Johnny Whistletrigger

(Words by Bob Dyer 1993; tune traditional)
Bob Dyer—guitar and vocal; Dave Para—guitar and vocal; Cathy Barton—banjo and vocal; Dave Wilson—fiddle; Lloyd Hicks—drums; Lou Whitney—bass

Although this song does not date to the time of the Civil War, the melody is a traditional fiddle tune popular at that time and known by a variety of names including “Run, Johnny, Run,” “Run, Sinner, Run,” and “Run, Nigger, Run.” According to Arkansas folk singer, Jimmy Driftwood, the tune could date to the time of the late 18th century Whiskey Rebellion.

The words were written by Bob Dyer, who specializes in turning traditional subject matter relating to his native state into songs with the feel of the old ballads. The song is based on the exploits of a well-known “character” from Bob's home town of Boonville, Mo. His real name was John D. Hurt, but everyone knew him as "Johnny Whistletrigger," a nickname he acquired during the Civil War.

He, like many other Missourians at that time, was a Virginian, born in 1810. He came west with his family in 1826 and settled near Boonville where he spent most of the rest of his long life and raised a large family. He died in St. Louis in 1906 at the ripe old age of 96.

Around the time of Whistletrigger's death a number of stories about him appeared in the local newspaper signed by someone writing under the pen name of “Martigue.” These stories, three of which relate to his service with “Pap” Price during the Civil War, pretended to be stories that Whistletrigger told and were written in a kind of uneducated dialect.

Bob's song is based on the story entitled “Mr. Whistletrigger's Narrow Escape from Death,” which seems to be set about the time of the “Second Battle of Boonville” in September 1861.

Eighteen hundred and sixty one
Whistletrigger picked up his Long Tom gun.
Went down south with old “Pap” Price,
Fightin' for Missouri and for Southern rights.
They whipped General Lyon down at Wilson's Creek;
They mopped up Lexington in just about a week.
But things was gettin' hot for the butternut boys,
So they high-tailed it down into Arkansas.

Run, Johnny Whistletrigger, Federals'll get you.
Run, Johnny Whistletrigger, better get away.

Johnny got a hankerin' to see his wife.
He asked for a leave from old “Pap” Price.
Pap said, “Johnny, you can have your way,
But be back next month by the 14th day.”
Johnny rode his mule both day and night.
He made it up to Boonville and looked up his wife.
But early next mornin' at the break of day
Johnny woke up when he heard his wife say...

They took Johnny prisoner and they marched him down
To a fort they had built at the edge of the town.
They put him to work with the kitchen crew,
And Johnny said, “This'll never do.”
Late one night when the guard got drunk,
Johnny took a chance and he showed his spunk.
He made a grab for his Long Tom gun;
Smacked that guard and he started to run.

He ran till he came to the river bluff edge.
Climbed on down and hid in a cave.
Early next mornin' Johnny heard a man say,
“I think he's down there, don't let him get away.”
Well, Johnny busted out and took em' by surprise.
His Long Tom caught a feller right between the eyes.
He jumped in the river and started to swim;
Union boys all shootin' at him.

He swam on down to the Osage mouth;
Took that river and headed on south.
Just like he promised when he went away,
He reported in to “Pap” on the 14th day.
Old “Pap” made him a colonel on the spot.
His friends was amazed that he hadn't got shot.
He said he owed it all to his Long Tom Gun,
And knowin' when to stand and knowin' when to run.

© Big Canoe Records, 1993