Liner Notes

PHIL & VIVIAN WILLIAMS: PIONEER DANCE TUNES OF THE FAR WEST

VRCD 371

Dancing was one of the most important recreational activities for pioneers in the West. Square dances (usually called “quadrilles”) and play parties were the most common dance forms. A typical evening of dancing also included waltzes, mazurkas, schottishes, polkas, and longways sets such as the Virginia Reel. The pioneers came from all over America and other parts of the world, and the music they danced to reflected this diversity.

If no musical instruments were available, early settlers danced to singing, hand clapping or improvised devices such as comb and tissue paper. The fiddle was the most common dance instrument. Others included accordion, concertina, harmonica, guitar, mandolin, banjo, jews harp, clarinet, and horns. Bass accompaniment often was provided by a cello, which is far more portable than a bass viol. Sometimes there would be a pump organ, which could be transported by wagon over rough roads, or even by canoe! Pianos were manufactured in San Francisco in the 1860’s, but the primary way of transporting a piano to the Far West was by ship around the Horn. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, it was much more affordable to bring organs and pianos to most large towns, and as wagon roads improved, to more isolated communities as well.

Dances were held in whatever facilities were handy: private homes, schoolhouses, community halls, saloons - even on the polished top of a giant cedar or redwood stump! Sometimes the site wasn’t quite adequate for the purpose, as illustrated by the following story from Mrs Lula Downen, who came to Colfax, Washington from Missouri in 1877.

An incident I remember is when our neighbor, A. L. Steward, had a house dance. He tore the partitions out of his box house to make room for the dancers. He stored all his things in one end of the upstairs and in the other end of the upstairs was a long table on which the supper was spread for the guests. One man was teaching another man to dance and due to the fact that the partition had been removed the ceiling broke down and three men, a bed and a number of sleeping children, a barrel of flour, a barrel of pickled pork and many other things came down onto the people below who were dancing a quadrille, and the stairway tumbled down with the fiddlers. One man landed with his leg in the flour barrel. The brine from the pickled pork and the flour made a terrible mess on the floor which had to be cleaned up before the dance could continue. Had the table with the three large kerosene lamps fallen through it might have been serious.

Pioneer Isaac V. Mossman recollected dancing in the Long Tom country west of Eugene, Oregon in the 1850’s:

At every house a dance? Well, I should say so. A dance would start at 4 in the afternoon and last until 10 the next day. Plenty of grub and lots of whiskey. Every fellow would try to see how hard he could dance and how high he could swing his partner. Buckskin suits and blue jeans were the costumes for the men. A dandy who came to one of the dances dressed in broadcloth was in great demand. One young matron told a young girl sitting by to “hold my baby while I take a turn with that ‘hoss’ with the store clothes on.”In some places dances were notoriously rowdy; in others there were strict rules to enforce proper behavior, and some religious communities did not allow any dancing at all. Elizabeth Currier, born in a pioneer community near Corvallis, Oregon in the 1860’s, recalled:

We youngsters who were not allowed to dance sometimes had “play parties” at which we played such games as “Weevilly Wheat,” “Old Dan Tucker,” and the Virginia Reel. Nobody seemed to think these games were inconsistent for those who looked upon dancing as the Devil’s pastime.

Weddings were important social events, and often included dancing. Catherine Elizabeth Jane Maple married Henry Van Asselt on Christmas Day of 1862 in a cabin by the Duwamish River near Seattle, Washington. Her brother, John Wesley Maple, described the affair: An elaborate dinner was served immediately after the wedding ceremony. It consisted of venison, turkey, potatoes, corn, fish, clams and coffee.... When the dinner was completed, the bride and bridegroom stood up in the room in a place where the Indians might pass through the other door. Then my father went out and shook hands with good and brave old Chief Seattle.... There were in the neighborhood of 700 who passed through in their gaudy costumes....

After the bridal couple had passed though this ordeal, we started in to dance. Old Jake Lake was the fiddler on that occasion. He had only a few tunes at his command and we danced them all before morning. Among them were “The Arkansas Traveler,” “King’s Head,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Unfortunate Dog,” “Gal on a Log” and the “Devil’s Dream.” He had on an old shoe which was not in its prime any longer, as the uppers had become loosened from the soles and we saw the red stocking and the upper going up and down incessantly as the foot kept time to the music. We danced all the dances which were on the calendar, among them the Virginia Reel, Opera Reel, Threading the Needle, French Fours, Weaving the Wheat, Family Dance and one or two more which I have forgotten.

