The River of Tears

Political cartoon, 1844, steaming up salt river
Salt River: the river of political doom


Written for the Choir attached to the Philadelphia National Clay Club, by F. B. Graham, Esq.

Air — In Good Old Colony Times.

A few short weeks ago,
As we’ll attempt to show,
Some locos did consult about
The place where they should go.

John C. Calhoun and Johnson,
And old “ten cent” Buchanan,
Determined to escape beyond
The noise of the Whig cannon.

Martin Van advised the rest
Full soon to “get out of the way,”
And give him a chance to “spike that gun”
That echoes the name of Clay.

But while they conversed — a sound
Struck them with surprise and wonder.
For Maryland spoke, and the Locos swore
The noise they heard was THUNDER!

Says Calhoun, “let’s change our name,
And make it loco-motion;
For about our little Matty Van
The folks have got a queer notion.”

The Whigs at the great Convention,
Convened at Baltimore,
Nominated for Vice President,
New Jersey’s Theodore.

Then a Loco laughed outright,
And cried — “that’s good, I vow,
The coons can sing no more Whig songs,
They’re a used up party now.”

Soon the Minstrel’s came along,
And the way he ran was surprisin’,
For with voices clear did they sing about
Our Clay and Frelinghuysen.

Still may we sing Whig songs,
From the book with the Yaller Kiver,
Loco-motion‘s the word, and the Locos all
Are steaming it “up Salt River.”


The tune, “In Good Old Colony Times,” is the same as “The Little Tailor Boy,” “Three Jolly Rogues of Lynn,” and others.

The “locos” are the Loco Focos, a Democratic splinter party (real name: Equal Rights Party), which had joined back into the Democratic mainstream back in Van Buren’s time, but the name was so gloriously slanderous that the Whigs kept using it to refer to the entire Democratic party.

Calhoun, of South Carolina (a strong supporter of Free Trade and slavery, not to mention nullification), had sought the Democratic nomination in 1844, but lost to Polk.   Richard M. Johnson, Van Buren’s vice president,  had also failed to get the nomination.  “Ten-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan had once said  that ten cents a day (about $2.50 now) was a decent worker’s wage. (Ten Cent Jimmy would go on to win the presidency in 1856 and have a disastrous term as one of our worst presidents ever.)

Martin Van is Martin Van Buren, the Democratic president from 1836-1840.  “Get out of the way” was a common line in political songs, particularly ones to the tune of “Old Dan Tucker.”  The cannon imagery is common in political songs of this period.

Clay is Henry Clay, of Kentucky, the Whig nominee.

Loco-motion” is again reminding folks of the radical Loco Focos.  The first steam locomotive in America had been built in 1830, less than a decade and a half before, in Baltimore (site of both the Whig and Democratic 1844 conventions).

“Little” Martin Van likely is a reference to Van Buren’s short physical height.

“New Jersey’s Theodore” is  Theodore “The Christian Statesman” Frelinghuysen.  (Before this project is done I will know how to spell “Frelinghuysen!”)  Frelinghuysen ended his career, years later, as president of Rutgers.

The coons are the Whigs; their symbolic animal was the raccoon.

A Yaller Kiver (Yellow Cover) is an Americanism — it refers to dismissal from government service, a notice that was delivered in a yellow envelope.

“Salt River” is an imaginary place where political hopes go to die.  You can find various folk-etymologies deriving it from a real place, and perhaps-real events, but by the time of this song it was symbolic.  A politician could row up Salt River, or go up Salt River by a fast steamer, or fall off the bridge of Popular Sentiment into Salt River, or be stuck neck-deep in Salt River, or lost in the bends of Salt River, or come to the headwaters of Salt River, depending on how complete the disaster they suffered had been.

Tomorrow: A New Song (to the tune of Old Rosin the Beau).

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