Mary Powell Glee Club

Editor’s note: This article contains racial slurs quoted as part of period newspaper articles and advertisements.

In the summer of 1881, the Kingston Daily Freeman ran a series of articles about what became known as “glee clubs,” made up of Black or “colored” crewmembers of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.

The prevalence of singing aboard steamboats on the Mississippi is well-documented. Sea musician Dr. Charles Ipcar documented some of this history in “Steamboat and Roustabout Songs.” Roustabouts, also known as stevedores, were regular or short-term crew who primarily moved cargoes and fuel on and off steamboats. In the American South, these laborers were primarily Black, and coordinated loading by singing, keeping the freight moving to a rhythm – much like sailboat crews would coordinate hauling lines by singing sea shanties. When these songs were doubly coordinated with specific dance moves, they were known as “coonjine.”

It is unclear whether or not Hudson River steamboats also had crews of roustabouts or stevedores who sang at their work. Most of the bigger steamboats were designed for passenger use, so the only cargoes were fuel and food for the trip, and passenger’s luggage. One newspaper article from 1890 indicates that Southern Black longshoremen did come north for work in New York Harbor, particularly after white longshoremen were organizing unions and strikes. That same article also indicated that at least one “Mississippi roustabout” was leading a group in singing roustabout songs. But while it’s not clear that steamboat crew on the Hudson River sang regularly, references to Southern roustabouts and their songs did occur frequently in New York.

Roustabout songs were often among those included in minstrel shows - often performed by White musicians in blackface enacting racist caricatures of the Black Americans they purported to emulate. The popularity of minstrel shows and music date back to the 1830s, but during Reconstruction (1865-1877), many Black Americans saw career opportunities in taking control of the narrative and performing their own minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment in 19th Century America. Many romanticized plantation life and depicted enslaved people as simple and happy with their enslavement. These depictions just as popular, if not more so, in the North than the South. Below are two examples from New York newspapers.

The headline “Mississippi Roustabouts” is a racist account of visiting the Mississippi, published in the Buffalo Evening News, September 15, 1904. The second is an advertisement for the Glens Falls Opera House advertising the show “The Romance of Coon Hollow,” a popular show that opened on Broadway in 1894. These are just two examples of how racial caricatures of Southern and Black life had entered the mainstream popular culture in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is against this complicated backdrop that we encounter the “glee clubs” of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.

Initially referred to as “colored singers” (the “glee club” title came later), our story begins on July 29, 1881, with a short article in the Kingston Daily Freeman called “Musical Talent on the Cornell” :

The steamer Cornell’s colored boys are fast coming into prominence as good singers, and it is believed that in a short time they will organize themselves into a vocal club. Wednesday night when the famous vocalist Mrs. Osborn favored the Cornell people with some selections from her repertoire, the boys started plantation songs and Mrs. Osborn, as well as several gentlemen on the steamer who are good judges of music, stated that the singing was excellent. If they organize they will give the Mary Powell singers a challenge to prove which of the two clubs is better.”

Four days later, the Freeman followed up with “A Challenge” :

“The Mary Powell Colored Singers Challenge the Singers on the Cornell.

“Last Friday evening the Freeman published an item commending the singing of the colored deckhands [dockhands?], cooks, etc. on the Thomas Cornell, and also said there was a prospect that they would organize themselves into a vocal club and then compete with the famous Mary Powell singers as to which is the better club. The Powell boys saw the article in the Freeman and are ready for the fray. They desire us to challenge the Cornell’s singers for a prize of $50, the contest to come off at any time the Cornell vocalists may select within the next two weeks; the place, judges and other arrangements to be mutually agreed upon. Several of the Powell crew have belonged to professional troupes, and they feel confident of outsinging their formidable rivals. One or two of them will stake $5 apiece on the contest. It is thought a good idea in the event of a match ensuing that some large hall be hired and that a small admission fee be charged, which will somewhat defray expenses. No doubt a large audience would witness the match. Come, Cornell boys, accept this challenge and show your prowess. You will have to work hard, though, for the Powell singers are very good.”

