Twenty-Sixth in a Series
By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Saturday, November 10, 2018
Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing
A striking appearance marked Cairo following the Civil War, progress, beginning with brick buildings rising on the riverfront. Troops and artillery had departed, and military influence faded. The Ohio levee no longer glinted “blue with the garb of soldiery.” The four-story St. Charles Hotel stood majestic, former haunt of General Grant, providing finest accommodations in the American interior. Many travelers were impressed, arriving at the storied little city of southern Illinois.
“This was our first visit to this famous place since 1844, and, of course, the change is great—indeed wonderful,” remarked an Indiana newsman. “Since then [Cairo] has spread itself greatly.”
Freedom graced the grizzled riverport and mirth manifested in music. A wide spectrum of song was heard, from symphonic to syncopated, opera to ballad, and multi-ethnic in origin. Cairo welcomed occupation by musicians and dancers, after wartime and clashing armies.
“No gunboats block the rivers… and from no source does that contemptible word ‘halt’ come to grate upon the ear, and send its shivering shock through every nerve of the body,” observed a Tennessee writer. “All around you may be seen peaceful symbols, and from every direction music rings out upon the passing breeze. This is as it should be.” A Cairo Bulletin editor felt at ease in late 1865, for “the delicious power” of song postwar. “Music has an influence for good—it soothes one’s feelings and inspires all the ennobling attributes.”
Life remained difficult at intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio, on border between North and South. In 1870 the Cairo population was 6,267, about one-fifth being Afro-American, largely freed slaves. The monthly “floating population” could top 20,000 transients from worldwide, on visits legitimate and otherwise. Meanwhile this was frontier landscape. People of every color, character and class confronted the forces daily, natural and man-made. Conditions could deteriorate quickly, get primitive. No one was immune to disease, injury or mortality, and there were casualties young and old. Death rate of crime and accidents alone could tally double figures in a week.
But greatness sparked here, too, for the simmering humanity and nature, in artful sound particularly. Pure American music was distilling in the delta, early renderings to become known as gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz and “country.”
Cairo boasted choirs, brass bands, cornet bands, string bands and full orchestras, performing outdoors, indoors and on riverboats. Strolling musicians played at street corners and building fronts. Incredible dancers appeared day and night, many amateur, “patting juba,” busting wing moves, jigs, toe spins, reels and waltzes. Dancing broke out anywhere except a church sanctuary.
Black and white performers exchanged ideas, techniques and respect, if hesitant to show together on stage. But dance crowds integrated publicly, despite friction that sometimes turned violent. Many whites persisted, fans of black artists unwilling to stay away, and likewise. Music dissolved differences like little else in segregated society, church notwithstanding.
Melody blasted off the rivers from calliope organs of steamboats, broadcasting for miles over water and flatland—“a free concert by steam!” touted a circus advertisement. Steam tooting was ambient noise of the delta, a native’s birthright, and Cairo folks critiqued calliope players along with pianists, violinists, banjoists, guitarists and horn blowers. The entire town heard a calliope player, who had better be good, as was the case on a holiday afternoon at the wharf.
Happy locals gathered atop the levee, dancing in approval. “The calliope of the steamer Silver Moon—a good one very skillfully played—gave the feet of every listener a twitching that very nearly produced a general ‘break-down’ all along the levee,” a newsman reported. “Such tunes as Black Crook, Rack-Back Davy, and Daddy, Dang It, Shove Along appeared to invite a regular ‘hoe-down.’ ”
Exceptional music was standard for Cairo tastes accustomed to the best of America and Europe. Famed white minstrels were regular acts locally, including George Wilson, Dick McGowan, Charlie Christy, George Powers, Johnny Bowman, Billy Emerson, Ned Goss and Jim Fox. McGowan opened a saloon, short-lived, but Bowman profited in ownership of a Cairo theater, the Comique.
Afro-Americans took over minstrelsy in the 1870s, eclipsing white companies and thrilling Cairo audiences with stars like Bobby Kersands, Bob Height, Tom McIntosh, Burrell Hawkins, Billy Jackson, Sam Lucas, and the Hyer Sisters. The Bulletin raved over a celebrated troupe originally founded by slaves in Georgia. “Without fear of contradiction, the performance of Callender’s Georgia Minstrels, at the Atheneum last night, may be pronounced the best minstrel performance every given in this city… The performances are the most artistic, refined, and thoroughly enjoyable of any ever given here, and absolutely the best we ever saw.” The cornet players had opened entertainment with a street parade for local throngs, undoubtedly jazzing notes.
