TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE
Previous Chapter | Contents
As in all pioneer territories, early settlers in Tennessee were concerned primarily with things other than art; and even when some measure of civilization had been achieved, portraiture was the only type of painting in demand. The pioneer folk of Tennessee produced, however, an exceedingly rich assortment of handicrafts and domestic patterns. Spinning, hand-weaving, furniture-, broom-, and basket-making, and coverlet-making - an intimate and especially prized art of the mountain folk - constituted Tennessee's earliest and most native participation in American art.
Not until past the first decade of the nineteenth century is there record of a professional artist in Tennessee. William Edward West came from Philadelphia, where he had studied under Sully, and spent several years in various parts of the State, finally making his home in Nashville. He excelled in "fancy cabinet portraits" and in 1822, under the patronage of a local admirer, West went to Europe, where he painted many portraits, including likenesses of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and exhibited at the Royal Academy. He was a close friend of Washington Irving and illustrated The Pride of the Village and Annette Delabre. In 1843, West returned to Nashville, where he remained until his death in 1857.
Painting and Sculpture
The "man of a thousand portraits", Washington Cooper, moved from Washington County to Nashville in 1830. By 1838 he was at the height of his popularity and was kept continually busy with commissions. During his most active years he averaged thirty-five portraits a year, painting governors, bishops, master Masons, and members of leading Nashville families. He died in 1889 at the age of 87. His younger brother, William Brown Cooper, also painted portraits, and the similarity of their signatures caused considerable confusion between the works of the two artists.
About 1850 James Cameron, who painted landscapes as well as portraits, came to Chattanooga from Scotland. He built his home on a bluff which has been called "Cameron Hill" in his honor. His A View of the Bluff and Valley, painted in 1859, hangs in the Chattanooga Public Library. Here, as in all his paintings, Cameron's close attention to realistic detail is evident.
In 1869, a young man named Melchior Thoni came from Switzerland and soon established himself in Nashville as a woodcarver and cabinetmaker. Among his many sculptural enterprises, Thoni designed and carved the first wooden animals to stand upon a "Flying Jenny" (merry-go-round).
John W. Dodge, a noted nineteenth century miniaturist, moved from New York to Cumberland County, where he engaged in apple culture on a large scale until his death in 1893. Portraits by Dodge include studies of Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Thomas Marshall.
Several Tennessee artists gained wide recognition in the nineties. The most famous of these was George De Forest Brush, who was born in Shelbyville in 1885. Brush studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and with Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. His paintings of Indian life as well as the later group portraits of his wife and children have been highly praised. Among his Indian works Silence Broken, Mourning Her Brave, and The Sculptor and the King illustrate his dignified composition and his sincere and elevated imagination. In the Garden (Metropolitan Museum, New York), Mother and Children (Pennsylvania Academy), and Family Group (Art Institute, Chicago) represent his domestic phase.
Other Tennessee artists who emerged in the nineties were Charles Frederick Naegele, a Knoxville portrait painter who studied with Collier, Sartain, and Chase; and Willie Bettie Newman, of Murfreesboro, who worked under Laurens, Bachet, Bouguereau, and Constant. Miss Newman lived in Normandy and Brittany for some time and painted peasant life there; in 1900 she received honorable mention at the Salon. Frank Wilbert Stokes of Nashville, who studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy, Ecole des Beaux Arts, and at Colarossi's and Julian's Academies, was the artist member of the Peary North Greenland Expedition in 1892 and 1893-94. Later he was a member of both the Swedish Antarctic and the Amundsen-Ellsworth Expeditions. Two well-known expedition paintings by Stokes are Return of Commander Byrd and Floyd Bennent from the North Pole and Departure of the "Norge" for the North Pole. In 1907, he did the mural decorations for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Sara Ward Cooley, Nashville artist, studied in Paris and received several exhibition prizes in Europe and America. A later artist is Matilda Lotz, of Franklin, who was educated in San Francisco and Paris. She has exhibited in America, England, Vienna, and Budapest. Rhea Wells and McCullough Partee are widely known as illustrators.
