An American Modernist Response: The Ashcan School

"Head of Boxer", painted by George Wesley Bellows

“Head of Boxer”, painted by George Wesley Bellows

This week we toured the St. Olaf Flaten Art Museum and studied several objects, including this painting, “Head of Boxer” by George Wesley Bellows.

George Wesley Bellows

George Wesley Bellows

George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was an American realist painter, known for his depictions of urban life in New York City. He was an artist from the Ashcan school of art, that were a group of realist painters that wanted to challenge and be set a part from American impressionists.

Although Ashcan artists advocated for modern actualities, they were not so radical that they used their artwork for social criticism or reform. They identified with the vitality of the lower classes and illustrated the dismal aspects of urban existence. However, they themselves led middle-class lives and were influenced by New York’s restaurants, bars, theater and vaudeville.1

Relating to other themes in our class, George Bellows was immersed in New York’s vaudeville scene around the same time of Charles Harris’ “After the Ball”, Howard and Emerson’s “Hello My Baby”, and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

“The Ashcan artists selectively documented an unsettling, transitional time in American culture that was marked by confidence and doubt, excitement and trepidation. Ignoring or registering only gently harsh new realities such as the problems of immigration and urban poverty, they shone a positive light on their era.”

— The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this painting, perhaps the rough brush strokes represent the difficulties the lower classes faced in society? Perhaps the mix of light and shadow on the boxer’s forehead show the transitional time in American culture? And perhaps the sad expression of the boxer represents the doubt and trepidation of the lower classes who struggle with problems of immigration and urban poverty. George Bellows painted the realities of the lower classes he saw around him in New York City.

1 Weinberg, H. Barbara. “The Ashcan School.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000.

A Friendship Between Andy Warhol and Christopher O’riley


Andy Warhol
Christopher O’Riley and Two Unidentified men- Now in St.Olaf Art Collection 

gelatin silver print on paper
8 in. x 10 in. (20.32 cm x 25.4 cm)
Gift of © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

This Photo that was showed in the collection is a photo taken by Andy Warhol, probably in early 1980s. It captured the moment when the young pianist Christopher O’riley played music for Andy Warhol and three other audiences. It would be risky to guess what O’riley was playing, but from where I stand, probably jazz. As what O’riley said when he thought of the good memory with Andy Warhol:



They were good friends. As what O’riley remembered, the man who introduced he to Andy Warhol was Stuart Pivar. Pivar went to a lot of auctions together with Warhol and they co-founded the New York Academy of Art. One of O’riley’s friends took him to Pivar’s house- and that was how he met Andy Warhol. O’riley often played music for Andy Warhol, Ford models, art collectors, and experts in the apartment. Taking these into account, through careful observation viewers might find out that all human figures in the photo can possibly be upper-middle class elite men, sitting in the delicate room with the art nouveau style lamp and Bouguereau-like academic painting on the wall.

Even more interesting, Christopher O’riley started to host the National Public Radio program From the Top in a way that Andy Warhol suggested- do absolute O’riley’s music. In the show, He started to do groundbreaking transcriptions of the rock band Radiohead with his own interpretations of classical music and new repertoires, and this made him famous for his piano arrangement of rock music.

As what he said in the interview:

“Dealing with music as a contemporary form and not something in a museum definitely led to my confidence to do my own things.”


Works Cited:

The Melting Pot: Remington’s Chinese Figure Study and American Music

Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was an American painter, sculptor, illustrator, and writer (no relation to the rifle- and typewriter-makers, Eliphalet and Philo Remington). Although he studied for short periods at Yale’s School of Fine Arts as well as at the Art Students League in New York, he was a mostly self-taught artist. After a period traveling through the Dakotas, Montana, the Arizona Territory, and Texas, he had one of his drawings published in Harpers’s Weekly, leading to a long relationship with that publication as well as with The Century Illustrated and Scribner’s Magazine.

Due to Remington’s first-hand experience with the quickly-vanishing frontier, he grew renowned for his visual and textual depictions of cavalry, cowboys, Native Americans, and the American West:

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Knowing about his affinity for the American West, it might at first seem odd that while painting cowboys and campfires Remington also drew this Chinese figure study:

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.14.32 AM

I promise you though, this is not odd at all.

