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Yuba Dam Once More!

Gold miners shoveling sand from stream into sluice while one miner pans for gold in the same stream, small building and mountains in the background.

Gold Mining in California. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, c1871. LC Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan here. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.08765

In a previous post, I took a look at the song “Yuba Dam,” in which a man gets in trouble with his wife and the law by answering questions honestly with the words “Yuba Dam,” only to be repeatedly misheard as saying “you be damned.” In this post, I’ll look into the deeper history of the song, examining poetic and prose retellings of the Yuba Dam story going back to the 1850s. In doing so, I’ll look at some of the ways in which the American Folklife Center’s recording of “Yuba Dam” draws on over a century of folklore.

AFC’s field recording of “Yuba Dam” was collected from Kevin Shannon of Butte, Montana, on August 25, 1979, by Gary Ward Stanton and Barre Toelken. To refresh your memory, you can listen to the song in the player below.  The introduction to the song begins at two minutes (02:00) into the player.

During our last look at “Yuba Dam,” you might have noticed that several historical accounts spoke of the town of Yuba Dam being famous, one mentioning a story “familiar to all” and two mentioning a poem by Bret Harte. Research into these stories reveals further history to the “Yuba Dam” phenomenon: AFC’s song, which was written by William D. Hall in 1890, was far from the first time someone had written a joke about the pronunciation of “Yuba Dam.”

In fact, the essential feature of the joke, which is to create a double meaning by exploiting the resemblance between “Yuba Dam” and “you be damned,” predates the town of Yuba Dam itself. On November 20, 1850, the Miner’s Express newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa, printed the first instance of the joke that I’ve found:

GOLD HUNTING in California appears in some instances to have dwindled down to a mere joke. The latest and best we have seen, is in allusion to the poor success met with by parties in damming the Yuba River for the purpose of seeking the treasure in its bed—such enterprises being termed “Yu-ba dam’d” experiments—by the miners.

If this is truly the origin of the connection between “Yuba Dam” and “you be damned,” it’s proven to be ironic, since the damming of the Yuba turned out to be a successful experiment, and Yuba Dam is often cited as one of the early successes that encouraged this method of mining. The fact of the “Yuba Dam/you be damned” joke being noted as early as 1850, and attributed to the first miners on the site, makes it possible the town was named partly in humorous recognition of the joke and its irony.

A California Story

The first instance I’ve found of a joke in which the town name “Yuba Dam” is confused with the exclamation “You be damned” comes from 1863.  It’s a prose tale, and appeared in many newspapers in January and February 1863, often under the title “A California Story.”  The tale goes like this:

Head and shoulders portrait of Dan DeQuille with a long beard

Dan DeQuille, according to a remark published in 1866 by the editor of the Cedar Falls Gazette, was the author of “A California Story.” Sometimes titled “A California Sketch,” the story was widely published without attribution in the 1860s and 1870s.

In the northern part of this State (California) is a stream called Yuba river. Across it some enterprising individual built a bridge; and on the banks somebody else built three or four houses. The inhabitants called the place Yuba Dam. Three bars were instantly erected, and the ‘town’ increased rapidly. About noon one cool day a traveler and a sojourner in the land passed this nourishing locality, and seeing a long legged specimen of humanity in a red shirt smoking before one of the bars, thus addressed him: —

“Hello!”

“Hello!” replied the shirt, with vigor, removing his pipe from his mouth.

“What place is this?” demanded the traveler, whose name was Thompson.

The answer of the shirt was unexpected.

“Yuba Dam!”

There was about fifty yards between them and the wind was blowing. Mr. Thompson thought he had been mistaken.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Yuba Dam,” replied the stranger, cheerfully.

What place is this?’’ roared Mr. Thompson.

“Yu-ba Dam!” said the shirt in a slightly elevated tone of voice.

“Lookee here!” yelled the irate Thompson; “I asked you politely what place this was; why in thunder don’t you answer?”

The stranger now became excited. He arose and replied with the voice of an eighty-four pounder: “Yu-ba Dam! Do you hear that?”

In a minute Thompson, burning with the wrath of the righteous, jumped off from his horse and advanced on the stranger with an expression not to be mistaken. The shirt arose and assumed a posture of offence and defence.

