Teaching Points For Gold Rush Music

Anyone seeking to teach the history of the gold rush or gold rush music should remember and convey these basic points:

1. Gold rush culture moved from West to the East. While the gold rush can be said to have lasted about a decade, gold rush culture endured to about 1919 in the rural far west. Only then did the image of the solitary miner picking up gold of the ground cease to define the current western dream and become a subject for nostalgia.

2. Gold rush music arose not on the trail westward but in the Sierra Nevada. Composed by distinct individuals who were in tune with the politics and literature of the place, it expressed the social and political reality and hardship of young men through school boy parody and dry humor.

3. The music does not conform to modern pop music expectations. There is no driving beat. The clever lyric is everything. The context for the music derives from comedic stage performance. In form, it is better suited to the minstrel banjo with its emphasis on melody rather than to the modern guitar with its emphasis on strummed chords. A somewhat ad hoc or uneven rhythm allows the performer to do a lot of winking at the audience. The songs are full of small, inside jokes or witticisms–as was all humorous writing of the day.

4. The lyric was regarded as “vulgar” even by some miners in the Sierra Nevada. That being said, it defined a new, working class culture and literary genre. Nevada’s “Sagebrush School” of writers is a direct outgrowth.

5. Gold rush music is central to the creation of the western sensibility and the western type. That being said, the more official outlets of “western music” will always tend away from the raw language of this music.