The original poems for Songs of the Iron Men

From the pages of Iron-Men Album to song
By Steam Traction staff
August 2009
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These are the original poems that were featured on Christian Williams' 12-song folk album Songs of the Iron Men. In order to fit these poems to music, Williams rearranged some of the lines and omitted others. The following are the unedited poems as they ran in Iron-Men Album. The lyrics as heard on the album can be found at ChristianWilliams.net.

Untitled (titled "Dreaming of Steam" on Songs of the Iron Men)
Chester Phalor; from the May/June 1967 issue of Iron-Men Album
Upon my cottage porch I sit
and dream of happy days,
when old steam threshers rolled along
the lanes and dusty ways.
The smoke I see a rolling high
and hear that engine still
a puffing, hissing, sputtering
when climbing up the hill.
I liked to watch those clouds of steam,
and loved the whistles tone.
I liked to hear the drive wheels ring
when they would crush a stone.
And when it turned into our lane
with dignity and pomp,
it gave me such a happy thrill
that I would shout and romp.
I’d meet it half way up the lane
and walk along beside.
And I’d envy my big brother
as he ran the thing with pride.
The engine seemed to have pride too,
as though it were alive.
It seemed to try to please him,
and would purr when he would drive.
I thought I could not wait until
the time I'd grow to be
a first class enginner,
I hoped as good as he.
But after while the time did pass
and I have had my day.
But when that little tractor came
the steamer passed away.
The little modern combine has
replaced the threshing crew.
But modern harvests do not have
the romance that we knew.
So when our task on earth is done
and we are called above,
I hope to meet that threshing crew
that I had learned to love.
And surely, when St. Peter finds
that we are standing by,
he'll send us out to thesh some wheat,
some barley, oats and rye.
And when we get out to the field
I know that we shall find
an engine with full head of steam
and a thresher hitched behind.

Vanished Days
Eva K. Anglesburg; from the April 1957 issue of Iron-Men Album
So you like this country, stranger? Well, I wish you could have seen it
in the nineties when the land was new and we were raising wheat;
When the Valley of the Red was one great sea of fife and bluestem,
raising grain enough to furnish bread for all the world to eat.

It was nothing like this modern sort of farming with its turkeys,
and its sheep and hogs, and cows and hens, and beets and spuds, and hay.
It was something big and splendid like the swing and sweep of seasons.
Seems as if the Lord intended men to farm that grander way.

Those were the days of genuine thrashing - yes, I used to own a “steamer.”
Nothing like those modern tractors with their sharp, staccato bark.
Oh, to hear an engine chugging, and a blower’s hollow moaning.
And at dusk and dawn the whistles as they talked across the dark!

We’d start thrashing in September, when the lazy winds were sleeping,
and the air was still and balmy, and a purple haze was spread
over all the distant landscape. Evenings stillness brought the eerie
minor chant of far off blowers as the sun sank round and red.

Always liked to watch the bundle racks roll in beside the feeder.
And the ease with which the spikes would toss the heavy bundles in.
Where the band cutters could seize them - that was poetry of motion,
Then the growling concaves crunched them and away the chaff would spin.

Thrashed a quarter section daily; but in fields where straw was heavy,
or was damp, and we had failed to clear off all the shocks by night,
we would fire near-by straw pile; as the flames lit earth and heaven
we would finish with a flourish in a blaze of ruddy light.

Gone forever, those great straw fires, gone the blowers’ somber chanting
And the giant drive-belt’s humming and the rich, warm smell of grain.
It's the price we pay for progress, wheat no longer rules the Valley.
With its passing went a splendor we shall never see again.

On the Farm 50 Years Ago
Traditional American folk song arranged by Harry Fischback; from the September/October 1957 issue of Iron-Men Album
Down on the farm about half past four
I slip on my pants and sneak out the door
out of the yard I run like the dickens
to milk ten cows and feed the chickens;
clean out the barn, curry Nancy and Jiggs,
separate the cream and slop the pigs;
work two hours and eat like a Turk
and then by heck I'm ready for a full days work.

Then I grease the wagon and put on the rack,
throw a jug of water in an oldgrain sack,
Hitch up the horses and hurry down the lane-
Must get the hay in for it looks like rain.
Look over yonder, sure as I’m born,
Cattle on the rampage and cattle in the corn,
start across the medder, run a mile or two,
heaving like I’m wind broke, get wet all through.

Get back to the horses then for recompence
Nancy gets a-straddle the barbed wire fence;
Joints all a-aching and muscles in a jerk
I’m fit as a fiddle for a full days work.
Work all summer ’till winter is nigh
then figure up the books and heave a big sigh;
Worked all year, didn’t make a cent,
got less cash now that I had last spring.