Arrived within a yard of him, Thompson said —

“I ask you for the last time. What place is this?”

Putting his hands to his mouth his opponent roared: “Yu-ba-Dam!”

The next minute they were at it. First, Thompson was down; then the shirt; and then it was a dog-fall—that is, both were down. They rolled about, kicking up a tremendous dust. They squirmed around so energetically, that you’d have thought that they had a dozen legs instead of four. It looked like a prize fight between two pugilistic centipedes. Finally they both rolled off of the bank and into the river. The water cooled them. They went down together, but came up separate and put out for the shore. Both reached it about the same time—and Thompson scrambled up the bank, mounted his warlike steed, and made tracks, leaving his foe gouging the mud out of one of his eyes.

Having left the business portion of the town —that is to say, the corner where the three bars were kept—he struck a house in the suburbs, before which a little girl of about four years of age was playing.

“What place is this, sissy?” he asked.

The little girl, frightened at the drowned rat figure which the stranger cut, streaked it for the house. Having reached the door she stopped, turned and squealed, “Oo-bee-dam!”

“Good heavens!” said Thompson, digging his heels between the horse’s ribs—“ Good heavens! let me get out of this horrid place, where not only the men but the very babes and sucklings swear at an inoffensive traveler!”

“The Profane Village”

Head and shoulders portrait engraving of J.L. McCreery

This image of poet J.L. McCreery appeared in the Lima News (Lima, Ohio) May 14, 1898. It is in the public domain.  McCreery was identified by the Cedar Falls Gazette as the author of “The Profane Village.”

The basic story of a man encountering a succession of people who seem to say “you be damned” whenever they’re asked the name of their town was soon adapted to poetry. The first such poem I’ve found is from 1865, and carried the title “The Profane Village.” Interestingly, on its appearance in the Cedar Falls Gazette, “The Profane Village” is credited thus:

The story embodied in the following verses will be recognized by many of our readers as one related in prose, some years ago, by our correspondent Dan DeQuille, whose charming letters from the Pacific slope we sadly miss, now that they have ceased to come. The versification is by J.L. McCreary of Dubudue [sic.], a sprightly humorist, and is one of his latest.

The prose text referred to here must be “A California Story,” since “The Profane Village” borrows several turns of phrase from it, such as describing children as “babes and sucklings.” “A California Story” had indeed been published by the Cedar Falls Gazette in 1863 (though they called it “A California Sketch”), and the editors had not changed since then, so they would certainly know who had sent them the story. This suggests that “A California Story” was written by Dan DeQuille, a well known humorist and journalist at the time. DeQuille, whose given name was William Wright, was a friend and one-time roommate of Mark Twain. His choice of a nom de plume is a near homonym of “Dandy Quill,” an appropriate sobriquet for a writer. This suggests that this kind of pun, which is also central to the “Yuba Dam” tale, appealed to him.

“The Profane Village,” meanwhile, is ascribed to “J.L. McCreary of Dubudue,” but I think this is fairly certain to be a careless misspelling of “J. L. McCreery of Dubuque.” John Luckey McCreery, who was at that time a newspaper editor in Dubuque, was a journalist and poet best remembered as the author of “There Is No Death,” a sentimental poem that was and is widely popular as a funeral reading, and is often erroneously attributed to Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton. Although McCreery fought mightily to have “There Is No Death” correctly attributed to him, and published it in his book Songs of Toil and Triumph, he did not fight similarly for “The Profane Village,” so I have no independent confirmation of his authorship, but again the editors of the Cedar Falls Gazette would certainly know if it came from him. It is one of the funnier, and lesser-known, variants of the tale, as you can see from the text below:

The Profane Village

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of J.L. McCreery

This photo of poet J.L. McCreery appeared in the The National Magazine, Vol. 36 (1912). It is in the public domain. McCreery was identified by the Cedar Falls Gazette as the author of “The Profane Village.”  Find the archival scan at the link.

A travelling Californian
One morning met another man,
And asked, “What town is this ahead?”
To which, the other briefly said,
“You be damn!”

On strode the traveller, some surprised,
But that the man was drunk surmised;
For who, unless a little high,
To civil questions would reply,
“You be damn!”

