Joseph W. Scott

Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker, Edward D. Ives.
Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker, Edward D. Ives.

Joseph W. (“Joe”) Scott was a poet and woodsman who was born on 5 February 1867 in Lower Woodstock, New Brunswick, and died on 22 June 1918 in Augusta, Maine.

Scott was one of a number of poet-woodsmen from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Maine who were active in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Known at times as “the celebrated Joe Scott” (Ives, Joe Scott 55), he was skilled at all aspects of woods work and river driving, in addition to being a fine singer and all-around entertainer. He is best known, however (thanks to the work of the folklorist Edward D. Ives), as a poet and songwriter—not quite as renowned as his contemporary Larry Gorman (Ives, Joe Scott 53), but arguably more successful in the influence his songs had on the singing traditions of the northeast lumber camps (Ives, Joe Scott 414).

Joe Scott was born on the eve of Confederation in Lower Woodstock in Carleton County, New Brunswick, near what is now the town of Meductic. His grandfather, Joseph Scott, was a farmer and landowner who arrived in the area in the early 1850s, and his parents, John and Sarah (Teeling) Scott, continued to work the family farm until the turn of the century (Ives, Joe Scott 5-7). Scott was the seventh of nine children and was recognized as a talented singer in his youth; but he was footloose and gave up a potential future as a farmer for a life in the Maine lumberwoods before his twentieth birthday (Ives, Joe Scott 9).

Scott’s exodus from New Brunswick to Maine was not uncommon for young men in the late 19th century. Woodsmen from Maine had been going west for work for decades, especially after an economic downturn in 1873, which created a labour vacuum in the Maine lumberwoods that was largely filled by Maritimers. These trends continued into the early 20th century as the economy was rejuvenated with an expanding pulp and paper industry (Ives, Joe Scott 415). As a result, the tradition of “woods singing” was heavily influenced by poets and singers from the Maritimes, who were often considered the best singers in the Maine lumbercamps (Ives, Joe Scott 389).

Joe Scott spent much of his career in the vicinity of the Androscoggin River in western Maine and along the Maine-New Hampshire border. This region, with its large watershed, played a significant role in the development of the pulp and paper industry, with mills and mill towns like Berlin, New Hampshire and Rumford Falls, Maine appearing and growing at a rapid pace in the late 19th century (Ives, Joe Scott 20-25). Many Maritimers like Joe Scott worked in the woods, on the drives, and then in the mills, turning this sequence into an annual employment pattern (Ives, Joe Scott 26).

By the early 1890s Scott was based in Rumford Falls, where he fell in love with and became engaged to a woman named Lizzie Morse, who left him in the spring of 1894, before their marriage (Ives, Joe Scott 40-2). This jilting was said to have profoundly affected him psychologically, and may have led to a period of hard living that resulted in him contracting syphilis (Ives, Joe Scott 44). He eventually married a Québécois woman named Emma Lefebvre in 1899, who already had a nine-month old son named Henry at the time, and was seven months pregnant with a daughter, Blanche (Ives, Joe Scott 45-6). The marriage didn’t last, though, and he filed for divorce in early 1901, although the case was dismissed in 1902 because neither he nor Emma appeared in court (Ives, Joe Scott 50). His life was thus characterized by unsettledness, although he spent almost two years trying to work his portion of the family farm (Ives, Joe Scott 72-3). He wandered around the northeast, worked in and out of the woods, and tried his hand at a number of professions.

Interestingly, it appears that virtually all of Scott’s songs were written between 1897 and 1901, and Ives has written that “had Joe Scott died in 1901 we would still have all his best-known songs” (Joe Scott 60). This was also the period when he spent considerable time travelling from camp to camp selling his songs, which were professionally printed on small slips of paper 3 1/2 inches wide and sold for ten cents each (Ives, Joe Scott 54-7). He also had two of his most famous songs, “Guy Reed” and “The Norway Bum,” printed in local newspapers (Ives, Joe Scott 59). He was widely regarded as a fine singer, and developed a reputation as both a singer and a songwriter (Ives, Joe Scott 56-8). By the early 1900s, however, he turned his talents to other pursuits both in and out of the lumbercamps, those rumoured to involve magic, clairvoyance, and healing (Ives, Joe Scott 61-6). Around 1905 he returned to New Brunswick to try his hand at farming in Lower Woodstock, a venture that lasted less than two years (Ives, Joe Scott 70-3). He stayed on in New Brunswick for a time selling sewing machines in the upper St. John River valley (Ives, Joe Scott 73-4) before returning to western Maine (Rangeley), working in the woods in the winter and as a farmhand in the summer (Ives, Joe Scott 76-80). Later in his career he spent time in Houlton, Maine (Ives, Joe Scott 83-5), and bought some land in Québec in 1913 (Ives, Joe Scott 86), but by 1915 was back in Rangeley (Ives, Joe Scott 89). By this time reports of his slow descent into insanity were common, and in 1916 he was committed to the Augusta State Hospital, where he died two years later of “general paralysis of the cerebral type,” a common euphemism for syphilis (Ives, Joe Scott 92). He was buried back home in Lower Woodstock, New Brunswick.

