Salty Dog Rag

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The Salty Dog Rag is a traditional dance taught to all Dartmouth College freshman during First-Year Trips.

History

Dartmouth College is a place of tradition. Located in tiny Hanover, New Hampshire, traditions surrounding all aspects of college life abound. There is the annual bonfire, Winter Carnival and the ice sculpture on the Green, and traditions celebrated by the individual fraternities and sororities on campus. Dartmouth is also famous for the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC), which is both the largest collegiate outing club in the country and the first one ever formed (in 1909).

Dartmouth College began running “Freshman Trips” through the Dartmouth Outing Club in 1935. Today, 85% of incoming students participate in the trips. Dartmouth, located in a remote area, draws many students interested in the outdoors. The activities students may choose from are varied. Canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, biking, climbing, organic farming, and trail-working are among the many options available to students. The Trips are available for all levels of fitness and physical condition. The common theme that all the trips share is a night of bonding at Moosilauke Ravine Lodge. At the Lodge, one of the most important activities is the “Salty Dog Rag.”

The “Salty Dog Rag” is an American folk dance. The choreographer and origin are unknown, but it is practiced all over the country. In 1952, Red Foley, a singer from Kentucky, recorded a song of the same name. Everett Blake, the DJ who still calls the Freshman Trip square dances, got a copy of the record (“yes, it was a record then!” said Mary Heller Osgood), and began to play it every year. The dance had not yet made it to New Hampshire, but it was on its way. The Kentucky singer’s song begins, “Away down yonder in the state of Arkansas/ Where my great-grandpa met my great-grandma,” and now it is sung in New Hampshire, making it truly a country-wide song.

I was lucky enough to correspond with the lady who began the Dartmouth tradition. Mary Heller, now Mary Heller Osgood, had learned the dance when she attended the Putney School. In 1972, her freshman fall, Heller heard the record played, but none of her fellow students on the trip knew the dance. The next year, Heller worked at the Lodge and taught the rest of the crew the dance. They danced at the square dance and taught it to any interested freshman, and a tradition was born at Dartmouth.

Dancing the “Salty Dog Rag” is a wonderful introduction to Dartmouth. First it is taught at registration, providing everyone a stress-free opportunity to mingle and introduce themselves. It is then danced at the square dance at Moosilauke Lodge three nights later. It is used to draw people who might be shy about participating into the action of the school from the beginning of their college careers. I met one of my current best friends when they put on the song and yelled, “Find a partner!” I grabbed the nearest guy and off we went, stomping on each other’s feet and laughing lots. There is total participation, and it does not matter what skill level people have. People with dancing experience and those with none start out on a level playing field. Freshmen learn the dance by imitating the leaders as they first dance slowly without music, and then put on music and dance much faster while the beginners try to keep up. Participating at all is far more important than dancing well. When a couple makes a mistake, they wait until a part in the song they know, and jump back in. There is much trampling on partners’ toes, laughter, and banter. There is no criticism, because dancing well is not the point.

While this dance is primarily used for entertainment, its return year after year as a tradition says quite a lot about the school. The song and dance are used as a very effective ice-breaker. Students who have never met join hands and dance. The dance cannot be done by oneself. A partner is absolutely necessary. But the couples dance as part of a whole, and everyone moves and turns at the same time, even though they’re not strictly all dancing together. Enjoyment is the main goal, but another is meeting people. There is forced cooperation with a stranger, and people must learn very quickly to work together in order to participate. It is performed at Dartmouth mainly when people are just beginning to get to know one another, and fosters a sense of community and being part of a larger whole. Keeping in touch with traditions makes students feel that they are connected to past Dartmouth as much as they are to the present. Although traditions adapt to new times, there is still a sense of connectedness that makes them pleasurable. Now the “Salty Dog Rag” is played from CDs and computers instead of records, but it is still the same song.

The dance was introduced to the college by a woman, significant in a time when coeducation was a recent move. There are no leaders in the dance. Both partners are equal participants. One of the lines in the song is, “if your partners zigs you’re supposed to zag!” The relationship is equal even when opposite. The dance can be done with a partner of either sex, but it is traditionally danced with a male and female partner. The partner relationship is friendly, fun, and good-natured, as both partners struggle to get the dance steps themselves and help their cohort.

The song “Salty Dog Rag” is filled with commentary on Southern life. The second verse begins, “Away down south ‘neath the old Southern moon,/ the possum’s up a tree and the hounds’ve treed a coon.” The song’s lyrics also give a vague outline of the dance and the instruments that go along with it. “They tune up the fiddle and they rosin up the bow,/ They strike a C chord on the old banjo,” gives history of the instruments traditionally used to accompany the dance. He begins to call the steps as well. “One foot front, drag it back,/ Then you start to ball the jack./ You shake and you break and then you sag,/ If your partner zigs you’re supposed to zag./ Your heart is light, you tap your feet/ In rhythm with that ragtime beat.” The song matches the dance’s lighthearted and silly nature.

The song and dance are part of an oral tradition. They are passed on year to year through personal contact with students who have learned them from other students. The continuous line of students teaching students is unbroken through the years, providing a sense of community and connection. Although only the freshman class learns the dance each year, the older students remember it from their own Trips. The common experience that almost all students share is a positive way of making the newest class feel involved. The dance itself has probably subtly shifted over the years. As an added challenge meant to awe the freshmen, the Lodge Crew will dance in double or triple time, a newer twist on the old dance. The tradition itself has evolved as well. While today the dance is taught to every freshman who goes on a Trip, originally only the Lodge Crew and a few freshmen danced to the record. Kathy Hooke learned the dance in Cambridge, MA, where she attended Friday night folk dances. When she came to Dartmouth, she popularized the dance among the freshmen. In her own words, “I caused some consternation among the lodge crew when I started teaching it to my fellow 'shmen - the lodge crew at that time danced it with much vigor but did not teach it to the 'shmen. I went on to lead many an instructional session on the volleyball court in the years to come.” The tradition, originally one passed down through members of the Lodge Crew, was therefore expanded in the 1980s to include all students as more students learned the dance.

Mary Heller’s contribution to Dartmouth was a significant one, but she did not even realize she was starting a tradition when she first taught the dance. “I didn't realize it was a DOC institution until about 10 years later when someone asked me about it,” she said. The tradition lives in on another way. Mary Heller Osgood’s son today attends Dartmouth. He is an ’03, and was taught the dance his mother introduced to the college during his freshman orientation trip (although she tried to teach him earlier). He said of his mother, “When she dropped me off she declined the invitation of an H-Croo member to learn the dance and didn't give them a history lesson.”

Used over the years to promote feelings of camaraderie and community, the Salty Dog Rag has become a part of Dartmouth traditions. It has evolved over time, but is still important in many of the same ways and for many of the same reasons today as it was when it was first danced. The members of the DOC and the new students on the Freshman Trips dance the Salty Dog Rag at Registration and at Moosilauke Lodge, and it is very important to the Dartmouth community. The song’s purpose is entertainment, but it functions as far more of an ice-breaker and welcome to school. The “Salty Dog Rag” says much about Dartmouth.

References

  • Christine Kopprasch, Music 004, Professor Matsue July 2004
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