By 1853, Robert “Father” Kemp had been a cook on a fishing boat; entered into a shoe and boot business in Boston; purchased a home in Reading; and pursued, somewhat unsuccessfully, “fancy farming.” He had done all of this by the time he was 32 or 33 years old. During the next twelve years of Kemp’s life, he was the conductor of the Old Folks’ Concerts. These concerts began in his home at 186 Summer Avenue in Reading, MA, and eventually, “obtained a world-wide reputation.”
The quoted words in this article, unless otherwise noted, are Kemp’s own words, telling his story, from his 1868 autobiography, Father Kemp and His Old Folks: A History of the Old Folks’ Concerts. “One evening I invited a few young people (singers) to my residence, to pass an evening in repeating some of the popular songs of the day, with which we were all familiar. The first experiment was so successful that many evenings were passed in like manner. The voices blended well together, and . . . the good sentiment and pleasant associations made all feel that the time was well spent.”
As the singers met, the repertoire of the singers grew. “It then occurred to me to revive old memories by singing some of the tunes which strengthened the religious faith of our grandfathers and grandmothers, and had often been the medium through which our sturdy and pious ancestors had lifted their hearts in thankfulness to their Maker, for planting their home in the land of liberty. Accordingly the ‘country round about’ was thoroughly scoured, and every old singing-book which could be procured was brought to my house on the next evening of the ‘sing.’ An odd collection they were, many of them being entire strangers to the present generation. Prominent among them was the noted Billings and Holden Collection, the others being made up of singing-books of more modern date, which contained old tunes. By paging the principal pieces in the different books, we soon had them readily at our command.”
The last fifty-eight pages of Kemp’s autobiography contain the lyrics of “Sacred and Secular Pieces” which were “Sung by Father Kemp’s Old Folks.” No musical scores accompany these words. A few of the songs give attribution to the composers and lyricists (J. P. Knight, Paul Henrion, J. Schondorf, G. Bristow, M. S. Pike, King, H. Greene, and others); most do not. The first of the two subsections, “Sacred Selections,” includes fifty lyrics of which twenty-nine are but a single stanza. While some of these are recognizable as Biblical references and wordings, others are less well-known: “Milford,” “Lynnfield,” “Topsfield,” and “Buckfield” to name a few.
The second of the two subsections, “Secular Selections,” has forty-three lyrics; the first is titled “Yankee’s Return From Camp” and has the refrain “Yankee doodle, keep it up, / Yankee doodle dandy,”; these songs contain many more stanzas than those in the Sacred Selection and are better known, including “Comin’ Through The Rye” and “Song of the Old Folks,” which begins with “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, /and never brought to mind”; however, the stanzas may contain lines which probably had been modified especially for this performance group. In addition to lyrics better known in other countries, “Noble England!” and “God Save the Queen,” several are American patriotic songs, such as the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail, Columbia!” Others are narratives of specific people and places: “Plymouth Rock,” “Kidd’s Lament,” “The Cold-Water Man,” “Gypsy Jane,” and “The Female Auctioneer.”
As these songs were first being sung in Kemp’s home, “These rehearsals attracted much attention in the neighborhood, and on the evenings set apart for them, the house was crowded with those who came to listen to the performances of the ‘Old Folks’, as our neighbors familiarly called us.”
After what Kemp described as “dress rehearsals,” he noted, “I [was] determined to appear in public, with my troupe, of whom I had began to feel somewhat proud. I saw that the entertainments pleased the ‘old folks,’ who did not belong to the choir. I felt also that a revival of the good music of former times, sung as our ancestors sung it, would be a novel experience to the present generation. Accordingly, the evening of Dec. 6, 185-1 was set apart as the proper time for Father Kemp and his ‘Old Folks’ to make their debut . . . At the first entertainment the Lyceum Hall in Reading was literally packed . . . with a ‘large and fashionable audience.’ . . . Hundreds remained outside the building unable to gain admission, and listened to the music . . . ; and they thought, with the audience, that the voices of the fossils were remarkably fresh.”
