Jammin’ with Lincoln

Last night, while you guys were watching the worst/greatest debate intro in history, I was attending a piano concert at Edwards Place here in Springfield. It commemorated the recent restoration of the Edwards Family piano, which the patriarch, Ninian Edwards, acquired sometime in the 1830s. Mary Todd was a relative of the family and stayed with them when she moved to town. Lincoln also came into their orbit as a rising young lawyer. Mary and Abraham would have frequently heard the piano during their courtship and it likely provided the music for their wedding. The instrument had been unplayable until a recent kickstarter raised enough money to restore it. I did a small part to help by co-authoring this newspaper article with the home’s curator Erika Holst on 19th Century parlor piano culture. This is how I got invited to the premiere performance. For someone interested in Lincoln and historical music, it was a double whammy and sparked a couple of thoughts I want to share here.

First, it was refreshing to hear 19th Century popular music played on a parlor piano in an actual parlor. This is a surprisingly rare experience, since America’s recent fascination with roots music often leads musicians to render these songs in an Appalachian style. The film Cold Mountain and the album Divided and United (which I reviewed here) are probably the two biggest culprits, making it seem like Civil War era music was only performed on rustic pianos and banjos. Instead, it was middle class parlor pianos that really drove the American music industry. Songwriters wrote songs for these instruments and families bought them to sing together. I think this gets sidelined in current popular culture because Appalachian music simply sounds better to us than stately parlor performances, but it does misrepresent how these songs were typically heard and what class of Americans were typically performing them. Last night was one of the few chances I’ve had to hear this music the way it was meant to be performed and that was a real treat, even if my personal tastes also lean towards strings.

Second, the performance featured two minstrel songs, “Dixie” and “Blue-Tailed Fly,” and minstrel songs always get me thinking about music and race in the Civil War era. Last year, I wrote about the genre’s history and Lincoln’s relationship with it, but it was interesting to see this often-overlooked aspect of Lincoln’s personality represented in the program. Indeed, Springfield’s resident popular “Lincoln interpreter” Fritz Klein was in character at the performance and did a good job relating just how much Lincoln enjoyed these tunes. Minstrelsy was enormously popular and influential but, like many elements of America’s racial past, it’s often forgotten or misrepresented in today’s culture. In fact, I can’t think of another aspect of American popular culture that reached such prominence only to be completely forgotten. So too is it with Lincoln, whose racial beliefs have been much debated in the last 20 years but whose cultural tastes rarely become part of that discussion.

Anyway, these are just a few things that raced through my head as I sat there enjoying songs that (other than “Dixie”) haven’t been popular for almost 200 years. Kudos again to Erika for putting together a fun program and to all the performers for a job well done. Getting to do this kind of stuff is definitely one of the perks that comes with living in Springfield.

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5 comments

  1. satchel29 · February 8, 2016

    I’m envious! I’ve always wanted to hear historical music played on instruments, or in styles, as they were originally intended. Most current classical music, for instance, is an interpretation at best since modern musicians use techniques not popular at the time (vibrato) or instruments of differing craftsmanship. You are very lucky to have had the opportunity.

  2. Pingback: Proof of time travel?; hearing what Lincoln heard; a more “lived-in” look for a historic house museum; Hillary’s history gaffes; some Super Bowl history | History Headlines
  3. Sean Munger · February 7, 2016

    Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    I think this is the first time I’ve reblogged something from Christian McWhirter’s “Civil War Pop” blog, which is a fascinating blog on the collision of the Civil War with modern U.S. popular culture. Here’s a really interesting article on the musical side of Lincoln and his family, involving a piano that figured prominently in Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s social life in Springfield and has recently been restored to working order. This is really cool!

    • Christian McWhirter · February 7, 2016

      Thanks for reblogging this, Sean. The whole piano restoration is a cool story, so I’m glad to see it getting out there.

  4. Meg Groeling · February 7, 2016

    One of my secret pleasures is my CD player in the car. It is LOADED with Civil War brass band music, and nothing else. Everywhere I go, there’s a band coming with me. I get a lot of laughs and comments when the brass cranks up as soon as I turn the key. Out of an excess of manners, I usually turn the music off, or at least down, but I have gotten some strange looks at the Starbucks window for sure. 19th century band music is just fun, and nothing beats “Hail To the Chief” as I drive into the parking lot at work. Getting to do this kind of stuff is definitely one of the perks that comes with being a Civil War historian. Rock on?

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