Beyond details gleaned from artifacts like early photographs and hand-written letters, what we know of miners' lives during California's Gold Rush era comes to us from mining songs -- the simple, homespun ditties that prospectors sang in the 1850s and '60s.
Girls of the Golden West, a new San Francisco Opera production by Berkeley composer John Adams, features quite a few of these songs. But Adams radically transformed the melodies in his opera to show a darker side of California history -- one that resonates with news headlines in this country today.
In their original form, some of the mining songs were romantic, clownish, or happy-go-lucky, while others were more melancholy, covering such themes as missing loved ones back home, the long and difficult journey out west, and the hardships of a miner’s life.
They were published in chapbooks only as lyrics, without musical notation of any kind. The new lyrics were simply sung to already familiar folk tunes of the day like “Oh Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Camptown Races.”
At a recent symposium about Girls of the Golden West, Adams confessed to not finding the melodies very interesting. But he responded strongly to the raw emotions of the words, and wanted to use them to tell what he sees as a more truthful story of mining life in the mid 1800s.
"I wanted to make a music that was as simple and as direct as what I felt life was like for these people," Adams said.
So the composer kept the lyrics from the mining songs, but ignored the melodies entirely and instead created his own spin on them in the opera.
His adaptation of a mining song called “The Lousy Miner" exemplifies this process. Originally published in 1861 in a chapbook titled Put's Golden Songster, the lyrics were set to a famous old tune, “Dark-Eyed Sailor."
The song, sung in the first person, tells of a miner who’s down on on his luck. He’s dirt poor, his sweetheart has left him, and he’s covered in lice.
But at the climax of his new opera, Adams takes this sad little song and twists it into something far from melancholic. Sung by an angry mob of miners hellbent on driving non-white residents out of Gold Country, it's frightening and violent.
Adams said he was influenced by news stories about political rallies in the run-up to the 2016 elections as he was writing his opera from his home base in Berkeley.
"It's terrifyingly high-spirited," Adams said of his version of "The Lousy Miner." "The sort of thing you’d hear at a violent political rally."
'Girls of The Golden West' runs through Sunday, Dec. 10, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.