Dancing In the Kitchen, Singing in the Parlor

Saturday, March 02, 2013
(The writer is president of the Bradford Historical Society and author of two volumes on regional history titled “In Times Past, Essays From the Upper Valley.”)

“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 calling 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 have been called kitchen junkets, kitchen tunks, tonks, rackets or scrapes. Dancing in the kitchen was a New England bit of homegrown fun, often accompanied by singing in the parlor.

Beginning after chores were done, 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. 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 following description of a northern Vermont kitchen junket appeared in an 1894 edition of The New England Magazine: “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.

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 another 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 might be held. In some neighborhoods, the junkets rotated from house to house, whereas in others, the largest farm kitchen was used.

These frolics were scorned 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 1980s 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 attended in their youth. There were comments such as “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 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.

A 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.

Singing has been a major part of Vermont folk culture. The art of singing, both sacred and secular, was encouraged from the earliest years in area towns. In March 1794, Newbury voted to appoint choristers to teach and lead singing. Jeremiah Ingalls and Jacob Bayley were among them.

Singing schools were common in many area communities, meeting in churches and schools. The history of Ryegate described the social importance: “The witchery of the singing schools drew young people from far and near… pleasure and instruction were equally mingled.”

Some accompanied work or relaxation by singing ballads passed to them by their ancestors. One Vermont 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.”

Many traditional Vermont ballads are influenced by early residents’ European roots. Barbara Allen, Billy Boy and Young Charlotte are three that were 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 were the most widely sung pieces of the 19th century. Two of his most popular: Susanna, 1848, and Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair, 1854.

Originally marketed to the middle class, the popularity 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 sold 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 fits 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 first 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 remains the unofficial anthem of the game.

Vermont music historian Mark Greenberg includes in his CD 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.

The rise of 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 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 a crowd to break into song, most of the thousands of parlor songs are now lost to memory.

The omnipresence of music today, emanating from radio, television, iPods and hidden speakers in 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 to fill relaxed 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 than listen to it with ear buds. 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 well-being for it.

(This was adapted from a column in the “Journal Opinion.”)