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  • Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865 by Billy Coleman
  • Rebeccah Bechtold (bio)

Music, Music history, Civil society

Harnessing Harmony: Music, Power, and Politics in the United States, 1788–1865. By Billy Coleman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Pp. 268. Cloth, $27.95.)

When Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison narrowly defeated Martin Van Buren in 1840, it was largely thanks to the power of music, or so Democratic critics of Whig electioneering practices insisted. As the Albany Argus—a Democratic newspaper disgruntled by the election's results—proclaimed late in that year, "By their glee-clubs and other kindred appliances," the Whigs "have endeavored to debase the minds of the people" (quoted on 107). Certainly, music's use in political campaigns was far from novel. Yet, as Billy Coleman deftly argues in Harnessing Harmony, early Americans approached such music "as if it were akin to a new technology" (92). Taking as its primary subject how early Americans "thought about music in relation to politics" (6), Harnessing Harmony ultimately argues that music became a deliberate vehicle in which elite ideals about the American democratic system were disseminated to a larger populace.

Musicologists and historians alike have unraveled music's at times divisive position in the lives of early Americans. Thanks to the efforts of Richard Crawford, Nicholas Tawa, and Karen Ahlquist, among others, we have a clear sense of music's origin and reception in the early United States. More recent works by Daniel Cavicchi, Joanna Brooks, and Laura Lohman have complicated these narratives further, demonstrating how Americans from diverse backgrounds participated in music in both private and public ways. Although clearly indebted to these scholarly traditions, Harnessing Harmony challenges the oft-held view that populist music was primarily exercised to confront those in power; rather, in Coleman's analyses, popular music was a tool "elite Americans consistently and adaptively" used "as a means of social control" (3). [End Page 346]

Most notable perhaps is Coleman's rereading of the political lineage of Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner." Coleman argues that Key, a southern Federalist outspoken on the importance of national unity, drew on a Federalist tradition of defining music as "an effective means of convincing people to forgo partisanship and rally behind the wisdom of the nation's leaders" (26). Returning "The Star-Spangled Banner" to its early history helps us better understand how Federalists used popular music as a "ready-made means for fostering precisely the kind of political culture . . . in which elite values shaped American values" (47). This top-down approach established a tradition influencing antebellum electoral politics in the ensuing years—eventually leading Harrison to the presidency. Even though Whig campaign songs like "Good Hard Cider" and "Log Cabin" seemed to emphasize "your average laborer," they were often marketed to an aspirationally elite clientele who would appreciate the songs' "lavish lithographs by Nathaniel Currier" and "high-quality print work" (102). For Whigs, campaign music offered a respectable outlet through which middle-class Americans could participate in a grassroots campaign, all while avoiding the more unruly processes associated with popular democracy.

This Federalist approach to popular music also paved the way for the establishment of musical organizations like the Boston Handel and Haydn Society (founded in 1815), the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia (founded in 1820), and the Boston Academy of Music (founded in 1833). The publication of The Boston Handel and Haydn Society's Collection of Church Music in 1822 certainly solidified the American public's interest in a collective music practice by quickly becoming the "nation's common source of accessible and respectable music" (60). Yet not all Americans agreed over the appropriate relationship between civil society and its governing body. When the Boston Academy of Music, led by Samuel Atkins Eliot, proposed that Boston incorporate music into its public-school curriculum, the Common Council initially turned down the proposal. While not objecting to the value of music per se—public sentiment generally was in favor of musical education—they proved wary of what seemed to be a "larger partisan-based attempt to influence public culture through civil society institutions," particularly what...


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pp. 346-348
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