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When First I Came to Caledonia

[trad. Cape Breton]

This song is not about Caledonia as Scotland. It is a song from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and refers to the Caledonia coal mines in Glace Bay with #3 being one of the pits. The “ cask of brandy” verse seems to have been borrowed from Peggy Gordon, which is another song from Nova Scotia. There are some other generic floating verses.

Tony Cuffe sang When First I Went to Caledonia in 1988 as the title track of his solo album When First I Went to Caledonia. This video shows him at a concert in the same year:

Chris Wood and Andy Cutting learned When First I Came to Caledonia from Tony Cuffe's album and recorded it for their 1992 album :Lisa:. A live recording from Sidmouth International Festival of Folk Arts in August 1994 was released on their 1995 CD Live at Sidmouth.

Norma Waterson sang When First I Came to Caledonia in 1994 on Waterson:Carthy's eponymous debut album Waterson:Carthy. This track was also included on several Topic Records anthologies: The Voice of Folk (1996), The Folk Collection (1999), and on The Acoustic Folk Box (2002). A live recording from 2001 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth was published in 2004. Here, Norma is accompanied by Martin Carthy on guitar and Chris Parkinson on accordion. Another, undated, live recording was included in 2014 on the anniversary anthology Folk Legacy: The 40th Girvan Traditional Folk Festival.

Martin Carthy commented in the original album's liner notes:

Norma learned When First I Came to Caledonia from the estimable collection called Songs & Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton [by Amby Thomas, Sydney, Cape Breton: Cape Breton Press, 1979; there the song has the title When I First Went to Caledonia]. Caledonia is the name of a pit, number three seam. Scatarie is an island abandoned by people whose fishing has dried up and is still uninhabited today. Boularderie is the name of that part of the community where all the rich people live and whence comes the woman with whom the character in the song falls blazingly in love at first sight. All he needed.

Martin Simpson sang When First I Came to Caledonia on his 2005 Topic CD Kind Letters. He commented in his liner notes:

When First I Came to Caledonia was played to me after a gig in the Gower by Joy Toole. She thought I would like Chris Wood & Andy Cutting's performance—I did. Later, I heard the Waterson:Carthy version and eventually found the song in Songs & Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton. It was collected from Amby Thomas, whose version starts with three, floating verses from a woman's point of view, seemingly unconcerned to the body of the text. The theme of young people forced away from home by poverty and the need to work, in often difficult and dangerous jobs, is very common in traditional song, as this collection demonstrates.

Jon Boden learned When First I Came to Caledonia from Norma Waterson's singing and sang it as the February 6, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Sarah Hayes learned When First I Came to Caledonia from Norma Waterson's CD too and recorded it in 2013 for her EP Mainspring.

Tannara sang When First I Came to Caledonia in 2016 on their CD Trig.

Jon Wilks sang When First I Came to Caledonia on his 2017 album Songs from the Attic.

Lyrics

Amby Thomas sings When I First Went to Caledonia Norma Waterson sings When First I Came to Caledonia

I wish I were but I with in vain,
I wish I were a young maid again.
A young main again I will never be
Till an orange grows on an apple tree.

The sweetest apple will soon get rotten,
The hottest love it will soon grow cold.
Young maidens' promise will be forgotten,
Take care, young man, do not speak so bold.

If I had pen from Pennsylvania,
If I had paper of truly white,
If I had ink of rosy morning,
A true love's promise to you I'd write.

I wish I were on the deepest ocean,
As far from land that once I could be.
A-sailing over the deepest ocean
Where woman's love would not trouble me.

I'd lay my head on a cask of brandy
And it's a dandy I do declare,
For when I'm drinking I'm always thinking
How can I gain that young lady fair?

When I first went to Caledonia
I got loading at number three.
And I got boarding with Donald Norman's,
He had a daughter could make good tea.

When first I came to Caledonia
And I got loading at number three,
And I got lodging with Donald Norman,
He had a daughter could make good tea.

It was I and my brother Charlie,
The biggest shavers you ever did see,
Were spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scatarie.

And it was me and my brother Charlie,
Two bigger shavers you ne'er did see,
We're spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scatarie.

I went to Norman's for a pair of brochans,
A pound of soap and a cake of tea.
But Norman told me he wouldn't give them
Till fish got plenty in Scatarie.

I went to Norman to buy some brochan,
A cake of soap and a pound of tea.
But Norman said that I could not have them
Till fish got plenty on Scatarie.

I went over to their big harbour,
Just on purpose to see the spray.
I spied a maiden from Boularderie over,
I surely thought her the Queen of May.

So I went over to the big harbour,
I only went for to see the spray.
I saw a maid from Boularderie over,
She looked to me like the Queen of May.

If I had pen from Pennsylvania,
And I had paper so snowy white,
And I had ink of rosy morning,
A true love letter to you I'd write.

I put my foot on the deepest ocean
As far from land as once I could be,
A-sailing over the deepest water
A woman's love'd never bother me.

I set my head to a cask of brandy
And it's a dandy I do declare,
For when I'm drinking I'm sad and thinking
How I could gain that young lady fair?

(repeat first verse)

Acknowledgements and Links

Transcribed from the fine singing of Norma Waterson by Garry Gillard, with a bit of help (not much) from the Digital Tradition, which has a slightly different version. Thanks also to a thread in the rec.music.folk newsgroup for help with what the ‘singer’ bought from Donald Norman. Timothy Jaqcues wrote: “This is allegedly a Cape Breton song, and the reference to Caledonia and Scatarie Island would indicate this. Scatarie Island is near the town of Louisburg, where the French had a fortress, blown up by the British when they were on one of their Canadian tours, and rebuilt in the last thirty years, bit by bit, as a make-work project. The missing word is allegedly ‘broadseye’, others have it as ‘brochans’. Don't ask me what either of those are supposed to be.” And Nigel Sellars suggested: “Shoes or boots, similar to the Irish ‘brogan,’ which I think also means feet. ‘Broadseye,’ if I recall correctly, is a kind of boot with large eyelets for snapping closed or lacing.” Thanks also to Jim Lawton.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: When First I Went to Caledonia and Jon Wilks' Folk from the Attic blog When First I Came to Caledonia. Thanks to Jon for finding the online source of Songs & Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton.