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Volume 7360

The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs
Part 3
by Alan Hanson

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The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

Part 3
Part 1  and Part 2 of“The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs” dealt with music in the author’s private life. Now it’s time to see how ERB wove musical elements into his fiction. 

This is the final segment in a three-part survey of “The Musical Edgar Rice Burroughs.” Part 1 looked at the role music played in Burroughs’ personal life. Part 2 dealt with how he worked music into his Tarzan and Western books. 
Part 3 covers musical references found in ERB’s Martian, Venus, and Pellucidar books, as well as some of his independent novels.

Music on Mars
Like their human cousins on earth, the red race of Barsoom appreciated the beauty of music and made it and integral part of their civilization. They also understood music’s emotional power to soothe or annoy individuals and groups of people. The actual sound of music on John Carter’s Mars, however, differed greatly from that on his home world. Rock ’n’ roll could never have taken root on Barsoom, as narrator Vor Daj explained in Synthetic Men of Mars

Mars is a world of vast silences where even voiced creatures are muted as though by the consciousness of impending death, for Mars is a dying world. We abhor noise; and so our voices, like our music, are soft and low … John Carter has told me of the din of Earthly cities and of the brasses and the drums and the cymbals of Earthly music, of the constant, senseless chatter of millions of voices saying nothing. I believe that such as these would drive Martians insane.

The subdued music of Barsoom, however, was just as important to their society as loud music is to Earth’s. In A Fighting Man of Mars, Burroughs explained, “Notwithstanding all the grim realities with which they have to contend, the red Martians are a happy, social people. They have their games, their dances and their songs, and the social life of a great capital of Barsoom is as gay and magnificent as any that may be found in the rich capitals of Earth.” During his visit to Zodanga in Swords of Mars, John Carter took note of the “laughter and song and occasional brawling — the sounds of the night life of a great Martian city.

In fact, in the cities of Barsoom’s red race, music was the first sound nearly every citizen heard during the day. It was the Martian alarm clock, as the following description of the early morning hours in Lesser Helium explains. “Strains of inspiring music broke agreeably from open windows, for Martians have solved the problem of attuning nerves pleasantly to the sudden transition from sleep to waking that proves so difficult a thing for most Earth folk.

Among social circles in Martian cities, the ability to dance is fundamental. Especially vital is mastering the Dance of Barsoom. Burroughs detailed the importance of that dance as follows in The Chessmen of Mars:

The Dance of Barsoom bears a relation similar to the more formal dancing functions of Mars that The Grand March does to ours, though it is infinitely more intricate and more beautiful. Before a Martian youth of either sex may attend an important social function where there is dancing, he must have become proficient in at least three dances — The Dance of Barsoom, his national dance, and the dance of his city. In these three dances the dancers furnish their own music, which never varies; nor do the steps or figures vary, having been handed down from time immemorial. All Barsoomian dances are stately and beautiful, but The Dance of Barsoom is a wondrous epic of motion and harmony — there is no grotesque posturing, no vulgar or suggestive movements. It has been described as the interpretation of the highest ideals of a world that aspired to grace and beauty and chastity in woman, and strength and dignity and loyalty in man.

In providing details of the dance, Burroughs gave a rare description of a Martian musical instrument. After a bugle sound alerted guests in John Carter’s palace to the coming dance, slaves wandered about distributing a small, single-stringed instrument to the dancers. Strapped to the forearm of the dancer, the instrument had a string of gut that was played by a ring worn on the index finger of the dancer’s right hand. 

John Carter and Dejah Thoris led the dancing couples that evening, but Gahan of Gathol provided the fireworks. After the dance ended, he stared into his partner’s eyes and said, “Tara of Helium, I love you!” The princess was perturbed, of course, and that set the stage for the events that followed in The Chessmen of Mars.

In that story’s events, music played an important role, making The Chessmen of Mars the most musical of ERB’s books. While in captivity among the Kaldanes, the mobile heads of Bantoom, Tara sang a “gay little tune that was then popular in Helium.” Ghek, her jailer, found the sound pleasing and asked her how she did it. “It is difficult to explain,” she told him, “since any explanation of it presupposes some knowledge of melody and of music, while your very question indicates that you have no knowledge of either.” When Ghek kept asking her to sing, Tara realized that “somewhere in that enormous brain there was a chord that was touched by melody.” 

Ghek explained the effect of Tara’s music on him as follows: “I cannot laugh nor smile, and yet within me is a sense of contentment when this woman sings — a sense that seems to open before me wondrous vistas of beauty and unguessed pleasure that far transcend the cold joys of a perfectly functioning brain.

