Sooner or later, I suppose, someone is going to get wise to the hidden storyline of “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and demand the ballad be outlawed from the public schools. Generations of children have sung the story of the hardy traveling woman, Betsy, crossing the plains to California. The continental journey is the first obvious theme of the ballad.
Children remain innocent of the second storyline, the love theme, of Sweet Betsy, which has a whiff of the illicit. To begin with, “Sweet Betsy” is a number from Put’s Golden Songster, first published in 1858. Details of the life of the author, Old Put, are sketchy, but he had crossed the plains in 1850 and made a career as an entertainer in California, where he would be buried in Greenwood.
The audience for the song, however, is certain. “Sweet Betsy” is a music hall song. It was performed for entertainment in houses of amusement frequented by men in the rough-and-ready goldfields.
These were listeners who would not have been shocked to observe that at the beginning of the song Betsy sets out across the country with not her “husband” but her “lover Ike.” Following an ambivalent stanza along the Platte where Betsy “lay down to repose,” listeners would note another progression of the plot. The wagon breaks down “with a terrible crash,” and,
Out on the prairie rolled all sorts of trash
A few little baby clothes done up with care
Looked rather suspicious but all on the square
Through a series of misadventures Betsy shows herself competent to every challenge, whereas Ike, well, he is a piker—not much good in a pinch. Until somewhere out in the Great Basin Betsy collapses in exhaustion. Ike at first is mystified, but then he rallies to his heroic moment in the story. He assists Betsy to her feet, encourages her, and, in the words of the song,
Sweet Betsy got up in a great deal of pain
Declared she’d go back to Pike County again
Ike gave a sigh and they fondly embraced
And they traveled along with his arm around her waist
In California the two of them marry, but soon divorce, and the ending is somewhat of a farce. The story carries an important meaning for its times and audience, however.
On the overland trails, women had to assume all sorts of unaccustomed roles: cooking on the ground, hitching draft animals, caring for children in an open and dangerous landscape. Inevitably they became more independent. “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” however, assures men of the mid-nineteenth century that sooner or later, every woman needs a man around.
Today you can still ascertain the same message in the old ballad. Or—and this is the insubordinate part of it—you can conclude a strong woman like Betsy only needs a man around on rare occasions, and otherwise can take care of her own affairs, thank you.
This Pike County couple got married, of course
But Ike became jealous and abstained a divorce
Betsy, well satisfied, said with a shout,
“Goodbye, you big lummox, I’m glad you backed out!”