If you wonder what the difference in America is between now and 100 years ago, you might examine the lyrics of the songs that turned people on then.
People dealt with life on a real and earnest basis, just as they do now. But the arena was different. Death in Victorian America was an ever-present threat to young and old alike, with few panaceas available. Unchecked disease, both epidemic and individual; warfare (notably the Civil War), infant and childhood mortality, poverty and its effects on standard of living, hazards of the frontier, the sea and the workplace all took a shocking toll.For most immigrants, coming to America was not a fulfillment of the golden dream, as they were thrown upon their own resources to create the good life for themselves. (Our own Mormon pioneers suffered in full measure from most of these life-shortening ills.)
Small wonder then that people's minds turned to the promise of an afterlife, with deliverance from mortal ills, with comfort and rest, and the ministering of angels.
Songs such as "In the Sweet By and By" by Joseph Philbrick Webster were popular, and "Flee as a Bird" (to your mountain) by Mrs. Dana promised escape. "Shall We Know Each Other There?" by Robert Lowry continued his line of thought in "Shall We Gather at the River?"
In a quite lovely duet, Rose Taylor and Raymond Murcell sing "Trusting," an exhortation to turn to God and angels for relief - among the better entries here recorded. Also quite fine is a setting of Toplady's beloved poem, "Rock of Ages," by Dudley Buck, a prominent composer of the latter 19th century.
Kathleen Battle makes her only entry in "Angels' Visits" with music by Claude Melnotte and words by Charles Spooner - well named, you could eat this poem with a spoon. It's an account of an angel on drooping pinions, hovering over oppressed and suffering souls everywhere. Other angel songs, sung here or discussed in the excellent foreword by Richard Jackson, cast them as concerned visitors, who only comfort and kiss.
More peppy, with four-square camp-meeting connotations are "O You Must Be a Lover of the Lord" with poem by Isaac Watts; and "I Love to Tell the Story," by Kate Hankey with music by Fischer, is a lovably sincere hymn whose appeal endures today.
True enough, there are some insufferably soupy opuses here; but the aim being to record an era rather than build a following, their presence is justified. You will find pathos aplenty in "Willie's Grave" (though to suffering Victorian parents it may have filled a need); likewise in the exhortation of a dying child to "Put My Little Shoes Away" for the new baby. Or try "We Are Happy Now, Dear Mother, or Heavenly Heavenly Voices," children's voices from heaven expressing no desire to return to Earth, parents or no.
Commentary points out that many of these hymns, gospel songs and popular ballads were "hits" that sold well, often at rather high prices by Victorian standards (65 cents to a dollar). Perhaps it's our loss that we squirm at the words of many of these songs. I know they were popular, because I remember my father singing similar ballads with great gusto on musical evenings in my childhood home. (Even then we sisters thought them "corny," however.)
Nonetheless, the musicians on this New World CD give the songs the most straightforward treatment, without exaggeration. They do not condescend, but present the same musical treatment, simple and sincere, that they might have received in a Victorian parlor.