A few Sundays ago, I was listening to some instrumental American folk music while my wife was in the room. The tune was â€œSweet Betsy from Pikeâ€â€”a song I had stumbled upon a few weeks earlier and taken a liking to. Since Iâ€™m not a music person, and feel pretty inadequate when it comes to talking about music, Iâ€™m not going to try describing it. If youâ€™d like to hear it, take a listen.
At any rate, as I was listening to the song, my wife asked me why I was listening to â€œHinges,â€ the classic Primary song about how weâ€™re all made ofâ€¦wellâ€¦hinges.
â€œIâ€™m not,â€ I said. â€œThis is â€˜Sweet Betsy from Pike.’â€
Then she sang along, and I had to concede the point. â€œSweet Betsyâ€ sounded a lot like â€œHinges.â€ In fact, after conducting two minutes worth of internet research, I learned that Jeanne P. Lawler, the composer of â€œHinges,â€ based the tune on â€œSweet Betsy from Pike.â€1
But I also learned that â€œSweet Betsy from Pikeâ€ has deeper Mormons roots. The tune comes from an old English suicide ballad called â€œVillikins and Dinah,â€ which crossed the Atlantic sometime before the 1850s, when John A. Stone turned it into a humorous celebration of the heroism of pioneer women. This version tells the story of Betsy and Ike, a young couple from beautiful Pike County, Ohio2 who travel via wagon train to California. Along the way they experience a series of hardships typical of pioneer life: death, cholera, starvation, â€œInjuns,â€ hot deserts, andâ€¦Mormons!
Specifically, Brigham Young:
They stopped at Salt Lake to inquire of the way,
WhenÂ BrighamÂ declared that Sweet Betsy should stay.
Betsy got frightened and ran like a deer,
While Brigham stood pawing the ground like a steer.
Like so much of what was written about Mormons in the nineteenth-century, this song uses a caricature of Mormon masculinityâ€”always oversexed in the nineteenth-centuryâ€”to tap into white Americaâ€™s anxieties about polygamy and its presumed threat to American womanhood.Â As Terryl Givens points out in Viper on the Hearth (Oxford UP, 1997), this strategy was fairly typical of anti-Mormon rhetoric of the day, which went to great lengths to marginalize a people who were, by every appearance, ethnically similar to Americaâ€™s white majority. Central to these caricatures were â€œimages and themes of coercion and bondage,â€ which, Givens argues, helped to draw connectionsâ€”sometimes subtle, sometimes notâ€”between Mormons and Native Americans, Muslims, â€œOrientals,â€ and other minority groups that white American writers often demonized and â€œOtherizedâ€ through sensationalistic captivity narratives. According to Givens, these caricatures and themes â€œestablish[ed] a kind of psychic distance between the represented object and the audienceâ€ that â€œdisarm[ed] popular anxiety while pretending to exacerbate itâ€ (125).
We see this happening in the Mormon verse of â€œSweet Betsy,â€ which is essentially a captivity narrative in miniature. Brigham Young, caricaturized as lusty bull, tries to coerce Sweet Betsy to stay in Salt Lake Cityâ€”presumably as a captive in his harem. Betsy, however, manages to flee Brighamâ€™s clutches by running â€œlike a deer,â€ thus thwarting the designs of the threatening Other. In the song, the verse functions as further proof of Betsyâ€™s fortitude and courage, but it also serves to ease anxieties about the Mormon threat by portraying it as something that can be outmaneuvered and avoided.
Interestingly, all but one of the recorded versions of this song that Iâ€™ve listened to have skipped the Mormon verse. I assume this has to do with the fact that American audiences no longer share the same anxieties about Mormons that they used to, so today’s singers have little reason to keep it in. Even so, I like the fact that this song has found a backdoor into Mormon culture. Primary children may not sing about Sweet Betsy and Brigham, but they learn to get their wiggles out through a song that carries the old song in its DNA.
I find that oddly comical.
Read the full lyrics to â€œSweet Betsy from Pikeâ€ here.