Happy Wodensday, everyone! Hope your week is off to a good start.
This week, I’m researching music from the mid-19th century Civil War America, the setting of my novel (although it’s not a “Civil War” book, per se). Music is always around us, in public, on the car radio, at a restaurant, and of course in a movie or TV show. It helps set a mood, an atmosphere, a tone.
In period movies, music from the era is usually included to give the flavor of the time and accurately represent what people listened to. Quentin Tarrentino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, love it or hate it (or somewhere in between) has an excellent soundtrack from 1969, which is universally acknowledged as a great year in music, and he, like most directors, places great importance on the soundtrack.
But what about popular music before recording was invented by Edison? That bastard invented everything, didn’t he? How did music become popular before records, or radio, or tape?
As we know, classical music was very popular in Europe and concerts and operas were well-attended. The songs were available in sheet music and people played and sang at home, passing the songs on to family and friends. Musicians played in café’s and on street corners.
In the U.S., this was true as well. Songs were written for plays and other entertainment, and they were available in sheet music and eventually piano rolls for player pianos. Then, performers would travel from town to town and sing or play these songs for audiences.
My novel takes place in and around the Mississippi River, and so steamboats are unavoidable. The one image I always liked in old movies of the huge Mississippi paddlewheel steamboats was the sight of the boat from the shore and the songs and laughter coming over the water from the saloon or dance hall on the boat’s upper decks on a warm summer night.
There’s a scene in the book where the protagonist and his brother sit on the bank of the river in the evening in front of their home. It’s 1861, and there’s a steamboat floating by, and that called for a song that they might hear from the boat. And I can’t pick a song from 1870 because some nincompoop will find out and bust my chops.
The first one was easy: “Camptown Races,” originally “de Camptown Races.” Doo-dah, doo-dah, oh de doo-dah daaaayyy.” We all know that one. Now, despite the refrain of “Gwine to run all night, Gwine to run all day,” this song, while racist, was in comparison to other tunes of the time, pretty bland.
It was written by Stephen Foster, the single most prolific composer of minstrel songs, and was originally titled “The Celebrated Ethiopian Song/Camptown Races.” It was written by a white man for black people to sing, or more precisely, white people in blackface.
Mel Brooks used Camptown Races to great comic effect in Blazing Saddles when the white bad guys try to get the good black guys to sing and dance “de Camptown Races,” but the black guys don’t know the song (or pretend not to), so the white bad guys start to sing it end up dancing around like a stereotype of a black minstrel show, and the black guys get a good laugh at the foolish white idiots.
Another song was called for when one character is riding on a road with his horses in a thunderstorm and he wants to calm his young colt, Biscuit, so he starts to sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” This tune was published in 1858 and was already popular by this time. So I looked up the lyrics. The original song actually dates back to 1836. And was surprised by what I saw. This is a popular song recorded by many artists and I never recalled hearing the following lyric:
“There’s a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see, No other darkey knows her, no darkey only me.”
Wait, what!? Okay so there it is, a racial slur in a popular song. Sure, it’s the 19th century south and people called black people all sorts of hurtful, degrading and nasty words so why wouldn’t one show up in popular music?
But wait! Further research revealed that the song was likely written by an African-American minstrel singer about his true love, who was the yellow rose because she was a light-complexioned woman, hence yellow.
It’s actually a great story, wherein this woman, Emily West, a free young black woman from New England, for some reason moved to Texas and ended up basically in servitude to a plantation owner who fell in love with her, but she loved this minstrel guy and they had a secret love thing going on behind the plantation owner’s back.
Then, one day, the Mexican army under General Santa Anna comes through, plunders and burns the plantation to the ground, Santa Anna kidnaps Ms. West and takes her as his “travel wife” (you can’t make this stuff up. Well, I can’t.) and he continues his campaign against the insurgents in the Texas War for Independence from Mexico.
