Goin’ to Cripple Creek, goin’ ter Roam,
Goin’ ter Cripple Creek, goin’ back home.
See them women layin’ in the shade,
Waitin’ fer the money them men have made.
Roll my breeches ter my knees,
En wade ol’ Cripple Creek when I please.
If you’re a true child of Appalachia, you’ve probably heard this old time Appalachian folk song a time or twiggle o’er the course of your life. Pair a bearded southern man’s lonesome melodious twang with an upbeat banjo and the scraping piercings of a mountain fiddle and the result is nothing less than bluegrass gold — the standard of all Appalachian homegrown music.
Learning to sing or play Cripple Creek is a right of passage for mountain musicians in the hills of Appalachia; however, for a song that’s so embedded into the culture of the southern highlands, there’s a large degree of mystery and controversy surrounding the classic melody; some musical historians argue that the song isn’t even Appalachian but a story from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Standing 9,494-ft. above sea level, Cripple Creek, Colorado, was long seen as a worthless high valley until the autumn of 1890 when a chance discovery led to the last great Colorado gold rush.
Thousands of prospectors flocked to the region and before long one of the largest gold strikes in history was made — in three years, the population of the Rocky Mountain town increased from five hundred to ten thousand.
By 1900, Cripple Creek had become a substantial mining community and like their Appalachian coal mining brothers Back East, the gold miners in Cripple Creek, Colorado, found themselves in war with mine bosses and the local & state government.
Like West Virginia’s mine wars, the Colorado Labor Wars, claimed a countless number of lives and solidified communities such as Cripple Creek as being iconic names forever linked to the working man.
As national papers across the country were detailing the horrors of Cripple Creek, Colorado’s labor battles, simultaneously, singers in Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas were singing the words to a new song whose lyrics proclaimed, “Goin’ to Cripple Creek, goin’ ter Roam, Goin’ ter Cripple Creek, goin’ back home.”
This leads many historians to conclude that the song’s origins are clearly linked to the Colorado community.
At this stage, so much concerning the song’s conception has been lost to history and it will probably be impossible for historians to decisively conclude the origins of the song, but even doubting the song’s Appalachian roots may be considered fight’n words along Southwest Virginia’s New River.
In places such as Wythe County (home of Cripple Creek, Virginia) or in neighboring Grayson County’s community of Fries — a town of 450 which claims to be the true birthplace of country music — there’s no doubt among locals as to the song’s Appalachian origins.
Residents there say the song is unquestionably referring to Cripple Creek, Virginia, an unincorporated hamlet ten miles south of Wytheville, which was built on the banks of a small tributary to the New River called… wait for it… Cripple Creek!
The Appalachian community of Cripple Creek, Virginia, flourished in the early days of America, with iron furnaces and nearby lead mines fueling a local economy built upon mining and smelting.
It seems that the Virginia argument may have more than local pride on its side, too.
In 1915, the song was published in The Journal of American Folklore, with a simple footnote at the bottom which described Cripple Creek as “A well-known mining district in Virginia.” (See below):
It’s not just the location of the song’s title that is debated, but also the very first line.
Some say the first line of the song is: “Go’n ter Cripple Creek, go’n ter roam…”, while others say it’s “Go’n ter Cripple Creek, go’n ter Rome…”
The second line tells us that the song’s narrater is go’n back home, but what we don’t know from the first line is whether home is in Rome or if he’s simply going to roam!
If we say that the first line is Rome, this then invites a whole ‘nother level of debate and mystery, as the lyrics are either speaking of Italy, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York or Tennessee.
We can quickly determine that the odds of an Appalachian Mountain song being about Italy are slim to none, as well as Pennsylvania and New York. So we must then turn our attention to Rome, Georgia, and Rome, Tennessee. Tennessee’s Rome is located outside of Nashville which so happens to be an influential musical city, while Georgia’s Rome is located in the northern corner of the state at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains — fortunately, there’s no Rome, Colorado, to further complicate things!
The bottom line — Cripple Creek is one heck of a confusing and mysterious song when one starts analyzing the lyrics and history of this bluegrass classic. Our take is this — the singer is going to Appalachia’s Cripple Creek, but whether he’s going roam or Rome, that’s one we’re not even going to touch.
Perhaps this song is best left to the musicians and far from the historians.
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