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The Lakes of Pontchartrain

[ Roud 1836 ; Laws H9 ; Henry H619 ; Ballad Index LH09 ; Mudcat 21105 ; trad.]

Gale Huntington: Songs of the People

Paddy McCluskey sang The Lakes of Poncetrin to Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle at Clough Mills, Co Antrim on 5 August 1953 (BBC recording 20031). He learned the song in ca 1905 from another Antrim singer, Frank McAllister, who learned it in America, working as a woodsman

Planxty sang The Lakes of Pontchartrain in 1974 on their album Cold Blow and the Rainy Night, the band’s member Christy Moore returned to it nine years later on his 1983 solo album The Time Has Come. He noted on his 2001 album This Is the Day:

Mike Waterson from North Yorkshire taught me The Lakes of Pontchartrain in 1967 and now it is part of our National repertoire.

Paul Brady sang The Lakes of Pontchartrain on his 1978 album Welcome Here Kind Stranger.

Maggie Holland sang Pontchartrain in 1979 on Hot Vulture’s Plant Life album Up the Line; this was also included in 1998 on their anthology Vulturama!, where Ian A. Anderson noted:

There are numerous excellent,widely differing variations of Pontchartrain, Maggie’s being a hybrid. It’s about an unexpected outbreak of hospitality to a stranger near New Orleans shortly after the American Civil War. Pontchartrain is a large and steamy lake in Louisiana.

The Ripley Wayfarers sang Banks of the Ponchartrain on their 1985 album Down the Road.

Martin Simpson sang The Lakes of Ponchartrain in 1985 on his Topic album Sad of High Kicking. This track was also included in his anthologies The Collection (2002) and The Definitive Collection (2004). He re-recorded this song in 2011 for his Topic CD Purpose+Grace where he noted:

[…] I learned it from the Cajun bluegrass band The Louisiana Honeydrippers, who made one excellent record for Arhoolie in the 1960s. Having lived in New Orleans, I felt qualified to revisit the song with a different feel. Thousands of Irish emigrants ended up in New Orleans. The city has a great Irish culture and heritage. The levees and drainage ditches which stop the city being inundated were largely built by Irish labour. Ten thousand Irish died during the construction and their memorial is a small Celtic cross on the meridian of an Uptown New Orleans road. When the Civil War broke out, the Union Navy sailed up the Mississippi and took New Orleans, the young Irishman in the song fled north through the swamps. There is so much history in the few verses of a folk song.

In this video Martin Simpson sings The Lakes of Ponchartrain at the fRoots 30th birthday Frootsnanny at London’s Roundhouse in January 2010:

Andy M. Stewart sang The Lakes of Ponchartrain in 1994 on his Green Linnet album Man in the Moon. He noted:

Lake Pontchartrain is in Louisiana, USA, just to the north of New Orleans. This song, which I believe dates from the time of the American Civil War, has long been a favourite of mine.

Mary Dillon sang The Lakes of Ponchartrain in 1994 on Déanta’s Green Linnet album Ready for the Storm. This track was also included in 1996 on the World Music Network anthology The Rough Guide to Irish Music.

Rattle on the Stovepipe sang The Lakes of Pontchartrain in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Eight More Miles, and again in 2020 on their WildGoose CD Through the Woods. They noted on the first album:

An example of the Anglo-Irish-American musical roundabout that interests us. Despite an enormous amount of interest and research, the origins of the song, claimed as a traditional Creole love song, an English street ballad of the mid 19th century, and an American song from the Civil War period, still remain shrouded in uncertainty.

Pete [Cooper] first heard it from Ulster singer Paul Brady, who learnt it from the singing of Planxty’s Christy Moore on the album Cold Blow and the Rainy Night (1974). Christy got it from Mike Waterson after hearing him sing it at Folk Union One, in Hull. Mike had learnt it in the 1960s from a tape sent to him by a fan, almost certainly a copy of the BBC recording of Paddy McCluskey, from Corkey, Co. Antrim, made by Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle in 1953. McCluskey had learnt the song around 1905 from another Corkey singer, Frank McAllister, who had picked it up whilst working as a woodsman in America. Paddy McCluskey’s (McAllister’s) version can be heard on the Folktrax recording The Broken Token (FTX514).

The song is very popular in the States, where it is thought by many to be an Irish song because of the recordings of Brady and Moore, and its publication in Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press, 1990); comprising Ulster material collected between 1923 and 1939 by folk song collector Sam Henry. But Henry’s source had also been Paddy McCluskey!

Pontchartrain appears in several American song collections, sung to a variety of tunes, often under the title The Creole Girl, but also The Lakes of Ponsaw Train (Ozarks), and a cowboy version, On the Lake of the Poncho Plains. For more texts see Tolman & Eddy, Journal of American Folklore XXXV, pp.387-388, and Gardner & Chickering, Ballads and Songs of Michigan, p.133. With its reference to railroad cars, the song can’t date before 17 September 1832, when the first steam locomotive, the Pontchartrain, was delivered from England and put into service on the Pontchartrain Railroad line that ran five miles from Elysian Fields Street, New Orleans, to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain at Milneburg, the first railroad in the Mississippi Valley.

