"Friends Were Saying Good-Bye"

Using Popular Culture to Examine the Significance of Emigration

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

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About This Artifact

During the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of people left their homes in Europe, seeking a fresh start in the Americas.  Most of these emigrants boarded ships for the United States or South America (especially Argentina).  The graphics and words of the song, Friends Were Saying Good-Bye (The Emigrant Ship), in rather melodramitic fashion, offers a cross-section view of would-be emigrants from the United Kingdom to the New World.

Popular culture — in this case, music and illustration — has often been used as a mirror of important historical themes and ideas.  Central to the cover sheet is the singer, Miss Marie LeBlanc.  She is flanked by the prow of the emigrant ship, a couple — soon to be separated — saying their farewells, and a dramatic scene depicting the apparent arrest by British soldiers of an army deserter, with his distressed mother looking on.  The lyrics offer more clues about the emigrants.  The couple is Irish.  The man is leaving his girlfriend, as he sees no future for them in Ireland, and the island is plagued by "sorrow and strife".  Presumably, she will join him at a later date, as many immigrant families did.  This is an example of "stage migration", where family members or individuals would emigrate, establish themselves in the New World, and then bring the rest of their family or group over at a later date.  In the case of the young man about to be arrested, the fact that the solders have apprehended him indicates that he is a deserter whose parents tried to support his escape on board the emigrant ship.  

Emigration to the Americas was also characterized by many "push-pull" forces.  People found themselves leaving Europe because of poligical or religious persecution, unrest, war, poverty, or famine.  These were forces that tended to "push" people from their old homes.  Pull factors included the hope for a new land of opportunity (America was frequently stated as having "streets paved with gold"), and fresh beginnings.  The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which reads "Give me  your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free...", captures the essence of both push and pull forces.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Even though the lyrics of the song are dramatic, do you think it qualifies as a valuable historical source? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think music would have been written at this time about a subject such as emigration?
  3. Take a look at the images on the cover. Do you think they accurately portray aspects of the song? Why do you think they would have made them cover images?