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Friday, March 1, 2013

Planchette Polka: The 'Little Plank' in Popular Music

In the days before phonographs and record sales, the music industry was dominated by sheet music printers. As the popularity of blackface minstrel shows--vaudeville's immediate precursor--rose to the forefront of popular entertainment in America, and pianos, organs, and melodeons became fixtures in the middle-class parlors of the country, so too did the demand for transcripts of the songs and melodies made popular by the traveling theater shows. Stationers and booksellers, in this sense, were the only 'record stores' of their day.

By the time of the First Great Craze of the planchette's popularity, the invention of the phonograph is still 9 years away, and the sheet music business not yet dominated by the music producers of New York's infamous "Tin Pan Alley," which will not rise to supremacy for another two decades. Copyright laws on songs and melody were less strict than in modern terms, and there is a proliferation of sheet music based on popular melodies--with the lyrics changed, of course--that, with the advantage of historical retrospect, track the prevailing zeitgeist of previous ages. 

As such, Spiritualism already had a long history in sheet music. Among many others, it begins, appropriately enough, with the Fox Family-endorsed "The Haunted Ground" in 1851, with the interesting notation that the title was changed "from the original word 'haunted' by the suggestion of the spirit of Mrs. Hemans to 'hallowed'" (it should also be noted that the lyrics were also credited to the disembodied soul of Mrs. Hemans). There was 1851's "Spirit Polka" and its 'spiritual' successor, 1853's "Mysterious Rappings Polka," the you-know-that's-not-actually-a-seance-trumpet-on-the-cover-right? "What the Spirits Did in a Horn" in 1858, and 1863's "Spirit Rappings" (with their rapping/and their tapping/rap-tap-tap/to wake our napping).

*Note there is some dispute on the dating of the last listed item, with one archive listing it as 1853, which seems more appropriate, and the JScholarship archives listing it as 1863. Though we believe the former is likely more accurate than the latter, we'll defer to the dating of the archive from which the image is borrowed.

Assorted Spiritualism-inspired sheet music, 1851-1863, courtesy of
In 1868, the planchette hit American parlors in a way not seen since the popularity of table tipping in the previous decade. Consequently, sheet music publishers rushed to capitalize on the amusement in the same way that booksellers across the country began their mad scramble to produce the items. To date, we have discovered 4 such songs, beginning with Lee & Walker's 1868 Planchette: Song & Chorus with music by Eastburn and lyrics by Elmer Coates.
Set in 2/4 time, the song is a quick and snappy turnaround of wordplay and rhyme, with 9 short verses and a catchy chorus that sings "Planchette, planchette, oh! let me see/What luck you have in store for me. Planchette, planchette, thou wonder great/Oh! Quickly tell my fate..."

The first verse recognizes the planchette for what it was at the time: a bonifide sensation, claiming it is "all the rage" and "the talk of youth and age" that is "played from morning until night." Subsequent verses turn their attention to users of various ages and occupations, all consulting planchette for advice in love, law, medicine, and well, love. It begins with a lawyer consulting on a case in the second verse, and the others cover the love affairs of a widow, a physician, a 17 year old girl, a "dandy bach," a spinster, another spinster, and a preacher.  

Verse 1: Planchette is all the rage/The wonder of the nation/the talk of youth and age/Of poverty and station/the game is played from morning until night. To see what “fate” the “little plank” will write!

Verse 2: A lawyer wants a point/before he'd go-to pleading; He says “I wish the truth/Ere I am interceding:”/He's told “there'll be no harm and no one hung/If he'll leave court and only hold his tongue”

Verse 3: A widow “in her prime”/Says “trouble don't neglect her”/and wants to know “the time/to hunt a new protector;”/when promptly told most any time will do/She cries “Hurra! Dear Ike, I'm in for you.”

Verse 4: A doctor wants to know/the fate of one he's tending/”When will the fever go”/or “when will he be mending?”/The pencile moves and he is clearly shown/”The man will rise when he is let alone.”

Verse 5: A girl of seventeen/who bears the name of Hannah/would like to know about/the “running off of mamma;”/when told that girls must never leave the right,/she says “then Jo, I'll marry you tonight.”

Verse 6: A dandy bach appears/Al whiskers and potatum/“Oid loike if I/can marry Sallie Tatem.”/When told he “can't” he sinks upon a chair/And says “Aw woman thou art false as fair.”

Verse 7: A lass of forty four/would learn about her lover/She faints upon the floor/when told he likes another/She says ah!me, a terrible mishap/and shales till wig and teeth fall in her lap.

Verse 8: Up comes a number two/who rather long has tarried/and with a much adoo/says she “will I be married?”/When she is told there is another chance/She hires a fiddle and begins to dance.

Verse 9: A preacher very proud/and fond of elevation/Would know “but not too loud”/Of richer congregation;/He's told to try the famous church Saint Paul/and he begins to plan himself a call.

The songs is entertaining and, in the paradox I've often observed with planchettes, as opposed to their latter-day replacements in the Ouija, innocent and non-threatening, with even a preacher depicted as consulting to device for heavenly advice. The characterizations are fun and, one would think, fairly entertaining given the parlor atmosphere of the day, and for which it was intended.

 The second selection is our most lavishly illustrated, but unfortunately only known through its cover, discovered among the photo archives of an Etsy user who had unfortunately long-ago sold the document. Again dating to the first year of the craze in 1868, Planchette Polka by C.Y. Fonda of Cincinati, Ohio, sought to not only capitalize on the planchette craze itself, but ride on the coattails of the dominant manufacturer of the devices: none other that Kirby & Co of Boston. The cover illustration is an accurate depiction of a Kirby planchette, with its distinctive "bitten heart" shape, and the song is not only dedicated to the company, but their address is provided. Whether or not Kirby & Co., themselves stationers and publishers, were partners in this enterprise is unknown. Unfortunately, what the song's lyrics may reveal (if, of course, there were lyrics, given that La Motte is only given a composition credit), is unknown until a existing copy can be relocated.

Advertisement from the Western Rural, April 22-July 15, 1868

There is at least one other song that dates from the era of the First Great Craze: "Planchette Song: Set the Truth Echoes Humming published by the J. O. Barrett company of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with lyrics by J.O. Barrett and music Stephen W. Foster (not to be confused, unfortunately, with Stephen F. Foster, the "father of American music."). Though notated "con allegrezza" ("with joy"), its lyrical content seems almost hymnal, and quite heavy in content compared to the upbeat stylings of the other featured songs and, well, the polka.

 The lyrics are serious and heavy, more befitting a church hymnal, with verse 1 singing:

"Oh wand of thought/by angel taught/To playful give the fairy story/How birdlike glides dreamy tides/Life's mystic bark to realms of glory"

"The compass drifts/on music rifts/Across the clear immortal river/'Neath summer skies of rainbow dyes/that lofty span the bright forever."

The two successive verses are similarly heady, and only once the chorus breaks into a four-part accompaniment between bass, alto, soprano, and tenor, do we truly get a breakthrough of the song's dreamy subject matter:

"Write, write, canny Planchette!/Set the truth echoes humming/Write, write, canny Planchette/angels coming, coming/angels coming."
The final selection again lightens things up in "Planchette: the Celebrated Comic Song," published in 1870 by Oliver Ditson & Co of Boston, with words and music by G.A. Meazie Jr, and, apparently, as popularized by the "Intimitable" Barnabee, the popular Boston-based opera singer. The song seemed to be popular and, on at least one occassion, a financial lifesaver for the singer, for of the song Barnabee wrote in his autobiography:

"When I sang my Planchette song--so named after the little pseudo-psychic machine, a fad of the hours, which was supposed to answer questions--I asked how much the members of the Barnabee Concert Company would be enabled to salt down in the real estate out of the proceeds of that evening's entertainment. The slim house roared with merriment, and made us feel that they heartily appreciated our trick of extracting pleasure out of adversity."

The song is quite entertaining, even today, giving a account of the romantic foibles of a group on a romantic mountain outing. With a chorus that shows that not only do modern pop stars like Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons resort to annoying-but-catchy nonsense song-words as stand-ins for actual meaningful verse, the song does catch the frontal lobe and hang there for a bit:

"Ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, Ka-boo, ka-boo-zle-bom/Ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, ka-boo, Ka-boo, ka-boo-zle-bom/She loves a foo, a foo, a foo/a foozle, foozle fum/It wrote it out very plainly/She loves a foozle fum."

Ya know?

The first verse sets up the uncomfortable circumstance of the sitters who gather around planchette in the fresh mountain air, and segues into the chorus with a spoken piece directed with a wink and a nod to the audience:

"We were up among the mountains/drinking in the country air
Riding, walking, laughing, talking/with not a sigh of care
We had use up ev'ry method:/plann'd to kill the time, my dear
When lo! There one day came to us Planchette, that toy so queer
They told us it would answer true/such questions as we asked it
O'erjoyed at having something new,/when evening came we tasked it
By lot I was the first to try/ the pow-ers of this wonder
I tried 'till ev'ry finger ached/and wished the thing to-- 

*spoken* Said I in my most pervasive tones: Will planchette be kind enough to inform the company present, when the good time coming may be expected? I assure you we were all very much astonished when Planchette wrote out quite plainly:" *chorus*

There are 3 more verses, each entertaining in their own right. In the second, a cockney English dandy character with the wholly improbable name of Fitz Augustus Romberg draws his "spotless kids off" to confidently work the device, only to stand their motionless for minute after minute, trying the patience of the assembled group until he finally asks about the weather, to which planchette replies with its nonsense "ka-boo, ka-boo, foozle-fum" chorus.

The 3rd and last verses concern a tense love affair between a spinster, Miss Galusha Spriggins and another sitter and her love interest whose-names-just-happens-to-comfortably-rhyme-with-her-own, "Old Squire Wiggins." Among them, however, is "a maiden  with wavy golden hair" who "looked so sweet and pert," on which both men of the table (the squire and the singer) have their eye: the "charming little flirt" and, if her transcribed accent is to be believed, the Russian "Zelia."

As the planchette finally begins to race across the table to the questions posed, in verse 2 by Galusha as she attempts to trap Old Squire Wiggins, first into romance, then into jealously revealing the crush by for whom he is rebuffing her advances. Wiggins takes control at that point, trying to hint to the beautiful Zelia that his affections are reserved for her, only for both to be rebuffed as Zelia herself reveals her true love to be:


That's right. She loves foozle-fum. They all do.That, and ka-boo ka-boo. That's all they can get planchette to write. The implication seems to be that the singer himself will be rewarded with the affections of dearest Zelia.

But all he gets is foozle-fum.

Which is better than I've ever done.   

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