Folk Notes

About, “The Strychnine Banjo”

June 29, 2022

By CW Bayer

Photo: 1867 Dobson patent banjo—the instrument upon which Charley Rhoades composed “The Days Of 49.”

In many ways, our modern ideas and practice of folk music reflect efforts by Pete Seeger to not
only rescue the old mountain music but also to see it as a doorway for the nation into the
future. Seeger’s basic inspiration lay in his love of the old-time banjo. As time has gone by,
musicians and historians have looked into the history of that instrument and discovered many
facets—some of them forgotten.
In 2016 I presented before the Banjo Gathering—the collection of banjo historians—back east
on my book, “The Strychnine Banjo.” This is the most important story of the banjo to come out
of the California gold rush. I was glad to be getting the far-west’s important banjo history in
front of the Gathering.
The full title of the book is, “The Strychnine Banjo—Jake Wallace, Charley Rhoades and The
Days of 49.” Written in 1868 by Rhoades while performing with his banjo in Virginia City Nevada
and popularized on the banjo up and down California for decades by Wallace, “The Days Of ‘49”
became the anthem of the “old-timers”– the “pioneers”, the “old forty niners”–who had come
West early in the gold rush. The story of its composition is one of the most colorful and
surprising music histories one can imagine. I tracked down photos and a host of newspaper
articles from far-flung sources.
While today, we often see old-time banjo in the wake of interest by Seeger and others in the
mountain banjo, it might be nice for players to read about the instrument as played in the far
West between 1849 and the early 1900s. The far-West drew on English and Irish melodies for
gold rush song and this carried over into the banjo playing. Miners were dancing to the banjo in
the diggings from an early date.
The title of the book, “The Strychnine Banjo”, reflects Mark Twain’s comparison, written in San
Francisco during 1865, of the banjo to strychnine whiskey. Both give you diarrhea. In the book, I
discuss strychnine whiskey and its relation to mining culture. Today, the West is often
associated with the cowboy hero. However, well before the cowboy hero, in the Sierra Nevada,
gold rush mining camps and gold rush writers saw the western “type” as epitomized by a miner
called Pike. The song, “The Day of 49”, builds on this idea of a western type. In each verse,
someone dies having fun. While today it is seen as a folk-song, “The Day of 49” originated a
stage song.
I really think every musician in the far West should know the names of Charley Rhoades and
Jake Wallace—the two most famous “old-time” or stroke style banjo players of the far West
during the mid-19 th century. (Though these were not their real names–“Mark Twain” was not
his real name either.) Rhoades was dying of consumption when he wrote the song. Wallace
lived a long long time and, as a character, can still be heard today in an opera. I love the quotes
in the book. Here’s one, describing the banjo played at a California dance in the diggings during
1854:

The generous juice of the grape flowed freely, warming up our hearts and inducing us to mirth and jollity, and
causing merry feet to dance to the dulcet strains of the flute and violin—The banjo and clarionet, accordion &c
were also put in requisition—Rathbone came down and we had some fine singing—innumerable guns were fired—a
devil of a racket generally was kicked up—Then a ‘fillibustering expedition’ was got up under the command of
‘Corporal Young’ and we turned out with guns in battle array, and to the music of the drum and fife we marched up
and stormed a garrison of ‘old soldiers’ who were encamped up behind the big bush back of the house—We gave
them three rounds, when they surrendered without firing a shot or saying a word—We had massacred the whole
crowd—we would have taken their scalps but as they were stinking fellows, we thought best to leave them alone in
their glory—We then beat retreat, which was conducted in gallant style without the loss of a single man—and no
one wounded except the corporal, who peeled his shins tumbling over the bean-kettle as he entered the house—Our
new floor was a splendid one for dancing and we made it perfectly thunder beneath the tripping of the heavy
‘fantastic toe’—The glorious cognac flowed freely and all fully entered in the spirit of the scene—The ‘Highland
fling’ was performed to a miracle, and the ‘double-cowtird-smasher’ was introduced with ‘tird-run variations’….

There’s no big money in writing books. So I’ve put the book—"The Strychnine Banjo”– up on
my website—nevadamusic.com. You can read it there for free. Though, if that is cumbersome,
you can always purchase a hard copy.

CW BAYER

 

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