Salty songs come with ‘The Miner’s Farewell’
Had it not been for miners, Lake Tahoe could easily have stayed solely the summer home of Washoe Native Americans.
Instead, the intrepid thousands risking life for riches and often paying with death without gaining an ounce of treasure brought the world’s attention to the region.
Chris Bayer celebrates the lives of the largely unknown dreamers in an evening of old time music at the Mark Twain Cultural Center in Incline Village on Friday, March 11.
Bayer is more than just a talented guy with a banjo. His curiosity about the mining culture, from the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada to the Mother Lode of the Comstock Mine, has lead him into year of concentrated research.
The quest began in 1999 while researching songs of the gold rush for California’s sesquicentennial. He found the information lacking.
“I did not see what I wanted it to tell me,” he said.
It appeared no one had ever looked at the social context of the mining camps.
Slogging in dirt above and below the ground this unique working class was rarely portrayed in any cultural way by newspapers and magazines of the day.
Yet, notes Bayer from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, a myriad of people, from across the globe, concocted songs from a diversified sense of entertainment. Some, black and white, brought an appreciation for minstrel music while others enjoyed the melodies found in British musical halls and European opera houses.
Occasionally called “hoodlums” by those who profited the most, namely the bankers, miners gathered for poetry gatherings and singalongs. Bayer says the poetry, or “purple prose,” of the Victorian era appears overblown to modern readers. The songs still resonate. The reason being they were mostly written by lonely young men thousands of miles from a wife or a girlfriend.
Like the lives they lived the miners’ songs could be coarse and rough.
“Sweet Bessie from Pike” is a melodic story of a girl and her paramour’s sore-footed trek west across the plains. Other songs described bodily functions in great, and often humorous, details. Their intent was to frequently lambast the strict Victorian society many had found suffocating back home.
Due to the lyrics’ bawdy nature Bayer says his Friday performance is best heard by adults. He will be accompanying himself with a 1860s banjo.
Unlike a modern-day banjo the antique instrument has no frets, gut strings and a calfskin head. Bayer, the historian, had to complete in-depth research before Bayer, the musician, could play it properly.
Despite authoring several books on Nevada history he greatly enjoys his time playing to live audiences.
“Its lots more fun to sing songs and tell stories than watch a book.”
Attending the “Miner’s Farewell” will serve more of an introduction than a parting to the Lake Tahoe Basin’s musical history.
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