Tara used her singing to make Ghek protect her from being killed and eaten by the other Kaldanes. Later, at the moment of crisis, Tara was able to save both herself and Gahan of Gathol by raising her eyes aloft and singing “the notes of Mars’ most beautiful melody, The Song of Love.” That distracted Luud, the Kaldane king, long enough for Ghek to kill him.

The Martians had their martial music, as well, but even that was subdued compared to earthly military anthems. Later a captive again, this time in the city of Manator, Tara of Helium stood at a window meditating, when she heard the sound of martial music in the city below — “the deep, mellow tones of the long war trumpets of mounted troops, the clear, ringing notes of foot-soldiers’ music. The girl raised her head and looked about … Now she could see across roofs and avenues to The Gate of Enemies, through which troops were marching into the city.

Tara of Helium came from a family of musical women. Her mother, Dejah Thoris, supported her husband with song while he fought for her in the throne room of Okar near the end of The Warlord of Mars. “From behind my shoulder,” John Carter later recalled, “in the silvery cadence of that dear voice, rose the brave battle anthem of Helium which the nation’s women sing as their men march out to victory.” Tara’s sister-in-law, Thuvia, had a uniquely musical tone to her voice, which she used to control banths, the lions of Barsoom. She called the banths to her with a sound that ERB described as a “low, singsong voice that was half purr.

Another Heliumite, Vor Daj, was also a captive, this time in Amhor in Synthetic Men of Mars, when he heard music floating through the city, though for a very different purpose than that heard by Tara in Manator. He was “awakened by the beating of drums and the mournful notes of wind instruments producing music that sounded very much like a dirge.” A dirge it was. It was music that informed the citizens that a member of their royal family had died.

When Ulysses Paxton was spirited away to Mars from a World War I battlefield, he brought with him his earthly habit of crooning to himself. At one point in The Mastermind of Mars, Paxton, then known by his Martian name of Vad Varo in the house of Ras Thavas, recalled walking toward his quarters, “moving in a leisurely and unconcerned manner and humming, as was my wont … snatches from some song that had been popular at the time that I quit Earth. In this instance it was ‘Oh, Frenchy.’” Later, he is heard humming a few bars of another Earthly song, “Over There.”

Music in Pellucidar
Musically, Pellucidar was a place much like Tarzan’s Africa. In a world where men were killed for simply being strangers, it was not wise for a man to walk around with a song on his lips. As to be expected, then, there are not many musical references to be found in Burroughs’ Pellucidar books. However, the few to be found there are interesting ones.

We don’t know if Abner Perry did any singing during his long stay in Pellucidar, but we do know that he sang during the journey to get there with David Innes. As the prospector ploughed through the earth in At the Earth’s Core, Perry’s emotions varied as the prospects for the journey’s success fluctuated. During one stage, his optimism exhibited itself in song. “Perry was becoming more hopeful,” David observed. “From cursing he had turned to singing — I felt the strain had at last affected his mind.” Of course, as Perry’s optimism died, so did the song on his lips, as Innes noted. “At four hundred miles the temperature reached 152 degrees. Feverishly I watched the thermometer. Slowly it rose. Perry had ceased singing and was at last praying.

When Innes and Perry arrived in the inner world, the Mahars were the most advanced race. Their appreciation of music was one of the things that set them above Pellucidar’s primitive human race. However, their melodies were most unusual — they were music without sound. David Innes described a Mahar concert as follows:

The Mahars cannot hear, so the drums and fifes and horns of earthly bands are unknown among them. The ‘band’ consists of a score or more Mahars. It filed out in the center of the arena where the creatures upon the rocks might see it, and there it performed for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Their technic consisted in waving their tails and moving their heads in a regular succession of measured movements resulting in a cadence which evidently pleased the eye of the Mahar as the cadence of our own instrumental music pleases our ears. Sometimes the band took measured steps in unison to one side or the other, or backwards and again forward — it all seemed very silly and meaningless to me, but at the end of the first piece the Mahars upon the rocks showed the first indications of enthusiasm that I had seen displayed by the dominant race of Pellucidar. They beat their great wings up and down, and smote their rocky perches with their mighty tails until the ground shook. Then the band started another piece, and all was again as silent as the grave. That was one great beauty about Mahar music — if you didn’t happen to like a piece that was being played all you had to do was shut your eyes.

