Locktender’s Lament: history in song

Posted on Oct 13, 2015 by

album_coverThere are hundreds of historical photos of the Fox River Locks, but only one bit of arcane history in song. “The Locktender’s Lament” has a muddy history, but some records indicate the song had its origins in World War II. It is a bit of lampoon on an English girl who follows an American sailor across the Atlantic to the Monongahela River, and what awaits her there when she meets with his father, the locktender. The tune was written by Robert Schmertz and performed by Burl Ives on his 1956 album; Songs For and About Men.

Locktender’s Lament

Oh, I’m the lock tender at Lock Number Ten;
I whistle and sing ev’ry now and again.
I’ll sing you a ditty about how and when
I saw a young mermaid at Lock Number Ten.

‘Twas night as the moon shone on Lock Number Ten
I heard a “Halloo!” and I heard it again,
And there gleaming whitely upon the lock wall
Saw a young mermaid her flipper and all!

Oh, a lock tender’s lot can be lonesome at times,
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lay
But probably not many see it that way,
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lay!

“‘Tis government property, Madam!” I said;
She showed me a paper which drippingly read
“All rights and all priviledges, Lizzie, my dear!”
Signed General Muskrat, the chief engineer.

I said to her, “Lizzie, you might catch your death!”
She said to me, “Guv’nor, I’m catching me breath.
I’ve swum from the Thames to the Mongahaylee
To find pretty Jackie, my husband to be!”

Oh, a lock tender’s lot can be lonesome at times,
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lay.
But probably not if he whistles and rhymes,
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lay!

“I met pretty Jackie at Tilbury Docks
And sat at the bowsprit a-mending his socks.
He said that he loved me and he’d marry me –
His name is Jack Swabbie, the U.S. Navee!”

And then I said, “Lizzie, young Jack is my son –
I’m sorry to tell you his fam’ly’s begun
And I’m the grandfather of triplets, you see;
He married Miss Catfish from Lock Number Three!”

Oh, a lock tender’s lot can be joyous and free,
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lee –
But probably not on the Mongahaylee
Tra-la-la-la-la, tra-la, tra-la-la-lee!

Then sadly, oh, sadly she gazed upon me
And said to me, “Guv’nor, oh, how can it be?”
Then slipped to the water so despondently
And flippered her way down the Mongahaylee.


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