Field Notes on Houston Music, 1830s-1920s

Around Tin Pan Alley-era Houston, sheet music was exchanged for the most part among music fans and aficionados, versus the then-fragile but burgeoning cylinder records (phonographs). Sadly, the true sound of musicians who improvised has been lost, but from street musicians to the thoroughly classical, here's the rest of what I heard.

The first dramatic theater performance in Texas took place in Houston on June 11, 1838. Back in that day, these performances were generally most popular.

One of Houston's first stars was Madame Thielman, née Louise Ehlers, a German opera singer and universal favorite. Houston newspapers showered her with compliments, and she toured Houston and the world in the mid-to-late 1830s.

Another early star was Joseph Burke. An actor and violinist who later served as a conductor over in New Orleans, he performed violin "concertos" ranging between farce and drama starting as young as age 13. Burke was said to improvise wonderfully based on audience suggestions.

Houston newspapers of this day liked reviewing these concertos, and foreign acts were often reviewed and romanticized over local ones. As Houston was a burgeoning city, it was said that gave people a sense of heightened culture and variety.

Bands were often hired to serenade for encouragement. Sam Houston was said to have been serenaded by musicians hired by some of his biggest fans throughout his political career. Newspaper writers were serenaded in exchange for compliments.

Street musicians visited Houston, but don't look like they were spoken of. Everything else was written off as "amateur" or "informal" music, including a variety of folk and early blues work songs.

Houston's first circus appeared in March 1843, a menagerie with variety acts dubbed the "Olympic Circus." "Full and efficient" brass bands were said to parade and advertise this circus, as well as play during the circus performances, and indeed were the oft-playing sounds du jour. (Du jour? I'm not sure kids say that anymore.)

Houston even had its own, the Houston Brass Band, which appears to have been restarted recently. As opposed to their usual outdoor festivities, they played a formal concert in July 1859. One reviewer wrote that next to the "fantasia" of violin and piano performances, they "would have sounded better in the open air, or at a distance."

Regardless, many people were said to have attended. Among many other similar groups, both informal and military, their rivals the Smith's Brass Band, under the management of local composer and music teacher F.W. Smith, was also popular.

Lyrics of popular tunes were printed in 19th-century Houston newspapers. Most of these songs fostered Confederate sympathy.

Preaching and hymn-singing church societies were common during that time involving groups of violins, clarinets, and flutes, alongside choirs of 20 or so voices each. The "Sacred Music Society" was promoted as the said watchdog of church-music societies in Houston, checking that these societies were quality.

By the end of Reconstruction, nearing 1880, barn dances were held regularly, where farmers and their families sold produce over fiddlers playing "Yankee Doodle" and other hoedown tunes.

The first grand opera in Houston was performed on April 11, 1867. This was from the Roncari Opera Troup, which had a "full orchestra and chorus" and had played several runs in Galveston. Galvestonians of that era loved it, but Houstonians were said to have barely attended. The Royal Orchestra of Berlin frequented Houston a bit, as did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sharing old and new classical tunes.

Many frontier Houstonians liked minstrels instead. A noticeably large amount of these kinds of performers were locally lauded in old books and clippings. I could have written an entire article listing the shameful records I found of these, versus the sad lack of variety of old music records available.

Story continues on the next page.

Hopkins on a live recording about Dowling Street

Come the 20th century, Dowling Street (named after former Confederate officer Dick Dowling) eventually became the center of Houston blues culture, home to many blues clubs, lounges and parties. T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and many others hung out and played there.

Medicine shows rotated on Dowling Street. A banjo picker claimed to heal tarantula bites with his personally intricate plucking, twisting, and turning power of music. A man sung a song with each package of toothpaste he sold.

Pinetop Burkes, Blackboy Shine, Rob Cooper and Robert Shaw were all a part of the loosely knit group of blues pianists called the "Santa Fe Group" who performed in juke joints and roadhouses along the Santa Fe tracks in Fourth Ward throughout the 1920s.

Also during the 1920s, Dixieland bands played in city parks, particularly at Root Square and Hermann Park.


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