Though Scott wrote almost all of his songs during a five-year period of intense productivity, only thirteen songs have been reliably credited to his authorship, far fewer than the eighty songs attributed to his contemporary and fellow-Maritimer Larry Gorman (Ives, Larry Gorman 1993). Yet, despite Gorman’s far greater fame and notoriety, Ives has stated that “[n]o one, not even Larry Gorman, ever made a stronger impression on or got more songs into the general tradition of Maine and the Maritimes than Joe Scott did” (Joe Scott 414). Of his modest oeuvre, five songs became prominent fixtures in the singing traditions of the northeast: “The Plain Golden Band,” “Howard Carey,” “Guy Reed,” “Benjamin Deane,” and “The Norway Bum,” which also are considered his finest works (Ives, Joe Scott 420).

Unlike Larry Gorman, whose specialty was satire, Joe Scott has been described as “probably the most poetic of all our woods balladists” (Manny and Wilson 107). He worked almost entirely in the genre of narrative songs about serious subjects, especially death and infidelity, both of which were common subjects in the song traditions of his day (Ives, Joe Scott 404-5). His songs were notable for his ability to work within the ballad tradition, but to push the poetic devices of that tradition to their limits in a manner that Ives characterized as “avant-garde” (Joe Scott 409): “Given his chosen field of expression, he was a master not only in the sense that he could work extremely well within the tradition, but also in the sense that he went beyond it, showing considerable originality in his inventive use of models, his combining of popular and folk traditions (especially in his use of the language of sentimental song in balladry), and his leisurely and elaborate style of development” (Joe Scott 412). Elsewhere Ives writes: “Had not an almost complete revolution in economics and technology made that song tradition moribund, it might have become possible to show how Scott altered it by offering new models, much as William Carlos Williams and Charles Ives altered their traditions. But the demise of the all-winter lumbercamp and the burgeoning of mass communications made that possibility moot” (“Individual Creativity” 97).

Examining a number of Scott’s best-known ballads will make Ives’ point clearer. Perhaps Scott’s earliest ballad is “Howard Carey” (as it is best known in oral tradition) or “Howard Kerrick” (the title on the slips printed by Scott himself), the true story of a New Brunswick man who left his Grand Falls home, moved to Maine, fell into a trap of “bad whiskey and bad women,” and finally killed himself by hanging. The ballad opens with a traditional formula, the naming stanza, which is found in many ballads in both the northeast lumberwoods tradition and in the British Isles:

My name is Howard Kerrick,
In Grand Falls I was born
In a pleasant little cottage
On the banks of the St. John. (Ives, Joe Scott 110)

This opening gambit would have been a familiar one for singers and songwriters in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the northeast, found in ballads such as “The Banks of Mullen Stream” (Manny and Wilson 54), “Jeremiah of Bartibogue” (Manny and Wilson 118), “Peter Emberley” (Manny and Wilson 160), and “Patrick O’Donnell” (Manny and Wilson 274).

Equally conventional is Scott’s use of nature imagery. What is thoroughly unconventional, however, is the considerable extent to which Scott makes use of such imagery. He writes of the singing of small birds, the roar of “trembling waters,” the thickly twined ivy around his parents’ cottage door, the green grass, lilies, violets, and wild roses growing on the hillsides, the dewdrops sparkling in the sun like diamonds, and the perfume of flowers in the summer air around his New Brunswick home (Ives, Joe Scott 110-1). Ives notes that this kind of natural description is “vintage Scott” (Joe Scott 121), and notes that fully one-quarter of the ballad is devoted to such matters (Joe Scott 124). Scott’s ballads are also notable for their leisurely poetic development.

