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,
the merry song,
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
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
-- 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
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
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.
of the mountains, winding trails throughout the hills,
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.
I’m Strong For Camp Curry because there’s no worry,
hurry, no flurry is there;
no bound’ry or fence,
all common sense,
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.
The Fire Fall,
the Ranger call,
stars will fall from above,
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
“. . . 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.”
charming valley of the high Sierras,
the handiwork of God,
whisp’ring pines, your babbling brooks are calling,
‘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
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.
by the old Merced River,
campers are thicker than fleas,
about twelve o-clock midnight,
hear this refrain through the trees:
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
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
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,
count the moments lost we spend away from you.”
Musician/Historian, Wawona Hotel