Wednesday 16 January 2013

'Back of the bar, in a solo game...'

'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game,
sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love,
the lady that's known as Lou...'

Robert W. Service, the man who wrote those imperishable lines (the opening of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, published in 1907 in Songs of a Sourdough) was born on this day in 1874 - not in the Yukon but in Preston, Lancashire, from where he moved to Scotland, entered a bank and emigrated to Canada at the age of 21. After several years of drifting, he returned to banking and was sent to Whitehorse on the Yukon, where he took up verse writing, partly to have something to recite on social occasions. It came easily to him, and he soon had enough for a small volume, which he called Songs of a Sourdough. Its success was immediate and phenomenal, with seven printings before it was even officially released, followed by umpteen more in Canada, the US and England. Clearly Service had given the public something they very much wanted, and they lapped up volume after rattling volume. The author turned his hand equally successfully to novels, some of which were filmed, and soon became one of the wealthiest writers in the business.
Service spent much of the rest of his life in France, where for some years he led a double life, dressing and acting like the rich man he was during the day, then changing into shabby clothes and exploring low dives at night. He and his French wife - who long outlived him, dying in 1989 at the remarkable age of 102 - spent summers at their country house in Brittany, and in later years Service wintered in Monte Carlo. And all the time the royalties rolled in...
Prodigiously successful writers like Service are usually forgotten once their time has passed, their fame becoming a mystery to future generations - which is a consoling thought as we survey the bestselling authors of our own time. Today Service's volumes languish unsold on the shelves of many a charity shop; yet such is the sheer vigour of rollicking ballads like Dan McGrew that they are all but indestructible. In its unsophisticated, melodramatic way, it's a terrific full-tilt verse narrative - once you start reading it, it's hard to stop (try it here) - and an absolute gift for public recitation, which of course was what it was written for. Whenever Ronald Reagan and the Canadian PM Brian Mulroney got together, they would seize the opportunity to perform their two-handed recitation of The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Somehow I can't see Barack Obama and Stephen Harper doing that... 


  1. Come to think of it, Bob Dylan's Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (on Blood on the Tracks) is a distant descendant of Dan McGrew.

  2. What a delightful piece. Thank you for history you share. ~ D. California