Ed. Note: In this series, Tim Brookes attacks the common argument that the guitar in 19th-century America was small, quiet, and suitable only for young middle-class ladies playing in parlors. Part one explores what was arguably the most extensive and skillful guitar culture of the day – the generally forgotten guitar in non-English-speaking communities. The remainder of the series can be read at Part Two: Man and Machine and Part Three: Women.
“Over the last century,” began a recent guitar history, parroting conventional wisdom, “The guitar has evolved from a parlor instrument for young urban ladies.”
Of all the insults the guitar has had to put up with over the last 500 years, the most common and most infuriating is that during the 19th century, the guitar in America was nothing more than a parlor instrument for young urban ladies.
This is, as John Lydon might say, a load of bollocks. It wasn’t only a ladies’ instrument, it wasn’t only a parlor instrument, and even when it was a ladies’ parlor instrument, both the instrument and the parlor were much more complex and interesting than they’ve been made to appear.
The 19th century was, in fact, a fascinating time for the guitar in America, and while many a music writer has blandly described the 19th-century guitar as a small, quiet, dull instrument that didn’t find its voice or place in the global spotlight until the technical improvements that attended it in the 20th century, the opposite may be true – that in certain crucial respects, the 19th century was the guitar’s last hurrah.
Let’s start with one largely unacknowledged respect in which the “parlor instrument for young urban ladies” insult is completely out of whack: it’s an Anglocentric point of view. The colonists arriving from the British Isles weren’t the best guitarists in the New World. They also weren’t the most numerous, or even the first. The first identifiable guitarist in the New World was Spanish.
His name was Juan Garcia y Talvarea, and he was part of the garrison in St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied settlement on the land we now call the U.S., located on Florida’s northern coast. We don’t know anything about him except that he died circa 1576, and among the possessions he left behind was a guitar.
What did Juan Garcia y Talvarea’s guitar look like? It’s hard to know for sure, because not a single example of the 16th-century guitar has survived, and chances are that different makers made different variants: there has never been such a thing as a standard guitar. It was almost certainly a figure-eight-shaped instrument with four courses (pairs) of strings, and very small by today’s standards, perhaps 1/3 the size of a modern classical guitar, with as few as seven frets up the neck. And frets were not yet made of metal wire, but short pieces of gut string tied around the neck, like on a lute. The guitar might have been tuned in the old Spanish tuning of F below middle C, middle C, E and A or the newer tuning, with the F tuned up to a G, but any tuning would have been approximate, as there was no way of establishing perfect pitch, especially in a military encampment in the New World.
Y Talvarea probably played the same repertoire the folk guitar still plays – ballads, love songs, comic songs, complaints – though if he was among the musicians who played for Aviles on ceremonial occasions, he might have taken part in more complex instrumental works involving counterpoint. He probably also strummed dance music, perhaps playing with the harpist, for we hear elsewhere that the Spanish soldiers took guitars and harps with them as folk instruments. The garrison at St. Augustine must have needed all the social energizing it could get, being 3,000 miles from home.
Florida, after periods of belonging to the British and the French, remained Spanish until 1821, and it seems to have enjoyed the typically festive Spanish-style open-air use of the guitar. History describes the scene during a carnival early in the 19th century, “Masques, dominoes, harlequins, Punchinellos, and a great variety of grotesque disguises, on horseback, in cars, gigs and on foot, paraded the streets with guitars, violins and other instruments; and in the evenings, the houses were open to receive masks, and balls were given in every direction.” At the end of a day of festivities to celebrate the coronation of Charles IV as king of Spain, a formal minuet was held, “But as the evening grew cooler and spirits gayer, the violin was replaced by the guitar and livelier contredances occupied the floor…”
This guitar-driven dance is much more Spanish than British. In Anglophone America, the British colonists seem to have used the guitar in small domestic settings and in concert, rather than in larger social settings and in social rituals such as weddings and religious services. To overstate the case, to Anglo-Americans the guitar was an instrument rather than a way of life.
