|Yodeling Mountaineers: The Alpine Roots of the American Guitar|
Sparked by a wildly successful tour by a group called the Tyrolese Minstrels in 1839, a craze for Alpine music seized America. Dozens of German, Swiss, and Austrian singing groups crisscrossed the country during the 1840s. Dressed in native garb, these groups entertained audiences with a combination of singing, yodeling, and “Alpine harmony.” Nearly all used the guitar to accompany songs and dances, and occasionally as a solo instrument.
The vogue for Alpine music faded by the 1850s, but these singing groups left a lasting imprint on American music. Dozens of American groups were inspired by the European singers. One group, the Hutchinson Family, was phenomenally successful during the mid-nineteenth century, and was the model for succeeding generations of American singing groups. The Alpine groups helped to fuel a passion for close four-part harmony that eventually led to the barbershop quartets of the late nineteenth century and to the popular vocal groups of the twentieth. The Tyrolean yodel was an influence on the yodeling styles of twentieth century hillbilly singers such as Jimmie Rodgers.
Alpine singing groups also had a significant – though difficult to quantify – influence on the role of the guitar in American popular music. Broadly speaking, all subsequent singing groups using the guitar as the principal accompaniment instrument, including modern rock & roll and country bands, owe a debt to these European groups. Additionally, the role of the guitar in Alpine folk music foreshadowed the folk music identity the guitar would assume in the twentieth century, initially through its association with America’s own yodeling mountaineers, hillbilly string bands. Perhaps most importantly – though much more difficult to document and quantify – the lively, rhythmic style of Alpine guitar performance, which contrasted with the stiff and stilted accompaniment style typical of American parlor music, undoubtedly had an influence on American guitarists. Elements of the Alpine performance style likely became part of the diverse pool of musical building blocks that were combined and recombined in the new types of distinctively American music that took shape during the nineteenth century.
Minstrels of the Tyrol
Many of the singing groups that toured America were from, or claimed to be from, the Tyrol, an Alpine region in southern Austria and northern Italy. The Tyrolese were renowned for their musical talent – even the rough miners of the region “sing secular and sacred songs very sweetly and well at table and at dances.” The Tyrol also was an important region for musical instrument manufacturing. Violins made by members of the Tyrolean School of violin making, especially those built by Jakob Stainer (c.1617-1683), are ranked among the finest of all time. Many nineteenth century Tyrolese violin makers, such as Jakob Kaspar Schrott (1804-1843) and Josef Gschwenter (1838-1894), also built guitars.
Itinerant Tyrolean peddlers, who sang native songs to attract customers, sparked a interest in Tyrolean folk music throughout Europe in the early nineteenth century. Savvy businessmen/musicians from the Zillertal area of the Tyrol quickly figured out how to capitalize on this fascination with their region’s music: “the folk songs and yodels of the Tyrol could be turned into an export item of its own and into hard cash. ‘Tirol’ became a trademark in music, dance, literature and fashion far and wide.” Groups of Tyrolean singers and musicians, often family bands, took to the roads, performing throughout Europe for audiences at all social levels, including royalty. Initially these groups performed authentic folk songs from the Tyrol, but soon many were performing their own or others’ popular music compositions, often in four part harmony, in the “Tyrolean style.”
The most popular of the many family groups concertizing across continental Europe and England was the Rainer family, who often performed under the name the Tyrolese Minstrels. Zillerthal cattle merchant Josef Rainer saw first-hand the sensation caused by a group of Tyrolese singers while on a business trip to Leipzig, and excitedly wrote home to his brothers and sisters that there was money to be made in yodeling. The Rainers already were well known locally for their singing. Three brothers and a sister, Maria, Franz, Felix, Josef and Anton, started their first tour, through Bavaria and northern Germany to Sweden, in 1824. They stayed on the road almost constantly, becoming one of the most popular musical acts in continental Europe and England.
While Alpine singing groups, including perhaps some Rainer family members, had been touring the United States since 1831, it was a tour by the Tyrolese Minstrels, led by Maria Rainer’s son, Ludwig, which began in 1839 and ended in 1843, that set off a craze for Tyrolean music in America. Dozens of groups followed of varying quality, and some of dubious authenticity. One of the most popular groups was the Hauser Family, judged by some reviewers as superior to the Rainers. Almost all of the groups used the guitar, and often the zither, to accompany the singers and sometimes to perform solos.
