After two seasons and 20 sold-out concerts in Oregon, David Gordon brought his pioneer era series to the Monterey Bay for a concert on Sunday afternoon at The Church in the Forest on the Stevenson School campus. Gordon’s music and history series focuses exclusively on songs popular west of the Mississippi between 1845 and 1875 — the songs sung by emigrants on the Oregon Trail, miners in California, soldiers in the Civil War, western settlers, city dwellers, and many more.
For an attentive and appreciative audience, Gordon, did what he always does. He focussed our attention on a historical time most of us know little about and made it come alive with anecdotes, a history lesson and his performance of hit songs from the 1850s and 1860s. Gordon painted a picture of the United States in the 1850s west of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as a vast uncharted wilderness. Although the expeditions of Lewis and Clark and the Louisiana purchase had opened peoples’ awareness of the potential for westward expansion, the western edge of the United States in the 1850s remained St Louis.
From St. Louis (until the opening of the trans continental railroad in 1869) as many as 400,000 people seeking a new life embarked on the 2200 mile six-month trek, on foot accompanied by crude wagons to Oregon, traveling at best 10 to 15 miles a day. Music, Gordon was to prove to us, was an important part of the cultural lives of these determined travelers. All music was live music, and the westward moving settlers were involved in its creation. People sang, played musical instruments and occasionally wrote new songs as a bittersweet testament to their hopes and dreams.
Gordon reminded us that among these 400,000 westward moving travelers, most were families, but there were also single men, some of whom were escaping an unsavory past. One of Gordon’s songs was the amusing “What was your name in the States? Did you murder your wife, Did you flee for your life, What was your name in the States?”
Two of the most moving songs beautifully sung with guitar accompaniment (yes, Gordon has admirable skills on the guitar) were renditions of John Howard Payne’s immortal “Home Sweet Home” and the traditional folk song “Shenandoah.” These were heartfelt and tremendously moving performances that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.
Stephen Foster loomed large on this program. Gordon reminded us that “My Old Kentucky Home” is a song sometimes sung at official occasions in our southern states as a nostalgic celebration of the antebellum south, bringing to mind the image of ladies in fine hats and crinoline skirts. Actually, the song was originally inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its original lyrics paint a different image — a slave bidding goodby to a relatively benign life in Kentucky as his master sells him to the owner of a sugar plantation in the deep south where slaves were treated more cruelly under terrible living conditions. Another of Stephen Foster’s songs, one that appeared after the songs written for the Christy Minstrels was the very moving “Hard Times Come Again No More.” This was a song that begs us to have compassion for the weary and poor slaves in the South.
Among the great hits on the afternoon’s program was Gordon’s rendition of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” accompanied by Gordon’s description of the amazing acrobat Jules Leotard (yes, Leotard’s skin tight trapeze apparel started a fad), and Effie Crockett, a 15-year old teenager in 1872, who wrote the lyrics for “Rockabye Baby on the Treetop.” Of course, Gordon used the occasion to remind us of the original meaning of the lyrics — the child of King James II during the glorious revolution of 1689, and whether the throne would have a Protestant or Catholic heir.
Gordon is truly blessed with his abilities to entertain us as singer, historian, guitar player and raconteur. He does them all and does them very well. We came away charmed, informed, entertained and deeply moved.
What more could you ask for?