Another conventional feature of the ballad tradition was a section of leave-taking and advice from parents to a departing son. What is unusual of the tradition but typical for Scott is the sheer length and elaborateness of this section of the ballad, which in “Howard Carey” takes up a third of the ballad. Ives notes that, although he knows of no other ballad which devotes so much attention to this feature, “it is developed by a combination of traditional formulas, phrases, and proverbial expressions that make it all sound right and natural” (Joe Scott 121).

The ballad next describes the protagonist’s departure, his mother’s death, and his fateful arrival in the Maine where he experiences his downfall at the hands of hard living, which was characteristic of the non-winter months for many lumbermen. Scott writes:

My money it has long since fled,
My friends they are but few,
I will snap the tender thread of life
And bid the world adieu;
I will tie this cord unto the hinge
Upon my chamber door,
There is room enough for me to hang
Beneath it and the floor. (Ives, Joe Scott 113)

Like most of Scott’s songs, “Howard Carey” was based upon the interpretation of real events that happened in the areas in which he worked. There really was a Howard Carrick who was born in New Brunswick, moved to Maine to work in the lumberwoods, and killed himself by hanging in a Rumford Falls boarding house (Ives, Joe Scott 114-7). The rumours surrounding Carrick’s death suggest that he had secondary syphilis, and Ives speculates that Scott knew Carrick, that he knew that he himself had syphilis, and that in the ballad Scott considered his own life and mortality (Joe Scott 134).

Another of Scott’s best-known ballads, “The Plain Golden Band,” is much more clearly autobiographical, based on his own heartbreak at the hands of his fiancée Lizzie Morse. The song is another example of his love of natural imagery and the very leisurely development of certain poetic themes. It is also a notable example of another of Scott’s most unique talents: his use not only of common broadside ballad devices, but the poetic devices of the popular music of his day, which Ives notes may have been his most important innovation (Joe Scott 409). It is important to note that, although the broadside ballads were undoubtedly much performed and have been the focus of most research in folklore, popular songs were also well-known, much in demand, and increased in importance through the early part of the 20th century (Ives, Joe Scott 390-1). The opening stanza demonstrates features of both traditional and turn-of-the-century popular songs (Ives, Joe Scott 198):

I am thinking tonight of the days that are gone,
When the sun clambered over the mountains at morn,
When the dewdrops of heaven like diamonds did glow,
Were kissing the rose in the valley below;
Where the clear waters flowing so mild and so blue,
Where the green willows wave and the birds sing so true,
Where the wild roses bloom on the banks by the shore,
There I parted with Lizzie, the girl I adore. (Ives, Joe Scott 196)

The song goes on to relate a painful emotional discussion between the two lovers. She has betrayed him and, although she loves him, asks him to take back the “plain golden band” that he had given to her, while he pleads with her not to leave him. Unlike many songs in the folk and popular traditions, Scott develops his image of Lizzie in a very sympathetic way (Ives, Joe Scott 200). The song concludes with a goodbye:

Farewell, my own love, farewell and adieu,
Tho’ our vows they are broken to you I’ll prove true,
Sometimes think of one when you roam on the strand
Who placed on your finger that plain golden band;
In a cool shady forest so far, far away,
Where the deer loves to roam and the child loves to play,
Where all nature is gay and the scenes wild but grand,
There the author you’ll find of the plain golden band. (Ives, Joe Scott 197)

Ives’ educated guess is that the tune to which this song is almost always sung was a late-19th century popular song that Scott had heard (Joe Scott 218). “The Plain Golden Band” was among Scott’s most popular songs and established itself firmly in the northeast lumberwoods tradition.

The key features of Scott’s poetry—extensive use of nature imagery, elaborate and leisurely poetic development, and the use of both traditional and popular poetic devices—appear in virtually all his songs. “Benjamin Deane,” like “Howard Carey,” is based on true events, describing a New Brunswick man who moved to Maine, established himself in business, became involved in shady dealings, and ended up murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy. It is based on the confessional or murder ballad and adopts a stanza form that is strictly traditional, but his elaboration upon traditional images and devices indicates considerable innovation upon this form (Ives, Joe Scott 249-50). The ballad makes use of a range of conventional traditional forms, including a standard come-all-ye opening, a naming stanza, a statement of parental love and a good upbringing, and a farewell to his home as he departs for his future life. However, as conventional as these formulae are, they are developed with such elaborateness that they go far beyond the tradition and demonstrate a poetic style that is characteristic of Scott’s lyric flare (Ives, Joe Scott 250-1).

