Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving History: The Two Thanksgivings of 1871

            For about a week in 1871, New Yorkers were in a quandary about Thanksgiving. On October 25, New York Governor John T. Hoffman designated Thursday, November 23 as Thanksgiving Day for the state. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, the Tammany Hall Democrat urged New Yorkers to spend time on that day to declare “their gratitude to God for all his mercies” and to “remember especially the poor.”
            On October 28, President Ulysses S. Grant recommended that the nation observe Thanksgiving a week after the New York Thanksgiving, on Thursday November 30. In his proclamation, the Republican chief executive called for Americans to “make the usual acknowledgments to Almighty God for the blessings he has conferred on them” and ask “His protection and kindness for their less fortunate brethren.”

            What was a conscientious, holiday-minded New Yorker supposed to do? Observe the Democratic Thanksgiving on November 23, or the Republican Thanksgiving on November 30, or both?
            Neither Governor Hoffman nor President Grant had done anything wrong or unusual. They both were following customs established by their predecessors in office. In New York State, governors had been calling for the observance of a general statewide Thanksgiving on an annual basis continuously since Governor DeWitt Clinton issued his Thanksgiving proclamation in 1817. Previously, Federalist Governor John Jay had issued a proclamation recommending November 26, 1795, as a day of public thanksgiving but Jay’s recommendation quickly became a political football. Democratic-Republicans assailed Jay for using the civil government to influence religious institutions to declare a religious holiday. Others saw “the cloven foot of monarchy in this business.” Jay held office until 1801 but never issued another Thanksgiving Day proclamation to the Empire State.
            The days chosen for state Thanksgivings by Clinton and his immediate successors were all Thursdays but they ranged in date from as early as November 5 to as late as December 21.

            On the national level, there were no calls from the president for the observance of a general day of Thanksgiving on an annual basis until President Abraham Lincoln set the precedent on October 3, 1863 when he issued a proclamation inviting Americans “to observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
            Before 1863, Lincoln and other presidents had proclaimed nationwide thanksgiving observances but they had been called in response to specific events. For example, in 1789, President George Washington recommended that Americans observe a day of thanksgiving on November 26 in response to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He recommended another thanksgiving be observed on February 19, 1795 following the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. In 1815, President Madison called for the observance of a day of thanksgiving on the second Thursday of April in response to the signing of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812.
            When Andrew Johnson became president, he followed the precedent established by Lincoln and also proclaimed annual national days of Thanksgiving. All of them were scheduled to be held on the last Thursday of November, except for Johnson’s first Thanksgiving which he set for December 7.
            In 1871, President Grant continued the custom set by Lincoln and Johnson. Unfortunately, Grant’s choice of November 30 for Thanksgiving Day came in conflict with Governor Hoffman’s choice in New York for a Thanksgiving to be observed on November 23.

            New Yorkers had two Thanksgivings to choose from until November 1 when Governor Hoffman revoked his proclamation naming November 23 and went along with Grant’s choice of November 30. Hoffman explained he had changed his mind because he wanted to encourage “peace and good will” and not “contention.” He added, “It becomes those in authority to set to the people the example.”

Friday, October 30, 2015

Blind Tom: The 19th Century Predecessor to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder

            In June 1874, music lovers in the North Country were excited. For the second time in three years, Blind Tom, the world-renowned black pianist and entertainer and arguably the first black superstar to perform in the U.S., was coming to Malone. For years after the Civil War, he had been wowing audiences throughout the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, continental Europe, and South America with his one-man show, which was part vaudeville and part classical piano music.

            Tom had many talents including the ability to: play the piano, coronet, French horn and flute; sing and recite speeches of well-known politicians in Greek, Latin, German and French; mimic any music a member of the audience might offer for him to hear; and use his voice to make the sounds of locomotives, bagpipes, banjos and music boxes. While singing one song, he could play a second with his right hand, and a third with the left.

            During the serious part of the show, he often would play Liszt fantasies, Beethoven sonatas, and Bach fugues. Tom’s repertoire also included popular music of the day as well as his own musical compositions – he is reported to have written 100 of them. His most popular titles were: “The Rain Song,” “The Battle of Manassas,” and “The Sewing Song: Imitation of the Sewing Machine.” Contemporary reviewers often compared him to Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
            Thomas Greene “Blind Tom” Wiggins was born blind, possibly autistic, and a slave in Georgia on May 25, 1849. When he was four, his master’s family noticed his ability to mimic the sounds he heard and play back piano music performed by family members. They gave him piano lessons and by the age of six, Tom was composing his own music. When Tom turned eight, he made his debut as “Blind Tom” in a concert hall rented by his slave master in Columbus, Georgia. After receiving rave reviews following his performance at the University of Georgia later that year, his musical career soared. Often performing four shows a day, he became a megastar. He entertained enthusiastic audiences for the next 50 years including a performance at the White House for President James Buchanan in 1860. Tom died from a stroke in New Jersey on June 13, 1908 at the age of 59. He was buried in an unmarked grave at The Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

