In the “Caught My Eye/ Caught My Ear” series, AFC staff members and invited guest bloggers discuss individual items that jumped out at us in our collections. In “Staff Finds During Difficult Times,” we discuss collections and items that have been inspiring us while we’ve been working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. This post, which is about a comic song called “Yuba Dam,” is part of both series: the song jumped out at me when I first heard it a few years back, and I’ve included it for several years in my public presentations on Irish-American materials in the archive. But I didn’t examine it very much until now.
In light of the pandemic, though, “Yuba Dam” has a new relevance. It’s a tale of escalating misfortunes which leave the narrator alone, broke, and beaten up. Needless to say, I think we can all relate; it’s been a trying year.
In that case, you might ask, why make it worse with a tale of woe? Well, that’s the great thing. Despite the misfortunes heaped on the shoulders of the narrator, “Yuba Dam” is a funny story. In fact, it’s just one variant of a joke that had been told in prose and verse for over 100 years when the song was recorded. Let’s take a closer look at “Yuba Dam.”
AFC’s Recording of “Yuba Dam”
Folklorists Barre Toelken and Gary Ward Stanton recorded “Yuba Dam” on August 25, 1979, among the songs and reminiscences of Kevin Shannon, a singer and storyteller with a large repertoire of songs and a deep knowledge of the history of the Irish American community in and around Butte, Montana. As he recounts, the song was taught to him by an uncle who had come to Butte from near Yuba, California, which he pronounces “Yu-bee”:
Well, in Yuba, California, it’s what we call the hot water country: Marysville and the gold mines around there. A lot of people migrated here. Fiddler Mike Walsh, who happened to marry an aunt of mine (her name was Walsh also), sang this song. He’d come from that country, working in the gold mines.
Let’s listen to the song in the player below. The introduction to the song begins at two minutes (02:00) into the player. Immediately underneath that, I’ll post the lyrics, then delve into the history of the song.
Out West there are some funny towns and funny names as well
There is a place called Yuba Dam ten miles from where I dwell
I rode with a conductor once, who was a substitute
He didn’t know the station and it led to a dispute
“Where do you want to go,” says he, “Yuba Dam,” said I
“I won’t” said he, and grabbing me to thrash me he did try
Jabs in the jaw and punches galore, he surely made things hum
And when I got to Yuba Dam I was both deaf and dumb
When I got home, me darling wife at me began to scold
The supper she had cooked for me had stood til it was cold
I offered explanations, but they failed to pacify
And as she looked me o’er and o’er I saw blood in her eye
“Where did you get the load?” said she. “Yuba Dam,” said I
She up and hit me with the chair that was standing by
I left the room on the end of a broom and jumped the backyard fence
She miscontoured my meaning so I took the consequence
Next morning with my darling wife myself I tried to square
Not knowing that on my coat sleeve I wore a long blonde hair
She took it in her fingers and compared it with her own
The shade it was much lighter, so I decided to leave home
“Where did you get the hair,” said she, “Yuba Dam,” said I
And with her fist she gave it a twist and closed my right eye
And then I really started to run, and dodging well her blows
I blame the town of Yuba Dam, for all my griefs and woes
Divorce proceedings followed, I was ordered into court
I had to contribute so much a month towards the wife’s support
She offered testimony that was anything but true
Which caused this judge upon the bench to eye me through and through
“When you left town, where did you go?” “Yuba Dam,” says I
“Profanity in the court,” says he, “has landed you high and dry.”
I had no one to go the bail, for I was broke and flat
I don’t think the town of Yuba Dam is even on the map.
A preacher came to me one day with intentions that were good
To go home to me darlin’ wife, just as a Christian should
To see us reunited was the preacher’s one desire
And then to satisfy himself, of me he did inquire
“When you left town where did you go,” “Yuba Dam,” says I
“Ah, don’t be profane in heaven’s name,” the good man did reply.
“We lost,” says he, “such men as thee, and they went down below.”
“Well, it can’t be worse than Yuba Dam, so I don’t care where I go.
Mid all these complications, I was losin’ sleep each night
I went unto a lawyer, to have things adjusted right
He put my case before him, and I paid him quite a fee
And as he stuffed it in his purse, he then inquired of me:
“Where will I get your witnesses?” “Yuba Dam,” says I
“I won’t” said he, and grabbing me to choke me he did try.
He dropped my case, also my face upon his office floor
So between the jambs of Yuba Dam I’m damned forever more
More About the “Yuba Dam” Song
With a bit of research, I’ve found out some of the history of “Yuba Dam.” Sigmund Spaeth, in A History of Popular Music in America, includes “Yuba Dam” in a list of compositions for the year 1898, giving the composer as William D. Hall. As confirmation, we also find the song in the Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1899, which gives the same author, and lists the publisher as Howley, Haviland & Co., New York. Armed with this information, I found a copy of the sheet music at the New York Public Library, which you can see at right.
