A favorite time for me at John Randolph Club annual meetings is the songfest. Invariably, there is someone in attendance who can sit down at the piano and play all the great, old American tunes that were once familiar to several generations of Americans. The melodies stir my soul. The accompanying lyrics evoke memories of the things that made us a people. Feeling the music and listening to the songs makes me feel, well, American.
During the last couple of decades, though, I’ve come to realize that most young Americans today are unfamiliar with what I thought were folk classics absorbed by every American by the age of eight or nine. Some of this is a consequence of the demise of music programs in public schools, and some the result of movies using traditional folk tunes less and less.
Think of any John Ford movie. In Stagecoach (1939) we hear “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “The Battle-Cry of Freedom,” “Little Joe the Wrangler,” “Gentle Annie,” and “Lily Dale.” In My Darling Clementine (1946) we hear the song of the same name as well as “Red River Valley,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Camptown Races,” “Nellie Bly,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Shoo, Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” “The Quilting Party,” and “Old Dan Tucker.”
An unusually talented musician and friend, Dave Bourne, whose Saloon Piano CD set includes nearly every American folk classic, offers still another explanation for American youth not being familiar with our traditional favorites: The tunes are no longer used in cartoons. The cartoons of the 40’s and 50’s made regular use of folk tunes. The melodies could evoke all the right emotions in the kids, and, since the tunes were in the public domain, no one paid a cent to use them.
There may be something more sinister at work here, too. When I was in grammar school, it didn’t take a music program for one’s teacher to strum melodies on the autoharp and have the kids sing along. That could be done today but evidently isn’t. Are the old tunes too evocative of American identity and not “multicultural” enough? The tunes made me feel proud to be an American and proud to be a Californian. We in the Golden State learned our own version of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” (1848):
I come from Salem City
With a washpan on my knee.
I’m going to California
The gold dust for to see.
Another song about the trek to California, and in this case originally intended as such, is
“Sweet Betsy from Pike,” written by John A. Stone in the mid-1850’s:
Did you ever hear tell of Sweet Betsy from Pike,
Who crossed the wide mountains with her lover Ike,
Two yoke of cattle, a large yeller dog,
A tall Shanghai rooster, and a one-spotted hog.
Singing too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo ra-li-ay.
In grammar school we also sang with gusto Percy Montrose’s “Oh My Darling, Clementine” (1884):
In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner forty niner,
And his daughter Clementine.
We even saw a California connection in the melancholy and poignant “Red River Valley.” To us, “As you go to your home by the ocean” could only mean that the person leaving the valley was headed for California. The song is claimed by Iowans, Canadians, New Yorkers, and Texans. Its earliest formally published version was “In the Bright Mohawk Valley” (1896) by James J. Kerrigan. No matter. The song that has come down to us as “Red River Valley” has one of the simplest yet most powerful and tender lines ever written: “Come and sit by my side if you love me.” Set to the melody, it’s a killer.
John Ford used “Red River Valley” in no fewer than five of his movies, including The Grapes of Wrath, where it serves as the leitmotif for the loss suffered by the Joads. He also used the tune in the documentary The Battle of Midway (1942). Against the setting sun on the eve of the battle Marines are silhouetted, while America’s most melancholy melody plays. A handful of American boys on a distant Pacific atoll are waiting to face the might of the empire of Japan. Watching it, one can’t help but choke up. The documentary was a wild success, in part because of its music—music that all Americans held close to their hearts.