“Buffalo Gals” is an example of a song with a complicated “life.” Tracing the background of an old folksong or folk tune can be difficult, and often its origins can only be surmised. But what we do know can give pause for thought about cultural history, in this case, the culture of American song.
Like many songs and tunes, “Buffalo Gals” seems to have slipped back and forth between popular published versions and those sung or played and learned by ear. Historians often begin with a date that can be confirmed, and so the origin of this song is often given as having been composed by the minstrel show performer John Hodges under his stage name “Cool White” in 1844. The lyrics are somewhat different, as shown by the title: “Lubly Fan Will You Cum Out To Night?” [sic] (Lubly Fan is Lovely Fanny). It is an early example of a song sung by a white man who performed in black face using a mock African American dialect. Just one year later another white group who performed in black face, The Ethiopian Serenaders, published sheet music for “Philadelphia Gals,” (1845) with similar lyrics and no attribution for a composer or lyricist. Minstrel singers often changed the name of the song to reflect the name of the town where they performed, in order to appeal to local audiences. In 1848, The Ethiopian Serenaders published another version, “Buffalo Gals” (presumably for Buffalo, New York), also unattributed. This is the first sheet music version of the song as it is most familiar to us today.
While many sources attribute the song to John Hodges without further questioning, folklorists have expressed doubt about this history. The fact that the Ethiopian Serenaders gave no attribution for the music or lyrics is just one clue that this story may be wrong. Folk songs and minstrel show songs were often in oral circulation long before they appeared in published form, so first publication is not necessarily a reliable indication of a song’s age or the composer. It was not uncommon for the person who first transcribed a song to claim authorship, especially in the nineteenth century. The lyrics “Lubly Fan will you cum out to night?” may well be original to John Hodges. But the lyrics of “Buffalo Gals,” “Philadelphia Gals,” and other versions might have been circulated among minstrel performers prior to that and given Hodges the idea for his own version. Versions of the song may even have existed in oral tradition before “Lubly Fan” or “Buffalo Gals” appeared on minstrel stages.
Fiddle players in parts of Virginia and West Virginia call this tune “Round Town Gals,” “Round Town Girls,” or “Midnight Serenade.” In 1987 Chris Goertzen and Alan Jabbour published an article that traced the tune to an 1839 publication of dance tunes, Virginia Reels, Selected and Arranged for the Piano Forte, by G.P. Knauff with the title “Midnight Serenade,” providing evidence that the melody existed as a dance tune in this region before the minstrel show song versions were published. Here is a version of “Round Town Gals” as performed by Virginia fiddler Henry Reed, recorded by Alan Jabbour in 1966.
As Goertzen and Jabbour pointed out in their article, the titles “Round Town Gals” and “Midnight Serenade” suggest the possibility that calling girls to come out and dance may be the point of the tune as it is in the song “Buffalo Gals,” and that there may have been similar lyrics that preceded minstrel show versions as well. Was there a song or a dance call that asked “Round town gals won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon?” Unless other evidence of earlier lyrics turns up, this is a speculative, but tantalizing idea.
I am fascinated by what happened after the publication of “Buffalo Gals” in 1848. One common assertion about the popular publication of folk songs is that publication creates a static, privileged version that ends the folk process of innovation. But “Buffalo Gals” is an example that challenges this idea. The song continued to have place names swapped out for local names. For instance, in his notes on the Henry Reed recording, Alan Jabbour notes that there is also an “Alabama Gals” version. But “Buffalo Gals” is a phrase that commonly stuck with the song as it traveled around the United States, far from Buffalo, New York. Who are those buffalo gals? The bison is a symbol of America, especially the American west. As the song takes on new life, the “gals” may be women of the west, pioneers, cowgirls, or perhaps fancy women. Listen to this version, “Buffalo Gals at Nome,” sung by George Vinton Graham and recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939. Graham says that he composed the lyrics. His voice is no longer vigorous and he tunes his guitar in an eccentric fashion, but makes up for this with great enthusiasm. The song is about a prospector who went off to the Nome, Alaska gold rush of 1899 and came back empty handed. So in this example “buffalo” is not a place, Nome is the place, and buffalo gals are pioneer women of Alaska.
In 1944 a new set of lyrics were written for the song by Tony Pastor, called “Dancing with a Dolly.” He removed the town name “Buffalo,” updated some of the familiar lyrics, and added lines about dancing with “a dolly with a hole in her stocking.” This was popularized by the Andrews Sisters, and then performed by many celebrated singers. Though well-known, this version did not supplant those in oral tradition. Folk versions continued to use “buffalo” in the chorus, which indicates how important the word buffalo had become. But the lines about “dancing with the dolly” were sometimes added. This was common in the folksong revival versions and Pete Seeger sang the song in this way.
The phrase “Buffalo Gals” has become an American expression, though its meaning varies. It appears in titles of books about women of the west, such as Buffalo Gals: Women Of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, by Chris Enss, (2005) and in fiction, such as the novelette, Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight, by Ursula Le Guin (1987) about an injured child lost in the western desert where extraordinary things happen to aid her survival. Now and then a work does place the theme back in Buffalo, New York, such as A. R. Gurney’s play Buffalo Gal (2008). It seems likely that both the song “Buffalo Gals” and the hopes and dreams conjured up by the title will continue to fire the imagination.
- Sheet music for “Lubly Fan Will You Cum Out To Night?” is available online from The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University: Levy Sheet Music Collection, Box 020, Item 028.
- Goertzen, Chris and Alan Jabbour, “George P. Knauff’s Virginia Reels and Fiddling in the Antebellum South,” American Music, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1987). Indiana University Press, pp. 133-134.
- This version of “Buffalo Gals” can be found on American Favorite Ballads, Vols. 1-5, sung by Pete Seeger. Smithsonian Folkways, 2009, SFW40155.
- This story was published in the November 1987 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (pp. 131-158) and was collected in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences in the same year.
- The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America
- Minstrel Songs (Songs of America)