Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle

(Words: P.D.; music copyright: Dave Para)
Side 1, Band 7.

Dave: guitar
Cathy: dulcimer

We set the melody to this verse written in 1871 by John Hay, formerly one of Lincoln's private secretaries and later secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt. In a pamphlet with another ballad, "Little Breeches," Hay's poem was immediately popular and widely reprinted throughout the U.S. and England and was later included in the collection Pike County Ballads, the title referring to Hay's home county in Illinois, bordering the Mississippi River. His instant literary success put him on the same lyceum circuit with Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Horace Greeley.

In his biography of Hay in 1933, Tyler Bennett says, "'Jim Bludso,' in the facile words of John Hay, is the voice of Abraham Lincoln, the kind of story he would have liked to tell, the kind of a moral he would have liked to point." (DP)

Well, no, I can't tell where he lives,
Because he don't live, you see.
Leastways, he's got out of habit
Of living like you and me.
Oh, where have you been these last three years,
That you have not heard tell
How Jimmie Bludso lost his life
The night of the Prairie Belle?

He weren't no saint, them engineers
Are pretty much all alike:
One wife in Natchez under the Hill,
Another one here in Pike.
A careless man in his talk was Jim,
An awkward hand in a row,
But he never flunked and he never lied,
I reckon he didn't know how.

And this was all the religion he had:
To treat his engine well,
"Don't ever be passed on the river
And mind the pilot's bell."
And if ever the Prairie Belle took fire,
A hundred times he swore,
He'd hold her nozzle against the bank
Till the last soul got ashore.

All boats have their day on the Mississippi
And her day come at last.
The Movastar was the better boat,
But the Belle, she wouldn't be passed.
And so she came tearing along that night,
The oldest craft on the line,
With a negro squat on her safety valve
And her furnace crammed rosin and pine.

And the fire broke out as she cleared the bar
And burned a hole in the night.
Quick as a flash, she turned and made
For the willow bank on the right.
There was running and cussing, but Jim yelled out
Above the awful roar,
"I'll hold her nozzle against the bank
Till the last galoot's ashore."

Through the hot, black breath of the burning boat
Jim Bludso's voice was heard,
And they all had faith in his cussedness,
For they knowed he'd keep his word.
And, sure as you're born, they all got off
Before the smokestacks fell,
And Bludso's ghost went up alone
In the smoke of the Prairie Belle.

He weren't no saint, but on Judgement
I'd run my chance with Jim
'Longside of some pious gentlemen
Who wouldn't shake hands with him.
He seen his duty, a dead sure thing,
And he went for it, there and then,
And Christ ain't gonna be too hard
On a man who died for men.

© 1986, Folk Legacy Records, Inc.