As everyone knows, America is a land of immigrants, referred to in past years as the great melting pot (now we opt for the great salad bowl, kaleidoscope, or mosaic). Beginning in the 19th century, immigrants from China came to America, especially to the West, to work as laborers for the transcontinental railroad and the mining industry. These immigrants faced fierce racial discrimination, leading to such laws as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting immigration from China for ten years, and the 1892 Geary Act, extending the prohibition for another decade. Thus the presence of Chinese immigrants in the American West would not have been uncommon, and Remington would have found many study subjects as he traveled the frontier.

“That’s interesting, but why is this post in a music history blog?”

By presenting a Chinese figure in various outfits, Remington demonstrates the Americanization of immigrants: on the left is a figure in more traditional clothing, while the figures on the right take on more and more aspects of Western culture, such as replacing the tunic with a baggy shirt and the cap with a Spanish guacho or grandee. So, by including Chinese immigrants in his oeuvre, Remington was portraying other cultures as an important piece of the American pie. In similar ways, composers like Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, and Antonín Dvořák also sought to include other cultures as members of the American family.

Take the fifth movement of MacDowell’s Indian Suite of 1892, which pulls tunes from the Iroquois tribe:

Or listen to the Largo from Dvořák’s From the New World, which, while not directly copying songs, features original melodies similar to Native American music:

Or sample Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, in which she incorporates traditional Irish-Gaelic melodies, tapping into the rich heritage of a people long part of the American fabric:

Remington and these three composers are just a few of the numerous artists who rather than exoticizing other cultures sought to portray them as an essential part of the American melting pot.

Beach, Amy. Symphony in E-minor, No. 2 “Gaelic.” American Series Vol. 1. Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos CHAN 8958. Streaming audio. YouTube. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Dvořák, Antonín. Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”, Op. 95. Prague Festival Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Urbanek. LaserLight Digital 15824. Streaming audio. YouTube. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Foxley, W. C. “Remington, Frederic.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed April 29, 2015.

MacDowell, Edward. Suite No. 2 “Indian”, Op. 48. Village Festival. Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, conducted by Charles Johnson. Albany Records TROY 224. Streaming audio. YouTube. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “A Mining Town, Wyoming.” Oil on canvas. Ca. 1898. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “Chinese Figure Study.” Ink on paper. Date unknown. Flaten Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “Recent Uprising Among the Bannock Indians — a Hunting Party Fording the Snake River Southwest of the Three Tetons (Mountains).” Wash on paper. Ca. 1895. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “The Broncho Buster #275.” Bronze cast. 1895. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “The Outlier.” Oil on canvas. 1909. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. “Then He Grunted and Left the Room.” Wash on paper. 1894. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Remington, Frederic. Untitled [possibly The Cigarette]. Oil on canvas. Ca. 1908-1909. Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection. Accessed April 29, 2015.

What is Wrong with Rock?

final blog

“Rise and Shine”

St. Olaf student, Laura Anderson, wrote in 1972 about that she met with a group of young fellows living and performing in Minneapolis. The group, previously knows as “Debb Johnson,” added several members to the group and renamed themselves “Rise and Shine.” This group had performed at St. Olaf previously. Unfortunately, Laura does not mention what music genre the group performs. However, the groups sees a future for music.

Laura reports, when she sat down with “Rise and Shine,” they arrived on the topic what is music. Laura quotes one of the band members: “The days of stoned-out boogie bands (and audiences), destruction on stage, and sloppy music are gone. People are tired of obnoxious music and egotistic performers — it’s not showmanship, it’s insanity.” Laura believes that music should consist of good musicianship. She finds loud music and quickly produced music to be disgusting. “Rise and Shine” lives to together and is constant writing and performing their own music. Their favorite groups are Shawn Phillips, the Beach Boys, and Joni Mitchell. All these uniques sounds contribute to their creative sound.

Laura’s articles shows that music, especially in the popular world, has been constantly  changing, as people get bored and look for something new to entertain them. As we have seen since the 50s, music has evolved from Rock ‘n’ Roll to disco, to boy bands. Even today music seems to be evolving as people strive to create new music.

Pottery Performances: Interconnected Art

Throughout this course we have looked at American history through the lens of music, but there is non-musical art that tells a uniquely American story.  While perusing a collection of art owned by St. Olaf this work of pottery, sculpted by Steven Lucas, jumped out as an i2.2002-Lucasinteresting challenge. Continuing the the trend of asking questions, what do these patterns mean?  From what culture do they come from?  How does it connect to American music?

In doing a little research, these patterns belong to the Native American tribe known as the Hopi. The Hopi people reside in northeastern Arizona where their ancestors thrived on a life sustained by corn, spiritual connections, and art. The artist, Steven Lucas, is a descendent of Nampeyo, the great female potter of the Hopi tribe, and is known as one of the great potters of the modern era.