It is unclear whether or not these groups were simply recreational clubs for employees of their respective steamboats, or if the groups performed while on the job. The Mary Powell did have a reputation for musical entertainments, but according to surviving concert handbills, these were usually orchestral performances of classical music. In addition, one photo of the Mary Powell orchestra survives, and this incarnation at least, from 1901, is all white.

Eight days after the Freeman suggested a formal singing contest, the Kingston reading public got just that. “Cornell-Powell Singers,” published on August 10, 1881, reads:

“A Prize Singing Match for $50 a Side to Come Off Within a Short Time.

“About three weeks ago the colored singers on the Thomas Cornell were lauded by the Freeman for their excellent vocal accomplishments and at the same time we proposed the starting of a singing match between them and the famous Mary Powell singers. The Powell boys saw our article and authorized us to challenge the Cornell singers for a prize singing match, which we did and as a culmination of arrangements toward such an end a committee from the Cornell waited upon the Powell men yesterday morning to accept the challenge. Accordingly some time within the next three weeks Kingston will witness a first-class prize singing match in either Sampson Opera House or Music Hall for a prize of $50. Each club is to select and sing its own songs. Both clubs are now organized for business under the title of the “Cornell Glee Club” and the “Mary Powell Glee Club.” Constant practicing from now until the match comes off will be in order on these two steamers and passengers will have a rare treat.”

By renaming themselves as “Glee Clubs,” the steamboat employees were staking territory as professional singing groups. Originally created in 18th century England, glee clubs were small groups of men singing popular songs acapella, often with close harmony. Started on college campuses in the Northeast, glee clubs soon spread across the country, but remained primarily the domain of white men. By the end of the 19th century, many of these groups were regularly singing minstrel music and “Negro spirituals,” often in blackface.

The two groups of steamboat employees may have simply decided that being a “glee club” was more descriptive than “colored singers,” or more respectable, or might raise more interest among the general public.

The last sentence of the above article is also an interesting one, implying that the groups planned to practice, if not perform, while at their work aboard their respective steamboats. The reference of the songs being “a rare treat” indicates that singing while working aboard was not a common occurrence.

By August 12, the date was set. The Daily Freeman reported that the match would take place on August 20, 1881. Tickets were “thirty-five cents for general admission, and reserved seat tickets will be sold at fifty cents.” The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle advertised the same.

Two days after the concert took place, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle published a full account of the event, “Singing for a Prize: Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell” :

“We extract from the Rondout Courier’s account of the singing match at Music Hall, Kingston, Saturday evening, so interesting report of the contest between the colored employees of the Thomas Cornell and Mary Powell.

“Music Hall was a scene of most intense interest on the occasion. Our colored friends seemed to [own?] the whole town, and the great hall, although too large for the audience, as too small for them – Prof. [Jack?] Miner was Judge.

“As the Powell was late and the Cornell early, the Cornell Club was first on the stage. The stateroom [eight?] of the Cornell came upon the stage with determination written upon every brow. They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat. They had more depth of hold and breadth of beam, and there was more solidity about them. Their bass was very bass indeed, Mr. Lew Vandermark scraping the very [lowest?] of his lower notes, and the leader, Aug. Fitzgerald, kept steadily the main channel of his tubes. The marked [characteristics?] of the two clubs were brought out very distinctly when the Cornell Club, at the hint of George F. [?] sang, “Mary had a little lamb,” which had been previously rendered by the Powell boys. In this the “baaing” of the lamb is given, with variations.

“The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered “broiled blue fish” or “Spanish mackerel,” with Saratoga potatoes, while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies of a “stateroomer supper.”

“The members of the clubs were as follows:

Cornell Glee Club – Aug. Fitzgerald, leader; L. Schemerhorn, Eugene Harris, [Dav.?] Johnston, George Dewitt, Lew Vandemark, Chas. Van [Gaasbeck?], Dennis Johnston, Miss [Lizzie?] Hartly, pianist.

