Going West to See the Elephant – Bill Rossiter


The Elling House Arts & Humanities Center


Virginia City


Nov 13 2022


2:00 pm - 4:00 pm



Going West to See the Elephant – Bill Rossiter

Lewis and Clark crossed the western wilderness dreaming of a Northwest Passage. Then they went home.  Homesteaders and gold-seekers (“argonauts”), following a different kind of dream and facing perhaps even greater challenges, went West and stayed.  The trek across the fabled “Great American Desert” gave rise to a wealth of history and folklore, tales and songs–optimistic and disillusioned–about the 1600 miles of dust, misery, tragedy, and, finally, success.  Braving that Desert with hand tools and a bucket of hope, these travelers started out singing about the land of milk and honey. By the time they’d settled on their claims they were singing home-made and often hilarious songs about alkali water, grasshopper plagues, chickens with the pip, leaky sod huts and coyotes at the door.  For example, “To the West,” a widely circulated song proclaiming the West as Utopia, was written by a Scottish journalist who had never visited America.  “To the West: A Parody” uses the same tune to complain grumpily about sick kids, rattlesnakes, and the scarcity of barrooms.  One gold-seeker, trudging along behind a wagon train, describes one grandmother’s casual attitude about the young’uns who occasionally bounce out of the wagon onto the road; one disgruntled homesteader keeping bachelor’s quarters in a sod hut, describes his bliss:

How happy am I when I crawl into bed, 

A rattlesnake rattles a tune at my head,

A coy little centipede, void of all fear , 

Crawls over my pillow and into my ear.

“Going Out West to See the Elephant” places these songs and stories, both the “Eden” versions and the disgruntled parodies, in their settings.  It describes the tactics, literature and testimonials that convinced would-be settlers and boomers to head West, outlines their trials and triumphs on the trail, and shows their reactions, mirrored in the songs, once they arrived.  The program features songs and stories from journals, diaries and “songsters” of the trail and homestead, and discusses the situations they describe.  Songs are accompanied by banjo, guitar and Autoharp.

For student groups, I demonstrate the “make-do” instruments the travelers resorted to when they found that grandma’s piano was too big for the wagon–washtub bass, washboard, and home-made percussion instruments.  To end the program, I recruit students for a hands-on experience with these “jug-band” instruments.



The event is finished.