The only native humans we get to hear singing in Pellucidar are women — Stellara in Tanar of Pellucidar and La-ja in Back to the Stone Age. During a peaceful period that they shared together, Stellara sang for Tanar. She sang songs that her mother had taught her on the island of Amiocap. La-ja, whose relationship with Von Horst was stormy most of the time, sang for quite a different reason. “You’ll obey me or I’ll punch your heard,” an angry Von Horst once told her. La-ja was happy that her man had finally gotten aggressive with her. As she walked away, “On her lips was a strange little melody, such perhaps as women of the outer crust hummed to the singing stars when the world was young.” There are a couple of dozen other such scenes scattered throughout ERB’s works that have characters revealing a state of happiness by humming or singing to themselves as La-ja did.

Music on Venus
There are a number of musical references in Burroughs’ Venus books, as well. Two of them occur during Carson Napier’s days as a buccaneer on the high seas of Amtor in Pirates of Venus. One member of the ship’s crew served as a musical timekeeper. “On shipboard, the hours are sounded by a trumpeter, there being a distinguishing bar of music for each hour of the day,” according to Napier’s narration.

There was another musical sailor on board. Zog was a fellow conspirator in Carson’s plot to take over the Thorist ship on which they were prisoners. The morning of the planned mutiny, “No one would have thought that Zog was planning to attack the soldier lolling near him … He was humming a tune, as he polished the barrel of the big gun on which he was working.

Also in Pirates of Venus, the birdmen of Amtor make an appearance. They are portrayed as a near human race made to serve human masters. ERB referred to the klangan’s musical nature while comparing them to a segment of earth’s population who had suffered similar subjugation. “The klangan talked a great deal among themselves, shouting to one another and laughing and singing, seemingly well satisfied with themselves,” wrote Burroughs. “Their voices were soft and mellow, and their songs were vaguely reminiscent of Negro spirituals which may have been enhanced by the color of their skins, which were very dark.

In Carson of Venus, Napier used his singing talents to locate Mintep, Duare’s father, who was being held in a Zani prison in the city of Amlot. Working undercover, Carson had obtained a commission as a Zani officer assigned to the prison. To find Mintep without throwing suspicion on himself, Carson came up with a musical plan, which he outlined as follows:

With difficulty, I wrote some very bad verse in Amtorian, which I sang to a tune that had been popular in America when I left the Earth. In two of the verses was the message I wished to use to elicit a sign from Mintep that he was a prisoner there, and thus to locate his cell. To allay suspicion, I formed the habit of singing my song as I went about my daily duties … the fact that I was almost constantly humming or singing my foolish song was, I felt, evidence that there was nothing irregular or surreptitious about my activities.

The lyrics Carson sang mentioned Duare, and sure enough, Mintep heard and identified himself. Carson later helped Duare’s father escape from the prison and the city of Amlot.

Carson himself was deceived by music when he and Duare landed their anotar in the city of Voo-ad, as recounted in Escape on Venus. As their ship came to a stop in the strange city, they were surprised to see a friendly crowd surround the craft. “They danced around the anotar, singing and laughing,” recalled Carson. “The songs they sang were songs of welcome. Such a reception of strangers in an Amtorian city was without parallel in my experience.

Of course, the reception was too good to be true. The singing and dancing were just deceptions used by the people of Voo-ad to fool strangers. Before long Carson found himself paralyzed, an exhibit hanging on a museum wall for people to gawk at. Later, he freed himself and his fellow captives, who then in revenge set fire to the city. Seeing Voo-ad in flames as he flew away in the anotar, Napier’s companion Ero Shan remarked, “They will welcome no more visitors with flowers and song.

Other ERB Musical Moments
Scattered throughout ERB’s independent works are a number of musical episodes. In The Cave Girl, Burroughs made a cultural connection between music and evolving primitive peoples of whom he often wrote. When Thandar (formerly Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones) led his tribe of cave men to victory over the “Bad Men,” it was cause for celebration. For the tribe Thandar created a dance, which was not only a victory dance but also was meant to signify the move forward on the evolutionary scale they had taken. “He knew little more of savage dances than his tribesmen did of the two-step and the waltz,” wrote Burroughs, “but he knew that dancing and song and play marked in themselves a great step upward in the evolution of man from the lower orders, and so he meant to teach these things to his people.

Thander’s improvised dance, which consisted of alternating primitive leaps and bounds with formal waltz steps, stirred dormant instincts in Nadara, who was the daughter of marooned civilized parents. “With it came an insistent urge — her feet could scarce remain quietly upon the ground, and great waves of melody and song welled into her heart and throat, though what they were and what they meant she did not know.” Thandar saw in the girl’s musical outburst proof of her cultured birthright, and that was confirmed when she, “lifted her voice in clear and bird-like notes — a worldless paean of love and life and happiness.”

