When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published as a complete novel in 1852, it quickly became a sensation. As with any sensation, there are always plenty of people who want their own slice of the action. In the 1850s, one way of jumping on the bandwagon, was to write songs featuring characters from the book. At this period, it was thought no permission was needed from the author, so both people and publishers made free. Whether Harriet Beecher Stowe approved, or even knew, is anyone’s guess.
Both in the pre-civil war USA, and in the UK, the book sold heavily, although the novel’s focus on the abolitionist cause meant it didn’t sell in the Southern states of the USA. There, it tended to be vilified. and also resulted in numerous anti-Tom publications. Today, the novel’s perceived role in promoting stereotypes of its African-American characters, together with its sentimental writing style, has meant that it draws a considerable amount of negative criticism with only some praise for its anti-slavery stance. However, I think it is interesting to look at a couple of items in our collections which are related to the craze which followed the initial publication.
George Linley (1797-1865) was one such lyricist and composer who took the opportunity offered. A composer of fashionable and popular ballads, Linley wrote and composed six songs in all, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The title illustration, and a quotation from the book, set the scene, but everything else was by Linley.
The title page illustrations were all by John Brandard (1812-1863), a Birmingham-born lithographic artist and designer of sheet music covers. His subjects were usually opera or ballet, so I wonder if he did these as a favour to the composer. That impression is given more weight in my mind, because the illustrations here are only tinted in one colour, rather than the full colour covers he was famous for designing. They’re well produced (going on the two specimens we have), but marred by excessive sentimentality, to my modern eye.
Evangeline – ballad (publ. 1852?)
Our copy of the songsheet has been cropped at both top and bottom. As far as the image goes, the best thing about it to my mind, is the background. It’s meant to depict a scene where Eva (Evangeline) meets Uncle Tom on a Mississippi steamboat. The excerpt from the novel quoted in the songsheet, is vague:
and could be seen as simply an excuse for a sentimental ballad. The song text starts:
Sportive and free As the summer air, Bright as a ray on the mountain stream, Glides she along, Like a spirit fair, Happy and blest, as in some sweet dream.
I suppose one of the first words is ‘free’, but set to a grazioso waltz, there is nothing to suggest a great involvement in the issues of slavery. The only other thing is perhaps, to compare it to other songs in the collection. Maybe that was what Linley intended?
Emmeline and Cassy – duet (publ. 1852?)
Emmeline and Cassy are two minor figures in the novel, but important ones in that the author uses them to illustrate the sexual exploitation of female slaves. In doing this, Stowe was departing from the sentimental tone of the rest of the novel. None of this subject makes its way into the song setting – that would have been completely beyond the pale for amateur Victorian singers. Instead, the quote from the novel focusses on Cassy’s desire for freedom, and her relationship with Emmeline:
And here, Linley makes rather more effort with his words:
Oh! what to me, a careworn slave, Would freedom’s gift now be? Can it my children e’er restore, Or yield past joys to me?
Although, the final 6/8 duet section returns squarely to the realm of Christian sentimentality. In that, of course, it keeps in tune with Stowe’s novel.
It’s not clear at all how popular these songs were. One of the reasons for jumping on the bandwagon must have been for the possibility of making money? Or, at least, that’s how I think. However Linley’s fortunes were changed in the 1850’s by these six songs, the two copies we have are now quite rare in the UK. There’s only one other copy of Evangeline evident, and no other obvious copies of Emmeline and Cassy.