            Tom’s concert tours often took him to the major urban centers of New York State. In New York City, he performed at the Academy of Music, Irving Hall, Cooper Institute and Steinway Hall. In Brooklyn he played in the Brooklyn Athenaeum, and in Albany, he performed in Tweddle Hall. On June 14, 1874, Blind Tom, advertised as “the most wonderful living curiosity of the 19th century,” performed in Lawrence Hall in Malone. His advance notices billed him as “the great incomprehensible musical mystery of the 19th century.” They dramatically explained to readers that as if to make amends for his blindness, “a flood of light poured into his brain, and his mind became an opera of beauty written by the Hand of God in syllables of music, for the delight of the world.”
            Reviews following Tom’s show in Malone described him as “the great musical conundrum” and noted “the music just slips off his fingers in chunks.”
            Modern musicologists have revisited Tom’s performances and musical compositions. Their articles tend to look past the vaudevillian segments of his act which 19th century critics labeled “freakish” and “idiotic.” Instead, modern music writers praise Tom for being a serious composer and gifted concert pianist. A writer for The New York Times went so far to say that Tom is “the most celebrated black concert artist of the 19th century.”
            In 2000, John Davis, a New York pianist, released a CD of 14 of Tom’s compositions. Davis became so interested in Tom’s life, he located where Tom’s grave was on Pleasant Hill in The Evergreens Cemetery and arranged to have a tombstone placed on it. The inscription reads, “Renowned pianist and composer who performed in the White House before President James Buchanan.”


Friday, October 2, 2015

The abuse of athletics

            As sports-loving New Yorkers soak in all the hoopla surrounding the major league baseball playoffs, the heating up of the high school and college football seasons, and the Sunday, Monday and Thursday march of the NFL, cautionary words from 1869 are worth reviewing.
            In a front page story entitled “The Abuse of Athletic Games” that appeared in the January 28, 1869 issue of the Malone Palladium, a doctor warned readers about the dangers of allowing children to overdo athletics—the “compound evil of our school system.” According to the doctor, because young bodies are “growing, unfinished and weak,” excessive athletic training will lead to one part of the body being developed at the expense of the other. He said, “either the joints, the lungs, the heart, or the spinal system suffer in the unequal struggle.”
            The doctor put some of the blame for overdoing athletics in school on the “caprice” of coaches who he described as “physical sages, ignorant of physiology and hygiene.” However, he placed the major share of the blame on the “pest of our school system”—“misdirected emulation of the adult world.”

            What sports were dazzling the adult world in 1869? Walking, rowing and baseball. The doctor wrote, “He who walks, must walk for a wager, he who rows, must row for a prize, he who plays baseball, must dislocate his fingers or break his nose in the false ambition to outdo his antagonist.”
            The sport of long distance walking or pedestrianism became prominent in America largely because of the feats of Edward Payson Weston. He first appeared on the sports scene in 1861 when he announced that he would walk from Boston to Washington, D.C. in ten days and attend Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. Newspapers hyped Weston’s walk, cheering spectators stood along his route, and gamblers took bets hand over fist on whether Weston would make the swearing-in ceremony in time. He arrived in Washington on March 4 at 4 pm, 208 hours after he had left Boston, but a few hours too late to see Lincoln sworn in as president.
            Known in the sports news as “Weston, the pedestrian,” he gained more publicity for himself and the sport by accepting numerous walking challenges. In 1867, he walked 1326 miles from Portland, ME to Chicago in 26 days. The next year, he walked 100 miles in a little over 22 hours. Soon, pedestrian events were being held throughout the nation in halls where athletes would walk around a track for hours at a time to the cheers of tens of thousands of sports fans and gamblers. Weston became a star in the U.S. and Europe and his professional walking career stretched from 1861 to 1922.

            Professional rowing was the second sport that prompted the doctor’s warning about the abuse of athletic games in 1869. Rowing races first began to gain prominence in American sports circles in the late 1850’s. Joshua Ward of Newburg, NY was one of the early rowing stars who competed for money and drew thousands of spectators and gamblers to the sport. He won a championship regatta in Boston on October 24, 1859 and continued winning professional matches throughout the 1860’s.
            There were two major races in 1868. On June 24, John Tyler of Boston defeated Walter Brown, a native of Madison, NY, in a two-mile race on the Hudson River that finished across from the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ. Tyler won a purse worth about $17,000 in today’s money.
            The second major contest of the professional rowing season was a championship four-man crew race held on October 22, 1868 on the Connecticut River across from Springfield, MA. The four Ward brothers from Newburg, NY competed in a six-mile race against a crew from St. Johns, New Brunswick, Canada for a purse worth about $50,000 in today’s money. Before a huge crowd, which had surged into Springfield from all across New England, Philadelphia and New York, the Canadians easily defeated the Ward brothers by about one minute or 50 lengths.

