For most Canadians of my generation, this needs no introduction. For the rest of you, get ready for a real treat! When I was five or six I used to watch this every morning between cartoons.
“The Log Driver’s Waltz” is a Canadian folk song written by Wade Hemsworth. The most famous version of the song is done by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and the Mountain City Four, and that’s the one used in this animated short by the National Film Board in 1979. The film is one of the most requested in the entire collection of the National Film Board.
The lyrics are:
If you should ask any girl from the parish around
What pleases her most from her head to her toes,
She’ll say – I’m not sure that it’s business of yours,
But I do like to waltz with a log driver.
For he goes birling down a-down the white water;
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.
It’s birling down, a-down white water;
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
When the drive’s nearly over, I like to go down
To see all the lads while they work on the river.
I know that come evening they’ll be in the town
And we all want to waltz with a log driver.
To please both my parents I’ve had to give way
And dance with the doctors and merchants and lawyers.
Their manners are fine but their feet are of clay
For there’s none with the style of a log driver.
I’ve had my chances with all sorts of men
But none is so fine as my lad on the river.
So when the drive’s over, if he asks me again,
I think I will marry my log driver.
The lyrics are often misheard as “whirling” or “twirling” instead of “birling.” Birl is an old Scots verb meaning to revolve or cause to revolve, and in modern English means to cause a floating log to rotate by treading. Today, birling survives as a competitive sport.
The song celebrates the (19th-early 20th Century) profession of log driving. At one point, half of the able-bodied men in Canada worked in the winter as lumberjacks. The logs were stacked up on lakes, waiting for the spring thaw. Most of the timber men went home when the warm weather arrived, but some stayed for the high pay involved in becoming a log driver: These men would run along the floating logs to shepherd them down the stream. A jam could be a truly dangerous situation, requiring a great deal of strength and agility to reach the problem, correct it, and then escape with your life once the logs started moving again. Hemsworth was struck by how much the sight of log drivers at work resembled dancing.
As a further point of interest, the log drivers were paid off at the end of the drive, and stereotypically went into town to spend their money, where they were seen as ne’er-do-wells by society types. Fleet of foot or not, it would have been a scandal for a nice young girl to be courted by a man so poor and desperate that he could find no better employment during the spring season than to risk life and limb on the cold flood waters.