title that I’ll give it is “The Scow on Cowden Shore.”

I have got many’s the foe and the same I do know,
So amongst them all I go, and it grieves their hearts full sore;
For I know that they could shoot me, cremenate or prosecute me,
But they kindly salute me round the scow on Cowden shore. (Ives, Larry Gorman 63)

The song then describes the wide variety of men assembled to work on the log boom:

There was men from many places, of many different races,
With pale and swarthy faces, I cannot name them o’er;
Island men and Restigouchers, there’s Nashwaakers and Pugmooshers,
All assembled here together round the scow on Cowden shore. (Ives, Larry Gorman 63)

Individuals are also singled out for lampooning by Gorman, in particular one Dan Brown:

Dan Brown and Bill Buggy, one night got very groggy,
The night being dark and foggy and we heard a tedious roar,
They were some intoxicated, and get somewhat agitated,
All hands they did upright it round the scow on Cowden shore.

Dan Brown, when he begins, he’s a curious little man, oh,
He’ll study and he’ll plan ‘till he gets to Whinny’s door;
On he’ll drink beer and whiskey, until he gets pretty frisky,
And then he’ll turn quite sozzy to the scow on Cowden shore.

Dan Brown’s a splendid singer and in dances he will swing her
He’ll bring to her good tidings of a new bank bill or more;
Oh, she’ll laugh and she’ll be funny, when she knows he’s got the money,
She’ll call him her darling honey from the scow on Cowden shore.

“The True Lovers’ Discussion,” is once more brought in fashion,
She’ll keep quietly hugging, while he sings it o’er and o’er;
For his voice is so melodious, that the ladies they’ll join in chorus
And their echoes all sing o’er us round the scow on Cowden shore. (Ives, Larry Gorman 63)

These stanzas show Larry Gorman at his satirical best, capturing the foibles of those he knew with skillfully drawn poetic sketches. The last stanza quoted above also captures something of Gorman’s capacity to parody the traditions within which he worked. “The True Lovers’ Discussion” is renowned as possibly the longest song in the Irish broadside tradition, and one that few singers could perform in full. The song was also known on the Miramichi, where it is said “[i]ts extraordinary length almost defeats the memory” (Manny and Wilson 298). During the 1961 Miramichi Folksong Festival, Marie Hare’s remarkable performance of “The True Lovers’ Discussion” took about seventeen minutes. Given that this song was part of the Miramichi folksong canon, it is likely that Larry Gorman knew of it, even if he could not sing it himself. To suggest, therefore, that Dan Brown would sing this song “o’er and o’er” while the Widow Whinny hugs him seems to be a subtle mocking of the folksong tradition that he participated in. This self-awareness marks Gorman’s oeuvre as unusually sophisticated, and indicates precisely why individual creativity is such an essential, if often overlooked, element in folksong traditions.

It remains in this short overview of Larry Gorman’s life and work to address the question of why it warrants inclusion in an encyclopedia devoted to New Brunswick literature. After all, Gorman and most other woods poets were not educated men. Their songs were sometimes circulated in print form with very limited distribution, but were mostly passed on through oral tradition. They are known today because they were learned and performed by other men, also of limited literacy, and collected by folklorists and other enthusiasts. How does this constitute “literature?”

First, they are without question works of individual creativity. Very often works that exist in oral tradition are marginalized for that very fact. They may be treated as “communal” creations, created by nobody in particular and so therefore created by everyone in general. Even where individual authorship is suspected, they are frequently “anonymous” and therefore not afforded the same protections under intellectual property law as the creative products of literate traditions. For these and other reasons, the folksongs of the northeast lumberwoods may be treated as second-class literary creations. What we know about Larry Gorman, however, ought to persuade us that this is not the case. He was very much an individual creative force, and not a representative of a cultural type. The fact that his poetry was not written down and circulated in written form does not detract from the creative processes that gave it life.

