This song has several variants. The version known as Peter Amberley was collected by MacEdward Leach, and the one called Peter Emberely collected by Edith Fowke. There’s also one called Peter Hennessey. The song has passed into “folk” classification, but it has a provenance and is a true story. It was written by John Calhoun to commemorate his friend Peter Emberley, who was killed in a lumbering accident. The song is written as lament by the dying boy.
In in the 1800’s many people came “from away” to work in the lumbering woods, and many died because of the dangerous work. One of them was a young man called Peter Emberley, who arrived from Prince Edward Island (PEI) in 1880 at the tender age of 16 or 17 years to work in the woods around the Taxis River, a tributary of South West Miramichi, in the densely wooded central part of New Brunswick.
Peter and his younger brother were born in Newfoundland and moved to PEI after their father passed away and their mother re-married, seemingly to his father’s brother or cousin. Several more children were added to the family, the financial situation was deteriorating, and Peter was not getting along with his step-father. Peter ran away or was forced to leave. It was the fall of the year and he was able to find passage on one of the many schooners that travelled between PEI and New Brunswick carrying farm goods, supplies, and even horses to work in the lumbering woods. He ended up in New Brunswick and became friends with another young man called John Calhoun.
He was hired by woods boss Dave McLellan to take a team of horses from the schooner up to Boistown. As a farm boy he would have been accustomed to handling horses and used to hard work. After delivering the team, Peter worked in the woods at English Brook. After a month he hurt his hand and came out of the woods and lived at his employer’s house at Parker’s Ridge while it healed.
In the fall of 1880, now about 16 or 17, he went to a lumber camp on the Taxis River; run by Dave McLellan’s son Alex. It was there, soon after his arrival, that he was hurt and killed. He was working with horses, loading sleds with high piles of logs to move them to the river bank where they would wait for the spring drive, to be piled in a “brow” and tumbled into the river when the ice left. It was hard, dangerous work. Sometimes the huge logs were piled dangerously high and if a pile let go, an unwary a man would be caught and crushed. This is likely what happened to Peter; the pile of logs let go and crushed him. Fellow workers gathered up the badly-injured man to bring him out of the woods, John Calhoun and Alex McLellan took him on a two-horse sled along the rugged snowy track.
The teenaged Peter took several days to die from his woulds. He was delirious and rambled about his home and family, and it was these utterances that Calhoun remembered later. There was no doctor available, no painkillers, and no clergyman to attend his funeral. but Peter had been well-liked and got along with his employer and workmates. Not long after his death, John Calhoun wrote a song that was sung to a tune many were familiar with.
The lumbermen, like many people who work in dangerous and capricious industries, were very superstitious and it became bad luck to sing the ballad at a camp. According to oral history, there are several instances of men dying on the job after they had performed it.
People from the Miramichi area tended the grave of a boy they had known only a few short months. For 75 years wooden crosses were replaced as they rotted or were burned. Finally in 1963 a MacArthy family from the area donated a fine granite stone.
Folklorist Louise Manny, who interviewed old lumbermen on the Miramichi in the 1940s, talked to people who had first-hand knowledge of Peter Emberley, and was able to trace his movements in New Brunswick before his untimely death.
There’s a very fine article by John Cousins in The Island Magazine, published by Heritage and Museum, Prince Edward Island.
Bonnie Dobson a Canadian folksinger did a version in 1962, live at Folk City in New York.
Born November 13, 1940, in Toronto, Ontario, Dobson was minor performer of the 1960s folk revival. She became best known as the author of “Morning Dew,” a moving ballad about the threat of nuclear devastation. She recorded a few albums of acoustic folk music for Prestige in the early 1960s, and then moved into pop-folk-rock with full band arrangements on albums for RCA in 1969 and 1970, interpreting songs by obscure singer/songwriter Jackson Frank and the then little-known Ralph McTell). In 1969 Dobson moved to England, and in the 1970s, she virtually retired from the music business, eventually becoming the head administrator for the Philosophy Department at the Berwick College of the University of London.
Ryan’s Fancy was a Celtic acoustic band based in St. John’s Nfld. A trio of ex patriot Irish consisting of Denis Ryan (vocals, fiddle, tin whistle), Fergus O’Byrne (vocals, banjo, concertina, bodhran), and Dermot O’Reilly (vocals, guitar, mandolin), they played traditional Irish, Scottish, Atlantic songs and tunes, singer-songwriter folk-style numbers written during the folksong revival period and or by the band members.
The three had met in Toronto, gone through several iterations of bands, and then relocated together to St. John’s Newfoundland to attend Memorial University of Newfoundland. Their music was well-received in the local music scene, the group played in nightclubs and toured the Atlantic provinces, then were chosen to host the first of several television series. Ryan’s Fancy had their own syndicated series called Ryan’s Fancy (January 1972 to April 1972) and the pub-styled Tommy Makem and Ryan’s Fancy (July to September 1974).
The group disbanded in 1984. In 2004, Ryan’s Fancy were awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award of the East Coast Music Association. Dermot O’Reilly died on 17 February 2007, at 64, from a heart attack.
My name is Peter Amberley I give you to understand
I belong to Prince Edward Island, down by the ocean strand
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one when the flowers were brilliant hue
I left my native country my fortune to pursue.
I landed in New Brunswick in a lumbering country there
I was hired to work in the lumber wood where
They cut the spruce tree down
It was loaded sleds in a lumber yard
Where I got my deathly wound
There’s danger on the ocean where the waves role mountains high
There’s danger on the battle-field where the angry bullets fly
There is danger in the lumber woods, though death lurks seldom there
I fell a victim unto death in that great monstrous snare.
I know my lot seems very hard since fortune proves severe;
But to a victim death is the worst to come, I have no more to fear
I t will relieve those deathly pains and liberate me soon
I’ll sleep that long and silent sleep called the slumbering in the tomb.
Here’s adieu to Prince Edward Island, my own dear native land
I ne’er shall see that lovely isle or enjoy a summer’s breeze
I never shall see those gallant ships as they go sailing by
With streamers floating in the air, far above the canvas high.
Here’s adieu unto my father twas him that drove me here.
I thought him far too cruel, his treatment too severe.
It is not right to force a boy, or try to keep him down.
It will repulse him from his home when he is far too young.
Here’s adieu until my dearer friend, I mean my mother dear
She has raised a son who has fallen as soon as he left her care
Ah, little did my mother think when she sung sweet lullaby
What country I would travel in, or what death I should die.
Here’s adieu unto my dearest friend to the Island girl so true
Long may she live to bless the isle where first my breath I drew.
But the time will roll on just the same as before I passed away
What signifies a mortal man whose frame is generous clay.
There’s one more request I wish to ask; and that I’ll have to crave
That some great Holy Father will bless by silent grave.
It is in the city of Boistown [sic] my mouldering bones will lay
Awaiting the Saviour’s calling on that great Judgment Day.
From NSA: MG1 1195C (a handmade collection of songs called “Ballads of Long Ago” by J W Byers mostly from his Uncle Robert Byers and Aunt Annie Byers c.1930)
John Calhoun, of Parker’s Ridge, NB was a good friend of Mr. Emberley’s and wrote a poem/song called the Ballad of Peter Emberley. Abraham Munn, added the melody of an old Scots tune called Come All ye Tramps and Hawkers, and the song became known in lumber camps in eastern Canada and the US.
Bob Dylan heard Bonnie Dobson sing the song and was inspired to write his Ballad of Donald White. If you listen closely to Dylan’s introduction in the first few seconds of the recording, you will hear him give credit to Ms. Dobson, though he seems to think she had written it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjNasshsvf8