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Volume 7358

Part I
by Alan Hanson

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The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs
Part I
by Alan Hanson

Part 1
It began, as it always does, with a simple passage in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story. This time it was Pirates of Venus. “No one would have thought,” the passage began, “that Zog was planning to attack the soldier lolling near him, nor have imagined that the night before he had murdered a man. He was humming a tune, as he polished the barrel of the big gun on which he was working.” I stopped reading for a moment. It was the phrase, “humming a tune,” that caught my eye. I wondered why Burroughs chose to use that musical reference in that situation. And then two, much bigger, questions came to mind. "How musical was ERB in his private life?" and "How did music play a role in his fiction?" Three years and 26 pages of typewritten notes later, I was ready to take a shot at answering those questions.

The first order of business was to summarize what is known about the role of music in the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs. All we have to go on are essays, articles, and letters that ERB wrote during his lifetime, plus what his biographer had to say on the topic.

One of Burroughs’ earliest known musical experiences occurred at the age of sixteen, when he arrived at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts with a guitar as part of his baggage. Biographer Irwin Porges reports that the mere possession of the guitar got the young ERB an invitation to join the school’s Mandolin Club. In later years, Burroughs recalled, “I agreed with alacrity, although I cannot conceive that I could have done so without misgivings, inasmuch as I had never played a guitar, am totally devoid of any sense of music and did not know one note from another.” He was elected to the academy glee club, as well. “They must have been embarrassed,” he later judged, “when they discovered I could not play my guitar. Anyhow, my engagement with the glee club was brief.

Music in the Burroughs Home
After those disappointing education years, and after the subsequent frustrating years of trying to find his way in the world, ERB’s writing career finally blossomed in Chicago after the publication of Tarzan of the Apes in 1914. He was able to move his family into a nice house in Oak Park. Porges explains that, although ERB himself was unmusical, music was an important part of family life in the house on Augusta Street.
While Ed often made joking references to his voice, his inability to carry a tune, and freely admitted that his musical tastes were limited — he liked only marches, martial music, and hymns, claiming they were the only kind of music he understood — he nevertheless regretted his lack of musical experience. As a result, he was pleased to have music become an important activity in his home. Emma, who had studied voice in the hope of becoming an operatic singer, entertained the family and friends. They encouraged all the children to take piano or singing lessons.” 
While living in Oak Park, Burroughs wrote a pamphlet entitled, “An Auto-Biography,” in which he detailed a family automobile road trip in the summer of 1916. In it he described how music combined with the closeness of his family to produce what he called “the best hours of my life.
Every night when we went into camp … Joan or Hulbert would get out the phonograph and the records, and with little Jack playing close beside me I would stand there resting and cooling off while I listened to the music the children loved best. The pieces were seldom classical; but we all learned to love them, and I shall never again hear ‘Are You From Dixie?’ ‘Do What Your Mother Did;’ ‘Hello, Hawaii, How Are You?’ or half a dozen others without there rising before me a picture of some quiet and shady grove, a large green and white striped tent, and three little children and an Airedale pup romping under everyone’s feet.”
After moving his family to Southern California in 1919, Burroughs supported whatever interests his children developed. When his daughter Joan showed an interest in singing during her teen years, ERB arranged for her to get some training. Joan took voice lessons from Yeatman Griffith, one of the 15 charter members of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, formed in 1922. Joan also received instruction in dance, prompting her father to conclude, “If Joan is fitted for success in any sort of stage work it is along the musical comedy line.” Her parents supported their daughter during her short professional stage career in the early 1920s.

Letters to Joan
Little is known about the role of music in ERB’s life for the next two decades. We must jump forward, therefore, to the early 1940s, when Burroughs was living in Hawaii. From there he kept up a regular correspondence with Joan in California. At times in those letters, the aging Burroughs revealed his feelings about music. In a June 1940 letter to Joan, he wrote, “Hope you can make Mike [his grandson] stick to the piano until he is sufficiently proficient to give pleasure to himself and others all the rest of his life. I have always regretted that I could not play the piano. My fingers are too damn big — one of them would slop over three keys. Otherwise, I am quite musical.”

In a series of letters to Joan in January 1941, ERB found himself often referring to musical subjects. In his first letter after the new year, he congratulated his daughter for getting occasional “picture work,” then added, “I think I shall take up singing; I may need a job pretty soon.” Of course, that remark was part of the comical streak that he often infused in his letters to Joan during this period.

In a follow up letter to her father, Joan made reference to her brother Hulbert’s singing lessons. In his response, ERB expressed his hope that “Hulbert would do something with his singing. The first thing he knows he’ll have a long, white beard and have to be pushed onto the stage in a wheel chair, and I understand that there have been very few successes under such circumstances. There would always be the danger that, when he took a high note, his upper plate would fall out and get lost in his beard.”

