by Joel Pomerantz
June 25th, 2014
I was in a canyon in the Gold Country last weekend, at the Yuba River researching my usual, the storm of 1862. And going for a nice swim. The Bridgeport covered bridge has signs saying it was built to replace the one washed away by the storm.
I marveled at the beauty of the canyon, saw a sign about gold panning regulations and found myself singing, “In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine….” I suddenly wondered, Is this song about the flood!? Is this yet another clue to the severity and centrality of this storm sequence I’ve been studying? No, that would be too good. I’ve found cultural artifacts from the storm in a few places. It’s there in some mazurkas and waltzes from the 1860s which are dedicated to the floods…but nobody’s ever heard of them anymore. And in the opening scenes of Steinbeck’s East of Eden…but it’s not a very direct reference.
They’re easy to find in Bret Harte’s short stories, but nobody knows those stories anymore. The only one anyone has heard of, and few people at that, would be The Luck of Roaring Camp, published after the storm. It described a mining camp that’s inundated by a storm. The flood waters whisk away an infant. The kid, a prostitute’s baby that they took over parenting as a camp (all men; big scandal) when his mom died, is referred to by the miners as “The Luck.” Harte wrote other stories of people being plucked from treetops by passing boats, but those more literal references aren’t known in popular culture today, not even slightly.
I’m excited to report I was right about Clementine! At least the evidence looks really good.
My interest was piqued when I remembered that the song mentions her dad is a “49er.” It also describes Clementine drowning. Here’s the song. The following verses aren’t necessarily all original, but they may be. It was written as a parody and therefore invited later changes and additions.
(My Darling) Clementine
by Percy Montrose (and maybe Barker Bradford)
1. In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine,
dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine.
[data: California after the Gold Rush of 1849]
Chorus: Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine,
thou art lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.
[data: she’s dead]
2. Light she was and like a fairy, and her shoes were number nine,
herring boxes without topses, sandals were for Clementine.
3. Walking lightly as a fairy, though her shoes were number nine,
Sometimes tripping, lightly skipping, lovely girl, my Clementine.
4. Drove she ducklings to the water ev’ry morning just at nine,
stuck her foot against a splinter, fell into the foaming brine.
[data: brine? seashore near high elevation mining areas? huh? Oh, and why do ducks need to be driven to the water? Strange ducks.]
5. Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles mighty fine,
but, alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.
[data: definitely drowned]
6. In a churchyard near the canyon, where the myrtle doth entwine,
There grow rosies and some posies, fertilized by Clementine
[this verse, less commonly known, shows up a few places including here]
7. Then the miner, forty-niner, soon began to peak and pine,
thought he oughter jine his daughter, now he’s with his Clementine.
8. I’m so lonely, lost without her, wish I’d had a fishing line,
Which I might have cast about her, might have saved my Clementine.
[this lesson about saving her overlaps in purpose with a later one]
9. In my dreams she still doth haunt me, robed in garments, soaked in brine,
though in life I used to hug her, now she’s dead, I draw the line.
[hilarious; data: that pesky brine again]
10. Listen fellers, heed the warning of this tragic tale of mine,
Artificial respiration, could have saved my Clementine.
[this 2nd ‘lesson’ verse is also less common, also shows up here]
11. How I missed her! How I missed her! How I missed my Clementine!
But I kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine.
You’ll see why I mention the lessons in a moment.
So how do I determine any reference to the 1862 storms? I looked up the history of the song. I was hoping it was written right after the flood. Nope. 1884—a whole generation later. But all sources agree that it was based on another song called Down By the River (Lived a Maiden) which was apparently written in 1863, right after the storm. Eureka! A good start. But how similar is the original song? The 1863 song by Henry S. Thompson has a similar plot with some identical phrases and characters. It was not sarcastic the way the well-known version is. It was, though, a aparody of sorts in that it was a minstrel mockery, sopping with the supposed unsophistication of the person singing it.
It ends with this pay dirt: “Don’t give your ladies too much rye wine, because like as not in this wet weather they’ll share the fate of Clementine.”
Well, actually, more precisely, the last stanza is
Now all young men by me take warning,
Don’t gib your ladies too much rye wine,
Kase like as not in this wet wedder,
Dey’ll share de fate ob Clementine.
Now, given this ultimate stanza, you see the reason for my focus on the ‘lesson’ verses in the sarcastic 1884 version: The original 1863 song ends with a lesson about storms, which seems to have stayed with the song in a modified form.
