As Stan Hugill notes in Shanties from the Seven Seas, the song has the feel of a Black American folk song or a minstrel song. As is often the case, it's really hard to tell what the direct influence may have been. There was just too much similar stuff going on at the time to say what all came at what time. Did the chanty "come first"? And if not, did the sailors imitate a particular song or did their chanty emerge from multiple influences...or simply just the common musical language of the time?
Putting aside any attempt to create a timeline of cause and effect, the chanty can be compared with several songs with which it shares similar phrases or melodies. One of these is the phrasing and chorus of a song attributed to the Hutchinson Family Singers, "Ho! for California!", which goes:
Then, ho! Brothers ho!
To California go.
There's plenty of gold in the world we're told
On the banks of the Sacramento.
Another is the famous "De Camptown Races" by Stephen Foster, which was published in February of 1850. The main similarity here is to the "doodah" refrain. However, the first half of the chorus melody in "Camptown" also sounds like "Ho! for California!"—which was, as far as can be determined, composed earlier (Feb. 1849). Richard Jackson, editor of one of the Stephen Foster collections, suggested that Foster may have heard stevedores singing about "camptowns," which were shantytowns for Black laborers. On one hand, the tremendous popularity of "Camptown Races" makes one think that sailors would have adopted it, I think there is enough other info to raise doubt of that trajectory and to suggest, rather, that "Sacramento" and "Camptown" came from a common source (e.g. stevedores).
One of these is the "Ho! for California!" chorus. I think that if sailors had adopted the "Camptown" hit, they'd have basically stuck to the same chorus propagated by it. Another thing to consider is that sailors sang "hoodah" (versus "doodah" of Foster). Again, I think the influence of the mass-disseminated minstrel song would have made the sailors sing "doodah" as well. Yet another thing is the solo/verse melody of "Sacramento," which in most documented versions is unlike the "nyah-nyah nyah-nyah" melody of "Camptown" (nor is it like "California"). That melody is similar to the one in a chanty that Hugill called "The Sailor Fireman" (to be discussed in the next post). In sum, the only really significant similarity, in my opinion, between "Camptown" and "Sacramento" is the hoodah/doodah correspondence—a correspondence that may simply reflect a common work-song refrain. (However, we are told also by Hugill that the regular "Camptown Races" was also sung as a capstan chanty.)
Now for a quick hop along the song's trajectory, to sample some lyrical variations.
Capt. Whall may have learned his version in the 1860s, though he did not publish it until the 1920 edition of his work. In earlier editions, he prejudicially avoided what he called "nigger shanties", but it seems by this time he was pressed to add these popular songs. The version he offers is simply "Camptown Races" with the sailor chorus added. So there is some doubt, in my mind, whether this is what Whall would have actually heard or sung, or if he was putting in something he could scrape up, for formality.
The earliest print attestation does come in the 1860s, in the (by now familiar) "On Shanties" article. Chorus only is given:
Blow, boys, blow, for California, O,
There's plenty of gold in the land, I'm told,
On the banks of Sacramento.
Buryeson's (Coast Seamen's Journal, 1909) version may date from the 1860s. It had the "sailor meets gal"/fireship theme.
We're bound for California I heard the old man say;
To me hoodah, to me hoodah.
We're bound for California this very good day.
To me hoodah, hoodah day.
Blow, boys, blow for California;
there is plenty of gold, so I've been told,
on the banks of the Sacramento.
As I was a-walking one day up and down
I spied a gay damsel she seemed outward bound.
I fired my bow-chaser, the signal she knew;
She backed her main topsail, for me she hove to.
I hailed her in English, she answered me thus:
My name is Sally Gubbins, and I'm bound on a cruise.
Then I gave her my hawser and took her in tow,
And into an alehouse together we did go;
And drank ale and brandy till near break of day,
When I went a-rolling down home Tigerbay.
She had rifled my lockers while I filled my hold,
And aboard of my packet I had for to scull.
With a hookpot and pannikin I got under weigh
Seven bells in the morning, the very next day.
And when I have finished a-singing my song
I hope you'll excuse me if I have sung wrong.
She was a fine frigate you must understand,
But one of those cruisers who sail on dry land;
A reg'lar old fire-ship, rigged out in disguise,
To burn jolly sailors like me, damn her eyes.
We're bound for California this very good day;
We're bound for California I hear them all say.
Davis and Tozer had this in their 1887 collection—the next published mention:
As I was walking down the street,
Hoodah, to my hoodah,
A charming girl I chanced to meet,
Hoodah, hoodah day,
Blow ye winds, heigh-ho, For California O,
There's plenty of gold, so I'm told.
On the banks of Sacramento.
The girl was sweet and fair to view.
Her hair so brown, her eyes so blue.
I said, 'Fair maiden, how d'ye do?
'Quite well, sir, no thanks to you!'
I asked then if she'd take a trip
A-down the docks to see a ship
'No thank you sir, I will not go,
I thank you, but must answer 'no!
'My love is young, my love is true;
I would not leave my love for you
So, quickly then I strode away,
I'd not another word to say.
Sing and heave, and heave and sing,
Heave and make the handspikes spring,
It's a cleaned-up version of the familiar theme.
As many of the late 19th century and early 20th century versions are copy-cats or seem somewhat contrived, I'll skip ahead to Bullen, 1914, who offers an interesting verse:
New York City is on fire
With a hoodah an a doodah!
New York City is on fire
hoodah doodah day.
Blow boys blow for Californyo
There’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told,
on the banks of the Sacramento.
The "fire" lyric suggests a possible connection to the "Fireman" song which will be discussed in the next post of this blog.
Hugill offers four different lyrical themes and two melodic forms. One of the melodic forms is the "Camptown" one. In one video, I sang three of the lyrical versions, (A), (B), and (D), to this melody.
Version (A) is a bawdy one with the "sailor meets gal" theme. Although Hugill bowdlerized the chorus, it's clear that "plenty of grass to wipe your ass" is the authentic lyric. The verse lyrics in the video (again, they were bowdlerized in SfSS) owe much to Jerry Bryant's (as "Salty Dick") presentation (though perhaps also to some Oscar Brand stuff?). Bryant participated in an unexpurgated song workshop with Hugill at Mystic Seaport in 1988, and I believe most of the verses are derived from what Hugill actually sang then. (I may have added or adapted other verses in this interpretation.)
Version (B) is another "sailor meets gal" theme, however it is unrealistically "clean," I think. It seems like Hugill took it from Davis and Tozer's collection.
Version (D) is straight up "Camptown Races." Here's the set:
Version (C), then, uses what would seem to be the "proper" chanty melody—though by no means does the available documentation confirm this. It's solo lyrical theme concerns going around Cape Horn, that is, it is in accord with the chorus lyrics.
Not surprisingly, this popular chanty was adapted into other languages. The Low German version is "De Hamborger Veermaster" ("The 4-masted barque of Hamburg"). My guess is that it originates in a much later period than "Sacramento"; I don't think there's any evidence of it in the 19th century. There is only one, consistent version of it, that I know of, which follows a rather clear narrative—perhaps deliberately composed by an individual and propagated.
This was actually the first "foreign language chanty" that I learned/recorded. I had finished with all the English-language ones, and was not sure if I would continue, being somewhat daunted by the idea. But I was bored/free and alone around last Christmas, in an empty house, and I thought I'd try this!