The Ballad Infliction
It is bound to come! There is no help for it. I smell it afar off -- I see the signs in the air! Every day and every hour of every day I grow more and more nervous, for with every minute of waning time the dreadful infliction comes nearer and nearer in its inexorable march! In another week, maybe, all San Francisco will be singing "Wearing of the Green!" I know it. I have suffered before, and I know the symptoms. This holds off long, but it is partly that the calamity may gather irresistible worrying-power, and partly be cause it is harder to learn than Chinese. But that is all the worse; for when the people do learn it they will learn it bad -- and terrible will be the distress it will bring upon the community. A year ago "Johnny came marching home! " That song was sung by everybody, in every key, in every locality, at all hours of the day and night, and always out of tune. It sent many unoffending persons to the Stockton asylum. There was no stopping the epidemic, and so it had to be permitted to run its course and wear itself out. Short was our respite, and then a still more malignant distemper broke out in the midst of this harried and suffering community. It was "You'll not forget me, mother, mother, mother, mother ! " with an ever-accumulating aggravation of expression upon each successive "mother." The fire-boys sat up all night to sing it; and bands of sentimental stevedores and militia soldiers patroled the streets and howled its lugubrious strains. A passion for serenading attacked the youth of the city, and they sang it under verandahs in the back streets until the dogs and cats destroyed their voices in unavailing efforts to lay the devilish spirit that was driving happiness from their hearts. Finally there came a season of repose, and the community slowly recovered from the effects of the musical calamity. The respite was not long. In an unexpected moment they were attacked, front and rear, by a new enemy -- "When we were marching through Georgia!" Tongue cannot tell what we suffered while this frightful disaster was upon us. Young misses sang it to the guitar and the piano; young men sang it to the banjo and the fiddle; the un-blood stained soldier yelled it with enthusiasm as he marched through the imaginary swamps and cotton plantations of the drill-room; the firemen sang it as they trundled their engines home from conflagrations; and the hated serenader tortured it with his damned accordeon. Some of us survived, and some have gone the old road to a haven of rest at Stockton, where the wicked cease from troubling and the popular songs are not allowed. For the space of four weeks the survivors have been happy.
But as I have said before, it is bound to come! Arrah-na-Pogque is breeding a song that will bedeck some mountain with new-made graves! In another week we shall be "Wearing of the Green, " and in a fortnight some will be wearing of the black in consequence. Three repetitions of this song will produce lunacy, and five will kill -- it is that much more virulent than its predecessors. People are finding it hard to learn, but when they get it learned they will find it potent for harm. It is Wheatleigh's song. He sings it in Arrah-na-Pogque, with a sprig of shamrock in his hat. Wheatleigh sings it with such aggravated solemnity as to make an audience long for the grave. It is doled out slowly, and every note settles deliberately to its place on one 's heart like a solid iceberg -- and by the time it is finished the temperature of the theatre has fallen to twenty degrees. Think what a dead-cold winter we shall have here when this Arctic funeral melody becomes popular! Think of it being performed at midnight, in lonely places, upon the spirit depressing accordeon! Think of being driven to blow your brains out under such circumstances, and then dying to the grave-yard cadences of "Wearing of the Green!" But it is bound to come, and we may as well bow our heads and submit with such degree of Christian resignation as we are able to command.
[reprinted in Mark Twain's San Francisco, edited by Bernard Taper, (McGraw Hill, 1963), p. 128-130; reprinting from Californian, Nov. 4, 1865.]
[Note: The name
of the play Charles Wheatleigh performed in is correctly spelled Arrah-na-Pogue.
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