Florida, though, gives only a hint of the richness and breadth of the guitar’s flourishing in the Spanish New World. The Southwest was settled by Spanish moving up from Mexico, and the guitar was so much part of their lives that even before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, guitar strings could be bought on the Camino Real between Mexico City and Santa Fe.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the guitar moved northward into the upper reaches of Mexico – in other words, into the land we now call New Mexico, Texas, Baja California, and Arizona. It was used for dances and social ceremonies; it was even used by priests in missions that were too remote to have an organ. Indians picked it up with notable speed and skill.
Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and declared Alta (Upper) California a province of Mexico. Between then and 1848, Spanish Californian life flourished in what is often regarded as a Golden Age. Noted 19th-century California shipbuilder William Heath Davis wrote, “Many of the women played the guitar skillfully, and the young men the violin. In almost every family there were one or more musicians, and everywhere, music was a familiar sound.
“Throughout California, feast days, rodeos, weddings, funerals, and other special occasions were accented by music, and events were preceded or followed by a fandango or a baile.”
The guitar was, as in many Hispanic cultures, an indispensable feature of life for men and women of every class. In rural areas it might be a folk instrument, but elsewhere it might equally be played in the classical tradition to the highest levels of accomplishment.
Most of the printed music (and probably some of the instruments) used by the more trained musicians would have come up from Mexico City, but Mexico was by no means a cultural desert. The musicologist John Koegel writes that more than 1,000 symphonies, sextets, string quartets and trios, mixed quartets, duets, sonatas, concertos, serenades, individual pieces for different instruments (especially guitar, cello, piano, flute, and violin), and vocal music selections have been found in a Mexico City collection dating to 1801, including not only Spanish and Mexican works, but works by major European composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Stamitz, Gossec, Pleyel, Dittersdorf, Dussek, Hoffmeister, Abel, Johann Christian Bach, Pergolesi, Boccherini, Gretry, Devienne, Paisiello, Cimarosa, Clementi, and Lolli.
It wasn’t only music that was available. Booksellers, Koegel writes, sold all sorts of musical goods in colonial Mexico. One shop’s inventory consisted of 111 violins, six flutes, two oboes, four horns, one German clave horgano, one small organ, two barrel organs, two dulsainas biejas, and a number of stringed instruments, including all kinds of forgotten and surviving members of the guitar family. Mexico City was the music capital of the New World.
Everything was changed by the 1848 Gold Rush and the influx of 100,000 Anglo-Americans that accompanied and followed it.
At first, many of the Anglo Easterners visiting California write about seeing Spanish culture for the first time, and their reactions are fascinating. There’s a marked difference between the rough-and-ready appearance and behavior of the miners, and the civilized demeanor of the Spanish:
“Among the fresh arrivals at the diggings the native Californians have begun to appear in tolerable numbers,” wrote Edwin Bryant. “Many of these people have brought their wives, who are attended usually by Indian girls. The graceful Spanish costume of the newcomers adds quite a feature to the busy scene around. There, working amidst the sallow Yankees, with their wide white trousers and straw hats, and the half-naked Indian, may be seen the native-born Californian, with his dusky visage and lustrous black eye, clad in the universal short tight jacket with its lace adornments, and velvet breeches, with a silk sash fastened round his waist, splashing away with his gay deerskin botas in the mudded water.
“Since these arrivals, almost every evening a fandango is got up on the green, before some of the tents… It is quite a treat, after a hard day’s work, to go at nightfall to one of these fandangos. The merry notes of the guitar and the violin announce them to all comers; and a motley enough looking crowd, every member of which is puffing away at a cigar, forms an applauding circle round the dancers, who smoke like the rest. One cannot help being struck by the picturesque costumes and graceful motions of the performers, who appear to dance not only with their legs, but with all their hearts and souls. Lacosse is a particular admirer of these fandangos, and he very frequently takes a part in them himself. During the interval between the dances, coffee is consumed by the senoras, and coffee with something stronger by the senors; so that, as the night advances, the merriment gets, if not ‘fast and furious,’ at least animated and imposing.”
