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The Cremation of Sam McGee is among the most famous of Robert W. Service's poems. It was published in 1907 in Songs of a Sourdough. (A "sourdough", in this sense, is a resident of the Yukon.) It concerns the cremation of a prospector who freezes to death near Lake Laberge, (spelled "Lebarge" by Service), Yukon, Canada, as told by the man who cremates him.
The night prior to the death of the title character, who hails from the fictional town of Plumtree, Tennessee, the narrator realizes that "A pal's last need is a thing to heed," and swears to McGee that he will not fail to cremate him. After McGee dies the following day, the narrator winds up hauling the body clear to the "marge [shore, edge] of Lake Lebarge" before he finds a way to perform the promised cremation. Robert Service based the poem on an experience of his roommate, Dr. Sugden, who found a corpse in the cabin of the steamer Olive May.
A success upon its initial publication in 1907, the poem became a staple of traditional campfire storytelling in North America throughout the 20th century. An edition of the poem, published in 1986 and illustrated by Ted Harrison, was read widely in Canadian elementary schools.
Although the poem was fiction, it was based on people and things that Robert Service actually saw in the Yukon. The "Alice May" was based on the derelict stern-wheeler the "Olive May" that belonged to the BL&K company and had originally been named for the wife and daughter of Albert Sperry Kerry Sr. Lake Laberge is formed by a widening of the Yukon River just north of Whitehorse and is still in use by kayakers.
William Samuel McGee (b 1868, Lindsay, Ontario, - d 1940, Beiseker, Alberta) was primarily a road builder but did indulge in some prospecting. Like others, McGee was in San Francisco, California, at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1898 left for the Klondike.
In 1904, Service, who was working in the Canadian Bank of Commerce (not the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; a frequent error) branch in Whitehorse, saw McGee's name on a form. He talked to McGee about using his name and received permission, which is confirmed by correspondence between McGee and his family. In 1907 the publication of the poem, along with the others contained in Songs of a Sourdough, made Service famous and McGee the subject of ridicule.
In 1909 McGee traveled south of the Yukon to build roads, including some in Yellowstone National Park. Eventually, McGee and his wife moved to live with their daughter outside of Beiseker. However, in 1930 McGee returned to the Yukon to try prospecting along the Liard River, but met with no success. He did however return with an urn that he had purchased in Whitehorse. The urns, said to contain the ashes of Sam McGee, were being sold to visitors.
McGee spent the rest of his life at his daughter's farm where he died in 1940 of a heart attack.
There are at least two stories about McGee and Service that have grown over the years. The first takes place in the Yukon prior to them both leaving. McGee is said to have obtained his revenge on Service by taking him on a dangerous canoe ride down the Yukon River. It is also claimed that at the time of McGee's death, Service, who was in Canada, tried to attend the funeral. Service, it's said, went to the wrong church, but turned up at the cemetery just as McGee was being buried.
The poem was anthologized in the Oxford Book of Narrative Verse (1983).
In 1999, Les McLaughlin and Friends released a musical interpretation of the poem as part of the collection entitled The Songs of Robert Services.
In 2005, Christine Hanson, who had been inspired by the Ted Harrison illustrations and was given support by a commission from Celtic Connections International Festival in Glasgow, composed a musical suite for nine musicians to accompany a reading of the poem by well known Dundonian musician/songwriter Michael Marra. The premier performance took place, to a backdrop of Ted Harrison illustrations, in January 2005, as an event at that year's Celtic Connections International Festival. Subsequently a studio recording was made and released in January 2006.
In the 1976 film Dead River Rough Cut woodsman Walter Lane recites the poem in its entirety.
Johnny Cash's reading of the poem was National Public Radio's song of the day on May 9, 2006. Cash's "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was released along with a vast collection of personal archive recordings of Johnny Cash on the two-disc album Personal File. Cash misreads the occasional word (such as "toil for gold" instead of "moil for gold") and accidentally transposes a few lines.
In Season 3, Episode 7 of the HBO series Big Love, Bill's mother recites the end of the poem to his sons.
In Season 6, Episode 14 (1994/1995) of the TV series Northern Exposure, Phil and Holling recite the end of the poem.
Portions of the poem are also recited by a character during Season 2 of The Red Green Show.
In the first season of The Amazing Race Canada, Tim Sr. and Jr. have to read the poem for a speed-bump.