In the same year Hall’s “Yuba Dam” was copyrighted, a version of “Yuba Dam” was recorded on a disc by Berliner, which was later reprinted with the Victor label. I’ve heard the disc, and the words make it a variant of the song sung by Kevin Shannon, but the tune is totally different. On the disc, the singer was billed as S.H. Dudley. Some have concluded that this was Sherman Houston Dudley, an African American Vaudeville star and impresario, but it was actually Samuel Holland Rous, who used “S.H. Dudley” as his stage and recording name for vocal performances. Rous was a member of several of Victor’s vocal ensembles and was later editor of Victor’s catalogs, author of the popular Victrola Book of the Opera, and an assistant director of A & R for Victor.
Although “Yuba Dam” isn’t a common song in folk tradition, traces of it do turn up in places where amateur singers record song lyrics. For example, in an obituary of his father Rufus Orrin Barker (1882 – 1941), Eugene Barker not only mentions that his father sang the song, but includes his father’s lyrics, rendering the place name as “Ubadam.” Similarly, James Colmore Masters (1863-1940), who lived in Kentucky, wrote the words down in his journal among other poems, rendering the place name as “Youbadam.” The three texts vary in just the way we would expect them to through circulating in the oral tradition.
(Cowboy singer Bob Bovee also recorded a song called “YubaDam” on his 1979 album The Roundup, writing in the liner notes that his uncle had learned the song in Nebraska in the 1920s. I don’t currently have access to the recording or his lyrics.)
The humor in “Yuba Dam” clearly derives from the vernacular pronunciation of the town’s name as “You-bee dam,” which of course sounds just like the insulting exclamation “you be damned.” Changing between a schwa and a long e sound at the end of place names is a common feature of American English dialects, and leads to such familiar pronunciation schisms as Missouri-Missouruh, Mississippi-Mississipuh, and conversely Alabama-Alabamy. Given this, even though most people today pronounce Yuba as “Yu-buh,” it’s likely that “Yubee” was the local vernacular pronunciation at one time; certainly both Rous and Shannon pronounced it “Yubee” when they sang the song, and as we’ll see the idea of a confusion between the place name and the insulting phrase “you be damned” goes way beyond this one song lyric, extending back at least to 1850.
To understand the song, it’s helpful to know a little about the town of Yuba Dam. So just where was this settlement? There are several dams on the Yuba river in California, and one on Yuba Lake in Utah, that have historically been referred to as “Yuba Dam.” But recalling that Shannon mentions Marysville, California, as a nearby town, we can quickly pinpoint where the town referred to in the song was located. Turning to the 1939 memoirs of William Turner Ellis, digitized here at the Library of Congress, we find:
About 2 miles southeast of Marysville in a bend of the present Hammonton Road is the old site of a small settlement which existed in early days and was known as “Yuba Dam” and made famous by Bret Harte. Nothing now remains to mark the old location except a large pecan tree.
The beginnings of Yuba Dam are recounted in William Henry Chamberlain’s 1879 The History of Yuba County California:
There were no other settlements of any consequence in the township, except one made in 1850 near the river, where the Smartsville road leaves that stream. This place was called Yuba Dam, and is the original of the old “Yuba Dam Story” so familiar to all.
We discover the sad fate of Yuba Dam by consulting newspapers in the Library’s Chronicling America presentation. The Los Angeles Herald of November 28, 1906 reveals that the settlement, which had been there since the Gold Rush, was destroyed by fire the previous day:
FAMED YUBA DAM IS NOW IN ASHES
By Associated Press.
MARYSVILLE. Cal.. Nov. 27. — Yuba Dam, once a famous mining camp and made more famous by Bret Harte’s poem, is a thing of the past.
What remained of the old camp was destroyed by fire early this morning.
John Carstenbrok was awakened when a part of his house fell in and he carried his unconscious wife to safety, after which his children were saved through a window in the upper story of the house. Carstenbrok was badly burned.
Yuba Dam was named by the miners in the early fifties. It was a prominent placer mining locality.
In recent years it has consisted of a few small houses, a saloon, stables and shacks.
Yuba Dam had a reputation for hard drinking natives who were generous with their whiskey. A story by Marguerite Stabler in the San Francisco Call of March 21, 1908, recounts a visit the great actor Edwin Booth made to Yuba Dam right after he received word of his father’s death, which occurred in late November 1852. Booth was exhausted and overwrought, but also broke, and attempted to pay for his food and lodging by entertaining the crowd in a large saloon as a blackface minstrel. The folks in the saloon where he stayed stood him many drinks, but he was unable to perform due to fatigue and grief, so they forgave him and even paid his passage to San Francisco so he could hurry back east to his father.
A seamier side of Yuba Dam’s reputation for drink included drunken violence. This is reflected in the dime novel Young Wild West’s Best Shot or The Rescue of Arietta. Dancing Dick, one of the villains, opens the story with the exclamation “I’m a ring-tailed roarer from Yuba Dam, an’ anyone that won’t drink with me might as well get measured for a pine box.” He buys several rounds of drinks for the whole saloon, but also attempts to rob the town, telling anyone who will listen that he comes from Yuba Dam.
