A Music Box, Minstrel Songs, & Mark Twain’s Emo Playlist

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Late last year, Matt Seybold published his research on Mark Twain’s “music of merciful release,” a series of compositions by classical composers which Sam Clemens listened to repeatedly as part of his grieving process after the deaths of his wife and daughters.

The essay was a culmination of years of engagement with Twain and music, including multiple collaborations with the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes. Among them was a performance at the historic Park Church in Elmira of “Mark Twain’s Music Box,” a program inspired by Kerry Driscoll’s 2008 essay with that title.

At the 2019 Summer Teachers Institute, Dr. Seybold read from his work-in-progress. Among the teachers in attendance was Erin Bartram, who had just joined the staff of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. As she describes in this new episode of The American Vandal Podcast, Dr. Bartram used her notes from the session to create “Mark Twain’s Emo Playlist,” a soundtrack for her work as the Twain House to which she continually added new tracks based on musical references she found in the writings of Sam Clemens and his family members.

Late last year, Dr. Bartram led the launch of Make Music With Mark Twain!, an outreach program for K-12 students who explore about how music was produced and consumed by the Clemens household and use what they learn to create compositions of their own.

Inspired by her research for Make Music With Mark Twain!, Dr. Bartram suggested to Sarah Kaufold, the artistic director of the chamber ensemble Voices of Concinnity, that they record a masked and socially distanced version of Dan Forrest’s “Good Night, Dear Heart” on the porch at the Twain House. “Good Night, Dear Heart” draws its lyrics from the poem which Sam Clemens chose for the inscription on his daughter’s tombstone at Woodlawn Cemetary in Elmira. That recording was released in January following a roundtable with Bartram, Kaufold, and Seybold.

In this episode, Bartram, Driscoll, and Seybold come together to discuss the cross-pollinating research they have been doing in recent years, as well as the many avenues for further engaging the complex musical tastes of Mark Twain and his family.

Erin Bartram is School Programs Coordinator at the Mark Twain House & Museum, where she recently launched the Make Music with Mark Twain! Program. She has previously taught at University of Hartford and University of Connecticut, where she received her PhD in History. She is the founding editor of Contingent Magazine, and has also published in Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, Religion & American Culture, and Common-place.

Kerry Driscoll is currently an Editor for the Mark Twain Project at UC-Berkeley. She is also Professor Emerita at University of St. Joseph. She is the author of Mark Twain Among The Indians & Other Indigenous Peoples (University of California Press, 2019) and numerous essays on Twain and other U.S. authors in journals like American Literary Realism, William Carlos Williams Review, and Mark Twain Annual, where she is on the Editorial Board and formerly served as Book Reviews Editor.

Episode Bibliography:

Erin Bartram, Steve Courtney, Sarah Kaufold, & Matt Seybold. “Music & Connection in Mark Twain’s World & in Ours” Mark Twain House & Museum (January 26, 2021)

Samuel L. Clemens to Tom Hood. [they reproduce the true melody of the plantations] (March 10, 1873)

Samuel L. Clemens to Olivia L. Langdon, [Tunes are good remembrancers.] (December 19 & 20, 1868)

Kerry Driscoll, “Mark Twain’s Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, & The Commodity Aesthetic” Cosmopolitan Twain Edited by Ann Ryan & Joseph McCullough (U Missouri P, 2008)

Eric Lott, Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism (Harvard UP, 2017)

Matt Seybold, “Death at Christmastime: Mark Twain & The Music of Merciful Release” (December 23, 2020)

Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson & Those Extraordinary Twins (1894)