So what can we pull from this pot?  The colors follow a strict family of earthen tones to represent the deep connection that the Hopi people have with the land. There are also a series of patterns that are common in Hopi pottery.  The first is located in the center of the image and it is known at the migration pattern. Represented by the repeating feathers, the migration pattern is for the flexibility of the Hopi people to move when demanded by the land. The second pattern present on this particular pot (on the left) is the Butterfly Maiden, which represents fertility.

So how does all of this come back to relate to American music history?  Native American elements have been implemented into music for centuries and these influences varied in historical accuracy.  More often then not, musical style characteristics identified as sounding Native American are primitive and quite degrading.  If we take the initiative to extend our view point to ethnomusicological evidence, we see a different story. Art, in all senses, is tied together through the people’s deep connection to the earth.  The same concepts that are seen in the visual art of pottery are experienced in dance as dancers focus their motions into the ground and in the incorporation of natural elements into ceremonial dress.  Music also has a deep connection to the earth.  Musical instruments are constructed from the land and the subject matter of many Native American songs directly involve nature or the higher powers that govern and control the earth.

I believe the take away message of this piece in particular is its connectiveness to the people and how regardless of form, art serves as an expression of culture for a group of people.

Bluer Than Blue: Michael Johnson and Folk Music at St. Olaf

If you search through St. Olaf’s Manitou Messenger, in the 1970s and 1980s, you will notice a trend: St. Olaf College loved folk music, especially the music of Michael Johnson.

He performed on campus in the spring of 1973, on May 11, 1974, on October 24, 1975, and November 20, 1981:

Michael Johnson in 1975.

Playing for large audiences in Skoglund Gymnasium and in the Women’s Gym (now Kelsey Theater), Johnson performed hits from his albums There Is a Breeze and For All You Mad Musicians (the 1975 concert) like the songs “Bluer Than Blue” and “On the Road” (1981 and 1974 concerts, respectively). The popularity of Johnson was perhaps his ability to not only perform ballads/love songs and classic folk tunes, but also jazz and classical arrangements (and rearrangements) of his own and other peoples’ music.

That’s not to say everyone desired to hear a variety of music when Johnson came to town. In 1981, Johnson shared a concert with Simon and Bard, a fusion jazz group (many people left at 10pm when the band began their set). As the Manitou Messenger article from that event relates, that whole night was a fiasco: the doors opened 30 minutes late, Eastern Airlines sent Johnson’s guitar to Atlanta, and, the greatest crime of all, Simon and Bard was supposed to play first, but instead, Johnson opened. Many diehard Michael Johnson fans arrived late only to hear the end of Johnson’s set and the entire Simon and Bard set. Oops.

Michael Johnson in 1981.

St. Olaf’s affinity for Michael Johnson and his folk music showed the college’s continued participation in the folk revival, which began in the 1940s, peaked in the 1960s, and after that began to lose steam in the face of the British Invasion and the rise of rock. It also demonstrates the tastes of Oles, perhaps the unchanging tastes of Oles: to this day, one of the most-discussed concerts is Ingrid Michaelson’s visit to St. Olaf in 2012 (Michaelson is a singer-songwriter especially associated with the indie pop/folk movement).

Folk music in general has a strong following at St. Olaf. It could be the hipster-ish aspect of campus and folk music (“Have you heard of this person? They’re SO refreshing”) or maybe it’s the more rural origins of most of our students. Whatever the reason, in both the 1970s and the 2010s, folk music is alive and well at St. Olaf College.

“Calendar: Coming.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), April 26, 1974.

Lemke, Brenda. “Johnson steps up slow start.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), December 3, 1981.

Schrader, Beth. “Johnson and Johnson, pigskins and alumni.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), October 24, 1975.

Boxing in the 1920’s

While browsing St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum collection, I stumbled across the painting shown below, and for some reason it just caught my eye.  Perhaps it was the very textured brush strokes, revealing the painter’s very deliberate actions.  Maybe it was the mysterious nature of the coloring and contrast, with the shadows distorting the facial features and making it hard to get a clear grasp about what what is going on in the portrait.  The title of the painting, “Head of Boxer,” gave me some clues as I started to research this painter in the hopes of uncovering the identity of whomever was being painted.