The Call of the Wild
A rage for the guitar that began in Europe in the 1810s – la guitaromanie – swept America around 1830. La guitaromanie was a middle-brow, middle class phenomenon in America, but it was nonetheless a product of the same cultural tradition that encompassed the great operas, symphonies and concertos of Europe’s leading composers. The guitar craze that spread through Europe was sparked by performers and composers such as Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani who were part of what we now regard as the “classical” guitar tradition. European virtuosos such as A.T Huerta and Marco Aurelio Zani de Ferranti toured America to great acclaim, and the most popular American guitar soloists of the 1840s and 1850s such as Antonio Martinez and Dolores Nevares de Goni were European immigrants performing in the refined European style. Part of the appeal of the guitar to Americans in the 1830s and 1840s was its link to the cultivated musical heritage of Europe.
The Tyrolese Minstrels and other Alpine groups, on the other hand, had a different but equally appealing allure; they were seen as instinctive musicians – wild, natural and unfettered by “art.” They were considered folk singers, in today’s parlance. “Dressed in their native costumes, like ‘the green-capped, strong-limbed mountaineer,’ they sang several of their wild inimitable songs,” wrote a reviewer of a performance by the Tyrolese Minstrels. “Vocal performances of this kind … awaken by their own intrinsic simplicity and peculiarity, the most delightful and indescribable sensations; because they are genuine strains of feeling which breathe the language of nature.” 
The guitar was seen as well suited for accompanying this wild and natural style of singing. “Never to my recollection did I hear such clear and thrilling tones of the human voice, as while listening to the Tyrolese songsters, with the simple accompaniment of the Guitar,” wrote another reviewer. In essence, the guitar was a folk instrument in the hands of the Alpine musicians, foreshadowing the guitar’s identification with folk music in the twentieth century.
American Singing Groups
Dozens – perhaps even hundreds – of American groups were formed in imitation of the Bavarian, Swiss and Austrian singers that flooded entertainment venues in the late 1830s and 1840s. One such group was the Aeolian Vocalists, who, as the Hutchinson Family, would become the most popular singing group in antebellum America. While initially inspired by Alpine singers, the Hutchinsons, seemingly by equal parts wile and naiveté, pioneered a distinctly American style of song and performance. A friend, Albany New York music retailer Luke Newland, suggested the group change its name from the Aeolian Vocalists to the Hutchinson Family and emphasize their American-ness in their attire and selection of music. It proved to be an enormously successful formula. The group very quickly became one of the most popular acts in America, spawning countless imitators.
“We sought to have Abby use a guitar, and she did to some extent,” wrote John Hutchinson in his history of the Hutchinson Family. The group’s guitarist, Abby, was not a confident performer and had to be coaxed into playing. As a result, unlike the Tyrolean groups that were their inspiration, the Hutchinsons used the guitar only sparingly in their performances. For many of the vocal groups that followed in their footsteps, the instrument had a more central role. Sometimes the guitar was the principal instrument for accompanying singers, but often it was a part of an ensemble or was rotated with other instruments to provide color and variety. The Gibson Family, for example, used the guitar along with violin, cello and harp.
American music publishers seized on the Tyrolean music craze, publishing dozens of songs by the Rainers, the Hausers and other authentic groups, as well as songs written by American songwriters in the Tyrolean style. Often these songs were published with guitar accompaniments, though it is unlikely that the simplified accompaniments typical of American sheet music reflected the actual performance styles of Tyrolean musicians. Unfortunately, reviewers only rarely commented on the guitar playing. An account of a concert by a group identified only as the “Tyrolese vocalists” was highly complementary of the guitarist’s skill as an accompanist: “the light tones of the guitar are managed with such taste, adroitness and skill, as to help the voice in all the most difficult passages, but never to impair its effect.” A review of a concert by one of the groups performing as the “Tyrolese Minstrels” that toured America in the early 1830s singled out the guitarist’s solo performance: “F. Schnessf’s performance on Guitar alone is worth the money we pay for the whole Concert. If Harp and Violin were to be made one instrument, we doubt whether sweeter sounds could be drawn from it than the young Tyrolian [sic] calls forth from his little Guitar.”
Professional Tyrolean musicians typically were not rustic shepherds or cow herders, as was often assumed by their audiences. Many had middle class backgrounds, and probably some musical education. Professional Tyrolean guitarists may not have been unschooled folk musicians, but they did draw deeply from an authentic folk guitar tradition of the region. In the southern portion of the Tyrol, in the area of modern Italy known as the Trentino, the guitar was used as early as in the seventeenth century in rural dance bands. It gained popularity among folk musicians throughout much of the rest of the Tyrol in the nineteenth century. A Stubenmusik ensemble (traditional Alpine folk ensemble) might be comprised of a dulcimer, zither, harp, guitar and string bass.
