Salty dog rag

This week’s Tobotorsdag concert featured playing by the Tierps spelmanslag, and sometimes also dancing by Strömbergs folkdansgille. I took a couple of quickie little movies I thought y’all might be interested to see:

  • The salty dog rag — showing its roots as a schottis variant. The tune we know for it was nowhere to be found; they say they dance it to any old schottis melody.
  • Hambo från Södertälje — A cute hambo-mixer variant.
  • Polkett mixer — when I was in grade school, this was one of the dances my mom taught to groups of kids. We called it patty-cake polka. If this group had a name for it, I didn’t find out about that.

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  1. mills
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    re: salty dog rag: how do we know this shows its “roots”? there are plenty of examples in the folk music world of songs which have made multiple crossings from, e.g., Britain to America and back, with minor adaptations. seems to me this could be just a reverse engineering of the SDR into Swedish culture.

    • lydia
      Posted July 29, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      well, i first heard the idea from Bob Dalsemer years ago but i didn’t ask him about his sources.

      today’s web scouting turns up this info from John Ramsay:
      “Salty Dog Rag is an American round dance with an interesting history. It is a schottische which threads back to 1906 and earlier. The song became popular after it was recorded by Red Foley, a native of Berea, Kentucky.”

      and this discussion thread!msg/rec.folk-dancing/2rshs1Ctjps/7A0fni_2nl8J
      “Dick Crum did some research when writing notes to a recording of it on one of the Aman records, but I believe he didn’t find a good source. It was taught at Folk Dance House in New York, probably more than 40 years ago, but no one there knew from whence it came.
      There is a dance called “Castle Schottische”, described in a booklet from Victor records (1915) (supposedly by the Vernon and Irene Castle), which is similar to Salty Dog Rag, and Richard Powers believes it may be the original source. There is also a slightly earlier dance called “The Ostende”(1910), which seems to me to be even closer to Salty Dog Rag in choreography. However, in the first decade or so of this century, there were lots of fairly simple choreographies for Schottische; the one that let directly to SDR is hard to determine, unless someone has some other evidence.”
      “the dance is really a schottish variation. The original variation was done by Vernon and Irene Castle as The Castle Shottish. It consisted of two figures. The one with the out-in heel bit was added, and the dance as now done is ABCBABCB….”

      this thread also points to an article in the 1994 edition of the Folk Dance Problem Solver from the Society of Folk Dance Historians, which article i then even managed to track down from its author Ron Houston. in it he writes,
      “In the 1960s, Salty Dog Rag became just another American schottische such as Ostende or Vernon and Irene Castle’s 1915 Castle Schottische, losing its energy, ragtime style, improvisational nature, and, quite frankly, a lot of its interest.”

      but it is true that i still don’t know a lot about the origins of the phenomenon whereby there would be “just another American schottische.” i may get more info from Bob Dalsemer & John Ramsay.

    • lydia
      Posted July 30, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      more details from Bob Dalsemer (posted with his permission):

      Hi lydia,

      Yours is the second inquiry I’ve had this month about SDR. I always thought it was a schottische, but it was confirmed for me when I found a dance called Skøjteløberdans in the Sving Egen collection of Danish Folk Dances (for a while in the 1990’s my ex and I were US distributors of the English language edition).

      Here’s a Youtube video of a Danish Folk Dance group in Argentina:

      The only unusual thing in that video is that they start on the left foot. The Danish dancers in the video that accompanies Sving Egen start right foot.

      John Ramsay and I have had some correspondence about the origins and he pointed out a strong resemblance between SDR and the Castle Schottische as introduced in the early 20th century by famous American ballroom dance teachers Vernon and Irene Castle.

      Red Foley’s recording came out on the 1950’s and it seems logical to me that someone, probably an international folk dancer, rearranged some version of either the Danish folk dance or the Castle Schottishe to fit the recording – probably adding the third part with the heel touches. Most dancers around the country and most published versions have the dance as starting with the right foot. For some unknown reason dancers from Berea, KY have always started left foot, like the danish dancers from Argentina. They used to do it that way in Brasstown too, until I reintroduced it a decade ago.

      I hope that’s helpful.


  2. Posted July 30, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    The heel figure is of special interest. It is, I thought, distinctive to Salty Dog Rag. I have not seen the heel figure in any of the 19th century descriptions of the schottische. But, Lydia has posted a Swedish group using the heel step in a schottische danced to a clearly Scandinavian schottische tune. Bob’s Danish group also use a Scandinavian schottische tune—but no heel step. Berea did have a link with the Hermans in New York City; Rush Butcher and Foster Burgess, Berea Country Dancers, attended the Hermans’ dance camps. Perhaps they brought Salty Dog Rag to Berea, although that is not likely because they graduated before Foley recorded the song. I don’t recall when nor where I first learned it. But, I know that I learned the Scandinavian schottische and a series of figures for it (but not the heel step) to Scandinavian tunes in Berea in the late 1940s and early 50s both from Georg Bidstrup and from Butcher/Burgess.