Head of Boxer

It turns out that the artist, George Wesley Bellows, was part of something called the Ashcan School of Art, a group of artists painting through realism who focused on American society in all its forms.  In an online article The Art of Boxing: George Bellows, the author points out Bellows’ interest in painting boxing matches, specifically amateur boxing matches.  Drawn by the intensity of the sport itself, and its rising popularity in New York, it made sense that a painter in the school of realism would be capturing these sort of events.

I couldn’t find the actual name of the boxer in this portrait, as many amateur fights were happening, and the man most likely never became famous, but searching for answers brought me through the history of boxing and provided some insight on perhaps why Bellows was capturing these fights, and what it had to do with presenting America through the light of realism.


Over There: Sheet Music, Advertising, and Propaganda

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.

Below I have five sheet music covers, all of the same song (“Over There” by George M. Cohan) from the same years (1917-18), in arrangements published by two separate houses (William Jerome Publishing Corp. and Leo Feist, Inc.).

Over There - William Jerome PublishingOver There - William Jerome 2Over There - Leo Feist 2Over There - Leo Feist 3Over There - Leo Feist 1

Embedded in these five covers is the early history of “Over There” advertising and production.

George M. Cohan claimed that on April 6, 1917, while the general public was reeling from the news of America’s declaration of war against Germany, he was humming. He couldn’t get a tune out of his head. He wrote down some lyrics and played them for his friend Joe Humphreys, a ring announcer at Madison Square Garden, and Joe said, “George, you’ve got a song.”  (Scholars have declared Cohan’s tale apocryphal and now claim he wrote the song in his office on April 7, but that’s such a boring story.)

By the end of 1917, “Over There” was the #1 song of the year. By the end of the war, it had sold over 2 million copies. By 1936, Cohan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He definitely had a song.

The first and most famous group to perform and record the song was Billy Murray & The American Quartet, Murray appropriately being the supreme interpreter of Cohan’s music.

Eager to capitalize on the popularity of the song, sheet music was quickly produced.

Over There - William Jerome PublishingThe first cover from William Jerome Publishing Corp. features a portrait of Nora Bayes, famous singer and comedienne of the Vaudeville and Broadway circuits. After Cohan performed the song in her dressing room, she included it in her act, becoming one of the song’s greatest pluggers. On this patriotic red, white, and blue cover, Bayes wears a stylized military uniform reminiscent of the British Redcoats along with a hat including feathers colored in order of the French tricolor flag (…backwards), thus incorporating the the major Allies of World War I. Eagles and stars, symbols of America, surround her portrait.

Over There - William Jerome 2

The second cover (also from William Jerome Publishing Corp.) features another famous performer of the song, William J. Reilly. The U.S. Navy sailor, stationed on the battleship U.S.S. Michigan, was also a popular singer. Like the Nora Bayes cover, this one incorporates the red, white, and blue of the American flag, a famous performer, and a U.S. military connection, though, as Reilly was actually a sailor in the Navy, this cover carries a heavier political connotation by putting a face and a name to the “son of liberty,” “Yanks,” and “Johnnie” mentioned in the song.

Over There - Leo Feist 2The third cover is a copy of the previous one except for one detail: the publisher is not William Jerome, but Leo Feist, Inc. By October 1917, Jerome had sold over 440,000 copies of the song, and it was a hit feature in five New York shows (including productions at the Hippodrome and the Winter Garden). After hearing the song himself, Leo Feist offered Jerome $10,000 for the song. Jerome said no. Feist offered $15,000, $20,000, $25,000. Finally Jerome said, “it’s gotta be in cash.” After paying this high price (over $458,000 now, the highest price paid for a song at the time), Feist quickly put the piece to market, keeping the same cover and aggressively pushing the song, reportedly grossing over $30,000 in new orders within thirty days.

Over There - Leo Feist 3The fourth cover brings another American icon into the story. Norman Rockwell, a popular painter and illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, created this painting for Life Magazine‘s January 31, 1918 issue. The picture presents four American infantrymen animatedly and excitedly singing and playing a banjo-ukelele with tents in the background. Although lacking in historical detail (would soldiers really be singing like this in an active combat zone?), the tag line above presents Feist’s pitch for the piece: “Your Song – My Song – Our Boys’ Song!” Notably, no red, white, or blue is featured on this cover.

Over There - Leo Feist 1

The final cover features four soldiers holding their hats in the air and guns to their shoulders while marching across the page in an Broadway-like gesture, sketched by Henry Hutt, an American illustrator. Like the Bayes’ cover, this one features the colors of the three major Allies (Britain, France, and the U.S.), with a sideways French tricolor as the backdrop. Further emphasizing the unifying quality of the song, the tagline reads “This great world song hit now has both French and English lyrics.” Clearly Feist was marketing “Over There” as a worldwide hit. And in an age of war and patriotism, how could a true American or Frenchman NOT buy this song?

