January 8, 2014

Music and The Yosemite Experience

[This article is featured, edited, in Born In Yosemite by Peter Hoss. The article is copyright Tom Bopp; reprint only by permission of the author].

     "Vintage Songs of Yosemite," a project to discover and preserve Yosemite's musical heritage, got its start when curator David Forgang ran across a few copies of old Yosemite-related sheet music in the Yosemite Museum Collections. Forgang knows I enjoy performing obscure old songs as pianist at Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel (my job since 1983), so he made copies for me.  His idea was to have me record the songs for inclusion in the 1990 Yosemite Park Centennial exhibit.  Before then, I was but dimly aware that Yosemite had any musical heritage at all.  Now, after years of concerted digging, it turns out that there is far more Yosemite music than perhaps anyone had ever imagined, and that this charming aspect of cultural history has a poignant and relevant message for Yosemite’s visitors and protectors.

“. . . Each day from dawn to dawn,

Only the merry song,

Is ever heard here in Yosemite!”

-- From the 1954 song “Yosemite” by Harry Mabry.


     10,000 years ago, a warming trend began to melt Yosemite's glaciers, creating "Lake Yosemite" which had to fill with silt before any land animals could move in.  The first human habitation in the area dates to this period, suggesting that we are no less indigenous to Yosemite Valley than any other land animal, no less a part of Yosemite's ecosystem.  With the arrival of the first plant-life and animals, lightning fires and bird songs animated the early Yosemite environment.  Likewise, the combination of campfire and song very likely accompanied the first human visitors, thousands of years ago.

     Myths, songs, and rituals, essential to human nature, would be composed and linked to Yosemite, just as the birds would import their songs.  Designs, unique to Yosemite, would be woven into headdresses and baskets, just as animals would import their own nest-designs.

 “. . . The Firefall and recreational facilities, like a dance hall, were eliminated from Yosemite by the National Park Service as artificial entertainment."

-- From "Yosemite Magazine," 2004 edition.


     It is 8:58 on a summer evening in Yosemite Valley, and something is up.  The campgrounds are suddenly, strangely still.  Cars have pulled off the roads; hushed, excited groups are forming in the meadows.  Electric lights have dimmed, and the silent masses gaze at a pinpoint of fire three-thousand feet above at Glacier Point. You're wondering if some kind of religious ritual may be about to begin.

     A sudden, singing bellow erupts from the nearby encampment: “HELLLLOOO . . . GLAAAAACIER!!” As the echo fades, down through the silence comes the thin reply from the cliff-top, “Hellllooo . . . Camp . . . Curry!”  Then the nearby voice howls, “IS . . . THE FIRE . . . READY?!” and the faint reply wafts down, “. . . the fire is ready.”

     It appears that you’re watching some kind of communal event in which all turn toward a sacred point—the bonfire on the cliff—listening to the ritual, responsorial calls . . . (the voice booms  once more), “LET . . . THE FIRE . . . FALLLLLLLL!!!” . . . (pause) . . . “the fire is fallllinggggg.”  What’s this! . . . the coals of the bonfire gently urged over the cliff form a wafting, glowing emulation of Yosemite Falls while a voice is singing “. . . when I’m calling yooooooooo . . . ”  You think, "Interesting choice of liturgical music—but what religion is this?"

     The Fire Fall, accompanied by the singing of “Indian Love Call,” is remembered by thousands as a cherished part of their Yosemite visit.  The combination of song and spectacle provided a deep-rooted, powerful symbol of all that has been brought to Yosemite since the glaciers melted and allowed life to move in.  Fire co-dependant with plant-life, songs inseparable from birds, human behavior—all of these elements share equal status as natural imports to Yosemite.  The Fire Fall also symbolizes, ironically, how life impacts itself even while celebrating itself. 

     This gentle, beautiful symbol of the forces of fire and song that connect humans to their environment was altering Yosemite meadows, as increasing numbers of spectators nightly trampled the delicate grasses. Its embers left an additional streak on the cliff face.  Red-fir bark stripped from fallen trees and used to fuel the Fire Fall became scarce, requiring its collectors to cover many miles per summer. These fallen trees being hotels for massive amounts of insect species, it is even possible to quantify the impact on the insect and bird populations, not to mention the yearly labor and equipment costs to the Yosemite Park & Curry Co.

