Popular song in America, part 5: some early American song-writers

Nineteenth-century America’s greatest song writer, Stephen Collins Foster, owed much to a variety of musical influences. Earlier posts in this series have shown the amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian influences that led to the first distinctively American style of song. The first recognized American form of entertainment added detailed (if racist) observation of the dialect and mannerisms of African slaves to make up a separate genre, the plantation song. With its choral refrains and other innovations, plantation songs in turn influenced other American song writers who were not at all involved with minstrel shows. At about the same time, a growing appreciation of German Lieder enabled American song writers to explore more independent accompaniments and more chromatic harmonies. This post will examine some of the important composers in the generations leading up to Foster.

Francis  Hopkinson claimed to be the first native-born American to compose music. He claimed too much, but he was the first to compose and publish secular songs for solo voice and keyboard accompaniment. His Seven Songs for the Harpsichord, published in1788, are a landmark in American musical history, but they seem to have made little impression at the time. Indistinguishable in style from the output of popular English composers, they did not sell well enough to justify a reprint and did not appear singly in any anthology.

The 1817 celebration of the Fourth of July in Boston featured a choral concert that, among other things, included two songs by Oliver Shaw of Providence, Rhode Island–the first time an American composer had been so honored. Instead of offering up imitations of songs by Arne, Hook, and other English song writers, Shaw demonstrated a thorough familiarity with the styles of Handel and Haydn as well. His songs exhibited a polish comparable to that of the finest composers Americans had ever heard, so most of the audience simply assumed that a European had written them. His first successful song,”Mary’s Tears” (1812) remained in print even after Stephen Foster wrote most of his best songs, but his style did not keep up with the times. His last songs attracted little interest.

The single best-selling song in America before Foster, “The Minstrel Returned from the War,” by John Hill Hewitt, appeared in 1825. The son of an English musician who emigrated to New York as a young man and composed several successful songs, Hewitt did not make   Shaw’s mistake. His earliest songs show all of the same characteristics of a thoroughly English style that his father’s did, but he absorbed the influences from Irish songs and Italian arias, and his songs of the 1830s and 40s are themselves a microcosm of the development of American song writing, including a significant number of minstrel songs. He could have been more influential if he had lived in a major center for musical publication instead of Baltimore and point south, and if he had not been pro-slavery in his politics.

As the nation lurched toward civil war over slavery, the Hutchinson Family risked their reputation to deliver an increasingly strident abolitionist message. The youngest four of thirteen surviving children of a musically inclined family, Judson, John, Asa, and Abby Hutchinson first sang together as “The Aeolian Vocalists” and started on a lengthy tour in 1842. Soon, they changed their name to “The Hutchinson Family” and started to emphasize their New England roots in both programming and costuming. At first singing a mixture of popular melodramatic and comic songs, they gradually started programming more and more of their own songs, which deliberately used the same folk-like “crude” part-writing that characterized hymns by William Billings and his contemporaries.

They had their first personal encounter with slavery on the 1842 tour, and it disturbed them. Shortly thereafter, an older brother befriended Frederick Douglass and began to oppose slavery actively. The family singing group participated in its first anti-slavery rally in 1843 and toured England with Douglass in 1845  (performing mostly in rural towns and receiving first-hand experience with English social problems). Little by little, their zeal to abolish slavery began to dominate their programs. Although they met with opposition–not only for their political views, but the very fact that they introduced them in their concerts–they persevered at the cost of declining popularity and even pro-slavery mobs breaking up their concerts and rallies where they appeared. Musically, nothing about their original songs held any interest after they were no longer around to perform them. Historically, as the first American performers to use popular music as a means of social protest, their importance and influence is incalculable.

Although born in England (in 1812), Henry Russell first established his reputation as a song writer after he moved to Rochester, New York (by way of Italy and Canada) some time before 1835. In that year, he attended a speech by Sen. Henry Clay. Fascinated not so much by Clay’s topic as by his magnetic ability to  hold an audience’s attention, he went home and wrote a song, or more properly, an operatic scena in a thoroughly Italian style that includes frequent changes of meter and tempo to match the dramatic content of the  poem. A Rochester publisher offered it for sale. Russell, with his professionally trained baritone voice and formidable keyboard technique, decided to undertake a tour so he could establish himself as the Henry Clay of popular music.

Before two musical seasons had passed, Russell had a nationwide reputation as both a singer and song writer. Although he continued to write dramatic narrative pieces on Italian models, he also wrote many simple, strophic songs with easy accompaniments, suitable for domestic performance. It is important to remember that, in the time before the invention of recordings, the piano was the “home entertainment center” and the music industry depended on sales of sheet music to the average citizen. Rudimentary accompaniments guaranteed that people with the most modest keyboard skills could play them. People with greater technique could easily “fill them out.”

After only six years as one of the most popular singers and song writers in the United States, Russell returned to England, leaving behind an amazing number of the best-selling songs before Stephen Foster, among them “The Old Arm Chair” and “Woodman! Spare That Tree!” A classically trained musician, Russell quickly grasped that the audience with the background to appreciate the classical masters was small in this country, but that the many Americans who could read and write musical notation constituted a vast market for popular songs. He composed for them, and along the way earned the contempt of J. S. Dwight, the leading proponent of classical music in America.

Charles Hamm wrote, “In a very real sense, the concept of popular song may be said to have begun with Henry Russell–an English-born Jew who studied in Italy, first came to Canada, and then furnishing Americans with songsmith an Italian musical style, mostly to texts reflecting an Irish type of nostalgia. Of such ethnic mixtures was popular song in America born” (Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, p. 184).


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