While thus his cogitations ran,
He overtook another man,
And him he questioned as before,
Receiving this reply-no more
“You be damn!”

The traveler answered not a word,
But seeing just ahead a third,
Asked him the self-same thing at once,
Receiving but the same response,
“You be damn!”

Astonishment upon him grew
A stranger thing he never knew:
Half angry, half he scarce knew what
A fourth inquiry only brought
“You be damn!”

” Is some asylum here about?
And have the lunatics got out?
And is their mania all the same?”
Thought he, “that all of them exclaim,
“You be damn!”

And then he felt his wrath grow hot;
“There’ll be a fight upon the spot,
If any other man,” quoth he
“Shall insolently say to me,
‘You be damn!”‘

He almost reached the village, when
He met a stalwart citizen,
And asked what town before him lay,
The other answered, right away,
“You be damn!”

The traveler straightway pulled his coat,
And took the other by the throat:
“You scoundrel!” hoarsely uttered he,
“I’ll teach you not to say to me,
‘You be damn!'”

Of course there was an instant fight,
Till both were in a horrid plight;
And fast and furious fell the blows,
And oft the battle cry arose
“You be damn!”

Thus fighting, near the river side,
They rolled into its muddy tide;
Then parting, scrambled to the shore,
And shrieked, above the mill wheel’s roar,
“You be damn!”

Beside the mill a maiden stood:
The traveler, drenched in gore and mud,
Inquired what name they gave the place?
The maid replied, with timid grace,
“You be damn!”

A little further on bis way,
He met a little girl at play,
To whom the question he addressed:
Tho child replied, like all the rest,
“You be damn!”

” Good heavens!” he cried, “am I but dreaming?
What place is this, where in blaspheming,
The men and women each outvie,
And even babes and sucklings cry,
“You be damn!”

And swift he hastened out of town,
Lest fire and brimstone should come down:
But found, in travelling on a while,
A guide-post reading thus : “One mile
To YUBA DAM.”

Two More Dam Poems

In researching “Yuba Dam,” I’ve found two different Yuba Dam poems with the same premise as “The Profane Village,” both attributed to Bret Harte. One of these, which was attributed to Harte in the New York Times‘s “Queries and Answers” column on March 30, 1930, makes its first appearance in a print source that I could find in 1872, when it was quoted in The Galaxy Magazine in an article on swearing called “Cursory Notes.” The anonymous author of “Cursory Notes” prints only two stanzas and attributes them to British dramatist Henry J. Byron.

The full poem was published anonymously in number nine of the series One Hundred Choice Selections in 1880. In 1903, it was finally published in full with an author’s name attached, as part of the poetic works of Colonel Charles James. James lived for a long time in San Francisco, where he was among other things Abraham Lincoln’s Collector of Customs, so he makes more sense as an author than Byron. The poem apparently written by James is as follows:

Yuba Dam

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Col. Charles James.

This portrait of Charles James, along with his poem “Yuba Dam,” was published in his 1903 book Poems. Find the archival scan at the link.

THE sun was shimmering all the West,
And gilding all the yellow main,
And casting shadows from the crest
Of gilded mountains to the plain,
As laboring up a water-course
A traveler pricked his weary horse;
When all at once upon his sight
Burst a fair village, clean and bright.

He asked a miner, whom he met,
If he could give its name: “You bet!”
“Pray do, my friend, and do not sham.”
The miner answered, “Yuba Dam.”

“Kind, gentle friend, do not abuse
My ignorance; I cry a truce
To thy bold wit; come, tell me true,
I would not ask it if I knew,
But I, dear sir, a stranger am.”
Quick roared the miner, “Yuba Dam!”

Disheartened, on the stranger pressed,
And overtook a mincing dame,
With flaxen hair and silken vest,
And begged of her the village’s name.
She oped her sweet lips like a clam
And simpered gently, “Yuba Dam.”

On tore the stranger, nearly wild,
And came upon an artless child;
She had a satchel on her arm,
While o’er her face stole many a charm.
“Where have you been ?” the stranger said;
The maid uplifted quick her head
And answered with the ready truth
And open frankness of her youth,
“At school.” “Who keeps it?” “Uncle Sam.”
“What is this place, sweet ?” “Yuba Dam.”

