Liner Notes


VRCD 350

The Oregon Trail wound its way from Missouri across the plains and mountains to the Oregon Country. Between 1842 and 1900 many wagon trains of emigrants followed the Trail to new homes in the Pacific Northwest. Many journals and accounts of life on the Trail talk about music and dancing, as well as the terrain and the hardships. These are some of the tunes which were danced to by pioneers on the Oregon Trail and by early settlers in the West. They are still danced to today in communities along the way and at the end of the Oregon Trail in the Pacific Northwest, and we perform them here as they are played today.

In his book Personal Experiences on the Oregon Trail Ezra Meeker remembered the "discordant violin and more discordant voices, with the fantastic night open air dances with mother earth as a floor." Carolyn Richardson, crossing the plains with a wagon train in 1852, wrote in her diary that they "found a fiddler... and got together enough people for two sets of cotillions" (an old form of square dance) and "danced till eleven." Emigrants on the Trail also danced schottisches, polkas, and the Virginia Reel.

They brought many kinds of musical instruments with them, including fiddle, accordion, flute, banjo, guitar, jaw-harp, harmonica, and a type of small reed organ called a melodeon. Mandolins were played at fandangos in the Spanish Southwest in the 1830's and became popular throughout America later in the 19th century.

Tunes marked with an asterisk are documented as having been played on the Oregon Trail. The other tunes are tunes of the era which survived in pioneer communities in the West.

1. Old Joe Clark*

Fiddles and banjos were among the most popular instruments on the Oregon Trail and often were used without other accompaniment for dances. On this tune we use a mid-19th century fretless banjo with gut strings that may well have come to the Pacific Northwest on the Trail..

2. Arkansas Traveler

The famous Arkansas Traveler skit, published in 1847, consists of a comic dialogue between a city slicker traveler and an Arkansas farmer. The traveler asks the farmer a series of questions, to which the farmer gives facetious answers and then plays the first part of the tune. For instance, "Say, farmer, your roof is leaking, why don't you fix it?" "I can't fix it because it's raining." "Then why don't you fix it when it's not raining?" "When it ain't raining, it don't leak!" The farmer finally makes the traveler welcome when he finds out that the traveler knows the rest of the tune.

Professor Jose Tasso, a concert and dance violinist well known along the Ohio River in the 1830's and 1840's, claimed to have written the tune. In her Little House on the Prairie book series, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about her family homesteading on the prairies in the 1860's. She mentions that Arkansas Traveler was one of the tunes that her father Charles Ingalls played on the fiddle. The tune was also popular with early settlers in the Pacific Northwest.

3. Buffalo Gals*, Oh Susanna*

Buffalo Gals was first published in 1844 by John Hodges as the minstrel song Lubly Fan. The traveling Campbell Minstrel troupe inserted the name of whatever community they were performing in (e.g. "New York gals won't you come out tonight, to dance by the light of the moon"). Two names that are still common today are Buffalo Gals and Alabama Gals. It is used as a play-party song, a game in which music is sung while the participants walk through the figures. In some religious communities where dancing is forbidden, play-parties are acceptable since they are considered games rather than dances.

Stephen Foster wrote the well-known minstrel song Oh Susanna in 1848.

4. Fisher's Hornpipe*

James A. Fishar published this tune in 1780 in England, and it has been an American favorite since the late 18th century.

5. Sweet Betsy From Pike*

The words to this song recount the adventures of Betsy and her lover Ike during the California Gold Rush of 1849.

6. Garryowen, Irish Washerwoman, Pop Goes the Weasel

Garryowen dates back to the 1770's, and was well known in U.S. by the time of the Civil War. It was the favorite marching air of General George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry.

Irish Washerwoman is another well known tune of the era. It is English, from the 17th or 18th century, and appears in a 1792 American manuscript. The Virginia Reel was commonly danced to it at rural dances in the West, and this use for the tune is also listed in old dance tune books. It was one of the tunes played by Charles Ingalls on the prairie in the 1860's, and also was played for square dancing in the Northwest in pioneer days.

Pop Goes the Weasel is an old English country dance tune which was published in the US in 1853, and was performed on the minstrel stage. It appears in Elias Howe's United States Regulation Drum & Fife Instructor of 1861, and was also played by Charles Ingalls.

7. Richmond Polka

Out on the prairie on the way West in 1860, "Dora and Mary danced the polka" to the music of a violin, according to Helen Clark's diary. The polka was brought from Paris to America by Alan Dodworth, a leading New York dancing master, in the 1840's, and from New York high society it rapidly spread though the rest of the country.

Helen didn't write down the name of the polka that Dora and Mary danced to, but it might have been Richmond Polka, which was printed in the 1850's. This tune is known by several names, including Plaza Polka, Richmond Cotillion, and our favorite, Old Aunt Sally Put A Bug On Me.

8. The Girl I Left Behind Me*

In her Oregon Trail journal of 1849, Catherine Haun says "The familiar tunes that he played upon the harmonica seemed to soften the groaning and creaking of the wagons and to shorten the long miles of the mountain road. Home Sweet Home ... The Girl I Left Behind Me ... seemed particularly appropriate and touched many a pensive heart."

An older title for this tune is Brighton Camp, published in England in 1758, and possibly derived from an earlier Irish tune. In America it became a popular song, march, and square dance tune.

9. Sourwood Mountain*

We learned this version of Sourwood Mountain from Kentucky fiddler Lonnie Peerce. The fiddle is "cross-tuned" to AEAE.

10. Buy a Broom

Germans were the largest immigrant group in America in the 19th century, and many of them settled in the West. They had a major influence on American music. This traditional German melody became a popular hit song in America in the early 19th century. Laura Ingalls learned it in the Midwest in the 1860's.

