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A VERY SPECIAL FLAVOR: Mother Lode Musical Theatre Performs Victorian Parlor Ballads and Saloon Songs from the Mid-19th Century

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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Robert Maxwell Stern


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On a February evening in 1843 four human caricatures in burnt-cork blackface, wearing white trousers and long, blue striped swallow-tail coats, appeared at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City. Their show was an olio of song, dance, Southern-Negro dialect humor, and in­strumental pieces played by a band com­prised of banjo, violin, bones, and tam­bourine. Well, they wrecked the place, they killed 'em, they tore the joint down! Other minstrel companies organized in a flash and opened in theaters throughout the east. Finally a "native theatrical" was born, and was off like a shot. At the same time, a more staid entertainment brewed.

In 1839 the Hutchinson family of Milford, Vermont, grouped together its 11 sons and two daughters and gave a vocal concert in the local Baptist meetinghouse. The packed-to-the-nave audience most generously applauded the program of songs, anthems, and glees. The family carefully planned and refined its act, cut the company to four sons and a daughter, and picked up sure-fire material such as Henry Russell's dramatic cantata "The Maniac," songs titled "Jamie's on the Stor­my Sea," "The Grave of Bonapane," and "The Snow Storm" (with its vivid narrative of a young mother trudging through huge and icy snow drifts carrying her baby of dubious vivification). This family group, immediately copied by many other such groups, toured widely around the country, always playing to huge audiences, and sang songs espousing temperance, women's suf­frage, and especially abolition, to which they were most devoted.

The craving for entertainment--songs, actually and mainly--by the American public was at an all-time height. It became mandatory in all theatrical entenainments for a stronger or more dramatic-voiced member of the troupe or cast to sing a ballad of strong sentiment. The songs had to do with various subjects: home (the leav­ing of, going back to, yearning for); mother and/or father (the love for or from, old, drunk, or, best yet, dead); children (the car­ing for, lost, begging, orphaned, or, again, dead); women (wronged).

The sentimental ballad had to have many verses and a chorus, of which only the chorus really mattered. What Americans wanted most of all were songs which could be sung by everyone. Sheet music sales were up, and a house was nowhere near a home minus a piano or at least a har­monium. Amateur music societies were the rage, and those who couldn't play, sing, or participate in some way were simply vulgar.

The first pan of this release deals with the Victorian ballad. This type of song fills the gap between classical an songs and saloon or minstrel songs. Victorian ballads were most singable, sentimental, and cer­tainly meant for family entertainment. Many of the composers of these parlor songs are unknown to us these days, with the exception of Stephen Foster, who was inarguably the most popular composer of the time. On this recording he is represented by one of his lesser-known numbers. The Mother Lode folks believe that in J.R. Thomas can be found a songwriter absolutely equal to Foster in melodic invention but superior in har­monic variety and accompanimental style. The accompaniments to the parlor songs heard here have been left as published.

The saloon songs in the second pan of the release were originally published with the melody and its text occupying the top line and a figured bass the lower. It was up to the accompanist to realize the chords at the keyboard with the appropriate figura­tions. Studies of the styles of mid-19th cen­tury pop pianists conducted by the Mother Lode people give reliable authenticity here. In the saloon songs we have the genesis of American Theatre music.

The Mother Lode Theatre of California is a most extraordinary group of young people, extraordinary not only for its splendid performance abilities but because it is a group of musical archeologists who also perform. The recording has the special flavor required by this type of music. The repertoire is both unbearably interesting and is most authentic; I wait with high hopes for a volume 2.

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