The Gallagher Boys
Lost on Lake Michigan
Dominick Gallagher’s story about “The Gallagher Boys”
Recorded: Beaver Island, Michigan, August 1938; East Lansing, Michigan 1993
Performers: Dominick Gallagher (1867-1954); Barry Pischner (b. 1939)
Activity 1: Ballads as Story Songs
Teacher explains the process of oral transmission, or face-to-face learning by ear, imitation, and example, as the way “The Gallagher Boys” and many ballads were learned.
Teacher prompts students to think of songs they have learned by watching and listening to other people in their family, peer group, religious community, work group, etc. **Examples should come from face-to-face learning situations, rather than mass media. These may include school songs, lullabies, camp songs, nursery rhymes, etc.
Teacher illustrates learning by oral transmission with the experience of Dominick Gallagher. Here is what Gallagher told Alan Lomax:
“A Lot of the old songs we heard when we were youngsters. The way we’d get to hear them [was from] all those old fellows. They weren’t old men then, you know, middle aged hard-working men, fishing and farming. And once every two or three months they’d all come together in some tavern or somebody’s house with a couple jugs of liquor, and they’d stay all night and do nothing but sing these old songs. And every one of them that appeared around the island here was good singers. There were a lot of songs.”
Teacher explains that, in orally composed songs, we typically do not know who the ballad’s composer was; the songs have been passed down for so many generations that knowledge of the composer is lost. But in case, the composer was from a small, close-knit community of Beaver Islanders who knew and remembered him and his ballad.
Teacher explains that this ballad was written in 1873 and is about a true event. Many people on the small community of Beaver Island were familiar with the story because they had experienced the event themselves or knew someone who had.
Teacher challenges students to be great listeners: how much they can remember after listening just once to a ballad with nine verses (and some were much longer!)?
Teacher prompts with the following questions to focus student listening:Q—What is the basic story of this ballad?
**Prompt for details if necessary as an aid to careful student listening. Prompts may be used on the first or second listening. For example:Q—Where were the Gallaghers sailing to and from? (Beaver Island/Traverse City, Michigan)
Students (individually or in groups) tell/write the basic story of “The Gallagher Boys.” Compare versions.Q--What different details do the different story summaries have?
“Gallagher Boys” by Dan Malloy, sung by Dominick Gallagher, Beaver Island, Michigan, August 1938 [*Note, Alan Lomax called this “The Beaver Island Boys”]Come all brother sailors I hope you’ll draw nigh
Activity 2: Ballads as Oral Poetry
Activity 3: Variation in Oral Tradition—Two Versions of the Gallagher Boys
“Lost on Lake Michigan,” by Dan Malloy, as sung by Barry Pischner, 1993
Come all ye bold seaman, I hope you draw near.
For I have a sad story I want you to hear.
‘Bout the brave Johnny Gallagher, who sailed to and fro,
And was lost on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
O Johnny, my dear one, in the dead of the night,
I woke from a bad dream that gave me a fright.
And it’s on to Traverse City I forbid you to go.
Or to cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
Oh Nancy, my dear one, these dreams are not true.
I’ll cross o’er the wild waves and prove it to you.
And in your lovely cottage full bumpers [overflowing glasses or tankards of liquor, as in a toast] shall flow,
When I return o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
So Nancy, lovely Nancy, don’t stop me my dear.
I’ll surely return now, come dry up your tears.
For God will protect me, let it blow high or low.
I must cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
In the month of October in ’73,
They left Beaver Harbor all with a calm sea.
Bound for Traverse City, their destination to go,
And to cross o’er Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
They left Traverse City at nine the next day.
And down by Elk Rapids they soon bore away.
They had truck in their stores, and to sea they did go.
And were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
As the day had wore on they were well under way.
And had taken their last sight of Grand Traverse Bay.
They had carried all sail, and at speed they did go.
And were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
At ten that same evening a light did appear.
That’s Beaver Island, we’re now drawing near.
With the wind from the northwest, oh how it does blow.
And we’re crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
Johnny Gallagher stood up and said to his crew,
“I hope my brave boys, you’ll be steady and true.
Stand by our main halyards, let your fore halyards go,
There’s a squall on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.”
The Lookout’s now runnin’ before a hard gale.
Her rudder is unshipped, overboard are her sails.
And the billows are foaming like mountains of snow.
And we’re adrift on Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
Oh my dear mother Mary, this grieves my heart sore.
To think we will never again reach the shore.
God help our poor father, how his tears down will flow.
For we’ll never cross Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
So come all brother sailors, let us all shake our hands,
And we know in our hearts that we’ll never see land.
May the great God of glory unto us mercy show.
For we’ll sleep in Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.
Activity 4: Dominick Gallagher’s Story about the Story
“Three men went out of this harbor in a small boat to go to Traverse City for supplies, and they left there in a gale of wind. They only had a twenty-four-foot boat, and she foundered and they were all lost.”
