Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April 2007)

I used to think folk music had songs to cover every situation. Happiness, sadness, success, failure, most types of jobs -- there are songs about them somewhere.

Over the years, I've realized that that's not so true. An obvious example is homosexuality: There are a few jokes about it, typically among sea songs, but no real examinations of the issue.

And then there is -- science. For all its mention in traditional song, you could think it doesn't exist. Do cowboy songs mention loco weed? Sure. Do they mention that the madness-causing ingredient in loco weed is selenium? Nah.

Once, I sat down with the Ballad Index and Digital Tradition and searched for science terms. Of physics terms -- from inertia to momentum to conservation law -- I found no instances (at least as used in the physics sense). Biology was as bad -- no hints of Linnaeus or Mendel, and any allusions to Darwin show the singers hadn't read Darwin.

Chemistry? No hydrogen. No helium. No lithium. No atoms. No periodic table.

Except -- metals. Plenty of references to all of the ancient metals (gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, mercury). And gold probably the most widely-mentioned of all. And the most common reason for talking about gold is gold rush songs. This is one of the most fun examples. I learned this from a record of Debby McClatchy and the Red Clay Ramblers. The song is probably by John A. Stone, known as Old Put, who lived at the time of the California Gold Rush, but rather than go broke seeking gold, he wrote lyrics, setting them well-known tunes (in this case, Dan Emmett's De Boatman Dance). Most of Old Put's songs are now obscure, but some have credited him with both Joe Bowers and Sweet Betsy from Pike. (Note that this song too mentions the much-picked-on people of Pike County, Missouri.)

The mentions of "the States" and Panama are based on conditions in 1849: California had been annexed by the U.S., but wasn't a state yet, and there were no railroads to reach it. To get there, you either took a long overland road, or went around Cape Horn -- or took a ship to Panama, crossed the isthmus by land, and went on by another ship to San Francisco.

Old Put's version was very long; the record cuts out about half the verses, and (being lazy), I dug up a printed version and used the verses I seem to remember hearing them sing. The result is still long enough that you might want to sing the chorus only between alternate verses.

The McClatchy/Ramblers recording claims they do this without banjo. I'd call banjo the natural instrument, though, preferably in a C tuning (e.g. gCGBD or gCGCE), because that lets the banjo play the full range of the song.


Complete Lyrics:
When I left the States for gold,
Everything I had I sold:
A stove and a bed, a fat old sow,
Sixteen chickens and a cow.

Chorus: So leave, you miners, leave,
Leave, you miners, leave.
Take my advice, kill off your lice,
Or else go up into the mountains.
Oh, no, lots of dust,
I'm going to the city, get on a bust,
Oh, no, lots of dust,
I'm going to the city, get on a bust,

On the Platte we couldn't agree
Because I had the di-a-ree.
We there split up, I made a break,
With one old mule for the Great Salt Lake.

The Mormon girls were fat as hogs,
The chief production, cats and dogs.
Some had ten wives, others none,
Thirty-six had Brigham Young.

Being brave, I cut and carved;
On the desert nearly starved.
My old mule laid down and died;
I had no blanket, took his hide.

On I travelled through the pines,
At last I found the northern mines;
I stole a dog, got whipped like hell,
Then away I went to Marysville.

I mined a while, got lean and lank,
And lastly stole a monte bank;
Went to the city, got a gambler's name,
And lost my bank at the thimble game.

I fell in love with a California girl,
Her eyes were gray, her hair did curl;
Her nose turned up to get rid of her chin;
Says she, "You're a miner, you can't come in."

If I should make another raise,
In New York sure I'll spend my days.
I'll be a merchant, buy a saw,
So goodbye mines and Panama.

[Following is some correspondence between Lyle and Bob about this song :]

As to the source of the title, which seems to have been current only on the west coast back then:

A farmer takes his horses and wagon into town to sell some produce. Before he leaves, he says to his wife, "I hear the circus is coming to town today, and if I'm lucky, I'll see an elephant." [Back then, the animals would be paraded from the rail terminal to the lot where the circus tent was set up.]
So the farmer came to town and the animals were parading and the farmer saw the elephant. But his horses saw the elephant too, and they ran away, busting up the wagon in the process and throwing the farmer and his produce onto the street, after which they kept running. So the farmer had to walk home with no horses, no produce, no wagon and no money.
His wife met him at the door, looked at his bruises and torn clothes and asked, "What on earth happened to you?"
He answered, "I saw the elephant."

Hm. Somebody should tell that to the ghost of Eleazar Maccabee, who died of seeing an elephant. :-)
You also have to wonder how they would get elephants to the west coast -- no rails back then. What's the authority for the statement that the tale was only known on the west coast? Do you know?

I didn't mean to imply it originated on the west coast, and my reason for calling it a west coast joke is that I've run across it only twice (internet both times, as I recall), both sources identified it as being from San Francisco, and one of those sources identified it as dating from gold rush days. I added the part about the reason for the animal parade, but even before rail lines they may have unloaded the animals in one area and had the show in another, parading the animals for publicity. That part isn't a key part to the joke, anyway.
So, no, I have no good reason for limiting it to the west coast. It does have some relevance to the prospector's experience, however, given the feverish anticipation followed by losing everything. I'm pretty sure the joke is the source of the title. Why else would a gold rush song have such a peculiar title?

P.S.: After writing the above, I decided to google the phrase, and here's some corroboration to the gold-rush connection:

It's just that I've heard the phrase enough times that it never struck me as an unlikely title. It seems to me that I've heard another joke to explain the phrase, though I don't remember it well enough to tell it. But that raises the possibility that the phrase predates the jokes, and the jokes arose to explain it. And, after all, "seeing the elephant" was an ancient military problem -- elephants scared horses enough (as noted in your joke) to break cavalry charges if the horses hadn't been trained to deal with elephants.

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