Article Understanding the Music

Image: The Power of Music
[Power of music]. James Queen, artist, c1872.

In the middle of the nineteenth century many emigrants passed through Cincinnati, America's largest city in what was then considered the West. Of some of the motives for emigration, Timothy Flint, a missionary from Connecticut, wrote in his Recollections of the Last Ten Years (Boston, 1826):

There is more of the material of poetry than we imagine, diffused through all the classes of the community. . . . I am ready to believe, from my own experience, and from what I have seen in the case of others, that this influence of imagination has no inconsiderable agency in producing emigration.

Even Miriam Colt, who recalled her family's bitter experiences in Kansas in Went to Kansas: Being a Thrilling and Ill-fated Expedition to That Fairy Land--Its Sad Results (Boston, 1862), supports this view in recalling a dream her husband had on the eve of their departure from Kansas for perhaps a greener frontier back on the other side of the Mississippi:

My husband, though no dreamer, has just been relating to me the dream he dreamt last night. He said, "I dreamt that we left this place, and traveled a very long distance, until we came to a large river; then we stood on the bank considering how we were to get across it. Finally, we concluded to ford it; so you took one child and I the other, and soon came out on the other side. There we found a beautiful country--all kinds of fruit were growing spontaneously, and in abundance--every want was satisfied, and we were happy."

"A Life in the West" (or "The Emigrant's Song") is a good example of the kind of song that evoked visions of a promised land. It was written by an Englishman, Henry Russell (1812-1901), probably in the early 1840s to words by the American poet George Pope Morris (1802-1864). Perhaps the most fruitful part of Russell's career was spent in the United States during the late 1830s and early 1840s. As a popular songwriter and performer he belongs as much to America as to England, and among the many causes he championed through his art was emigration. Back home in the late 1840s and the 1850s, as an enthusiastic admirer of the American people--they had certainly shown their affection for him (all but some critics)--he evoked in some of his songs rather fanciful visions of the New World. He even produced a musical stage work, The Emigrant's Progress, consisting of a series of tableaux made to encourage his countrymen to seek the opportunities of the American frontier.

The abolitionists went west not for economic but for idealistic political reasons: "Ho! for Kanzas" (from The Western Bell [Boston, 1857]), whose text appears to have been written to the tune of Stephen Foster's "Nelly Bly" (1850), is more than a call for fresh opportunity. The freedom and liberty it mentions are not for the emigrant but for the slave. In 1855 Kansas elected a proslavery government as a result of the interference of Missourians who crossed the border and forcibly stopped Free-Soil voters at the polls. Thus began the struggle for dominance in Kansas between Yankee abolitionists who came to "plant beside the cotton bale/The rugged northern pine" (in the words of John Greenleaf Whittier) and the proslavery Missourians. Some regard the bloodshed that ensued as the true beginning of the Civil War.

Another motive for moving west may have been to escape from the hardships of crowded cities. Arthur W. Calhoun in A Social History of the American Family from Colonial Times to the Present (New York, 1945) cites the plight of Irish immigrants unaware of the vices of city life and speaks of an Irish traveler advising his countrymen on the merits of cheap western land over the urban squalor that awaited the poor foreign settler. Calhoun adds:

Thus even in the first half of the nineteenth century the contest between city and country was on, and their contrasting influence on the family noted.

"The Jovial Farmer Boy" (from The Day School Ideal [Cincinnati, 1885]) concerns the contrast between rural and urban life. The farmer boy is represented as an idealized carefree lad and is held up to schoolchildren as an edifying example.

Before the Civil War both North and South had been predominantly rural. But by 1876, in the midst of an international depression, the world's largest steam engine was the major attraction at the phenomenally successful Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. America was going far industrially, and cities were where important things were happening. Increasingly the whistling, jovial farmer boy would be regarded as a stay-at-home who failed to make the grade, or at best his caricature would be useful for the public educators' "Day School Ideal."

Pittsburgh rivaled Cincinnati as the fastest-growing city in the West, and she was unsurpassed in the industry that earned her the name "The Iron City." Yet "Wake Up, Jake" (or "The Old Iron City") is less about the city than it is a product of the city life that produced the kind of entertainment for which "Wake Up, Jake" was composed: blackface minstrelsy. Most readers will recognize four of the five titles advertised on the song's title page as Stephen Foster's, written when he was still a clerk in Cincinnati:

Songs of the Sable Harmonists consisting of The Lou'siana Belle, Away Down South, Susanna, Uncle Ned, Wake Up, Jake, or the Old Iron City. Arranged for the Piano Forte... Louisville, W. C. Peters & Co., --Peters, Field & Co. Cincinnati... 1848.

