Monday, January 27, 2014

One Hundred Years of American Musical Nostalgia for Living Historians

I am a lover and collector of music, mostly the older stuff. By older I mean 1900's ragtime, 1910's popular, 1920's jazz, 1930's swing, 1940's big band, 1950's early rock & roll and pop, 1960's everything, 1970's classic rock, and the punk & new wave of the70's and the early 80's.
Yes, I've been collecting music for literally decades.
I also love the old-time hillbilly music. You know, the tear in my beer-type twang.
And even the 'greatest hits' of classical music.
Wait----what? You want to hear about something a bit more contemporary AND popular that I listen to?
Okay: I really think Green Day is pretty great, and I do like most of Kid Rock's stuff (though I can do without much of the %&*#$ language), and I even will listen to some of the more poppy stuff my daughter will play on the radio, including "All About That Bass" (yes, I love that fun song!).
But some of the most unique and interesting music I have in my collection and enjoy are the pre-1900 tunes that were once popular when our 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and even older great grandparents were alive.
I've written before about bringing the past to life by utilizing our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) to every degree possible, and period music done in an authentic style certainly falls into the category of sound. Just as hearing The Beatles "I Want To Hold Your Hand" or, even further back, Glenn Miller's "In The Mood," for instance, will invoke a thousand memories for you, your parents, or grandparents. the same can happen with music of a much earlier time. Kind of like a sort of nostalgia.
And no matter what era music comes from, I believe, for living historians, it can emit a nostalgic feeling. An example of what I mean is if you listen to Civil War era music every time you travel to your Civil War or mid-19th century reenactments, that music will be associated with the 1860's, will it not?
The same for Rev War, WWII, War of 1812, or whatever period in time you reenact.
(See Is Nostalgia Portable? for my thoughts on nostalgia)
And understanding a tiny bit about music's history will also give you an idea of its place in early American society:
During the early years of America's history (as well as in Europe), all well-educated people were expected to be able to play an instrument or sing, both because, well, there was no music if people didn't make it themselves. Singing work songs helped to pass the time at menial tasks for workers, and music gave young people a chance to meet and court.
"Ladies generally did not play wind instruments, their garments being too restrictive and the necessary distortions of facial muscles considered in poor taste. They could sing or play the harpsichord, clavichord, organ, and the pianoforte." (from The Writers Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America).
And, just like now, people had their favorite musical style to listen (or dance) to. For instance, during a performance of a 'high brow' musician in the White House, President Tyler interrupted him with the request that he play some good old Virginia music instead. Regional music was the most popular of all and people never tired of its patriotic and sentimental themes such as "Home Sweet Home," "My Old Kentucky Home," and that most beautiful patriotic number from 1831 "America" (also known as My Country 'tis of Thee). 
There are many musical historians that have put out fine collections of this very old music - many times done on period instruments. I search for this wonderful music in hopes of accomplishing more mind-travel and nostalgia.
And also because I enjoy the sounds!
To help give you a better overview of some of my favorite period music CD's, I copied the liner notes from two of my favorite period CD's and then wrote my own personal review for a third one, and I included links for purchasing:

George Washington: Music for the First President by David and Ginger Hildebrand
This recording contains music that George Washington knew or might have heard in his home or in the streets, in taverns and theaters, on the parade ground, the battlefield, or in ballrooms and concert halls.
Washington loved music and valued it for its practical as well as its emotional impact. When he arrived in Boston to take control of the Continental Army, among his first orders were directives ordering the fifers and drummers who played the camp duty music and the field signals. In Valley Forge in 1778 he gave 15 shillings to members of Proctor's band of music who trudged through the snow to serenade him on his birthday.
When he became an officer and a landowner, Washington had occasion to visit the colonial capitols of Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York to meet with governors and leading citizens. Balls, assemblies, private parties, and clubs were an important part of his social life. The flavor of these times is reflected in the music composed or or arranged to amuse members of the Tuesday Club in Annapolis, several of whom were acquaintances of Washington. This was a group of local gentlemen who met regularly between 1745 and 1756 to share a meal, sing rowdy songs, and tell stories.
When Washington went on trips, he brought home music books as gifts for his step-daughter, Patsy. Later in life he listened with joy as his step-granddaughter Nelly played his favorite songs on the harpsichord and pianoforte for her beloved grandpapa.
Kate VanWinkle Kelleris the author of numerous books on colonial era music and contra-dances.
David Hildebrande is a recognized scholar of early American music history, including colonial, Revolutionary War, Federal, and the War of 1812 periods.
Would you like to hear some of the music herein? Check this out:

Davy Crockett's Fiddle by Dean Shostak
"I first learned about Davy Crockett's fiddle when I saw its picture in the April 2001 issue of USA Today; an old well-worn violin. That was the beginning of a wonderful musical adventure. I contacted the good folks at the Witte Museum, who owned the fiddle, and proposed that we have it restored. I wanted to make a recording of music of Davy Crockett's time on his very own fiddle accompanied by period instruments.
They enthusiastically agreed and we embarked on a remarkable historical journey; restoring the violin, researching and learning the music Davy Crockett would have played, and recording it right in San Antonio where he spent his final, heroic days.
When I returned to Williamsburg, Virginia, I assembled some of my favorite early American musicians together to create musical scenes from Davy's life using his own fiddle.
It was a thrill for me from beginning to end...
Dean Shostak
Dean is one of the musicians who performs at Colonial Williamsburg.
Sorry, but I could find no selections from this CD to link to here. I suppose you'll just have to trust me on this one!

Hard Times - Stephen Foster Remembered by Amy Miller and Carson Hudson
It is 1864 and, after a busy work-week running the gristmill, a few of us are relaxing on a Saturday evening. A piano and a pump organ are there, awaiting to be played. One friend brings his banjo, and another has bones. And still another brought the most special of instruments, her sweet voice. It helps that she can also play said keyboard instruments as well. That's where this CD takes me when I listen to it. I came across it on a fluke search and ordered it after only listening to a few samples. The kind folks at CD Baby ensured my copy was in my hands inside of three days and I have played this more than any other of my 30+ mid-19th century music CD's. As a citizen/civilian Civil War re-enactor, as well as a social historian of the 19th century, I simply cannot get enough of this disc. This is highly recommended for any lover of authentic sounding parlor music of the middle class.
And, the CD Baby folks said of this CD:
Amy Miller and Carson Hudson have also tried to replicate the way that Americans would have actually heard these works in the 1840s, '50s and '60s, hoping that you enjoy their attempt at a musical time machine to mid-19th century America.
not of the Linda Ronstadt caliber, Amy's voice is beautiful nonetheless, and it fits this music perfectly. Upon listening it can make one feel as if they were in a parlor, enjoying a family and friends get together. It definitely adds to the authenticity of our weekly time-travel experiences as we make our way to reenactments (yes, yes, I know it's recorded music on a compact disc - we're talking effect here, a mind-travel through time).
I think my particular favorites are when she sings with the pump organ - a true time-travel experience.
And a finer version of "Some Folks" you will never hear!

Here's their version of "Hard Times Come Again No More":

So there you have it - one hundred years of some very authentic-sounding period music. You would do yourself a great favor in adding them to your collection. They can really give you that prep you may need before diving into your next reenactment.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Reviews: Looking at Their World Through Their Eyes