In New Orleans at the time of the song’s 19th century creation the term Creole meant a Caucasian born in America whose parents had been born in Europe, probably France or Spain. An elaborate caste system evolved which, below Creole, included octoroon, quadroon, griffe, mulatto, and black. Quadroon girls did not consider themselves black, but Creoles of colour or femmes de couleur and were renowned for their beauty. Many made careers as exotic courtesans, kept as mistresses by wealthy Creoles who could only marry within their own white peer group. The liaisons, some lasting a life-time, were set up at the famous Quadroon Balls, where the girls were paraded in all their finery by their mothers, intent on setting them up with a good gentleman. The custom was more popular with gentlemen, presumably, than with their wives.

Roisín White sang The Lakes of Ponchartrain on her 2009 Veteran CD With Thanks - Le Buíochas. The album’s booklet noted:

Often known just as the Creole Girl, this North American Ballad is about an impoverished migrant from Ireland who is given shelter by a beautiful Louisiana Creole woman. He falls in love with her and asks her to marry him, but she is already promised to a sailor and declines the offer. The origins of the song are unknown but it is thought to have originated in the 19th century. Lake Pontchartrain is actually a single lake but it does connect to two other lakes, Lake Borge and Lake Maurepas which explains the plural in the title. It became popular in the USA and Canada and appears in many folk song collections as well as being included in the ‘Family Herald & Weekly Star’ (Montreal) Old Favourites section in 1937, 1949 and 1952.

The earliest recording of the song seems to be a 1920s cylinder recording made in Georgia by Robert W. Gordon which is held at the American Folklore Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, and in Ireland Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle recorded it in 1953, when working for the BBC, from Paddy McCluskey at Clough Mils, Co. Antrim.

Joseph Topping sang The Lakes of Ponchartrain in 2010 on his Fellside album Ghosts in the Shadow.

Jon Boden sang The Lakes of Pontchartrain as the 1 March 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He gave Planxty as his source and commented that it was

Possibly the first song I ever learnt, probably aged about 14. Attracted by the alligator line I think. Sung a lot in Irish sessions.

Dan Quinn sang The Lakes of Pontchartrain on Duck Soup’s 2018 album Everything and …. They noted:

We have this from Lisa Null via Viv Legg; it’s the second in our (thankfully) unique series of short B-movie versions of great A-Movie songs, and you get the alligators in the first verse…


Martin Simpson sings The Lakes of Ponchartrain

Through streams and bogs and under bush, I’d made my weary way,
Though windfalls thick and devil’s floods my aching feet did stray.
Until at last by evening start on higher ground I gained
And there I met with a Creole girl by the Lakes of Ponchartrain.

“Good evening to you, Creole girl, my money is no good,
Although I fear the ’gators, well I must defend the wood.”
“You are welcome here, kind stranger, my house is very plain
But we never turn a stranger out on the Lakes of Ponchartrain.”

She took me to her mammy’s house, she treated me right well,
The hair around her shoulders, in them jet black ringlets fell.
I’d try to describe her beauty but I find the words in vain,
So beautiful that Creole girl by the Lakes of Ponchartrain.

Well I asked if she’d marry me, she said that could not be,
Because she loved a sailor and he’s far away at sea.
She said that she would marry him and true she would remain,
Even through he never did come back to the Lakes of Ponchartrain.

So farewell, farewell you Creole girl, I’ll ne’er see you no more,
I’ll ne’er forget your kindness in the cottage by the shore.
And at each social gathering a flowing glass I’d drain
And I drink a health to the Creole girl by the Lakes of Ponchartrain.

Jon Boden sings The Lakes of Pontchartrain

It was on one fine March morning I bid New Orleans adieu
And I took the road to Jackson my fortune to renew.
I cursed all foreign money, no credit could I gain,
Which filled my heart with longing for the Lakes of Pontchatrain.

I stood on board of the railroad car beneath the morning sun,
I rode the runs till evening and I laid me down again.
All strangers there, no friends to me till a dark girl towards me came
And I fell in love with a Creole girl by the Lakes of Pontchatrain.

I said, “My pretty Creole girl, my money here’s no good.
If it weren’t for the alligators I’d sleep out in the wood.”
“Oh, you’re welcome here, kind stranger, our house is very plain
But we never turn a stranger out from the Lakes of Pontchatrain.”

She took me into her mammy’s house and she treated me quite well,
The hair upon her shoulders in jet black ringlets fell.
To try and paint her beauty I’m sure ’twould be in vain,
So handsome was my Creole girl by the Lakes of Pontchatrain.

So it’s fare thee well, my bonny girl, I never shall see you more,
I’ll ne’er forget your kindness in the cottage by the shore.
And at each social gathering a glass of wine I’ll drain
And I’ll drink a health to the Creole girl by the Lakes of Pontchatrain.