Good people all, both great and small,
Read these lines penned by me,
These lines are written by a man
Deprived of liberty;
Who is serving out a sentence
For a deed that I have done,
And here I will remain
Till my race on earth is run.

My name it is Benjamin Deane,
My age is forty-one,
I was born in New Brunswick
In the city of St. John,
Near by the Bay of Fundy,
Where the sea gulls loudly call
As they rock with pride the silver tide
As the billows rise and fall.

My parents reared me honestly,
Brought me up in the fear of God,
But they have long been slumbering
Beneath their native sod;
Side by side they slumber
In a quiet cemetery,
Where the willows bow before the breeze
From off the deep blue sea.

Farewell unto my native home,
I ne’er will see it more,
No more I’ll watch the billows break
Upon its rock bound shore,
No more I’ll watch those ships go by
With sails as white as snow,
Bound for some port far o’er the sea
Before the winds that blow. (Ives, Joe Scott 233-4)

What follows is twenty-five stanzas that describe Deane’s move to Berlin Falls, New Hampshire, his establishment of a store and restaurant, his marriage, his fall into criminal business dealings and his subsequent “wild career” and association with “men of low degree,” his troubles with the law “for selling beer and rum,” his discovery of his wife in another man’s arms and her murder at his hand with a gunshot wound to the chest, his arrest, and his warning to others not to follow his example (Ives, Joe Scott 234-8). Although Scott’s poetic language is “startlingly fresh for broadside balladry” (Ives, Joe Scott 252), “Benjamin Deane” is renowned for its great length. The longest versions that Ives collected in oral tradition were between seventeen and nineteen stanzas (Ives, Joe Scott 257), indicating just how much Scott was pushing at the boundaries of that tradition. The great Miramichi folksinger Wilmot MacDonald’s version came in at only fifteen stanzas, but still took nearly twelve minutes to sing. “Benjamin Deane” was thus widely regarded as a “hard” song; Wilmot MacDonald told Ives (Folksongs 68) that “it takes rum to sing a song like that!” So, even though Scott made use of the poetic models that he had available to him, he clearly pushed those models to their limits.

Any consideration of Joe Scott’s oeuvre must take account of his use of technological mass-mediation, a feature not normally attributed to traditional balladry. Ives’ monumental study of Scott’s life and work (Ives, Joe Scott) is extremely valuable in this regard, as he painstakingly chronicles Scott’s activities selling his own songs on small printed slips from camp to camp (see especially 53-69), although Ives’ own attitude toward the significance of technological mass-mediation seems ambivalent. On the one hand, Ives states that “manuscript texts should not be treated as second-class citizens” (Joe Scott 102), and he acknowledges that Scott’s printed slip sheets ought to be considered “the originals” in terms of provenance, and that newspapers such as the Family Herald may have played a significant role in the maintenance of ballad traditions (Joe Scott 103).

On the other hand, Ives retains in his analysis a privileged place for oral transmission, despite the fact that Scott himself used print as a medium to disseminate his songs as widely as possible. Ives’ book includes separate analyses of every song attributed to Scott, and in every case that he has both a version collected from a singer and a copy of Scott’s printed slip, he presents the orally transmitted version first and the (original) printed version second. Further evidence of Ives’ own analytical perspective is found throughout the book. Writing of “The Plain Golden Band,” Ives states that “the printed slips may be where it all began, but they disappeared rather swiftly” (Joe Scott 204), and later that “I have frequently found these Family Herald clippings in people’s scrapbooks, though often the people who kept the scrapbooks were not themselves singers” (Joe Scott 206). Ives concludes of this song that print “is a clear but minor influence that has created some interesting eddies in the mainstream of oral tradition without changing its course significantly” (Joe Scott 210).

