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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Service - Cremation of Sam McGee - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

It's been beautiful watching autumn's confetti, but weather forecasters are already using a four-letter word starting with "S".  Beyond that, twice now I've heard people tell Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" as their spooky tale.  I've long said I feel like Sam McGee when Michigan winter arrives.  I'm from St. Louis -- that's Missouri, never knew there was a St. Louis, Michigan until I moved here.  (It's a nice town.  I have told at their library and they even had a sign out front with my name on it!)

I don't know which gives me the shivers more, Michigan winter, Service's poem, or the idea of trying to tell a poem this long from memory!  One of the two people I mentioned read the poem.  I've done that and recommend Ted Harrison's illustrations for the book version. The colors chosen and facial expressions, even the howling sled dogs, catch the shivery, slightly macabre humor of the story-length poem.  By the way, I mentioned the poem and the book to a children's librarian who was shocked she didn't know this little gem.  I started out by telling her about last week's Fisk Farm Fright Night and how it was used.

Cowboy poetry, or any long narrative poetry told, instead of read, is tricky.  Our cowboy storyteller hit just the right style, shuffling his way through the story.  It was new to the audience and they applauded half-way through, throwing him.  Fortunately he did what I've seen other cowboy poets do, he had his wife "holding book" to prompt him when he hit rough patches.  I've told Seuss books and can fake it if I hit a blank spot, but would I try this from memory?  Dunberidiculous!

Until you get your hands on the Harrison illustrated edition, here's the poem and then I've a bit of further interesting related information to add.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

The poem is indeed Public Domain and I chose the Poetry Foundation page as it gives easy access to the rest of Service's poems, including his other well known poem, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", which was also illustrated as a book by Ted Harrison.  You will also see a tab on the Poetry Foundation that says "More about this poem", which includes a link to a Robert Service biography, but I heartily recommend the Wikipedia biography instead as the section about about his life after the Yukon period gives a fascinating life beyond all the attention of those Gold Rush times.

This barely digs past the crust of the Yukon snow.  PBS has a program, "The Klondike Gold Rush", and that link lets you see the entire show and supplementary material,as well as offer you the opportunity to purchase the video.  Don't stop there!  There's another documentary, a two hour film called  "Dawson City: Frozen Time" worth catching.  "Rotten Tomatoes" claims 100% of film critics gave it a positive review.  I saw it and found it could have benefitted from being cut, but it definitely includes some fascinating silent film footage of the Klondike Gold Rush.  The prospectors were legally required to carry (or hire it carried) a year's supply of tools and provisions.  The film also shows a large number of prospectors climbing up the mountain when an avalanche buried many of them.  The film itself comes from 533 silent film reels discovered buried under a community center's swimming pool turned ice hockey rink in 1978. 
One further bit of interesting background can be found on Wikipedia.  The article on Service just quotes "1905 R. W. Service: Bard of the Yukon", Whitehorse Star online archive, September 11, 2008, saying: 
 'A month or so later he heard a gold rush yarn from a Dawson mining man about a fellow who cremated his pal.' He spent the night walking in the woods composing "The Cremation of Sam McGee", and wrote it down from memory the next day.
However, if you go to the Wikipedia article, "The Cremation of Sam McGee", the section of "The reality behind the fiction" tells more about that yarn, as well as the fact that the Ted Harrison edition is widely read in Canadian elementary schools, and this Canadian stamp (which isn't shown there.)

Now for a treat, go to YouTube where Johnny Cash reads the poem with some of Harrison's illustrations.

Brrrrrrr!  Whether you find the story of Sam McGee, the historical story of the Yukon, or the weather forecast makes you shiver, look out winter's coming!
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This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  



At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key. http://folkmasa.org/motiv/motif.htm
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown - http://people.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown/stories.html
         - Richard Martin - http://www.tellatale.eu/tales_page.html
         - Spirit of Trees - http://spiritoftrees.org/featured-folktales
         - Story-Lovers - http://www.story-lovers.com/ is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at https://archive.org/ .  It's not easy, but go to Story-lovers.com snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - http://www.worldoftales.com/ 
     
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin - http://chucklarkin.com/stories.html.  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a. Archive.org, when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!

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