The Black Fly Song

One of Canada’s most iconic folk songs, “The Black Fly Song” was originally believed to have been written by Wade Hemsworth in 1949 while he was visiting Northern Ontario with an Ontario Hydro survey party to study the feasibility of a dam on the Little Abitibi River, which flows north towards James Bay. However, in a 1996 interview, Hemsworth explained that, though the song recounts that experience, he actually wrote it while on a survey expedition in Labrador. The song was featured in Christopher Hinton’s Oscar-nominated animated short Blackfly (1991) and inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

Recordings

“The Black Fly Song” was published by Southern Music (Canada) in 1957 and was included in Canada's Story in Song (Toronto 1960), compiled by Edith Fowke, Helmut Blume, and Alan Mills; in Singing Our History (Toronto 1984) by Fowke and Mills; and in the collection The Songs of Wade Hemsworth (Waterloo 1990). Hemwsworth sings it on his LP Folk Songs of the Canadian North Woods (Folk FW-6821) and the CD The Songs of Wade Hemsworth (Blackfly Music 1995). Other versions have been recorded by the Travellers, Rick Avery and Judy Greenhill, and by Omar Blondahl as “The Blackflies of Ontario.”

Blackfly Film

A version of the song performed by Hemsworth (arranged by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and featuring them on backup vocals), was given an endearing comic visual treatment in the National Film Board’s animated film Blackfly (1991), directed by Christopher Hinton. A French version (Mouches noires) was released in 1992.

Lyrics

'Twas early in the spring when I decide to go

For to work up in the woods in North On-tar-i-o

The unemployment office said they'd send me through

To the Little Abi-tibi with the survey crew

CHORUS:

And the black flies, the little black flies

Always the black fly, no matter where you go

I'll die with the black fly a-picking my bones

In North On-tar-i-o-i-o, in North On-tar-i-o

Now the man, Black Tobey was the captain of the crew

And he said, "I'm gonna tell you boys what we're gonna do

They want to build a power dam and we must find a way

For to make the Little Ab flow around the other way"

CHORUS

So we survey to the east and we survey to the west

And we couldn't make our minds up how to do it best

Little Ab, Little Ab, what shall I do

For i'm all but goin' crazy on the survey crew

CHORUS

It was black fly, black fly everywhere

A-crawlin' in your whiskers, a-crawlin' in your hair

A-swimmin' in the soup, and a'swimmin in the tea

Oh the devil take the black fly and let me be

CHORUS

Black Tobey fell to swearin' 'cause the work went slow

And the state of our morale was gettin' pretty low

And the flies swarmed heavy, it was hard to catch a breath

As you staggered up and down the trail talkin' to yourself

CHORUS

Now the bull cook's name was Blind River Joe

If it hadn't been for him we'd have never pulled through

For he bound up our bruises, and he kidded us for fun

And he lathered us with bacon grease and balsam gum

CHORUS

At last the job was over, Black Tobey said, we're through

With the Little Abitibi and the survey crew

'twas a wonderful experience and this I know

I'll never go again to North Ontar-i-o

CHORUS


Canadian Folk Classics