River Music, American Music Prior to Civil War

Thirteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

River traffic blew open the West after 1820, driving development and reducing isolation along major valleys. Boats arrived at wharfs and landings round the clock, all types of watercraft bringing people, technology, information, and culture—arts and entertainment. “The tremendous part the river life played in developing the ambitions and intelligence of the western settlers can never be estimated,” Ida M. Tarbell observed for McClure’s monthly in the latter century.

An entertainment core developed along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, including “floating theaters” that landed practically anywhere. “Almost every actor of the time with courage, ingenuity, and a crusading love of [the] art wanted to play the West. The river and boats were ready to provide transportation,” wrote Philip Graham, author of Showboats: History of an American Institution.

The famed Chapman family revolutionized entertainment on water during the 1830s. The talented Chapmans garnered grassroots acclaim from aboard their showboats—a series of flat barges until purchase of a steamer—literally delivering their extraordinary performances in drama, comedy and song. The Chapman Floating Theatre started each trip from Pittsburgh, wending southwest to Cairo then south to New Orleans, and stopped at every shoreline mustering an audience, town or plantation, especially with good fishing.

“Most of the wealth of the region gravitated toward the rivers, and audiences along their banks needed entertainment and were anxious to pay for it,” Graham observed. Modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music/American Music, noted that early audiences “responded to whatever was available. They could alternate between a melodrama and a Shakespearean tragedy, a minstrel show and a concert by Jenny Lind.”

River entertainers, in turn, learned to expect anything. A Shakespearean troupe worked down the Mississippi on a flatboat in 1835, self-billed as the “Ark Theatre,” staging Hamlet dockside at one village. “Here were music, madness, moonshine—philosophy, poetry and performances—comedy, tragedy and farce, all [on] water,” recounted an actor in attendance.

Lo, a real villain untied the barge, casting it adrift to “our horror and astonishment…,” the actor recorded, “finding ourselves in the mighty current of the Mississippi, floating downstream, without sail or rudder, at the rate of five miles an hour!” The craft was run ashore safely, but far downriver. “I will not tire your gracious patience with the details of our tramp through interminable swamp and across muddy creeks,” sniffed the dramatist. “Suffice it to say, that half the party lost their shoes and all their tempers, and that at about sunrise the next morning, a set of squalid, tired, bespattered and hungry wretches were seen entering the village.”

A theater audience lost control on a summer night at Louisville, indoors under gas chandelier and candlelight. “Louisville was a grand harbor for flatboat men and steamboat men,” explained a Courier-Journal account, decades later, recalling “the free-and-easy style of manners which were sometimes witnessed in the old theaters.”

At Samuel Drake’s theater on the evening of Louisville legend, 1837, audience action eclipsed the stage show after a drunken boatman passed out in tier seating. Had the man slept quietly “the attention of the crowd of spectators would not have been diverted from the stage, where several stars were moving in all their luster,” the paper recounted.

“Alas! The sleeper snored. He emitted long rolls of nasal thunder whose noise threatened to drown out the deep-chested declamation of the actors.” Objections arose immediately at rear of the auditorium, from sweaty river men packed in “the pit,” a sunken area for standing only. “The admission fee there was only a quarter, and the demons of the pit entered their part of the theater through the basement… For such an assembly the sleeper’s notes of defiance were too provoking.”

The snoring continued and catcalls increased until the sleeper woke suddenly, enraged, to curse and threaten his critics. “A knot of men in the pit directly under him especially attracted his attention by their demonstrations… so he quickly leaped over the railing, right in among them and began making his fists play furiously around him.”

“But his courage availed him nothing,” The Courier-Journal continued. “The pit wanted a fight badly… the usual arrangements of the night were completely reversed, the spectators being converted into impassioned actors, while the professional actors, arranged in the spangles, plumes and tinseled finery of the drama, looked in utter amazement on the contest that raged below them.” The offending theatergoer was beaten to the floor, “an unsightly mass of rags, blood and filth,” and carried out. Stage actors resumed their work but warily, lacking the passion of boatmen.

Louisville boomed as gateway to the West and far South, capitalizing on slave trade among businesses. Population spiked, ranking Louisville among leading U.S. cities, and entertainment options grew proportionately. Big circuses were spectacles that stretched urban blocks, such as the G.R. Spaulding and Dan Rice shows, inspiring a holiday atmosphere. Louisville hosted ventriloquists, magicians and occultists, and “human oddities” like Tom Thumb, with his manager P.T. Barnum, of the traveling American Museum and menagerie.

Stars in drama, comedy and music, talents of America and Europe, played regularly in Louisville, typically at Drake’s theater or the Apollo Rooms of William C. Peters and partners.

Drake, as in his management practice since the legendary Green Street Theatre in Albany, employed stock actors at Louisville while allowing amateurs their stage turns. “The Drake family were a magnificent company in themselves,” said E.S. Conner, American actor who tutored under Drake. “Samuel and his sons Sam and Jim were artists, each in their line. His daughter Julia was a transcendent lovely and fine actress. She [became] mother of the renowned Julia Dean.”

W.C. Peters, like the elder Drake, was a charismatic English emigrant, a talented musician and capable entrepreneur. Classically trained, Peters performed, composed and arranged songs prodigiously. He came to Louisville from Pittsburgh, opening a music store and teaching piano and guitar; he founded a music library, circulating sheets of lyric and melody.

Peters branched into song publishing around 1835, right on time for serving America’s first native wave of popular artists. These maverick musicians, primarily whites from the North, needed independent publishers like Peters of the West and South, in the beginning. Their collaboration proved integral for the marketing of purely American music, ballads and spirituals of English and African origins.

This antebellum American music, foreshadowing genre offshoots to come, was forged of interracial sharing, of positive synergy between whites and blacks, yet roiled by racial insensitivity and malice. Interracial greatness entwined with racial conflict would endure for generations in America, and mark the evolving, epic music of the South.

“Ironically, much of the distinctiveness of southern music comes from the region’s long juxtaposition of the white and black races and from its widespread rural poverty and isolation,” wrote Charles P. Roland, historian and editor, in 1979.

“Aesthetically unsophisticated and, by the usual standards, deprived, poor southerners responded by preserving and developing a folk tradition of ballads and spirituals, of blues and jazz, and of hillbilly, country, and gospel music. Finally, strains from all of these types blended to help create rock, the nearest thing there is, perhaps, to an ecumenical art form.”

Select References

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Booth, J.B. (1835, July 17). Theatrical Adventures on the Mississippi. Weekly Mississippian, Jackson MS, p. 1.

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.