The Songs We Used to Sing


IF a sudden whiff from a spray of sweet-brier may instantly recall to decrepit age some passage of youth which made sunshine of a shady place, how much more will an old song unexpectedly heard cancel intervening years, and take one back to some palæozoic musical period ! I am old enough to have my musical childhood date from old-fashioned times, more especially since it was spent on that island of Nantucket where fashions of any sort come slowly and linger long, but I fancy my reminiscence of that period will set the bells jangling in some other Contributor’s ear.

Of course Moore’s melodies were sung in those days, though the stricter sort looked askance at Moore. If I remember aright, my Lord Byron was distinctly under the ban. But his brother sinner, Burns, was not; and in spite of the difficulties of Scotch pronunciation, I am under the impression that he was fairly rendered. People read a good deal of Scotch in those days, — Sir Walter, and Galt, and the Ettrick Shepherd, and Miss Ferricr, and the Noctes Ambrosianæ, — and contrived to pick up, one hardly knows how, a fair understanding of the Caledonian dialect. I cannot remember the time when I did not read it almost as readily as English. Ask me the test question, “ What is a 舡 Gowpen o’ glaur ’ ? ” and I should unhesitatingly reply, “Just twa nieves fu o’ clarts.”

But the bright particular star of parlor song was Felicia Hemans. Almost as surely as the festal eve of a Nantucket teaparty came round were we requested to “ Bring flowers, bring flowers for the bride to wear ! ” or we were told how “ The knight looked down from the Paynim tower,” and were unfailingly entranced by the longdrawn refrain, “ Sound again, clarion, clarion, wild and shrill.” The Songs of Greek independence were especially popular in those days when the memories of Navarino and the Sciote massacre were still fresh ; and we gave to Greece our shining blades as regularly at the piano after the banquet as we did at the tea-table with the buttered rolls (how light they were !) and the corn puddings.

If Mrs. Hemans was the popular woman, Haynes Bailey was the favored man. He was not the Bailey who wrote Festus, nor yet, for that matter, was he Martin Farquhar Tupper under an alias. He was the author of Fanny Gray and A Charming Woman, and “I’d be a butterfly,” “We met, ’t was in a crowd,” “ She wore a wreath of roses,” and, unless I much mistake, of that prime favorite,

“ Oh, no, we never mention her, Her name is never heard,”

with its touching refrain,

“ But if she loved as I have loved, She never can forget.”

One would like to look upon the sight of a Wagnerian devotee strapped into an armchair and compelled to listen to the lastnamed ballad and its accompaniment. I see that Andrew Lang has been making fun of him.

Of course, as Nantucket was an island, and an island nautically familiar with all other islands, from the Aleutian Group to the Crozets, and from Nova Zemlda to Neukahiva, as probably no other island on the face of the deep ever was or will be, some of its songs were nautical. There was one expressive of the feelings of the happy pirate in a gale of wind, beginning “ I’m afloat,” and another called The Pirate’s Serenade, which for melodious nonsense and utter contempt of marine propriety it would be hard to equal.

The popularity of certain songs in their season was a great marvel. I remember walking one evening down the long (not) unlovely street in my own town. There was a song then current of which the first stanza ran thus : —

“ Some love to roam
O’er the dark sea foam
Where the shrill winds whistle free,
But a chosen band
Of the mountain land,
And a life in the woods for me.”

It was set to a jingling, jerking tune, which even the ear of him who divided all music into Yankee Doodle and that which was not Yankee Doodle could hardly miss. From the lighted window of the parlor of the first house came the familiar strain. From the second was heard the same, and so on down the entire length of the way till the shops were reached. From either side voice or piano, or both, were with the unanimity of a ward primary bent on declaring the vote in favor of “ a life in the woods.” I wonder if it would be possible to find on the shelves of any music-dealer a copy of this forgotten melody ?

There was a great run for a time upon fairy songs. They were sufficiently incongruous in their imagery, the fairy stature being to the last degree accommodating. The fay of the forest was pictured as drinking out of an acorn cup and mounted on a firefly, which image could be paralleled only by that of a German Bursch using the great tun of Heidelberg for a beer-flagon and riding on a, bicycle. The most that could be said in behalf of these songs was that they were superlatively innocent, and as little likely to corrupt the morals of youth as the fifth proposition of the first book of Euclid.

In the midst of this inanity there would arise now and then splendid exceptions. I knew a clever young person, with a fine voice and a good deal of musical culture, who would hunt up Jacobite ballads, and paste into her scrap-book bits of lovely and fugitive verse, and then either get hold of a fit musical setting or compose one, or adapt a suitable air by slightly changing the tempo. Then with these she would sit down at the piano and fill her hearers with delight, and her schoolmates with envy unspeakable. She simply refused to be guided by the fashion, and rose above it. But these were her songs, and did not get into general vogue. Like Theodore Hook’s famed improvisations, they were to be had only of the author.

I have forgotten one thing, of which the forgetting makes manifest that I am a small boy no longer. That thing is the comic song. Not that it was often sung. It was fit only for the male voice ; it was deemed decorous only for the male singer, and the male voice was not often at hand in the circle of the Nantucket tea-party.

The pirate in his serenade remarks that

“ My voice has been tuned
To the notes of the gun
That startles the deep
When the combat’s begun; ”

and in like manner the Nantucket male larynx had been tuned to the cry of “ There she blo-o-o-ws,” uttered from the “ fo’t’gall’n’ crosstrees,” or to the breathless shout of “ Lay me on, Capt’n Bunker ! ” when steering for a seventy-barrel sperm bull. Thus the male guest at the Nantucket teatable was rare. The male guest who could sing was rarer still, and the one who could and would sing the comic song was rarest of all.

Some music-books contained the protoplasms of the “ negro melody,” — Jim Crow, Zip Coon, and Long-Tailed Blue. These were adorned with comic vignettes, which presented the African race in a new and wonderful light. There were few of the children of Ham to be found in Nantucket ; but those few were sad-faced, grave, eminently respectable in dress and demeanor, and by reason of peculiar culinary and other gifts looked up to with awe and admiration by the small boy. Whether there was a strain of Indian blood in them or not I do not know ; but I well remember them as being as unlike the ragged, rollicking figures in the music-book as Abraham Zuary, the basket-maker of Pol-pis, the last of the Nantucket tribe of Indians, was to Bryant’s “ forest hero, trained to wars,” and scalping the midnight victims of Schenectady.

Last of all in my youthful reminiscences comes the brief interlude of the politicalsong era, when the grandfather of the present chief magistrate was sung into the White House to the inspiring strains of Tippecanoe and Tyler too. It has been attempted since, but only then was the political song an appreciable factor in a presidential campaign. It was a reality in those days. Grave merchants, solid men, lawyers, statesmen, even parsons, joined in the log-cabin and hard-cider minstrelsy, and votes were won by scores in every town and hamlet. Once done successfully, the spell was lost. The graver issues which culminated in the war for the Union began to come to the front. There was no longer place for that sympathetic touch which made kin all parts of this great country. It was literally true that the men north of Mason and Dixon’s and the men south of it could not sing the same songs nor keep step to the same marching music. The magic of the Harrison campaign methods lay in their universality. Things done from Bangor to New Orleans lost their absurdity. These songs were founded withal upon a personal issue, not again to be raised in a presidential election. Moreover, there are more efficacious ways of capturing the votes of the nation, and the notes which carry an election are not of the musical kind.