George Caleb Bingham's river paintings revisited: Music and dance in The jolly Flatboatmen
At first sight, the painting The Jolly Flatboatmen appears to depict life on the river in the American West. Upon closer reading, Bingham (1811-79) presents a record of the history of a region here in which music-making was an activity tightly woven into the concept of frontier life – a recurring subject matter which the artist observed frequently in reality. The 1846 version shows eight boat men on a flat raft, two of which are playing music and the central figure engaged in a dance. Art historians have placed this work in historical and political contexts. While it has been valuable to interpret it as Bingham’s personal expression of nationalism in the age of westward expansion, the documenting of nineteenth-century American folklore in The Jolly Flatboatmen deserves more attention from a musicological point of view. As the only paintings showing music and dance, the three versions of The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846, 1857, 1877/78) stand out in the artist’s overall output. By treating this theme repeatedly, Bingham coveys that these events were not just a pastime but that they defined musical folklore in the West.
This article examines how Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen creates an authentic visual account of music-making in America’s frontier. Drawing upon iconographical analysis, this study explores what kind of music and dance may have been represented here and casts light on the socio-cultural context for a musical practice that contributed to the shaping of musical traditions in nineteenth-century America.
© Musicological Explorations, School of Music, University of Victoria