“Alas!” he screamed, in frantic grief,
“Will no one come to my relief?
Will no one tell me where I am?”
The school-boys shouted “Yuba Dam!”
And on the bridge, as he did slam
The planks re-echoed, “Yuba Dam.”

“Perdition seize the place !” he cried,
As through the streets he swiftly hied.
Yet ere he went to bed that night,
From something told him by a wight,
He found that he himself had shammed,
And that the Yuba had been dammed.

The other poem on the same theme is attributed to Harte in William Turner Ellis’s memoir, which gives the following (untitled) text:

Bret Harte, half-length portrait, facing left.

Bret Harte, half-length portrait, facing left. Harte is often given as the author of one or another of the “Yuba Dam” poems, but it was not published in his complete poetic works. Photoprint by Thomas Fall. Ca. 1890. LC Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan at the link.

Of Yuba Dam, the story’s told,
It may be false, it may be true,
How Jones in search of placer gold
Chanced in the town while it was new.

He saw a man upon a fence,
The usual chills and fever type,
Who sat and watched the lizards play
And smoked a vilely smelling pipe.

“What place is this? My friend,” said Jones,
“I think I’ve somehow lost my way,
“I left this morn the Billings Ranch,
“I seek the prospect, Break of Day.”

Still puffing at his corncob pipe,
The native looked the stranger o’er,
Then, in a low and peevish voice,
Said “Yuba Dam”—just that, no more.

Astounded at the answer given,
Jones asked once more, in terms polite,
“Please tell me what this place is called,
“I did not get the answer right.”

Taking his pipe from out his mouth,
The more tobacco in to cram,
The native said “I told you once,
“You must be deaf, it’s Yuba Dam.”

The fighting blood of Jones rose up.
He dropped his neck and seized the man,
“You goldarned bunch of bones,” he said,
“I’ll teach you to say ‘You be dam’!”

The native came down from the fence
And hit the earth an awful slam,
But while Jones rolled him in the dust,
He feebly muttered “Yuba Dam.”

The contest o’er, his honor cleared,
But angry still, Jones took his way.
And at a cottage near the road.
He saw a little girl at play

“My dear,” said Jones, in sweetest tones,
“Please name the town in which you dwell.
“This two-bit piece I mean for you
“When your town’s name you rightly tell.”

The child looked up with bashful grace
And shyly eyed the stranger man,
One finger in her mouth,
And softly lisped, “Oo be Dam.”

“Good God!” said Jones, “I’ll ask no more.
“Helltown’s the name the place should bear
“Where little children, sweet and mild,
“At inoffensive strangers swear!”

While it is sometimes attributed to Harte, this poem, which I’ll refer to as “Of Yuba Dam the Story’s Told,” usually appears anonymously. It does not appear in the Complete Poetical Works of Bret Harte, nor in any other Bret Harte collection I have been able to find.  The first publication of the poem that I can find is in the 1923 book Argonauts of the ’49, where it is given anonymously. As I mentioned, the poem which appears to be by Charles James is also sometimes attributed to Harte, but apparently not really by him, leaving us with no firm evidence Harte wrote any of these texts. (See the note at the end for more on Bret Harte.)

No two of the poems appear to be closely related except in their basic idea, but there are textual relationships to be discerned. The debt of “The Profane Village” to the prose telling, “A California Story” was acknowledged by the editors of the Cedar Falls Gazette, and comes out in the phrase “babes and sucklings.” Similarly, “Of Yuba Dam the Story’s Told” ends with the words “at inoffensive strangers swear,” while “A California Story” ends with “swear at an inoffensive stranger.” Thus, it appears that these two poets were both writing verse retellings of “A California Story,” which was widely available in print.

Col. James’s “Yuba Dam” and “Of Yuba Dam the Story’s Told” also have some similarities: each has four stresses to a line and each varies among ABAB, ABCB, and AABB rhyme schemes, with the phrase “Yuba Dam” worked in as a rhyme when necessary for the narrative, but not with strict regularity. “The Profane Village” is slightly different; modeled, as the Gazette tells us “After Longfellow’s Excelsior” it’s also arranged in four-line stanzas rhymed either AABB or ABAB, but it has the phrase “You be damn” added as an exclamation after each stanza.

Charles James’s poem and “The Profane Village” share a structural feature that the prose tale and “Of Yuba Dam the Story’s Told” do not: the protagonist finds out at the end that the town is called “Yuba Dam.” In the Charles James poem someone tells the traveler that the Yuba has been dammed, and he puts two and two together to realize his mistake; in “The Profane Village” he sees a signpost saying “One Mile to Yuba Dam.” This also has the effect of explaining what’s happening to readers. Anyone reading “Of Yuba Damn the Story’s Told” simply has to know the town is called “Yuba Dam,” or the story makes little sense. But hearers or readers of the other poems have the joke revealed to them at the end.

The Charles James poem, since it spells the phrase “Yuba Dam,” only preserves this mystery when told or read aloud to an audience who cannot see the spelling–anyone who does see it is alerted to what’s going on. But McCreedy, in “The Profane Village,” shrewdly spells the phrase uttered by the villagers as “You be damn.”  This completes the story’s transformation from a jest with humor throughout the telling into a tale with a sudden revelation at the end. In simpler terms, “The Profane Village” is a joke in the modern conventional sense, right down to having a punchline.

Another Dam Song: Ye Ancient Yuba Miner of the Days of ’49

Illustration of a man with two rifles, three pistols, high boots and a wide-brimmed hat, bearing the caption "Ya Ancient Yuba Miner of the Days of '49"

This illustration appeared alongside the ballad in Samuel Upham’s 1878 book Notes of a voyage to California via Cape Horn, together with scenes in El Dorado, in the years of 1849-’50. Find the archival scan at the link.

If you’ve heard Kevin Shannon’s song and read the four versions of the “Yuba Dam” story above, you may have noticed that they differ in some interesting ways. The prose tale and its three poetic retellings all seemingly happen during gold rush times in a frontier town, while Shannon’s song tells a more modern, urban, and middle-class story, complete with backyards, public transportation, and alimony. More than that, the older stories all concern a man who hears the town name “Yuba Dam” repeatedly, said by many different people, and is scandalized by what he thinks is their profanity. Shannon’s song, on the other hand, is about a man who himself says “Yuba Dam” repeatedly TO many different people, and gets abused by them when they mishear him. In other words, they tell essentially opposite tales based on the same motif of mishearing “Yuba Dam.”

I was therefore glad to discover something of a “missing link” between the older tales and the 1898 song. It’s a song titled “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner of the Days of ’49.” According to the appendix to Samuel C. Upham’s book Notes of a Voyage to California via Cape Horn, the words were written by Upham expressly for the 1878 annual reunion of an organization called The Associated Pioneers of the Territorial Days of California. The song text is printed in the book, complete with illustrations.  The text is as follows:

YE Ancient Yuba Miner, of the Days of ’49
(Air: “Fine Old English Gentleman” )

To you I’ll sing a good old song, made by a Quaker pate.
Of an ancient Yuba miner, who owned no real estate,
But who when asked where he belonged, this son of Uncle Sam,
He scratched his head a moment then in accents clear and shrill
straightway ejaculated “Yuba Dam!”
Did this ancient Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

I’m told that simple was his food, he used no forks nor spoons.
And with old flour and coffee sacks he patched his trouser-loons;
He was saucy, lousy, ragged, lank, but happy as a clam.
And when Interrogated in relation to the location from whence he hailed,
he invariably replied, “Yuba Dam!”
Did this grizzled Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

Head and shoulders portrait engraving of Samuel C. Upham

This engraving of Samuel Upham appeared in Upham’s 1878 book Notes of a voyage to California via Cape Horn, together with scenes in El Dorado, in the years of 1849-’50. Find the archival scan at the link.

