The Log Driver’s Waltz

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If you grew up between the 1980s and 1990s in Canada, chances are that least at some point in your life, you heard this very familiar Canadian tune.

Today, we have a special episode of Canadian History Ehx since I have a break between seasons of Pucks and Cups and Canada’s Great War. Last time, I looked at the House Hippo, and today I’m looking at the Log Driver’s Waltz.

The reason the song has become part of Canadian culture is thanks to the video produced by the National Film Board in 1979 as part of its Canada Vignettes series. The song itself though, dates back a bit earlier than that.

The song itself celebrates log driving, which was the act of putting felled timber down rivers to be transported to sawmills. This was very common in the 1800s and into the 1900s. The lumberjacks would cut down the trees, and they would be transported down to the river and put into the water. The river would then take the logs quickly and for no cost, to the sawmill. To ensure that the logs made thee journey, workers would walk and run on the logs as they floated down the river.

Log drivers, sometimes called bubble walkers or bubble treaders, played an integral role in the lumber industry for decades. It was also a dangerous job to be on the river with those logs.

While the Log Driver’s Waltz romanticizes working as a logger, the truth is that they worked from sunrise to sunset, and when the work day was done they returned to dirty, overcrowded bunkhouses. On top of that, they often spent five to nine months in the camps, away from their families.

There were also the dangers of injuries, especially as mechanized equipment became more common including chainsaws and trucks. Before that, logs were harvested using axes and bucksaws, and hauled out on horse-drawn sleds and taken down to the river.

On the river, crews were divided into two groups typically. The experienced and more nimble of the log drivers were part of the jam crew, and they watched spots where logs were likely to jam. They would then get in and dislodge the logs so they did not stack up. Failure to do so would create a partial dam that would raise the water level. If enough lumber became backed up, it could take weeks to break up. The less experienced crew would be in the rear, pushing along the straggler logs that were stuck on the banks. They would often spend more time in the water than on the moving logs. Some men would stay on the banks of the river and push the logs along with pike poles. Each crew also had an experienced boss who would be selected for his ability to fight in order to control the reckless men on his crew.

The ideal river was one that was straight and uniform, with sharp banks. Wild rivers were not great and loggers would often alter the river by blowing up rocks and building up the banks to make the river easier to manage.

To ensure that other timber firms didn’t steal logs, each log was marked with an end mark and altering the mark was a crime.

In the 1950s, a man named Wade Hemsworth began working as a surveyor in northern Ontario and Quebec. He would often live in logging camps, where he saw the skills of the loggers.

Hemsworth was impressed by the strength and agility of the men who worked on these logs, and how their movements on the logs resembled dancing.

His great nephew, also named Wade Hemsworth, would say quote:

“The Log Driver’s Waltz is a song about a time in Canadian history when logging and moving logs to the pulp and paper mill was done in a more traditional fashion. The action of burling on logs, or standing on them, as they turned over and staying upright was a unique skill.”

This inspired him to write The Log Driver’s Waltz.

In 1956, Hemsworth released his first album, Folk Songs of the Canadian North Woods.

The chorus of the song equates the work of the log drivers with dancing by stating quote:

“For he goes birling down and down the white water

That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.

It’s birling down, and down white water

A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.”

The word birling, often heard as whirling or twirling, comes from the Scottish word birl, which means to revolve or cause to revolve.

Despite the name, the song isn’t about log-driving but about how lumberjacks are the centre of attention at dances because of their skills on the dance floor.

Hemsworth wrote only about 16 songs in his entire career, most of which became classics of the Canadian folk music scene. None reached the level of the Log Driver’s Waltz though.

In the early-1960s, he met the Mountain City Four and they would start to release his covers of songs he had written. One of the songs they covered was The Log Driver’s Waltz.

After the Mountain City Four broke up in 1967, two sisters in the band, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, would go off on their own and release 10 studio albums between 1975 and 2008.

In 1979, they cemented themselves with Hemsworth as part of Canadiana through their rendition of The Log Driver’s Waltz that appeared on the National Film Board vignette.

Two years previous, CBC’s children’s programming had contacted the National Film Board and requested they produce several short films that could be used between programming on the CBC. The federal government was also in favour of this, wanting to promote national unity. For the next three years, 80 filmmakers from across the country began to make films. Without a doubt, the most famous is the Log Driver’s Waltz.

The National Film Board vignette was directed by John Weldon

To this day, the film is one of the most-requested in the entire collection of the National Film Board. It has also been adapted into a children’s book.

Hemsworth’s great nephew would say quote:

“To think that he wrote these songs half a century ago and that they still are on people’s minds, it is something that I know would have pleased him completely.”

Hemsworth would die in 2002. Upon his death, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson would state his songs were quote:

“So much a part of our folklore and so familiar to us that we didn’t realize anyone had written them.”

Anna McGarrigle would say of Hemsworth quote:

“He only wrote about 15 or 16 songs but those that he did write have a lot of value.”

One of his songs, The Blackfly Song, was made into a National Film Board cartoon as well and it was nominated for an Oscar in 1992.

In 2017, when the Montreal Gazette ranked its 150th greatest musical moments in Canadian history, the Log Driver’s Waltz was #62.

Information from NFB, Toronto Guardian, CBC, Wikipedia, On The A Side, The Independent, Macleans, Montreal Gazette, The Ottawa Citizen,

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