Many of the new arrivals were struck by the democratic spirit of the dances. “It was not uncommon or surprising to see the most elaborately dressed and aristocratic woman at the ball dancing with a peon dressed only in his shirt and trousers open from the hip down, with wide and full drawers underneath, and frequently barefoot,” wrote trader Josiah Webb in 1844.
Above all, there are signs that this is a musically developed and sophisticated culture, with a wide range of music played well. This is San Francisco in 1850:
“[A] quintette of Mexican musicians… came here at night to perform. There were two harps, one large and the other very small, two guitars, and one flute. The musicians were dressed in the Mexican costume (which, however, was nothing very noticeable at that time, as many of their auditors were in the same style of dress), and were quiet, modest looking men, with contented, amiable faces. They used to walk in among the throng of people, along to the upper end of the room, take their seats, and with scarcely any preamble or discussion, commence their instrumentation. They had played so much together, and were so similar, seemingly, in disposition – calm, confident and happy – that their 10 hands moved as if guided by one mind; rising and falling in perfect unison – the harmony so sweet, and just strange enough in its tones, from the novelty in the selection of instruments, to give it a peculiar fascination for ears always accustomed to the orthodox and time-honored vehicles of music used in quintette instrumentation.”
The flood of Anglos and the steady change from a settled agraian society to a pell-mell frontier society threw off the established social and musical rhythms. The Californian Spanish were pushed into progressively poorer and more isolated areas. In town, these would become barrios; in the country, villages like Las Uvas, which turn-of-the-century writer Mary Austin, noted for her writings on the area, describes in The Land of Little Rain.
“At Las Uvas, they keep up all the good customs brought out of Old Mexico or bred in a lotus-eating land; drink, and are merry and look out for something to eat afterward; have children, nine or 10 to a family, have cockfights, keep the siesta, smoke cigarettes, and wait for the sun to go down. And always they dance; at dusk on the smooth adobe floors, afternoons under the trellises where the earth is damp and has a fruity smell. A betrothal, a wedding, or a christening, or the mere proximity of a guitar is sufficient occasion; and if the occasion lacks, send for the guitar and dance anyway.”
For every sympathetic Mary Austin, though, there’s a William Heath Davis, ready to look down his nose.
“The families of the wealthier classes had more or less education,” he wrote. “Their contact with the foreign population was an advantage to them in this respect. There were no established schools outside the Missions, and what little education the young people obtained, they picked up in the family, learning to read and write among themselves. They seemed to have a talent and taste for music. Many of the women played the guitar skillfully, and the young men the violin. Of course, they had no scientific and technical musical instruction.”
It’s that last sentence that reeks of the smug snobbery of the Victorian Easterner. It’s hardly surprising, then, to read that as soon as the newcomers reach a critical mass, the guitar is pushed aside by the instrument that best embodied “scientific and technical” music: “On our return, we stopped at Don José’s house in town to lunch, where we were most hospitably entertained,” wrote the Rev. William Ingraham Kip. “His daughter played some pieces on the piano for us, with great taste and skill. As American habits creep in, this instrument is, in many California houses, taking the place of the guitar, whose music they inherited from their Spanish ancestors.”
What we’re seeing is a form of low-level cultural genocide, in which the guitar is a kind of metaphor: so many features of Spanish California life that delighted the new arrivals would be rudely elbowed aside, spoken of with disdain, and marginalized.
The remnants of Old Spanish culture became increasingly marginal, but not extinct, and they were “rediscovered” before the end of the century by Charles F. Lummis, a writer, folk song collector and guitarist, who crossed the country on foot from Massachusetts in the mid 1880s. He wrote that life in California “before the gringo” had been “the happiest, the humanest, the most beautiful life that Caucasians have ever lived anywhere under the sun.” He collected songs in the high desert of what is now New Mexico, “squatting with the quiet Mexican herders in the little semi-circular brush shelter by a crackling fire of juniper,” hearing “an invariable sense of time and rhythm which only our best musicians can match. And they were such human, friendly folk! Glad to sing a song over and over until I had it note-perfect, and then to repeat the words while I wrote them down… So we sang and talked and smoked cigarettes under the infinite stars of a New Mexican sky or the even more numerous flakes of a mountain snowstorm.”