Excursion steamers boomed and musicians capitalized along the Mississippi and Ohio through end of the century. The publicized Afro-American names included King Hatcher and his Coachwhip Band at Dubuque; H.B. Hunter’s Cornet Band at Alton; the St. Louis Silver Quartette of F.S. Woodson; and the Cape Girardeau Silver Cornet Band. Gussie L. Davis was cutting-edge composer of Cincinnati, heading black ensembles. Louisville offered the Silver Cornet Band and Falls City Band, among notables, and cornet player W.C. Handy of Henderson directed brass for Mahara’s Minstrels.
In Memphis were the Bluff City Cornet Band, Bob Wardlow’s Conservative Colored Band, Sam Ager’s African Brothers Minstrels, and a hot troupe aboard the steamboat Pat Cleburne. Vicksburg had the Electric Band and Wesley Crayton’s Silver Cornet Band, while the Brierfield Cornet Band originated from the old Jefferson Davis plantation. Donaldsonville produced “two of the best colored bands,” known as the Crescent and St. Joseph’s.
New Orleans nurtured a mass of black artists and groups, with just a few examples in the Eagle Band of Buddy Bolden, the Excelsior Band, and the Lilliputian Cornet Band composed of children. Bolden, jazz pioneer on cornet, blew notes “heard across the Mississippi River when he was going right.”
Cairo sat at river crux of it all, cradling Afro-American musicians. Local players included the Phoenix Brass Band, Scott’s Saloon Minstrels, O’Brien’s Saloon String Band, and steamboat bands. The packet Tyrone moved freight and staged entertainment along its route from Cairo to Nashville, traversing the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. Performers black and white comprised the Tyrone crew, working together in shows and boat duties.
Steamer Tyrone was envy of the rivers, deftly mixing business and pleasure, and creed. At show-time the cast came “full force with comic and sentimental songs, jests, dances &c., &c., closing with Capt. Harmon’s inimitable trombone solo,” per an advertisement. When rival boats drew up, the band cranked Shoo Fly, popular tune.
The Tyrone struck rock and sank in the Cumberland, and a river journalist wrote in epitaph: “Steam-boating on her had been so constantly cheered with music, feasting and revelry that her career had been one continual scene of fun and gaiety.” This steamer submerged in “pellucid waters” wasn’t finished, however, for work or play. Salvage experts raised the wreck for repair at Paducah and the Tyrone resumed river freight and entertainment from Cairo, eventually a circus craft exclusively.
Cairo experienced an extraordinary black performer in Henry Hart, violinist and composer born a freeman in Kentucky, educated in the North. Hart passed through the northern delta during wartime, on his way to showbiz in New Orleans, and returned later a star. Hart was idolized by musicians, adored by audiences across racial lines. Fans discussed him simply as Henry, from East to the Rockies. “Mr. Hart’s sense of dance rhythm is known in many places,” a hometown paper understated. Hart, who would perform for three American presidents, played the Cairo area for decades as a resident of Evansville and Indianapolis. Hart spoke proudly of his “bloods,” fellow blacks in music, while keeping close friendships with whites like dancer Andy McKee, star of minstrel “blackface” who began at Cairo.
Henry Hart worked steamboats of the lower Ohio in the 1870s and ’80s, with talent such as Lucas, Joe Johnson, Jake Hamilton, A.A. Thomas, J.H. Ringgold, Cecil Sanders, J.T. Birch and John Lewis. Hart’s combinations covered musical spectrum from symphony and opera to the emerging beats of “rag” and “farmer” picking. For the Cairo following Hart presented string bands and small orchestras that utilized fiddles, banjos, guitars, bass and brass, adding variously harp, piccolo and drums.
“The excursion on board the Idlewild last night, from this city to Columbus, was a very pleasant affair,” The Bulletin reported in August 1875. “A goodly number of young people, sprinkled with a number of older and more sedate folks, were in attendance, and all enjoyed themselves. After the excursionists had partaken of a most excellent supper, the cabin was stripped of its furniture, and a splendid string band, headed by Henry Hart, took their places and the mazy dance began.”
In the same period “jubilee” vocalists revolutionized religious music. These Afro-American choirs propelled “spiritual” songs into pop culture. The plaintive, bluesy “plantation” melodies of slavery had appealed to Christian divinity for delivery to The Promised Land, but now the content hit glorious mass market. Pioneer gospel had been unleashed by Emancipation, and the world was patron through concerts, sheet music and more text. Printed lyrics sold newspapers and magazines.