I love books.
Okay, let me rephrase that:I love HISTORY books.
Especially the kind of history books that will allow me to see through the eyes of those that were there.
For this week's posting I'd like to tell you about a few books of this sort that I've picked up recently. The books I will be writing about here tend to go beyond your typical history book. Read on to see what I mean...
Let's begin with one I snagged from the Barnes & Noble booksellers discount shelf:
"Reporting the Revolutionary War."
There are many worthwhile books on the Rev War. In particular I feel Thomas Fleming's "Liberty!" is an excellent source of the War and of the times that is filled with rich detail one would hope to find along with a myriad of beautiful illustrations that greatly enhance the text.
Two other books (or booklet in one case) that are geared more toward the upper elementary grade level through high school age youth that do a pretty decent job in covering the battles of the Rev War are "American Revolution: Battles and Leaders"  and "American Revolution" - both put out by DK Books.
But ""Reporting the Revolutionary War" is different in that the information is taken directly from the newspapers of the time. As it states on the front cover: before it was history, it was news.
And the back cover information says: For the first time, experience the sparks of revolution the way the colonists did - in their very own town newspapers and broadsheets.
Beginning with the Stamp Act and ending with the resignation of George Washington as Commander in Chief, virtually every important and not-so-important aspect of the Revolutionary War is covered as was originally printed at the time.
And you even get replicas of four period newspapers (see photo above).
Also included is an excellent history of the colonial newspaper business as well as a chapter entitled "Revolutionary Newspaper Reading Tips," giving the reader 'direction' and explanations in reading such material. For instance, the author advises the reader to Put Yourself in the Period, News Time Lag, Inconsistent Grammar, Bias and Propaganda, and eleven other notations.
I love the line, "Toss out all preconceived notions about how we became a country. Read the papers as if it is all happening now."
The next book that I discovered (by way of a Facebook friend) and would like to tell you about really took me by surprise. "Wenches, Wives and Servant Girls: A Selection of Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers 1770 - 1883" is, to me, an invaluable source in the description of the (mostly female) populace of the colonial era. Full and complete 'advertisements' from the newspapers of the years listed in the title are here giving us in the 21st century an amazing characterization of every day people living in the late colonial era of our Nation's history. I mean to say that we get a wonderfully detailed description of these 18th century women (and some men), such as what was written in April of 1776 of a young Scottish runaway (original spelling and punctuation intact):
A Scotch Girl, named Forbes, about 20 years of age, ran away from the subscriber, in Arch Street, Philadelphia, a round full face, with high cheek bones, is pitted with the smallpox, had black eyes, and a soft inarticulate voice, speaks much in the Scotch dialect, has the appearance, of great good humour, and affects a modest downcast look; her dress was a cloth coloured pelong bonnet, lined with pale blue mantua, light coloured cloth cloak, with a hood, and gimp, broad striped ribbon round her neck, white kenting handkerchief, brown and yellow camblettee gown, blue stuff quilted petticoat, lined with blue baize, and a pale green and white striped lincey jacket and petticoat. Twenty shillings will be paid to any person who secures her in any goal, within 20 miles of Philadelphia, and forty shillings if at a greater distance, together with all reasonable charges. (Pennsylvania gazette, 3 April 1776).
Note how great the description is here in all manners.
Other descriptions for other runaways note tall and lusty, stoop shouldered, with short light or sandy coloured hair, and another mentions a woman being 5 foot 3 inches high, pretty much pitted with the small-pox, well set...and yet another, this time a servant man by the name of John M'Gonnegall, 22 years of age, and 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, thin visage, slim build, grey eyes, light brown hair and wears a club to it; he had on and took with him, a blue cloth coat and jacket, buckskin breeches, almost new, three shirts, one brown linen, a corded white jacket, striped linen ditto, a pair of white striped trowsers, a half worn castor hat, a new pair of black train shoes and plated buckles, both his legs sore, one very bad... 
The one thing that took me off guard was how many of the folks are "pitted with the smallpox." It seems that so many of the 400 advertised runaways in this book had the scars of smallpox. We don't think of our colonial ancestors that way, do we? You see, I'm the kind of living historian that will find a way to 'scar myself' to give a more accurate look should I happen to get into colonial living history one day.
Yeah...I'm nuts that way...

Another book in my library that centers on the American Revolution was actually first published in installments in Harper's Weekly in 1850 by author Benson J. Lossing. From his initial research travels in 1848 through being published in Harper's and then released in book form as "The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution," in 1853, sketch artist and historian/writer Lossing traveled thousands of miles throughout the original 13 colonies of the United States as well as parts of Canada researching the original mostly untouched locations where so much of the Revolutionary War took place. He visited nearly every place made memorable by the Revolutionary War, interviewed and recorded the first-hand accounts of Rev War veterans, and then recorded his research so that future generations would know the personal history of America.
As if that weren't enough, Lossing also gives us a wonderful lesson about the age of the great discoverers and the founding of America by the Europeans. Contrary to the popular myth of today that historians before our 21st century age of enlightenment never wrote about the Indians who were here first, this mid-19th century Victorian made it plain that, yes, the natives were already here, calling pre-European America the "native empire," and even went so far to say that "the Aztecs and their neighbors were beaten into the dust of debasement by the falchion blows of averice and bigotry..."
Anyhow, this series of books by Lossing is about as extensive as I've ever seen on the Revolutionary War. The author really did his research and footwork. Imagine, in the days of horse and carriages traveling thousands of miles in only two years AND writing enough to have it ready for magazine publishing.
Simply amazing.

