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Oct 15, 2021 - 5:39:13 AM
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ndlxs

USA

433 posts since 9/26/2006

When you talk about American folk music from the 19th century, you just can’t get around that many of the songs from then that were popular and are still popular came from minstrel shows.  “Cotton Eyed Joe” of course is a notable example: “Papa ran a man…”.  Most of these songs still sung have been scrubbed clean of racist intent, imperfectly. This TOTW is another example; however, the words of the source song were re-written to be about gold mining.

The song of the week is an actual gold miner’s song called “California Bloomer”, but the melody used is Nelly Bly, written as a minstrel song in 1850 by Stephen Foster.  To quote WikiSource: "Nelly Bly" anticipates the joys of marriage and housekeeping, according to Emerson, and its melody has a “merry, nursery-rhyme charm”. He describes the song as a “sweet, domestic idyll, and apart from the blackface dialect, there’s not a hint of condescension toward the object of the singer’s affection”.  It is a cheerful, upbeat melody, and the song was a big hit, and everyone would have known the song and the melody.

Stephen Foster’s song took as its inspiration an earlier, similar song with a not very interesting melody called “Lucy Long”, that first appeared in minstrel shows in 1838.  More info on Lucy Long here: also see below. 

There was no such thing as copyright then; melodies and even lyrics were widely borrowed for other purposes. Foster himself took a lot of Nelly Bly from Lucy Long. He improved the melody and changed the story, though. Nelly Bly’s melody was used in 1860 for a Lincoln campaign song:
those words are here. Nelly Bly was so popular, that when the plucky female reporter Elizabeth Jane Cochran started writing articles for the Pennsylvania Dispatch in the 1880s, the editors wanted a catchy by-line for her, and they borrowed the song title and just called her “Nellie Bly”.  Note, this was 30 years after Nelly Bly was written. Someone should write “Nellie Bly, Reporter” lyrics for Foster’s melody.

It was also used in the California Gold Rush for the song “California Bloomer”, as recorded by John Stone, AKA “Old Putt”, in his California Songster, published in 1856.  You can see this song on page 34 here.  The miners borrowed many melodies for their songs.  There is later songster from Old Putt here. John Stone, aka Old Putt, aka “Joe Bowers”, is buried in Greenwood, California. (“Joe Bowers” is another song from the gold rush). Lots of discussion of John Stone and Joe Bowers here.

This song portrays Miss Ella as a (gasp!) woman miner, and of course the song makes fun of that idea, in part because they must have thought it hilarious that she could do all of the heavy physical labor required. I don’t get a lot of the humor, like that part about her shirttail between her knees.  They also have her coming from a funny place name.  The singer is quite taken with her.  The last verse almost implies that the narrator is going to take her money and escape back home to the States.

You will also note that the song “air” listed in Old Put is a different one than I just said: it was the earlier minstrel song, Lucy Long. I have seen suggestions that it was the ancestor of “Old Joe Clark”, but I don’t hear it. The melody of Lucy is not as interesting as Foster’s Nelly Bly; and I dislike the lyrics.  “Lucy” was slang for a loose woman, supposedly, and not just racist but misogynistic too. You can look up well intentioned school choirs and folk singers performing it on Youtube, and I must assume that they are unaware of the meaning of what they are singing.

I recorded this song in 2004 with Alan Fuller (guitar, vocal) and Dorothy Hawkinson (fiddle) as “Miss Ella”.  Alan Fuller, a retired park ranger from Coloma, where gold was discovered, was the one who did the melodic switch from Lucy Long to Nelly Bly.  You can hear us play it
right here.  If you feel like owning the recording, you can get it from Bandcamp; it should be listed on the various streaming services as well.  Alan and Dorothy contributed music to Ken Burn’s soundtrack for “The West”, before I played with them.  Here is an example of Alan’s terrific singing, recorded on a cassette recorder in his living room. This particular song was heard in the closing credits of Episode 3 of that series.

Here is a newer version of it with
me singing and playing Nelly Bly on banjar. Here is my tablature for this recent version.  

Enjoy!  Take a look at the songster, there's more gold in them thar hills. 




 

Oct 15, 2021 - 5:41:27 AM
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ndlxs

USA

433 posts since 9/26/2006

Tab for Miss Lucy Long, the source for Foster's Nelly Bly is here.  Tab from Briggs' Banjo Tutor of 1855, tabbed by Manfred Kilian in 2016.

Oct 15, 2021 - 7:30:45 AM

99 posts since 8/1/2012

Really interesting! I have Lucy Long in my Briggs tutor and have played it, but didn’t realize it was connected to Nellie Bly, or Miss Ella. Of course, it’s obvious now that I think of it. (You throw different words at a melody and my brain gets distracted from seeing that)
There is so much humor from that time period that either goes over my head, or I get it, but, huh? That’s funny?

Oct 15, 2021 - 8:30:37 AM
Players Union Member

ndlxs

USA

433 posts since 9/26/2006

I think their humor is of the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks variety.  All context from their time is vanished; the "Lumpkin County" part, "alkalai'ed" (bathroom humor) among them. 

Actually, it is hard to do timeless humor since a context is needed.  Songs are short enough so that it is hard to supply the context that a writer like Mark Twain can supply in abundance. 

Oct 15, 2021 - 8:56:59 AM

99 posts since 8/1/2012

I was asking a friend (who had studied the subject) how to make sense of lyrics like these from Foster’s Don’t Bet Your Money On The Shanghai.
De Shanghai's tall but his appetite is small
He'll only swallow ebry thing that he can overhaul
Four bags of wheat just as certain as your born
A bushel of potatoes and a tub full of corn.

He said they found a lot of humor in saying one thing but meaning something completely opposite.

Oct 15, 2021 - 10:21:50 AM
Players Union Member

ndlxs

USA

433 posts since 9/26/2006

I think the pre-Andy Piney Creek Weasels did that one. I believe it is a song about cock fighting....

Oct 15, 2021 - 5:40:56 PM

226 posts since 10/26/2018

Agreed, a Shanghai is a chicken breed that is/was known for being a fighting bird.

Oct 16, 2021 - 12:00:53 PM

6742 posts since 6/27/2009

Thorough presentation, Andy, thank you. I especially liked the 2004 recording you made. I'm reminded that you once said you might perform at our Smartsville Pioneer Day. After two years of not having it -- our biggest fund raiser for restoration of the historic Gold Rush era church in Smartsville -- we're aiming to have it once again in 2022. I can just see you in our Timbuctoo Theatre performing this song. Lotta Crabtree is whom I portray and sing the California Stage Company song. Banjo is just the right instrument, too. So.....I hope you'll be thinking about this for next year.

The book and CD I learned from was recorded in the Bay Area, called California Gold! Your song is there as California Bloomer. The notes on page 57 state, "The Seneca Convention in New York in 1848 was the beginning of the long struggle for women's rights.  Bloomers (loose pants gathered at the ankles) were a sign of the emancipated woman, worn by the daring few along the overland route to California.  The outrageous bloomers coupled with a widespread superstition that women brought bad luck at the mines undoubtedly led to this song."  Perhaps Miss Ella was even more daring to show her knees.

Oct 16, 2021 - 5:35:40 PM
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ndlxs

USA

433 posts since 9/26/2006

Sure, I'd do that.  It would probably be just me, and it would be a good excuse to work up a set or a few tunes.  I haven't talked to my friend Eric Anderson the fiddler in a while; if he was available I will try and see if he can come. 

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