MC Dean: Songs of a Lumberman

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Area Historical Society

This collection brings together, for the first time, three different sources for experiencing the songs and singing style of Michael Cassius Dean (1857-1931).

Michael Dean was a "Minnesotan" in that he lived most of his life in Minnesota. His music really represents a broader geographical area because, like many young men of his time, Dean started out further east and picked up (and no doubt sang) songs in multiple states as he followed his employment opportunities westward.

General M.C. Dean Timeline

  • 1857 – about 1878: St. Lawrence County, NY
  • about 1878 – about 1885: Manistee, MI / Millbank, SD / Other? (Dean was an itinerant logger, farmer and Great Lakes sailor during these years)
  • about 1885 – 1907: Hinckley, MN
  • 1907 – 1917 Pine City, MN
  • 1907 – 1931 Virginia, MN

Dean learned many songs during his childhood in northern New York state and while doing itinerant work in Michigan and elsewhere in his twenties (Rickaby).

Dean’s repertoire was preserved by three events in the early 1920s:

  1. In 1922, in Virginia, MN, Dean published the words to 166 songs in a songster which he titled The Flying Cloud And 150 Other Old Time Poems and Ballads: A Collection of Old Irish Songs, Songs of the Sea and Great Lakes, The Big Pine Woods, The Prize Ring and Others.
  2. In summer 1923, Dean was visited at his home in Virginia, MN by folk song collector Franz Rickaby who transcribed Dean’s melodies for 27 songs (26 of which appear in The Flying Cloud) and took down a few scant notes on where Dean learned some of the songs and what they were about.
  3. In September 1924, folk song collector Robert Winslow Gordon made wax cylinder recordings of Dean singing (parts of) 33 songs (32 of which appear in The Flying Cloud) at the home of Dean’s sister Mary (Dean) Bird in Canton, New York. This was during one of only three visits Dean made to his New York family after settling in Minnesota in the 1880s!

This collection focuses on the 33 songs recorded by R.W. Gordon. In all but one case, Gordon recorded only the first verse or two of what were much longer songs.

On this site, full texts taken from The Flying Cloud have been matched to mp3s made from the Gordon cylinders to reunite Dean’s full versions of the lyrics with a audio of him singing his melody. In addition, where they exist, Rickaby’s notes have been added to the song description to further enrich this resource.

The original recordings were made on wax cylinders which are housed in the R. W. Gordon Collection at the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. The AFC (then the Archive of Folk Song) transferred them to reel-to-reel tape in in the late 1970s. The tracks here come from a portion of the R. W. Gordon Collection digitized by AFC staff, from the tapes, for Brian T. Miller in September 2012.