Kings Chute, Ontario “Lost Jimmy Whalen”

Song: “Lost Jimmy Whalen”
Singer: Mrs. John Coughlin
Town: Events occurred on Mississippi River in Ontario; recorded in Ellerslie, PEI
ID: NA1.30     T0030
Collector: Edward D. Ives
Date: June 22, 1957
Laws: C8
Roud: 2220

“Lost Jimmy Whalen” is probably a ballad written about a young man who died while working on a river drive; at the very least, it is about someone (either real or fictional) who died in some sort of accident in a river. The ghost, who appears to his lover as she wanders along the river bank, may be Ontario lumberman James Phalen. The real Phalen died on a tributary of the Ottawa River around 1878. Two rafts of logs coming from Crotch Lake (through Kings Lake) collided in the rapids at Kings Chute and, as he helped to break apart the jam, Phalen fell off a moving log and was pulled under the jam by the current. Only a couple versions of “Lost Jimmy Whalen” show a clear connection to the Phalen tragedy. Another ballad “Jimmy Whalen” (Laws C7) has been written about Phalen’s death. “Lost Jimmy Whalen” has been in circulation at least since 1886, when Mr. Herbert W. Seeley heard it sung in the woods around Millinocket, Maine. If we make the assumption that the ballad was written about Phalen’s death, then it follows that it was composed sometime between 1878 and 1886. If it was not specifically about Phalen’s death, it certainly seems that separate ballads mixed together around his name and death.

“Whalen” falls into a fairly large category of songs about men in the lumberwoods who died violent and tragic deaths on the job, including “Peter Emberley,” “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock,” “John Roberts” (also known as “The West Branch Song”), “Guy Reed,” and many more. (“The Teamster in Jack MacDonald’s Crew” also describes this scenario, though it takes a different approach.) This ballad, however, shares much more in common with ballads from the British tradition than it does American lumbering songs. The words of the first two stanzas resemble the Scottish “The Blantyre Explosion” and, in at least one case, these two share a tune. They are bound closer by the fact that the mining accident on which “The Blantyre Explosion” is based occurred in 1877, shortly before James Phalen’s death. Furthermore, the plot of “Lost Jimmy Whalen,” is similar to “The Unquiet Grave,” (Child 78) in which a sweetheart calls her lover back from the dead. The supernatural focus of “Lost Jimmy Whalen” is a third link to the British tradition. Supernatural elements are downplayed in many North American descendants of British ballads, and it is rare for a ballad from North America to have an otherworldly theme.

According to Phillips Barry, “Lost Jimmy Whalen” also carries connections with Celtic mythology. Jimmy’s ghost rising, in most versions, from “the dark-rolling waters” hearkens back to the idea of Tir fa Tonn, or “land under the waves,” the Irish underwater otherworld. The “vision of beauty more brighter than the sun” and “roses of crimson” of verse three resemble the Celtic romances, “The Wooing of Etain” and “The Sickbed of Conchulaind.” Despite the similarities, however, versions of “Lost Jimmy Whalen” have not been found in Britain, so either the original on which it is based has not been identified or the ballad is native to North America. It has been suggested that the revenant in this ballad reveals the singers’ need for contact. The ghost of Jimmy Whalen is able to travel through time and space in order to create the contact that ordinary humans lack and want. This communication would be especially meaningful to a lumbering society, where the men were working at a dangerous occupation, separated for long periods of time from family and friends back home.


Slowly as I strayed by the banks of the river,
A-viewing those roses as evening drew nigh;
As onward I rambled I espied a fair damsel,
She was weeping and wailing with many a sigh.

She was weeping for one that was now lying lonely,
Weeping for one that no mortal can save;
For the dark rolling waters lies slowly around him,
As onward they speed over young Jimmy’s grave.

[At this point, Mrs. Coughlin asked if that was good enough to give Sandy the tune. She claimed she couldn’t sing.]

Slowly there rose from the depths of the desert
A vision of beauty more brighter than the sun,
With roses of crimson around him a-waving,
To speak to this fair one he just had begun.

“Why do you call me from red-lums [realms] of glory,
Back to this wide world I no longer can stay?
To embrace you once more in my strong loving arms,
To see you once more I have come from my grave.”

“Darling,” she said, “won’t you bury me with you?
Do not desert me to weep and to mourn,
But take me, oh, take me along with you Jimmy,
To sleep with you down in your cold silent tomb.”

“Darling,” he said, “you are asking a favor
That no mortal person can grant unto thee,
For deep is the desert that parts us asunder –
Wide is the gulf lies between you and me.

“But as you do wander by the banks of this river,
I will ever be near thee to keep and to guide;
My spirit will guide you and keep from all danger.
I’ll guide you along from my cold silent grave.”

She threw herself down and she wept bitterly;
In the deepest of anguish those words she did say:
“Oh, you are my darling, my lost Jimmy Whalen;
I will sigh ’til I die by the side of your grave.”

Sources: Ives, Edward D., Drive Dull Care Away: Folksongs from Prince Edward Island. Charlottetown, PEI: Institute of Island Studies; Baker, Ronald L. “Folksongs.” Folklore in the Writings of Rowland E. Robinson. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1973, 163; Barry, Phillips. “Lost Jimmie Whalen.” Bulletin of the Folksong Society of the Northeast, Vol. X (1936), 4-7; Beck, Earl Clifton. Lore of the Lumber Camps. Anne Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Press, 1948, 229-30; Coffin, Tristram P. “A Bibliographical Guide to Song Variation.” Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society, 1963, 58+; Fowke, Edith. Lumbering Songs from the Northern Woods. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970, 112-6; Fowke, Edith, and Richard Johnston. More Folk Songs of Canada. Waterloo, Ontario: Waterloo Music Company Lt., 1967, 77-9; Manny, Louise, and James Reginald Wilson. Songs of Miramichi. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press, 1976, 263-4; Moreira, James. “Fictional Landscapes and Social Relations in 19th Century Broadside Ballads,” Ethnologies, 20 (2008), 109; and Peacock, Kenneth. Songs of the Newfoundland Outports. Vol. 2. Ottawa: National Museum of Man, 1965, 384-9.