Thus through five pictures we can trace the early production of the song “Over There,” including the advertising and propaganda that furthered its reputation as a patriotic American anthem.


Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [Dancing soldiers cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n1170).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [Norman Rockwell cover]. Mississippi State University Libraries (Physical ID: 32278011441759).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [William J. Reilly cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n0967).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: William Jerome Publishing Corp., 1917. [Nora Bayes cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n1186).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: William Jerome Publishing Corp., 1917. [William J. Reilly cover]. Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection.

Performing Arts Encyclopedia, s.v. “Over There.” Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2014. (accessed April 27, 2015).

Sullivan, Steve. Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 1. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013.

Seltzer and Native American Portrait Study

Olaf Carl Seltzer was a painter well known for his landscape paintings. At a young age, Seltzer showed talent in painting and enrolled in Danish Art School and Polytechnic Institute. However, a couple years after enrolling, his father died, and the family moved to Great Falls, Montana. Here he worked as a cowboy, painting and sketches the whole time.

His most famous works are of the Native Americans, ranchers, or wildlife depicted in the natural countryside of Montana. However, St. Olaf College Flaten Art Museum archives own a work by Olaf Carl Seltzer entitled Native American Portrait Study. This work, instead of portraying a whole landscape, only shows two Native American heads, one in the the foreground and one in the background. The head in the foreground is painted in shades of brown and the head in the background is in shades of grey.


Olaf Carl Seltzer, Native American Portray Study, watercolor on paper, 12 in x 9 in



Many of Olaf Carl Seltzer’s works containing Native Americans do not depict them in action, hunting or perhaps fishing. Usual the Native American people are riding on horses, pausing at a creek or thoughtfully looking ahead. The same goes for his Native American Portrait Study; the two men are looking off into the distance. I believe Seltzer thought of the Native American’s and poised, reverent people. Unfortunately, there is not date to this portrait, but around Seltzer’s lifetime, many thought of the Native American’s as savage people. However, I believe that Olaf Carl Seltzer’s background, moving from Copenhagen to Montana, had a significant effect on how Carl viewed these people.

* All historical background from


The two sides of Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith's portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Fig. 1: Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith painted the posthumous portrait of American writer Walt Whitman in 1897, several years after Whitman’s death.1 The oil study on canvas appears to be based off of a portrait photo which was taken by photographer George C. Cox in 1887. Whitman had loved this photo so much that he titled it “The Laughing Philosopher” and sold the other portraits from the session to supplement his income.2

Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892, spending the majority of his life on the east coast, dying in Camden, New Jersey, He was an American poet, essayist and journalist and as a humanist, his works are regarded as being transitory between transcendentalism and realism with elements of each idea present. He was concerned with politics and abolitionism (although this is not necessarily based on his belief in racial equality) and was wishy washy with his endorsement of abolitionism. There has also been debate over what Whitman’s sexuality was, although this began much later after his death and there is still disagreement among biographers as to whether or not Whitman had even had sexual experiences with men (although having or lacking experience should not be the validating factor as to whether a person truly identifies a certain way).

George C. Cox's photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

Fig. 3: George C. Cox’s photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

It is unknown as to whether or not Xanthus Russell Smith was acquainted with Whitman or was instead an admirer of his work. Smith was known for using small brushstrokes and sharp detail. The portrait can be interpreted by many different lenses, including artistic, historical and modern perspectives.

The portrait is composed fairly symmetrically, with Whitman’s shoulders facing at an angle away from the painter and his face squared to the front. The colors of the portrait are muted and neutral, lacking color except for around the eyes, which could be interpreted as a nod towards Whitman’s interpretation of the world, beliefs and persuasions (i.e. gray).

The focal point of the portrait is definitely the eyes. The viewer is drawn to them immediately, then down Whitman’s nose to his shock-white mustache and beard. The eyes are the most lifelike piece of the portrait and along with the rest of the face are almost completely centered in the portrait. However, this positioning is not so much a surprise as it is a given that the focal point of a portrait should be the subject’s face.