Yuba Dam was also the location of more than one real killing over the years. Newspapers record, for example, that a “Californian” killed a “Chinese chicken thief” there in 1879, and that the law considered it a justifiable homicide. In “An Old-Time Criminal,” an 1892 article giving the memoirs of Pierre Ridge, who had committed multiple armed robberies in a long career of crime, Ridge mentions that “Red Mike,” his former cellmate, went to Yuba Dam after escaping and was killed there. Sadly he gives no further details as to how this happened.
Most interestingly for our purposes, in 1905, just a year before the town burned down, the bartender in the Yuba Dam saloon shot and killed a customer in a bar fight. The story made many west coast newspapers, including the San Francisco Call, where it appeared under the lurid headline “Old Man Kills Farm Laborer.” All this indicates that Yuba Dam was a rough and rowdy frontier town with drinking, fighting, and killing, right down to its last days in the early 20th century.
Interpreting “Yuba Dam”
In the song “Yuba Dam,” the narrator’s sad misfortune in being misunderstood might make a casual listener think that he’s completely innocent. And of course, this is one possible interpretation of the song: the narrator, a mere hapless rube, is constantly surprised when his perfectly honest answer of “Yuba Dam” is taken as an insult.
But one of the things I love about the song is its unexpected complexity: the more you think about it, the more you wonder what’s really going on. Details in the song, and some of the background we’ve observed about the place, call his innocence into question.
For example, we’re told about the narrator’s dispute with the conductor on the way to Yuba Dam, and about his dispute with his wife on his return. But he conveniently doesn’t describe why he goes to Yuba Dam, or what he does while he’s there. In his first dispute with his wife, she asks “where did you get the load?” This seems to be a reference to “getting a load on,” a colloquial expression for getting drunk. As we’ve seen, long past its heyday, when it burned down in 1906, Yuba Dam had at least one saloon, where bartender William Slusser killed customer Schuyler Douglass in 1905. An anonymous humorous sketch called “A California Story,” which we’ll discuss more in a future post, suggests that among the first businesses in the town were three bars. These were located at the main crossroads of the town, which according to the story had little else in the way of a business district. Given all of this, it seems likely the narrator went to Yuba Dam for a night of drinking.
During the narrator’s second dispute with his wife, she notices a blonde hair on his sleeve. When she asks where he got the hair he admits that it came from Yuba Dam. He doesn’t say “I don’t know,” and then detail a number of places he’s been that might have been the source of the hair. This suggests that he knows just where and how the hair came to be on his sleeve. Admitting also that the hair is lighter in color than his wife’s, he immediately decides to leave home, never denying that his wife’s suspicions are true. This doesn’t seem like the action of a perfectly innocent man. This all suggests that he was drinking and fraternizing with a blonde-haired woman during his visit to Yuba Dam, knowing his wife wouldn’t approve.
Following this interpretation, we might also conclude that he’s evasive, if not downright dishonest, during his interactions with the judge and the preacher. He’s avoiding the real question of where he went when he says simply “Yuba Dam,” since surely the relevant answer in both cases would be that he went to a saloon to get drunk. So his answers, while technically true, are lies of omission.
Given that there’s no way to know what actually occurred in Yuba Dam, we can’t be sure this interpretation is correct, but the song leaves it open as a possibility. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t mean that the narrator of “Yuba Dam” is a bad person, or even that he deserves what he gets—a night of drinking and a hair on the sleeve aren’t proof of any serious betrayal. But if he wanted to establish his innocence for sure, he could simply tell us he did nothing in Yuba Dam to merit his wife’s anger. Instead, he stops short of doing that.
The protagonist of “Yuba Dam” may thus be one of the more interesting subtypes of unreliable narrator, the type that doesn’t lie but leaves out key details to make himself look as innocent as possible. So while HE may blame the town of Yuba Dam for all his griefs and woes, that doesn’t mean we have to agree!
Until Next Time…
There’s a lot more to be said about “Yuba Dam.” In particular, I’ve traced the joke at the heart of the song back over a hundred years in many different forms, and I’ll share some of those in a future blog post.
For now, though, I’ll reiterate that the song is inspiring because it’s been a trying year. Friends, including our beloved volunteer Howard Kramer, have died from a dangerous pandemic that still threatens our country and the world. An economic downturn looms, based on the effects of the disease. We’re separated from family and friends to avoid spreading the virus, leaving many of us feeling isolated.
Those of us who work for the Library of Congress are very fortunate in many ways. We’re still employed, our leaders have done a great job of keeping us safe, and as always we have inspiring collections to work with. Staff at all levels have been innovative in providing services and public programming online so you don’t have to be in a room with a lot of people to ask a reference question or watch our great Folklife concerts.
Still, every now and then, even we fortunate Library of Congress employees want to shake our fists at this whole year and say: “Yuba Dam, 2020. Yuba Dam!”