On a prospecting tour one day he struck it very rich,
‘Twas on a little mountain stream, forninst the Yuba ditch.
Said he, “This claim of mine I’ll sell, my purse the dust will cram.”
But when questioned in relation to his antecedents,
and from whence he came, he articulated, “Yuba Dam!”
Did this lucky Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

He started down to ‘Frisco town, this man of no estate.
On muleback first, by water then — but never mind the date.
And on his way they questioned him, this son of Uncle Sam;
They asked him the initials of his front name, the mine from whence he came,
and then he placed his hand beside his mouth and roared out, “Yuba Dam!”
Did this jolly Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

When he arrived in ‘Frisco town, the mud was very deep,
Said he, ” my equilibrium now, I surely mean to keep ;”
But then the crowd they jostled him, and finally, in a jam,
He was pitched headlong into the mud, and when fished out
and asked where he belonged, he sputtered, “Yuba Dam !”
Did this wilted Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

Into the “El Dorado” then, he went to try his luck.
Said he, “I’ll show those gamboliers a little Yuba pluck,
I’ll bust their cussed monte bank, for I am nary sham,”
But soon he emerged a wiser but a badly busted individual
and to every question asked him, he replied, “Yuba Dam”
Did this busted Yuba miner of the days of ’49.

Soon on a stretcher he was laid, with his head all caved in.
For the way that they had walloped him was a shame and awful sin;
All mashed and shattered was his head, as if butted by a ram;
The doctor felt his corpus, the parson sung a psalm,
and when they asked him from whence he came,
he faintly whispered, “Yuba Dam!”
Did this dying Yuba miner, of the days of ’49.

The coroner soon an inquest held, and then at his command
They shoved old Yuba in a box, and dumped him in the sand.
At midnight hour they buried him, without show, or pomp or flam.
And when at the last day Gabriel’s trump shall sound
among the early risers, you bet, will be old “Yuba Dam.”
That defunct and ancient miner, of the days of ’49.

Three silhouette illustrations. Left shows the miner with patched trousers and a bag of gold; middle shows him digging with a pick; right shows him riding a mule with the pick over his shoulder.

These illustrations appeared alongside the ballad “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner from the Days of ’49” in Samuel Upham’s 1878 book Notes of a voyage to California via Cape Horn, together with scenes in El Dorado, in the years of 1849-’50. Find the archival scan at the link.

In addition to being a variant of the “Yuba Dam” joke, “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” is a parody of an earlier song called “The Fine Old English Gentleman.”  “The Fine Old English Gentleman” is a folksong given number 23518 in the Roud Folk Song Index. It was published on many broadsides, and also exists in sheet music representing parlor versions typically identified as adaptations of “an old English ballad,”  or of “a popular English ballad.” Upham identifies “The Fine Old English Gentleman” as the melody to which his song should be sung, but it’s also the source of some of its turns of phrase. For example, “The Fine Old English Gentleman” begins “I’ll sing you an old ballad, made by a good old pate, of a poor old English gentleman who had an old estate.”  “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” opens with “To you I’ll sing a good old song, made by a Quaker pate, of an ancient Yuba miner, who owned no real estate.” It’s clear, then, that in creating “Ye ancient Yuba Miner,” Upham cast it in the structure of a traditional English song.

As I’ve suggested, Upham’s song serves as a kind of transition between the earlier texts and Hall’s 1898 song. Upham’s song occurs after the gold rush and the heyday of the placer mines is over, when an original 49er is considered “defunct,” “grizzled,” “wilted,” and “ancient.” It takes the miner from his claim by the Yuba river, by mule and boat, to San Francisco’s casinos and streetcorners, where bureaucratic processes like the coroner’s inquest become part of the Ancient Miner’s tale. In that sense, it provides almost a literal journey from the earlier texts, which take place in mining communities, to the 1898 song, which takes place on streetcars and in courtrooms and lawyers’ offices.

Three silhouette illustrations. Left shows the miner slipping and falling in the mud; middle shows him placing his gold on a table opposite another man in a casino; right shows four men carrying him on a stretcher..

These illustrations appeared alongside the ballad “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner from the Days of ’49” in Samuel Upham’s 1878 book Notes of a voyage to California via Cape Horn, together with scenes in El Dorado, in the years of 1849-’50. Find the archival scan at the link.

More than that, “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” is the first text I know of to follow the basic story-pattern of the later song: one person repeatedly answers questions with the technically correct answer “Yuba Dam,” but is misheard as saying “You be damned” and gets in serious trouble for it.  In both these senses, it’s a precursor to the later popular song, written just twenty years earlier.

