Dig Me a Ditch
(Galmfry Productions, 1999)

Gallimaufry in Old French means a meat ragout or "hodgepodge" -- or as the group defines it, an eclectic combination of sometimes related but occasionally disjointed music. That describes this CD. The music is good, the voices strong and mature, the hammered dulcimer outstanding.

Dig Me a Ditch celebrates the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the "laborers, many of them Irish immigrants who carved the channel by hand," as well as the canallers who worked on it for the 50 years it was used. The CD comes with a nice map of the National Heritage Corridor which shows all the parks, trails and historic sites along its length.

I was interested to discover the songs pulled from university archives but I was very disappointed with some of the choices made in the "traditional" songs. I felt they perpetuated stereotypes of the Irish as drunks and brawlers. I was puzzled that they felt license to revise some of the songs to fit context and didn't feel they needed to revise others to fit contemporary sensibilities.

For instance, there is a rollicking song called "Kelligrew's Soiree" (sung to the tune of "Arkansas Traveler," which Mary Cook plays next in a toe-tapper of a solo on hammered dulcimer) that I loved and would probably tie my tongue in knots trying to learn. But I was puzzled by one word on the Kelligrew's menu. I am sure Gallimaufry sings "piccaninnies" -- a very outdated term for small, nappy-headed black children which usually connotes perpetual motion -- but the songbook says "pickinies." I've never encountered either word on a menu.

Since the song is said to come from Newfoundland and is dated about 1925, I checked with my friends from Eastern Canada. I consulted my Larousse Gastronomique and came up with nothing close except "piccalilly," which is an East Indian variety of relish. (The Irish served as foot soldiers for the British Raj and may have brought piccalilly back with them, so that's a possibility.) I called my mom, who remembers "piccaninnies" being used to describe meatballs with rice poking out of them. But "pickinies" has me stumped -- unless it's supposed to be "Pekingese," but I can't get a handle on Irish immigrants in that time and place eating much Chinese food. Gallimaufry sings a lot of words differently than they appear in the songbook. This is the only place that matters to me. I wish they were singing piccalilly.

Jon Puleo's voice is grand, Mary Cook can hammer a dulcimer like it ought to be hammered, Christine Gaylord has a lovely voice and has done some nice arrangements and a lot of research it seems, and Bob Janis and Steve Lindenmeyer could sing and play guitar with anyone. But they mangled "Alouette." Really, one ought to hear clearly the difference between "gentille" and "je t'y." And, if one is wanting to sound like a voyageur, one ought not pronounce the final letter in the word "voyageurs" when it's followed by a consonant.

While I understand that this CD project is a heartfelt attempt to give the history of this corridor in song and poem, I wish it were a little less heartfelt and a little more clearheaded. I am uncomfortable with the presentation of Native Americans in a few places. In Susan Urban's "Chicago River Song," an otherwise lovely song well sung by Puleo, we first get the sense of some "noble savage" off in the mist and then we have "the people" moving in as though the land were empty of habitation before they got there. And, despite a good attempt by Gaylord to rescue it with a musical arrangement, Charlene Giardana's forced, rather clumsy and very long poem "The I&M Canal -- Last Link in a Chain" gives us Blackhawk seemingly volunteering to take his people across the Mississippi and leaving their ancestral home to the immigrants!

I tried hard to like this CD. My own Irish ancestors emigrated to Chicago and I wanted to identify with it but I couldn't. But it does have its moments. Cathy Winter's "Canoer's Lullaby" is sublime in this context and I did really enjoy Kevin O'Donnell's "The Illinois & Michigan Canal." I can recommend it for people interested in Irish immigration, canal history or labor history. With the map, it also might be a useful teaching aid, but the teacher had better be prepared to finesse or explain a lot of issues of ethnic conflict.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]