Thursday, October 09, 2008

Another Lady Named Lou

For those of you who have not read "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert Service, here is a copy of the poem. I have always been intrigued by "the Lady known as Lou."

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a rag-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.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and glare,There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that’s known as Lou.

His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway,Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,A helf-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;While high overhead, green, yellow, and red, the North Lights swept in bars? — Then you've a hunch what the music meant . . . hunger and might and the stars.

And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowded with a woman’s love — A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true — (God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that’s known as Lou.)

Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil’s lie;That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.'Twas the crowning cry of a heart’s despair, and it thrilled you through and through — "I guess I'll make it a spread misere," said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

The music almost dies away . . . then it burst like a pent-up flood;And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood.The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,And the lust awoke to kill, to kill . . . then the music stopped with a crash,And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;

In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,That one of you is a hound of hell . . . and that one is Dan McGrew."

Then I ducked my head and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark;And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it’s so.I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two — The woman that kissed him — and pinched his poke — was the lady known as Lou.


  1. Most interesting poem, this, and I'd never read it before today. This verse struck me:

    Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil’s lie;That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.'Twas the crowning cry of a heart’s despair, and it thrilled you through and through — "I guess I'll make it a spread misere," said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

    So... I went to and looked up "misere," only to find it's not a word...or at least it's not a word they know. Any ideas about what "a spread misere" might be? I have mine, and they run along the lines of rubbing salt into a wound. I'm stabbing in the dark, based on context.

    But! I loved it. Thanks!

  2. I wondered about that line, too, but I have no sure idea what it means. I thought it was some take on the word misery - like spreading misery? Could it be from another language?

  3. Loved the poem also. I would imagine music was such a rare and wonderful thing in that time. To be able to play what you feel is a gift.
    I also went with it meaning misery.

  4. Hi Lou - I think Spread misere is a term used in playing cards - it is a move done in the game 500;

    Spread Misere:

    This is again an offer to lose all the tricks in a no-trump hand. This bid has a value of 350 points which puts it between "nine clubs" and "nine spades" on the bidding table. The bidder must play the hand alone, against the opposing team but, with the hand laid face up on the table from which a card must be led and the rest of the hand played out in turn. The partner's hand is tossed in out of play. If an open misere bidding team fails, it is set back the 350 points on the score sheet.

    I'm still working on a translation.... but my guess is going it alone, with all your cards showing... ?

  5. Wow... thanks, Alison. I googled the term and found it's associated with Whist... a game I could see cowboys playing. I originally thought your description was about bridge, which I can't see being widely played by cowboys.

    And so that makes perfect sense... McGrew laid all his (metaphorical) cards on the table, face up -- vis-a-vis the "lady known as Lou" -- and got killed for it.

    And, apropos of nothing... I think he "needed killin'." Just my $0.02.

  6. Alison, Thanks for the interp. That makes the poem even more intriguing.

    Buck, Robert Service is not writing about cowboys, but about the gold fields and miners in the Yukon. I probably should have posted a link to him. He also wrote the "Cremation of Sam McGee" which is popular in most high school lit books.

  7. This poem and the Cremation of Sam McGee reminded me of my mom. She and her friends acted out this one for a skit at a talent show when I was about 10. When the "two guns blazed in the dark" there was confusion on the stage and with the stagehands and the lights came back up before the sound of the shots were heard. So funny! I think they won that night anyway. :) Thanks for the memories.

  8. Jo, Last year some friends were in a play about a play where everything goes wrong - similar to how your mother's play went. It was hysterical.

  9. Anonymous4:54 PM

    .... Robert Service is an old favorite of mine..... I've posted hundreds of his poems....

    .... the mail came today, by the way, and THANK YOU for the beautiful painting for my birthday...... it was completely unexpected and absolutely beautiful.... thank you.....


  10. Charles7:41 PM

    Spread misere is putting all your cards face up on the table, and removing yourself from receiving "tricks" in whist. It's also slang for a "sure thing". It particularly applicable in Solo Whist (hence the poem saying that he was playing a game of solo in the back of the saloon. I wonder why yall questioned the line of spread misere and didn't ask what solo was 8)

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