Friday, October 15, 2010

Early American Parlor Songs

Jeanette MacDonald pic from
Parlor songs are popular songs that meant to be performed in the home, specifically in the parlor which often was where a piano was kept. The songs were printed as sheet music and gained popularity as the number of households with money to purchase the music grew.

The appeal of parlor songs lay in their ability to capture deep emotion through a melody that was pleasant and easy enough for the novice to sing. However, if one chose to sing the song in public one was expected to have a better than average voice and the ability to express the desired emotion the song portrayed. In the article "The Performance of Parlor Songs in America, 1790-1860,"  Nicholas Tawa gives contrasting reviews  that highlight the performer's ability to capture the sentiment of the parlor song, including a review in a Boston newspaper that reports a singer as having "no soul" due to the nature of her over-ornamentation:

For example, because Angelica Catalani's performances of songs stressed her virtuosity through runs, cadenzas, and other rapid ornaments, and because she sang all her songs in a similar manner, a Boston audience judged her to have no "soul." Her singing seemed merely a "tissue of embroidery," John Rowe Parker, editor of the Boston Euterpeiad, writes, and adds: "All this was said around me." On the other hand, a skilled ballad-singer, Clara Fisher, "on one occasion" was able to sing "what was intended to be a ludicrous appeal to sympathy with such wonderful truthfulness of suffering, that a majority of the audience was overcome with tears."

The charm of the parlor song is how it leveled the playing field between professional and amateur. One does not have to have exceptionally high technical skills to master a parlor song. In fact, many of the preferred "ballad-singers" at the height of popularity of the parlor song were singers who were unable to excel in more challenging genres, as shown in the article excerpt above.

Listening: Reviews:

Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair (Foster), CD1, #17 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

This strophic piece was written by Stephen Foster, one of the most popular and prolific writers of parlor songs in the 19th century. The song is typical sentimental fare- the singer is longing to see their love who is no longer near, most likely dead. In this recording there are two female singers accompanied by an autoharp or dulcimer. The fact that the song is written from a man's point of view is of no matter as the singer is merely a vessel of the emotion of the song, as mentioned above. The accompaniment and vocal harmonies are fairly simple and defer to the melody, as they should. The singers' voices are pleasing, however the second singer has a strident tone to her voice and adds a bit too much personality in the form of slurs which can be distracting.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Early American Patriotic Song

pic from
As America was nearing a Revolutionary War, it was eager to remove itself from England in every possible way. Music was one of the easiest ways to do this. American composers, like William Billings, had already been attempting to establish a national sound in art music by shunning established rules and creating a new sound. However, not all English tradition was discarded when American lyricists began to write distinctly patriotic words to fit with popular English tunes; a sarcastic kick in the face to England and one that was not missed. The English would often reply with new lyrics to answer and a battle of musical wits began.

Listening: Reviews:

The Liberty Song (Dickinson), CD1, #6 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

One of the first patriotic songs to gain popularity was The Liberty Song with words written by John Dickinson in 1768.The words were sung to the tune of Heart of Oak, which was the British Royal Navy's anthem. Dickinson wrote the words in response to another round of taxes being levied against the colonies by Britain.

Dickinson may have written the piece in response to recent events, but a quick comparison of the lyrics of his song against the original lyrics of Heart of Oak written by Boyce will show that he also incorporated a reaction to them as well:

Heart of Oak                                                         The Liberty Song
Come cheer up, my lads! 'tis to glory we steer,          Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
To add something more to this wonderful year;                    And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,                No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?                      Or stain with dishonor America's name

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;              In Freedom we're born and in Freedom we'll live.
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!                         Our purses are ready. Steady, friends, steady;
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.                      Not as slaves, but as Freemen our money we'll give.

Dickinson seems to playing off of the original lyrics in referencing the idea of freemen and slaves and he makes a nice turn of the phrase "steady, boys, steady" by changing "boys" to "friends" which shows a deeper feeling of unity, as well as a sense of choice as opposed to duty.

The song is in a two-part form with a verse and a chorus in between. Often the verses would be sung by a leader(s) and the repeated chorus sung by a group of voices in unison in response to each changing verse. The song has no instrumental accompaniment. Although the song is sung in a steady rhythm, most likely left over from the original tune's use for heaving on the sea, it was most likely sung in a bar or tavern to rouse the spirits and gather like-minded men together. This could be an easy way for those who were revolution supporters to find others who felt the same quickly by starting up a chorus of the song to see who would join in.