All that was lacking was that there was a scarcity of women. There were but five among all the men. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, the bridegroom gave out and fainted away on the ballroom floor. The rest of us went on with the dance which lasted until about 5 in the morning....

While all this hilarity and general good cheer was going on in the dear old homestead, Old Chief Seattle led his band of 700 to a sandspit on the bank of the Duwamish, and there started one of the largest potlatches which was ever held on the Sound.... We retired about 6 o’clock on the day following Christmas, and slept till almost noon, when the lowing of the cows called us to our duties.

One of many fiddlers who came to the Far West in the mid 19th century was Josiah Merritt, for whom Mt. Si, a prominent landmark near North Bend, Washington, is named. Another was Hans Martin Hansen, who came to Seattle from Norway in 1856, bought Alki Point from Doc Maynard, built the first lighthouse there, and was Ivar Haglund’s maternal grandfather. Lou Southworth, a slave who was brought from Missouri to western Oregon, bought his freedom with gold he dug out of the Yreka and Jacksonville mines, and was kicked out of his church because he played the fiddle. Ezra Meeker, who crossed the continent in 1852 and settled in Puyallup, Washington, was also a fiddler. He wrote several books of pioneer reminiscences, and in 1906 drove an ox cart back along the Oregon Trail to the East Coast to honor the memory of the pioneers.

Most of the tunes we have selected for this CD were documented as having been played for dancing in the Far West in pioneer times. Others were so popular throughout America that we can safely assume they were known in the West as well.

1. Nelly Bly. Stephen Foster wrote this song in 1849. It was used as part of “The San Francisco Quadrilles,” published in San Francisco in 1852. In 1857 members of a wagon train on the way to Colorado danced to fiddler Oliver Thompson Hamlin singing and playing it, and it is still a common square dance tune.

2. Mazourka from Mr. Howard of Vancouver, Washington Territory. This tune comes from a music manuscript used by a dance band in the gold mining camp of Warrens, Idaho in the late 1860’s.

3. Rye Straw. In the description of his sister’s wedding, John Wesley Maple called this tune “The Unfortunate Dog,” and it is also sometimes called “The Joke on the Puppy.”

4. Annie Laurie. Lady John Douglas Scott wrote this sentimental air in Scotland in 1838. It was a favorite of miners in the California Gold Rush, and is a well-loved old time waltz today.

5. Tassels on My Boots. Washington Territory pioneer fiddler Perry Sims played this popular song for dances in the Okanogan region. It was written in 1860 by Robert Coombs.

6. Golden Slippers. Black composer and banjo player James Bland wrote this song in 1879 as a minstrel parody of a spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It has been played for square dances and polkas for many years.

7. The Old Settler. The old British Isles tune “Rosin the Beau” or “Rosin the Bow,” dating at least from the early 18th century, has been turned into a waltz. In 1874 Francis Henry, an early pioneer in Oregon and Washington, wrote a loosely autobiographical poem about the ravels and travails of “The Old Settler” to go with the tune, and it became an immediate hit. In the Pacific Northwest the song is known as “Acres of Clams,” from the last verse:

No longer the slave of ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams,
As I think of my pleasant condition, surrounded by acres of clams.

8. Jenny Lind Polka. German composer Anton Wallerstein wrote this polka in honor of the popular Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, and American band leader and dancing master Alan Dodsworth published it in the 1840’s. Today it is usually used for the Heel and Toe Polka.

9. Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. This English music hall song was written by T. Maclagan around 1862, and soon crossed the ocean to America. It was sung by Civil War soldiers and by Pa Ingalls of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, played for dancing in Salt Lake City in the 1860’s, and has been a popular square dance tune in America for decades.

10. Gal on a Log. G.P. Knauff’s 1839 publication “Virginia Reels” included this tune, which is listed in fiddler Jake Lake’s repertoire for the 1862 Seattle wedding. It is more commonly called “The Route” or “Colonel Crockett,” and is usually in A minor. This major key variant was recorded in the 1920’s by Moses Bonner, who fought in the Civil War.