The historic Gayoso Hotel in Memphis houses a series of interesting murals by Newton Alonzo Wells (1852-1923) portraying episodes in the life of Hernando de Soto and events associated with the exploration of the Mississippi River. In the lobby of the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville is an excellent collection of murals, including a narrative in twelve paintings devoted to the Confederate Soldier in the War between the States, by Gilbert Gaul (William Gilbert), a noted genre painter (1855-1919). Among the country's noteworthy murals are those on the walls of the library at Fisk University, painted in the 1930's by Aaron K. Douglass, well-known Negro artist. Conceived in terms by symbolic rather than realistic presentation, the murals, whose theme is the history of the Negro, are in marked contrast with other murals in the State. Fisk University also exhibits the Baldridge Collection, a gift of Samuel Insull, which constitutes one of the most complete records of Negro life and types to be found in America. Cyrus Le Roy Baldridge spent fourteen months in Africa making these drawings, which fall into sixty-eight descriptive groups of nearly three hundred studies.
During the past few decades, efforts have been made to stimulate local interest and activity in art. The Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Overton Park, Memphis, established in 1916 has been visited by more than 45,000 persons in a single year, and conducts a comprehensive program of exhibitions and education. In 1936 the Brooks Memorial Art League, with the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, succeeded in setting up a systematized art library, the first in the State. Another important institution in Memphis is the James Lee Memorial Academy of Arts. This school, founded in 1925, is already prominent in the South as a free center of instruction in the arts. It has a large student enrollment, and the City of Memphis and the Memphis Art Association contribute to its support. The Art Gallery of the famous reproduction of the Parthenon in Nashville contains the Cowan Collection of Paintings, which includes work by Benjamin West, William Chase, Winslow Homer, Albert Ryder, and George Inness. The pediment sculptures of the building are the work of Belle Kinney Scholz and Leopold F. Scholz, and the metopes are by George Julian Zolnay.
In December 1933 the Federal Government set up an art project in Tennessee, and within one month forty painters, sculptors, and printmakers received commissions for murals, portraits, regional industrial scenes, and depictions of historic streets and buildings. After two months of activity, however, the project was brought to a close. In some cases local interests secured the paintings or sculptures for use in public buildings. The board of park commissioners in Memphis appropriated funds for the completion of a series of mural sketches on the walls of the Museum of Natural History. Active centers of the Federal Art Project, set up in 1935, include today the Anderson County Federal Art Center at Norris, the University of Chattanooga WPA Federal Art Gallery, and the LeMoyne Federal Art Center at LeMoyne College (Negro) in Memphis. These centers have gained the support and cooperation of local institutions and individuals, and their exhibits, lectures, and classes in arts and crafts have awakened wide popular response. These governmental enterprises have helped to revive interest in local art and have touched new sources of artistic energy.
Handicrafts continued to survive in the mountain regions of Tennessee long after machine production had destroyed them in other sections of the United States. The preservation of indigenous crafts and their further development have been the concern of the Southern Handicraft Guild, with which several Tennessee handicraft centers are affiliated. The Federal Art Project centers have also devoted much effort to instruction in and encouragement of native crafts.
An exciting event in the art world was the recent "discovery" of William Edmunson, a Negro carver of tombstones in Nashville. The sculpture of this genuine folk artist has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and has been much commented upon in the press. Edmunson's Biblical figures, with their sculptural solidity and genial fancy, have struck an original note in modern American art.
Typical of contemporary trends in Tennessee art were the State selections for the National Exhibition of American Art at Rockefeller Center, May 1936. These consisted of two sculptures by Harold Cash of Chattanooga and a group of paintings, the majority of which were by Nashville artists. Cash, born in Chattanooga in 1895, has worked in Paris under modernist influence.
Thomas Puryear Mims, Nashville sculptor, has shown heads, figures, and decorative work in various exhibits in New York and elsewhere. Outstanding in his work are character interpretations of the Tennessee Negro, farmer, and backwoods types. Hugh Poe, of Knoxville, is recognized mainly for his pastels, though his oil portraits hang in many Tennessee homes and a group of his murals decorate the walls of Culver Military Academy, Indiana, The oils and lithographs of Alene Gray Wharton, of Nashville, are notable for their stylized characterization of mountain villages and common folk.
