The Lumberjack Song
It first appeared on the ninth episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, "The Ant: An Introduction" on BBC1 on 14 December 1969. The song has since been performed in several forms, including film, stage, and LP, each time started from a different skit. At an NPR interview in 2007, Michael Palin stated the scene and the whole song were created in about 15 minutes, concluding a day's work, when the Python crew was stuck and unable to come up with a conclusion to the barbershop sketch that preceded it.
The common theme was of an average man (played by Michael Palin in the original television version, but in later live versions by Eric Idle) who expresses dissatisfaction with his current job (as a barber, weatherman, pet shop owner, etc.) and then announces, "I didn't want to be [the given profession]. I wanted to be... a lumberjack!" He proceeds to talk about the life of a lumberjack ("Leaping from tree to tree"), and lists various trees (e.g. fir, larch, Scots pine, and others that don't actually exist). Ripping off his coat to reveal a red flannel shirt, he walks over to a stage with a coniferous forest backdrop, and he begins to sing about the wonders of being a lumberjack in British Columbia. Then, he is unexpectedly backed up by a small choir of male singers, all dressed as Canadian Mounties (several were regular Python performers, while the rest were generally members of an actual singing troupe, such as the Fred Tomlinson Singers in the TV version).
In the original sketch from the programme and film version, the girl is played by Connie Booth, John Cleese's then-wife; in the live version, the girl is played by Python regular Carol Cleveland. In the version from the film And Now For Something Completely Different, it follows on from the "Dead Parrot" sketch with Palin's character leaving the pet shop as Eric Praline asks "I'm sorry, this is irrelevant, isn't it?" and eventually "What about my bloody parrot?!".
In the song, the Lumberjack recounts his daily tasks and his personal life, such as having buttered scones for tea, and the Mountie chorus repeats his lines in sing-song fashion. However, as the song continues, he increasingly reveals cross-dressing tendencies ("I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers, I put on women's clothing, and hang around in bars"), which both distresses the girl and disturbs the confused Mounties, who continue to repeat and chorus his lines, albeit with increasing hesitance. The last straw comes when he mentions that he wears "high heels, suspenders, and a bra," and some of the Mounties stop repeating his lines, and they eventually walk off in disgust. Stunned by the Lumberjack's revelation, the girl cries out "Oh, Bevis! And I thought you were so rugged!" (in some versions, she says, "I thought you were so butch!" and sometimes slaps him) before running off. In And Now For Something Completely Different, at the end of the song the Lumberjack is pelted with rotten fruit and eggs by the Mounties, who can also be heard shouting insults. Another notable difference is that, in the original version, the Lumberjack wishes he was a girlie "just like my dear mama," whereas subsequent versions replace "mama" with "papa," implying that the lumberjack inherited his tendency for transvestism from his father.
At the end of the version in Flying Circus, a letter written by an enraged viewer (voiced by John Cleese) is shown to complain about the portrayal of lumberjacks in the sketch. The letter reads: "Dear Sir, I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about the song which you have just broadcast about the lumberjack who wears women's clothes. Many of my best friends are lumberjacks, and only a few of them are transvestites. Yours faithfully, Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs.) P.S. I have never kissed the editor of the Radio Times." It then cuts to a vox pop of a screeching Pepperpot (Graham Chapman) complaining about the inappropriateness of "all this sex on the television," exclaiming, "I keep falling off!"
The music is similar to Là ci darem la mano, Don Giovanni's and Zerlina's duet in Act 1, Scene 2, of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. The music has also been compared to the English folk song "The Foggy Dew", this is particularly apparent in the verses ('I cut down trees...').
