Review: Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era. Edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary. 2017. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Pp. 356, glossary, index, illustrations, black and white photographs. $25.95 paper.

Hilary Warner-Evans, Indiana University

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In 1926, Franz Rickaby published his Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boy, the results of his efforts to collect songs in the lumbering camps and towns of the upper Midwest. Over ninety years since its first printing, University of Wisconsin Press, Dykstra, and Leary have reprinted and updated Rickaby’s book, making it once again accessible for the modern scholar and singer. In addition to the text of Rickaby’s original work, the book includes four supplemental sections.

      The first of these is an introduction by Leary providing an overview of Rickaby’s “songcatching” work. Leary’s introduction makes a case for why we should read Rickaby’s work today. Leary writes that Rickaby’s collecting activities suffered from not including sound recordings and ignoring areas such as the music of Native Americans and Scandinavians that also appeared in the lumber camps. However, Rickaby’s work can be viewed favorably today in his understanding of songs as “living perform-ances” (6) and his efforts to engage more than just a scholarly audience via public pro-gramming. Leary’s introduction also traces the influence of Rickaby’s work on the contemporary image of the lumberman in literature, music, and media.

      Leary’s introduction is followed by an extended biographical essay by Dykstra, Rickaby’s granddaughter. Dykstra’s essay is simultaneously a biography of Rickaby and a personal account of her own research to learn more about the grandfather she never knew. She weaves together events in Rickaby’s personal life and research with the climate of folksong scholarship at the time and the history of the places in which he travelled to collect his songs. Dykstra’s essay thus gives the reader a sense of Rickaby’s motivations for his work and presents him as a three-dimensional figure with whom the reader can empathize. Dykstra also compares Rickaby favorably to his contemporaries, with his focus on how these songs relate to the lives of their singers, not simply as isolated pieces of poetry. My only critique of Dykstra’s essay is her relative lack of in-text citations. While she gives a good list of references at the end, it is difficult for the reader to follow up on specific assertions she makes within her text.

      Appearing after Dykstra’s essay is the reprint of Rickaby’s original text. This includes his introduction that gives a sense of the occupational and performance context of the songs, as well as his thoughts on scholarly debates of the day (e.g., folksong authorship). The majority of Rickaby’s fifty-one songs deal topically with loggers, including death in the woods or on the river drives (“Gerry’s Rocks”), occupational terminology (“The Shanty-man’s Alphabet”), and romantic re-lationships with lumbermen (“The Pinery Boy”). Also included, however, are other songs and ballads which were sung in the lumber camps at the end of the nineteenth century. Each song is prefaced by notes, originally found in the back of the 1926 book. These notes describe Rickaby’s sources for the songs and provide inform-ation about their historical or literary context or make comparisons to other songs in the volume. Also reproduced from Rickaby’s original work is his glossary of lumbering terms that appear in the songs, allowing an outsider to understand them better. The reader can thus learn about the lumbermen through their songs and about the songs through the description of the lives and performance practices of the lumbermen. Perhaps most lacking in this section is detailed biographical information about the singers from whom he got the songs, but this is not surprising given the time period in which he worked.

      Rickaby’s book was not only for the scholar and the reader but also for the singer. Indeed, he himself believed that ballads were useless without their tunes (64). With this in mind, musical transcriptions are provided for the vast majority of his songs. However, the inclusion of multiple texts of many of the songs, as well as the lack of “completion” of lyrics in the few places where lines are missing, means the integrity of the originals is not compromised in the name of the reader-singer’s aesthetics.

      The third supplemental section, at the end of the book, contains a selection of songs collected by Rickaby which did not appear in the 1926 publication but were in his archival notebooks. These include songs from occupations and ethnic groups not represented in Ballads and Songs of the Shanty Boy, but that were present in the upper Midwest at the time. Rickaby’s notes in this section are supplemented by Leary, often giving more information about the singers of the songs. This is followed by an index of Rickaby’s fieldwork notebooks, giving a sense of the breadth of his song collecting.

      In conclusion, Pinery Boys is a work that sets Rickaby’s original book into its historical and scholarly context while simultaneously showing us why the work has stood the test of time. With its reprinting, this volume also achieves what Rickaby would have wanted—greater access to these songs by the public.


Warner-Evans, Hilary. 2020. Review of Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era, edited by Franz Rickaby with Gretchen Dykstra and James P. Leary. Folklore Forum 44 (1): 44–45.


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