The Search for the American Sound, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
Stephen Foster

The Search for the American Sound – 2

It was 1849. Rome was declared a republic under Mazzini, Bernard College for Women was founded in London, the speed of light was measured with the greatest accuracy yet, and David Livingston was exploring Africa. “David Copperfield” was the book to read, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” scored as a hit opera in Vienna, and “Who’s Who” appeared for the first time.

Zachary Taylor become our 12th president after a campaign in which bands played “General Taylor’s Gallop” and sang lyrics like

We’ll sing a song to suit the times

                        With voices bold and steady,

                        And cheerily we’ll tell in rhymes

                        Of good old Rough and Ready

to the music of “Yankee Doodle.”

In towns like Keene, NH, music festivals such as the 1854 Cheshire County Musical Institution were founded and hundreds would flock to them to sing. Lack of funding, alas, finally brought most of them to an end.

Around the same time, many people decided that this country had a Manifest Destiny (manifest to those who made the decision, one would assume) to expand to the Pacific coast. This concept of the territories to the west of the Mississippi sounded a lot like the concept of the Promised Land, and so a good deal of vocal music took on a very non-Bachian sound of the type collected in “The Sacred Harp” and “Southern Harmony.”

Of course, 1849 is better known for the Gold Rush, an even stronger incentive to move west. It has been said that men never worked so hard to become wealthy enough to never work again. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs such as “Camptown Races” were chanted as they optimistically followed the sun.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

At the same time, the Creole population in the New Orleans area was giving birth to a new kind of music. Many such songs were of a very sad nature, such as the lament for a dead child, “Salangadou.” Louis Moreau Gottschalk was taking the complex rhythms of songs like “Bamboula” and composing even more complex variations for piano virtuosi.

In what is now called the Sentimental Age, composers like Foster were spinning out “name songs” like “Jeannie with the light brown hair,” Aura Lee,” and other woman-as-goddess works that helped delay female suffrage for many decades more. The fact that many of these women were dead was squarely in the tradition of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and Burns’ “Flow gently, sweet Afton.”

Sweetly she sleeps, my Alice Fair,

                        Her cheek on the pillow pressed

                        Sweetly she sleeps, while her Saxon hair,

                        Like sunlight streams over her breast.

White dancers imitating black dancers imitating and making fun of white dancers!

And all the while, songs like “Old black Joe” with its “gentle voices” assured us that all was happy in the land of cotton. Actually, the Minstrel Show craze began with the black slaves dressing up one day in the year and mimicking  the high and mighty airs of their white masters. They would strut up towards the judge’s table and the winners would be awarded a cake. Hence the strutting became known as the Cakewalk and “That takes the cake” became a common expression in American English!

When done on a stage, the black performers were able to earn money but at the price of perpetuating the stereotype of the stupid but happy African. One composer-lyricist decided to compliment his fellow blacks by likening them to the raccoon, a very smart animal who knew how to survive. Unhappily, he used the abbreviation “coon” and the results were quite the opposite of what was intended.

So by now, the music heard outside of concert halls was not quite American, but it was definitely getting away from its European roots. But a lot was going to happen at the end of the 19th century when American music did find its voice.

71q9HByrqbL._SX450_Recommended recordings. From Vox, “The Great Sentimental Age: Songs by Foster, Ives, Hawthorne, Hanby & Others” (CDX 5016) and “Homespun America: Music for Brass Band, Social Orchestra, Choral Groups From the Mid-19th Century” (CDX5088). From New World Records, “Where Home Is: Life in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati” (80251-2).