Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Written for The Cadenza.

The Days of Forty-Nine.

By Q. S.


Of all the banjo players that plunked themselves into the affections of miscellaneous audiences in the years following the war, none of them so thoroughly captured a town and held it for so many years as Jake Wallace. Judged by modern standards, Jake at this time was several removes from being a good banjo player, in fact about the year 1869 when Jakey was in the zenith of his prosperity, several envious rivals insinuated that one tune and one song was his repertiore; of course this was not so, however he could have told those fellows if they had put in an appearance that one tune and one song was all he required. San Francisco was the stamping ground at this time of the redoubtable Jake, and the company of which he was a member was largely a female aggregation. Joe Murphy, Jake Wallace and an interlocutor were all the men members. The minstrel first part had Jake and Joe on the ends, flanking an assortment of bulbous damsels who could neither sing nor act--but Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like them. Joe Murphy has become wealthy since then as an Irish comedian, but what has become of Jake Wallace?

This theater was an upstairs concern fronting the plaza, and the man who arrived after eight o'clock took his seat standing up. Jennie and Irene Worrell were members of the company; the writer, however, never heard Jennie play the banjo there and why should he? Jakey had made a hit with a song, which he had to sing over eight and ten times nightly. When people spoke of going to the Olympic theatre which was the name of this place they always coupled it with Jakey's name. Across the street from the Olympic and a little below it Ed. Harrigan was employed at the Bella Union theater, pretty much the same kind of resort as the other. Neither Ed. Harrigan or Joe Murphy ever dreamed at that time of the future good fortune in store for them, and whether they were a little bit jealous of the howling success of Jake Wallace, no one ever knew. It certainly was a howling success; for Jake's worst enemy never accused him of being able to sing; a number always maintained, however, that if he took out of his jaw the enormous quid of tobacco he always kept stored there it would improve his singing vastly. About the time Jake would appear on the stage lugging his chair after him one would think from the roar that greeted him that it was feeding time in the menagerie. After Jakey had plinkety-plunked a few chords on his banjo he would sail into the song that made him famous, none other than "The Days of Forty-Nine." He sung this with a pause after each line to give the audience a chance to howl, and the clatter of money as it fell on the stage, thrown there by heavily jagged miners, was very pleasant to Jake. and the concluding lines of each verse; who that heard them will ever forget them? "Oh, the days of old" twankety bang; long pause. "Oh, the days of gold!" more twank and longer pause, grand finale. "Oh, the days of forty-n-i-i-i-i-ne!"

He sung this song in San Francisco for years, the people never appeared to tire of it; the singing was bad but the sentiment pleased them; it recalled the good old days, when everyone had money galore. Jake and his banjo song will always remind the writer of the ability of this instrument to reach the popular heart in a way that no other musical instrument picked with the fingers will ever be able to do in this country.


from The Cadenza, October 1895.

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Ahh this is a great old song. I'm in the process of learning it. It' good to hear that my playing and singing is probably on par with Jake's.

Lowell Schreyer's "The Banjo Entertainers" has this to say about the Worrell Sisters-"...Sophie, Irene and Jennie---were (a) triple sister act including banjo in their presentation. Lotta (Crabtree) considered them her competition, primarily in dancing, when performing in San Francisco in the late 1850's. In 1867 the Worrells advertised "ballads, duets, single and duo dances, jigs, reels, and hornpipes" in addition to banjo solos. They had their own theater in New York City."
From "Gold Rush Performers" by Helene Wickham Koon "Wallace, Jake - Minstrel man, Virginia City, August 1863, Miguire's Minstrels, end man. Late sixties, leader of minstrel troupe, toured northern mines to Oregon. Tall, lazy, good humored, southern drawl, "famous old banjoist and blackface performer. In 1911, living on a ranch near San Diego, California"

"Worrell sisters - Singers-dancers. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio (Sophie, 1848; Irene, 1849; Jenny 1850), daughters of William Worrell, grand daughters of Mrs Judah. Traveled with parents, Welch, Delavan and Nathan's Circus, 1851-1855. Appeared together in father's act. San Francisco March 1857, Lee and Marshall Circus, "Juvenile Graces"; San Francisco, Lee and Bennett's National Circus. San Francisco, January 1858, Varieties company, "a world of wit in their heels"; toured, May with the Pennsylvanians; San Francisco, joint debut as singers. Toured Australia with father, returned to play San Francisco, New York, then starring tours; very popular. San Francisco, Feb 1863, Gilbert's Melodeon, "star sisters." Toured southern mones in middle sixties. San Francisco, April 1865, show at news of Lincoln's death. Nevada City, September, Ici Parle Francais, John Jones of the War Office, The Invisible Prince; October, Setchell touring company, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Toodles. Went East; starred in New York and Providence, 1867, Under the Gaslight. New York, 1871, leased theater, Three Sisters (each took six characters). Jennie married James H. Barre, November 8, 1869, soon separated. Irene married Edward Eddy Jr, 1871, and N J Horton, April 25, 1884. Sophie married George S Knight (real name George Sloan), November 22, 1875.

