Karl Hagstrom Miller

Karl Hagstrom Miller teaches in the music department at the University of Virginia.  He is the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.

"‘I’ll Be No Submissive Wife No No No No No No No No No Not I’: Pop Songs for Disgruntled White Women before Tin Pan Alley"
“I’ll Be No Submissive Wife” is a parlor song published in New York in 1835.  It is one of thousands of songs commercially published in the US between the 1820s and the 1870s that were pitched to middle-class white women who played piano in their family parlors.  Gender ideology of the day insisted these women should be submissive, unselfish caretakers of others.  Parlor songs, it is often assumed, illustrated and reinforced these values.  Historian Nicholas Tawa calls them “sweet songs for gentle Americans” because they affirmed “the tenets of that society—the sanctity of its institutions, the love of home, God and country, the supremacy of conscience and duty.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This paper surveys hundreds of nineteenth-century parlor songs about women.  Very few offered unalloyed portraits of idealized femininity.  Far more common were songs about women striving to live up to idealized gender conventions and failing miserably.  Songs about gossip derailing girls’ reputations and life prospects and songs like “Not Married Yet” (1841) about the inability to find a spouse.  Songs like “Grandmother’s Lesson” (1857) about getting burned in the courtship game and “Let Me Come Home, Father” (1867) about marriages gone disastrously wrong.  Songs about drunk fathers, domineering husbands, deceitful lovers, dead babies, and dead women.  The pop song business was founded on selling songs to white women who felt that the pressure to conform to gender ideals was sucking the life out of them.  Commercial songs were designed to enable women to do something other music couldn’t:  sing their frustration about the impossible task of living up to expectations even as they expressed hope that things would turn out better next time.  Long before Leslie Gore or Taylor Swift, what Lauren Berlant calls “the female complaint” was baked into American pop.  I’ll love you tomorrow, but tomorrow is always a day away.