“Louis Sands and Jim McGee” and “River Lady”

A little more than 12 minutes into the 1948 film, “River Lady” leading actress Yvonne De Carlo performs a musical number titled, “Louis Sands and Jim McGee”.

An advertisement for the film, “River Lady” which was shown at the Vogue Theatre in Manistee for two days (October 22 and 23) in 1948. “Louis Sands and Jim McGee”, a lumberjack ballad with a local connection, was adapted for the film and sung by leading actress Yvonne De Carlo.

An advertisement for the film, “River Lady” which was shown at the Vogue Theatre in Manistee for two days (October 22 and 23) in 1948. “Louis Sands and Jim McGee”, a lumberjack ballad with a local connection, was adapted for the film and sung by leading actress Yvonne De Carlo.

This particular song probably won’t mean much to most people who have seen the film…writing it off as nothing more than a catchy song in a B-movie about lumberjacks along the Mississippi River. However, to Manistee people who are even moderately verbose in local history, the song would probably (at the least) raise a proverbial eyebrow at the mention of Louis Sands, one of Manistee’s leading lumbermen during the latter half of the 19th Century.

As a way to entertain themselves while monotonously cutting down trees, lumberjacks would often compose songs that they would sing to help them through their workday. During these years, when loggers “mined” the forests, countless songs with names such as, “The Flat River Girl”, “The Shanty Boys of the Pine”, and “One Day of Turkey and Six Days of Hash”, were written and sung throughout Michigan.

While there were a few ballads composed about Manistee camps and the sawmill owners the loggers worked for and knew of, perhaps the most well remembered one in this area was a song titled, “Louis Sands and Jim McGee” with the first of four stanzas of lyrics written as such:

“Who feeds us beans? Who feeds us tea?/Louis Sands and Jim McGee.

“Who think that meat’s a luxury?/Louis Sands and Jim McGee.

“We make the big trees fall ker-splash.

“And hit the ground an awful smash!

“And for the logs, who gets the cash?/Louis Sands and Jim McGee.”

Lumberman and sawmill owner, Louis Sands was born in Sweden in 1826 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 27. After finding his way to Manistee he later took up several logging contracts and built up a level of capital to begin his own milling operations. By the 1870s, he had become one of Manistee’s leading lumber barons.

Jim McGee on the other hand is somewhat of a question mark as according to multiple sources the man referred to in the song as “Jim McGee” never existed in this area.

Perhaps the leading authority on lumberjack ballads was Dr. Earl C. Beck, a college professor whose career included heading the English Department at Central Michigan. Beck wrote several books (including “Songs of the Lumberjacks” c.1941) that not only compiled these unique ditties but also attempted to trace their origins. In his 1948 book, “Lore of the Lumber Camps”, Beck writes:

“‘Do you know the beans song?’ This question, often asked of the ballad hunter, refers to the song below, which is sung to the tune of “Beulah Land”. The shanty boy soloist sings the lines, and all the rest join in each chorus. It is good for whisky tenors and beer basses.

“The Irishman Jim McGee was Tom McGee, according to Glen D. Meek of Molalla, Oregon. Mr. Meek says he was a walking boss for Mitchell Bros., a major company in Wexford County.

“Ernie Losey of Alma first knew the song as ‘Johnny Ross and Jim McGee.’ At Gladstone during the birling matches it was sung as ‘Bonifas and Charley Good.’ Ike Bonifas was from Watersmeet and Charles Good from Nahma.”

In 1941, Frank Lloyd, a movie producer working for Universal Pictures, purchased the rights to an 84 page outline titled “River Lady” written by Houston Branch. The story revolved around lumberjacks along the Mississippi River in the 1800s. This outline was later turned into a novel by author Frank Waters in 1942 and it was published under the co-authorship of Frank Waters and Houston Branch.

Even though Frank Lloyd later left the newly formed Universal International the rights to “River Lady” remained at the studio. In 1946, Universal decided to “dust off” the project and went about hiring people to get the production in full swing. Screenwriters, D.D. Beauchamp and William Bowers were hired to write the screenplay while George Sherman, a director of various Gene Autry movies as well as other western films, was hired as the director.

Yvonne De Carlo was cast in the lead role as the manipulative Sequin, owner of the river boat “River Lady” who gets involved with a sawmill owner and a lumberjack amongst the backdrop of the Mississippi River. The film also stars Dan Duryea as the sawmill owner Beauvais and Rod Cameron as lumberjack Dan Corrigan. In addition, two character actors were cast in the small roles of Louis Sands (played by Jack Shutta) and Jim McGee (played by Frank Hagney).

As a way to showcase the talents of De Carlo’s character, Universal hired lyricist Jack Brooks and musician, Walter Schumann to write a song for her to perform in the film, which turned out to be an adaptation of the aforementioned ballad, “Louis Sands and Jim McGee”. However, what is unclear is just how Brooks and Schumann ended up using the song for the film. One could speculate that the duo at some point contacted Dr. Earl Beck to guide them in their search to adapt a song for the film.

Whatever the case, on August 6, 1947 Variety magazine reported, “That 200-year old ballad Louis Sands and Jim McGee has been adapted by Jack Brooks and Walt Schumann for reprise in Universal International’s forthcoming, ‘River Lady.’”

While the ballad was not 200 years old, Brooks and Schuman did adapt the song, changing the lyrics and the tempo. According to the American Film Institute, the song for the film is sung to the hymn “O, Tannenbaum”.

The production notes for the film, courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Library, provides a brief mention of the song:

“Two famous characters of American folk-lore, ‘Louis Sands and Jim McGee’ come to life in the song presentation of that name sung by Yvonne De Carlo.The lumberjack jingle was adapted for the screen story by Jack Brooks and Walter Schuman.”

“River Lady” was nowhere near a box office hit when it was released in June of 1948 and today is regarded as somewhat of a forgotten B-movie with a slightly different western feel and location. De Carlo would go on to star in several more films including “The Ten Commandments” and “McLintock!” as well as the television show, “The Munsters” in which she played one of the lead roles, Lily Munster. The duo who wrote the song would also go on to enjoy several successes such as “That’s Amore” co-written by Jack Brooks while Walter Schumann, would write the theme music for the television show “Dragnet”.

As far as “Louis Sands and Jim McGee”, the entirety of the original lumberjack song would later be included in the book “The Lumberman’s Legacy” published by the Manistee County Historical Museum in 1954. All these years later, the song continues to be one of the many links that provide us with a glimpse of our county’s colorful past.

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