"Wake Up, Jake," by George Holman, seems to have been quite popular in its time; in 1861 it survived as an old favorite (though by the title "Wake Up, Mose") in a concert medley for brass band by the prominent New York bandleader David L. Downing (see "Free and Easy," recorded at and available from the Library of Congress on Our Musical Past: A Concert for Brass Band, Piano, and Voice, OMP-101-102 [Washington, D.C., 1976]).

The song is a comic dialect piece about a black railroad fireman from Pittsburgh. Even in their day this kind of song and the entertainments in which it appeared were met with mixed feelings. Perhaps Foster's own hesitancy in entering the songwriting business through minstrelsy reflects the general feeling that minstrelsy was low entertainment. There is little evidence, however, that caricature was the sensitive point. Early in the century, theater crowds were mixed; even the most eminent Shakespearean actors performing here, such as Charles MacReady and Edmund Kean, confronted mixtures of all classes in their audiences. It was perhaps the more exclusively coarse nature of the early minstrels and their audiences that made those who represented or aspired to gentility squeamish.

William C. Peters (1805-1866), the publisher of "Wake Up, Jake" and Foster's earliest songs, was born in England. As a child he moved to Canada, where he played clarinet in a British military band. He opened Pittsburgh's first piano and music store about 1823. In 1839 he was established in Cincinnati and in 1847 was cited in the Cincinnati Gazette as having "the most extensive [music-publishing] concern in the United States--with only two exceptions."

While Peters, an acquaintance of the Foster family, is best known as the first publisher of Stephen Foster's songs, he composed and arranged music himself and had published a piano arrangement of "Louisville March & Quick-step," a popular piece of the time, as his own. (Though there is no reason to believe he did not compose it, attributions on sheet music of the time are notoriously unreliable and we usually rely on supporting documentation, lacking in this case, to verify authorship.) Peters also compiled or composed the Drennon Polka Quadrilles (1849) to which "Frankfort Belle" belongs, and he wrote the typically flashy variations on the popular tune "Old Rosin the Bow" (1852).

The true organ is made of pipes, which may be imagined as giant whistles. The reed organ, in mid-nineteenth-century America and Europe, was an inexpensive substitute that is not without its own charm. The reeds were made to vibrate by suction in the American melodeon or by compression in the earlier European harmonium (see Percy Scholes, "Reed Organ Family," in The Oxford Companion to Music, ninth edition [London: Oxford University Press, 1955]). The household popularity of reed organs is attested by the number of extant instruments and the amount of music written for them. The "Galop"; from Murray's Method for the Cabinet Organ, by James R. Murray [Cincinnati, 1882]; our performance is on the piano) is a romping evocation of the common fare of the town brass band or of the dance hall with its solitary accordion or small orchestra.

An important kind of music common in the American family was intended to educate or edify. One such piece is "Sound of the Singing School" from The Pyramid of Song [Cincinnati, 1889], a five-part round that is a clever blend of solmization, practice in singing short and long notes, and rhythmic variety, with a touch of fun at the expense of stuffy schoolmarmish admonitions.

Singing schools were originally organized in eighteenth-century New England for religious purposes and flourished during the next century in the South and what was then the West. The use of solmization suggests the practice still preserved in the Sacred Harp tradition of the rural South, in which the congregation first sings the hymn without text but declaiming the "fa-sol-la" syllables appropriate to the notes. Many eighteenth-century compositions by William Billings and others who established and worked in the New England singing schools are intended to be performed this way. (For the New England tradition see David P. McKay and Richard Crawford, William Billings of Boston [Princeton, 1975]. For a recording and bibliography of the Sacred Harp tradition see George Pullen Jackson (ed.), Folk Music of the United States: Sacred Harp Singing [Washington: Library of Congress. Recording Laboratory, AAFS-L11]. Also see New World Records 80205-2, White Spirituals from the Sacred Harp, and 80433-2, The Colored Sacred Harp.)

The most important music educator in nineteenth-century America was Lowell Mason (1792-1872), whose goal was to introduce music into the school curriculum so that children learning the subject at an early age could develop a fine appreciation of art music. (However, while much of his work is didactic, he did compose some memorable hymns, of which "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" is probably the most famous.) The Sacred Harp, or Eclectic Harmony (Cincinnati, 1835), one of his earliest publications, must not be confused with the collection of the same name by B. F. White and E. J. King (Atlanta, 1844) that, after many reprints, is still the standard tunebook for the Sacred Harp tradition in the South. Mason's Sacred Harp represents part of a career whose aim was contrary to what developed in the Sacred Harp tradition. That tradition has become a part of America's folk life that the academic, Bostonian Mason would probably have deplored. (For a discussion of Mason, see notes on his son William in New World Records 80257-2, The Wind Demon and Other Mid-Nineteenth-Century Piano Music.)