The French had also brought guitars to the New World. The Rev. J.W. Adams of Syracuse references crossing the St. Lawrence River and moving down from present-day Canada with a guitar, bound for a Jesuit colony founded in 1655 at Onadaga. The colony prospered, the account says, for nearly two years until, “At length, a conspiracy which extended itself through the Iroquois cantons was formed against them.” Sieur Dupuys, an officer who had brought the mission from Quebec, decided to retreat to Canada, the Rev. Adams writes, but the settlers needed to build canoes and make their escape without arousing the suspicions of the Iroquois, “And this they accomplished by a stratagem singular enough.”
“Singular enough” sums the story up pretty well. In the midst of various flummery involving prophetic dreams, family obligations and whatnot, the French invite all the Indians to a feast, and while they’re eating, the settlers secretly load up their bateaux, ready for a swift departure. A young Frenchman then produces a guitar and begins playing to the Indians. It must have been an early New Age piece in DADGAD tuning, because “In less than quarter of an hour every Indian was laid soundly to sleep. The young Frenchman immediately sallied forth to join his companions, who were ready at the instant to push from the shore.”
As if this weren’t unlikely enough, the Indians wake up the following morning and spend all day wondering why all the French houses are shut and locked. Eventually, at eveningfall, they break in and “to their utter astonishment found every house empty.”
This story is preposterous in so many respects it’s hard to have much confidence in it – but for the fact that the guitar was all the rage in France at that time. Before his death in 1643, Louis XIII was such a keen player that the guitar was used in chamber recitals and ballets at court. One painting/engraving shows a procession of guitarists walking onstage, two abreast, to perform during a ballet – and one of the musicians is thought to be the King himself. The young Louis XIV was taught by the great Italian guitarist Francisco Corbetta, and became as avid a player as his father. In fact, Voltaire observed caustically that the only things Louis ever learned were to dance and play the guitar, and it has been suggested that Corbetta had been invited by Cardinal Mazarin so that young Louis would become so addicted to the guitar that he would never become interested in politics, and leave the running of the country to Mazarin.
The Guitar as Political Tool
In the New World, the French established a series of settlements from Detroit (1701) down river to New Orleans (1718) and Baton Rouge (1720), as well as Biloxi (1699) and Mobile (1711) on the Gulf of Mexico. Individual settlements in 19th-century America were often almost entirely inhabited by one nationality, so it’s not surprising that when G.W. Featherstonhaugh, exploring the upper Midwest before mid-century, should talk of visiting “French” villages. He wrote:
“It was 3 p.m. before I reached St. Geneviève, and upon returning to my old quarters, I found that both the master and mistress of the house had gone on a visit to Kaskaskias, an old French settlement in Illinois, but had left word that I was to consider myself at home… Having further refreshed myself with a comfortable cup of tea, I strolled out into the village.
“How different the tranquil existence of this primitive French village from the busy excitement of a populous city! At 9 p.m. there was not a soul to be met in the streets; here and there the chords of a guitar, accompanied by a French voice, agreeably interrupted the general silence, whilst the only tread that was audible was that of cows slowly moving up and down the streets…”
So this was the guitar in much of America in the first half of the 19th century: played by men and women, rich and poor, indoors and out, alone or in company.
And if someone were singing to the guitar, they might have been singing in English, French, German, Italian (though that would have been more likely after the great Italian immigrations of the 1880s and later), or Portuguese (though that would have been more likely in the whaling towns of New England and the cannery towns of California, as Portuguese from the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands were highly prized seamen). Most likely, though, it was Spanish, and it’s one of the great tragedies in the history of the guitar that the Spanish-American guitar tradition withered and died almost without trace.
Tim Brookes is a guitarist and the author of Guitar: An American Life, published by Grove Atlantic Press. The book tells two stories: the history of the guitar on the North American continent and the history of one custom guitar being built from scratch by master luthier Rick Davis in Vermont.
This article originally appeared in VG Jul. 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.