Gone to California: Eric Brace Revisits “Sweet Betsy from Pike”
If you’re familiar with your American folk songbook (or, if you bought Suzy Bogguss’ 2011 album of the same name), you may be familiar with the song “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” Over the course of a whopping 14 verses, the song, written in the 1850s by John A. Stone, tells the story of two young lovers who leave Missouri to find their fortune in the Gold Rush in California. Ike and Betsy walk more than 2,000 miles, getting married along the way, before finally arriving in Hangtown, a mining town in California.
Right after reaching their goal, Betsy and Ike go to listen to a traveling string band, and Betsy decides to dance with a couple of miners. Blinded by jealousy, Ike immediately goes off in a rage and gets a divorce, and Betsy says with a sneer, “Goodbye, you ol’ lummox, I’m glad you backed out.”
If you think the ending comes out of nowhere, you’re not alone. Singer/songwriter/Red Beet Records mogul Eric Brace was wondering what happened next as well.
“Here’s a young couple, and it’s the classic story: Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy walks 2,000 miles with girl, boy loses girl,” he says. “There had to be some kind of return. I thought that maybe I could fix that.”
That “fix” is exactly what Brace and collaborator Karl Straub have done with Hangtown Dancehall, an epic gold rush folk-opera that tells the story of Isaac “Ike” Wilkins and Elizabeth “Betsy” Maloney. Over the course of 22 songs, Ike and Betsy’s meeting, parting and eventual reunion is told in song — along with murder, mistaken identity, human trafficking, unrequited love and revenge thrown in for good measure.
To help tell the story, Brace enlisted the likes of Kelly Willis, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott and Jason Ringenberg, among others, to play the various roles. Willis and Brace are Betsy and Ike, respectively, and Straub plays the part of Walter Brown, a down-on-his-luck miner who befriends Ike after his split from Betsy. The full story is told in the gorgeous booklet that accompanies the album, featuring artwork by Julie Sola.
Hangtown Dancehall is bound to go down as one of the most ambitious albums of 2014. Unlike a typical studio album, Brace and Straub had to create a coherent storyline with songs that advanced the plot and are sung by vocalists who could incorporate the proper emotion. Oh, and the music had to be good, too.
Thanks to the talented artists who took part in it, the album is a thorough success. Taken as a whole, the songs form a vivid narrative, but they stand up just as well without the benefit of the storyline. Straub’s “Afternoons Gone Blind,” for example, tells the plight of Walter Brown, the down-on-his-luck miner. It’s also a beautifully sad tale of a man who’s lost his way in life. History buffs may appreciate the setting, but anyone who loves folk/Americana/bluegrass music will find a lot to like on the album.
Brace has long been interested in the Gold Rush era of California, and with good reason. He was born in Placerville, about 10 miles from where James Marshall first found the nugget that gave the whole country gold fever. He revisited that era while working for the Washington Post, when he was sent to cover the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush. Along with the romanticized stories of the past, he found plenty of heartbreak and tragedy — elements that would make a good song or two.
James Marshall, for instance, was a carpenter working for John Sutter. When he discovered the famous gold nugget in 1848, he was trying to build a sawmill on Sutter’s property.
“All his workers went off and staked claims,” Brace noted, adding that many came down with gold fever and literally worked themselves to death looking for gold. “The mill never went into operation, and Marshall never found anymore gold.”
Marshall became a heavy drinker, and he occasionally lashed out violently at people who followed him around, asking him where they should dig.
“They thought he had the magic touch, but he died destitute,” Brace says. “The first song I really figured out was ‘King Midas,” about him.”
Along the way, Brace got in touch with Karl Straub, a guitarist and songwriter in the Washington D.C. area.
“I’ve been a fan of Karl’s for years,” Brace says. “He was in a band called The Graverobbers in D.C., which was a really fantastic band with some interesting songwriting — a cross of garage rock, punk and really sophisticated Tin Pan Alley stuff.”
Straub and Brace were friends and shared musicians between The Graverobbers and Brace’s band, Last Train Home. At the time Brace started putting together the Hangtown Dancehall concept, Straub had gone back to school for music theory.
I told him, ‘If you need an exercise, maybe you could write an overture to this song cycle about Sweet Betsy from Pike,’ like the beginning of an Old Western movie,” Brace recalled. That overture never materialized, but Straub entered up writing himself into a collaboration in other ways.
“Every time I asked him to help, he did spectacularly,” Brace said. “Either he wrote a song, or he had some music that I could put lyrics to.” Their collaborative efforts include “Pike County Rose” (featuring Willis) and “King Midas,” (featuring Darrell Scott), and Straub contributed standout tunes like Willis’ “Smile and a Little Skin” and the instrumental “Marshall’s Reel.”
Brace said that he did the casting for the album in his head as the songs started to come together. Tim O’Brien, who was already on board the project as a musician, stepped into the role of Jeremiah Jenkins, the bandleader who adds Betsy to his traveling show as a dancing girl. From there, the other pieces fell into place, including the addition of Jason Ringenberg as Preacher Magee, who’s not above searching a dead man’s pockets for hidden gold nuggets, and Wesley Stace (formerly John Wesley Harding) as the haunted killer Augie Pyle.
One of the last pieces to fall into place was getting Willis to sing the part of Betsy. Brace had known her since she was the teenaged leader of the rockabilly band Kelly and the Fireballs, so he sent off an e-mail asking if she’d like to participate. She accepted within minutes.
Brace was able to get Willis’ vocals done during a trip to Austin, Texas, for a gig with frequent collaborator Peter Cooper. Whether it was the frustration of her argument with Ike in “If You Don’t Know Me” or the resignation of her new career in “Smile and a Little Skin,” Willis stepped perfectly into the role of Betsy.
“It was like a tutorial on how to sing in a studio,” Brace says of the sessions. “Her phrasing was spectacular. When her vocals were on tape — well, on the hard drive — I knew we were in the home stretch.”
Hangtown Dancehall was officially released in January, but Brace and Straub premiered the folk-opera at the 3rd & Lindsley nightclub in Nashville in November. Most of the artists on the album were able to reprise their roles live, and a local actor provided the narration. Brace says he hopes to bring the live performance to Austin and Washington D.C., and there has been interest from locations in California as well.
While Brace’s Red Beet Records is lined up to have a busy year in 2014 — albums from Brace and Cooper, Fayssoux McLean and Jerry Lawson (of the a capella group The Persuasions) are due for release this year — he isn’t quite finished with Hangtown Dancehall just yet.
“I’m hoping to turn it into a stageable musical, with the characters, direction and the overture that Karl never did get around to writing,” he says. “I know musicals sometimes take years to go from finished written product to the stage. It’s a pipe dream, but what the heck.”
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