Author greets speaker Mark Greenberg (left) prior to his April 18th presentation on "Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs" for the Bradford Historical Society. His appearance before an enthusiastic audience was underwritten by the Vermont Humanities Council. (Photo: Janice Neubauer)
“After the supper came the dance. There was no music save the fiddles…but was that not enough? Have ever feet tapped more merrily than to a rollicking scrape of some inspired old wool-thatched fiddler, swaying to his own strains and called out the figures in clear, rich tones that harmonized with his wild dance measure as only he could do.”
This is a 19th century description of what has been called kitchen junkets, kitchen tunks, tonks, rackets or scrapes. It is dancing in the kitchen. This column describes this New England bit of homegrown fun along with the often accompanying activity of singing in the parlor.
On Wednesday, April 18, musician-educator Mark Greenberg presented the illustrated program “Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Song” at the Bradford Academy Auditorium to an audience of about 60. The program was sponsored by the Bradford Historical Society with a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council. Greenberg currently teaches courses in American music at UVM and is a resident of Montpelier. He has researched the roots of Vermont music and has recorded this music in both CD and DVD presentations.
Beginning after chores were done, these kitchen dances were held in conjunction with a barn raising, corn roast or husking bee or just as a break from the isolation of a long winter. When one was planned, word went out about the neighborhood, passed from home to home. Most neighborhoods had at least one fiddler, although “scraping” was an appropriate description of his talents in some cases.
This was an opportunity for neighbors to get together and share the most recent gossip or commiserate about the weather. These family-centered events were held in the “great kitchen” of local farmhouses, often the largest room in the dwelling. When all the furniture, except the stove and sink was removed, an intimate dance floor became available. Sometimes adjacent rooms were also used.
The short story M’Randy Ann’s Romance by Helen M. Winslow that appeared in an 1894 edition of The New England Magazine includes a description of a northern Vermont kitchen junket: “Old Dave Burrows sat in state on the only chair in the room, scraping wildly on a fiddle with one string broken. Up and down the uneven floor a dozen young folks were going vigorously though the mazy evolutions of the Virginia Reel, while a half-dozen more huddled in the doorway that led to the great ‘square room’ or parlor as the next generation termed it, applauding the most graceful and deriding the least graceful of the dancers.”
The description goes on: “At ten o’clock the kitchen table was pulled out and loaded with doughnuts, apple sauce, pie, cheese and cider. This was pleasant intermission in the evening’s exercises, after which the dancing would go on with renewed vigor.” The figures included traditional contras, quadrilles and square dances, taken from English, Scottish and French traditional dances. They were so familiar to most participants that the caller only had to get them started and they could continue with just the music and whatever gusto they could muster.
There were, of course, variations. Sometimes the fiddler’s chair was on a board covering the sink to make extra room. A harmonica player or other musician might provide accompaniment. At times there was liquor or hard cider. Often a supper followed the evening of dancing.
Sometimes dancing lasted until well after midnight. Card games and group singing could be held in conjunction with the party. In some neighborhoods, the junkets rotated from house to house, whereas in others, the largest farm kitchen was used.
These frolics were not looked upon with favor by some. In the 1890s, the New Hampshire Superintendent of Public Instruction warned against students attending dances including kitchen junkets. “Such pupils are wholly unfitted to do substantial school work. For two or three days after these nightly revelings, their minds are unsettled, stupid and dull.”
In the early 1980’s my U.S. History students interviewed area elders about life in the period from 1900-1930. Many spoke, with fond memories, of kitchen junkets they had attended in their youth. I followed up recently with several additional interviews. Among the comments were: “I learned to dance there.” and “They were lots of fun, dancing and visiting.” Others mentioned “plenty of liquor” and “They had the best hard cider.”
One man said that his favorite song “to stamp the old feet to” was the “Soldier’s Joy.” Another, who lived in northern Bradford, told me that in his youth he had a horse-drawn sleigh and at the end of a very long evening of dancing, he could snuggle down under a lap robe and the horse knew the way home to the warm barn.
Greg Sharrow, writing about kitchen junkets in the Vermont Encyclopedia, attributes their demise “to an increase in rowdiness as the automobile enabled people to travel greater distances and people from outside a particular neighborhood began showing up in these local gatherings.” It is also true that commercial barn dances, featuring both round and square dancing and an expanded social experience, drew the younger crowd and led to the decline of the traditional neighborhood gathering.
There is at least one kitchen junket still held in the area. For the past 10 years, Rick and Anne Rosten of Cookville have invited up to 60 friends and neighbors to their home for a junket. It is held in conjunction with friends, family and the Bradford Evangelical Free Church. As the kitchen is not large enough to accommodate the numbers who attend, two adjacent rooms are used.
Veteran fiddler/caller Harold Luce of Chelsea does the honors for square dancing. Anne told me that the party starts with sledding and games and the evening ends with the “Virginia Reel.” She said they host the annual event as a way to deal with “cabin fever.”
