More popular than the Beatles: A 19th Century Swede

28 Mar


These guys were nothing, compared to ...

There were superstar performers long before mass media and one of them was named Jenny Lind.

Jenny was known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She came to the U.S. on a whirlwind tour in 1850 after retiring from European opera at age 29. Her American promoter was P.T. Barnum, who created such a stir that 30,000 people went to New York harbor to greet Jenny’s ship.

... the Swedish Nightingale

Because of the great demand for tickets, Barnum would auction them off. They would go for as high as $20 – an incredible price in 1850. By comparison, a ticket to see the Beatles in 1964 on the main floor at the Atlantic City Convention Center cost $3.90.

At some Lind concerts, a few very rich music lovers (or perhaps speculators) would offer to buy up every seat in the house. Barnum wouldn’t sell, claiming all should get a chance.

On her American tour, Jenny personally earned $350,000. She gave it all to charity. The Beatles never did that. Neither did Barnum.

Because of the illogical and unreasonable American response to Jenny, the term “Lind mania” was coined, and a songwriter named W.H.C. West composed a satirical piece entitled, “The Jenny Lind Mania.” Today there would be Internet memes and YouTube parodies about Jenny.

I learned about Jenny last Sunday when some of the songs she did on her American tour were performed by three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn, who appeared in Pennsylvania at a pops concert with the Bucks County Symphony.

Maestro Gary S. Fagin told stories about Jenny and the sensation she caused.

History tells us that P.T. Barnum was a master showman and probably could sell $20 tickets to watch of piece of stale cake. Still, it is hard to believe he could do what he did without the tools of TV or radio or even photographs in newspapers. It must be that people, with or without technology, on occasion enter into fits of collective madness. We clearly have a weakness for it. It must satisfy something in our nature.

There was no harm, I don’t think, when people went to see Jenny Lind. There was harm, however, when nearly everyone in American, rich and poor, wise and stupid, went out and bought homes they could not afford. That weakened a nation. An entire species was weakened when in the last century much of Europe, the rich and the poor, the wise and the stupid, embraced fascism, war and the lethal scapegoating of Jews.

Clearly, things can get horridly bad.

Hearing about Jenny Lind at the concert, I wondered what humans are capable of. I thought about the relativity of good sense, the fragile veneer of morality and the protean quality of religion. I should have just enjoyed the music. Instead I thought about the monster within me.

Not a good evening.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

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