Eiteljorg Musuem Blog

Willoughby Sprig Digs Up Gold Rush Pop Songs

by Chris Burrus, Banjo player for Willoughby Sprig | Jul 14, 2015

This week we feature a guest post written by Chris Burrus, banjo player for Willoughby Sprig. The folk-inspired duo play Gold Rush era music under the sails most Saturdays as part of Gold! Riches and Ruin. You can also here them perform original music this Wednesday, July 15 at 5:00pm as part of the Eiteljorg’s Summer Under The Sails Music Series.


Willoughby Sprig “Digs Up” Gold Rush Pop Songs


Requests to play My Darling Clementine: 0

Requests to play Freebird: 5


            We are now two months into our stint performing period music for Gold! Riches and Ruin and have yet to be asked to play My Darling Clementine. Unfortunately, I have lost a bet with our fiddle player, having confidently predicted that we would be asked to play it within several hours of starting our program of music from the Gold Rushes two months ago.

            This bad luck has done nothing to quell my enthusiasm for playing the music. As a performer of the music of the Gold Rush, I've sung the songs of miners, prospectors, sailors, drunks, thieves, various wildlife, happy folks, grieving folks, and all sorts of rough-and-tumble types. If there is one thing I've learned from this music, it's that losing a bet would have been the least of these folks' worries. 

            The Gold Rush and the American Civil War can be grouped together as the two great contributors toward America's influential place in early folk and popular music. However, if the music of the Civil War is the charismatic, lead-guitarist of American musical nationalism, the music of the Gold Rush is the craggy, cigar box guitar player who wrote most of Civil War's songs. The practice of parody song writing, for example, which became a major musical genre in the Civil War, first earned its place in popular song writing during the Gold Rush. Popular songs such as Stephen Foster's Way Up the Swanee River became Way Up the Yuba River. The minstrel tune Boatman's Dance became Ho! For California. In both cases and many others, a parody song was created. Lyricists borrowed the melodies of popular songs and folk tunes, composing new lyrics to match the experiences of those heading west for gold. Both the Foster melody and the minstrel tune would go on to become massive hits during the Civil War as well.

            The music of the Gold Rush as a genre is not exactly folk, but popular music with a sprinkling of the folk idiom. Its place was in the saloon, the barrel house, and the concert hall, rather than in the community. Lyricists were looking to make a quick buck with tickets and sheet music rather than to preserve a tradition. This mindset produced a music whose success depended upon its ability to glorify the variety of experiences among those listening, thereby heightening its appeal and broadening its popularity.

            Because the music of the Gold Rush required variety to be profitable, Willoughby Sprig has tuned up a whole slew of foot-stompers, tear jerkers, love ballads, travel tunes, and cave-hollers from a vast collection of music. These pieces, along with features from the exhibit, The Chilkoot March and The Klondike: March of the Gold Miners, can be heard under the sails most Saturday afternoons through mid-August. We also take requests, as long as they are from 1849!asl_p44_03_184-jpg
Men and dogs outside log cabin, ca. 1900
Image courtesy of the Alaska State Library, Skinner Foundation Photographs, Alaska Steamship Company, 1890s-1940s; P44-03-184
asl_p425_6_35-blog 19
Four Prospectors Relax on Their Cabin Bunk, ca. 1898
Photographer: Claude Hobart
Image courtesy of the Alaska State Library, Claude Hobart Photograph Collection, 1898-99; P425-6-35

1 Comment

  1. 1 Bill Stagg 17 Jul
    This is such a great concept and fascinating history. Love to see and hear you all soon!


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
© Eiteljorg Museum. All rights reserved.