Outstanding among Tennessee cartoonists are Carey Orr and Joe Parrish, now of the Chicago Tribune, Tom Little and John Cross, of the Nashville Tennessean, and Jack Knox, of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.
The following artists are listed in Who's Who in American Art for Tennessee in 1937: Mayna Treanor Avent, Frank M. Baisden, Charles Cagle, Sarah Ward Conley, Edith E. Flisher, J. H. Goodrich, Howard Henry, Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, Irene Charlesworth Johnson, J. B. Jordan, Lalla Walker Lewis, Bessie Dawson McGavock, Karl Oberteuffer, Ernest A. Pickup, Bertha Potter, Mrs. Fay S. Rule, C. M. Said, L. Pearl Saunders, Elisabeth Searcy, Jascha Shaffran, Myrtis Smith, Rosalie Sandheimer, Clarence A. Stagg, Ann Williams.
A fiddler, old Ned Jacobs, was the first settler in Lebanon, and two other fiddlers, equally famed in pioneer stories, were among the first comers at Bledsoe Station and Nashville. Ballads, fiddle tunes, and spirituals - both white and Negro - were an integral part of early Tennessee life and have continued to hold a place of importance. From them have developed the State's two most significant contributions to American music, the spiritual and the blues.
The mountain people of East Tennessee sing songs of every type, survivals of old English and Scottish ballads, native folk songs, and tunes of recent origin. Cecil J. Sharp, the English folksong collector, writes of the wealth and variety of mountain folksong in his English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, and says: "I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was a common and almost as universal a practice as speaking."
A great body of spiritual songs came into existence during the first decades of the nineteenth century as part of the Wesleyan trend in rural religious life. Some of the tunes were adaptations of chants used in medieval times and others were borrowed from popular ballads. The "white spirituals," as these religious songs are called, gathered strength through the old-time singing schools and the shape-note song books, such as the Sacred Harp (1844) and Harp of Columbia (1849). White spirituals are still heard in "big singings" in the Tennessee Valley and in the hill country from the Virginia to the Alabama line. Farther to the west they are sung in the Primitive Baptist churches.
The Negroes gave themselves enthusiastically to this manner of singing, and lent to the songs so much of their peculiar racial talent, that many white spirituals have been widely accepted as of Negro origin. The best of the spirituals, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Go Down, Moses", are true Negro creations, both words and tune. Even in cases where spirituals can be traced to earlier white songs, the Negro has invariably bettered the tunes and often transformed a doggerel text into excellent poetry. Some melodies that are thought to have been first sung in Tennessee are "Has Anbody Here Seen My Lord?" "I'm All Wore Out A-Toiling fo' de Lawd" "I'm Troubled in Mind," "My Brudder's Died and Gone to Hebben," and "When the Lord Called Moses."
The non-religious songs of the Negro mirror his attitude on everyday life. Among the better known of these are "Sweet Tennessee," "I'm on My Last Go-Round," "Here Come Dat Inshawnce Man Collectin'," "Make Me a Pallet on de Floor," and "Joe Turner." Whether the Negro is working on the levee, in the cotton fields, at the washtub, or "just workin'," bodily rhythm accompanies his singing. Improvised tunes lighten the burden of labor. "Dis Ol' Hammer," "Don't Grieve about a Dime," "Working My Blame Head Off," and "Push-uh-Push" are work songs current in Middle Tennessee.
The whites also have their work songs, brought into mill town life from their mountain homes. Old traditional melodies are often used with new words, telling of unions, strikes, and current events. Government activity in the Tennessee Valley has called forth many new verses for the old-time tunes. One of these, set to an old English tune, runs like this:
My name is William EdwardsMusic lovers are uncovering and preserving some of the traditional folk songs that had been nearly lost. This work has been stimulated by the folklore and historical societies throughout the State and by the Old Harp Singers, formed in 1932 by Dr. George Pullen Jackson of Vanderbilt University. The tours and radio broadcasts of this organization have done much to arouse public interest in folk music.
I live down Cove Creek way
I'm working on the project
They call the TVA
The government begun it
When I was just a child
But now they are in earnest
And Tennessee's gone wild.