An equally large number of interviewees said they never went to kitchen junkets as their families didn’t believe in dancing, cards or drinking liquor. But they did speak fondly of group singing. The other portion of Mark Greenberg’s presentation on April 18th will deal with parlor songs.
Singing has been a major part of Vermont folk culture. The art of singing, both sacred and secular, was encouraged from the earliest years of area towns. In March 1794, Newbury voted to appoint choristers to teach and lead singing. Jeremiah Ingalls and Jacob Bayley were among those chosen.
Singing schools were common in many area communities, meeting in churches and schools. The history of Ryegate described the social importance of these schools: “The witchery of the singing schools drew young people from far and near… pleasure and instruction were equally mingled.”
There were also those who accompanied work or relaxation by singing the ballads passed to them by their ancestors. One farmer, James Atwood, also known as a folksinger and poet is quoted: “I’m not what you’d call a regular singer, you know I never learned by book nor never saw nothin’s writ down. I’ve allus sung ‘cause I can’t help it. My father was the same and my grandfather before him.”
Greenberg related the history of traditional Vermont ballads, many of which had roots from early Vermonters’ European roots. Two collections of these ballads mentioned were those of “the Old Revolutionary Soldier of Sandgate, Vermont”(1823) and those collected by Helen Hartness Flanders (1931). Included are many familiar ballads passed down orally from generation to generation. “Barbara Allen,” “Billy Boy” and “Young Charlotte” are just three well known to many.
Parlor music became popular in America before the Civil War and continued into the early 20th century. Stephen Foster’s compositions are examples of early parlor songs and represent the most widely sung pieces of the 19th century. Two of his most popular were “O Susanna” (1848) and “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair” (1854).
Originally marketed to the middle class, the popular of these musical pieces coincided with the rise of the American piano and organ industry. This was an era in which many individuals played musical instruments. Songwriters realized there was a large and lucrative market for sheet music and song collections. If they could get a popular entertainer to feature a piece, the number of sheets rose significantly.
Until the 1920s a truly popular song might be defined as one of which a large number of people could recall both the tune and some of the words. In a society more attuned to communal music, the common denominators of a popular song included a tune that was easy to sing with basic, direct and intelligible words. Songs were styled for solos, duets and group singing. Parlor music fit this bill. The melody was usually simple, the words ranged from comic to sentimental.
In Sweet Songs for Gentle Americans: The Parlor Song in America 1790-1860, Nicholas E. Tawa wrote that these songs were about “shared human experiences” and reflected “commonly-held ideas that were readily understood and deeply satisfying.” This was truly “music for the millions.” While most of the songwriters were men, it was “overwhelmingly women who collected this music.”
In the period after 1877, songwriters in New York’s Tin Pan Alley marketed their songs aggressively. The song to sell a million sheets was “After The Ball Is Over” (1892), eventually selling over five million. “Take Me Out To the Ball Game” (1908) became a popular favorite and still remains the unofficial anthem of the game.
War, which tends to focus national sentiment, was a major catalyst of the type of songs popularized by parlor songwriters. Songs were popular among both military personnel and civilians. They reflect the varied strong emotions that war evokes. Popular songs of the Civil War include “The Empty Chair” and “Just Before the Battle, Mother.” During World War I, ”Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” were popular.
Greenberg includes in his collection of popular Vermont parlor songs instrumentals of the following: “Wait for the Wagon” (1850), “Darlin’ Nelly Gray” (1856), “Golden Slippers” (1879) and “You Are My Sunshine” (1940). Several of these, as with other parlor songs, were originally written for blackface minstrel shows.
My first introduction to this music genre was when, in my very early years, I sat next to my elderly Orford neighbor Florence Workman while she played her parlor piano. Together we sang Foster’s “Camptown Races” (1850) and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” (1906) written by Harry McClintock. That memory is as sweet to me as the divinity fudge she made. We also sang some of these songs during music time at Orford’s elementary school.
The rise of the phonographs and radio created a hit parade of songs, but led to the decline of parlor singing. It is no wonder that there were no parlor songs in the Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 Songs list. While there are a few songs, such as “God Bless America” (1918) or “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that can cause an audience to break into song, most of the thousands of the songs are now lost to memory.
There is no doubt that the omnipresence of music today, emanating from radio, television, iPods and from hidden speakers in many public places, has led to the decline of singing by average folks, except as an accompaniment to the professional. We no longer need personal singing to set the cadence for work or fill the relaxing evenings.
Singing is something more likely to be done at us than by us. We are less likely to whistle or hum that merry tune as listen to it via an ear bud. As we don’t sing in the parlor, we don’t dance in the kitchen. And I am not sure that we are more secure in our personal wellbeing for it.
(Editor’s Note: The author’s second book of essays In Times Past: Essays From the Upper Valley, Book Two will be available in May from local outlets. )