     Increased managerial, environmental and fiscal impacts of the Fire Fall spelled its demise, but other kinds of “artificial entertainment” joyfully persists wherever it does not impair our efforts to protect Yosemite.  The last Fire Fall took place on January 25, 1968 – a victim of its own popularity.


“ . . . and ‘round the campfire at night, the entertainment’s just right—

There’s everything that mortal tongue can tell!”

-- From the 1915 song “Toot Your Horn For Camp Curry” by Glenn Hood.


     Song and dance around crackling campfires—these are perhaps the oldest and most venerable of ongoing cultural activities in Yosemite.  Though the early peoples may have been singing and dancing for reasons different from those of current visitors, from a distance the activities of these two groups are strikingly similar and indeed ancient.  “Yosemite Musicology” may be a pretty small field of study, but, much like the Fire Fall, it is very telling of the human experience in Yosemite.  It also makes for a fine analogy with which to assess a proper place for human culture in Yosemite.

     The little that remains of Yosemite Indian music history has yet to be studied, but much remains from the more recent past.  Of all the cultural artifacts preserved by the Yosemite Museum Collection, some of the most delightful are the colorful pieces of sheet-music, dating as far back as the 1870s.  Just the cover-art is captivating—a collection of period-pieces evoking each decade’s peculiar tastes—but to hear the music come alive is to step through a time warp.  The immediacy of freshly performed old music creates the magic of time-travel, a sort of emotional rerun of the feelings of performers and listeners of past times.  Through music, one can empathize with Yosemite visitors through a means that is more direct than written language; this is why it is so important to preserve and encourage the arts in such places, for without them, we would leave a poor and inadequate account of our time here.


"In the Sierra I sang and whistled [the songs of Robert Burns] to the squirrels and birds, and they were charmed out of fear and gathered close about me." --John Muir


     In reading the words of John Muir, we may learn his mind, but to stand out on a rock in Tuolumne Meadow and sing “Ca’ The Ewes” (1794, Robert Burns) is to experience being Muir in some partial sense, as he likely sang that shepherd’s song to his flocks there at the end of the 1860s. Close your eyes and sing “In The Big Yosemite Mountains” (1933, adapted by C.A. Harwell) or “Yosemite, O Land Of Cliffs And Waterfalls” (1934, adapted by Carsten Ahrens), and you’ll find yourself transported back to a sweet, long-past campfire, harmonizing with the late Yosemite Naturalist Carl Sharsmith who learned those songs as a young man.  Listen to the 1949 recording of Dick Jurgens’ orchestra playing “The Bridge By Yosemite Falls” (1945, by H.L. McMillen), and as decades melt away, you’re back dancing under the stars at Yosemite’s Camp Curry.


 “Dreaming of the mountains, winding trails throughout the hills,

Eternal waters falling, in a land of a thousand thrills.”

-- From the 1921 song “Yosemite, God’s Wonderland” by Phil Patterson.


     It is more than just an exercise in sentimentality; music brings us a bit closer to others’ feelings about Yosemite.  It is through culture that people feel and value Yosemite and express themselves.  Yosemite is to us a cultural entity--not a disconnected ecosphere that we stand back and observe, but a system of which human nature is a part.  We cannot see Yosemite but through our own individual culturally-tinted glasses.  The arts and crafts, even souvenirs, teach us about the nature of our connection to the park.

