Clang Clang Clang Goes the ..........
.............Light Rail Vehicle
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews
We know that house trailers, computer mainframes, and gutbuckets have new names. They must now be referred to as mobile homes, enterprise servers, and wash tub basses respectively. We can add trolley cars to that list, which now go by the name of light rail vehicles or LRV’s, although they still, on occasion, go clang clang clang. When history repeats itself, the names often change. But the more the names change, the more the things stay the same.
Our gig on October 15 is part of the “Folsom Yesterfest,” to celebrate the arrival of Sacramento County Regional Transit’s light rail service in Folsom. But it will also commemorate the arrival of the first railroad in Folsom almost 150 years ago, which, coincidentally, operated over the same track alignment as the new Regional Transit line. This route, between Sacramento and Folsom, was actually the first railroad line to be built west of the Mississippi River in 1856 when California’s population had recently swelled with gold seekers –and their banjos.
The story of how the banjo made it from its origins on southern plantations to California’s goldfields began in 1849 when a troupe of minstrels made the trip by sailing ship around Cape Horn (South America) and stopped to perform in San Francisco. This was when California’s 49er’s first heard banjo music, including the song, Oh! Susanna. They loved the tune and many acquired their own banjos on which to play it, among other songs. They eventually gave Oh! Susanna a new set of lyrics as it became the anthem of the Gold Rush. I thought it might be interesting to investigate just what those new “Gold Rush” lyrics were. They would have more local interest, and I found them not to contain the negative “Old South” stereotypes that could be found in the original verses. But I am sure that many would still have issues with the Gold Rush lyrics, in which the singer expounds on his plans to systematically destroy California’s natural environment in its entirety, in a mad frenzy to scrape up every ounce of gold that might be present. Conservation wasn’t an issue then, so for now, I guess we should just keep that one an instrumental. The tune certainly captures the essence of the period, and a lot of good did come out of Northern California's development. Because of the banjo's great popularity during this time in California's history, the “Yesterfest” would not be complete without us, the Sacramento Banjo Band.
We will be providing a small group of banjoists to play as the first light rail train arrives at 11:30 am, and three, that's right, three sets with our full band in the afternoon at 1:00-1:30, 2:00-2:30, and 3:00- 3:30. These three full-band sets will be in the 900 block of Sutter Street. Other performing groups will play on the same stage, between and after us, including a banjo/bagpipe concert and some Chinese instruments, commemorating the Irish and Chinese involvement in the development of the American west. There will also be a fiddling contest, in which I hope some of our fiddlers can participate. Living history events, involving buffalo soldiers, Civil War re-enactors, and gold miners will take place nearby. And the organization that I belong to that is working to provide railroad excursion service EAST of Folsom will also be on hand with demonstrations and information.
You can probably tell that I have a personal passion for this activity, but nevertheless, I still hope to see many of you there in Folsom on October 15. And don’t forget to pick up your free tickets for use on the RT trolleys – I mean light rail vehicles – on future days.
Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, October 2005, page 2.