The painting is divided down the center of the frame, with one side of the background lighter than the other, and on Whitman’s face, the light patterns seem to be reversed, suggesting that there were two different light sources used in the photograph Smith used or in his interpretation of it. The use of light might be a nod to Whitman’s ideas and philosophy, which went between transcendentalism and realism or to the two sides of his sexuality and the way the public perceived him. The latter interpretation would however be carried into that of the modernist lens as few writers speculated on his sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Whitman’s poetry has been set to music by many composers, including the music of John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill, Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem.

You can view Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of Walt Whitman in the Flaten Art Museum reserve collection housed in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center.


1. Smith, Xanthus Russell. Walt Whitman. 1897. Oil on canvas. 17.5 in x 13.5 in. Dittman Center : Second (2) Floor : Storage Vault : 19A : Flaten Art Museum.

2. Whitman, Walt. Lafayette in Brooklyn. New York: George D. Smith, 1905.

3. Cox, George C. Walt Whitman. 1887. Photograph.

Introspection Across Art Mediums

This painting found in the St. Olaf Flaten Art Museum suggests an immense feeling of age, wisdom, and timelessness.  The subject, Walt Whitman, is presented in all shades of brown and grey, most of his body in shadow and the background irrelevant.

Walt Whitman, Xanthus Russell Smith

Walt Whitman, Xanthus Russell Smith

The artist, Xanthus Russell Smith, was known to be a Civil War Painter, showcasing the battles and details of wartime.  But a quick search shows that he was also an avid landscape artist, portraying the lush beauty of the New England countryside in rich detail.

New England Landscape, Xanthus Russell Smith

New England Landscape, Xanthus Russell Smith

In fact, a closer look at the Whitman painting reveals more of the earthy tones of the artist.  Whitman is not dressed for battle, but instead maybe for an introspective walk through the forest.

It is this sense of introspection that I would like to focus on.  Many other art forms of the time, including MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches, also were introspective and communicated the viewpoint of the creator.  Nature was a huge source of inspiration for these artists, as evident in Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.”

“Song of the Open Road,” Walt Whitman


Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.


Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,

Strong and content I travel the open road.


The earth, that is sufficient,

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Nature provided the time and peace for artists to reflect upon their lives and their place in the universe.  Their creations presented an individualized viewpoint of the world regardless of whether or not others understood.  Smith’s painting showcases a man who knows all.  And in his own particular way, Smith portrays how he sees Whitman, as all other artists share their specialized view of the world.

What can an American(?) painter tell us about American music

John Singer Sargent, the painter in question, is American by birth. If he had elected to run for president there would be no question as to his eligibility (no one would ask for his birth certificate, certainly). Sargent, while born in America, studied in Paris, and lived most of his life in Europe. Semantics aside, it’s clear that Sargent is a Westerner and can teach us about how Western cultures interpret themselves as well as Other cultures.

Sargent’s watercolors were not his claim to fame, but he was well versed in the medium, boasting over 2,000 watercolors. Here we have his painting simply titled, Warrior. SargentWarrior


The subject is all alone in the painting, much like a portrait, but facing away from the observer. The warrior seems to be looking off into the distance as well. The warrior has specific points of detail and other places have significantly less detail. Particularly the head and left foot sandal have a lot of detail. On the warrior’s head there is an earring, shading on the head wrap, and lighting detail on the forehead and cheek. On the sandal there is an elegantly painted feather adorning the otherwise simple footwear. A long draping cape covers most of the warrior masking one whole side, the cape is mostly implied and also seems to be translucent.

The focus on the trappings of the warrior and his figure rather than choosing to put him in action (not necessarily violence) takes him out of his context. This lack of contextualization is where I think we can find a link to music written by Americans or Westerners. Pieces such as El Salon Mexico by Aaron Copland lies in the same vein of “representative” art. While this may be exactly what the model looked like has he posed for Sargent and Copland may accurately composed Mexican music, they present their art pieces without any context. This creates issues for the those receiving the work not understanding where the work came from and what weight it carries. We’ve discussed this many times so I won’t beat it to death, but there it is.

Hip-Hop: It’s Not What You Do, It’s How You Do It.

On any given day, you can catch me jammin’ out to songs off the radio whether it is pop, hip-hop, rap, techno but not country (sorry!). I listen to these songs on the radio for a couple of reasons…

1. If they have a good beat and I can dance to it… then I have no problem with it the song.

2. If it is Beyoncè, I am all set.

In reality, these not the best reasons for listening to songs. But, people listen to songs for different reasons. It may be the lyrics, the artist, the genre or the emotional connections that one may have with a specific song/artist. In our society, social media plays a big part in the promotion of artists and their music. Genres such as Pop, Hip-Hop or Rap are widley listened too and are valued by the younger generations.

