Matilda Joslyn Gage Musical Salon
The Gage House in Fayetteville, New York—which is located just a few miles from Syracuse– held a first-of-its-kind event on the Sunday afternoon of October 28th. The Parlor of the house on East Genesee Street, otherwise known as the Oz Room, has a beautiful old piano. Usually, there can be found the musical score to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” nearby. But on this day, the Oz memorabilia displayed prominently throughout the room was treated to Suffragist songs and a variety of other original music—ALL composed by women. Dorothy took a back seat to female composers you have never heard of.
But before this unique soiree could be performed, the piano had to be tuned. It took a generous local piano tuner many hours of mostly donated time to get this old piano sounding like it used to years ago. But sitting in the parlor—the same parlor where Matilda’s daughter Maud married the talented but often unemployed actor L. Frank Baum—brought us all back to the era when almost every home had a piano and the entertainment would often be shared by an audience.
Dace Aperans, a woman not much taller than I am, had come to town to visit relatives with her husband Gundar. They are both originally from Latvia. Dace’s inspiration when she saw this underused but beautiful piano was to make this interactive museum dedicated to suffragist and mother-in-law of the creator of Oz, L. Frank Baum, even more interactive. This home is used frequently for teas and parties and actually uses its chairs and tables and dishes. So why not recreate the joy of an afternoon of songs with an appreciative audience that enjoyed singing along to some of the more well-known numbers and tapping their feet to other lively numbers.
While the music was all written by women, the musicians for this special day were two men: Fred Fiske, retired editor of the Syracuse Post Standard and talented musician who often writes his own original songs, played the piano. He was accompanied by clarinetist Tom McKay. Fred, who I know well from the Unitarian-Universalist Church that we both attend, began with a waltz called “Maple Leaves Waltz” (NOT to be confused with “Maple Leaf Rag!), which was written by Eleanor Schuyler Grinnell. This was followed by a lively march, “March of the Women,” which became the anthem of the Woman Suffrage Union. It was arranged by Ethel Smyth, who borrowed the tune from an old Italian song, a 1911 march. It was first performed at a rally. Later it was sung when by protesting women who were in prison for their crime of demanding equality. It is a lively “man the barricades” type of song that lets their audiences know they meant business. It was sometimes sung as early nineteenth-century Suffragettes rampaged on window breaking campaigns. (They realized that being polite and genteel got them nowhere. They weren’t out to injure people but damaging property to get society’s attention was another matter.) They were often led by English Suffragist Emily Pankhurst (played recently by Merle Streep in the movie “Suffragette.”) Often it was sung feebly by women undergoing a hunger strike in prison in order to keep their spirits up. We got to sing along:
Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! They call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells, thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!
It continued for three stanzas more, offering phrases such as “Strong, strong—stand we at last,/Fearless in faith and with sight newly given…” and “Scorned, spurned—naught have ye cared, Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,” “Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;” “Firm in reliance laugh a defiance…March, march—many as one, shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.”
The next song changed the pace as we sang a popular Holly Near song, “Singing for Our Lives.”
We are a gentle angry people
and we are singing, singing for our lives
We are a justice-seeking people,
and we are singing, singing for our lives…
“Bread and Roses” came next. Of course, this popular song is another great sing-along number. It has been sung and recorded popularly by many familiar names such as Judy Collins and John Denver. Rose Schneiderman, a Polish-born American socialist and feminist, coined the phrase, “bread and roses.” By that, she meant that women had a right to have wages high enough to have more than just the basics. She was a union leader and social reformer who drew attention to unsafe workplace conditions following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 191. She also helped to pass the New York state referendum of 1917 that gave women the right to vote. James Oppenheimer, an early follower of Carl Jung, wrote a poem based on the phrase, which was later set to music in 1976 by Mimi Fariña, a singer-songwriter and activist is was also the younger sister of Joan Baez. Fariña founded Bread and Roses, a non-profit co-operative organization, designed to bring free music and entertainment to institutions: jails, prisons, hospitals, juvenile facilities, and nursing homes.
“We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle,” which is sometimes sung as a round, is credited to a women’s group in Milwaukee. I have always enjoyed singing this song, usually in large circles of women dancing slowly and but enthusiastically. It is sung to the tune of “Jacob’s Ladder.”
The next number that Fred and Tom played for us was a lively Creole polka called “Redowa.” This was followed by
“Lifeline,” written by Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near. This tune is a tribute to Harriet Tubman and the horror of slavery.
Two patriotic numbers were included in the program: “America the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of Women–a feminized version of the original, which was written by a woman, Katharine Lee Bates, but rewritten for the women and civil rights movements. In 1972, Gloria Steinman led the singing of this song at a George McGovern rally.
I hope this is just the first of many future musical soirees. After all, there are a lot more great suffragist and woman-oriented songs out there!