Parent Category: Kansas Reading Library
Category: Kansas Facts
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Pioneers from New England, traveling westward in the 1850's, fortified their spirits with the stirring and prophetic cadences of Whittier's son of "The Kansas Emigrants," written for the first company of emigrants and "sung when they started, sung as they rode, and sung in the new home."


Temperamental differences in Northern and Southern character were reflected in the pioneer Kansan's songs. New England settlers preferred the old Puritan hymns, and the more popular of their secular ballads, such as "Baby's Gone," "Empty Is the Cradle," and "Willie Has Gone with the Angels," were of a definitely lugubrious nature; while such sprightly sentimental ditties as "The Yellow Rose of Texas Beats the Belle of Tennessee" and "Sweet Violets, Fairer than All the Roses," were introduced by settlers from the South.

The first decade of Kansas State history paralleled the War between the States and the period of Reconstruction. Kansas soldiers entered their first " battle singing a contemporary song that breathed the Kansan spirit of that day, when Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's volunteers from the newly created State charged a superior force of Confederates at Wilson's Creek on August 10, 1861, singing "John Brown's Body." Lyon was killed and his little command was driven from the field, but "John Brown's Body" became one of the most potent battle songs of the war.

The thousands of settlers who entered Kansas in the decade following the Civil War brought with them the popular tunes of the time, and to accompany these they wrote ballads, some humorous, some plaintive, describing the tribulations of pioneer life. Especially popular among such ballads were "Frank Baker," sung to the tune of the "Irish Washer-woman," and "Kansas Land," sung to the tune of the old hymn "Beulah Land." A specimen verse with chorus from the latter goes as follows:

We went away awhile last fall A month or so and that was all ; We earned enough to last us through, Up to this time we made it do.

Chorus :

Oh, Kansas sun, hot Kansas sun, As to the highest bluff we run We look away across the plain And wonder if it ne'er will rain, And as we look upon our corn We think but little of our farm.

The first formal musical organization in Kansas was a band of four pieces formed in 1854 by Forest Savage in the then newly founded town of Lawrence. But the first serious approach to the art came in 1869 with the founding of the Topeka Music Union. Mrs. Samuel J. Crawford, wife of the Civil War Governor, was a leader of the organization, serving as pianist at its recitals. The Modoc Club, one of the best known male choruses in the Middle West, was organized at Topeka in 1876, and subsequently toured the country from coast to coast. The club is still active in the capital city. A faculty member of Washburn College returned to Topeka in 1878, after a year at Harvard, and organized what is said to be the first college glee club west of the Mississippi.

"Home on the Range," composed in 1873, was the first widely popular song of genuine Kansas origin. Dr. Brewster Higley, a homesteader on Beaver Creek in Smith County, wrote the words, and Dan Kelly, who lived near Harlan in the same county, composed the music.

Chalkley ("Chalk") M. Beeson, a Dodge City frontiersman and a talented musician, became proprietor of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City through a mortgage foreclosure in 1876. Determined to make his establishment a center of culture as well as a rendezvous for thirsty cow-punchers, he instructed his associate, Roy Drake, to provide the customers with high class music. Drake hired Harry Adams, an itinerant musician, and one "Professor" Miller, who had come West to teach music. With these two and Beeson, Drake formed a creditable four-piece orchestra.

"Chalk" Beeson also helped to organize the Dodge City Cowboy Band, which met for its first rehearsal on May 27, 1879. Soon after its formation the band was financed by the local cattlemen's association, and each bands-man displayed on his broad-brimmed hat the cattle brand insignia of an individual sponsor. The Cowboy Band achieved national renown in the following decades, and appeared in most of the larger cities of the United States. Attired in full cowboy regalia, it provided "Wild West" atmosphere and a good quality of instrumental music.