Look closely at that. It states clearly that the lesson, the very purpose of the song, is to address a rare phenomenon: death by accidental drowning due to wet weather. How often do people drown due to wet weather? Who would even think of drowning as a danger associated with wet weather?
At that moment in the public awareness, that horrible way of dying was commonplace—I know from my research. A song written right after hundreds did drown that way seems certain to be strong evidence. I can say with some certainty: It’s a direct reference to the storm!!!
In case anyone doubts that “wet weather” was a real storm reference, here’s another line in the original 1863 song: “de wind was blowing awful.” And the moment she dies she’s trying to drive the ducks back away from the river, the opposite of the 1884 version. Why would she try to keep her ducks away from the river? This question is just as valid as my earlier wondering why the ducks were being driven to the water! As it happens, it’s easier to answer. Possibly to prevent their being swept away. Witnesses, in their diaries, letters and also quoted in contemporary news accounts say the river currents in the storm tore thousands of bridges, ferries, mills, mill races, docks and landings out. It overflowed banks to scour the land of fences, crops, woodpiles, animals (both domestic and wild), plus a number of houses, businesses and even a handful of entire towns. This occurred up and down the west coast for many weeks. This wasn’t any old storm.
And the brine, what about the brine? In the original as I was able to find it, the first use of the term brine is: “Her lips were like two luscious beefsteaks, Dipp’d in tomato sauce and brine,” which is a pretty forced rhyme, or should I conveniently desalt it and say ‘rime’?
The second use of the term ‘brine’ later in the song, does, in sorrowful fact, appear in the original as, “She fell into the foamy brine.” This doesn’t dispense my problem, but I can weave a scenario in which it can be ignored! The author wrote the original from 1863 without sarcasm, as you’ll see when you read it in a moment. So maybe he was the lover who couldn’t swim! How would he know the difference between foamy brine and foamy raging waters of a disastrous flood? Um, since I don’t believe my own fantasy scenario there, let’s redirect your attention to the foam. Foam definitely connotes extreme water flow. (Standard sleight of hand technique I can use to make an inconvenient word disappear!) But seriously, I think the second use of the word ‘brine’ was another forced rhyme. See if you agree with me when you read the whole 1863 version at the end of this post.
In the 1863 version, the 49er is missing entirely. There’s no miner and no father. I need to track down precisely where it was written. And what ‘Digby pine’ is. (I feel I’ve heard the term but it hasn’t been so easy to track on the internet.) There are lots more bits of this story to track, even if the evidence is already strong. I want stronger!
With all the awkward lyrics and badly scanning syllables in the original (making a further mockery of the black-faced characters it was apparently meant to lampoon visually in the physical theater style), it begged for that 1884 rewrite. The sarcasm and silliness in the revised story was the point in the rewritten version, not the flood and not the “Black” sad-sack protagonist.
In the 1884 version, the most strainedly poetic part is: “But I kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine.” And everyone singing it promptly forgot the original 1863 song when its little sister–the 1884 version–kissed them!
If that’s not enough hilarity for ya, the term “clement” was used (more in those days than now) to describe good weather! People still use officialeze ‘inclement weather’ today.
And now, finally, the whole of the original from 1863:
Down By the River (Lived a Maiden)
by Henry S. Thompson
Down by the river there lived a maiden
In a cottage built just seven by nine,
And all around this lubly bower
The beauteous sunflower blossoms twine.
Oh! my Clema Oh! my Clema!
Oh! my darling Clementine,
Now you are gone and lost forever,
I’m drefful sorry, Clementine.
Her lips were like two luscious beefsteaks
Dipp’d in tomato sauce and brine,
And like the cashmere goatess covering
Was the fine wool of Clementine.
Her foot, Oh Golly! ‘Twas a beauty
Her shoes were made of Digby pine,
Two herring boxes without the tops on
Just made the sandals of Clementine.
One day de wind was blowing awful
I took her down some old rye wine,
And listened to de sweetest cooings
Ob my sweet sunflower Clementine.
De ducks had gone down to de riber,
To drive dem back she did incline,
She stubbed her toe and, Oh! Kersliver
She fell into the foamy brine.
I see’d her lips above de waters,
A blowing bubbles bery fine,
But ‘twant no use, I want no swimmer
And so I lost my Clementine.
Now ebry night down by de riber
Her ghostess walks bout half-past nine,
I know it’s her a kase I tracked her
And by de smell ’tis Clementine.
Now all young men by me take warning
Don’t gib your ladies too much rye wine,
Kase like as not in dis wet wedder
Dey’ll share de fate ob Clementine.
Okay, the original was sarcastic in some ways after all. But I’m not.