Sweet Betsy from Pike
"Sweet Betsy from Pike" is an American ballad about the trials of a pioneer named Betsy and her lover Ike who migrate from Pike County (probably Missouri) to California. This Gold Rush-era song, with lyrics written by John A. Stone before 1858, was collected and published in Carl Sandburg's 1927 American Songbag. It was recorded by Burl Ives on February 11, 1941 for his debut album Okeh Presents the Wayfaring Stranger. The melody is of English extraction and is also that of the ballad "Villikins and his Dinah". Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
The terms "Betsy" and "Old Betsy" were common frontier nicknames for rifles. In the 1980s, poet and scholar John Ciardi theorized that the song was originally a comic tribute to a rifle, portraying it as a pioneer's trusty but fiery companion. He suggested that amended versions sung by countless people had eventually turned it into a song about a real woman.
The most verifiable traditional lyrics, which are in the public domain, are:
- Did you ever hear tell of Sweet Betsy from Pike,
- Who crossed the wide mountains with her lover Ike,
- Two yoke of cattle, a large yeller dog,
- A tall Shanghai rooster, and a one-spotted hog.
- Singing too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay.
- They swam the wide rivers and crossed the tall peaks,
- And camped on the prairie for weeks upon weeks.
- Starvation and cholera, hard work and slaughter--
- They reached California 'spite of hell and high water.
- One evening quite early they camped on the Platte,
- Twas near by the road on a green shady flat.
- Betsy, sore-footed, lay down to repose--
- With wonder Ike gazed on that Pike County rose.
- The Injuns came down in a thundering horde,
- And Betsy was scared they would scalp her adored.
- So under the wagon-bed Betsy did crawl
- And she fought off the Injuns with musket and ball.
- The wagon broke down with a terrible crash,
- And out on the prairie rolled all sorts of trash.
- A few little baby-clothes, done up with care,
- Looked rather suspicious, but all on the square.
- They stopped at Salt Lake to inquire of the way,
- When Brigham declared that Sweet Betsy should stay.
- Betsy got frightened and ran like a deer,
- While Brigham stood pawing the ground like a steer.
- The alkali desert was burning and bare,
- And Isaac's soul shrank from the death that lurked there.
- "Dear old Pike County, I'll go back to you"--
- Says Betsy, "You'll go by yourself if you do!"
- They soon reached the desert, where Betsy gave out,
- And down in the sand she lay rolling about.
- Ike in great wonder looked on in surprise,
- Saying, "Betsy, get up, you'll get sand in your eyes."
- Sweet Betsy got up in a great deal of pain.
- She declared she'd go back to Pike County again.
- Ike gave a sigh, and they fondly embraced,
- And they traveled along with his arm round her waist.
- The Shanghai ran off, and the cattle all died,
- That morning the last piece of bacon was fried.
- Ike got discouraged, Betsy got mad,
- The dog drooped his tail and looked wonderfully sad.
- They suddenly stopped on a very high hill,
- With wonder looked down upon old Placerville.
- Ike said to Betsy, as he cast his eyes down,
- "Sweet Betsy, my darling, we've got to Hangtown."
- Long Ike and Sweet Betsy attended a dance.
- Ike wore a pair of his Pike County pants.
- Betsy was covered with ribbons and rings.
- Says Ike, "You're an angel, but where is your wings?"
- A miner said, "Betsy, will you dance with me?"
- "I will that, old hoss, if you don't make too free.
- Don't dance me hard, do you want to know why?
- Doggone you, I'm chock-full of strong alkali."
- This Pike County couple got married, of course,
- But Ike became jealous, and obtained a divorce.
- Betsy, well-satisfied, said with a shout,
- "Goodby, you big lummox, I'm glad you backed out!"
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It has been recorded by many, including:
- Oscar Brand, for the album Folk Songs For Fun
- Bob Gibson
- BR549, for the 2008 compilation album, Song of America
- Cisco Houston
- David Allan Coe
- Johnny Cash
- Larry Groce, for the 1986 album “Disney Children's Favorite Songs 3”
- Pete Seeger
- Riders in the Sky
- Rosemary Clooney
- Jackie DeShannon
- Tom Paxton
- Iggy Pop, from the 2013 compilation album, The Lone Ranger: Wanted – Music Inspired by the Film
- The Limeliters, from the 1963 album, "Fourteen 14K Folk Songs"
- Richard Farnsworth, in the movie The Grey Fox
- The New Christy Minstrels, for the 1965 album Cowboys and Indians
- Unknown children for the album Wee Sing America
- Sung by Strother Martin in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"
- Peter Ostroushko, instrumental version [Heart of the Heartland – 1995]
- The Jukebox Band on Shining Time Station once performed this song in the episode "Wrong Track"
- Adapted by Alex Comfort to a nuclear protest song called Go Limp, famously re-adapted to a civil rights song performed by Nina Simone.
- Digital Tradition Folk Music Database: link
- The Mudcat Cafe: link
- Sandburg, Carl (1927). The American Songbag (PDF). New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. p. 107. Archived from the original on 2005-06-23. Retrieved 2014-07-06.
- Naxos: link
- Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
- The New York Times: