The culture of the American West originated in the far West–in California and Northern Nevada during the gold rush. It’s roots lay in gold rush California and, after 1860, it was spread and assured by the rush to Washoe. Gold rush song set in place a mining mythology that actively endured until 1919. Today, both the music and that mythology are little known or are layered over with popular generalization and folk wisdom.
Find out where how the music began and where it went–into the desert. This presentation by CW BAYER gives audiences stories and songs, as played on an original 1860s banjo from Virginia City, Nevada. It is based on his book: THE MINER’S FAREWELL, available on Scribd. The live presentation is best for intimate audiences interested in history. It lasts about one hour and a half. For information on availability and price, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Because this information is not available elsewhere and because the sound of the instrument is important to understanding the songs, the page below contains some stories and tunes–as played on the 1860s Virginia City banjo in the original, minstrel style. For more information on music by CW BAYER, see www.nevadamusic.com
OH CALIFORNIA, 1849. Early songs about going to California were often hopeful and were often written onboard ship during the long months of passage–long before the authors arrived in the Sierra Nevada and saw its hardships. Written by John Nichols on board the bark Eliza, “Oh California” is a parody of the 1848 minstrel show hit, “Oh Susanna” by Stephen Foster. This tune is so well known that it is easy to forget that, in 1849, it was brand new. “Oh Susanna” was not a “folk song.” It originated as a pop song–composed by Stephen Foster for Christy’s Minstrels. The minstrel show was the zany rock-and-roll music of the younger generation from 1845 through 1875. The parody, “Oh California”, was sung in Sacramento during spring of 1849. It presages a trend in gold rush song–though modeled on minstrel and saloon theater songs, gold rush song used neither the slave nor the Cockney as its hero. The fun isn’t poked at some distant “other” type. The fun is poked at us–the young miner. This is consistent with the young miner’s adoption of “seeing the elephant” as his motto–the phrase originates as a warning but then becomes a brag. Like those “other” types, the gold rush hero is portrayed as a comic fool. And, still, he revels in that foolishness.
LIFE IN CALIFORNIA, 1851. Almost all gold rush songs were parodies of other songs. Everyone who heard them at the time understood this and savored the irony that the parody implied. Some of the gold rush songs parodied minstrel show material. Other gold rush songs parodied English and New England songs. In fact, English melody and New England melody in an English style became a major definition of the gold rush banjo–particularly after 1857 and as minstrel show musicians appeared on the Comstock. This embrace of English influence on the California stage contrasts events in the East. Intense English/American theater rivalry came to a head during the 1849 theater riot in New York City. Numerous English performers came to California, perhaps due to tension in the East. Dr. David Robinson–a follower of Barnum–hired some of these and opened the Dramatic Museum in San Francisco. The theater aimed at a working class audience. Perhaps as an extension of the rebellion in to “seeing the elephant”, the political outlook of the theater and increasingly of miners in the Sierra Nevada was very resentful of neglect by the powers-that-be–in particular the eastern/federal government. Robinson adapted Barnum’s Gold Mania for local performance. Robinson’s audience was mostly working class and he wrote songs poking fun at local government. In 1851, his most influential song–“Life in California”–parodied a very popular English saloon theater song “Used Up Man”. The song describes the reality of early gold rush mining in California–the hardship. The phrase “used up man” moved with the song into the Sierra Nevada where it lent to a far western literature based on dry humor about suffering and disaster.
THE RETURNED CALIFORNIAN/THE MINER’S FAREWELL, 1852. James Pierpont’s song was one of the first written about and commenting humorously on the travails of miners in the Sierra Nevada. Published in Boston, the song is also one of the first known to have been performed in the Sierra Nevada. It lambasts authority as well as those who recommended California and, in so doing, represents a significant statement by young men of the time.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE GREENHORN, 1855. All of the above laid the foundation for the publication in 1855 of Put’s Original California Songster by John Stone. Whether all the songs were written by Stone isn’t clear. They may have been. Some are very bitter–such as “Crossing the Plains.” However, the lyric for the piece that also appeared on the cover–“Arrival Of The Greenhorn”–struck just the right humorous note. Like “California At It is” and a number of other gold rush lyrics, it parodied the maudlin “Jeannette and Jeannot.” Stone’s nickname, Old Put, stemmed from his occupation–as an attorney–and, more importantly from the case he was “putting.” The songs in the book often refer to or are from the character of Pike. A “type”, Pike was the overland immigrant, as opposed to Yankee, the immigrant by sea. In the early years, Yankee seems to have looked down on Pike. Stone’s songs, and particularly the title song “The Arrival of The Greenhorn”, bring together Pike’s overland journey, growing admiration by Yankee for Pike’s resilience and the ongoing effort to define the gold rush as a series of dryly humorous episodes as modeled on mock heroic English saloon theater song. Thru this an other comic gold rush songs the mock heroic English ballad became the model for later “cowboy poetry”.
