The California gold rush was a migration from East to West, from 1849 to roughly 1859. In contrast, the gold rush banjo and gold rush culture moved from West toward the East. It influenced decades of western American culture beyond California and Nevada. The 19th minstrel banjo played a central role in this culture. The minstrel banjo arrived in San Francisco during 1849. (Few banjos appear to have come overland prior to 1870.) With influence both from “Ethiopian” minstrel music and London saloon theater, gold rush song emerged in San Francisco early in the 1859s and by 1852 was coming out of the Sierra Nevada. Through the 1870s at least, these songs often remained marginal–beyond the realm of respectability. Though gold rush often discussed the emigrant experience on the trail, they did so in the context of social and political events that were taking place in the Sierra Nevada. While, today, we often expect “acoustic” music to be about personal feelings, gold rush lyrics are virtually almost completely lack individual angst. Instead, the lyrics revolve around the experience of the emigrant and then miner as a class or type. There is a sense of victimization, but it is of the entire group as manifest through the type.
As a fully shaped western lyric style moved into Nevada after 1860, it then long defined working class mining culture across the far West. Throughout this period, gold rush song and its articulation of a working class mining hero and culture arose and lingered directly in the shadow of working class “Melodeon Hall” theater. It was never “folk music.”
As Mark Twain makes clear, the banjo defined a cultural influence that, for hard drinkers in the gold country and on the Comstock, defined a culture superior to that of classical music.
I have modified my musical creed a little since I have enjoyed the opportunity of comparing Tommy Bree, the banjoist of the Olympic, with Gottschalk. I like Gottschalk well enough. He probably gets as much out of the piano as there is in it. But the frozen fact is, that all that he does get out of it is “tum, tum.” He gets “tum, tum,” out of the instrument thicker and faster than my landlady’s daughter, Mary Ann; but, after all, it simply amounts to “tum, tum.” As between Gottschalk and Mary Ann, it is only a question of quantity; and so far as quantity is concerned, he beats here three to one. The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! MARK TWAIN, SAN FRANCISCO DRAMATIC CHRONICLE, June 23, 1865, ENTHUSIASTIC ELOQUENCE. The Olympic Theater was at 105 Dupont St.
Twain makes clear that this music held power. And yet, the modern image of folk music is of a soft and pretty thing. Sound tracks for the gold rush are often anachronistic—replacing the bold lyrics and melody of the gold rush with twangy southern string band music from the 20th century. The power of the instrument came from its directness—an outgrowth of the theatrical style of the day. The gold rush banjo is not loud. It’s role was to support the primary focus–the singer and the song lyric.
My view is that among minstrel banjo enthusiasts there is an over-emphasis on banjo tutors from the mid-19th century–where the best banjoists published their most elaborate work. In the hands of most players, the instrument provided simply melodic accompaniment–not chordal accompaniment but the tune mirroring the singer’s voice.
Unfortunately, today, an emphasis on lyric and dry humor has disappeared from music. When they are played at all, today, these songs are generally arranged for modern folk guitar and converted to the modern emphasis on power, speed and volume. This changes their feel greatly. The original setting was theatrical–requiring stage banter and presentation. The 1860s minstrel banjo best conveys this music in its historic musical setting, though, done best, it MUST be presented live with introduction and banter.