Thursday, May 19, 2016

"He seen his duty"

I'm reading All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. Hay was one of two secretaries for Lincoln in the White House during the Civil War. He remained active in journalism, Republican politics and diplomacy for the rest of his life, finally serving as Secretary of State for McKinley and TR. Early in the period after the Civil War, he spent time as an editorial writer for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. During that period he composed some very popular "poems" in the mode of Brett Harte. I think my Skaggs grandfather must have been familiar with the genre because he wrote several that had a similar sensibility.  One of Hay's very popular efforts was "Jim Bludso" (1871). Mark Twain liked it although that former river pilot had a few technical corrections. There is an unfortunate racial slur in the 4th verse that I have removed.

WALL, no! I can’t tell whar he lives,
Because he don’t live, you see;
Leastways, he’s got out of the habit
Of livin’ like you and me.
Whar have you been for the last three year   
That you haven’t heard folks tell
How Jimmy Bludso passed in his checks
The night of the Prairie Belle?
The fire bust out as she clared the bar,
And burnt a hole in the night,
And quick as a flash she turned, and made
For that willer-bank on the right.
There was runnin’ and cursin’, but Jim yelled out,
Over all the infernal roar,
“I’ll hold her nozzle agin the bank
Till the last galoot’s ashore.”

He weren’t no saint,—them engineers
Is all pretty much alike,—
One wife in Natchez-under-the-Hill
And another one here, in Pike;
A keerless man in his talk was Jim,
And an awkward hand in a row,
But he never flunked, and he never lied,—       
I reckon he never knowed how.

Through the hot, black breath of the burnin’ boat
Jim Bludso’s voice was heard,
And they all had trust in his cussedness,
And knowed he would keep his word.
And, sure’s you’re born, they all got off
Afore the smokestacks fell,—
And Bludso’s ghost went up alone
In the smoke of the Prairie Belle.

And this was all the religion he had,—
To treat his engine well;
Never be passed on the river;
To mind the pilot’s bell;
And if ever the Prairie Belle took fire,—
A thousand times he swore
He’d hold her nozzle agin the bank
Till the last soul got ashore.

He weren’t no saint,—but at jedgment
I’d run my chance with Jim,
’Longside of some pious gentlemen
That wouldn’t shook hands with him.
He seen his duty, a dead-sure thing,—
And went for it thar and then;
And Christ ain't a going to be too hard
On a man that died for men.

All boats has their day on the Mississip,
And her day come at last,—
The Movastar was a better boat,
But the Belle she wouldn’t be passed.
And so she come tearin’ along that night—
The oldest craft on the line—
With a _____ squat on her safety-valve,
And her furnace crammed, rosin and pine.


"Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle," John Hay (1838-1905).