Now some people tell us there ain't any hell
but they never farmed and they can't tell.
When spring rolls around I take another chance
while the fringe grows longer on my old grey pants -
Give my s'penders a hitch, my belt another jerk -
And then by heck I'm ready for another years work.

A Sawmill Poem (titled "Haywire Sawmill" on Songs of the Iron Men)
Ernest Pawson; from the March/April 1954 issue of Iron-Men Album
One hay-wire sawmill,
nice new location,
ten mile haul
to the shipping station.
Half mile to plank road
rest of it mud,
six bridges, all condemned
but otherwise good.
Timber yellow cypress,
very few knots,
awfully sound
between rotten spots.
Fire box boiler,
flues leak some,
injector patched
with chewing gum.
Darn good whistle
and carriage track.
Nine feet left
of the old smoke stack.
Belts a little ragged,
rats ate the laces.
Head saw cracked
in a couple of places.
The engine knocks
and is loose on its base
and the flywheel’s broke
in just one place.
There’s a pile of side lumber
and a few cull ties
but they are attached
by some credit guys.
There’s a mortgage on the land
that’s now past due,
and I still owe
for the machinery, too.
But if you want to get rich
here’s the place to begin,
for it’s a darn good layout
for the shape it’s in.

On Becoming A Tractor Enthusiast (titled "Charlie and His Case" on Songs of the Iron Men)
E.C. Harsch; from the May/June 1956 issue of Iron-Men Album
Old Charlie was an engineer
back in the days of steam;
To live again that yesteryear
had always been his dream.

The sound of quiet, rushing steam,
of cinder-filled exhaust,
The clank of bull gears it would seem
were doomed forever lost.

The puff of straw-fire up the stack,
the whistle, full of cheer,
the creaking platform at the back,
he'd give his soul to hear.

One day an old-time Case he bought;
he scraped and brushed it bright.
“I'll make it just like new,” he thought,
he worked all day and night.

Charlie had been a Fancy Dan,
the folks who know him say,
Was what is called a well-dressed man
before IT came his way.

Now his shirt is torn, his pants are ripped,
he doesn’t wash his face;
His knuckles smashed, his nails chipped,
as he works upon that Case.

The tractor’s got a brand new face,
unmarred by passing time;
But Charlie looks just like the Case
when it was cached in grime.

The tractor’s cared for like a pup,
now it's Dapper Dan,
And Charlie seldom washes up
but he’s a happy man.

Threshing Crew
Helen Virden; from the November/December 1954 issue of Iron-Men Album
In August when the grain was sheared of gold
And neighbors gathered where the work was due,
Then last years sorties were brushed off and told
To each new member of the threshing crew.

They started with the dawn and worked till dark
Their laughter flashed beneath the burning sun
To men it was vacation time--a lark
For work that neighbors share is mostly fun.

And women who must feed this multitude
Found pleasure heaping dinner table high
With pyramids of wholesome, tasty food
Fried chicken, garden corn and apple pie.

But combines will outmode the threshing crew
And men will lose a place where friendship grew.

Untitled (titled "The Lazy Farmer" on Songs of the Iron Men)
Mrs. B.K. Francis; from the September/October 1954
He toils and moils from sun to sun; he never knows when work is done; his schedule keeps him on the run, this lazy farmer.
He has no time to hunt or fish, it is in vain for him to wish, to travel slower than a S-W-I-S-H, this pokey farmer.
Just wait 'til he stops working hard, plays golf, and has a Union card: the world will then with awe regard, this low-down farmer.

No Title - But Good (titled "Good Old Russell" on Songs of the Iron Men)
John Kelly; from the September/October 1957 issue of Iron-Men Album
I am sitting here and dreaming
of the days of long ago
how we loved those grand old steamers
as we drove them to and fro.

How we had to watch the water
and the lubricator too
and we had to blow the whistle
to call the threshing crew.

We would watch the feeder rolling
listen to the engine bark
and we worked from early morning
often times till after dark.

There were times when we were happy,
there were times when we were blue
when we hit a rotten culvert
and the drivers fell right through.

We would work and sweat and tussle
lift and tug with might and main
till we got the good old Russell
rolling down the road again.

The good old days are gone forever
and it makes me very sad
when I think of those old steamers
and the pleasure that we had.

Village Blacksmith
J.F. Loffelmacher; from the March/April 1962 issue of Iron-Men Album
He brought his plows into my place
to have them fixed one day,
He said, 'I'm in a hurry, boys.
I'd like it right away!'
We left the other work we had,
and fixed this fellow's plows,
So he could get back home again
to feed and milk his cows.

Then when the job was finished,
and we helped him load his plow,
He said, 'Well, Bill I'm sorry but
I cannot pay you now.
Now I will shear my sheep next week,
and when I sell the wool,
I'll come right in to see you
and I'll settle up in full.'