Pop and Hip-Hop do not have the same implications now as they did before. Hip-Hop developed out of Bronx, New York around 1970s, as minorities suffered forms of inequality and injustice. The music that they created reflected that and served as a way of expressing reality. If you were to listen to songs such as “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) or “The Message” (1982), they provide truths while also portraying black culture through song.

Fast forwarding to the 2000s, Hip-Hop continued to remain popular. But, the lyrics have become more sexualized and more and more artists have taken up this genre and have made it their own. Yes, Hip-Hop originated through the black culture but that did not mean that others could not perform this genre.

Recently, I watched a video that was created by Amandla Stenberg called “Don’t Cash Drop My Cornrows.” After watching this video, I was speechless because she addressed the complications that come between black and white rappers. She gives a good definition of both cultural appropriation and cultural exchange in terms of black culture and the rise of white rappers using black culture as part of their music. She talks about a good variety of rappers and gives examples of how their music utilizes black culture.

Here is the video:

Take the time to watch this video. As music evolves overtime, it is important that artist continue to recognize the cultural significance in which a specific genre derived from. It is not a matter of authenticity for some but it is a matter of credibility. It is okay to acknowledge how different aspects of specific cultures have influenced thier music but an artist cannot ‘claim’ another culture as their own.

Romanticizing the West

800px-Colorado_-_Branding_Calves_c._1900William Henry Jackson was tasked with exploring and surveying the American West at a time when America was expanding and the Manifest Destiny was still at the forefront of American ideology. Over his life of 99 years, Jackson became famous for his work with photochrom, such as the photo to the left from around 1900.[1] The branding of a calf is posed as a fairly leisurely activity, as a few of the characters stand around looking at their corral of cattle and the wide open space available to them in the West. Working for the government, Jackson often took exploration trips to photograph scenery along railroad routes and with his photography of beautiful natural landmarks, he even convinced Congress to create Yellowstone National Park. With photos like these, that show a decent life on the frontier and human’s domination over nature, Jackson’s narrow lens paints a Romantic image of the west, sure to keep out the fact that many Native Americans were displaced as a result.

Just as Jackson’s work had a lot to do with the image of the West to the rest of America, composers such as Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland composed the sounds of the Western frontier, though 30 years later and for nostalgia instead of Manifest Destiny. In Virgil Thomson’s The Plow that Broke the Plains, a film made by the Works Progress Administration in 1936, the cattle are represented by this music.[2]

Doesn’t sound similar to this music from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo from 1942?[3]

The common folk song between the two is called “Old Paint,” a paint being a spotted horse, and the song said to be a common song sung by the cowboys of the west during their night shifts of protecting the cattle. Here cowboy folk music, again excluding Native Americans, is drawn on to paint what sounds like a lackadaisical and relaxed picture of the West. This is a nostalgic, romanticized reflection of cowboy culture much like Jackson’s romantic view of the West. The extent to which this relaxed cowboy life was a reality or the authenticity with which their folk music was presented in these classical genres is debatable.

For more about early 20th century composers shaping the American West, see this NPR article.

[1] William Jackson, “Colorado-Branding Calves,” photochrom on paper, Flatten Art Museum.

[2] Virgil Thomson, writer, Virgil Thomson: The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River, Conducted by Richard Kapp, Performed by Richard Kapp, Essay, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 28, 2015. 

[3] Aaron Copland writer, Appalachian Spring/Rodeo/Fanfare for the Common Man, Conducted by Louis Lane, Recorded January 1, 1982, Telarc, 1982, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 28, 2015. 

Transcriptions and Telling the Whole Story

Upon studying an unfamiliar culture’s music, there are many different aspects of the music that could be taken into account. Simply the notational aspects of the music can be notated, such as pitches, rhythms, dynamics, tempos. However sometimes there are extra things that a western 5-lined staff cannot display in detail, such as pitch-bending, amount of vibrato, sliding, and tone-quality. This has been a challenge for many ethnomusicologists for years.

Two transcribers produced books regarding some to their findings about Native American Song. Theodore Baker published his dissertation ber die Musik der Nordamerikanischen Wilden (On the Music of the North American Indians) in 1882 while studying in Leipzig. His book describes most of the primary characteristics of the music he witnessed, like the rhythm, singing quality, dancing, and instruments. His notations include grace-note ornaments and chromatics slides. However, Baker does not go into detail how these features fit in with the music he transcribed, nor does his commentary note what function the music plays in Native American Spiritual life.

