SCOTT, JOSEPH WILLIAM, woodsman and song maker; b. 5 Feb. 1867 in Lower Woodstock, N.B., seventh of the nine children of John William Scott and Sarah A. Teeling; d. 22 June 1918 in Augusta, Maine.
Joe Scott probably had no more than a common-school education, and, being temperamentally unsuited to the farming life he had been born into, he left home as a young man for the greater excitement to be found in the lumber-woods of nearby Maine, where the burgeoning pulp-and-paper industry was creating a boom. He settled in Rumford Falls (Rumford), a raw paper-mill town that had been carved out of the wilderness only a few years before, and he worked up and down the Androscoggin River, where he was known as an expert woodsman and river-driver. In the early 1890s he fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Lizzie M. Morse, but, though the couple filed their intentions of marriage on 19 Oct. 1893, the marriage itself never took place. Lizzie jilted him for another, and that incident became the central and traumatic experience of Scott’s life. A marriage in 1899, to Emma Lefebvre on 22 July, lasted about a year, though there was never an official divorce. Except for a brief return to the Saint John valley for an unsuccessful try at farming and a short spell of homesteading in northern Quebec, he kept to the Maine woods until his death from syphilis. He is buried in Meductic, N.B., not far from his old home.
It was not a happy life, or on the surface of it a very distinguished one, but Scott was a song maker, and he made some of the finest and best-loved ballads that ever circulated in the lumber-woods and local traditions of Maine and the Maritimes. Nearly a century has passed since he wrote his most-noted pieces, but a dozen or so are still alive in oral tradition, and his name and skill are still remembered. His lush and leisurely style, replete with conventional natural descriptions of flowers and singing birds, was his hallmark, and his posterity has both appreciated and preserved it.
Although there is some evidence that he had shown his talent earlier, all his best-known songs were written in the four-year period 1897–1901. “Howard Kerrick” tells the story of a young man leaving home who, though warned against it by his mother, falls into a life of sin and dies a sick and lonely suicide:
My money it has long since fled,
My friends they are but few,
I will snap the tender thread of life
And bid the world adieu;
I will tie this cord unto the hinge
Upon my chamber door,
There is room enough for me to hang
Beneath it and the floor.
Guy Reed, a friend of Scott’s, was killed when a landing of logs he was working on collapsed and crushed him. Scott told of the event in a ballad that is a lament for all young men who die cruelly on the job:
The robin and the swallow,
The sunshine and the rain,
The cuckoo and the sparrow
With the spring shall come again,
The blackbird and the thrushes
From foreign lands will soar,
But loved ones that in death doeth sleep
Will come again no more.
Others, such as “Benjamin Deane” and “The Norway bum,” are equally well known, but there is no question that Scott is best remembered for “The plain golden band,” a song that is obviously based on his own break-up with Lizzie Morse:
Farewell, my own love,
farewell and adieu,
Tho’ our vows they are broken
to you I’ll prove true,
Sometimes think of one
when you roam on the strand
Who placed on your finger
that plain golden band.
Scott the ballad maker is as clearly definable as an artist as are poets such as Yeats or Browning, and he is important to literary history because he demonstrates that art is not the province of an élite but exists on all levels of culture and society. His importance to folklore study is in showing that ballads are neither authorless nor made faceless by the process of “communal re-creation”; they are the products of individual craftsmen, whose individuality – in spite of a tradition that tends not to honour it – often shows forth and even helps to set new standards and directions for their métier.