Fiddle and …
The Oregon Trail: Songs and Tunes
Truman Price, fiddle and vocal, Jane Keefer, banjo and vocal, or lap dulcimer where indicated; Mike Horner, guitar on some numbers
Instrumentation is generally fiddle, often with vocal and/or banjo unless shown otherwise.
Liner notes for the CD: the songs.
Wait for the Wagon – by R. Bishop Buckley, 1851, very popular through the 19th century. Political parodies included The Southern Wagon, The Old Union Wagon, and others. We omitted a verse: “We’ll have a little farm, A horse, a pig, a cow; You will mind the dairy, While I will guide the plow…”
Wagoner – the pounding of the hooves, the blowing of the bugles, the fury of the stretch! In a race in Mobile, July 4 1839, Wagoner beat Grey Eagle by a nose. A two-horse rematch was set for Louisville August 15. Wagoner (or Wagner) and Grey Eagle broke all records for four-mile races; once again, Wagoner beat Grey Eagle by a neck. The owner won $15,000, which would buy something in 1839; the jockey won his freedom, and tunes were written for each horse. When Lloyd Shaw wrote Cowboy Dances in 1939, this was the only tune on the favorites list of all the fiddlers he interviewed.
Uncle Sam’s Farm – A rich if ironic song by Jesse Hutchison, 1851, about our unlimited horizons. The Hutchison family were popular New England singers and reformers who wrote many songs advocating radical issues of the day: abolition of slavery, suffrage (woman’s vote), health food, bloomers, the Abraham Lincoln campaign. In the North they packed the halls and the streets; in the South they were not welcome. The Hutchisons, and eventually their children and grandchildren, toured as musicians through the 19th century, possibly the most popular group of the century.
At The Foot of Yonder Mountain – and if you could claim that land, fulfillment! The sorrows of a poor man with no land, and worse, the inability to write home. An ancient love song, over 200 years old. Jane, with lap dulcimer, Truman, finger-plucked guitar & Mike, high-capoed guitar, produce an approximation of 19th century parlor style.
Other Side of Jordan – Dan Emmett. Oregon pioneer George Hunter, in Reminiscences of an Old Timer (1887) described an 1856 Indian-fighter in the Rogue Valley (behind Sam’s Valley, actually, in the Meadows) who, after a morning of cowardice, gained courage and stood up in the face of danger, to fire, reload, and continue to fire, while singing these lyrics. He quotes them all, except one new verse by Jane.
Went Up On The Mountain – (Woody Knows Nothing) I learned this lovely song from folk musician Charles Olav Berg 35 years ago; many of the verses were written down in Connecticut in 1697.
Frontier Irish Medley – two jigs and a hornpipe: Rosin the Bow, among a handful of our most popular tunes, was later used for as melody for “Acres of Clams”. Garry Owen was trumpeted by General Custer’s regiment and in many western movies. The Rights of Man was named for the second radical book by Thomas Paine, written after the American Revolution and advocating complete democracy, including for women and blacks; the tune is one of its lingering traces.
Old Dan Tucker – Dan Emmett, 1842. Emmett was the best known of the many blackface minstrels. In one presidential campaign the chorus was rewritten as, “Hurrah, hurrah, the country’s risin’, for Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen.” This nonsense song was a favorite of many, such as Charles “Pa” Ingalls and my own father; I played it for him when I was ten.
Hard Times – The songs of Stephen Foster, with their easy but haunting melodies, were the core of most elementary school songbooks until recently, when his sentimental observations were seen to be racist, sexist, agist, etc., etc. This one, although poverty-ist, is still valid. Beautifully sung by Jane.
The Girl I Left Behind Me – chiefly a fiddle tune today; I learned a naughty version behind my grade school in Sams Valley, Oregon, which figures, as parodies of the original were “reconstructed for every major event in our history” (acc. Fife). One version printed in the Oregon Territorial Observer, Oregon City, 1854, began “I’m lonesome since I crossed the plain,/ And fleeting are my joys, / Since all that’s near and dear to me / I left in Illinois….”