Fisk University showcased the famed jubilee choir, institution founded for blacks at Nashville, but top singers abounded in the South. Cairo audiences heard the choir of Memphis State University, headlining a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” while jubilee vocalists flourished locally at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Those who attended the Plantation Concert, given by the members of the AME Church at the Atheneum [Theatre] last night, were lavish in their praise of the efforts of all connected with the affair,” The Bulletin reported in 1879. “The concert, which consisted of songs sung by the colored people in the days of slavery, proved a capital hit and was the best thing of its kind ever presented to a Cairo audience.”
The white Methodist Church hosted Philip Phillips, evangelist of “sacred songs,” epitome of pulpit popularity. Phillips went beyond sing-song preaching, torquing his sermons and lessons with hymns in stanza and full. Phillips, “The Singing Pilgrim,” a favorite of late President Abraham Lincoln, “sang his way around the world and into the hearts of kings and heathens alike.” Phillips published a Sunday School songbook, selling it widely, and lent celebrity to a Cairo crusade of denominations that condemned song and dance deemed unholy by the churchmen. Phillips realized fulfillment besides spiritual at Cairo, pulling cash from concert and book receipts.
Harmonists were still huge with fans, “barbershop” quartet and such. Major companies showed at Cairo like the Peak Family and Berger Family, associates of P.T. Barnum, along with the Baker Family and The Alleghanians. But their line increasingly relied on variety accompaniment in bell ringers, harpists, horn blowers, dancers and comics. The Bergers scored with locals for the addition of Sol Smith Russell, youthful Missourian and Cairo theater product on track for the top in show business. The troupe also presented cursory Swiss clangers and a novel female orchestra.
Iconic repute preceded instrumentalists like slave-born Thomas Wiggins, “Blind Tom,” syncopating pianist and composer who mesmerized people for a decade at Cairo. The brilliant Wiggins, possibly an autistic savant, mimicked sound to perfection, including speeches, battle narratives, gunfire, animal cries and stormy weather. Although musically educated, Wiggins learned melody primarily by ear, in instants, memorizing thousands of piano pieces from concerto to ballad. Audience volunteers played piano for Blind Tom then he replicated exactly their snatches and songs, down to errors.
For syncopating overlay on piano, melody upon melody, the powerful Wiggins keyed three songs simultaneously, according to legend. “Of the excellent entertainment given by this wonderful person, we have but little to say…,” The Bulletin reviewed in spring 1875, “except that the performance of last night was fully up to his former efforts, if not superior. The audience was kept in a state of wonder and delight from beginning to end, frequently making the house fairly ring with their approval… whenever Blind Tom visits Cairo, he will meet with a most cordial welcome from our citizens.”
European violinist Ole Bornemann Bull came during bitter winter, drawing 500 to the drafty Atheneum. None was disappointed as the master lived up to hype, performing the best of symphony, opera, and ballad with improvised flurries. When the Norwegian covered Arkansas Traveler by request, fiddler style, folks really warmed to him. “Ole Bull smiled, and his fiddle went through the melody as though it was used to playing it every hour in the day.”
Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi saw big crowds on his American tours of the 1880s, and a Cairo date was no exception, with many musicians in attendance. “The old gentlemen made the instrument speak to the audience in tones that visibly affected everyone in the house.” Jules Levy was another musician of international acclaim, performing on cornet, horn of favor at Cairo. “Our ear, in youth, was cultivated up to an appreciation of cornet music, and it was highly gratified last night by the blowing of ‘the greatest,’ ” saluted a Bulletin critic. “Our cornetists went into ecstasy over Levy’s playing.”
Levy, nonetheless, was second billing for the show—singer Adelaide Phillips was headliner, American great of opera. “A large and fashionable audience greeted Adelaide Phillips and her concert troupe last night. We have not the time to devote the troupe the attention their merits deserve… Miss Phillips has few superiors in [opera], if any, and she sang As The Years Glide By with a pathos that banished the smiles and invoked the tears of the audience.”
Local history of opera divas traced to Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale” who passed through on a steamboat with Barnum in 1851. The money Barnum paid the songstress, $250,000 for 150 dates in America, along with his shrewd merchandising of Jenny Lind items, left lasting imprint on the country. Youths were inspired while music elites pushed for an American to capture the opera world, dethrone Lind at top. Within 30 years opera singers frequented Cairo stages, male and female, including American standouts Emma Abbott, Clara Brinkerhoff, Imogene Brown, Marie Litta, and a songbird sponsored by AME congregations, Madame Bailer.
Cairo singers served stage support for touring professionals, leading several locals to shine right beside stars, no skill gap apparent. Headliner soprano Brown won the audience, but particularly for her accompaniment of W.H. Morris, Cairo insurance man by day who subbed for the company’s absent bassist. “Mr. Morris sang three songs with fine effect, receiving the long continued applause of the audience,” The Bulletin gushed. Morris, of the stellar choir at Church of The Redeemer, entertained regionally as baritone and humorist until his sudden death in 1879. Other local performers complemented touring pros on stage, led by Frank Howe, accomplished tenor; Annie Pitcher, a salaried church singer; and Walter McKee, cornet whiz, singer and choir director of the Methodist Church.
