Blue Juniata

Marion Dix Sullivan, 1844

What stereotypes of Native Americans are present in the lyrics and music?

What do these stereotypes tell us about the intended audience for this song?

Based on your knowledge of white settlers and US policy in the nineteenth century, do you think it is likely that many white people—the intended audience for the song—truly lamented the removal of Native Americans?

If white people would not have generally lamented the removal of Native Americans, how could this song have achieved such widespread popularity with white audiences and sheet-music buyers? Could the Native American have been seen as a symbol for a pre-modern age that many whites might have longed for?


"Blue Juniata," performed by Riders in the Sky on Pa's Fiddle Primer, Alliance © 2012. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Riders in the Sky is an American western music and comedy group that began performing in 1977. Their style appeals to children, and they are sometimes considered a children’s band. They have won two Grammy Awards and wrote and performed “Woody’s Roundup” for Toy Story 2 and the music for Pixar’s short film For the Birds. Visit them online at ridersinthesky.com.

View the lyrics for "Blue Juniata."

View the published score.

As is the case for many female composers of the nineteenth century, little is known about the composer of this song. Marion Dix (1802–60) was born in New Hampshire and married in Boston in 1825 to J. W. Sullivan, who is credited with writing the lyrics to this song. Generally, Dix Sullivan wrote ballads and sacred songs, usually with her own texts and many with pastoral or rural themes.

The parlor song “The Blue Juniata” was one of the most popular parlor songs of the nineteenth century, appearing in numerous published editions and arrangements. It is mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books as one of the songs sung frequently while she was young, and Mark Twain wrote about it as a song he heard in minstrel shows. It is the first song published by an American woman to achieve such a high level of popularity.

The Juniata River is a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which runs through central Pennsylvania. “Juniata” may be an adaptation of the Native American tribe, the Onojutta-Haga, that first inhabited the banks of the Juniata River. “The Blue Juniata” portrays the stereotype of the “noble savage,” a popular image among mid-nineteenth-century whites. It portrays Native Americans as virtuous because their supposed primitive purity is untarnished by modernity. The song tells the story of Alfarata, a young woman of virtue: she was graceful, appreciative of nature, musical, and loving. The narrator of the song laments that she has been gone for many years. The song comments on the vanishing Native American and laments the loss of their culture.

The musical setting is simple, in keeping with the nineteenth-century parlor tradition. However, somewhat unusually for a parlor song, it possesses a lively tone and occasional snappy rhythms. These characteristics perhaps explain why it became a successful crossover song between the parlor and minstrel stage.

Head waters of the Juniata by Henry Varnum, 1835.

"Head Waters of the Juniata" by Henry Varnum, 1835.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

 

Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at voices.pitt.edu/Permissions.html.