Burroughs probably had his own daughter in mind while writing Marcia of the Doorstep in 1924. Joan had taken voice and dance training in her teenage years and was pursuing what turned out to be a short drama career in the early 1920s. In Marcia the struggling parents of the title character are determined that their teenage daughter continue her vocal training. “It would have been a calamity,” the girl’s vocal coach declared, “had aught arisen to prevent the culture of your so beautiful voice. One day when I am an old man it will be my greatest pride to be pointed out as he who developed the voice of the great diva, Marcia Aurelia Sackett!

Marcia’s God-given musical talent was fully developed by the end of the story. During a performance, with a famous motion picture director in the audience, “sweet and clear, her voice rose in the ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust and to the last note the audience sat silent, entranced. A burst of applause manifestly inspired by real appreciation filled the saloon, rising and falling, until Marcia indicated that she would sing an encore. She had chosen Gottschalk’s ‘The Girl I Loved’ in the event that she were called upon for a second song and this too was well received.” It was the kind of performance and audience response that Burroughs could have wished for his own daughter.

If it is only supposition that Burroughs wrote Marcia of the Doorstep with his daughter in mind, there is absolutely no doubt that he did so when he penned the play You Lucky Girl! in 1927. ERB gave Joan a manuscript copy of the play and asked her to give it to the director of the theatrical company of which Joan was a member at the time. Obviously, Burroughs hoped the play would be produced with his daughter in the lead role of Corrie West.

In the play, a theatrical producer overhears Corrie singing in the small town home of a friend. “Bravo! Bravo!” he reacts. “You have a glorious voice, Miss West. It has been excellently trained … That voice should not be wasted … It is not only beautiful, but it is particularly well adapted to light opera.” Corrie is spirited away to Chicago, not to return to her hometown for three years. By then she had become the “most popular and highest paid light opera star in America.” Again, it’s easy to imagine Burroughs dreaming of such success for his own daughter.

The Girl From Hollywood is another Burroughs story that has a connection to the author’s real life. ERB publicly stated that Rancho del Ganado, the setting for most of the story’s action, was based on his own Tarzana Ranch. Perhaps, then, the following description from the book of a musical social gathering in the ranch house is based loosely on similar get-togethers in the Burroughs house on the hill in Tarzana.

The conversation drifted to other topics until the party at the piano broke up and Eva came dancing over to her father. ‘Gorgeous popsy!’ she cried, seizing him by an arm. ‘Just one dance before bedtime — if you love me, just one!’ Colonel Pennington rose from his chair, laughing. ‘I know your one dance, you little fraud — five fox-trots, three one-steps, and a waltz.’ With arms about each other they started for the ballroom — really a big play room, which adjoined the garage. Behind them, laughing and talking, came the two older women, the two sons, and Grace Evans. They would dance for an hour and then go to bed.

Finally, from time to time Burroughs chose to use in his stories the titles of real world tunes with which he was familiar. As noted above, he had Ulysses Paxton sing parts of “O, Frenchy” and “Over There” in The Mastermind of Mars, and Marcia Sackett sang “Jewel Song” and “The Girl I Loved” in Marcia of the Doorstep.  In part two of this series, we heard that Meriem often sang “God Save the Queen” in the Greystoke bungalow in Africa.

There are several other isolated references to real world melodies elsewhere in ERB’s stories. In The Man-eater, Dick Gordon hums, “It’s nice to get up in the morning,” while happily trudging along a jungle trail. Then, in the final part of The Land That Time Forgot, Brady, an Irish-American sailor, hums “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in an effort to lift the spirits of his companions. Finally, in part two of The Moon Maid, Julian 9th and his fellow conquered Americans meet infrequently in a secret church to honor the Flag and sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.

There are literally hundreds of musical references in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, most of which have not been mentioned in this three-part series. As a body, these musical moments in his fiction reveal two things about the author. First, he appreciated music in its many forms and recognized its contribution to the beauty of human life. Second, he saw music as an important cultural element, the use and beauty of which marked a society’s level of civilization and sophistication. In that respect, the reader gets the feeling that in creating the musical heritage of the Martian people, Burroughs was expressing a little disappointment with that found on his own planet.

The End


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Synthetic Men of Mars
A Fighting Man of Mars
Swords of Mars
The Chessmen of Mars
The Warlord of Mars
The Mastermind of Mars

At the Earth’s Core
Tanar of Pellucidar
Back to the Stone Age

Pirates of Venus
Carson of Venus

The Cave Girl
Marcia of the Doorstep
You Lucky Girl!
The Girl From Hollywood
The Man-eater
The Land That Time Forgot
The Moon Maid

ERB In Song and Verse


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