Pioneer History in Songs and Stories

Old American songs bring history to life when we use them as stepping-stones: their lyrics, melodies, and sentiments help us to imagine the era when they were first popular. All the songs in my programs were well-known in America between 1840 and 1880.

I enjoy connecting the songs with the historical context that surrounds them. The music takes on more meaning, and history and song come to life together. The music from that era can be witty, naive, pointed, or heart-rending. And the tales that surround the songs are stories nobody could invent...

 •The failed gold miner who wrote "Jingle Bells"
 •The story of the actual "Man on the Flying Trapeze"
 •What "Seeing the Elephant" meant to the Forty Niners
 •The gritty and surprising origins of a cherished lullaby
 •The beloved Irish ballad written by a German immigrant in Indiana
 •The song that was illegal to sing or own during the Civil War
 •and lots more...  Quick Links:  Audio/Video   Song List

Programs in Oregon and California in 2016, 2017, and 2018 included:

Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts

I've created several 60-90 minute programs featuring my favorite material from the entire series. To learn more, follow this link.

Stephen Foster - Making Music American

The first American freelance composer, and the most famous songwriter of the 19th Century, Stephen Foster died penniless in 1864 at the age of 37. David tells the story of Foster's brief life, and how he sought to create a new kind of American song. During the narration, David will sing a dozen Foster songs, including Open Thy Lattice, Love; Oh, Susanna; Camptown Races; Swanee River (Old Folks at Home); My Old Kentucky Home; Hard Times Come Again No More; Some Folks; Beautiful Dreamer; and excerpts from several others.

Music on the Oregon Trail

On the Oregon Trail, you couldn't bring much with you, but you could bring songs. During the six-month trek, music was a source of strength, hope, entertainment, and consolation. For this program, history and stories of the great western migration are interwoven with music specifically mentioned in emigrants' own diaries. These are songs the pioneers actually recalled singing and hearing as they made their way west in the 1840s and '50s, including: Wait for the Wagon; Home, Sweet Home; The Girl I left Behind Me; What was Your Name in the States; Begone, Dull Care; My Old Kentucky Home; O, California; and more.

The California/Oregon Gold Rush 1848–1855

Between 1848 and 1855, several hundred thousand treasure seekers made their way to California and Oregon, and some wrote songs about their experience.Songs: In the days of 49, O California, Seeing the Elephant, The Miner's Lament, The Miner's farewell, What was your Name in the States, more.

Two Brothers: the War Between the States 1861–1865

Confederate General Robert E. Lee once remarked that without music, he would have had no army. Music was everywhere on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and the war could not have been fought without it. Songs: Two Brothers, Bonnie Blue Flag, My Old Kentucky Home, Battle Cry of Freedom, Home Sweet Home, All Quiet Along the Potomac, Eating Goober Peas, more.

Getting Here: Traveling to Oregon and California 1840–1880

Travelling to Oregon and California, whether by steamer ship or Prairie Schooner, the emigrants heard (and sang) riverboat songs, trail songs, sea shanteys, and other songs of travel. Songs: The Boatmen Dance, O Shenandoah, Wait for the Wagon, Song of the Overland Stage Driver, Coming Around the Horn, The Ship That Never Returned.

Gold Rush Saloons: songs of cheap whiskey and fast women

During the Gold Rush, a "saloon" generally offered hard drinking, rugged card games, and raucous entertainment. Some songs were written for the saloons, and other songs were sung about them. Songs: Rye Whiskey, Champagne Charlie, The Gambler's Lament, I am a Roving Gambler, more

Newfangled Inventions

One hour of 19th-Century songs extolling the latest inventions! 150 years ago, before radio or phonograph, songwriters published some odd but strangely uplifting songs about the velocipede (bicycle), hot air balloons, electric lights, the telegraph, the telephone, the sewing machine, baseball, and more. The playlist will include songs like: The Base Ball Song; The New Electric Light; Song of the Sewing Machine; Take Me Up with You Dearie; The Wondrous Telephone; The Telegraph Boy; and The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. (He was a real person, and he invented something!)

Women Poets and Ballad Composers

In 1844, Marion Sullivan became the first American woman to write a hit song. Despite living in a time when "proper" ladies were actively discouraged from any form of public musical activity, Sullivan and other bold 19th-Century women created and published beautiful, memorable songs. This hour focusses on those female musical pioneers and their ballads, including The Blue Juniata; In the Gloaming; The original "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" song; Do They Miss Me at Home; The Old Log Hut ("Row, Row, Row Your Boat"); and other gems.

Pioneer Laughter

Songs can be created purely to lighten the burdens of life, and composers and poets sometimes go to great comic lengths to do so. This concert is an hour of truly goofy mid-19th-Century creations like: People Will Talk; If You Only Have a Moustache; The Overland Stage; The Wonderful Musician; The Spider and the Fly (yes, that song really does exist); plus Mark Twain's description of travelling in a stage coach, and a brief but earnest sermon on the parable of "Old Mother Hubbard."

(The songlists for this series are always subject to changes here and there, right up to the last minute, but only to make things better.)