Now let's move up to the latter part of the 19th century to a series of books that so many have read as children, but I have to wonder how many have re-read them as adults.
I'm talking about the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Having never read the books myself, I watched the TV show as a youth and thought it was okay, but definitely geared to a younger more feminine set. But being the history buff I was (and still am), I loved watching nearly anything that took place in an earlier time, and this show fit the category.
It was kind of like a western movie for families.
But after the first few seasons, my attention began to wane. The quality seemed to diminish, leaving only a few episodes per season as what I would consider decent.
Earlier in 2013, I found a collection of a few of Ingalls' novels all together in one compact hardcover book on the discount shelf at Barnes & Nobles booksellers (just like the "Reporting the Revolutionary War" book above) called simply "Little House - The First Five Novels," and felt that it was cheap enough that I could purchase it. The five books featured in this collection are "Little House in the Big Woods," "Farmer Boy," "Little House on the Prairie," "On the Banks of Plum Creek," and "By the Shores of Silver Lake." So I thought, "Why not get it?" I have found books geared toward children to be filled with all kinds of social history not usually found in the more 'academic' history books. A book I purchased as a pre-teen, "The Cabin Faced West" is one that is filled with showing every day life of the late 18th century - I still have my original copy! - and I will re-read it every-so-often. Considering Mrs. Wilder wrote these Little House books about her own youth I figured I could not go wrong.
Boy - - this purchase was spot on! The details in each novel I've read so far are amazing, covering everything from travel to holiday celebrations to fall harvest to school days to surviving winter to...well, you get the picture. And it was written mainly from first-hand accounts!
Compared to the Little House books, which were loaded with the everyday life experiences of a typical pioneer family of the 1870's, the TV show could not even compare.
And Wilder filled her novels with plenty of interesting daily life experiences of the 1860's and '70's social history that are only touched upon in the so-called nose-in-the-air 'academia' history books. There is plenty to interest, whether the reader is male or female / adult or youth.

I believe you can see why I get excited about reading the books mentioned here, for finding first hand descriptions and accounts mean so much more to me than your typical informative history book. And there are others as well, most notably "Our Own Snug Fireside," which I quote from often.
And, of course, we cannot forget the great journal, diary, and letters books readily available, with my very favorite of these being "The Cormany Diaries."

I hope you enjoyed my short book review posting. There are many, many books that I haven't mentioned here. Perhaps I will in a future posting. But these are the few that have stood out lately for me.
By the way, all of the photos here came from the books mentioned.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I: Tales of a Modern Boar's Head Feast

How many of you eat turkey for Christmas dinner?
How many have ham?
How many have Boar’s Head?? 
Yes, I said a boar's head! 

Roasted boar, with literally an apple in it's mouth, was a staple of medieval banquets and, with the fanfare of trumpets and the songs of minstrels, the meal was carried to the table inside the banquet hall on a silver (or gold) platter decorated with sprigs of evergreen, bays, rosemary, and holly.
This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast and menace to humans, it was hunted as a public enemy. As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in Europe, the presentation of a boar's head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
Image from

It was carried to those waiting in attendance at the table to the strains of the Boar's Head Carol:

(Verse 1) 
The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio (Translation: As many as are in the feast)

(CHORUS)  Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar's head I offer) Reddens laudes Domino (Translation: Giving praises to the Lord)

(Verse 2) 
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. (Translation: Let us serve with a song)


(Verse 3) 
Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginesi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of Queen’s [College, Oxford])
(end with the CHORUS)

The traditional Boar's Head Festival had grown to include lords, ladies, knights, historical characters, cooks, hunters, and pages. Eventually, shepherds and wise men were added to tell the story of the Nativity.
The whole was embellished with additional carols as well.
Yes, I realize Christmas is past - 12th Night was the last - but a good friend of mine, Karen, wanted to do something special for the period vocal group I manage known as Simply Dickens. Karen, like me, is a collector of historical Christmas music, and we search far and wide to locate the old world carols one rarely, if ever, hears in today's society.

Simply Dickens prepares to perform "The Boar's Head Carol" written in England in the 1400's. Yes, that's me giving our audience a bit of history of the carol.

And the Boar's Head Carol, which was written, incidentally, in the 15th century, is one of the best of these forgotten favorites. I say forgotten because in our modern world where few even think or care about where their food comes from the idea of a head of a boar served on a silver platter can be a bit disconcerting.
If you follow Simply Dickens' Facebook page (and if you don't, you should - if for no other reason than it would be great to have higher numbers!), then you know that we have been very busy this past Christmas season, performing 12 shows in a three week period. That's pretty good considering we specialize in many of these forgotten favorites I mentioned (without a Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, Donkey, or Hippopotamus in the bunch!).
So anyhow, this past December Karen came up with the idea of throwing a Boar's Head Feast for our group - heck, she came to two of our shows in one season - - she must like us!!
Christmas is a very busy time not only for the Simply Dickens members but for me personally. Just see my December postings if you don't believe me. And it was for this reason we chose a date sometime in mid-January. It also helped to cure some of the winter blahs.
Welcome to January 12, 2014, the only date that everyone agreed upon.
Since we dress mid-19th century when we perform rather than medieval (and since none of us has quality replica 1400's clothing), we decided just to all wear our modern clothing, though the feast was held in my Victorian parlor. To help give off somewhat of a medieval feel, I pulled out my faux silver candle holders, pottery bowls, and any other decor I had on hand that could have a sort of 600 year old effect.
Our Victorian parlor/gathering room was festively decorated in a sort of pseudo-medieval feel.