11. Such a Gettin’ Upstairs. This minstrel song was first published in America in Knauff’s 1839 Virginia Reels, although it may be descended from an earlier English Morris tune. It was often used as a play party, and is part of a quadrille set in the Warrens manuscript.

12. Rory O’More. The original ballad was composed by Irish musician, novelist and artist Samuel Lover, and was a big hit in 1837. It became a popular dance tune in the British Isles and America, is in the Idaho mining camp manuscript, and is still a contra dance standard.

13. Lauterbach Waltz. The melody of the German folk song “Im Lauterbach hab’ ich mein’ Strumpf verlorn” was a favorite waltz in 19th century America, and it is in the Warrens dance manuscript. In 1864 Septimus Winner used it for his comic dialect song “Der Deitcher’s Dog,” or “Oh where, oh where ish mine little dog gone,” which became a big hit and eventually evolved into the familiar nursery song. The “crooked” 12 bar second part is from sheet music of the 1840’s.

14. Weevilly Wheat. Probably descended from the old Irish/Scottish song “Wha’ll Be King But Charlie,” this was a favorite play party of early settlers throughout the west. The game consisted principally of the “reeling the line” figure which is also part of the Virginia Reel. We recorded this using fiddle sticks on a fiddle cross-tuned to GDGD.

15. Rochester Schottische. William Rulison came to California during the Gold Rush, and unlike many, actually made some money there. He returned to his home town of Rochester, New York, and in 1852 wrote and published this tune. It has become familiar all over North America, and is in the Idaho mining camp manuscript. Over the years it has acquired several other names, including “Prairie Schottische,” “Hi-Lo Schottische,” “Texas Schottische,” “Cat Ran Up the Plum Tree,” and “What the Devil Ails You!”

16. Varsoviana. The Varsoviana (also spelled Varsovienne or Varsouvian) was a common dance form in the mid 19th century. It was danced by Minnesota pioneers in the 1850’s, in Salt Lake City in the 1860’s, and in mining communities in Oregon and Idaho in the 1860’s and 1870’s. This medley of four mid 19th century Varsoviana melodies begins and ends with “Put Your Little Foot,” which is the only one that most people know today.

17. Opera Reel. This tune and the longways set dance that goes with it were popular in the mid 19th century, and are still part of the classic contra dance repertoire. It was danced at the Maple/Van Asselt wedding, which probably makes it Seattle’s first contra dance!

18. Home on the Range. In 1873 the Smith County Pioneer, a Kansas newspaper, published a poem by local physician Brewster Higley. Local musicians Dan Kelley and John and Eugene Harlan set it to music, and it soon became a very popular dance tune throughout the West.

19. Little Brown Jug. This minstrel song was composed in 1869 by Joseph Eastburn Winner, known simply as “Eastburn,” who was the younger brother of famous songwriter Septimus Winner. Colorado pioneers danced the polka to this tune.

Sources for quotations:

Mrs. Lula Downen, in Covered Wagon Days in the Palouse Country, pub. 1937 by the Pullman Herald.
“Their Christmas in King County forty-two years ago,” Seattle Daily Times, December 13, 1901.
“Isaac V. Mossman, A Pioneer of 1853,” Oregon Native Son HIstorical Magazine, Vol. II Nov. 1900.
WPA Historical Records, Benton Co., Oregon, www.rootsweb.com/~orbenton/wpa/

Phil and Vivian Williams were born and raised in Western Washington and grew up listening to, dancing to, and playing the music of the pioneer West. They were founding members of the Washington Old Time Fiddle Association, which was formed in the 1960’s to perpetuate pioneer fiddle traditions. Vivian has a B.A. in History from Reed College, where she studied under Northwest historian Dorothy O. Johansen, and has an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Washington. She was a field researcher for the Washington Traditional Fiddlers project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to document early fiddling in the Pacific Northwest.

Recorded and mixed 2006 by Phil Williams at Voyager studios. Cover art by Shera Bray. Photograph by Irene Young. Liner notes by Vivian Williams.

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