* * * * *
Oh, see them boys a-comin'
Their government they trust
Just hear their hammers ringin'
They'll build that dam or bust.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers have probably done more than any other group to preserve the Negro spirituals and stimulate interest in this form of American music. The chorus was first organized in 1867 by George L. White, treasurer of Fisk University. He recognized the strange, compelling beauty of the songs sung by the students, almost all of whom were former slaves, and believed that the world, too, would recognize and acclaim them. Encouraged by the success of local concerts, he planned extended tours in the hope of winning friends and funds for the young school. The group, then called the Colored Christian Singers, visited practically all the large cities in the North, the British Isles, and the principal countries of Europe in the 1870's. They were entertained by nobility and royalty, and everywhere their songs aroused first curiosity, then deep interest and admiration.
The work of collecting, harmonizing, and interpreting the spirituals, originally done by northern white men, was gradually taken over by the Fisk students, alumni, and faculty. Authentic dialect was introduced; new songs were discovered and added to the repertoire, among them the present favorites, "Little David, Play on Your Harp", "Witness," "All God's Chillun Got Wings." John W. Work, a member of the University faculty, and his brother Frederick collected spirituals in rural communities, which they published in New Jubilee Songs (1905). Folk Songs of the American Negro (1915), by the same authors, and Thomas W. Talley's Negro Folk Rhymes (1922) also gave this folk music permanent form.
The secular or "sinful" Negro folk songs, known as blues, in which the singer mulls over his troubles, gave rise to another form of music, likewise unique but entirely different in mood. In 1909, William C. Handy, a Negro musician of Memphis, wrote the "Memphis Blues", taking his cue from these songs. The piece, originally called "Mr. Crump" and written as a campaign song for Ed. Crump, who was running for mayor, was immensely popular and Memphians continued to whistle the tune long after the election. Handy followed his first success with the "St. Louis Blues" and the "Beale Street Blues," and inaugurated an era of blues songwriting throughout the country. These commercial blues, with their syncopated rhythm and definite melodic idioms, have exerted a strong and distinct influence on jazz and swing music, and indeed on most contemporary American composition.
Tennessee's vigorous interest in folk music is complemented in urban communities by an active musical life, which found expression in concerts and musical instruction even during the early years of the nineteenth century. Fisk Female Academy, in Overton County, established a music department in 1816; a decade later the Nashville Female Academy and the Knoxville Female Academy followed suit; and in 1836 the Nashville Academy of Music was founded. In the 1850's Jenny Lind appeared under the sponsorship of P. T. Barnum, and Adelina Patti toured the State with the famous Norwegian violinist Ole Bull.
Symphonic music was first brought to Tennessee by Theodore Thomas in the 1870's. Thomas also directed the Memphis Festival Concerts of 1884, sponsored by the Memphis Conservatory of Music and the Mozart Society, and still remembered as one of the musical high lights of this period.
Through the last decades of the nineteenth century and approximately up to the time of the depression, the principal cities of the State were visited by touring opera companies. Memphis for a time had two opera seasons, played by the San Carlos Company of New York and the Chicago Opera Company.
Women's club organizations have played an active part in developing musical appreciation in Tennessee. In 1916 musical activities were merged to form the Tennessee Federation of Music Clubs, which by 1937 included 137 groups.
Among Tennessee's early composers were Henri Christian Webber, a German, who settled in Nashville in the 1850's, and wrote "Blow, Bugle, Blow", "The Storm", and "Centennial March"; Julius C. Meininger, author of "Golden Rays" and "Silver Rays"; and Mrs. E. L. Ashford, whose Organ Instructions is said to be the first book of its kind to be translated into Chinese and used in China as a textbook.
Present-day Tennessee composers include Arthur Nevin, Burnet C. Tuthill, and Patrick O'Sullivan of Memphis; C. Roland Flick and Alvin S. Wiggers of Nashville; and Roy Lamont Smith of Chattanooga. HarryPhilbin, the blind composer, and Lyle Tomerlin, both of Memphis, have written popular song hits. Many Tennessee singers have gained national reputations, among them Grace Moore, James Melton and Bessie Smith.
