Music in the Big Hall

The Big Hall

Twice a year, in spring and fall, the Oneida Community Mansion House presents a lecture series, as part of the educational mission of the OCMH.  It is called the Adult Enrichment Series.

The topics of these lectures usually explore the history of the utopian and religious movements in the 19th Century.  The lectures are held in the Big Hall, the  theater space where the Oneida Community held its nightly meetings, entertainments and lectures.  It was part of the philosophy of the OC that each member would strive to improve his/her self, and education was held in high esteem as a means for self-improvement.  So the tradition of the modern lectures is a legacy of the Community’s winter lectures; discussions on history, languages, and science, led my one of the members.

The 2011 spring lectures were a departure from past series.  Rather than a lecture on the material culture of the Oneida Community or a comparison between the Shakers and the OC, the OCMH curator, Tony Wonderley, presented a set of four musical performances ranging from Shaker songs, jazz, blues and light opera.  The series was called, “If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On.”

The Jim O'Mahony Trio

Vicki and I attended three out of the four performances.  We had our first experience of the acoustics in the Big Hall when we heard the second in the series, “Changing Standards: A Showcase of New Music”, which featured the music of a jazz trio led by Jim O’Mahony on piano.  The trio of piano, bass and drums was playing together for the first time, but from the swaying heads in the auditorium, no one seemed to notice.

O’Mahony’s intent was to play music composed in the last fifteen years rather than the jazz standards of the 1930-60s.  This choice is a legacy of legendary piano trios led by Bill Evans and Brad Mehldau.

Little Brother  ~ This is a mp3 from O’Mahony’s trio performing a song from the Brooklyn band, Grizzly Bear, entitled “Little Brother” in the Big Hall.

Hearing music that our 20-something children listen to,  interpreted by this talented jazz trio in a 19th Century communitarian meeting hall was truly a time shifting experience for us.

What a delight it was to hear good music in this wonderful hall.  The acoustics were amazing.  We understood why the Community developed such a rich musical tradition ~ they had such a fine theater to perform for themselves and for thousands of tourists who came to the Community to sample vegetarian meals and lively musical performances.  The Community performed overtures and choruses from operas, danced waltzes from Strauss and the “Oneida Quickstep” created by Community member, Charles Joslyn.  The climax to the OC’s musical career was the performance of H.M.S Pinafore in the winter of 1879-80, just before they transformed themselves from a Bible Communist Community into a Joint Stock Corporation.

Tony Wonderley introduced each performance with a story about the place of music in the Oneida Community.  Tony recounted the conflicted feelings that members of the Community felt about music.  He recounted a mutual criticism session devoted to exposing the selfish nature of musical competition among the young female singers.  Harriet Worden was one of the singers who confessed to the group:

Harriet Worden with Guitar

My first feeling of jealousy was toward Ann Eliza.  We both sang; but at that time, she was admitted into Mr. Burnham’s quartette club; I was not honored.  I considered this as a personal slight and resented it accordingly.  One day I deliberately hid one of the books from which the club had practiced.  I not only wanted to sing well, but I aspired to become the best singer, and the most ready at reading music.  Much of the time I was in an agony of jealousy lest some other would eclipse me.” 

He also told the audience that John Humphrey Noyes was especially hard with those among his followers who he decided were becoming too fixated on their musical skills.  At one point, Noyes made Frank Wayland-Smith ~ who was considered the best violinist in the Community ~ give up his violin.  He also made the same request of his niece, the talented pianist, Tirzah Miller.  Tirzah recorded her reactions in her diary on March 16, 1873.

Tirzah Miller 1873

“Left music for writing.  Father Noyes said that I might consider that I had made a good career in music, and now call it ended, and put the energy I had expended in music into writing.  It is like the death of a cherished friend.” 

When a visitor to the Community complained that the Community “offered no opportunity for genius or special talent to develop.”  Noyes took the criticism as a compliment.  He said, “We never expected or desired to produce a Byron, a Napoleon or a Michelangelo.  A system that would foster such abnormal or excessive development in the individual, do so at the expense of the mass whose interests must be paramount.”

As I sat listening to jazz interpretations of current pop and rock songs, I could not help but be transported to the days when this same hall was filled floor to balcony listening as we were to visiting musicians playing music of the day to a very appreciative audience.

As we know from Harriet Worden’s daily journal, which is presented in this blog, the evening meetings were a celebration of the genius of the community.  The spirit of inventiveness, humor and play were in evidence nightly, as members of all ages and stations in the Community would perform music and act in skits.   I have written about moments from these nightly performances in previous blogs:  Fighting Irish and Woman’s Bottoms and Evening Entertainment.  But Harriet Worden reported on one of my favorite entertainments from the evening meeting of February 7, 1869:

Entertainment in the Big Hall

“George Miller, Edwin Burnham and John Lord entered dressed like “paddies”.  They began swaggering about the stage remarking to each other that they were tired of working all day in the dirt for a living and they were not going to touch a shovel again, if the old Midland Railroad never got built.  After lounging about for some time, it occurred to one that they had to do something or starve.  “That’s so,” said another.  “I shouldn’t like to starve.  Another says, “I will start a show!”  “You know we have got considerable musical talent”; and each began to brag what he could do.  They pretended to be rehearsing and in a few moments, they began undressing on stage, all the time looking anxiously round as if fearful of being seen.  Their coats all off and their pants!  The audience fairly screamed.  They all stood in their nightgowns, but upon dropping these off, behold the transformation!  From coarse, rough Irishmen, we saw a few moments before we now saw them handsomely arranged in the tight-fitting dress of the gymnast.  George was dressed in blue, John in Orange & red trimming, and Edwin in crimson.  Their gymnastic performances were fine indeed.  John represented a clown, though his bows were exceedingly graceful.  George & Edwin were exceedingly lithe.”

As we try to imagine the life of the people who lived where Vicki and I live now, there is no better place to enter into their world than by thinking about and listening to music in the big hall then and now.


This Week in the Oneida Community ~ February 7-13, 1869

Mansion House Big Hall 1875

Harriet Worden’s journal for 1869 is a remarkable window into a critical time in the history of the Oneida Community.  We have been posting daily entries from her journal in 1869 corresponding to the same date in 2011.  You can read these accounts of daily life in the Community by searching the pages section of the blog for Harriet Worden’s Journal ~ Harriet’s Posts 1869.

The past week, February 7-13, 1869, as reported in Harriet’s journal was full of events that give us a sense of the vitality of the Community and reveal decisions that were made in this period that would have a major impact on the viability of the Oneida Community.  Here are few snapshots of this particular week in the winter of 1869, but we urge you to read the entries themselves.

Frank Wayland Smith

On February 7, Harriet reported on what she called a “pleasant entertainment.”  At 7PM every night the members of the Oneida Community would gather in the Big Hall in the Mansion Hall.  They rarely missed this opportunity to gather together as a family.  This evening featured a violin performance by Frank Wayland-Smith of Paganini’s “Carnival of Venice.”  Frank Wayland-Smith is one of our cast of characters in the OC Media project.  The audience loved it so much that he played it again.  Here is what Frank Wayland-Smith played, and you can hear why it was such a favorite.  The Carnival of Venice.

The music was followed by the recitation of an amusing elocution exercise called “The Frenchman and the Rats” performed by James B. Herrick, the former minister and future husband Tirzah Miller after the Break-up of the Community.  Harriet wrote that he entered into it “like a true Frenchman, and amused us all exceedingly.”  Another member, Henry W. Burnham,  sang “Man the Life Boat.”   But it was the next performance, introduced by George Cragin,  that was the hit of the evening.  We won’t spoil it for you except to say that the performance sounded to us like a 19th Century mix of Samuel Beckett, vaudeville, strip tease and Cirque du Soleil.

John Humphrey Noyes

February 8, Harriet Worden recorded a talk by the Community’s leader, John Humphrey Noyes, about the responsibility of America’s manufacturers to encourage the propagation of moral children to counter the threat of being overrun by the Irish.  The skit the night before featuring two Irish workers that were working on the railroad line passing through Community property must have been fresh in the Community’s minds.  And, as a major manufacturer of animal traps in the U.S., Noyes must have thought of the eugenics program that he was just launching as an example to other manufacturers.

February 10, the subject of the nightly meeting was the selective breeding of superior children.  But it was not just the subject of the a lecture, but the selection of the parents was put to a vote of all assembled!

February 11, Harriet reported that happy news that Elizabeth Mallory, one of the Community women that was participating in the eugenics program, was thought to be pregnant.  We know from a letter written by Tirzah Miller later in the month to her uncle, George Washington Noyes, that the father was thought to be Erastus Hamilton, a senior leader of the Community.

Tirzah Miller 1873

Tirzah wrote to her uncle of her great relief.  She said that Erastus Hamilton signified his desire to John Humphrey Noyes several years ago to have a child by me, so there has been a sort of engagement of that kind between us of somewhat long standing.  I had felt so delighted with the idea of holding ourselves completely at the disposal of God and the Community about such matters,  that I took my release from that engagement as a great and unexpected gift from God.

Now I am free for anything Mr. Noyes wants.  He has asked me several times of late “who I am going to have for the father of my child — who I want,”&c.  But I tell him, I don’t expect to choose for myself.” The answer to Noyes’ question would be a constant dilemma not only for Tirzah and Noyes, but for the entire Community in the years ahead.

February 12’s journal entry was full of news of reports by Noyes’ son, Theodore, on doubts he had about Elizabeth Mallory’s pregnancy (he proved correct) and his recent trip to buy new equipment  “for furthering the silk trade” for the Community, as well as a report on a lecture by James Herrick on Darwinism.

Theodore Noyes

Harriet also reported on Noyes’ chronic throat pain, which would be one of the reasons he would withdraw from direct leadership of the Community years later in favor of his son Theodore.  It was a decision that would create a deep divide in the Community and serve as a major cause of the Break-up.

February 13 Harriet reported this eventful week ending on a sunny day that “spoiled the sledding.”

The evening meeting saw some of the children engaged in mutual criticism, including Harriet Worden’s six-year old son, Ormond.

These were just some of the events and personalities recorded by Harriet in her remarkable journal for a week in February 1869.

OC Children 1866

And so winds up 1868! Come on New Year!!!

With these words ~  “And so winds up 1868!  Come on New Year!!!” ~ Harriet Worden concluded her 1868 Journal, and we log the final entry for 1868 in Harriet’s Posts ~ 1868 in sync with 2010.  Tomorrow we will post the start of Harriet’s posts for 1869.

It has been an interesting daily ritual, reading Harriet’s entries on the corresponding day in 1868.  For instance, comparing the weather they were having in 1868 to ours in 2010; they had more snow.  We have enjoyed following the daily comings and goings of Community members as they moved from apartment to apartment, job to job, shifting from living in the Mansion House to the satellite Community at Willow Place, a mile a way.  And in the case of poor Uncle Horace (Burt) who wandered off from the Community one day, Harriet reported, “Mr. Burt had a letter from Uncle Horace this evening. It was dated at Schenectady. Said he left without purse or script – without two coats & two pairs of shoes. Whither bound or what his plans are not plain. He is far from being in his right mind.”

Harriet’s accounts of the nightly meetings and entertainments provided a window into the creative, resourceful and often amusing ways and lives of Community members.  They gave lectures on Entomology, Chemistry, Babylon, Egypt, The Greeks and Persians, and the history of Roman times and Constantinople, and a course of lectures for the children on the “Providence of God.”

