‘The Ocean Burial’ and Other Nineteenth-century Sentimental Death Songs
In 1850, Oliver Ditson and Sons of Boston published “The Ocean Burial,” a parlour song scored for voice and piano with music by George N. Allen and words by Reverend Edwin H. Chapin. The song narrates the experience of a dying young sailor at sea and would go on to circulate widely across the United States throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Relying on stock conventions of sentimental literature and music, the song’s protagonist makes an emotional appeal to his listeners: “Oh bury me not in the deep, deep sea.”
Sentimental death songs like “The Ocean Burial” pervade US nineteenth-century parlour repertory. This body of songs serve as something of a cultural wake, pointing towards an acknowledgment of the reality and centrality of death. But discussions of nineteenth-century sentimentality and its relationship to death have been overdetermined by feminized and depoliticized narratives of “dying daughters and crying mothers” which reinscribe simplistic binaries of masculine/feminine and public/private.
Tracing the public life of parlour songs, I read “The Ocean Burial” and other sentimental death songs in the context of chattel slavery and the movement to abolish it. Drawing on work in sound studies and Black feminist theory, I listen for the counterpublic resonances of nineteenth-century sentimental death songs–reverberations that have been altogether ignored by musicology’s epistemologies of whiteness. By untethering some of the gendered and racialized associations of US parlour song, I hope to offer a fuller account of who is remembered and memorialized in sentimental death songs and how empathy and feeling were far from apolitical.
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Emily GaleLecturer in Popular Music Studies
Dr. Emily Gale is Lecturer in Popular Music Studies at University College Cork. Sentimental Songs for Sentimental People–her book in progress–explores intersections between sentimentalism, gender, class, and race with chapters on: sentimental ballads of the long nineteenth century; the early Chicago radio program The National Barn Dance; Mitch Miller’s 1960s television show Sing Along with Mitch; 1970s soft rock; and more. She hosts a radio show about her research on Threads*/sub_ʇxǝʇ and from 2019-2020 her feminist music column History Witch appeared in Berlin’s Schmutz zine. Emily completed a Bachelor of Music from the University of Ottawa in 2005, an M.A. in Music Theory from the University of Western Ontario in 2007, and a PhD in Critical and Comparative Studies from the University of Virginia in 2014. You can find her recent research on orphan songs and abolition in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (March 2021).