     I feel a kinship with my many predecessors who have shared the music tradition in Yosemite, and enjoy sharing their stories with our guests at the Wawona Hotel.  Little anecdotes link specific songs to Yosemite; one of my favorites was told to me by Wawona Washburn Hartwig (named after the Wawona Hotel where she was born in 1914).  In 1885, Wawona's newlywed grandparents, Estella and hotelier John Washburn, took up residence in the front room off the Wawona Hotel lobby.  In the adjoining parlor, Estella would play her piano and sing along with invited guests; at that time the parlor was a private room, separated from the main lobby by folding doors.  I asked Wawona what songs her grandmother played, and after some thought she hummed me a tune and said, "Gram [Estella] used to sing this one all the time, puttering around the house or out in the garden."  I recognized it as “Love’s Old Sweet Song” (1884 by G. Clifton Bingham and James Lyman Molloy), probably the most popular song of the year Estella married; for decades after her husband’s death in 1917, it remained Estella’s favorite.  "Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low, and the flick'ring shadows softly come and go…"  Singing it now with guests in the hotel—same song, same sounds and feelings within the walls of the very same room—the intervening century becomes almost inconsequential, and there is a sense of sharing the room with those long-ago people, barely separated from us by the invisible but otherwise impenetrable wall of elapsed time.

     Homemade music was heard in dimly lit parlors all around Yosemite in the late 19th century.  Just up the river from the Wawona Hotel, Azalia Bruce might be singing one of her favorites, “The Last Rose Of Summer,” at her reed organ, while in Yosemite Valley Elvira Hutchings, perhaps accompanying John Muir and herself on her guitar, might be harmonizing Burns’ “My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose.”  Long before the arrival of the passive entertainments of television, radio, and phonograph, the participatory and expressive pastimes of singing and recitation, whether by elegant parlor fireplaces or outdoor campfires, were essential to any gathering.


“Oh, I’m Strong For Camp Curry because there’s no worry,

No hurry, no flurry is there;

The location’s immense,

There’s no bound’ry or fence,

It’s all common sense,

And the life is in tents!”

-- From a 1915 recording of “I’m Strong For Camp Curry” by Walter DeLeon.


     In the early years of the 20th century, Camp Curry featured musical entertainment provided by guests around the campfire.  Founded in 1899 by David and Jennie Curry, the venerable assemblage of wood-floored tent-cabins and cottages remains a popular place to stay in Yosemite Valley.  In a 1912 brochure, proprietor David Curry proclaims, “No attempt is made at systematic entertainment of guests, though the evening camp-fire has furnished many an impromptu entertainment of merit.  Camp Curry has piano, and guests are invited to bring other musical instruments.”  Evidently, the guests obliged the invitation, perhaps too enthusiastically, forcing the Currys to shift their policy in the interests of good business.  By 1922, the Currys were printing programs for the evening entertainment, with dinner menus on the flip side.  On one of these, it says, “The program is under the personal direction of Carol Weston, and the cooperation of our talented guests is cordially invited (auditions gladly arranged by appointment).”  To this day, they lock the pianos in Yosemite hotels.

     From these printed programs, along with early souvenir phonograph records (sold by Curry), we learn that campfire entertainment was not the domain of guitar-strumming folk singers; on the contrary, the Yosemite campfire was an extension of the salon.  Two recordings, circa 1919, feature Curry campfire musicians Carol Weston (violin) and Edith Benjamin (soprano), performing “By The Waters Of Minnetonka” (published 1914 by J.M. Cavanass and Thurlow Lieurance) and “Fiddle And I” (by Frederick E. Weatherly and Mrs. Arthur Goodeve).  Their plaintive music, singing through the aural patina of an antique phonograph record, matches perfectly the black-and-white images of early Yosemite visitors dressed in black skirts, shirtwaists, and wool suits.  It also speaks across the years to us of a sweetly romantic attachment to the outdoors.


“Let The Fire Fall,

Hear the Ranger call,

Glowing stars will fall from above,

As they play our old song of love.”

-- From the 1951 song “Let The Fire Fall” by Sidney Miller.