Harriet Worden with Guitar

They had “scandalous” dances that showed, for some, too much of a “woman’s bottom,” and an amazing  variety of musical performances  and dramatic interpretations, including promenades, skits mimicking “a goodly number of Oneida Community personages,” and even a “practical illustration of Shaker life.”   A mock-funeral for their bag business ended this way ~ making fun of the size of their Oneida Community handbook, and celebrating with a surprise magic act, their new project – Stirpiculture ~ selecting parents to give birth to the next generation of Oneida Community children.  Harriet wrote,

“Then followed a little scene in which Mr. Kelly as an agent offers the “handbook” of two thousand pages to his customers.  He goes out and in comes John Lord & George Allen; each carrying a large leather bag & to all appearances very heavy – and upon setting them down out comes, what do you think – two children, Harold & Temple!  They each exclaimed, “Hurrah for Scientific Propagation!”  and the curtain fell.”

These were just some of the informative and entertaining performances the Community presented at their regular 7PM meetings.

With their habit of keeping records of everything, the last days of the year were devoted to taking inventory.  Harriet reported that John Humphrey Noyes requested on December 8 that the Community “take an inventory of the labor of each individual during past year.”  During the last days of December, Community members took stock of what they had labored at and what they had achieved.  On the final evening meeting of the year, Theodore Noyes read the inventory.  Unfortunately, we do not have that report, but the Oneida Community archives at Syracuse University contain various inventories of their possessions, food stocks, business income and expenses, itemized costs for sustaining each member at Oneida, Wallingford, and Willow Place, and a record of each Community member, listing their name, age, height, weight, birth place and date,  the age and date when they joined, and how much property they brought into the Community.  The Oneida Community considered themselves to be living under scientific principles, and to do so they needed data.

And so Vicki and I are taking an inventory of our labor for the past year.  We began the year in Montreal, living under the shadow of the great Basilica, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal; me working on completing the animated documentary on the explorations of Samuel de Champlain – Dead Reckoning ~ Champlain in America, and Vicki keeping her American intellectual property clients happy from Canada.  In January, we decided to investigate living in the Mansion House and producing a media project on the Oneida Community.  In early April, we moved back to Cumberland Head on Lake Champlain as I began work on the Cirque du Soleil PBS special, Flowers in the Desert. Within weeks of returning to the US, we visited the Mansion House and fell in love with our future home, Tontine 255.  Since the end of June, we have been living in the Mansion House, in an apartment furnished with furniture from throughout the great house and dishes and silverware from Oneida Ltd.  And except for three months when I was up to my eye balls with work producing Flowers, we have been consumed with the lives of the three hundred or so religious pioneers in the 19th Century.  We have made many wonderful new 21st Century friends here among the people who work for or live in the Mansion House.  Vicki has been exploring the cooking and baking philosophy of the Oneida Community described so well by Harriet Skinner. And early next year, she will be publishing a new version of this wonderful glimpse into the food produced and consumed in the Oneida Community.

Oneida Community Web Doc

January 12th is the deadline for our proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for support for the Oneida Community Media Project.  We didn’t think we would make this deadline due to the amount of time taken up with the Cirque project, but it looks like we will make the deadline!  I have nearly completed the proposal requesting support for an innovative interactive media project that will include: a documentary broadcast on public television; the same film streamed on the internet with interactive features available to allow a viewer to access additional historical information, context, analysis and commentary by our scholars; and an interactive web documentary that will allow the viewer to discover multiple narratives, historical information, tour the Mansion House in a virtual environment, trace the history of the Community through an interactive timeline and map, view Mansion House exhibits online, and discuss ideas with our panel of scholars.

And so winds up 2010!  Come on New Year!!!

Beginning of the Children’s Hour

Children's Hour

On this day in 1868, Harriet Worden recorded the origins of the custom of including the children in the evening meetings in the Oneida Community.

You can read her post from December 19, 1868, by going to Harriet’s Posts – 1868 in the index of the pages, to the right of the main blog post.  We update each day Harriet’s posts from her journal for the day in 1868 corresponding to our own date.

The children were raised communally in the Oneida Community.  They lived  first in a separate house (The Nursery),  and then in 1869, in the entire south wing of the Mansion House, known as the Children’s House.

Children's House

With the initiation of the eugenics program in 1868 (the only large scale attempt at selected breeding of human beings in US history), the Oneida Community expected to produce a large brood of superior children.  In fact, 58 children were born during the eugenics experiment.

