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June 17, 2016

Book Notes - Ellen Wayland-Smith "Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table"

Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ellen Wayland-Smith's Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table is an engaging and thought-provoking history of the New York community's evolution.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Drawing from letters, diaries, newsletters, and family stories, the author, an original-family descendant, adds inside information to this retelling of a radical movement's transformation in the shifting current of American ideals. The narrative is engaging and detailed. This is a must-read for those interested in American social history, and should have broad appeal."


In her own words, here is Ellen Wayland-Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her book Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table:


Music was central to life in the Oneida Community. Over the course of their thirty-two year history, they maintained two orchestras (one with twenty-two instruments); a brass band; several string quartets; a children's choir; a co-ed adult choir, and a women's glee club. They enjoyed all types of music, from popular folk songs and dances, to religious hymns, to classical music and musical theater.

They played and sang for themselves, of course, both in informal settings (such as during Evening Meetings, when the entire family assembled in the "Big Hall") and in more formally staged concerts. But they also played for tourists, who came in flocks to tour the lush Mansion House grounds and sneak a peek at the scandalously clad Oneida women in their knee-length skirts and bloomers. In the 1870s, the Midland Railroad Company, eager to boost its weekend traffic, plastered the Oneida village train station with posters inviting "Excursionists and Pleasure-Seekers" to stop off for fresh strawberry shortcake and "fine Musical Entertainment" at the Oneida Community.

A small blurb in the May 6th 1872 edition of The Circular recounted the previous week's in-house entertainment (family only), dubbed by its author a "musical sociable;" the program offers a good sample of the range of music the Community enjoyed.

"[The entertainment] was opened by the orchestra with a German overture. Then followed a beautiful song by the children–– ‘Moonlight on the Lake.' Next came some old familiar dance music by the orchestra, and so witching that it nearly succeeded in bringing some of the young people on to their feet for a schottish [polka dance]. Then followed the ‘Carnival of Venice,' violin and piano. After this the orchestra gave us part of ‘Opera without Words' by De Beriot and his son… In conclusion the Club, with orchestral accompaniment, sang, ‘Jerusalem, my Glorious Home.'"



1. "German overture." Instrumental overtures from operas were concert hall favorites in the nineteenth century. One Community member, who attended Boston's World Peace Jubilee Concert celebrating the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1872, remarked that, "the overture to [Richard Wagner's] Tannhauser was splendid–– beyond my previous conceptions."

2. "Moonlight on the Lake." A song arranged in four-part harmony that often figured in nineteenth-century minstrel shows.

3. "Schottish" dance music. The Oneidans were mad for dancing: the quadrille, contra-dance, schottische, polka and waltz were all in their repertoire. A note in the January 6th edition of the Circular reports on a recent evening "family dance":

"In the evening we had a dance instead of the usual stage-entertainment. A Community, family-dance: the Hall is cleared a little after six; the tables and chairs are carried into the passage-ways and piled up on the stage, leaving just room enough on the latter for the musicians, the violins, the double-bass viol, and the horns…. We have quadrilles, contra-dances, waltzes, polkas, schottisches, on or two of each. The waltzes and cotillions, however, are the most popular."

Stephen Foster (1826-1864), often considered the "father of American music" (he penned such popular favorites as "Camptown Races" and "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"), composed an instrumental "Soiree Polka" that is typical of the period dance music.

Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899), a Viennese composer, was known as "the Waltz King" and is widely credited with establishing the popularity of the dance in Europe in the last half of the century. His music (such as his "Voices of Spring") was popular on this side of the Atlantic, as well.

4. Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) "The Carnival of Venice" and Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870) "Violin Concerto No. 5 in D Major." Paganini was a violinist and composer from Genoa who gained European renown for his virtuoso concerts, where he combined flamboyant showmanship with innovative technique. He was a great favorite with the Romantics, who saw in him an archetype of the solitary, star-crossed artistic "genius." Among his disciples was de Bériot, whose Romantic-style concertos have today all but fallen into oblivion.

5. Ole Bornemann Bull (1810-1880) was a Norwegian-born virtuoso violinist. On one of his tours in the U.S., he was slated to give a concert in the village of Oneida. My great-great-grandfather Francis Wayland-Smith–– himself the principal violinist in the Community orchestra–– travelled to Syracuse to meet Old Bull and prevail him to visit the Mansion House. Bull agreed, and upon being given a tour of the Community and its grounds, apparently "expressed himself enthusiastically… and styled our home a ‘Second Eden,'" according to the Circular report. The "Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra" and "La Mélancolie: In Moments of Solitude" are typical of his work.

6. "Jerusalem, my Glorious Home" (17th century English hymn)
Although they didn't practice any organized religious rituals (such as a mass or formal service), the Oneidans enjoyed singing the same Christian hymns that were integral to mainstream Protestant church services. They were also drawn to African-American spirituals. In an 1872 edition of the Circular, a community member reported back on a concert of the Fisk Jubilee Singers he attended in Connecticut. The "wild, uncultivated" hymns of the group were "touching and pathetic in the extreme," expressing a "simple-hearted faith in God" that moved the audience to tears. "Roll, Jordan, Roll"; "Amazing Grace"; and "Wade in the Water" by the Fisk Jubilee singers are representative of the genre.

7. H.M.S. Pinafore (1878). In the winter of 1879-80, the Community was rife with tensions both internal and external. An "anti-Noyes" party had sprung up with hopes of replacing the aging patriarch; they were met with fierce resistance by Noyes's family and inner power circle. The Community was feeling pressure from without, as well: the national mood was decisively swinging toward conservative "family values," marked by the Supreme Court's 1878 decision in Reynolds v. United States outlawing Mormon polygamy as not protected under the First Amendment. The Oneidans feared they might be next.

In the midst of this turmoil, the Community members nonetheless managed to come together to stage a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's recently débuted comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore. They found this story of inter-class romance (the captain's high-bred daughter falls in love with a humble sailor) a "good medium for Communism." Here I've included the orchestral Overture and Josephine's lament, "Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well."


Ellen Wayland-Smith and Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table links:

Boston Globe review
Gawker profile of the author
Guardian review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

Here & Now interview with the author
USC News profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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