Hampered at times by the enmity of religious leaders and, to a lesser degree, by economic difficulties and epidemics of cholera, the theater's development was slow but insistent. The first recorded performance in Nashville was given on December 4, 1807, thirteen years after the last Indian raids in that locality. The program, following the generous custom of the time, was a double bill made up of a drama, The Child of the Nation, or Virtue Rewarded, and a farce, The Parse, or the Benevolent Tar.
Early in 1816 Samuel Drake, who had come from Albany, New York, to establish theaters in the "western frontier" of Kentucky, included Nashville in his circuit. The following year the old Salt House was converted into the Market Street Theater, and here Drake's company inaugurated a regular theatrical season, opening on July 10 with the comedy The Soldier's Daughter. Noah M. Ludlow, in charge of the company, began the next season with Speed the Plough and The Day after the Wedding. His wife, Mrs. Mary Squires, of Franklin, was probably Tennessee's first professional actress. In 1818 the Thespian Society of Nashville, of which Sam Houston was secretary and Andrew Jackson and Felix Grundy were honorary members, asked Ludlow to direct their activities. In the same year the State's first visiting star, William Jones, of the Park Theater in New York City, played in Nashville and became the idol of the town. James H. Caldwell, a well-known manager, who was competing with Ludlow for popular support, built the city's second theater in 1826.
Sol Smith's Thespians toured the State in 1829, making stops of a week to twelve nights in the leading settlements. Their performances were usually well patronized, despite ministerial warnings that "a brimstone roasting awaits theater-goers." But Smith tells of three consecutive nights in Greeneville, when he played in competition with a Methodist camp meeting, and had a paid attendance of six, five, and seven persons, respectively. Of one of his earlier tours Smith wrote: "The Methodists had raised their banner before us and got possession of all the money and all the hearts of the young folks."
During the nine years from 1830 to 1839 there were 700 performances of 296 plays in Nashville alone. Church opposition, however, had grown so strong by 1839 that the Mill Creek circuit of the Methodist Church resolved "that the practice of attending such places is contrary to the letter and spirit of our discipline and is highly criminal." Tennessee newspapers of this period were full of "the theater controversy."
The forces for and against the theater seem to have been evenly matched. Traveling companies toured the State, and the vacant log cabins and crude platforms which served the early players began to give way to theaters with well-equipped stages. Signor Mondelli, of the New Orleans Theater, is said to have been in Nashville during the 1830'S, giving plays with scenic effects which included "real waterfalls, moving boats, storms, and forest settings."
Drama flourished during the War between the States. Stars, such as John Wilkes Booth, Maggie Mitchell, John E. Owens, and Helen Western, played regularly in the Nashville theaters, and provided welcome entertainment in these difficult years. The early Reconstruction period saw the decline of the legitimate theater and the rise in popularity of minstrels and variety shows, which constituted more than half of all theatrical productions by 1875.
Many new theaters were built in the later Reconstruction years, including Staub's Theatre in Knoxville, the Vendome in Nashville, the Lyric Theatre in Memphis, and the Bijou in Chattanooga. These presented the best available legitimate productions. In Tennessee, as elsewhere, road shows became more infrequent after the turn of the century. Most of the old-time theaters were gradually taken over by the movies, though here and there a few still housed occasional stock offerings or road shows. Today the few companies that tour the country make stops in Tennessee and are given enthusiastic support.
But the place left vacant by the decline of the glamorous legitimate theater of a former-generation has been filled by the little theater movement. This has been successfully promoted in all the large cities. The leading college towns have drama guilds, usually under academic auspices. The Tennessee Playmakers is the only non-professional group with more than local affiliations. Directed by Frederick Kleibacker, of Nashville, it embraces twenty-four school, college, and Y.W.C.A. units in Middle Tennessee. The Nashville Community Playhouse, Inc., is the strongest single dramatic organization in the State, combining the city's twenty little theater groups; it offers a regular program of the best Broadway plays. The Memphis Little Theater, directed by Eugart Yerian, with auditorium and laboratories in the Memphis Art Museum, has won national attention by the professional quality of its performances.
Previous Chapter | Contents
TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE