It’s January and the depths of winter most places in the country. I was thinking about winter songs. I was going to mention a few contenders but then I figured I’d cut to the chase as they say. My hands down favourite winter song is a kind of extended groaner of a joke by one of Canada’s iconic poets, Robert W. Service.
I always thought it was a total fantasy until I looked into it a little further and discovered that, as the cliché says, truth is stranger than fiction. Apparently “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a semi-documentary tale, part poem and part journalism. Who imagined? The poem opens with a great line: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/ by the men who moil for gold….” You see right there we have the sublime and the ridiculous. The midnight sun, which I have seen by virtue of being in the North on June 21, is not a winter affair at all, is it? Yet no one has ever called Bob on that small problem. Given that the poem’s action begins on Christmas day, the sun would hardly have made it over the horizon. That is the ridiculous. The sublime is “moil”. It apparently comes from a Middle English verb, mollen, moillen, from Anglo-French moiller, from Vulgar Latin molliare, from Latin mollis soft, related to mollify and was first recorded in the fifteenth century. Synonyms include : bang away, beaver, drudge, grub, hump, plod, fag, slog, and many more. Try substituting one of them for moil in the poem. Moil works best! Good on ya, Bob. One for two.
Now apparently when Robert Service was in the Yukon around the turn of the 20th century, working for a bank (that’s where the real gold rush was and is – not prospecting), he heard from his roommate, a Dr. Sugden, about the discovery of a body, frozen to death, on an abandoned stern wheeler, the “Olive May.”
The boat was sitting, grounded, in a part of the Yukon River, just north of Whitehorse, which widens a bit and was therefore called a lake, Lake Laberge, which Service turned into Labarge, maybe so he could rhyme it with “marge” as in “the night on the marge of Lake Labarge I cremated Sam McGee.” So, it seems, the body of a poor unfortunate, nameless person was found frozen to death on the abandoned steamer and was duly cremated, the soil being too hard for burial.
William Samuel McGee was a customer of Service’s bank and gave his permission for his name to be used in his song. The town from which the mythical McGee was supposed to be from – Plumtree, Tennessee – is in fact a few miles over the line in North Carolina. So, assembling the various facts and fictions, Robert Service crafted a fine tale with the great punchline – McGee sitting in the furnace and demanding the door be closed so the cold wouldn’t get in. It was apparently an easy write, composed during a walk in the woods. Service recalled, “I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy…. As I started in: There are strange things done in the midnight sun, verse after verse developed with scarce a check … and when I rolled happily into bed, my ballad was cinched. Next day, with scarcely any effort of memory I put it on paper.”
It became a hit when Service’s collection Songs of a Sourdough was published in 1907. (That collection is, by the way, the best selling collection of poetry in the twentieth century coming in at something around three million copies.)
Service left the Yukon and went on to write a lot more songs including “Ballad of a Bohemian” and “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”, based on his work as a stretcher bearer in France during WWI, dedicated to the memory of his brother Lieutenant Albert Service, who was killed in 1916. American singer-songwriter, Country Joe MacDonald, has put many of Service’s militant anti-war poems from that collection to music and created a powerful performance from it. It exists on a recording as well, called War, War, War. There are many fine recitations and musical treatments of Sam McGee. I like the recitation Johnny Cash did, just for himself it seems, but now discovered and available.
However, my favourite musical version is the one by Vancouver singer-songwriter, Kate Reid. Few women have tackled it and Kate does a fine job. It’s guaranteed to warm you up this winter and give you at least a smile when you reach the end and imagine Sam, nice and warm in his crematorium. Those who have spent a winter in the Canadian North will understand.
Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Robert W. Service.