The Deep, Deep Sea | Prairie Public Broadcasting

The Deep, Deep Sea

Sep 19, 2020

Oh bury me not in the deep, deep sea

These words came faint and mournfully
From the pallid lips of a youth who lay
On his cabin couch from day to day


That old Conrad Richter trope of the sea of grass, the tired cliche that the prairie is like the ocean - I never have bought into that. Evidently it works for some people, though, and now we have this lament - Bury me not in the deep, deep sea - showing up in a North Dakota farmhouse.


It was sung, I believe in about the year 1920, by a woman named Sarah Neilson, of Walsh County. She was some fifty-eight years old at the time. She hailed from Ontario, where both her parents were born, too. She lived near Hoople with her husband, Thomas, also a Canadian from Ontario, and a veteran of the Klondike gold rush. 


The Neilsons were successful farmers and active community members. I have a photograph of them with family in front of their substantial, two-story farmhouse. What I don’t know is how Mrs. Neilson came to possess this song she sang. I fancy her ancestry must have included a seagoing man in the days of clipper ships.


More generally, where did the song come from? It is cut from the whole cloth of a poem, “The Ocean Buried,” that was first published in a religious newspaper, the Universalist Union, in 1839. The poet, Rev. E. H. Chapin, was an immensely popular speaker and author in New York and New England.


The poem was set to music by one George N. Allen, but his melody lost popular favor, giving way to another that partook of dirge and chanty - the melody that would be sung by Mrs. Neilson in her farmhouse. In fact it was the tune of the traditional Scots folksong, “The Parting Glass.”


How do I know about Mrs. Neilson’s song of the sea? Because she sang it - and I picture this happening over a kitchen table - to a songcatcher, a ballad hunter named Franz Rickaby, who had driven over from the University of North Dakota, where he was a junior faculty member. Some other day I must speak more of the boy-scholar Rickaby, forever young.


Briefly I will say, Franz Rickaby first came to my notice when I stumbled across an article in the Grand Forks Herald, 6 August 1919, announcing, “University Instructor Will Turn Wandering Minstrel on 700 Mile Walk to Grand Forks.” Young Rickaby, a graduate of Knox College and Harvard, was reporting for instructional duties at UND by walking and hitching from Charlevoix, Michigan, to Grand Forks, carrying his fiddle and collecting lumberjack ballads along the way.


Actually, Rickaby had come to UND in 1918. Early the next year he was excited to announce he had received permission to teach a course on the ballad as literature. Sometime over the next few years he called on Mrs. Neilson at her farmhouse.


Rickaby, who with his wife Lillian were wonderfully popular at UND, stayed there only five years. Suffering from the residual effects of a bout with rheumatic fever, Rickaby was advised by his physician to move to a milder clime, and so he went to Pomona College, in California. The move bought him only a little more time, for the charismatic professor passed away in 1925.


He had wasted and pined till o’er his brow

The death shade slowly passed, and now

When the land of his fond loved home was nigh

They had gathered around to see him die


-Tom Isern