     There is evidence of some rather serious attention given to the subject of musical entertainment in Yosemite in past decades.  In a long article for the San Francisco Examiner (July 9, 1927), esteemed music critic Redfern Mason laid out his vision for the aesthetic development of Yosemite.  Writing that “ . . . sooner or later, it will dawn on the Federal Government that the administration of this lovely pleasure ground of the people has an aesthetic side,” Mason suggested that “all it [Yosemite] needs is some genius, begotten in the image of a Wagner or a Beethoven, to realize its possibilities as a temple of the god of music.”  He goes on to suggest music to accompany the Fire Fall: 

     “. . . what would we not have given, if a fine trombone player had sung the great motive from ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ or if a chorus of women's voices had sung ‘Lift Thine Eyes’ from the ‘Elijah,’ or a sonorous bass had chanted the Zuni Hymn to the departing sun. . .” 

     Mason also had some choice words about jazz:  “Much of the music now heard, it is true, is not worthy [of Yosemite].  Jazz is a profanation; the art of the vaudevillian is an affront to the genius of the place.”  He concludes, “Here is the spot chosen by manifest propriety for the Bayreuth of California.  The very remoteness of Yosemite is in its favor.  If thousands can resort to a little town in Bavaria to hear "Tristan" and "Parsifal," why should not we Californians emulate their example and build ourselves in this magic vale a place of musical pilgrimage that will be to the Golden State what Bayreuth is to Europe?”  Alas. 

     In a letter dated April 16, 1910, park superintendent William W. Forsythe wrote to J. B. Cook, the manager of the Sentinel Hotel in Yosemite Valley, “Answering your recent inquiries on the subject of musicians, there is no desire to impose any restrictions on you in regard to them, further than to require that they be competent musicians.  Those you had last summer were incompetent.”  While Redfern Mason sought to impose his elite taste in music upon the Yosemite cultural scene, Forsythe was, to his credit, a bit more democratic in not wanting to “impose any restrictions.” 


 “Oh, charming valley of the high Sierras,

Yosemite, the handiwork of God,

Your whisp’ring pines, your babbling brooks are calling,

And ‘long your paths the wild flow’rs nod.”

-- From the 1947 song “Yosemite” by Alfa Hardy.


     In the ongoing and sometimes heated debate about how to protect Yosemite, purely cultural elements often sneak in and color decisions about what to keep or discard of the Yosemite experience.  Jazz, pizza, souvenirs, dancing, and theater have all been questioned as to their appropriateness, perhaps because they appear unrelated or even contrary to Yosemite – but outward appearances often belie the depth of a connection.  A simple campfire song from years past may elicit rolled eyes from one listener, but tears of emotion from another.  One may as well rate the appropriateness of bird songs in Yosemite based upon their aesthetic merits.

     One of the lessons in the study of Yosemite music is in the process of suspending one’s prejudices to the many different styles.  For many listeners, the older the tune, the more strangely detached it may seem to be from its subject.  In the late 19th century, Yosemite music took the form of Victorian waltzes, mazurkas, and marches.  By the first two decades of the 20th century, we find pseudo-Indian music (i.e. “Spirit Of The Evil Wind, Pohono, A Lullaby,” pub.1910 by Allan Dunn and H. H. Stewart).  In 1915, singer Glenn Hood introduced his ragtimey song “Toot Your Horn For Camp Curry” with the eyebrow-raising lyrics, “ . . . toot in the morning, toot at night, toot every chance you get with all your might . . .” hoping to encourage more people to drive cars into Yosemite.  By the late 1940s, visitors were dancing to big-band ballads like “The Bridge By Yosemite Falls,” and thrilling to “Indian Love Call” during the nightly Fire Fall. Yosemite stores now sell New-Age music with Yosemite titles, certain to become just as dated in coming years as other Yosemite music.

     The rippling sound of a 19th century waltz may seem entirely unrelated to a cowboy song from the 1950s, until you realize in listening that the waltz evokes the glistening spray of a waterfall (as in “Falling Waters,” 1874 by J.L. Truax), and the cowboy song reminds you that “. . . here in Yosemite, fair nature’s wondrous gem, our hearts o’erflow with peace and joy and love . . . ” (from “Yosemite,” 1954 by Harry Mabry).  Though stylistically at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, and separated by 80 years, these two pieces were once a cherished part of somebody’s Yosemite experience (and may still be), and their message of attachment to nature links them to the hearts of thousands of years of Yosemite’s visitors.