As legend has it, Ms. West, the Yellow Rose, was so skilled in the lovemaking department that she wore out Santa Anna in one night of lusty passion and he passed out and couldn’t be sufficiently awakened in time to lead his troops to defend a surprise attack by Sam Houston and the Texas Infantry. Santa Anna ran off in a shirt and silk undies and was captured. At the time, he said it was sad to be captured, but it was worth it.
Okay, he didn’t say that. I can’t guarantee any of the above is true, but it makes a good story, don’t it?
Later on, artists such as the great Waylon Jennings updated the song by removing the racist language. For example, he replaced “darkey” with “soldier.”
Thing is, Yellow Rose of Texas isn’t as racist as a lot of songs from that time. And of course, not all songs were racist. Some were funny, like a limerick, for example “Nothing to Wear” an 1857 song written by a woman in honor of another woman. The first verse:
Early in the morning as I was promenading,
Thro’ the streets of New York city fair
came a youthful maiden, Her heart with care o’er laden
because she discover’d she had nothing to wear.
Fun, right? It goes on like this for four verses, hinting naughtily that this woman was walking the streets of New York… IN THE NUUUUDE! Or “My Grandmother’s Lesson,” written in the voice of a woman about her grandmother who gave her advice, often, that all men were scum. Basically.
My Grandmother lived on yonder little green,
As fine old lady as ever seen,
She oftentimes taught and instructed me with care,
Of all false young men to beware;
Ti di um dum dum dum di-di-id-i-air,
Of all false young men to beware.
Men. Sheesh. Love that line where you can’t think of a rhyme and just use syllable-sounds. Then, there’s a great song written for a NY Opera company about a ghost cow. Yep. No joke. The Old Brown Cow. Oooh. Scary. Actually, not scary, as the old brown cow was a nice bovine who would never harm a soul, and of course, neither would her cow ghost. No boo, all moo.
And of course, there’s more racism, such as jauntily titled “The Aristocratic N*&%@r.” Yes, and you can bet your ass they don’t spell it that way. It’s meant to be sung by a very well-dressed black man. Written by a man named Bryant for his awfully racist minstrel show. We’re talking serious racism. And of course, there are a couple of songs from that old favorite, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
But there are also songs of hope, like the unexpected “Underground Railcar.” Here’s the first verse.
I’m on my way to Canada a freeman’s rights to share.
The cruel wrongs of Slavery I can no longer bear;
My heart is crush’d within me so while I remain a slave.
That I’m resolv’d to strike the blow for Freedom or the Grave!
O, Canada! Even then, when you wanted to get away from crap in America, Canada was the way to go. I hope he made it. No one is quite sure who wrote this, which is true of most if not all of the old spirituals and other songs sung by slaves in America.
There were other famous songs, like My Old Kentucky Home, that are still popular to this day in various parts of the country and culture. And A Farmer’s Wife I’ll Be, a male-penned feminist classic, to be sure.
We shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, except maybe to say we’re glad it’s not like that anymore. Except unfortunately, it still is sometimes.
Ooops, sorry. Didn’t want to veer into depressing or political. Where was I?
What have we learned? Anything? Sure. First of all, this post is probably about research, one of my favorite topics and one of my favorite things to do. And, also, it’s too long. So sue me.
When you click on one of those “50 Pictures From the Past That Aren’t Suitable for Audiences Today,” and go down some dark internet hole ending up with some weird information that you didn’t really need, consider two things: first, why did you click on that? Pictures from the past that aren’t suitable for today? Isn’t it the other way around? That’s stupid, and you are a knucklehead for clicking it. I know I am.
And second, when you do that, and spend a couple of hours reading about stuff that you never wanted to know in the first place but is still incredibly fascinating, remember: you’re not wasting time web-surfing. You are doing research. If anyone asks what you did today, just say “research.”
I didn’t do any research for Smoking in Bed: dreams of love, sex and terrorism. I just made it all up, much of it not even on purpose. Please read it when you can and drop me a note if you like it. If not, you can drop me a note anyway. Just lie.