What the Reviewers Say

SONGS AND DANCES OF THE OREGON TRAIL

This is a fun, informative, must read book about the early pioneer communities and the songs and dances along the Oregon Trail. The Williams did extensive research to ensure historical accuracy. Here are sixty songs and dance tunes of that time. As they point out, most of the history written has been about the perilous journey, the incredible hard struggles, lost loves, and being out in the wilderness on these cross country journeys. The hardship information comes from writings, journals, and oral history. But there was a lighter side to this exploration that appeared in those same writings. These were the songs sung around the campfire and the dances on the open prairie with a host of instruments, most often fiddle and banjo. This is accurate, informational erudite, and totally accessible and fun material. You will laugh, be fascinated, and tap into your history with joy and greater understanding. The cover illustration is by Shera Bray and shows a moonlit night around a campfire with a wagon tin the background, a fiddle and a banjo player, folks singing, clapping, and dancing. Sets the mood both here are on the above CD using the same cover art. The Table of Contents is clear and easy to follow. In the preface they say “the motivation behind this book is to keep these songs, tunes, and dances alive as an important part of the heritage not only of the pioneer era, but of the Far West.” The Lewis and Clark expedition started things off; t hey took two fiddlers, and in the 1830s, Marcus Whitman and Jason Lee went back east to paint the picture of great farmland and disease free environs,. In 1841, the first wagon train headed for Oregon and California. Another much smaller wagon train traveled n 1842, but the first large wagon train was in 1843 with around nine hundred folks headed for the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The migration was full bore, and the music was a part of it. They describe the instrument used, why there was a fretless gut string banjo, the role the melodeon played, how the piano got established, and how it came to popular use with the advent of the railroads. The first section is the songs and describes that these pioneers brought the songs they were familiar with and were a part of the old life that they could carry on. “Their journals are replete with mentions of how the songs eased the hardships of the trail.” Many of those songs came off the minstrel stages and another source was patriotic songs. The land they were going to was still in dispute, so they might not know what country they would end up in. Throughout the book are drawings, quotations from journals and their dates. Each tune in the song section has a simple melody and the chords, and the words so you an learn them or start playing them. Kudos, very accessible to everyone. And they give a history of the song which might include who wrote it, the year, and maybe some information on places. On some songs they give alternate verses and or choruses. In Appendix A they have a slug of additional verses and choruses for Old Joe Clark that could take you half an hour to sing. Appendix B gives you additional humorous skits for Arkansas Traveler. Great fun! The second section is Dances & Play Parties. To hear music it had to be live in those days (no TV, radio, or recordings). The book explains how dance places were selected and evolved on a flat place on the Prairie, then transitioned to the settler’s cabin or barn (barn dance). Later, as schools, churches, and fraternal organization halls were built, dances would be there. They talk a bit about the styles of dancing and then get into the tunes. Like today, the dancers get the directions from the music, so the music fits the dance. In the early days, the waltz was played much faster, up to 190 beats per minute. The basic melody is given for each tune, and some have lyrics, as it was hard to distinguish between whether the tunes were predominantly songs or dances. Again history for each dance tune is given. This is followed by a full section on Dance instructions including a Glossary of Terms and then a description and background on the dances and how that dance went. For the square, they give directions to the “Grapevine Twist,” two full pages! They do the same for Longways Set Dances (Contra Dances that we go to today), Mixers and Circle Dances, and then Couple Dances like the Waltz, Polka, and Schottische. You can take the CD and begin to learn these dances right in your home then venture out to the huge local dance community. Finally, we have the Play Party Games. These are done generally by children with hand clapping or some percussion. Dance, in some religions, was sinful in those days, so a Play Party Game with no instruments was okay. The book gives instruction for five of these including “Old Dan Tucker Play Party” or “Skip to my Lou Play Party.” Looking at the many, many sources listed at the end will make the curious want to track down and read further. Great historical and living book, and with the earlier separate CD, you have everything you need to get started singing and dancing while you get a fine history lesson! Excellent presentation and accessible to all folks. I’ll end the review on this delightful informative book with a diary quote from Mary Jane Guilt, no date: “Last night we had a serenade between the hours of ten and eleven. Music sounded delightful, the instruments consisted of one fiddle and banjo. It enlivened me up very much out here away from home enjoying the wilds of a western life....we enjoyed the hour around the campfire. We listened to reading, story telling, music, and songs, and the day often ended in laughter and merry-making.” (Chris Lund, Ancient Victorys News, Summer 2014.)

*****

From familiar sing-along songs like "The Camptown Races,""Buffalo Gals," and "Oh!Susanna," to the lively dance numbers Detroit Schottische, Jenny Lind Polka, and Off to California, Songs and Dances of the Oregon Trail leads readers on a musical journey. History vignettes reveal song origins, and diary quotes add a personal touch. Instructions are included for several types of dances, complete with diagrams. Whether for playing, dancing, or a brief history lesson, this collection of songs reveals the migration of songs from the east coast to the west coast revealing a trail of our country's musical legacy.(Lisa Dittman, Supervisory Interpretive Park Ranger, Californa Trail Interpretive Center, Elko Nevada, Oregon-California Trails Association "Overland Journal," Summer 2014)

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