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Description of Popular Banjo Music in the California Gold Rush

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Eldorado - Or Adventures in the Path of Empire", written by Bayard Taylor, provides a rare contemporary description banjo music during California Gold Rush of 1849.  This book is available at no cost through Google Books and other internet sources.

Chapter 26 ("Night in Sacramento City") includes a description of the drinking and gambling halls that catered to the "overland emigrants, miners, and sporting characters".  

"Some of the establishments have small companies of Ethiopian melodists, who nightly call upon " Susanna!" and entreat to be carried back to Old Virginny. These songs are universally popular, and the crowd of listeners is often so great as to embarrass the player at the monte tables and injure the business of the gamblers. I confess to a strong liking for the Ethiopian airs, and used to spend half an hour every night in listening to them and watching the curious expressions of satisfaction and delight in the faces of the overland emigrants, who always attended in a body. The spirit of the music was always encouraging; even its most doleful passages had a grotesque touch of cheerfulness — a mingling of sincere pathos and whimsical consolation, which somehow took hold of all moods in which it might be heard, raising them to the same notch of careless good humor.  The Ethiopian melodies well deserve to be called, as they are in fact, the national airs of America.  Their quaint, mock-sentimental cadences, so well suited to the broad absurdity of the words – their reckless gaiety and irreverent familiarity with serious subjects- and their spirit of antagonism and perseverance -are true expressions of the more popular sides of the national character.  They follow the American race in all its emigrations, colonizations and conquests, as certainly as the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day.  The penniless and half despairing emigrant is stimulated to try again by the sound of “It’ll never do to give it up so!” and feels a pang of home-sickness at the burthen of the “Old Virginia Shore.”'

​It is interesting to read how the minstrel banjo played an important role in the early days of the American west.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in the California Gold Rush - the emigrant routes; the creation and development of California government; early days of San Francisco, Sacramento, and the gold mining towns; day-to-day life.

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