  3. lydia
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    further help from John Ramsay:

    We do know that the Castle Schottische was published in 1915 by the Castles. Its figures are very similar to Salty Dog Rag. The Castle Schottische in turn is almost identical, stepwise, to Mahler’s Ostende published in 1910. And Ostende is simply an embellishment of an earlier couple dance popular in Victorian times.

    I do not have any link between the Castles and Mahler. But we can create a timeline:
    1840-1900 (Victorian), 1910 (Mahler), 1915 (Castles), 1952 (Manning and Smith).

    The schottische dates back to Civil War times. It was a couple dance following on the heels of the waltz and polka. The polka, a Czech theatrical dance, became within a year or two the latest fad in USA in 1834 according to Frantisec Bonus. The schottische and a whole series of other couple dances followed. The polka became “old hat.” People, or at least each generation, always want something to replace what has become too standard. These dances all made the rounds of western societies. The Scandinavians, I have found like you, still love the schottische. They have a nice array of variations many of which would have been common in the United States.

    It could well be that the Swedish dance you saw has no direct link to Salty Dog Rag. We do know that Salty Dog Rag as a “round dance” was choreographed by Manning and Smith in Texas (I have documentation somewhere). Gottlieb has found a further reference: “a note in the April 1956 issue [of Sets in Order] that Manning and Nita Smith credit Leland and Frankie Lee Lawson as originating the dance.”

    It is possible that the Scandinavians learned Salty Dog Rag from Berea Dances when we visited them in the 1980s to 90s. [Or a youth dance exchange group sent from Berea to Denmark in the early 1970s.] I think it more likely that Salty Dog Rag was inspired by the old schottische which, in Scandinavia, has remained pretty stable over the past 150 years. There are hundreds of schottische tunes to choose from. I am dead certain that Berea dancers did NOT overlay the dance on Red Foley’s recording; I don’t think anyone even made the connection between Salty Dog Rag and Berea until I, in the 1970s realized that Red Foley was a native of Berea. Because of that link, I used Salty Dog Rag in our dance programs. The Castles could well have had a link with Scandinavians but I think the link with Mahler in St Louis is more likely.

  4. lydia
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    One more round, this time from Ron Houston, who is a Trustee of the Society of Folk Dance Historians. The first bit is the SDR “background” he published in his 1994 article in the SFDH’s Folk Dance Problem Solver, the second bit is his contribution to this conversation now. Both posted here with his permission.


    Jack Sankey’s presentation of this American creation at Stockton Folk Dance Camp in 1955 bears musical, stylistic, and subtle choreographic resemblance to Porter’s 1937 description of an improvisational, Ragtime-style Cakewalk. Mynatt and Kaiman support this theme with their 1968 description of a “basic” motif and 4 variations, although their variations start onto the left foot. In Mynatt and Kaiman, Mary Ann Herman credits Frank Hamilton as the source of Salty Dog Rag, citing the 1957 American Round Dance Handbook. Sankey’s version also appeared in American Squares advertisements as early as 1957.

    Now the story gets weird. In the 1960s, Salty Dog Rag became just another American schottische such as Ostende or Vernon and Irene Castle’s 1915 Castle Schottische, losing its energy, ragtime style, improvisational nature, and, quite frankly, a lot of its interest. Mynatt and Kaiman also presented in 1968 a 6th pattern which is essentially the Castle Schottische, and then presented a variation on that pattern which is the first half of Salty Dog Rag as it is commonly danced today. By 1969, all descriptions were of the full contemporary version.

    The people who posted comments are not incorrect, but they simply did not have the resources. No one mentioned Jack Sankey’s 1955 description [pdf] or Porter’s description of the Cakewalk. And that “heel-step” figure came later. I believe Sankey presented the dance at the 1954 Square Dance Dude Ranch, but I cannot locate that reference.

    Recreational international folk dancing spread from America to Europe, losing most of the dance histories. Good examples include All-American Promenade (Allemannsmarsj), Gay Gordons Mixer (‘t Smidje), and Cherkessia Kfula. It takes a rather specialized library, such as ours, to advance folk dance history beyond what is found today in Europe or
    what is on the Internet.

    Polka (~1840) and schottische (~1850) spread quickly from Central Europe throughout non-Ottoman Europe and the European diaspora. The emphasis on Scandinavian schottische probably reflects the greater number of Scandinavian immigrants to North America. For example, Slovene-Americans also have the schottische, but there aren’t as many Slovenes as Scandinavians over here.

    Just my thoughts.