 “Down by the old Merced River,

Where campers are thicker than fleas,

Along about twelve o-clock midnight,

You’ll hear this refrain through the trees:

Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my bacon to me, to me. . .”

-- 1950s Yosemite campfire song, aimed at bacon-stealing bears.


     An article entitled “Yosemite Valley And Our Changing Values,”  printed in the Summer 1999 issue of the Yosemite Guide (published and distributed by the National Park Service), addresses the gradual elimination of human impact on Yosemite Valley over the years.  Among those listed are hotels, stores, and residences that once “degraded” Sentinel Meadow, the practice of car-camping along the Merced River, the “Indian Field Days” rodeo in Leidig Meadow, and bear feedings.  The same article states, “Over the years many entertainment-oriented events and attractions occurred in the park, most of which had little or nothing to do with Yosemite’s natural wonders.  The motivation behind such activities was simply to attract more visitors to the Valley and encourage them to stay longer.”  Of the Fire Fall, the article says that “it was halted amid a growing trend to eliminate artificial, man-made attractions, and to end massive nightly traffic jams, crowding, and exodus that drew visitors from throughout the Valley to the best viewing sites in the east end.”

     These telling excerpts illustrate a subtle, but critically prevalent mindset that tends to undermine support for our efforts to preserve Yosemite.  Yosemite’s early human inhabitants weren’t singing and dancing to “attract visitors” any more than latter-day campfire singers.  Certainly Yosemite is the attraction, and not any of the activities that visitors entertain themselves with once they are in the park.  Moreover, it is essential that we intentionally bring our cultural activities to places that inspire us—where we can learn to more deeply express the connection between the humanities and nature itself.

     This is the point: Yosemite music is representative of the best of human nature, of the cultural identity that all people inevitably bring with them wherever they go, and of the means by which they interpret what they experience.  Our efforts to preserve Yosemite focus not only on controlling elements that are destructive, but by encouraging elements that are constructive.  Non-destructive elements that appear to be “artificial,” “man-made,” or “have nothing to do with Yosemite’s natural wonders” may turn out to be valuable after all. Expressions of judgmental scorn over these sorts of things don’t help our efforts to garner support for preservation.   

     For many, the Fire Fall may have satisfied some unconscious need for a communal ritual when visiting Yosemite; it has often been described as a deeply moving, spiritual experience, a sort of religious service.  It was a chance for many at the same time to pause in the mundane doings of camping, eating, and preparing for sleep, and stand in awe at a cultural icon unique to Yosemite, listening to the ritual “Fire Fall Calls” and music.  Watching the sunrise from Glacier Point may satisfy this need for some, but many crave the kind of man-made, cultural event as in a church service, to express a deeper, spiritual communion with Yosemite’s natural beauty.  That is why the Fire Fall died so hard and why some are still angry about it.  To dismiss it as “kitsch,” or as artificial, is for many to scoff at the power and beauty of symbolism that takes place in a religious ritual. 

     Still, the histories of the Fire Fall, bear-feedings and tunnel-trees teach good lessons for how we may monitor and manage our cultural interaction with the park. Even Fire Fall diehards will often accept the reasons for its elimination if the explanation is respectful.

     National Parks are to preserve culture as well as nature, so our challenge is to weigh the value of cultural activities against their impact.  The historic Yosemite Chapel remains to "impair" an otherwise pristine Yosemite meadow, but in today's cultural climate we value its presence enough to tolerate its environmental impact.  For many, cultural events within the park enhance and deepen the meaning of the Yosemite experience.  Hotels, camps, roads and trails remain to “degrade” Yosemite Valley, but their impacts are balanced by their value as portals through which many come to learn to love and protect Yosemite.  To deny or subdue our identity while in Yosemite is to miss the point that human nature is part of Yosemite’s nature, and that the clash between them is often merely illusion.


“. . . Yosemite, though fate may lead us far away,

We’ll count the moments lost we spend away from you.”

-- From the 1934 campfire song "Yosemite" by Carsten Ahrens


-Tom Bopp

Musician/Historian, Wawona Hotel