Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April, 2008)

I mentioned in last month's News Clips that I am working on a Minnesota Heritage Songbook for Minnesota's sesquicentennial. One of the problems I'm facing is to get people to care about the songs. And I'm not above a little pandering: One thing I'm hoping to do is to use the appeal of the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder -- which, after all, contain many folk songs, though it would be hard to prove she actually knew them in Minnesota.

So I've been looking through the "Little House" books, and I've also read three biographies of Laura. I've seen some (rather feeble) "Little House" songbooks, too.

But, somehow, none of the biographers seems to have noticed that we actually have collections -- real live field collections! -- from the Wilder family. Vance Randolph gathered nine songs from Laura's daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1930. (This was before Little House in the Big Woods came out, so no one had heard of Laura, though Rose had some reputation as a writer.) It's a mixed bag -- several singing games, the ballads of The Golden Vanity and Lady Margaret -- and this.

Sweet Betsy from Pike originates with the California Gold Rush of 1849. The song seems to have been written by John A. Stone, known as "Old Put," who published it in Put's Golden Songster. Old Put had a clever way of making his songs popular: He would set them to the tune of another well-known song. So his poem Seeing the Elephant, for instance, was sung to the tune of Dan Emmett's De Boatman Dance. And this? Well, "Sweet Betsy" is sung to Villikens and His Dinah, which has to be way up there in the most-parodied hall of fame (which is rather funny, since it is itself a humorous parody of a serious song William and Dinah -- same plot, but so exaggerated as to be comic).

Old Put's decision certainly worked; "Sweet Betsy" has been collected many times, all over the country, and was recorded by Bradley Kinkaid among others; it has a solid old-time pedigree.

But this is Rose Wilder Lane's version, not anyone else's. Sadly, she supplied only two verses (the first and fourth listed here). But they were close enough to the original that I just plopped in four verses of Old Put's text, changing "Betsy" to "Bessie," the name Rose used.

That name change just might be significant. Almanzo Wilder didn't like his wife's name "Laura" (he had a sister named Laura whose name he didn't like much) and nicknamed her "Bessie" from her middle name Elizabeth. So maybe there is a family connection in Rose's mispronunciation. I even wondered if Rose sang this as a sort of a smear at her crotchety old mother. (Rose actually wrote a novel which appears to be a story about what would have happened had her father not married her mother, and also turned away from her mother's relatively mainstream politics toward the Libertarian party.)

Since John A. Stone was himself an emigrant to California, most of the details of the song are pretty true-to-life. The one exception is in the fourth verse (Roses's second verse). This is, obviously, a dig at Mormon church leader Brigham Young and his many, many wives. Young did have more wives than even the average teenage boy can dream about, but he never took a non-Mormon bride by force.

The tune is the standard tune for "Sweet Betsy." Rose did not sing the chorus (which is just nonsense syllables), so I've left that out. Other singers have also frequently omitted it.


Complete Lyrics:
Did you ever hear tell of sweet Bessie from Pike?
She crossed the high mountains with her lover Ike,
With a tall yoke of oxen, and an old yellow dog,
A big shanghai rooster, and an old spotted hog.

[One evening quite early they camped on the Platte,
'Twas near by the road on a green shady flat,
Where Bessie, sore-footed, lay down to repose,
With wonder Ike gazed on his Pike County rose.]

[The shanghai ran off and their cattle all died,
That morning the last piece of bacon was fried;
Poor Ike was discouraged and Bessie got mad;
The dog drooped his tail and looked wondrously sad.]

They stopped at Salt Lake to enquire the way,
Old Brigham he swore that sweet Bessie would stay,
Sweet Bessie got scared, run away like a deer,
Old Brigham he pawed up the ground like a steer.

[Sweet Bessie got up in a great deal of pain,
Declared she'd go back to Pike County again;
But Ike gave a sigh, and they fondly embraced,
And they traveled along with his arm 'round her waist.]

[This Pike County couple got married of course,
But Ike became jealous, obtained a divorce.
Sweet Bessie, well satisfied, said with a great shout,
"Good-by, you big lummox, I'm glad you backed out!"]

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