The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song.
The influence of the Vincenzo Bellini and Gioacchino Rossini "school" of Italian opera on early American vocal music was considerable. With the simultaneous craze for antique and exotic settings expressed, for example, in the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, the market developed for genteel ballads of love, loss, and longed-for vanished ideals. Maidens were pure, suitors were humble and chivalrous against a setting of arpeggiated chords, and there wasn't a laugh in a carload. Against this secondhand gentility sprang up the minstrel show: catchy melodies, outrageous and amusing caricature, and in its later stages, eye-filling spectacle.
Finson's history of the racial, societal, and theatrical factors that went into minstrel show stereotypes is a brilliant and perceptive overview that sets the form into a Bosch-like canvas filled with perfectly detailed, often grotesque shapes. Elements such as Andrew Jackson Populism (p. 165), the carnivalesque, which is an "inversion of rank ... and prohibitions," (quoted from Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984]), and the folkloric, amounting to a sort of folksy style with a city attitude, contributed to the mix. The author's inclusion of Bayard Taylor's contemporary description of the audience at a minstrel performance and the "curious expressions of satisfaction and delight in the faces of the overland immigrants" (p. 159), sets up the premise of chapter 5, "Antebellum Minstrelsy and the Carnivalesque," in which Finson explores the attraction of a lost paradise and the perceived freedom and happiness of its primitive inhabitants, a theme sympathetic to all dispossessed souls.
Finson writes eloquently of Edward Harrington and Tony Hart, two performers who, beginning their careers in minstrelsy, founded a repertory company in New York in the 1870s. With composer Dave Braham, Harrington wrote shows featuring immigrants and other denizens of New York's multiethnic community, producing the first musicals with a recognizably American feel. Starting with the "Mulligan Guards," Harrington and Hart followed their wild success with more "Guards," one of which featured a black marching company called "Skidmore Guard." In chapter 8, "Out of Many, One? Western European Ethnicity." Finson points out that service in the armed forces was one of the first steps toward assimilation into American society (p. 294). These "target companies" were founded in the 1830s in reaction against the city's existing militia groups, who refused entrance to immigrants (see E.J. Kahn, The Merry Partners: The Age and Stage of Harrigan and Hart [New York: Random House, 1955!, 81). As late as 1908 Ned Harrigan was still blacking up to appear as a Negro servant in the play Cameo Kirby by Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson (ibid., p. 298).
A theme that is developed in chapter 1, "The Distant Beloved - Genteel Romance before the Civil War," is the increasing Americanization of popular song from pastoral and aristocratic images to simpler themes and direct vernacular speech. As composers and poets emigrated from Britain throughout the nineteenth century they brought with them training in the much admired new fashion in songwriting, the bel canto. "This arched shape and relatively gradual ascent and descent facilitates an evenness of vocal production," that was imitated by composers such as Henry Bishop in "Home! Sweet Home!" (1823) and John Hill Hewitt in "The Bridesmaid" of 1836 (pp. 19-20).
The composer who would incorporate these influences into an elegant and recognizably new American voice was Stephen Foster. "Foster could translate chivalric distance almost perfectly into everyday terms and yet retain its ennobled air" (p. 39). Finson's claim that Foster "mastered every stylistic trend of his day" (p. 187), is borne out by songs as widely diverse in style as "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) and "Camptown Races." Foster's output gathers together all the diverse strains pouring into the river of popular music. He loved Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies; he may have heard Jenny Lind sing at one of her appearances in Pittsburgh in 1850 or 1851 (where at the first concert a rock was thrown into her dressing room by one of the rowdies who had whistled during her performance; see John Tasker Howard, Foster, America's Troubadour [New York: Tudor Publishing, 1943], 223). As is well known, Foster allowed his most famous "Ethiopian Melody," "Old Folks at Home" (1851), to appear under the name of E. P. Christy. Self-appointed arbiters of taste such as Dwight's Journal of Music declared that minstrel melodies "haunt the morbidly sensitive nerves of deeply musical persons, so that they ... hate them while they hum them." The same journal chastised a singer at a concert at Castle Garden for her "bad taste" in singing "Old Folks at Home" as an encore (ibid., pp. 215-16). The enormous success of the latter song and others for Christy's Minstrels finally led Foster to declare in a letter to Christy in 1852 that he would "pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame" (ibid., p. 213).
In chapter 7, "The Romantic Savage, American Indians in the Parlor," Finson reminds us that federal funds supported the missionaries who attempted to convert the noble savage from his nobly savage ways (p. 242). The often elevated musical style that attempted to mouth the Indians' sentiments betrays what Finson calls a "curious incongruity between subject and style" (p. 247). Henry Russell's 1837 "The Indian Hunter," for example, is filled with Italian ornamentation; Russell was able to use a simpler style in songs such as "Old Arm Chair" (1840) so the elaborate style may have been to help distance the subject as exotic and "other." As Finson poignantly concludes in chapter 7, "by means of this well-intended romanticization ... they gently consigned the aboriginal peoples of North America to oblivion" (p. 269).
I enjoyed Finson's summary at the end of each category - an impassioned and well-reasoned argument for each theme, in most cases. The point that stays with me is of the nineteenth century's supposedly morbid fascination and familiarity with death as seen from our sanitized perspective. Finson reminds us that people then had fewer of the supports that exist now to help us deal with the physical facts of death, quoting a man who for the first time in his life must lay out the corpse of a deceased friend (the one-line quote is indelible: "I shaved another man for the first time" [p. 84!). It brings home his point of our removal from so much of what was accepted over a century ago, and recalls us to the past with tactile and eloquent memory.
It has taken the marvelous reprints of nineteenth-century novels by Dover Publications to remind me that copyediting was once a more conscientiously observed profession. The ten or so errors I noted are not egregious, but in a $40.00 book meant as a basic text, I expect greater scrupulousness. While not seriously damaging, such errors leave a residue of uneasiness in the reader's mind.
Details are the lifeblood of any history worthy of the name. They remind us in this case that words - or songs - are but the enduring mirrors of a time lived in willful innocence, agonizingly slow to embrace the grail-like ideal of human equality, and yet perversely touching. Finson allows us a true glimpse of that past in the quoted melodies and judiciously chosen writings of the time, and he arranges it in a framework that enlarges and brightens our understanding of the human forces at play in the fields of song.
JOAN MORRIS University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1996|
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