SEEING THE ELEPHANT, 1855. This song was written to the tune of the 1840’s banjo song, Boatmen Dance–probably composed by Dan Emmett who later authored “Dixie’s Land”. Composed on board ship, “Banks of the Sacramento”, had earlier been set to the same tune. “Seeing The Elephant” is from the viewpoint of a Yankee who falls in with Pike emigrants–men from the Missouri region, Southerners. Unlike the original Boatmen lyric where each verse is simply a comic celebration of the boatman, “Seeing the Elephant” is structured like “Arrival Of The Greenhorn”–as a progressive journey, a mock heroic ballad in the English style, each verse another comic disaster.
THE DAYS OF 49, c.1856. Said to have been composed by Charley Rhoades around this time. The phrase “old 49er” was used fairly early in the 1850s and referred to those who had gotten the good claims in 1849. “Old” was used as in “old fellow”, meaning someone with whom one had experienced hardship…as in a school mate or a war buddy. The tune generally used today seems to have been applied in the early 20th century by Lomax–lacking knowledge of any other tune. The original tune was probably “The Old Sexton”, a very popular English song of the day. The reference in the song “relic of bygone days” echoes that same phrase in “The Old Sexton.” All gold rush tunes were parodies. This song would have been understood as an irreverent version of the more pious original. The original tune (I think) is recorded to it here for the first time. Rhodes was a banjo player. I would date this song somewhere between 1855 and 1860 when English influence on the banjo was strong.
SWEET BETSEY FROM PIKE, 1858. In the early years, few American girls arrived in the Sierra Nevada. After the drought of 1854-55, emigration picked up again and American girls finally began to arrive in the gold country. These were not the frail, pale heroines of New England culture but were strapping farm girls–“Amazonians” as they were called at the time. In 1857 a play was written in California called “A Live Woman In The Mines”. The heroine—named Mary Wilson but characterized as “High Betty Martin”—was modeled on the High Betty Martin of an old song about a girl who couldn’t get a man. The following year, in his second songster, John Stone published this song about this heroine using her nick name: Betsey. Though originally Irish, the tune comes directly from an English saloon theater song. English saloon theater made the Cockney (the Londoner from Ireland) its foolish hero much as American minstrel theater used the house slave (often called “yaller” or “high tone”) as its foolish hero. The lyric parodies Ben Bolt—an 1850 New England hit about a salt sea sailor who returns home after many years to be confronted with all the good things he has missed at home– including Sweet Alice. Pale, frail, in the song Sweet Alice is dead. In contrast, Betsey is an Amazonian.
LOTTA’S JIG, instrumental, c.1857. Published by banjo player George Coes in 1875, this tune was probably composed in Placerville. During 1856 nine year old child star Lotta Crabtree quit performing with Mart Taylor’s family in the Sierra Nevada and, the following season, went out on her own—with her mother guiding her as a “stage mom” would. That same year, the San Francisco Minstrels—California’s most prominent minstrel troop—performed in Sacramento and then split for the rest of the season—half deciding to visit the Sierra Nevada. Among the latter were George Coes and probably Richard Hooley. Lotta joined up with these men in Placerville, on which occasion she appears to have learned the plantation jig. She had already learned the Irish jig from Lola Montez. But it would be the American jig or plantation jig–that would help make her famous. Coes’ tune is structured as a walk-around—the first part being the group march or promenade, the second part being the loose individual jig, the successive repetitions of these concluding with a short “break”–where the dancers stood or danced in place, the “jig” or later “walkaround” often being the last dance of the dance set before a recess. In California and Nevada dancers typically would often promenade to the bar for drink, probably during “break”. This became a definition of the “fandango house” as this practice was picked up from the Spanish speaking population. The tune represents a milestone toward the eventual emergence of ragtime–it appears to be the first walk around with a fully syncopated section–the second part, for the individual jig step.
THE INDIAN COTTON JIG, c. 1860. This is George Coe’s 1875 version of a tune known as early as 1860 as “Fremont’s Path” and today generally called “Off To California”. Due to his early exploration of the West, John Fremont was often referred to as “The Pathfinder.” Indian Cotton was imported to California during the Civil War. Perhaps a plantation jig was done spoofing the inferiority of this fabric. However, the other titles suggest a tune celebrating Fremont’s 1845 trek to the West.
