A few Sundays ago, I was listening to some instrumental American folk music while my wife was in the room. The tune was “Sweet Betsy from Pike”—a song I had stumbled upon a few weeks earlier and taken a liking to. Since I’m not a music person, and feel pretty inadequate when it comes to talking about music, I’m not going to try describing it. If you’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 “Hinges,” the classic Primary song about how we’re all made of…well…hinges.
“I’m not,” I said. “This is ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike.’”
Then she sang along, and I had to concede the point. “Sweet Betsy” sounded a lot like “Hinges.” In fact, after conducting two minutes worth of internet research, I learned that Jeanne P. Lawler, the composer of “Hinges,” based the tune on “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”1
But I also learned that “Sweet Betsy from Pike” has deeper Mormons roots. The tune comes from an old English suicide ballad called “Villikins and Dinah,” 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, “Injuns,” hot deserts, and…Mormons!
Specifically, Brigham Young:
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.
Like so much of what was written about Mormons in the nineteenth-century, this song uses a caricature of Mormon masculinity—always oversexed in the nineteenth-century—to tap into white America’s anxieties about polygamy and its presumed threat to American womanhood. 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 America’s white majority. Central to these caricatures were “images and themes of coercion and bondage,” which, Givens argues, helped to draw connections—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—between Mormons and Native Americans, Muslims, “Orientals,” and other minority groups that white American writers often demonized and “Otherized” through sensationalistic captivity narratives. According to Givens, these caricatures and themes “establish[ed] a kind of psychic distance between the represented object and the audience” that “disarm[ed] popular anxiety while pretending to exacerbate it” (125).
We see this happening in the Mormon verse of “Sweet Betsy,” which is essentially a captivity narrative in miniature. Brigham Young, caricaturized as lusty bull, tries to coerce Sweet Betsy to stay in Salt Lake City—presumably as a captive in his harem. Betsy, however, manages to flee Brigham’s clutches by running “like a deer,” thus thwarting the designs of the threatening Other. In the song, the verse functions as further proof of Betsy’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 I’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 “Sweet Betsy from Pike” here.