Although music and the flowing bowl are traditionally allied, the prohibition movement added more to the music of Kansas (granted that scraps of doggerel set to simple tunes may be called music) than did the fermented grape or the distilled corn. The Kansas Women's Christian Temperance Union compiled lists of "battle hymns" which, during the 1880's, were taught to children and included in programs at temperance rallies. Seldom creative musicians, the dry crusaders were principally concerned with inspirational words, and in most instances borrowed the melody from a convenient hymnal. Among the songs dear to militant champions of prohibition were "We'll Turn Our Glasses Down," "Come and Join Our Army/' and "We Are a Band of Soldiers."

Kansans who served in the World War sang the ubiquitous "Old Gray Mare" and "There's a Long, Long Trail," but scarcely less popular were the Rabelaisian strains of "Christopher Columbo" and "Glorious, Glorious," traditional favorites of the fraternity house. "The Dying Hobo," "Frankie and Johnny," "I've Been Working on the Railroad," and other ballads introduced by itinerant harvest hands in the pre-combine days, were revived by khaki-clad Kansans whose grandsires in uniform had chanted "John Brown's Body."

The Oratorio Society of Lindsborg, one of the country's famous choral ensembles, was organized at Bethany College in 1882. The original choir of forty voices has since grown to a chorus of five hundred. Annual presentations of The Messiah and other great choral works attract thousands of music lovers to this village on the remote Kansas prairie.

Encouraged by the response accorded the Oratorio Society of Lindsborg, other Kansas colleges have developed a variety of music festivals. The College of Emporia, Southwestern College, Bethel College, Baker University, and the State Teachers' Colleges at Hays, Emporia, and Pittsburg have all been active in this field. Music has become an established course in the curriculum of every college in the State.

The departments of music in the high schools of Kansas have been notably developed during recent years. The first accredited course of music study in the secondary schools of any city in the United States was given at Parsons in 1908. Later, Kansas was one of the first States to require four years of college preparation for high school music instructors. Today every high school in the State has one or more musical organizations.

Kansas is especially known throughout the Middle West for its music contests, an Old World custom revived in Kansas through the influence of the Swedes at Lindsborg and the Welsh at Emporia. Annual contests at Hays, Emporia, Lawrence, Winfield, Lindsborg, and Pittsburg are at-tended by thousands of high school students and others. A recent out-growth of this activity is the county music festival, in which organizations from county high schools meet in the chief towns or cities for a mass presentation of musical programs, under the direction of conductors sup-plied by the colleges.

The knowledge and appreciation of music thus being fostered will doubtless result in increased original composition. Though Kansas has not yet gained much attention in this field, outstanding work has already been accomplished. Dean Thurlow Lieurance, of Wichita, has won wide recognition for his interpretations of Indian music; Dr. Charles Skilton, of the University of Kansas, is distinguished for his choral and orchestral works, including several on American Indian themes; and Professor Carl Pryor, also of the University of Kansas, has written many excellent instrumental compositions. Of note in the concert and operatic field are Laura Townsley McCoy of Great Bend, Kathleen Kersting of Wichita, Harold B. Challiss of Atchison, and Marian Talley formerly of Colby.

Karl Krueger, of Atchison, is the best known of Kansan conductors. Formerly conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Krueger re-turned to the Middle West in 1934 to form the Philharmonic Orchestra of Kansas City, Missouri. Under his direction this latter group has developed into an orchestra of national importance. In the summer of 1937, Mr. Krueger served with notable success as guest conductor in Vienna, Austria.

Since the advent of the "talkies," the dust on Kansas stage boards has settled heavily. But in the heyday of the "opera house," the State was visited by most of the leading theatrical troupes. Repertoire companies of the 1870's toured from Kansas City on the east to turbulent Dodge City on the frontier. Prominent among these companies was the Louis Lord Troupe, which, to judge from contemporary newspaper notices, was all but worshiped by drama-hungry pioneers.