As a rule, the children were excluded from the Community’s evening meetings.  But on this day in December 1868, John Humphrey Noyes changed that policy.  Here is what Harriet Worden had to say:

Father Noyes has made some remarks today about making a complete home. And his proposal is to bring all our children over to this house every evening at 7 o’clock, and letting them soak in the family spirit (the great Community heart) for an hour. He says he shall always be present and the whole family can have a chance to see the children. The parents to mix in with the rest, but must not step in between the children and the Community.

Noyes usually did not attend the evening meetings. Due to his chronic throat problems, he preferred to hold court in the Upper Sitting Room during the day and to speak softly to a small gathering about his ideas for revitalizing the Community spirit.  His words were always noted and reported in the evening meetings, which usually prompted a Community discussion.

Upper Sitting Room

As Harriet Worden reported,  he promised to attend the evening meetings when the children were present.  But he  cautioned the parents of the children to delight in the presence of the children, but not to interfere with their relationship with everyone in the Community.

In upcoming days in Harriet’s journal, she will describe many appearances and performances by the children and the delight by all members in the presence of the children of the Community meetings.  Many of these events took place not in the Big Hall where the  7PM meetings took place, but in the Upper Sitting Room where Noyes presided, below his bedroom in the North Tower.

Community Song

Oneida Community in the early 1860s

Tony Wonderley, the excellent curator of the Oneida Community Mansion House, put a CD in my mail box here at the Mansion House.  On it was a recording of The Braes o’ Balquihidder, a Scottish song  written by Robert Tannahill (17441810). The reason for the early Christmas gift is that this is the tune that the Oneida Community’ song is based on and Tony wanted me to hear it.  It is quite lovely. It is wonderful to imagine the Community singing the Community Song to this tune in the Big Hall.

It is very probable that this song was the original melody for Wild Mountain Thyme.  “The Braes o’ Balquihidder” appeared twice in R.A. Smith’s Scottish Minstrel (18211824) – Vol I, p. 49 and Vol. IV, p. 89.  The latter air is a modification of the first and is called “The Three Carles o’ Buchanan.”

Irish traditional singer Elizabeth Cronin sang this song, too, but the tune was quite different. In The Songs of Elizabeth Cronin (Daubhi O Croinin, pub. 1999), the notes say “the song was composed  by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill and set to music by R.A. Smith.” This might be the first version of Smith’s tune.

Balquihidder is pronounced bal’-wither.  The village of Balquidder lies in central Scotland and is mainly known for being the burial place of Rob Roy.  To this day the entire village consists of a cemetery and church ruins, a community center, a B&B, a shop or two and some absolutely breathtaking scenery.

Here is the recording of The Braes o’ Balquihidder …. Braes o’ Balquhidder

Here is the recording of the song Wild Mountain Thyme sung by The Byrds in the 1960s.  The melody is clearly based on the The Braes o’ Balquihidder ….  Wild Mountain Thyme

Here are the lyrics that the Oneida Community wrote to the melody of The Braes o’ Balquihidder ….

Community Song

Let us go, brothers, go

To the Eden of heart-love,

Where the fruits of life grow,

And no death e’er can part love;

Where the pure currents flow

From all gushing hearts together,

And the wedding of the Lamb

Is the feast of joy forever.

Let us go, brothers, go!


We will build us a dome

On our beautiful plantation,

And we’ all have one home,

And one family relation;

We’ll battle with the wiles

Of the dark world of Mammon,

And return with it’s spoils

To the home of our dear ones.

Let us go, brothers, go!


When the rude winds of wrath

Idly rave round our dwelling,

And the slanderer’s breath

Like a simoon is swelling,

Then so merrily we’ll sing

As the storm blusters o’er us,

Til the very heavens ring

With our hearts joyful chorus.

Let us go, brothers, go!


Now love’s sunshine begun,

And the spirit-flowers are blooming;

And the feeling that we’re one

All our hearts is perfuming;

Towards one home let us all

Set our faces together

Where true love shall dwell

In peace and joy forever.

Let us go, brothers, go!