Folklorist Neil Rosenberg has noted the same trend in folksong scholarship: that broadsides, manuscripts, and other artifacts of literacy are treated as “supplements to, or encroachments on, a primarily oral tradition” (“Manuscript” 316). Rosenberg’s own study of manuscript collections of songs, and their complex intersection with song performances, indicates that they function as essential parts of folksong traditions in literate societies (“Manuscript” 329). It is with this in mind that we can reassess Joe Scott’s creative processes as a songwriter who was informed by an existing oral tradition, but did not wish to be limited by it. Another revelation in Rosenberg’s research is that Joe Scott’s interest in technological mediation went further than printed slips: he had even been recorded on a wax cylinder recorder and had a box of these recordings in his room, a fact which led Rosenberg to surmise that Scott was a precursor to singer-songwriters like Wilf Carter and Hank Snow. As Rosenberg writes, “working-class songmakers who are public performers seek, in any era, to utilize available and affordable contemporary technology that can take their creations beyond earshot, to larger markets” (“Springhill” 154).

In Joe Scott, then, we have a New Brunswick poet who worked masterfully within the existing folksong traditions of his time, incorporating the best poetic conventions of the idiom and applying them skillfully to the events of the northeast lumberwoods. But we also have a poet who extended those conventions: not only poetically, as demonstrated by his elaborate, leisurely, and lengthy songs, but also by his awareness of the contemporary musical genres of his day and his embrace of technology to disseminate his work as widely as possible. The widespread popularity of his oeuvre testifies to his importance as a poet among the working-class men who worked in the lumberwoods throughout Maine and New Brunswick. Working a half century after Joe Scott’s death, Ives was still able to collect fifty-seven versions of “The Plain Golden Band,” fifty-one versions of “Guy Reed,” forty-nine versions of “Howard Carey,” twenty-nine versions of “Benjamin Deane,” and twenty-four versions of “The Norway Bum,” all of them collected in the three Maritime provinces, as well as New Hampshire and Maine. Miramichi folksinger Fred McMahon’s version of “Howard Carey” was extremely popular throughout the 1950s on Louise Manny’s radio broadcast from CKMR in Newcastle. “Guy Reed” became a signature song of Perley Hare, which he often performed at the Miramichi Folksong Festival, including the night he died in 1988 (Ives, Folksongs 186); the song is still performed occasionally in the Miramichi. This legacy establishes Joe Scott as among the most significant folk poets in New Brunswick literary history.

Peter G. Toner, Winter 2011
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Scott, Joe. “Benjamin Deane.” c. 1898. Self-published printed slip.

---. “Charming Little Girl.” c. 1901. Self-published printed slip.

---. “Guy Reed.” c. 1897. Self-published printed slip.

---. “Howard Carey.” c. 1897. Self-published printed slip.

---. “Norman Mitchell.” c. 1909. Attributed to Joe Scott.

---. “The Norway Bum.” c. 1901. Self-published printed slip.

---. “The Plain Golden Band.” c. 1897–98. Self-published printed slip.

---. “Sacker Shean’s Little Girl.” c. 1900-01. Self-published printed slip.

---. “The White Cafe” (a.k.a. “The Maid with the Golden Hair”). c. 1900-01. Attributed to Joe Scott.

---. “Wilfred White and John Murphy.” c. 1901. Attributed to Joe Scott.

---. “William McGibbeny.” c. 1900-01. Self-published printed slip.

---. “William Sullivan.” c. 1897. Attributed to Joe Scott.

---. “Wreck on the Grand Trunk Railway.” c. 1901. Self-published printed slip.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Ives, Edward D. “‘Ben Deane’ and Joe Scott: A Ballad and Its Probable Author.” Journal of American Folklore 72 (1959): 53-66.

---. Folksongs of New Brunswick. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1989.

---. “‘How Got the Apples in?’: Individual Creativity and Ballad Tradition.” New England Music: The Public Sphere, 16001900. The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings, 1996. Ed. Peter Benes. Boston: Boston UP, 1998. 92-102.

---. Joe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.

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

---. “A Man and His Song: Joe Scott and ‘The Plain Golden Band.’” Folksongs and Their Makers. Ed. Edward D. Ives and John F. Szwed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1970. 69-146.

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

Rosenberg, Neil V. “‘It Was a Kind of Hobby’: A Manuscript Song Book and Its Place in Tradition.” Folklore Studies in Honour of Herbert Halpert. Ed. Kenneth S. Goldstein and Neil V. Rosenberg. St. John’s: Memorial U of Newfoundland, 1980. 315-333.

---. “The Springhill Mine Disaster Songs: Class, Memory, and Persistence in Canadian Folksong.” Northeast Folklore: Essays in Honor of Edward D. Ives. Ed. Pauleena MacDougall and David Taylor. Orono: The U of Maine P and The Maine Folklife Center, 2000. 153-187.