Undoubtedly the invasion of Tyrolean groups in the 1840s gave Americans a more expansive view of the guitar, presenting alternatives to the refined European tradition and the American parlor music style. We don’t know precisely what the Tyrolese guitarists of the 1840s played, or how they played it, but based on later performances of regional musicians, it is likely that played in a vivacious, rhythmic style. Additionally, the guitar was the instrument that anchored the touring Tyrolean groups. Earlier European and American singers typically used the guitar as an occasional alternative to the piano. Exposure to the Tyrolean singing groups may have reinforced the idea that the guitar was a fully adequate – and, in fact, a highly desirable – choice of an instrument for that role.
One avenue through which Tyrolean guitar styles may have influenced American guitar performance practices was the minstrel show. Alpine groups were obvious targets of parody by minstrel comedians – in fact the name of the first minstrel troupe, the Virginia Minstrels, apparently was a parody of the then enormously popular Tyrolese Minstrels. It seems highly likely that American minstrel guitarists imitated the Alpine style of playing, and either consciously or unconsciously incorporated the lessons learned in other aspects of their performances in this new, distinctively American type of music and theatre.
Much of the history of American popular music will forever remain shrouded in the mist of history because we will never hear it. A great deal of the most significant popular music of the nineteenth century was performed music rather than composed music. Musicians would “catch” songs and dance tunes (i.e. learn by example or play by ear), and would extemporize accompaniments to songs based on a repertoire of standard techniques and performance practices. Since these performances were never recorded, at best we have occasional and wholly inadequate written descriptions. We have no way to reconstruct what actually was played or the how styles evolved over time. Undoubtedly American guitarists who heard the Tyrolean groups perform picked up bits and pieces of the Tyrolean style and incorporated them into their own performances, modifying them to fit the needs of evolving American forms of music. It is not a stretch to assume that the guitar styles of these enormously popular groups became a part of – and perhaps a significant part of – the genetic material of nineteenth century American music, constantly mutated and recombined with other musical genes in the evolution of distinctively American styles of music and guitar performance.
Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford
 While the 1839 tour of the Tyrolese Minstrels, led by Ludwig Rainer, is often seen as the catalyst for the Tyrolean music craze in America, this was not the first visit to America by a Tyrolean group. A group called the Tyrolese Minstrels toured the country in 1831. Another group called the Tyrolese Minstrels, which may have been comprised of Rainer family members, toured in 1834, followed by the German Minstrels (1837) and the Tyrolese Alpine Singers (1837).
 The Tyrol is a region of southern Austria and northern Italy. Seemingly, many of the musicians touring America in the 1840s were from other regions of Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and were capitalizing on the popularity of the original groups from the Tyrol.
 Hippolyt Guarinoni, Die Grewel der Verwüstung Menschlichen Geschlechts, Ingolstadt 1610, p. 189. Quoted in Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider, "Music and Dance of the Trader and Craftsmen Class," The Music in the Tyrol, http://www.musikland-tirol.at/english/musikgeschichten/musikintirol/musikderbuerger/music-and-dance.html
 Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider, "National or Popular Singers," The Music in the Tyrol, http://www.musikland-tirol.at/english/musikgeschichten/musikintirol/volksmusik/national-or-popular-singers.html
 William Denison McCrackan, This Fair Land Tyrol (Boston: L.C. page & Company, 1905) p. 81
 The term “folk song” is from the German Volkslied, and apparently was coined by Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century. The concept of folk music was appreciated by Americans during the antebellum era, though the term “folk music” seemingly was not commonly used.
 Germanicus, “The Appearance of the Tyrolese Minstrels, in Mr. Norton’s Farewell Concert at Castle Garden Saloon,” The Euterpeiad, Vol. 2, No. 11, Oct. 1, 1831, p. 124
 “The ‘Soiree Musicale,” New Hampshire Gazette, Vol. LXXIX, Issue 26, May 27, 1834, p.3
 John Wallace Hutchinson, Story of the Hutchinsons (Tribe of Jesse), , quoted in Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, New York: W. W. Norton, 1979, p.144
 “The ‘Soiree Musicale,” New Hampshire Gazette, Vol. LXXIX, Issue 26, May 27, 1834, pp. 3-4
 “Communication,” The Southern Patriot, vol. XXVII, issue 4398, February 17, 1832, p. 2
 Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider, "Instrumental Folk Music," The Music in the Tyrol, http://www.musikland-tirol.at/english/musikgeschichten/musikintirol/volksmusik/instrumental-folk-music.html
 Despite the example of the Tyrolean groups, Americans were slow to adopt the guitar as the principal accompanying instrument for singing groups. Most of the mid-century American singing groups used the guitar, but as one of several instruments. The harp or the melodeon could serve in a similar chord-playing role.