            The third adult sport that stimulated “misdirected emulation” by youngsters in 1869 according to the doctor, was baseball. The game’s popularity in New York State had mushroomed after the Civil War. It seemed as though almost every community of any size had at least one baseball team it could call its own. Some of the most well-known teams in 1868 included: the Buffalo Niagaras, Brooklyn Atlantics, Syracuse Central City Club, Lansingburgh Haymakers, Albany Nationals, and the New York Mutuals. In addition to individual games, sports fans in 1868 thronged to baseball tournaments that were held in all corners of the Empire State. Among the most publicized that year were those in Niagara Falls, Rochester, Albany, Troy, New York City and Brooklyn.
            Perhaps the biggest baseball news of 1868 was a story in September that the Cincinnati Red Stockings planned to come east and would play New York State teams on their tour. A year later, according to most baseball historians, the Red Stockings would become the nation’s first fully professional baseball team when its management paid a salary to each of the ten men on the team for eight months from March 15 to November 15.
            In his article about the abuse of athletics, the doctor made it clear he was not opposed to “reasonable athletic activity.” However, he warned young athletes not to make athletics “the business of life.” He urged them to cultivate both their bodies and their minds. He said, “If you overdevelop one, you will seriously dwarf the other. Intellectual culture alone will make you a nervous, unbalanced, precocious man. Physical culture alone will make you strong as a hod carrier—and as dull.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Beware the Tango!

            After it first appeared in Paris, London, and Berlin from its starting place in Argentina, the tango soon came to New York where it became wildly popular in 1913. The tango’s rhythm has been described as “exciting and provocative” and the dance steps as “hot, passionate and precise.” Women often wore slit skirts when they danced the tango and there was full body contact with their partners, upwards from their upper thighs and pelvis. Routinely, the dancers’ hips were thrust forward and sometimes their legs were intertwined and hooked together.

            By 1914, the tango was well on its way to taking the Empire State by storm. A seven-column headline in the New York Times read, “All New York Now Madly Whirling in the Tango.” According to the columnist who wrote the story, there had been such an explosion of music and dancing in the city that “we have the luncheon dance, the tea dance, the dinner dance, the supper dance, and the dance that begins at 1 o’clock in the morning and keeps going as long as people want to stay up.”
            Tangomania alarmed public officials and the clergy. Mayor William Jay Gaynor said that because some of the tango dances had become “lascivious orgies,” all public dance halls needed to be licensed and their hours regulated.
            Roman Catholic Church officials went even further than the mayor and said tango dancing presented a moral danger to society and was “positively indecent.” The Roman Catholic Bishop of Albany stated that dancing the tango “would be unbecoming of Christians and conducive of immorality.” The pastor of the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Fairport, Monroe County, condemned the tango from the pulpit. In Rome, Italy, a cardinal representing the pope, issued a pastoral letter that denounced the tango for perverting the soul and being representative of the “new paganism.”

            Protestant and Jewish religious officials applauded the Catholic Church’s vilification of the dance. A Baptist pastor described tango dancing as “a form of nervous degeneracy.” An Episcopal pastor said that by becoming so absorbed in “corrupt forms of dancing,” young men and women were sinking “lower into sensuality…love gone insane.” A rabbi condemned the tango for its “vulgarity” and “indecency” and a speaker at one synagogue warned tango dancers that they had “no right morally to mar the lives of [their] unborn children.”
            Not everyone wanted to reign in or ban the tango. The New York Times reminded its readers that in former years, similar criticism had been leveled at the waltz and the polka. The Times said the tango was not immoral nor was every dancer “a satyr or a hilding.”
            The Tupper Lake Herald editorialized that if the tango were danced properly, it could be as pleasing as the waltz, but unfortunately, many dancers don’t know how. The Malone Farmer agreed and gave some dance tips to its readers who wanted to dance the tango the right way. “Don’t wiggle the shoulders; don’t shake the hips; don’t twist the body; don’t flounce the elbows; don’t pump the arms; don’t hop or glide; and avoid low fantastic acrobatic dips.” If its readers thought that the dance tips were as “insipid” as the Farmer suggested they might be, the paper proclaimed, “Bring on the old-fashioned Virginia reel and a six-measure hoe-down.”
            In June, 1914, news from the court of King George and Queen Mary of England helped convince more Americans that perhaps the tango was not so bad after all. The royal couple saw the tango performed for the first time by two professional American dancers, Maurice and Florence Walton, during a one-hour dance exhibition put on before a ball the king and queen were hosting for members of the English and Russian royalty. Queen Mary, who had censured the tango the previous year, smiled and applauded often during the dancing which she described as “charming.” She said, “I don’t see why people find anything wrong in these dances.”
            As the year 1914 came to an end, the Times reported that hotels which had barred the tango during 1914 New Year’s Eve celebrations were expected to welcome it for 1915 New Year’s Eve festivities. In fact, the paper stated that hotels and restaurants were expecting the 1915 celebrations to be the biggest the city had ever seen and that dancing was going to play a bigger part in them that it had the previous year.
            With this news, the verse that the Times had originally printed in defense of the tango at the start of the year, took on a sharper bite:
            Said the Rev. Jabez McCotten,
            “The waltz of the devil’s begotten!”
            But Jim made reply,
            “Never mind the old guy,

            To the pure almost everything’s rotten.”