Singing the Maine: The Popular Image of Cuba in Sheet Music of the Spanish-American War
Detemple, Jill, The Historian
Thirty-three years after the last battle of the Civil War, a call to arms again rang out across the United States when the battleship Maine exploded and sank under mysterious circumstances in Havana harbor. Called to Cuba in early 1898 by U.S. consul Fitzhugh Lee after Spanish troops mutinied and joined Cuban rebels in their three-year bid for independence from colonial Spain, the Maine quickly became a focal point of American policy and popular sentiment. Politically, the ship sailed to Cuba as the material delegate of longstanding American interest in the island, a reminder of the United States' "no transfer" policy that Cuba must be either a Spanish or an American possession. Ideologically, the Maine dropped anchor as an ambassador of freedom and American-style democracy as American popular media portrayed its journey to Havana as the first step in freeing long-oppressed citizens from their colonial shackles.
An impressive implement of war and of the growing influence of the United States as a world power, the Maine was also tangible evidence of peace to American citizens, as it was commissioned and manned under the flag representing a North and South working together to build a unified nation and a better world. The loss of the Maine and the majority of its crew struck a heavy blow to this newly forming national identity, and popular reaction was one of outrage as well as nostalgia for the glory and heroism associated with war.
The quality and extent of this widespread sentiment are uniquely reflected in the lyrics and style of the sheet music spread on pianos in the parlors of Victorian America in 1898. In the published words, well-known tunes, and detailed covers of the stylish music, the Maine was fashioned as a symbol of a newly developing national identity that emphasized military might, national sovereignty, and the moral authority of the United States in opposing traditional colonial powers. The sinking of the Maine, the lyrics state, was a blow to national pride and place, a direct assault on the sovereignty and fledgling ascendancy of the United States. To avenge the Maine, they suggest, would be the restoration and furthering of national power as the country proved both its right and might in challenging Spain. In its construction in the playing field of widespread popular sentiment, the Maine became not only a symbol of national identity and destiny for the United States, but also a de facto substitute for the Cuban people themselves, as avenging the Maine became conflated with "Cuba libre" in popular thought.
Sheet music, unlike the usually silent and personal activity of reading, is a medium meant to be shared. It is communicative and communal, an immediate performance of ideas and ideals. The content and opinions written in the sheet music of 1898 were in the public domain in a way that newspaper editorials and headlines were not: hummed on the street and in the home, often stuck in the back of the brain, remembered at odd moments, heard and performed in the company of friends.
Certainly, sheet music was a widespread, commercial, and interactive medium. Publishing records from the 1890s indicate that sheet music made up the majority of musical literature available at the time, and while Americans had to make do with relatively expensive (and decidedly unpatriotic) British exports until after the Revolutionary War, by 1860 90 publishers were in business throughout the nation. An expanded mail system gave access via post to all but the most remote customers, and many families received sheet music through a subscription system in which the publishers would "select the best" of their fashionable stock and send it on a regular basis throughout the United States and abroad, even to such remote places as Australia.(1) Thus, a song popular in New York would make its way quickly to rural towns in Ohio and North Dakota, creating a shared cultural dialogue of rhythm and poetic language. …