A German version of "The Lumberjack Song" was performed for the 1972 special Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus, produced for German and Austrian television, for which Palin learned the German text phonetically and the group of Mounties was replaced by a group of Austrian border guards. Instead of one of his parents, the German version credits the lumberjack's "Uncle Walter" as inspiring his passion for cross-dressing; this change was likely done simply for a rhyme with "Büstenhalter", the German translation for "bra", which caps the phrase preceding the "I wish I'd been a girlie..." line. (The subtitles on the A&E DVD release of this special quote the original English lyrics.) A German translation of the angry letter featured at the conclusion of the BBC TV version ends the sketch.
A version of the song present in this sketch was made in Portugal for a Millennium Bank campaign. The lyrics were slightly changed and translated into Portuguese, as the bank at the time was making an offer involving planting trees.
A Spanish-language version of the song was created for a theatrical performance in 2004. The Yllana and Imprebis theatrical groups jointly presented a show at Madrid's Teatro Alfil, consisting of sketches adapted from the Monty Python repertoire. Their version of "The Lumberjack Song" was adapted for a Spanish audience so that the singer confessed not to having always wanted to be a lumberjack but having always wanted to join the Guardia Civil, the Spanish gendarmerie. A chorus of uniformed Guardia Civil officers replaced the Mounties from the original television performance.
The song was performed at The Concert for George in November 2002, on the first anniversary of the death of George Harrison. This performance featured Palin, Cleveland, Idle, Jones, Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes and special guest Tom Hanks. At the conclusion of the performance, the troupe turned to face a portrait of George Harrison projected on the back of the stage, and saluted him. During his 1974 North American tour, Harrison would play a recording of "The Lumberjack Song" over the arena public address systems prior to taking the stage to perform. In 1975, while Monty Python were performing in New York, Harrison joined them onstage dressed as a Mountie for this song. Harrison also was the producer of the Python film Life of Brian.
In the Shining Time Station Christmas Special, Ringo Starr as Mr. Conductor is dressed in lumberjack attire, he sings the intro to the song, but changes the lyrics to "I'm a lumberjack and I'm all right."
As of 2010[update], the most recent public performance of the song by Python members was as an encore on the oratorio Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 October 2009, with Palin doing the lead performance and with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in the Mounties chorus and Carol Cleveland as the girl.
In Spamalot, the song "He is Not Yet Dead (playoff)" is thematically similar. Both feature a masculine man singing about seemingly masculine items, but gradually degrading, and both ending in the singer expressing a wish to wear "suspenders and a bra", and both choruses being disgusted at this point. In Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), the song "A Fair Day's Work" makes references to "The Lumberjack Song", with Eric Idle singing about the masculine virtues of work, but also of dressing in women's clothing to go to "naughty bars". The chorus responds: "That's enough of that, okay. We don't give a duck if you're completely gay."
In popular culture
In episode 10 of season 3 of King of the Hill, "A Firefighting We Will Go", Hank says that he will sharpen all the axeheads in the fire department, to which Dale replies in the melody of the song, "Hank's a lumberjack and he's okay..."
In the computer game Baldur's Gate, a drunk man named Lachluger in the Red Sheaf inn in Beregost says, "Ohhhh, I'm a lumberjack an' I'm okay - I work all night an' I shleep all day..." - mixing up the words because he is drunk.
In the first episode of QI (D series), a contestant called Jimmy Carr, in response to the fact that lumberjacking has the most deaths of any occupation in Britain, says, "Well, then that song is completely wrong, isn't it?"
In Episode 118 in the 2009 season of Mythbusters, as part of the intro to the myth of Davy Crockett's Magic Bullet, Tory Belleci says, "Why am I chopping wood, you ask? Not because I'm a lumberjack, and I'm OK."
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- Patrick Kidd, 'Where the other half lives', The Times (16 May 2003)
- Keepers of the Vans (18 September 2006)
- Free Notes – Foggy Foggy Dew (26 September 2013)
- TrailerAddict - Not the Messiah: The Lumberjack Song
- Ultimate Elektra #2 Page 18
- Live performance of "The Lumberjack Song" from the Hollywood Bowl on YouTube
- German performance of "The Lumberjack Song" as shown on TV on YouTube