J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 18, 2019

“A weekly and brilliant assembly at Concert Hall”?

It was no coincidence that James Joan moved from Halifax to Boston in October 1768, just as the 14th and 29th Regiments made the same journey. In fact, the same sloop that brought Joan and his family, Nehemiah Soanes’s Ranger, might well have carried soldiers’ families.

The market for Joan’s services as a performing musician, ball host, and instructor in dancing, fencing, and French depended on a good supply of young men of genteel habits and ambitions. So it made sense for him to follow the army officer corps.

Joan advertised his second “Concert of MUSIC” at his dwelling on Brattle Street on 5 December in the Boston News-Letter, Boston Chronicle, and Boston Post-Boy—the three newspapers closest to the Crown.

Soon, however, Joan’s “Music Hall” faced competition. Boston already had a largish building known as “Concert Hall,” built by the Deblois family in 1754. The first Debloises in Boston were musicians in the entourage of Gov. William Burnet; they played the organs at King’s Chapel and Christ Church. But by the 1760s brothers Lewis and Gilbert Deblois weren’t professional performers like Joan. They were substantial import merchants. They sold musical scores and instruments, but only as a small part of a much wider assortment of goods. (Lewis’s 1757 trade card appears above, courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.)

The Debloises rented out Concert Hall, and in 1768 the Commissioners of Customs used that space for meetings. Apparently the Debloises spoke with those high officials about hosting weekly music and dancing assemblies during the winter, no doubt catering to the same crowd of army officers and local gentility who supported James Joan’s concerts.

Naturally, that prospect gave the the Boston Whigs something to complain about in their “Journal of the Times” for 10 December:
While the friends of their country are recommending and countenancing by their example, the strictest economy, C[om]m[issione]r [Charles] P[a]x[to]n and Company are endeavouring to establish a weekly and brilliant assembly at Concert Hall; where their Board is again held in the day time, and a centinel placed for their guard:

One of their livery boatmen has waited upon the gentlemen and ladies of the town with the proposals and a subscription paper; which to use a courtly phrase has been almost universally treated with the contempt it deserves,—

C[om]m[issione]r [John] R[obinso]n, in order to throw a splendor upon office, and so to dazzle with its brightness, the eyes of Americans, that they might not perceive the incomparable insignificancy of his person, nor how ridiculously the fruits of their industry are bestowed; intends soon to make his appearance in a suit of crimson velvet, which will cost him a sum that would have been a full support to some one of the families, that are almost reduced to poverty themselves; who are yet obliged, not indeed by the laws of Christianity, but by that Revenue Act, to feed the hungry and cloth the naked C[om]m[issione]rs, not barely with what is convenient and necessary, but with all the luxury and extravagance of high life.
On 14 December the Whigs claimed that those plans had been foiled, at least temporarily, by Boston’s patriotic young women:
The Commissioners expected they would have been able this evening with the countenance of the military gentlemen, to have opened an assembly at Concert Hall, for the winter season; but the virtue and discreetness of the young ladies of the town, occasioned a disappointment; It is probable they may have one the next week, with a small number of matrons of their own core: It must ill become American ladies to dance in their fetters.
The Whigs could thus stir together old anti-aristocratic Puritan traditions, current feelings of economic anxiety, and resentment of army troops, and then blame the whole mess on those extravagant and tyrannical Customs Commissioners.

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