From "The Theater of the Golden Era in California" by G. R. MacMinn (a book that I highly recommend no matter what part of the United States you live in). "As far the quality of entertainment, nothing could give better assurance of excellence than the engagement of William Worrell, "Best Clown in the United States, with his Juvenile Graces, Sophia, Irene, and La Petite Jennie." Concerning the distinguished Worrell the management was pleased to declare: "His name will be a sufficient guaranty the Wit without coarseness, Fun without vulgarity, and Mirth without end will characterize the comic department of the Exhibition." And as for the three Graces, the sprightly young daughters of so refined as well as so accomplished a comedian, they would have the singular charm of now making their circus debut."

Chris Ownby
Yesterday morning, I did a program for 90 forth grade students and about 15 adults. I decided to talk about gold rush musicians (Mart Taylor, Buckleys' Serenaders, Sam Wells, Charles Robert Miller, Lotta Crabtree, etc.) and how they earned their money. I started with Jake Wallace his song the Days 0f Forty-nine and how he would pause during the song and wait for people to throw money onto the stage. The funny part was that the kids actually started throw money onto the stage and did so for my entire presentation. After I finished the program I thanked them but told them to please take their money back.

One of the boys walked up to me and said that in his lifetime (9 or 10 years) he must have heard over 1000 songs and that the songs that I played for them that morning were the best songs that he had ever heard. I wanted to share that with all of you and especially with those of you who do living history/interpretation.

Chris Ownby
From "Troupers of the Gold Coast or the rise of Lotta Crabtree" by Constance Rourke

Page #156 "A minstrel named Jake Wallace had taught Lotta to strum the banjo in the mountains - "Walk into the parlor and hear de banjo ring, And watch de darkey's fingers while he picks it on de string - " "

Page #162 "At Iowa Hill the encountered ardent Union Sentiment, and gave a grand patriotic program with Wallace singing The Anthem of the Free, and Lotta in a Topsy act which drew a hailstorm of money on the stage and applause in the house. But as they traveled northward and at last reached southern Oregon, The atmosphere for patriotic numbers

became less genial. In one village they were greeted by a rebel yell as soon as the curtain went up: the audience hissed when opening Union airs were sung. Wallace advised Lotta to change her number - a sailor act with a drum and flag and hornpipe - for fear the company might be mobbed."

Page #227 "Jake Wallace was an established favorite in the variety halls of San Francisco; for years his appearance was a signal for the shout, "Forty-nine! Forty-nine!" At some point in his performance he would reel off The Days of Forty-nine, a long ballad celebrating many excellent partners, which had been composed by another early trouper on the Coast who had come across the plains."

Page #228 "A company which included Blanche and Ella Chapman, younger members of the famous Chapman family, Jake Wallace, and a few others, encountered highwaymen as they traveled through the mountains by stage-coach in the late seventies. Annoyed because their quarries were actors and could be expected to have small funds, the bandits forced the company out of the coach at the point of pistols and put them through a variety entertainment on the dust road. Blanche Chapman danced. Ella, an accomplished banjoist, played with Wallace. A ventriloquist cast his trembling notes and funny sayings into waste spaces. There were songs and the lilt of merry-making in front of slitted black masks and heavy glistening barrels. The fastidious bandits then danced quadrilles and lancers with the ladies of the company. At last the company was permitted to resume it's journey. After rapid coaching of perhaps twenty miles, the hardened stage-driver fainted. The treasure-box, which the bandits had neglected to examine, contained a fabulous sum, astutely placed there by a Wells-Fargo agent under the tacit protection of the troupe."

Chris Ownby

I brought up this old discussion because I'm interested in finding the earliest published sheet music for "The Days of '49."  One source tells me the earliest mention he has found is 1874.

In fact, I've never seen any sheet music for this song, early sheet music anyway.  Songsheets, yes, sheet music, no.  Dylan popularized it but is he singing the original melody?

Carl, you must have the same source I have.  I have the liner notes for the Folkways LP "Days of '49" which presumably offers the same source (Great Emerson New Popular Songster, 1874).   Another book, Songs of the Great American West,  compiled and edited by Irwin Silber cites the same source but gives 1872 as its pub date.

I'm supposing that you have used the following website but in case not or in case others haven't.......


It has downloadable mid-19th C songsters, including several California songsters......but alas none seem to include Days of '49.   Fools of '49, yes but no Days of '49.

Regarding another supposed gold rush ditty, I would like to know more of the provenance of What Was Your Name in the States?   Liner notes for Days of '49 state that the "tune and text can be found in Carl Sandburg's American Songbag....which I don't have   Was it merely a song recalling the joke of the period/place or did it coincide with that time and place?   Were there more verses?

That's Troy Groves' site.  There's been a discussion between Carl and Troy on the Authentic Campaigner forum about this very song : http://www.authentic-campaigner.com/forum/showthread.php?36711-Day-... 

About all I can find is in the John Lomax Cowboy songs book from the early 20th.

Notation on page 12-13 http://books.google.com/books?id=aFAQAAAAYAAJ&printsec

There was a sequel to it, in "Songs of the Great American West":


In regards to the Days of 49, there is a virulently racist last verse that is seldom done: the last line of which is "For the country was right and the boys all white In the days of '49.".  For the full verse, and sources, here is a link:


The version at the end of episode 3 of Ken Burn's "The West" was done by a friend, Alan Fuller of Placerville, CA., a retired ranger at the James Marshall Gold Rush Discovery Park in Coloma, CA.

Andy Alexis

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