Monday, June 16, 2014

Family musicale, c1870

Illustration from A Son of the Middle Border
I just read Hamlin Garland’s moving and wonderfully detailed memoir, A Son of the Middle Border (1917). It describes better than any book I’ve read the impact of western expansion on the lives of men and women who cast their fate to the wind on the frontier in the decades following the Civil War.

An acute observer of rural life, Garland lost faith in the lure of westward immigration, especially as he saw how it tore apart his family, scattering them across isolated distances, from Dakota to California. In the early chapters of the book, he recalls their gatherings in a small town in Wisconsin, before the promise of the West uprooted them.

Without TV, radio, and digital media, they bonded around music, passing the time singing songs and listening to a favorite uncle play his violin. Garland describes this world of his youth with affecting nostalgia, already long passed into mists of history by the time he was writing about it.

I’ll be reviewing this book here shortly, but until then, I’ve put together a sample musicale from those family gatherings to evoke the period and the sensibilities that enlivened the spirit of ordinary people and hard but simpler lives. Following quotes from the book, you’ll find song clips from youtube. Take a few moments to listen to even just parts of them and let yourself be transported to another time.

The only humorous songs which my uncles knew were negro ditties, like “Camp Town Racetrack” and “Jordan am a Hard Road to Trabbel” but in addition to the sad ballads I have quoted, they joined my mother in “The Pirate’s Serenade,” “Erin’s Green Shore,” Bird of the Wilderness,” and the memory of their mellow voices creates a golden dusk between me and that far-off cottage.

Camptown Races

Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel

Erin's Green Shore

Bird of the Wilderness

He and mother and Aunt Deborah sang “Nellie Wildwood” and “Lily Dale” and “Minnie Minturn” just as they used to do in the coulee, and I forgot my disgrace and the pain of my blistered feet in the rapture of that exquisite hour of blended melody and memory.

Lilly Dale

Aunt Deb was also a soul of decision. She called out, “No more of these sad tones,” and struck up “The Year of Jubilo,” and we all shouted till the walls shook with the exultant words.

The Year of Jubilo

This was the best part of David to me. He could make any room mystical with the magic of this bow. True, his pieces were mainly memorable dance tunes, cotillions, hornpipes, melodies which had passed from fiddler to fiddler until they had become veritable folksongs—pieces like “Money Musk,” “Honest John,” “Haste to the Wedding,” and many others whose names I have forgotten, but with the gift of putting into even the simplest song an emotion which subdued us and silenced us, he played on, adsorbed and intent.

Money Musk

Haste to the Wedding

He was my hero, the handsomest, most romantic figure in all my world. He played “Maggie, Air Ye Sleepin’,” and the wind outside went to my soul.

Are Ye Sleeping Maggie

For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and Other Media, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credit: Illustrator, Maynard Dixon

Coming up: Hamlin Garland, A Son of the Middle Border (1917)


  1. My mom was a big fan of music. She sang in the choir much of her life. My stepfather could play the fiddle and did so wonderfully, though we could seldom persuade him to give it a go.

    1. The singers in my extended family opened their lungs only at church on Sundays. They still are like that.

  2. Good post. Makes me wonder about karaoke bars...

  3. Camptown Races was popular when I was growing up along with Ole Black Joe, a song that probably couldn't be sung now due to its racial inferences. Mixing Garland's writing with those music selections as you have makes it poetical. Before radio the family was a primary source of musical entertainment along with the phonographs that some could afford when there were no musical programs to go to. Great post, Ron. .

  4. This book sounds interesting. I come from a family where there was always music in the home and much singing at church, it was a memorable upbringing.