Parlor music was a popular style of music in the United States during the 19th century. It was designed to be performed in the home by amateur musicians, typically on the piano with one vocal line. It was a product of and ingredient in changes in technology, society, and culture that took place during this time period—mainly, the rise of the middle class.
These people had more leisure time for lessons, practicing, and performing, and more disposable income for instruments, sheet music, and lessons. There were more native-born music educators, who provided informal and formal training in schools, churches, and homes. There were more music publishers, who produced more sheet music (first primarily by English composers, then Americans as people like Stephen Foster rose to prominence). Tours by professional singers, such as the Hutchinson Family and Jenny Lind, popularized songs that drove sheet music sales since audio recordings were not yet available.
Parlors (from the French word “parler”—“to talk”) became more common in home construction. This was the first room in the home not built for cooking, eating, or sleeping, but for receiving and hosting guests, such as during calls (short, ritualized visits) or amateur performances. Pianos were most likely to appear in this room, especially after Jonas Chickering patented a one-piece metal frame in 1843. Mass production lowered the cost of pianos, but owning one remained a sign of financial capital, and hosting calls and performances in the home was a sign of social capital. Women were typically the pianists and hosts, bound by gender/social norms (displaying the wealth of their husbands/fathers; what was expected of “virtuous” women) that limited their access to other opportunities to perform.
Parlor music was rooted in gentility, between blackface minstrelsy and aristocratic operatic and symphonic music. It was music for the middle class that represented their economic aspirations and societal values. Front covers with elaborate engravings further emphasized these qualities and increased sales.
All of this played out in the United States before, during, and after the Civil War. Music, especially patriotic music, had become part of American culture, including music sympathetic to the Confederacy. The majority of performers, composers, and publishers were located in the North before the war, but not all of them were staunch supporters of the Union. This was particularly true in border states like Maryland, which surrounds Washington, DC. Baltimore was an established musical hub and home to people and publishers who became known for their involvement in Confederate music.
Three days after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 75,000 state militiamen to be transported to Washington to defend the Capitol. The only way to quickly move that many people was by rail, but all lines to Washington went through Baltimore. This was a city where many residents believed in a state’s right to secede, that one state should not permit troops to cross its territory to attack another state, or that Lincoln might use force to keep Maryland in the Union.
Two days later on April 19th, the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment was passing through the city limits of Baltimore in horse-drawn railcars until protestors blocked the tracks with sand, timber, and iron anchors. This forced the soldiers to disembark and march down Pratt Street from President Street Station to Camden Station under duress. A firearm in the crowd eventually discharged, which caused the officers to order return fire. By the time police arrived, put themselves between the two groups, and escorted the troops to the station, eight rioters, one bystander, and three soldiers had been killed.
James Ryder Randall, a native Marylander in Louisiana at the time, had a friend among the dead and wrote the poem “Maryland, My Maryland” in response, specifically mentioning the event in the first stanza: “Avenge the patriotic gore/that flecked the streets of Baltimore.” Set to the tune of “O, Tannenbaum,” it became a Confederate anthem and would go on to become the state song in 1939 during the Jim Crow era. Multiple attempts have been made since 1974 to repeal the song, or at least demote it to “historical song,” but no bill has managed to pass both chambers of the state legislate. However, in 2017, UMD announced that it would no longer play the song at athletic events. It appears six times in the collection, including the original 1861 Miller and Beacham edition, a pro-Union adaptation by Septimus Winner, and in booklets of UMD songs.
Spiro T. Agnew was a native of Baltimore, governor of Maryland, and President Richard Nixon’s first Vice President until his resignation on 10 October 1973 for his involvement in a bribery scandal in Maryland. Agnew was not a musician, but he performed a racist piano duet with Nixon for the finale of the annual Gridiron Club roast in DC on 14 March 1970. The club is an exclusive organization of journalists in the city and although the white-tie event was not officially covered at the time, accounts did leak out. Agnew’s office had occasionally received sheet music from constituents, but this event caused an uptick in piano music from supporters.