11. Mississippi Sawyer

A sawyer is an uprooted tree whose roots are partly anchored in the riverbed, and which bobs up and down in the current, constituting a hazard to navigation. In 1839 George P. Knauff included this tune in his tunebook Virginia Reels.

12. Skip to my Lou*, Old Dan Tucker*

Skip to my Lou is a play party song derived from an 18th century British country dance. The tune to Old Dan Tucker predates the minstrel era, and the famous minstrel performer and composer Daniel Decatur Emmett wrote the lyrics for his Virginia Minstrels troupe in 1843.

13. Money Musk*

The Scottish composer Daniel Dow published this tune in 1780 under the title Sir Archibald Grant of Moneymusk's Reel. It was published in America in Knauff's Virginia Reels, was a favorite tune of pioneers in Minnesota in the 1850's, and appeared on Lincoln's Inaugural Ball program. The diary of Daniel M. Storer records that in August 1851, while aboard the steamboat "Minnesota" on the Mississippi River, "There is a melodeon aboard and a little girl eight or nine years old can play it first rate. She can play the 'Money Musk' four parts at a time good."

We play a four part version which we learned from Phil Cook, a Mohawk Indian from upstate New York. The dance fiddling tradition among the Mohawks dates back to the 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries taught them French "contré" dancing.

14. My Love Is But A Lassie

This old British Isles tune was known in the US by 1820, and was published in Knauff's Virginia Reels under the title of Richmond Blues. Over the years it has become popular all over the country and has acquired many names including Too Young to Marry, Sweet Sixteen, Chinky Pin, Lead Out, Fourth of July, Buffalo Nickel, and Hair in the Butter.

15. Home Sweet Home*

As the families traveling with Ezra Meeker in 1852 floated on a raft down the Columbia River from the Dalles, "the ladies began in sweet subdued voices to sing the old familiar song of Home Sweet Home, whereupon others of the party joined in the chorus... At the moment of gliding under the shadow of the high mountain, the second verse was begun, but was never finished.... When the second line of the second verse was reached, ... instead of song, sobs and outcries of grief poured forth from all lips.... It could truly be said no dry eyes were left nor aching heart but was relieved."

The melody was adapted by Henry Bishop from a Sicilian air, the words were written by John Howard Payne, and the song was first performed in 1823 as part of a play called "Clari, or the Maid of Milan." It became very popular, and was soon adapted for dancing in waltz tempo. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries it had become the traditional last waltz of the evening at dances in pioneer communities.

16. Detroit Schottische

Adam Couse, a dancing master who owned a music store in Detroit, Michigan, published this tune in 1853. 100,000 copies were sold, a huge hit by the standards of the day. A better known name for it is Flop Eared Mule, often played as a hoedown. It is the theme song of the Washington State Old Time Fiddlers Association, which was formed to perpetuate the dance music of the pioneers.

17. Turkey in the Straw

The minstrel song Old Zip Coon used this melody when it was first printed in 1834, and the title Turkey in the Straw first appeared in 1861. It was a common fife tune during the Civil War, was played for square dancing in the Northwest by the 1870's, and has become probably the best known fiddle tune in America. We couldn't resist the temptation to add some 20th century "hot licks."

Vivian & Phil Williams. Vivian and Phil grew up listening to, dancing to, and playing music brought to the Northwest on the Oregon Trail. Phil was raised near Tumwater, Washington, one of the "ends" of the Oregon Trail. He has played and danced to these tunes since childhood. Vivian grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and learned her first fiddle tune, "Turkey in the Straw," from her father on the harmonica. She has a B.A degree in History from Reed College, where she studied under Northwest historian Dorothy O. Johansen, and a Masters degree in Anthropology from the University of Washington. She was a field researcher for the Washington Traditional Fiddler's Project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to document early fiddling in the Pacific Northwest. Phil and Vivian were founding members of the Washington Old Time Fiddle Association., formed in the 1960's to perpetuate pioneer fiddle traditions, and they participate in many fiddle contests and events in the West.

The Instruments used in this recording. Guitar - Martin D-28 (1944); Fiddle - Christian Wilhelm Seidel (German, mid-19th Century); Banjos - Old Joe Clark, Buffalo Gals/Oh! Susanna - 19th Century fretless, gut strings, maker unknown; all other selections: S.S. Stewart "Universal Favorite" (ca. 1900); Mandolins - Skip to my Lou, Fisher's Hornpipe, Girl I Left Behind Me, Garryowen/Irish Washerwoman/Pop Goes the Weasel - Gibson A-4 (1917); Sweet Betsy from Pike, Mississippi Sawyer, Turkey in the Straw - Gibson F-5 (1923); Home Sweet Home, Arkansas Traveler - 19th Century Round Back, maker unknown; My Love is But A Lassie - Gibson F-4 (1916); Accordions - Buy a Broom - Hohner "La Contessa", Money Musk - Soprani "Rialto."

The Recording. All selections were recorded digitally in stereo. No signal processing or artificial reverb was used in making this recording, in order to preserve the full dynamic and frequency range of the instruments as they actually sound.

Suggested Reading:

David Dary, Seeking Pleasure in the West, NY: Alfred E. Knopf, 1995
Eugenia Garson, The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook, NY: HarperCollins, 1968
Lillian Schlissel, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, NY: Schoken Books, 1982

Liner notes: Vivian & Phil Williams. Cover art: Shera Bray. Photograph: Irene Young. Recorded & mixed by Phil Williams, Voyager studios, 2000

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