Another didactic piece is the duet and chorus "Where Home Is"; from The Day School Ideal [Cincinnati, 1885]), by George Frederic Root (1820-1895), a young contemporary of and frequent co-worker with Lowell Mason. Root wrote secular as well as sacred music, and his popular songs of the Civil War remain his most famous: "The Battle Cry of Freedom," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching," "Just Before the Battle, Mother," and "The Vacant Chair." (See New World Records 80202-2, Songs of the Civil War) He was also successful in the music business, joining his brother in the Chicago firm of Root & Cady in 1858.

"Where Home Is" introduces the familiar "Home, Sweet Home" in the style of a very simple choral prelude. Following the duet, the chorus continues while the tenor sings the last strains of the tune. Another interesting appropriation of "Home, Sweet Home" appears earlier as a hymn, "Sweet Home," in a German-American tunebook ( Deutsches Choralbuch [Cincinnati, 1852]). The original tune was composed by an Englishman, Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1855), for his opera Clari, the Maid of Milan, of 1821, and the familiar words were added in 1823 by the American author and actor John Howard Payne (1792-1852). Carl Engel's Discords Mingled (New York, 1931) contains a thorough history of "Home, Sweet Home."

No other song of the early nineteenth century so fully epitomizes the sentimental longing for home. The tradition of such songs in the English language is the subject of scholarly attention in William W. Austin's "Susanna," "Jeanie," and "The Old Folks at Home": The Songs of Stephen C. Foster from His Time to Ours (New York, 1975; see especially Chapter 7, "Foster and His Public in the Tradition of 'Home Songs'"). That Americans of the early Republic knew the literary tradition of such poets as Robert Burns (1759-1796), Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), and Thomas Moore (1779-1852) is relevant not only to the study of Foster but to the history of music in society throughout the nineteenth century. For a broader and radically different view of the home in popular music the Hungarian music historian János Maróthy makes interesting reading, whether or not one shares his Marxist viewpoint ( Music and the Bourgeois and Music and the Proletarian [Budapest, 1974]).

Another of Root's pedagogical pieces is "The Old Canoe"; from The Day School Ideal [Cincinnati, 1885]). This didactic but evocative piece, with its rhythmic, rocking refrain, explores, as the editor describes it, the "recitando" style, familiar today to those who have fathomed the mysteries of "English chant" in the back of Episcopal hymnals.

Sacred music of a more rustic type than that of Mason, Root, or their followers is found in The Concordia (Cincinnati, 1865), from which several examples have been recorded here.

The compiler of the collection and the composer of the fervent "Firmament" was the Reverend Augustus Dameron Fillmore (1823-1870). He first came to Cincinnati to study medicine, but turned to the ministry of the Christian Disciple Church. His talents as a singer and composer served him well in his evangelistic vocation. Toward the end of his relatively short career he published some dozen collections of sacred and temperance music, including pieces of his own composition. These collections marked the beginning of a family publishing business that became the well-known Fillmore Brothers Company, incorporated in 1902. After Rev. Fillmore's death his son, James Henry Fillmore, expanded into publishing and selling band music.

Rev. Fillmore was not cast in the same mold as Mason or Root. His compositions, which include "The Blessed Bible," "Henry," and "Ohio," have a rustic energy that suggests a self-taught evangelistic musician rather than a polished Bostonian academician. Yet in The Concordia, among his own technically more primitive and individualistic settings, he included numerous relatively correct pieces such as "Ives," by the New England compiler and composer of the same name. (The similarity between the melody of its third strain, "While the billows near me roll," and the familiar Irish tune "The Minstrel Boy Has Gone to War" is certainly accidental, however striking.) Elam Ives, Jr. (1802-1864), was associated with Lowell Mason, with whom he issued The Juvenile Lyre (Boston, 1831).

While American education was characterized by separation of church and state, secular educators and representatives of the churches agreed that education was to serve a moral purpose. This concern was manifested in many ways, outside as well as within the classroom or church.

An early and influential book of advice to parents, mothers in particular, provides some relevant background to such moralizing pieces as "You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry"; from School for the Parlor Organ, Melodeon and Harmonium [Cincinnati, 1876]. John Abbott's The Mother at Home (New York, 1834) stresses the importance of authority with admonitions as frightening to the parent as the applied principles were hard on the child:

And, mother! look at that drunken vagrant, staggering by your door... That wretch has a mother... You cannot now endure even the thought that your son will ever be thus abandoned.

And later:

Neither is it enough that a child should yield to arguments and persuasions. It is essential that he should submit to your authority.

The lesson of this song--somewhere between the extremes of Abbott and Dr. Spock--is that parental advice tempered by hard experience produces the best results.

And, apropos of Abbott's picture of the drunken vagrant, the temperance song also made its regular appearance in all types of popular songbooks. James R. Murray, the composer of the "Galop" heard here, also composed the temperance song "Who'll Buy?" (from The Pacific Glee Book [Cincinnati, 1869]). In spite of its boisterous mood, it is no comic parody but a genuine campaign piece against the intemperance it so vividly and entertainingly portrays.

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