The minor key "derry-down" chorus here is shared with that of The Dom Pedro. Some variants over the years have omitted this chorus and use a major key. The latter family seem to be related to The Dreadnaught.
The earliest extant source is M. C. Dean's 1922 collection, Flying Cloud: And One Hundred
and Fifty other Old Time Songs and Ballad of Outdoor Men, Sailors, Lumber Jacks,
Soldiers, Men of the Great Lakes, Railroadmen, Miners, etc. Franz Rickaby's 1926 book Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy is another early source. The song was said to be the second favorite among Great Lakes sailors, behind only The Cruise of the Bigler.
The E.C. Roberts has been plausibly identified as the two-masted 1856 schooner. Some versions of the song mention Captain Harve Rumage, and the overlap with the tugboats Kate Williams and Escanaba, various ships called Minch, and the schooner Exile make this attribution highly likely. For example, the version Edith Fowke collected from Stanley Bâby, whose father served as mate on the E.C. Roberts, includes mention of Harve Rumage.
Death's door is the "Porte des morts", the strait linking Lake Michigan and Green Bay, between the mainland and Washington Island.
Skillagalee is Île aux Galets.
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Come all ye bold sailors who follow the lakes,
on an iron ore vessel your livin’ to make,
I shipped in Chicago, bid adieu to the shore,
bound away to Escanaba for red iron ore. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
In the month of September, the seventeenth day,
two dollars and a quarter was all they would pay.
And on Monday morning the Bridgeport did take
the E. C. Roberts out into the lake. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
This packet she howled ‘cross the mouth of Green Bay,
and before her cut water she dashed the white spray.
We rounded the sand point, our anchor let go.
We furled in our canvas and the watch went below. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
Next morning we hove in along the Exile,
and soon was made fast to an iron ore pile.
They lowered their chutes and like thunder did roar.
They spouted into us that red iron ore. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
Some sailors took shovels while others took spades,
and some took wheel barrows, each man to his trade.
We looked like red devils, our fingers got sore.
We cursed Escanaba and that damned iron ore! Derry down, down, down, derry down.
The tug Escanaba she towed out the Minch.
The Roberts she thought she had left in a pinch.
And as she passed by us she bid us good bye,
saying “we’ll meet in Cleveland next fourth of July.” Derry down, down, down, derry down.
‘Cross Saginaw Bay the Roberts did ride with dark
and deep water rolling over her side.
And now for Port Huron the Roberts must go,
where the tug Katey Williams will take us in tow. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
We went through North Passage, O Lord how it blew!
And all ‘round the dummy a fleet there came too.
The night being dark, old Nick it would scare.
We hove up next morn and for Cleveland did steer. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
Now the Roberts in Cleveland made fast stem and stern, and over the bottle we’ll spin a big yarn.
But Cap Harvey Shannon had ought to stand treat
for getting to Cleveland ahead of the fleet. Derry down, down, down, derry down.
Now my song is ended. I hope you won’t laugh.
Our dunnage is packed and all hands are paid off.
Here’s health to the Roberts, she’s staunch, strong and true.
Not forgotten, the bold boys that make up her crew. Derry down, down, down, derry down.