In her next letter, Joan informed her father that Hulbert had lined up a singing engagement. In a letter dated January 27, 1941, ERB responded, “Glad you told me about Hully: he never would have. I wish he were not so modest. Please let me know how the appearance turned out. I hope he got an ovation and that the audience was full of grand opera scouts — Hully loves grand opera so! Just like his father.

By October 1941, Hulbert was living in Hawaii with his father. In a letter to Joan at the end of the month, ERB denied both that he was musical and that he enjoyed grand opera. As for the racial slur in the following passage, keep in mind that we are peeking at a personal correspondence that was never meant for our eyes. Still, the whole anecdote makes me laugh, and I couldn’t bear to leave it out or edit it in any way.

Last night we took up Grand Opera. Hulbert said that I was a ‘musical moron.’ It is the first time I was ever accused of being musical. Some plain, every day, garden variety of moron had his radio turned on full blast at the ungodly hour of 7 P.M., after I had gone to sleep. Some fat, greasy Dago was shrieking at the top of his voice for an hour. Hulbert said it was beautiful, and compared me with the hillbillies of the mountains of Kentucky because I agreed with Schopenhauer that “the amount of noise a man can endure is in inverse ratio to his intelligence.” Hulbert got out of bed and came in my room and insulted me for hours. Then he turned on the radio when the wrestling matches came on, thereby proving that he possesses the highly emotional temperament which appreciates the finer things in life — including shrieking Dagoes.

“Good Night, Sweet Civilzation”
In his Laugh It Off! column in Hawaii Magazine in the summer of 1945, Burroughs, as he neared his seventieth birthday, wrote the following assessment of “modern music.” His conclusion that music was ‘the lowest form of art’ is an example of the streak of cynicism that invaded his thoughts at times during his old age. He also seems to have predicted the coming of rock ’n’ roll a decade later.
NOISE: That is what much modern music connotes for many of us. On the wall of my study at home was a quotation from Schopenhauer: A man’s ability to endure noise is in inverse ratio to his intelligence.

Substitute modern music for the word noise and the quotation is brought up to date. Contact with the peoples of primitive races leads me to suspect that music is the lowest form of art. The first ‘musicians’ formed a ring, jumped up and down and howled. Later, they added drums. This was a triumph, as a strong man could make a hell of a lot of noise on a big drum.

As civilization advanced, melody, harmony, and rhythm replaced noise for the sake of noise, and things looked pretty good for civilization. There were even those who thought that civilization had come to stay. But now look at the damned thing. It is on the skids, as evidenced by the millions who appear to enjoy the modern dance band and the juke box. The final step will be the ring of ‘musicians’ jumping up and down and howling."

“Good night, sweet civilization!”

In the end it must be admitted that we know precious little about how important a role music played in the life of Edgar Rice Burroughs. We know he never learned to play a musical instrument well, and he admittedly was a poor singer. Still, he wished he could have been more musical, and encouraged his children, Joan and Hulbert, and his grandchild, Mike, in their musical efforts. Late in life he voiced contempt for “modern music,” but then popular music constantly changes and eventually leaves all of us behind and longing for the “good ’ol days.”

In 1932 Burroughs wrote a spurious autobiographical essay for Script magazine. He ended the article with the following observation. “I have tasted fame — it is nothing. I find my greatest happiness in being alone with my violin.” Doubtless, the statement has no more significance beyond a romantic way of ending a humorous article. Still, one wonders if there is an underlying tinge of real regret in it. Did the author, who never fully felt accepted for his craft, have a secret desire that he had found his life’s work in music rather than writing imaginative fiction? I, for one, am glad that he didn’t.

In Part 2 we’ll take a look at the role music played in the author’s fiction. We’ll see how ERB worked music into his Tarzan series, and also at the unique musical traditions of his other worlds, such as Barsoom and Pellucidar. We’ll also see how Burroughs wove an element of song into his romantic vision of the American West in his Western novels. Then there’s Marcia Sackett, a character obviously based on the author’s daughter, Joan. All that, and much more, will be revealed in Part 2 of “The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

— to be continued —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan of the Apes
Pirates of Venus

ERB Letters and Articles Featured in ERBzine
An Auto-Biography

(Violin Reference)
An autobiographical Sketch by ERB
Rob Wagner's SCRIPT :: July 9, 1932

(Guitar and Glee Club Reference)
The Literary Digest - November 30, 1929

(Musical References)

From the McWhorter ERB Memorial Collection ~ U of Louisville

Hawaii Magazine ~ July-August 1945

A Gallery of Tarzan Appearances on Records

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Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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