“That was in 73, and I was born in 67. The way I remember, my father left home with those boys that was drowned, and when he got to Traverse City [**a distance of about 70 miles] and was ready to come back, old Captain Roddy [another Beaver Islander], who had a little sailing vessel there, coaxed him to stay over and come home with him the next day when it would be comfortable. He knew it wasn’t fit for them to go out in that open boat, that small boat, understand? It was blowin’ a gale of wind, it was blowin’ the tops right off the seas.”
“My father was goin’ right down in the boat, and Roddy said, ‘Dominick, you aren’t crazy, are you, to go in that boat today?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you. My wife is sick, and I want to get home.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s better for your wife to be without you for two or three days than to be without you forever.’ And my Uncle Roddy went down into the boat, and he took my father by the shoulder an’ he kept him from goin.’’
“We heard the next morning that the boat was lost. Well, my mother knew that my father was in the boat, you see, because he had left the harbor and went to Traverse City with them, and she didn’t know of this Roddy bein’ in Traverse City. And when the news came and the report was that all hands was lost, I remember runnin’ and hangin’ around mother. I couldn’t realize what they were all cryin’ about. I had six sisters and they were all home and they were all cryin’, too. That night they had a wake [traditional Irish death custom] and all, just as though he was there, and all the next day the neighbors came around.”
“Well, when this Captain Roddy came home the next day in his vessel and when they come to St James, the harbor [**and main village on Beaver Island], they heard there that we had held a wake over father that night. My father and this Captain Roddy was great friends, and some of ‘em got a jug of whiskey and they started home rejoicing that he didn’t come in the boat that was lost. When my father come home he started to dance—he was always for singin’ and dancin’ when he had drinks. (He never drank much except occasionally.) I remember he had some toys for me, the first toys I ever had in my life, a little cast-iron shovel and a little pail, and I left the old folks in the house and went out to dig sand with my little shovel and my little pail…But this is the way old Dan Malloy’s song of it goes.”
Activity 5: What Really Happened to the Gallagher Boys—Writing Your Own Version
“Their boat came ashore down at 7 Mile Point still right side up, with a camp stove and two sets of double harnesses in it. There was much talk about the island at the time about the circumstances, and many were sure of foul play. The night before the boys left here, they were all in a saloon drinking and Tommy Boyle had a fist fight with the Gallaghers. But the next morning they had a drink together and decided to be friends again. While on mainland they had some words again and also did some drinking. There are those who think that they had a fight on way over and the Gallagher Brothers put him overboard and left him, and that only one of them was actually lost. For a number of years afterward different people from the island reported seeing the other Gallagher boy. He had been living in China a while before this and married, but he and his wife never got along.”
“Once a few years afterward my father and I were out in one fish boat off Sand Bay [on Beaver Island] out where a dozen or more Chicago schooners were anchored waiting out a blow. The captain of one schooner hailed us and wanted some fish. So the old man threw him up about a dozen and then we both went aboard. I was up forward where its crew was busy in the big anchor with the capstan. And one of the men who kept his down low looked very familiar to me. He began asking me about people on the island, and mentioned a Mrs. Gillespie who was an aunt of the Gallagher Brothers and also some other relatives. He also said he knew every stick of timber about the bay. While my father and I were rowing back I told him about the man and I told him how he looked, a mark below one of his eyes, a squint in one eye and his height. My father said the description fit exactly this one Gallagher boy. The schooner was by that time before a fair wind down the Lake.”
Activity 6: Relationship of Tune and Text
Transcription of “Gallagher Boys” by Dominick Gallagher, from John A. and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.
Q—Does the text fit as well with this tune?
Q—How would you sing “The Gallagher Boys” to the tune of “The Great Titanic?” **Various recordings are available on the web, such as the Phipps Family’s 1965 recording for Smithsonian Folkways.
Q—Which of the three tunes do you think works the best with the text, and why?
Explore other Great Lakes ballads recorded by Lomax. Search for performers Johnny Green, Patrick Bonner, and Asel Trueblood. www.loc.gov/collection/alan-lomax-in-michigan/about-this-collection/
Explore more on Great Lakes shipwrecks.
For a more recent Great Lakes ballad, explore Gordon Lightfoot’s classic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which commemorates the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, in Lake Superior.
John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, compilers. Our Singing Country, Folk Songs and Ballads (1941, 1968)
Laurie Kay Sommers, Beaver Island House Party (East Lansing/Beaver Island: Michigan State University Press, Michigan State University Museum, and Beaver Island Historical Society, 1996).
Ivan Walton and Joe Grimm, Windjammers, Songs of the Great Lakes Sailors (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).
Ivan Walton Collection, Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
Lesson Plan by Laurie Sommers
With generous support from the NEA