1894: “Hebloo tenas” song, and liberties taken

Times change…It’s incredible how many times we’ve found that the songs folks felt like translating into Chinook Jargon were racist minstrel tunes!

hb lefevre

Henry Belfield Lefevre is “on the steps…third from the left with moustache and light hat” (image credit: Skagway Stories)

At least I assume this was a minstrel song; the fragment of its English original that’s quoted is in thick “black folks” dialect.

Thanks to Alex Code for finding and sharing this early post-frontier item.

I’m just going to skip to the end of it, where we hear our boys in uniform gleefully belting this chestnut:

hebloo tenas 2

…People passing Troop B’s armory Monday nights sometimes hear the words of a strange, queer and soul-stirring song floating through the open windows. The same wild air was often heard in the cavalry quarters at the last annual encampment. The song is one the troop has adopted as its own particular melody. It is a Chinook ditty and was composed by Sergeant H. B. LeFevre of Puyallup for the sole use of the troopers. Here are the words:

Ka, ka copa Hebloo tenas, 
Ka, ka copa Hebloo tenas, 
Ka, ka copa Hebloo tenas? 
Si ya copa close ilahee. 

Chorus — 

Alki Nika clatawah yah-wah nanitch, 
Alki Nika clatawah yah-wah nanitch, 
Alki Nika clatawah yah-wah nanitch; 
Si ya copa close ilahee. 

Ka, ka copa, old man Lijy, 
Ka, ka copa, old man Lijy, 
Ka, ka copa, old man Lijy?
Si yah copa close ilahee.

(Chorus.)

To the uninitiated this might sound like a composition expressing the most patriotic and warlike sentiments. Sung as the troops sing it, it reverberates with the power and martial melody of the Marseillaise. A student of the classic Chinook will, however, discover that the song is but a translation of the old plantation song, “Where, O where, am de Hebrew chillen?

— from “WILL ELECT GENERALS HERE” in the Tacoma Daily Ledger, Sept 17, 1894, page 3

Part of the quoted lyrics is ungrammatical — ‘Where, where at, Hebrew children?’; ‘Where, where at, old man Elijah?’

The most interesting aspect of them is that they may be another case of folks having learned an existing Chinuk Wawa translation years earlier, and winding up singing it in a radically changed form later. That’s folk music for ya, folks!

I’m referring to Reverend Myron Eells’ 1878 published translation of “Hebrew Children“. It’s #7 in his book “Hymns in the Chinook Jargon language.” Several of Eells’s CJ hymns were big hits, becoming widely known for decades in the Pacific Northwest. In their popularity, they tended to become unhitched from his written texts, taking new and often simpler forms as they entered the oral tradition. Here’s Eells’s original 1878 lyrics, insofar as they correspond to what’s cited above:

[no ‘Hebrew Children’ verse in 1878]


[Chorus:]
Alki nesika klatawa nanicht [sic],
Repeat twice.
Siah kopa kloshe illahee.

[verse 7:] Kah, O kah mitlite Elijah alta? 
Repeat twice.
Siah kopa kloshe illahee.

I get the impression that Henry Belfield LeFevre, the editor of Puyallup newspaper The Citizen in 1894 (Wisconsin-born in 1857, later a resident of Alaska), took some boisterous liberties with an existing, non-minstrel-associated PNW hymn.

All of these facts make today’s find a valuable addition to our understanding of historical Northwest music culture!

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?