BOUND FOR THE LAND OF WASHOE, 1863. Composed by Mart Taylor, played on banjo by Jake Williams, sung at McGuire’s Melodeon in Virginia City by Lotta Crabtree—then age 16. She had toured with his group till 1856. She was just beginning to learn the banjo–see rare photo at left. The song refers to “feet”. California placer mining required washing sand through water. Nevada’s Comstock mines were hard rock quartz leads. Big corporations needed investors. They sold feet in mines for capitol to fund their tunnels. Virginia City became the furthest eastward point for important touring acts–minstrel shows and others–who sailed from New England into San Francisco. Still, because many gold rush miners did not want to work for the corporations and wanted instead to pick up gold off the ground–prospect–the early 1860s’ rush to the Comstock opened Nevada and much of the West to gold rush culture and music. The Comstock was the most eastern reach of shows going through or originating in San Francisco.
EXCELSIOR, by “Short Fellow”, 1866. Many parodies were written of Longfellow’s 1841 poem, Excelsior. Published in The Eastern Slope newspaper during 1866, this one illustrates well that gold rush miners and, later, western prospectors were often literate. This melody to one parody came out in 1859 as “Upidee”. Parodies emerged during the Civil War as well. These words would almost certainly have been sung, with mirth. Though, these words were not published with allusion to any melody. That is not uncommon, 19th century “songsters” often contained no melody because everyone knew the melodies that were implied. That would certainly be the case with these lyrics.
BALDY GREEN, 1868. Words composed by banjo player Charley Rhoades and performed at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, the song came in the wake of the events it describes. Rhoades was said to be the gold rush’s “pioneer” banjo performer. Baldy was said to have been in on the robbery of his own stage—the dialog may be words that the participants acted for the benefit of passengers. As explained in the historical account of this song, “Everybody stamped their feet in those days….that was before the dudes had introduced the custom of clapping.” “…whenever Rhoades would come out and sing Baldy Green they’d hit on the benches in front of them with their six-shooters and call “Bully!” until Piper would try to give them back their money to get them to stop.” The tune used was “The Stage Driver On The Knickerbocker Line” from 1859 and probably English in origin. Though once famous on the Comstock, this song has never been recorded prior to this recording.
ARE YOU A HOOD-A-LUM, 1872. By Sellerman. The word “hoodlum” arose around 1868 on San Francisco’ Barbary Coast to designate Irish gangs who were beating up the Chinese. From a hand written newspaper at the diggings of Pine Grove, Nevada, this song was inspired when the term “hoodlum” was leveled at local Irish and German miners by the upper crust. There was widespread anti-Catholic sentiment in the early far-West based on fear that immigrants would steal the jobs of natives. The song is one of a couple from 1870s Nevada suggesting a western bohemian culture that criticized racism. In Pine Grove, the miners created a handwritten newspaper and met in a local “Lyceum” for the exchange of poetry. The tune parodied is from the 1855 song, “Have You Seen Sam”
THE HIGHGRADER, c.1905. During the early twentieth century, in Nevada, hard rock mining jobs down in the tunnel were divided between miner who drilled a hole for the explosive charge and mucker who shoveled the rock after the dynamite exploded. Muckers were often paid less. As a result, muckers often shoveled some of the better ore—the “high grade”—into their metal lunch pails. Then they visited the assay office at lunch time or after work. The mine owners didn’t like this practice and it accompanied a growing tension between workers and bosses. This song comes from the Tonopah/Goldfield area. “Buck the tiger” means to play faro. I’ve set the words to a waltz version of Rosin The Bow. The song’s point of view equates loyalty to the bosses with religion–an attitude typical of left leaning working “stiffs” across the West.
CASEY JONES THE TEN DAY MINER, 1911. Written in Venice Beach, California, 1911–the year that City was created out of Santa Monica. This parody of the 1905 railroad song was composed by a “professor” of the piano in that newly established resort, apparently for miners from central Nevada who arrived there via railroad into Los Angeles. Working men often regarded the hero of the railroad song who gives his life to save the train as a fool. In this song, Casey Jones is certainly the butt of the joke. If a miner drilled three holes and placed three dynamite charges he would expect to hear three explosions after leaving the mine and before returning to drill again. If he did not count correctly, re-entered the mine, and drilled into an unexploded stick of dynamite, he would suffer the fate described here.