I even put my great (or walking) wheel front and center to help with the atmosphere.

I thought we did a decent job considering what little we had to work with. Medieval items aren't easy to come by!

I then pulled out my homemade Renaissance/Medieval cassette tapes I had recorded back in the '90's featuring such performers as Gaelic Storm, Revels, As You Like It, Bonnie Rideout, Alan Lomax, the older Bocca Musica, and the Chieftains, as well as more traditional artists such as the York Waits, Celtic Roots, New London Consort, the Broadside Band, "Elizabethan Music," and Hesperus. These tapes also include some of the more contemporary performers that have music that can fit in quite nicely with this theme such as Jethro Tull ('Songs From the Wood' and 'Mother Goose'), Led Zeppelin ('Battle of Evermore'), Mary Hopkin ('Those Were the Days') and the Pogues (South Australia).
With four 100 minute tapes, I barely touched the tip of the iceburg with the variety of musicians and music played, by the way.
Later in the afternoon, my oldest brought out the guitar and performed a few of the more popular Irish-type pub tunes such as "Johnny Jump Up," "Tell Me Ma," and the "Hills of Connemara."
My son playing my guitar.
Karen bought and brought the boar's head over in the morning and let it cook until nearly 4:00 in the afternoon. Well, it was actually a pig's head - a boar's head is more difficult to get and to cook, so we decided to stick with a pig's head.
But we still called it a boar's head party.
The founder of our feast!!
Besides the main dish, other servings included pork chops, bone marrow, rutabaga and potatoes, corn pudding, plum pudding, soup broth, peasant bread, and wassail to drink.
When the head was ready for serving, it truly was bedecked in a garland of greenery and carried on a silver platter, just as in days of old. And rather than the sounds of trumpets we, instead, had the vocalization of our favorite minstrels, Simply Dickens, singing The Boar's Head Carol as my son carried the tray into our parlor. 
Simply Dickens marched into our gathering room carrying the boar's head bedecked in the greenery from days of old.
The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico

And we cannot forget that after Simply Dickens sang the Carol live for us, Karen played 24 different versions of the old tune from her own personal collection!  

It may not be a banquette hall, but it worked for our party!

Raise your glass for a toast to the founder of the feast, Miss Karen De Coster!!

Bone marrow: you scoop the marrow out of the bone and spread it on your bread. No, I did not try this, for I am not an adventurous eater, but those that did seemed to enjoy it.

Following dinner, Simply Dickens member Rebecca had a very traditional plum pudding waiting for us by way of a mid-19th century recipe (which was most likely taken from an even earlier recipe!).

It was so beautiful when she set the brandy covering a-flame and then, afterward, put a ‘hard sauce’ on top. 
(If you look close you can see the blue flame. I wish my camera could capture the scene better. Oh well, at least I have this.)

The plum pudding (with a sprig of holly stuck in) helps to give a very merry look

It really was quite the festive meal as a whole!

But the festivities were not over yet, for a rare treat occurred this day - something that doesn't happen very often: I - shock! - actually played my guitar!
And I sang!! (Though I must admit  my singing voice is better suited for torturing souls rather than soothing them...)
But I still had fun singing the very non-medieval songs of my youth: Suite Judy Blue Eyes (CSN) and Old Man (Neil Young), followed by a number of Beatles tunes my son and TC played.
There was also an ode to our Sicilian heritage when my son sang (in Sicilian) the Theme from the Godfather. 

Brucia la luna n'cielu
E ju bruciu d'amuri
Focu ca si consuma
Comu lu me cori

What a very fine ending to an unusual day - a truly splendid time with a mix of new and old, modern and tradition.
Many, many thanks must go to Karen for pretty much for putting the entire gathering together, for it was her idea; she bought most of the food, and continued to expand the idea each time we spoke.
Yep. It was a grand time.
Or, as Simply Dickens member Diana wrote on her Facebook page, "The whole evening was an EXPERIENCE!!

(By the way, much of my information about the history of the boar's head came from Wikipedia.) 

Tho' this is not Simply Dickens, here is a wonderful and traditional version of the Boar's Head Carol:

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