American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘abolitionism

Variation on a Historical Theme

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I’ve been trying to get a fix on antebellum popular song, something that’s hard to do when you can’t read music. Something that’s probably hard to do anyway, since there aren’t any recordings. But even without reading music, it’s fun to nose around through the sheet music of the time. Something that’s easy to do thanks to American Memory, the Library of Congress website, which has an endless supply of it (drawn from the archives of Brown, Duke, and the Library of Congress itself).

What sort of stuff can you find there? Stuff like “Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe” (1853), an anti-abolitionist minstrel song with words by Charles Soran, music by Charles M. Stephani. I posted a page of the sheet music the other day, with a transcription of the lyrics. What follows are some contextual comments, of the sort I might make in the classroom … a first attempt to assimilate song to my account of the period’s poetic cultures.

I singled out this song in part because there’s a recording (link here) at one of my favorite websites, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture; in part because the song illustrates so nicely the way art takes shape in response to historical events. And by “events” I don’t mean the overarching events like slavery and class stratification that gave shape to minstrelsy as a whole (a subject treated extensively by scholars, my favorite of these being William T. Lhamon in Raising Cain). I mean the more easily forgotten episodes that produce topical songs. “Topical” as in a medicine: something applied to the surface of the social body. Of course, when hucksters sell medicine, the result is often poison, and that’s the case here.

I won’t be speaking of the song as song, only of the sheet music as literary artifact. Not that I lack interest in the music. Rather, I feel inadequate to the task, not knowing, for instance, how accurate the recording might be in its instrumentation, performance style, or adherence to the score. I will say, though, that the available rendition — by Japher’s “Original” Sandy River Minstrels — reminds me of a record I had as a boy, from which I learned a number of classic children’s songs, among them two minstrel numbers that outlived blackface: “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Oh! Susanna.” But to the sheet music… Read the rest of this entry »

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