Conclusion: A Century of Dam Folklore

Bar Room in the Mines is one half of a lettersheet with two images on one page, showing prospectors drinking and playing cards in a town like Yuba Dam. Published San Francisco: Lithographed & published by Britton & Rey, between 1849 and 1853. Find the archival scan of the whole sheet here.

The Yuba Dam story recounted in the four early texts I’ve discussed took a one-line quip by the miners who dammed the Yuba river and spun it into a longer tale, eventually transforming it into a narrative joke with a punchline. The three poems and one prose tale are written records of that joke and its development, but we can be pretty sure it was carried in oral tradition as well. The literature on California which mentions Yuba Dam often alludes to the story–sometimes as the elusive “Bret Harte poem,” but often also in a more general way; in 1879 it was referred to simply as “the old ‘Yuba Dam’ story so familiar to all.”

It also survived in other forms. In a 1901 story called “The Rose of Yuba Dam,” Marguerite Stabler includes the following incident:

“Hello!” shouted the traveler to the fat man on the porch. “What place is this?”

“Yuba Dam!” answered the fat man with a slight emphasis.

“You be damned yourself!” retorted the stranger good naturedly as he led his horse to the well.

“Yuba Dam” also turns up in other situations that evoke the double meaning of the name and suggest the joke was being carried in oral tradition.  It was popular in phrases such as “from Cape Cod to Yuba Dam” and “from Halifax to Yuba Dam,” in which it seems to function as a humorous or unlikely-sounding name…with the only obvious source of humor or unlikeliness being its resemblance to “you be damned.”  It also turns up in the phrase “you may go to Yuba Dam,” in which the place name serves as a euphemism for “Hell.”  Even Mark Twain got in on the act, mentioning in The Innocents Abroad “the wretched Arab town of El Yuba Dam,” where the natives refuse Twain’s party water because they are Christian; again, the reference seems to be to the Muslim townsfolk metaphorically saying “you be damned” to the Christian visitors.

All of these are minor variations of the “Yuba Dam/you be damned” quip, which also appears in the narrative poems and stories I’ve already mentioned. In the most basic sense of a story or idea that is carried by oral tradition as well as in writing, and appears in several different variants, the Yuba Dam quip and the longer jokes embodied in stories, poems, and songs, are themselves folklore.

More than that, poems like the three we’ve discussed were intended to be spoken aloud. In performing these poems orally, capturing the vernacular pronunciation of “Yuba Dam” is crucial to conveying the joke. Such dialect-dependent jokes and recitations are important genres of folklore and continue to be performed and created in the American West today, especially in the rich tradition of Western verse now often called cowboy poetry. I’ve written about cowboy poets before at Folklife Today, as has my fellow blogger Stephanie Hall, and at the American Folklife Center, we’ve hosted lectures on cowboy poetry, as well as  lectures on other occupational poetry of the American West, and spoken and sung performances by leading cowboy poets.

“Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” picks up the poetic and folkloric thread of western poetry and further connects it to folk traditions. As we have seen, it’s a parody or poetic reworking of “The Fine Old English Gentleman,” so it tells a variant of a traditional American joke using the structure of a traditional English song. One of the folkloric elements preserved by “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” from the earlier texts of the Yuba Dam story is the representation of communication between cultural insiders and cultural outsiders. In the older texts, a traveler from outside the area misunderstands the phrase “Yuba Dam” because he has neither the insider knowledge that there is a town by that name, nor the insider cultural competence to know that “Yuba” is pronounced “you be” among the denizens of the mines.  In “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner” it is the insider with this specialized cultural knowledge who travels, leading him to encounter outsiders to his community, who do not have such knowledge and therefore cannot understand him when he says “Yuba Dam.”

All the stories of misunderstandings recognize an important dynamic in folklore and culture: folklore, including dialect, often binds groups together by means of cultural identity, and equally often separates them from other groups. We see this even more strongly in the case of “Ye Ancient Yuba Miner,” written for an in-group meeting of people who self-identified as California pioneers from territorial days, that is, before California gained statehood in 1850. In sympathizing with the poor abused miner, and recognizing that his treatment was “a shame and awful sin,” Upham was also condemning those who didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase “Yuba Dam” and took it for an insult instead. He was, in other words, wagging his finger at outsiders before an audience of insiders–one of the tried and true functions of folklore.