After a second concert was performed in Lynn, the Old Folks’ “first experience in going abroad to give concerts,” Kemp considered “the expediency of giving the citizens of Boston an opportunity to hear them.” He expressed his doubts in doing so, as he reflected, “If I failed in giving satisfaction, I might as well also fail in the shoe business, and hereafter confine my operations to Reading and Lynn, where I was appreciated. But no man, in my vocation, can be completely discouraged at one failure. The motto of my customers, in purchasing boots, is ‘Try, try again,’ until they find a pair which fits them; and I encourage the axiom. Why should it not apply to the concerts as well? I determined it should . . . It was my desire to bring to the eye and ear of the citizens of the New England metropolis the customs of the good people of former generations—of whose characteristics as well as dress and behavior we all had read, but which none had been permitted to observe.”
“To accomplish this there must be extensive labor and research, in which not one but scores of people must engage, and to the ardor with which the young ‘Old Folks’ entered into the enterprise, in attending to the details and preparing for the occasion, is due the success of the first concert in Boston.” In preparation, “The Tremont Temple [had been] secured.” Undoubtedly remembering the freezing difficulties of the troupe in traveling all day to cover only ten miles as they returned home from the Lynn concert in a “severe snow-storm,” an extra train “was chartered to run from Reading to Boston, and return after the concert.” In addition to the fifty singers, “Our friends turned out in round numbers, all dressed in the costume of ‘old folks’.” Two hundred people in all “went to the city to sing and sit on the platform.” The concert was sold out; “door-keepers had been knocked down, and the crowd held possession of the staircase and lobbies.”
“As the members of the trope and their friends slowly filed on to the platform before the immense audience the noise and disturbance ceased,” as all examined “the queer, quaint, and curious costumes” from their ancestors. “One lady wore a dress brought to this country more than two hundred years ago, by Major Willard. His daughter, at her marriage, wore it, and three other ladies were afterwards joined in matrimony while wearing the same dress . . . Other ladies wore dresses of antique fashion, none of which were less than fifty years old, and several were known to be upwards of two hundred years of age . . . [one bonnet was as large as a flour-barrel!]. Most of the gentlemen appeared in knee-breeches, buckles, and cocked hats; one had a coat which was worn by one of the first governors of Massachusetts; a hat worn at the battle of Bunker Hill by Lieut. Parker, of Reading, covered the head of another, and the coats, cloaks, etc., were generally venerable, but well preserved . . . Among the distinguished persons represented by the troupe were George and Martha Washington, John Hancock, General Putnam, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, and numerous others equally well known, besides Puritan fathers and mothers. A member of the company appeared in a check worn by one of the Salem witches.”
A cousin of Father Kemp’s, who quoted from Kemp’s obituary, wrote in an entry in the “Newsletter Archives” on genealogybank.com, “Mrs. Kemp [Elizabeth Jane (Alden) Kemp (1824-1888)] appeared then [at the first Lyceum Hall concert in Reading] and ever afterward as Martha Washington.” This descendant of Kemp’s also added that “Father Kemp” is “in the center of the front row and his wife in the white bonnet [is] just behind him in the second row. Their daughter Elizabeth Davis (Kemp) Dewey (1844-1926) is in the black dress seated at the right side of that row.”
The first concert in Boston received many positive reviews. One of “the many kind notices of this entertainment which appeared in the Boston papers” stated, “The excellence of this company was attested by this great desire to hear them, and we feel some local pride in chronicling this success, for they merit all the patronage bestowed upon them; they are capable singers, perform good music, and all of their actions are decorous and appropriate.”
Eleven more concerts at the Temple “were given in succession with the same éclat that attended the first performance.” Not long after these successful concerts by Father Kemp and the Old Folks, plans began to expand the performances with tours throughout the United States, which were followed by one to England. After Father Kemp and the Old Folks of Reading completed their renowned tours, Father Kemp reminisced on the last page of his autobiography, “I have swung my baton before a large choir in upwards of six thousand concerts.”
1The date was listed in Kemp’s book as “185-“; the Genealogical History: Reading, Mass., 1874, by Hon. Lilley Eaton gives the date as 1856. First published in Reading Daily Times Chronicle. 7 August 2014: A1, A2, A7.Print.