Popular Music of Vermont
Introduction to Vermont History through Popular Song
American popular music from the late eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries delivered the news and provided a medium for families, friends, and communities to share sentiments such as patriotism, pathos, nostalgia, love, and independence.
Sheet music in the collections of the Vermont Historical Society provides a good sample of this sort of entertainment and cultural expression. From the hundreds of items that constitute the Vermont Historical Society’s sheet music collection, Linda Radtke and pianist Jeanne Cook selected songs for recitals around the state. The music on this CD includes many of the songs performed in those recitals, plus the new Vermont state song, “These Green Mountains,” composed in 1999.
Most of the songs in this collection date from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. These pieces, usually called parlor music, give us insight into the role of music in Vermonters’ lives during this period of dramatic social change and economic growth.
The inexpensive keyboard instruments such as melodeons, reed organs, and pianos, of string instruments such as guitars, mandolins, and banjos, and of wind instruments—along with instruction manuals and songbooks—brought music into the lives of many working and middle-class families. Improvements in typography made printed sheet music widely available and inexpensive; and lithography enabled publishers to adorn sheet music with elaborately illustrated covers. Parlor music thus became a multi-sensory experience of lyrics, melody, harmony, and visual engagement. Performing parlor music became both an individual and a group experience, in which families and friends gathered around a piano or reed organ, strummed banjos and guitars, and sang songs for entertainment.
What they sang varied widely. Songs could be timely, composed as events such as the Civil War unfolded; or they could express timeless joys and sorrows: affection or yearning for home and loved ones, the sorrows of separation and loss, the joys of reunited lovers, victory in battle, or the boisterous energy of camaraderie.
More than in our own day, music was also an integral part of political and civic life. Military and town bands played at community gatherings, political rallies, and social events. They sent troops off to war and welcomed them home. Political songs promoting a candidate, advocating social causes, praising the work of laborers, or attacking taxes and tariffs were sung in parlors, concert halls, union halls, taverns, bandstands, and in the streets. Rich in content and expressions of sentiment, sometimes eloquently poetic, often catchy and easy to sing, popular music embodies the period’s history and, as all music does, connects us with the lives and emotions of people from another day.
- Michael Sherman