I waited and I waited
'til I met him on the street.
I said, 'My friend what happened?
Have you not sheared your sheep?'
He answered, 'Bill I'm sorry
but the money is all spent.
But when I'm through with threshing
I will pay you every cent.'

I waited and I waited
'til the cutting had been done,
And every threshing outfit
had completed all their run.
Then I met this same old fellow
and asked him for my pay,
I told him of his promise
on the street that summer day.

His answer was the same as yore,
the money was all gone.
And I must keep on waiting for
the work that I had done.
He said, 'Bill, don't you worry.
Just as sure as you are born,
I'll be right in and pay you
when I've gathered in my corn.'

Now the corn has all been gathered
the Spring is here again,
And still this fellow owes me.
I've been waiting all in vain.
And I kind of get to wondering
as I stand by the fire,
How a real dirt farmer
can be such a doggoned liar.

Smoke on the Prairie
Chas. L. Genter; from the September/October 1955 issue of Iron-Men Album
The smoke is gone from the prairie,
and the boys from the cook shack door
the whistle is silenced forever
and its call is heard no more.

No more in the summers darkness
will the engineer rise at three
and crawl in a sooty firebox
as black as black could be.

No more on sunlit mornings
will we load the racks with sheaves
and across the fields go trailing
to some old faithful Reeves.

No more we'll wash together
in the dishpans rimmed with dirt
and dry on a towel wet and grimy
or the tail of our sweaty shirt.

No more we'll eat the cook shack grub
Herring, beans and punk
Java, tomatoes, lovely spuds
Sow bacon by the chunk.

The coffee'd come in on crutches
The butter'd walk in alone
The cake they baked was soggy
The bread was heavy as stone.

But Oh! the joy when a good cook came
and the fare was Delmonico
We'd eat and eat till no more we'd hold
And yet was loath to go.

No more we'll lay in the hay loft
and listen to the rain drops beat
while the hoboes told of the charmers
'mong the girls on Tremont Street.

No more we'll hear their lusty songs
or the thrumm of the old guitar
as a coyote wailed his troubles
to the points of a lonely star.

No more we'll sit in the moonlight
when all was quiet and still
and list to the farm girls singing
the songs that gave a thrill.

No more we'll follow the threshing
from the place where hot winds blow
to the far fields of Canada
the land of the North light's glow.

No more we'll feel the engines throb
the pulse that came through steell
Or knew the smell of smoke and steam
the music of whining wheel.

No more we'll hear the threshers hum
or the song of the engine's exhaust
We know that it means naught to you
But to us tis something lost.

No more we'll tail from sun to sun
But know the joy of rest
We grieve the thresherman's passing
And yet we know tis best.

The smoke is gone from the prairie
and the boys from the cook shack door
the whistle is silenced forever
and its call is heard no more.

My Old Steam Engine
O.H. Nieman; from the January/February 1962 issue of Iron-Men Album
The Iron Horse now silent stands
among the towering forest trees,
Like an aged man whose tired hands
enjoy the days of rest and ease.

Its days of youth and manhood past;
its beauty and its glamour gone,
Its fiery nostrils cold at last,
no more is heard the whistle's tone.

In bygone days its handsome form
with matchless energy endowed,
Has trodden fields and highways long
and labored honestly and proud.

Around it now the children play
without a thought of pain or harm,
The birds and squirrels feel no dismay
nor view it with undue alarm.

For many years its power has made
the thresher do its noble work,
And drove the saw-mill's shining blade
Thru massive logs and ne'er a shirk.

The boiler shell is old and weak,
the fire sheets are patched and frail,
The aged flues are full of leaks,
the furnace crown is decked with scale.

Its ragged coat has lost its shine,
the iron feet are red with rust,
The massive gears no longer whine,
the wooden parts have gone to dust.

The old smoke-stack has lost its crown,
The water tanks are rusted out,
The steering gear has broken down,
The injectors have ceased to fret and spout.

The deep and lasting inroads made
By the ceasless ravages of time,
Are not erased by Sun or rain,
Nor by this poet's homely rhyme.

For those of us who loved to feel
the marvelous power these engines gave,
Fond memories around us steal
that will not cease this side the grave.

May we who drove these faithful steeds
prove true as they were in their day.
When Time and conscience test our deeds
we need not fear the light of day.

When the Great Recorder comes at last
to check our deeds against our name,
He will not ask “Have you won or lost?”
but “How have you played the game?”

Death of a Steam Man
Mae Barber; from the January/February 1962 issue of Iron-Men Album
No fancy long-tailed Sunday coat
or proper satin tie
Need grace my grave –
or fragrant flowers
perfume me when I die.

Just blow a whistle over me –
don’t tuck it in for burying.
But give it to an engine man
that it go on a carrying.
Steam engine joy – Mt. Pleasant way;
And I shall go – still tarrying.
And I shall go – still tarrying.


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