Second, like all literary works, Gorman’s songs tell us something about the society of which they are a part, and shed light on the human condition. Norman Cazden has written that Gorman was not a likable individual, and that we might even question the artistic or critical merit of his work. He says that while the language of Gorman’s songs “is notably literate for its surroundings, it can hardly be termed elevated beyond doggerel” (32), and states that even the satire demonstrates “the heavy-handed slice of the broadaxe rather than the dextrous turn with the canthook. We look in vain for great poetry or for great soul” (32-3). And yet, admits Cazden, Gorman’s songs reflect a way of life that is an important part of the history and the cultural identity of New Brunswickers. The songs of the northeast lumberwoods, Cazden states, helped to humanize as well as pass the time through longer winter evenings:

the songs transformed men who would otherwise have remained dumb and earthbound working stiffs into human beings. From expression in song the men remembered they had parents and ancestral homes, they knew native places and emigrations too, they had sweethearts and friends, they recalled other occupations and respites between them, they found a language and a history. The enforced isolation of the wintry woods made men turn to song as the closest expression of the human world locked inside them. (33)

As with all literary works, Larry Gorman’s songs are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and to the extent that we credit literature with the ability to shed some light on the human condition, Gorman’s work qualifies as literature.

Finally, it must be said that Gorman was a master within his tradition. Doerflinger wrote in 1951 that “Larry is the most appealing and most important figure in Eastern woods minstrelsy from the 1870s on into the present century....if more orally-circulated songs—widely circulated ones, too—were composed by any other folk-song maker on this continent than have been traced on good authority to Larry Gorman, the fact hasn’t been reported” (213). Ives likewise describes him as a “skillful rhymer” (Larry Gorman 157) whose diction was “startlingly fresh” (158) compared to his contemporaries, and whose songs are the work of “a careful, rather fastidious craftsman” (166). I would simply echo Ives’s concluding assessment of Gorman’s work:

The fact is that of all the men who made up satirical songs he was by far the best.... His cleverness with parody, his skill in handling rhyme and meter, and the sharp edge of his wit kept him well ahead of the rest.... No other satirist, no other folk-poet of any kind, for that matter, got one-quarter the stuff into local tradition that Larry Gorman did.... He was the master of the trade.” (Larry Gorman 186)

Peter G. Toner
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Eighty songs have been attributed to Larry Gorman. Some of these have been published posthumously in the following collections:

Doerflinger, William M., comp. Shantymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951.

Doerflinger, William M., comp. Shantymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. Ed. Samuel Preston Bayard, Hally Wood and Joseph Wood. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951. Musical Score.

Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy, and Mary Winslow Smyth, comps. Minstrelsy of Maine: Folksongs and Ballads of the Woods and the Coast. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1927.

Ives, Edward D., ed. Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1993.

---, ed. Drive Dull Care Away: Folksongs from Prince Edward Island. Charlottetown: Institute of Island Studies, 1999.

Manny, Louise. “Larry Gorman - Miramichi Balladist.” The Maritime Advocate and Busy East 40.3 (1949): 5-15.

Manny, Louise and James Reginald Wilson, eds. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1968.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cazden, Norman. “Songsmith of the Northeastern Lumber Camps.” Forest History 9.3 (1965): 32-3.

Doerflinger, William M., ed. Shantymen and Shantyboys: Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1951.

Ives, Edward D. “‘How Got the Apples in?’: Individual Creativity and Ballad Tradition.” New England Music: The Public Sphere, 1600-1900. The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings, 1996. Ed. Peter Benes. Boston: Boston UP, 1998. 92-102.

---. “Larry Gorman and ‘Old Henry.’” Northeast Folklore 2 (1959): 40-5.

---. “Larry Gorman and the Cante Fable.” The New England Quarterly 32.2 (1959): 226-37.

---, ed. Larry Gorman: The Man Who Made the Songs. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1993.

---. “The Life and Work of Larry Gorman: A Preliminary Report.” Western Folklore 19.1 (1960): 17-23.

---. “Satirical Songs in Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.” Journal of the International Folk Music Council 14 (1962): 65-9.

Manny, Louise. “Larry Gorman - Miramichi Balladist.” The Maritime Advocate and Busy East 40.3 (1949): 5-15.

Manny, Louise and James Reginald Wilson, eds. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1968.