Which brings us back to the song “Yuba Dam,” sung by Kevin Shannon in Butte. As we’ve seen, “Yuba Dam” was written by William Hall in 1898. In Hall’s song, the narrator knows “Yuba Dam” refers to a nearby town, while his wife, judge, lawyer, and preacher do not. Thinking about the insider-outsider dynamic, let’s remember that Yuba Dam had a reputation as a hard-drinking and sometimes violent town, as I showed in my previous post. Given this reputation, the song could be suggesting that the area’s hard drinkers know all about the town of Yuba Dam, while more straitlaced folks don’t, and are therefore likely to hear “you be damned” instead.  This reading establishes the narrator as one of the hard drinkers. This is consistent with earlier versions of the “Yuba Dam” story in its using the joke to highlight distinctions between the communities who know the meaning of “Yuba Dam” and those who don’t; in the older cases it’s locals vs. visitors, in the newer song drinkers vs. more straitlaced folks. It’s also consonant with the interpretation I advanced last time for this song, in which the husband is less innocent than the image he projects.

Of course, this interpretation may not be correct.  But either way, Hall clearly drew on 50 years of folklore when he wrote the song “Yuba Dam.” This folklore includes the original one-liner created by gold miners in the 1850s, jokes and poems from the 1860s, and a ballad from the 1870s which in turn had roots in earlier songs.

Hall’s song itself then entered oral tradition, and traces of it emerge in diaries, obituaries, and other reminiscences, as I discovered in my previous blog post. At some point Fiddler Mike Walsh learned the song near Yuba Dam, California, and brought it to Butte, Montana, where it was learned through the oral tradition by his nephew, Kevin Shannon, who sang it for American Folklife Center fieldworkers in 1979.

“Yuba Dam” is just a single song from the AFC archive. But, like so many of our collections, it brings to life over a hundred years of folklore while remaining fresh and funny even today.

Note on Bret Harte

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Bret Harte.

This photo of Bret Harte in 1872 is by Napoleon Sarony. It appeared in Appleton’s Magazine in 1903. Harte is often given as the author of one or another of the “Yuba Dam” poems, but it was not published in his complete poetic works. Find the archival scan at the link.

As we saw, two of the “Yuba Dam” poems are sometimes ascribed to Bret Harte, but there’s no firm evidence he wrote either of them. We do know that Harte was strongly associated with stories of California gold miners, so he would be the most logical famous author for Yuba Dam stories. This alone may have led to anonymous poems being ascribed to him. In addition, he created a character named “Yuba Bill,” a stagecoach driver in many of his California tales, a detail which could have been misremembered. My belief is that one or more readers, encountering texts about Yuba Dam, assumed or guessed that they were written by Harte, expressed this to others, and thus spread an unsubstantiated rumor.

Confusion about Harte and “Yuba Dam” is well established; Mark Twain’s cousin Cyril Clemens recounted an anecdote in which a speech of Twain’s was introduced by a Mr. Clarke, who praised Twain for the “stories he laid in Yuba Dam,” which in his opinion were the best things Twain had ever written. Twain replied that he had not set any stories in Yuba Dam, and the speaker was thinking of Bret Harte.

Amusingly, however, either Twain was mistaken or his cousin misremembered the story, because Bret Harte ALSO never set any stories in Yuba Dam, at least not any he published with his name attached. Twain had formerly been close associates with both Bret Harte and Dan DeQuille (who DID apparently write an early version of the Yuba Dam story), and it may be he was confused about which of his friends wrote about Yuba Dam. It could be that his cousin Cyril got the story wrong and substituted Harte for DeQuille. It could also be that Twain didn’t know who had written stories set in Yuba Dam and just guessed. Or, it could be that Twain had insider knowledge, and Harte wrote “Of Yuba Dam the Story’s Told” after all. There’s no way to tell from the evidence we have. It’s just one more mystery on the road to Yuba Dam.

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