Powell Glee Club – I. P. Washington, leader; J. C. Washington, James Poindexter, Wm. McPherson, B. G. Smith, Robert Martin, Harry Coulter, Prof. John [Mougan?]. The latter also acted as pianist.

“The audience was a fair one. It thoroughly enjoyed itself, and after the crews got fairly warmed up it got considerably excited, and stamped and shouted and clapped in the wildest manner, winding up in a round of cheers.

“The Cornell Club mainly confined itself to pious tunes; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Prepare Me Lord,” and the like, filling the programme, while the Powell boys had lighter pieces and evinced a strong preference for [fancy?] [selections?]. The Cornell crew sang “Sweet Ailleen” very prettily, and did better with the songs than the hymns.

“The audience was well pleased with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Oh Them Union Brothers,” in which the Cornell crew caught the wild melody nicely. The Powell followed with “Hark, Baby, Hark,” sang very prettily indeed, and “Row the Boats,” in which the sweep of the melody is very sweet. The Cornellites came up smiling with their religious tunes, of which “Pray all along the Road” was the most noticeable. Then came one of the gems of the evening, “Night Shades,” by the Powell boys, which the audience was highly pleased with and “Old Oaken Bucket,” which they sang nicely. For an encore they dipped into the religious vein, which seemed to stir up the Cornellites, who retorted with “Mary had a Little Lamb,” with which the Powellites had previously brought down the house. The version was a little different, but both took with the house. The audience at this point applauded the Cornellites very heavily, which caused the Powellites to bring out their best and “Mary Gone with a Coon” was given.

“The programme was finally closed with the Powell boys singing “Good Night” when Geo. F. [Kjerstad? Kjersted?] brought forward Prof. Miner. He made a few remarks in which he said he had tried to perform his duty as Judge honestly, and then disclosed that the victory rested with the Mary Powell club, when there was great applause, and the audience died slowly out.”

Here we finally get some details! We have names of the participants, for one, and details of the concert itself, including the songs.

Sadly, we also have a complicated blend of admiration and racism. Of the Cornell singers, the author writes, “They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat.” Whereas, “The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered ‘broiled blue fish’ or ‘Spanish mackerel,’ with Saratoga potatoes [potato chips], while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies [potatoes] of a ‘stateroomer supper.’”

Here, the author is conflating appearance with singing talent, implying that the more slender and lighter complexioned “Powell boys” sang with more delicacy and finesse than the darker complexioned “Cornell boys.” One wonders if the Mary Powell crew was specifically selected for employment due to their lighter skin tone, or if it was simply coincidental. Shades of blackness and whiteness were very important in the white supremacist racial hierarchy of the United States, with lighter skinned people often receiving better or preferential treatment when compared with darker skinned people. The persistent use of the term “boy” to refer to Black adult men is also a racist microaggression, designed to imply inferiority when compared to White men.

Ultimately, the Mary Powell crew are declared winners, a result backed up by a single line in the New Paltz Times on August 24, 1881. Although many of the songs listed are unfamiliar to modern audiences, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has persisted, as has “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was interestingly performed by both groups.

Preliminary search results for the members of the two glee clubs resulted in few hits, although by 1903, a Lew Vandemark was part of a group called “Smith’s Colored Troubedours,” which gave a performance before the cakewalk at “Charley Conkling’s Masquerade” in Middletown, NY.

Cornell Glee Club Members:

  • Fitzgerald, leader;
  • Schemerhorn,
  • Eugene Harris,
  • [Dav.?] Johnston,
  • George Dewitt,
  • Lew Vandemark,
  • Van [Gaasbeck?],
  • Dennis Johnston,
  • Miss [Lizzie?] Hartly, pianist.

Powell Glee Club Members:

  • Washington, leader;
  • C. Washington,
  • James Poindexter,
  • McPherson,
  • G. Smith,
  • Robert Martin,
  • Harry Coulter,
  • John [Mougan?]. The latter also acted as pianist.

Sadly, we do not have any record of these names in the Mary Powell crew records that survive.