In Hays, Abilene, Dodge City (the "Cowboy Capital"), and other cattle towns, the entertainers performed in saloons and dance halls. Eddie Foy made his first successful appearance at the Springer (Comique) Music Hall in Dodge City on July 15, 1878. Accompanying him on the same bill were Belle Lament, Jim Thompson, and Nola and Billie Forrest. Of his engagement in Dodge City, Foy wrote in later years: "I wish I could present to an audience of today an adequate picture of one of those old western amusement halls. Writers and artists have tried to do it, the movies have tried it, but all in vain the sounds are lacking the songs and patter at one end, where the show began at eight o'clock and continued until long after midnight; the click and patter of poker chips, cards, dice, wheels and other devices at the other end. . . . All around the room, up above, a sort of mezzanine, ran a row of boxes and they were boxes, in-deed, as plain as a packing case where one might sit and drink and watch the show."

Topeka, Atchison, Leavenworth, and other major cities in eastern Kansas saw most of the dramatic hits of the 1880's. In the Corinthian Hall at Atchison Thomas W. Keene appeared in Richard 111, John T. Raymond as Mark Twain's character of "Colonel Mulberry Sellers," and Mrs. Samuel W. Piercy in Deception. Troupes that visited Topeka and the chief towns on the Missouri River included Mclntyre and Heath's minstrels, and the "Anthony and Ellis Mammoth Ideal Uncle Tom's Cabin Company" with Kate Parkington as Topsy.

Between 1890 and 1925, Topeka, Wichita, and other major cities were on the regular circuit of road shows starring foremost actors or presenting the most popular musical comedians. Topeka audiences saw Joseph Jefferson, Robert Mantell, and Frederick Ward in many of their best known vehicles.

At present, partly because of its proximity to Kansas City, Missouri, Topeka is visited by but one or two road shows a year. Wichita, farther removed from Kansas City, sees a larger number of legitimate stage productions. The stock company and the tent show, popular twenty-five years or more ago, have been recently revived. Several companies play profitable engagements in the larger cities, and during the summer months make a tent show tour of the smaller towns.

The decline of the commercial theater in Kansas has been happily paralleled by the rise of little theaters in the colleges and larger cities. Little Theater units are active at Pratt, Liberal, Kinsley, Ulysses, Garden City, Great Bend, Dodge City, and Hutchinson. A civic theater was organized at Topeka in 1937. The Peter Pan Players, organized at Wichita in 1931 under the sponsorship of the American Association of University Women, presents five plays for children each year, with casts restricted to children in elementary schools.

Dramatic groups are active at Washburn College, Baker University, Southwestern College, University of Kansas, Kansas State College, St. Benedict's College, Mount St. Scholastica College, and the State Teachers' Colleges at Hays, Emporia, and Pittsburg. Outstanding productions have been presented by the Kansas Players, of the University of Kansas; the Gilson Players, of Emporia State Teachers' College, directed by Franklin Gilson; and the Twin College Players, of St. Benedict's College and Mount St. Scholastica College.

Kansans of note in the contemporary theater include Fred Stone and Hale Hamilton of Topeka, Howard Thompson of Paola, and Brock Pemberton of Emporia. Pemberton, once a reporter on the Emporia Gazette, has produced among other Broadway successes Enter Madame, Miss Lulu Bett, Strictly Dishonorable, Ceiling Zero, and Personal Appearance. How-ard Thompson has written several musical comedies, the best known of which are Little Jesse James and East Is West. One of the leading char-acters in Little Jesse James is "a girl from Oskaloosa, Kansas," and a song in the same production is entitled "My Home Town in Kansas." Hale Hamilton starred in George M. Cohan's Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford; and he has appeared as a supporting player with James K. Hackett, E. H. Sothern, and John Barrymore.

Fred Stone, comedian of stage and screen, spent his boyhood in North Topeka. Old residents recall that he acted in amateur theatricals sponsored by the Kansas Avenue Methodist Church. At the age of nine he stretched a tight wire across his back yard to train for a career under the "big top." A few years later he electrified North Side residents by walking across Kansas Avenue on a wire fastened three stories high. Later he joined a circus. His first success on the stage was in the role of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. With the late David Montgomery he formed the famous team of Montgomery and Stone. In 1935 he appeared with his daughter Paula in Sinclair Lewis's The Jayhawker, a play based on the career of a distinguished citizen of Kansas, James H. Lane.

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