Youths were coming on. Soprano actress M. Adella Gordon stole spotlight at school productions, churches, and in the Grand Opera House. “Miss Adella Gordon… was really the feature of the evening,” a Bulletin critic concluded in 1883. “Although she was known to be one of the best singers in Cairo, the power and richness of her voice as developed on the Opera House stage was a surprise to her friends and the audience. It filled the house with melody without any apparent effort of the singer. Every verse and almost every turn of the song was applauded to the echo. For an encore Miss Gordon sang a beautiful little waltz song, Peek-A-Boo… Miss Adella scored a triumph in ‘Engaged,’ both in acting and singing.” Gordon also earned plaudits for calliope play, “one of the musical gems of the performance.” She later married a physician and the couple moved to New York and London. In the early 20th century their daughter born at Cairo, actress Ruth Bower, became noted internationally.
Litta, heralded diva, billed as “America’s Greatest Soprano,” hit Cairo only months before tragedy struck to inflate her legend. The young woman wasn’t Italian but actually Dutch Illinoisan, named Marie Von Elsner, reared at Bloomington and groomed for opera royalty. In one sense, Litta’s meteoric, short career signified the European dogma stifling American music and talent. The problem rested with Eastern society and industry, stuck on trying to do everything European better than the Europeans. Belief transferred to the West and South.
Von Elsner seemed a prime case, or victim profile. Her father, impoverished immigrant musician, saw rare gift in his first born. Benefactors surfaced round her in rural Illinois and the girl was sent to music conservatory, in Cleveland. She made the requisite jump abroad, studying in France through her adolescence, accumulating debt and favors owed in the process. On advice she swapped German surname for an Italian sounder, typical of opera aspirants, and took her crack at concert acclaim.
Litta was hyped by Paris handlers with their crony pressmen, and she was hired by the Strakosch Italian opera company for American tour in 1879. She arrived in New York under heavy fanfare, as latest native hope for opera, but Litta didn’t remotely perform like an American Jenny Lind.
Skeptics cried humbug. New York reviewers skewered her, led by nemesis critics of The Times and The Herald in Manhattan. A Buffalo critic called Litta “a perfect failure.” Even her name change was ridiculed. Maurice Strakosch placed Litta in lead roles but she faltered vocally and stunk for acting, critics huffed. The company parted with her after two seasons.
The New York Times bade Litta a parting shot: “As an operatic prima donna (she) could not expect to hold a leading position.” The Boston Globe intoned that “Marie Litta… is at home in Bloomington, Ill., where she belongs.”
She appeared at Cairo in 1883 a discard of big-time opera. Merchandise bearing the Litta name barely sold anymore, down to select Illinois towns. A small venue canceled her for lack of interest—in home state. An Illinois preacher denied sleeping through her concert, pressed by scribes. Litta was 26, failing in health, heading her own troupe, trying to meet payroll and expenses. She held debt notes of business creditors and old handlers, and as provider for siblings and her invalid mother. A small fortune had been frittered on wardrobe and diamonds befitting an opera goddess and family entourage.
A good Cairo crowd applauded the Litta opera company, calling for encores. The Bulletin lauded the fading star, if politely. Regardless, soon she died in Bloomington, reportedly for symptoms of neural degeneration, “chronic meningitis.” Opera queen Clara Louise Kellogg pledged benefit concerts to stall home foreclosure on the Von Elsners. Bloomington residents raised thousands of dollars for a massive cemetery monument, declaring the genius and greatness of Litta in stone, rebuking her doubters to last.
In retrospect, Marie Von Elsner may have been better off in popular music, playing right at home, the American West. As she died young, variety song and dance swept the nation despite haughty elitists fixed on European convention. Perhaps the statuesque Von Elsner would’ve preferred frontier opera houses and riverboats, playing banjo, singing dance songs, flashing blonde tresses and pink stockings, hot steps, just showing off. Maybe she was never asked or felt right discussing it, either way.
Because Marie Von Elsner would’ve only been normal, gravitating to popular song and dance as a precocious young American. Girls and boys everywhere were pouring into variety entertainment, consuming, learning and performing.
In the northern delta of Cairo and southeast Missouri, the talent pool was exceptionally strong. Homegrown musicians of every focus were headed upward, the region’s first showbiz generation, laying path for more to come. And they could keep their own names.
Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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