Oh, Susanna – Stephen Foster again, but in an 1849 Gold Rush parody that cleans up the original, tells more of a story, and conveys the optimism of the era. This was actually a much bigger hit nationwide than the original version; Stewart Edward White wrote that this variation defined the era. Fiddle, banjo, Truman Vocal
Spanish Fandango – “Fandango: a Spanish dance in 3/4 time, often accompanied by castanets; (U.S. colloq.) lively dance or get-together.” – dictionary. The fandango was discovered by Mozart and other composers, and simpler variations on it were widespread in 19th century America. Anonymous, sort of a classical folk piece, probably contemporary with Old Hickory’s Fandango, here arranged for Appalachian dulcimer by Jane. Lap dulcimer by Jane, Truman guitar.
Western Country (“Fly Away, My Pretty Little Miss”) – A good old D-tune hoedown. Jane supplied the two authentic verses. Fiddle, banjo, Truman vocal. Note to fiddlers – the B part of this is an early version which will not mesh with the more commonly played versions.
Truth and Canoeing Medley: Blue Juniata (Mrs. Marion Sullivan, 1844), Tombigbee River (Steele & Winnemore, 1847), Paddle Your Own Canoe (Harry Clifton,1867) – Three campfire songs, which could include Juniata’s timeless lines, “Straight and true my arrows are, in their painted quiver. . . / Swift goes my light canoe, down the rapid river!” Clifton’s is a later intrusion demonstrating some of the moralisms that came with the Victorian era, also a hint of Tin Pan Alley. Fiddle and vocal solo, Truman.
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Other liner notes:
Jane Keefer, despite her PhD in Theoretical Chemistry and Physics (or because of it?) and experience as a computer programmer for NASA, made her living for eight years by teaching folk music in and around Salem, Oregon (try that sometime!) She plays and teaches folk styles on fiddle, banjo, dulcimer, guitar and mandolin, also plays hammered dulcimer, autoharp, piano, penny-whistle, limber-jack, etc. She has transcribed music for over 2000 traditional tunes in both notation and written tablature for the main string instruments. While working on the East Coast for several years she developed the Folk Music Index, which lists and indexes all folk music on record, based on her personal collection. Jane has recently returned to Portland, where she teaches string band classes, performs with General Strike and is active with the Portland Folklore Society. We played together frequently when she lived in Salem, still do, and always love the music.
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There do not exist many songs written in the 19th century that specifically mention the Oregon Trail, and no evidence of songs being written on the Trail. If you broaden the parameters just a little, however, the material becomes extensive. Included here are several named as having been sung on the trail (see Ken Holmes’ 11-volume set of diaries, Covered Wagon Women) or in Oregon in the 1850’s.
Others, such as Old Dan Tucker, were certainly well known: in “Our American Music” J. T. Howard cites the most popular songs on a year-by-year basis through the 1840’s and 50’s. “Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents”, by Vera Lawrence, is a compilation of all the campaign songs on the 19th century; set to the most popular melodies and showing what tunes were on people’s minds.
The “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder give valuable insight to the nature of music on the frontier. Writing, as she said, to pass on her father’s songs and stories, she quoted over 60 songs that he or the family sang in the 1870’s: about 1/3 of them were popular songs of the 30’s to 50’s minstrel era, 1/3 folk songs mainly Scottish, and 1/3 hits of the day, often being sung on the frontier within a year or two of publication. Many songs and tunes are possible. I gave a 7-hour elderhostel course on the subject at Idaho Falls and noticed that at a grade school concert the same week I used two more tunes I hadn’t even mentioned at the elderhostel.
Instrumentation on the early frontier was most often fiddle, often solo, with or without vocal. Jane plays banjo on many tunes, and dulcimer on two: there are touches of quiet accompanying guitar. The styles of play fit the era: there are no bluegrass licks, and no 20th Century songs such as “Red Wing. Howard’s book and Ewens’ “Yesterdays” give detailed descriptions of the sounds of musical styles of the time, which we have tried to match.
The minstrel style of holding the fiddle is also shown in the Little House books. Artist Garth Williams, who took great care for accuracy, showed Pa holding the fiddle in the crook of his arm and singing. There was a process of trial and error and learning to breathe and bow, but oldtimers in West Virginia, Minnesota, and Oregon told me I was doing it “right, just like they used to.” Now I find the style easier than the modern “classical” style which began with the invention of the chin rest about 1815. All these songs were recorded in live time, fiddle and vocals simultaneous, without dubs.
A favorite subject. Best wishes, Truman —————————————————————————— —
The CD as described above is available (The liner notes above are included.)
$12 per copy plus $3 total per order shipping. We can take checks, MC, Visa, AmEx, paypal, etc.
Truman Price / 7210 Helmick Road/ Monmouth, OR 97361
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