"Oh, My Darling Clementine" > IDEAS & IDEALS

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"Oh, My Darling Clementine"

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One of the particular joys in travelling abroad is to visit a place that is known to us through a song. To set your foot on it is a unique experience. It enhances the excitement of the trip. Napoli, Sorrento, Capri were more than just beautiful places for me when I saw them for the first time in my life. The fact that I came finally to the home of such songs as "Santa Lucia," "O Sole Mio," and "Torna a Sorrento" thrilled me and added much more to the scenic beauty of the region. Pleasure of arriving at and leaving Hawaii is always doubled by the exotic melodies of "Aloha Oe."

     And, songs related with the places often supplement what is lacking in view. Lorelei rock on the Rhein, for example, would have been simply a disappointment for me, had it not been associated with the song "Lorelei." The Colorado River I once happened to be near to when I stayed over a night at Colorado Belle, a casino hotel, in Laughlin, Nevada, was a river like any other river in the world, and there was no bright moon that night, but I felt so romantic and enchanted as I strolled along it humming the tune of "The Moon of the Colorado."

     In return, you can hear or sing those songs with more appreciation if you have the experience of visiting the scene of the song. The melody will immediately take you to the place again and enable you to relive the memorable moments there in your life. I can't hear or hum those Neapolitan songs mentioned above without recollecting the trip to the area years ago, visualizing vividly the blue, serene and peaceful waves of the Sorrento beach and smelling the sweet fragrance of the flowers in Capri Island.

     Last week I had an unexpected trip, occasioned by a song, back to Calico, a ghost town now but once Southern California's greatest silver mining camp in the United States. My six-year old granddaughter came home from her kindergarten, and as usual, boasted of her day's learning before me. She said proudly that she learned an English song and sang it: "In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner, a forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine. Oh, my darling, oh, my darling, oh, my darling Clementine, you are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.’’

     In 1881 three prospectors pitched camp near a range of mountains northeast of Barstow, California, in answer to rumored reports of silver deposits in that area. For three days they toiled with little luck, but on the fourth day, they were startled by a wild shout from one of the three: "`We've struck er, boys! Silver galore!" News spread fast and other miners rushed to the scene and the camp grew rapidly, but the place didn't have its name yet.

     The miners called a meeting to solve the problem in Hank's Saloon where such names as "Silver Gulch," "Silver Canyon," and "Buena Vista" were brought up, and they were about to settle for the name "Silver Gulch," when an old man called Shorty Peabody interrupted. Pounding on the bar with his cane he bellowed, "Boys! Let's call 'er Calico. She is as purty as a gal’s Calico skirt. That's what she is!" The name caught the miners' fancy and all arguments ended. The chairman of the committee rose and called attention: "Calico camp she is, Boys!" he announced. The following morning J.A. Delameter forwarded a petition to Washington for a post office, thereby establishing permanently the funny and singular place name we have today.

     Calico's decline and decadence occurred with dramatic suddenness, when, at the turn of the century, only after 16 years' glory and prosperity, high grade ore pinched out, and the price of silver dropped from $1.31 to 53 cents per ounce in 1896. Miners and businessmen moved to better diggings, leaving their homes and store buildings to the desert winds and coyotes.

     Calico I visited was not the old bustling town of 3,500 inhabitants, nor a completely deserted ghost town either. In 1950 the descendants of Walter Knott family, who had first discovered the Calico Mountains and grubstaked the miners, purchased the old town site and nearby mining claims to preserve it. By 1996, after years of building, planting the trees, and painstakingly gathering the old artifacts and instruments, they had restored most of the old town to its original glory.

     Walking along the sandy street of Calico under the merciless sun, I felt as if I were walking in history. It was a unique pleasure to see the physical aspects of the restored mining town with its old buildings, ore dumps, and the hundreds of shafts and tunnels. I could feel, more than anything else, the lusty and swaggering spirit of the bold, hard and kindly people who had lived, loved and labored there. It was a monument to the hardy breed of men and women who came to the desert in wild West to find their fortunes. Some found and made them, and some others found only and lost them again. I have visited some historical places in the United States, but no other place was like Calico.

     Then I heard very familiar melody coming from nowhere. It was "Oh, My Darling Clementine." I thought the song really belonged to this place. I turned my steps toward the place the tune was coming from. On the wooden floor in front of a souvenir shop, an old sadly looking man of about 50 or over was playing the old and rickety organ. As I stopped before him, he greeted me with a beaming smile. In spite of myself I sang the song to his organ. He seemed very happy to have a singing companion. Seeing that I had little inhibition for singing he began to play "O! Sussana!" with some liveliness, and I sang it with much pleasure. I put five-dollar note into the bottle placed beside the piano, shook hand and parted with him.

     My trip to Calico triggered by my granddaughter's song "Oh, My Darling Clementine" is over, but the old man who played the song on the organ still lingers. The lyrics of the song tell us that a miner lived with a young daughter in a mining camp. To his great misfortune and sorrow, one day, she was drowned to death by accident. The miner lost all hope and interest in life and just pined away, was buried beside his daughter Clementine. I wonder if the old man who played "Oh, My Darling Clementine" on the organ that day in lonely Calico has the same story to himself.
                                                                                                   (January 14, 2004)


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