Beyond the Parlor

Part Three: Women
Beyond the Parlor Part Three: Women
Vahdah Olcott-Bickford (b. 1885, shown with her husband, Zarh) was one of the most important figures in the guitar of the West Coast, founding the first classical guitar society in the U.S., and arranging or composing hundreds of works for guitar. Vahdah Olcott-Bickford photo courtesy Paul Ruppa.

Ed. Note: In the final installment in his series on the guitar in 19-century America, Tim Brookes offers a study of several women who played the guitar, and what the instrument meant to them. The first two parts are at Part One: The Guitar in Non-Anglo America and Part Two: Man and Machine.

“The guitar before 1850 was a much smaller and more delicate instrument than the classical guitar known today,” wrote one scholar. “It was strung with six gut strings which provide a delicate yet surprisingly resonant sound. It may not be too far fetched to suggest that the physical instrument of the time reflected the prevailing conception of women: soft, quiet, delicate, unobtrusive, yet always ready to accompany or entertain with a minimum of fuss.”

Now that we’ve established that the guitar was not limited to the parlor (as addressed in part one of this series, July ’05) nor to women (December ’05), let’s consider how women did use the guitar in 19th-century America, and what the instrument meant to them.

In one respect, the guitar was actually more popular in the 19th century than it is today; it was a central part of a well-rounded education, especially for a well-born young lady.

Despite – or perhaps because of – its reputation as an instrument of romance, the guitar had been seen for 250 years as one of the instruments, like the lute and the virginals and later the piano, that were to be expected as among the accomplishments of a young lady of birth and fortune, perhaps as a means of attracting a good husband and pleasing him thereafter. That’s not so say that young men didn’t also play the guitar as part of courtship – both sexes played, just as both were expected to know how to dance well.

From the 18th century onward, we can read of picnics and parties, soriees and excursions on boats and in canoes, with the guitar tinkling in the background or being strummed as individuals joined each other in song. But insofar as young women were more consciously and deliberately trained for successful courtship than men, so the guitar turns up in their teenage syllabus. As early as 1788, Horatio Garnet was advertising in the New Hampshire Spy that, having received his musical education in some of the principal cities of Europe, he now proposes “teaching the Violin, Bass-viol, Hautboy, Clarionet, Flute, etc, and also to give Lessons to Ladies on the Guitar…”

By the 19th century, the guitar has settled into the school curriculum. Mecklenburg Female College, for example, included “Music on Piano or Guitar, 32 lessons in 13 weeks, $20.00.” By the end of the century, guitar lessons were being offered by the New York YWCA, and even by correspondence – surely a hard row to hoe.

Having learned the guitar (or piano), a young woman might also play to entertain visitors to the home, or to entertain her husband once she was married – and her husband might well accompany her on another instrument, such as the fiddle or flute.

When Millard Fillmore was elected president in 1850, a guitar went to the White House with him. (Others may well have been there before. Washington and Jefferson both had female relatives who played, and Ben Franklin is known to have tried the time-honored ploy of offering to teach a young lady to play the guitar.) A friend wrote, “When Mr. Fillmore entered the White House, he found it entirely destitute of books. Mrs. Fillmore was in the habit of spending her leisure moments in reading, I might almost say, in studying. She was accustomed to be surrounded with books of reference, maps, and all the other requirements of a well-furnished library, and she found it difficult to content herself in a house devoid of such attractions. To meet this want, Mr. Fillmore asked of Congress, and received an appropriation, and selected a library, devoting to that purpose a large and pleasant room in the second story of the White House. Here, Mrs. Fillmore surrounded herself with her little home comforts; here her daughter had her own piano, harp, and guitar, and here Mrs. Fillmore received the informal visits of the friends she loved, and, for her, the real pleasure and enjoyments of the White House were in this room.”

In those last 15 words one can sense that the guitar often meant something profound to its owner. It might look to an outsider like just a “little home comfort,” but it is part of a stable, civilized, stimulating, reflective home, important to both a social and an inner life. The guitar is a meditation device; it has the ability to calm and center the player, to provide a quiet inner space, and this deeper value is hinted at or stated explicitly throughout the century…

…Especially during the Civil War, which shattered the living-rooms and the courtship behaviors of the genteel South. Time and again the guitar crops up in memoirs as the instrument of peace and solace, often symbolically placed in contradiction to the gun, as in the diary of Kate Carney: “May 30th 1861. One of Bro. Wilson’s negro men got very badly hurt with a mule today. Mended Sister’s hoop skirt. Finished The Virginians, read some papers and a magazine, practiced on my guitar, and this evening practiced shooting with Sister’s pistol.”

When this stable way of life was destroyed, the guitar changed meaning; late in the century, women in their autumn years often speak of it as their “old” guitar; it is charged with the sadness of everything they have lost.

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In other areas of the country, and in other strata of society, women used the guitar in different ways. Many women, like many men, were porch/parlor/kitchen guitarists, whether they were wealthy or not. Women in Hispanic families often played guitar, and taught their children. In Appalachia, Merle Travis learned his thumbpicking style from Mose Rager, who learned it from Kennedy Jones, who always said that he learned it from his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones. Maybelle Carter was a 20th-century descendant of this tradition.

Others went beyond being social entertainers to being semi-professional or even professional entertainers. By the end of the century, several women guitarists were playing concerts; others were playing dances.

“I started playing when I was so young I used to play with dolls at home. This was about 1888,” recalled Mrs. Charley Huyck (b. 1875) of Lincoln, Nebraska, who had played piano, guitar, and mandolin at square dances for 50 years.

“We played in many a fine home in Lincoln for their private dances. These were held in the attic or on the third floor of those big houses. Square dances, polka waltzes, schottisches, and lancers were the popular dances. We used to haul a parlor organ in the spring wagon as most places had no organ or piano at that time.

Beyond the Parlor Part Three: Women
The perfect young Southern lady, Mary Prewitt Davis with her handsome, beribboned classical guitar. Photo: Florida State Archives/Florida Memory Collection.

“…It was the custom to have a big dance in the hayloft whenever a new barn was built. This was a way of dedicating a new barn, and they were big affairs. The hayloft would be lighted with… lanterns… or hanging lamps, and these were pretty gay occasions.

“Everybody would climb up the loft ladder, even if they had to crawl over a few horses or cows to get to it. The crowd was always full of life and they sure could dance. There was no snobbery and everyone was friendly, no ‘cliquety’ people who would keep to themselves.

“The square dance was a very democratic gathering… Men and boys came dressed in overalls, swallow-tail coats, peg-top pants, or tight-fitting pants, derby hats; caps, and some wore an assortment which was a sight in itself. The women and girls wore bustles, some hoop skirts, tight-fitting basques, and hair ornaments… The young folks and the old folks mingled freely together. Often when the sets were on the floor, dancing, both young and old, even some of the granddaddies who were not in any of the sets would get out to the side and dance a lively hoe down or clog. I have played at dances where five or six small children would be sleeping on a pile of the dancers’ coats and wraps in a corner of the hall.”

Yet there’s a great danger in following this line of thought too literally because it leads to the assumption that a performer, or an instrument, are important only if they are “successful,” and they are successful only if they are playing for money. Or worse, that they are only successful if they have been recorded.

This is the core of the issue, ladies and gents; the 19th century was an era of live music. In fact, it was the last era of live music. It wasn’t just that the young woman was expected to play because music was a womanly occupation; it was that everyone was expected to play – to play something, no matter how basic the skill or the instrument, or to sing along with others who had more instrumental training. People didn’t listen to music – they made music.

Even before the end of the 19th century, the era of live music, which had been going on since the first musical sound, was doomed. The first recording devices (including the player piano) had been invented, and music was changing from a fleeting, magical experience created collectively by musicians and listeners, to a passive experience. The music business, which had begun with the manufacture and sale of sheet music, was turning music into a commodity, owned and manipulated largely by non-musicians. Hardly surprising, then, that Americans’ notions of what is important and successful were also changing.

This fact has led to widespread prejudice against the 19th-century guitar – but also against 19th-century women guitarists. As one scholar wrote, “Women did not play concerts; thus the superficial level at which music was learned was both reasonable and practical for the role it was intended.”

But in fact very few people played concerts in the modern sense – though everyone played concerts in the 19th-century sense. The division between the performer and the audience was nothing like it is now, and the cult of the professional had barely been born.The more one reads these assumptions about women and the guitar, the more it seems as if there’s something unspoken behind the false equations; it’s as if women were responsible for keeping the guitar down, both by playing at a mediocre level and by keeping it at home, as if the guitar were an adventurous teenager who wanted to see the world but was tied to his mother’s apron strings. There’s even an implicit criticism that the parlor guitar remained small because it suited a women’s reach and her short fingers.

Beyond the Parlor Part Three: Women
By the time she was 20 years old (circa 1899), Elsie Tooker was a concert guitarist, teacher, and arranger who adapted classical and other forms of music into works for guitar. Photo courtesy of Paul Ruppa.

As we’ve seen, and as I’ve said before, this is a load of bollocks. Not a single word of it is true, but on top of every other explicit or implied insult, it insults the parlor as a place for making music, and as a musical tradition.

The musicologist Edith Boroff responds to this criticism with a resounding raspberry. In an article entitled “An American Parlor at the Turn of the Century” she dares to swim against a current that has been running with increasing force throughout the 20th century, and argues that the very absence of celebrity – or, if you like, the relatively domestic, humble and egalitarian activity of making music in the home – was a wonderful thing.

One musicologist, she begins, has described parlor music as “designed to be performed by and listened to by persons of limited musical training and ability.” That may be true to some extent, she concedes, but it misses a broader and perhaps more important point: parlor music was live music, and it kept the vital meeting and exchange of music alive.

“My grandmother established a musical parlor in Chicago as soon as she married and moved there in the 1880s. She was no musician, but she invited musicians daily to her home; the children were present, even as babies, and they became participants in due course.

“The parlor musicale was not a concert. A concert is a parenthetical one-shot event; a parlor was a continuing social institution… The parlor musicale was a part of one’s life, an activity that went on 200 or 300 times a year, or even, as in my grandmother’s case, more like 365 times a year. A family with this interest – and there were many – played and listened to music as often as we watch television today…

“Whoever could make music made it. This included household members and guests, and it most especially included the children, who listened regularly from birth (and before), and who performed when they were able. It was considered bad manners ever to refuse or to make excuses…”

It’s perhaps a sign of the times, or of the fact that her grandmother’s household was a sophisticated urban one, that she doesn’t mention hearing guitars, which had fallen out of middle-class fashion. But the repertoire was by no means narrow, staid, or mediocre; “I remember my mother’s older brother singing wonderful Vaudeville songs to the ukulele, acting such chestnuts as ‘Oh Lord, If You Won’t Help Me for Heaven’s Sake Don’t Help That Bear.’ I remember hearing my mother’s cousin playing his marvelous arrangements of popular songs on the banjo, my eyes popping as he whipped around that fingerboard – he was the best banjo picker I ever heard. And another of her cousins who played the flute dazzled me with Debussy’s ‘Syrinx,’ and then tore through her arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Fiddle-Faddle,’ calling it ‘Piccolo-Paccolo.’”

To us, the parlor embraced an extraordinary and unpredictable variety of music. It was an active, participant tradition, as opposed to passive listening to radio or recordings. It wasn’t produced for the profit of a flour company or a tire company or a life insurance company. It wasn’t organized by a instrument company or publishing company trying to sell more instruments or records or sheet music.

Above all, Boroff writes (and this was probably true of parlor music in less affluent and more rural households, too), it was egalitarian.

“[W]omen were equal with men, American music was equal with European, and fanciful performance was equal with literal performance.”

The parlor, though, was almost the last flourish of live, unamplified, unmediated, uncommercial music. The 20th century was upon it, and soon anything as unplugged and as full of the erratic human joy of the musical spirit would seem terminally square.

Read Part One: The Guitar in Non-Anglo America and Part Two: Man and Machine.


Tim Brookes is director of the writing program at Champlain College and the author of Guitar: An American Life, published by Grove Atlantic Press.


This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.