…Pa’s fiddle sang merrily to itself. – It sang ‘Money Musk,’ and ‘ The Red Heifer,’ ‘The Devil’s Dream,’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler’… — Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 4, “Christmas”
But Pa began to play ‘The Arkansas Traveler,’ and everybody began to clap in time to the music. So Grandma bowed to them all and did a few steps by herself. She could dance as prettily as any of them. — Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 8, “Dance at Grandpa’s”
‘You’re the fiddlin’est fool that ever I see!’ Mr. Edwards shouted admiringly to Pa. He didn’t stop dancing. Pa didn’t stop playing. He played ‘Money Musk’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ ‘Irish Washerwoman’ and the ‘Devil’s Hornpipe.’ — Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 5, “The House on the Prairie”
Arkansas Traveler is a traditional American folk song which tells the tale of a man who becomes lost in the Arkansas wilderness in the 1840s. His humorous encounter with a back country squatter produced a story which was developed into a stage play, famous from South to North in the 1850s. The lyrics are usually credited to Sanford C. Faulkner (1803-1874), an Arkansas farmer and politician, and is said to tell the story, which happened when Faulkner met a fiddler while traveling through Pope County on a political mission.
Edward Payson Washburn (1831-1860), an Arkansas artist, painted a picture of the story, which was lithographed and widely distributed by Currier and Ives.
The tune was popular with fiddlers, who could improvise the tune to reflect their skill level. In 1987, it became the official state historic song of Arkansas, to lyrics written in 1947.
Charles Ingalls plays “Arkansas Traveler” during the only two episodes in the Little House books which involve dancing by members outside the Ingalls family: for the dance at Grandpa’s in Little House in the Big Woods (most notably while his own mother and brother enter into a jigging competition), and while Mr. Edwards dances for the family in Little House on the Prairie.
In her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder included “Arkansas Traveler” as one of the songs Pa played on the fiddle in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and on the way back to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, from Burr Oak, Iowa. However, in the existing manuscripts for Little House in the Big Woods, she mentioned no specific songs in connection with the dance at Grandpa’s, and no jigging scene is included. “Arkansas Traveler” doesn’t appear in the manuscript for Little House on the Prairie, either. There, Wilder used “The Old Gray Mare.”
(words by David Stevens, circa 1850)
1. Oh, once upon a time in Arkansas
An old man sat in his little cabin door,
And fiddled at a tune that he liked to hear,
A jolly old tune that he played by ear.
It was raining hard but the fiddler didn’t care,
He sawed away at the popular air.
Though his roof tree leaked like a waterfall
That didn’t seem to bother the man at all.
2. A traveler was riding by that day,
And stopped to hear him practicing away
The cabin was afloat and his feet were wet,
But still the old man didn’t seem to fret.
So the stranger said, “Now the way it seems to me,
You’d better mend your roof,”said he.
But the old man said, as he played away,
“I couldn’t mend it now, it’s a rainy day.”
3. The traveler replied, “That’s all quite true,
But this, I think, is the thing for you to do-
Get busy on a day that is fair and bright
Then pitch the old roof till it’s good and tight.”
But the old man kept playing at his reel,
And tapped the ground with his leathery heel.
“Get along,” said he, “for you give me a pain.
My cabin never leaks when it doesn’t rain.”
(state historic song of Arkansas)
1. On a lonely road quite long ago,
A trav’ler trod with fiddle and a bow;
While rambling thru the country rich and grand,
He quickly sensed the magic and the beauty of the land.
[chorus] For the wonder state we’ll sing a song,
And lift our voices loud and strong.
For the wonder state we’ll shout hurrah!
And praise the opportunities we find in Arkansas
2. Many years have passed, the trav’lers gay,
Repeat the tune along the highway;
And every voice that sings the glad refrain
Re-echoes from the mountains to the fields of growing grain.
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Click on the images above to view a copy of undated sheet music of “Arkansas Traveler” which included one of many versions of the two spoken parts of the hit play from the mid-1850s.
This music is archived in the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, part of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music and focuses on popular American music from 1780-1960.
Click on the above images to view a copy of 1851 sheet music for “Arkansas Traveler.” This music was published by Pond, Firth & Co. in New York.
This music is archived in the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music Collection at the Library of Congress. The Collection contains more than 62,500 pieces of historical sheet music registered for copyright: more than 15,000 registered during the years 1820-1860 and more than 47,000 registered during the years 1870-1885.
“Arkansas Traveler” (BW 4, 8; LHP 5; PG)