An era of genteel music: weeping and gushing in America's parlors

On Maryland History

January 28, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

THE NEW GENERATION wanted songs of love and romance. In the decades following the Revolution and going into the 19th century, they had tired of patriotic odes and the ancient and tragic ballads of the old country. They were new and prosperous Americans enjoying the fruits of the factory and looking ahead to a world without trouble.

In his novel, "Swallow Barn," John Pendleton Kennedy, Baltimore's first serious and successful novelist, described a confrontation between the music of the past and the future. A group of young and wealthy people on a Virginia plantation asked an old musician for a song. He gave them a hearty rendition of "American Taxation" to remind them how their fathers and grandfathers had stood up to the imperious British.

The youngsters quickly shut him up. They wanted music that was "sentimental and pitiful." They wanted something that was "touching and sorrowful." They might have described what they wanted as the music of "peace and love," as a future generation would describe it. The old musician didn't know one song that fit that description. He was dismissed to perform on the fiddle:

"O share my cottage, gentle maid.

It only waits for thee.

To give a sweetness to its shade

And happiness for me."

That's the sort of sentiment that young people sought. Or perhaps they wanted something sad, and sad songs were soon available in mushy abundance.

"Your lot is far above me,

I dare not be your bride;

To know that you have loved me,

Will wound your father's pride,

Go, woo some high-born lady,

And he will bless your choice,

Alas! too long already,

I've listened to your voice."

The era of the parlor song had begun. It would flourish in the decades before the Civil War. And it was supported by the spread of the pianoforte, or piano, in wealthy homes. From about 1800, it became the favorite of women who had not bothered with the harpsichord and the guitar. Travelers to Baltimore and other cities reported that every prominent family had its piano. It was for the wife or the daughter in the household. Many learned to play it well, perhaps from someone like Anna Maria Weidner, who enjoyed great success in her native Germany, a success promised to the women of Baltimore.

Ownership of a piano had social significance. It was exhibited prominently in the parlor or the music room. It was genuine proof of gentility, a level above the rough and vulgar real world. To be genteel was to be admired, successful and accepted. It was entry into the middle and upper classes, part of the respectable citizenry of Baltimore or any other American city. Nothing could be more respectable than a family with a daughter or a wife tinkling on the piano, singing a sentimental song from one of the scores of new songbooks before admiring friends in the parlor.

Songbooks were cranked out like brooms on an assembly line. Plagiarism of sad, sappy and tragic songs were common.

Respectable Americans did have problems initially in what then seemed to be rapid changes in dance. About 1800 the cotillion, or quadrille, was introduced to the United States from France. This ancestor of modern square dancing was not much different than the many variations of the reel and the contradance. Two lines of men and women faced each other, then went into a variety of patterns.

The quadrille was limited to four couples. That wasn't the problem; its French origin was. Federalists ignored or denounced it at first while happy Jeffersonians adopted it as their own. Politics was soon forgotten and the cotillion rose into eminent respectability. The waltz, or valse, as it was first called and spelled, had a rockier entry into acceptance. Introduced in the 1820s, it was a radical change from group dancing. It had arrived here by way of Paris. That was suspicious enough. But the spectacle of couples clasping each other and facing each other as they whirled around a floor was shocking to prudish ministers. The dance was denounced by evangelicals as sinful. Small towns shied away from such licentiousness though it didn't bother the fashionable party-goers in Baltimore or New York.

They might waltz away an evening or sing their sugary parlor songs. The first major composer of the sentimental ballad was John Hill Hewitt, a failed sign painter and West Pointer who succeeded as a newspaper editor. For a time he was the editor and part-owner of the Clipper in Baltimore. His ballad, "The Minstrel's Return from the War," is regarded as the first successful ballad written by a native of America.

Hewitt is better known for his pioneering work in nostalgic songs of the South like "Take Me Home Where the Sweet Magnolia Blooms" and "Carry Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South." His most famous song was "The Knight of the Raven Black Plume" that some critics thought had a "hackneyed cavalier theme" with a melody plucked from the classics. During the Civil War, Hewitt drilled Confederate troops in Richmond. He returned to Baltimore and died here in 1890.

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