Frances Densmore, a well known ethnomusicologist, published The American Indians and their Music in 1926. Her book contains many of the same features as Baker’s, except her transcriptions do not include any grace-notes like Baker. However, she offers far more written context on the music. She has a whole section devoted to each dance, game, and Native American life. Overall I think that Desmore captures more accurately the meaning behind the music.

When looking into another culture that is not one’s own, it is important to mention all aspects that go into music because does not just involve the print ink on the page — it involves our cultural experiences and knowledge.

Portrait of the American Artist as an Old Man

When I walked into Print Study Room in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center, the first painting that caught my eye was this one of Walt Whitman. I was drawn to it because I recognized the subject. I can’t say I knew exactly what Whitman looked like beforehand, but I knew figure in the portrait was probably him. A wise looking older man with a beard of pure white wearing simple, earth-toned clothes–now this had to be America’s transcendental literary hero!

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Xanthus Russel Smith, “Walt Whitman.” Oil on canvas, St. Olaf College Tetlie Collection.

So, I was not surprised to pull a tag from behind the frame that read “Walt Whitman;” nor was I surprised to learn that the painter, Xanthus Russel Smith, was best known for his Civil War paintings. Why? Because this painting is a portrait. Portraits are created with intent. Unlike a beautiful landscape a painter happens upon or an idea a painter wants to portray visually, a portrait exists to honor a person. They are often planned and commissioned and sometimes even created for a specific room or occasion. Portraits depict heroes. That is why it made sense that the painter of this portrait also made Civil War paintings. Smith must have been interested in portraying what heroism in America looked like 19th century, and he chose Walt Whitman to be one such example.

My second guess, if this had not been Whitman, was Charles Ives. If not America’s literary hero, perhaps it was America’s musical hero! Ives certainly would have been deemed worthy of a portrait as well. Though the style of the clothing looked a bit old, I thought it could be Ives because of the subject’s white beard and older age. Then, I realized that–though the portrait could have been Whitman or Ives because they are both figures of American heroism–the main reason I knew it was either Whitman or Ives was because the man in the portrait was old. Why are the most well-known depictions of both Whitman and Ives of them as old men?

It must be because both of them were exalted by artists of the younger generation. Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac adopted his vagabond lifestyle and imitated his anaphoric style in their own writing. Ezra Pound said of Whitman, “he is America.” So though Whitman was writing in the 19th century, his works became very popular in the 20th century. Similarly, Ives was composing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but his works did not become popular until the mid 20th century, when composers like Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland promoted them.

Both Whitman and Ives were recognized long after their work was published and held up as examples of the American spirit. They both embodied the American tradition of individualism, originality, and self-sufficiency. Had Whitman lived in Massachusetts, he perhaps could have made it into Ives’s Concord Sonata. Passing down these American traits, like father and son, Whitman and Ives make me wonder if we have a current day example of the American artist as an old (white) man. Clint Eastwood? Or have we moved beyond this narrow definition of America (at least now we recognize that Whitman was gay!) to include American heros of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, and ages? Who do we paint portraits of today?


Art. I am talking about the physical art: paintings, sculptures, portraits and ceramics. These types of artworks are what make museums or art collections unique. When I look at such artwork, I spend so much time trying to interpret what the artists create. There may be little information displayed about the specific piece or the artist, but honestly how many people actually read it. What I enjoy most about looking at artwork is when I am able to get lost in my own thoughts to help me make sense of the artwork that is right in front of me.

Last week, while visiting St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum. There was a lot of interesting artwork displayed. There was one piece of artwork that stood out.

Steven Lucas

Continue reading

Recapturing the Dignity of the American Indian

The caricature of the savage Native American is all too common in the history of American Art. This is especially true in  art of the American West, rife with its depictions of pioneers and cowboys fighting off Indians and the elements in the name of survival and Manifest Destiny.

Some turn of the century artists like Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909) managed to rehabilitate this image, depicting ways in which Native Americans (and men in particular) could be pleasant to look at artistically. In the masculine world of the West, this primarily meant depicting them as active participants in the drama of uncharted territory. However, this also reinforced the notion that American Indians led a violent, uncivilized life.

Painting of a buffalo hunt by Frederic Remington

Painting of a buffalo hunt by Frederic Remington

"For Supremacy" by Charles Russell

“For Supremacy” by Charles Russell

This serves as a marked contrast to the Native American Portrait Study by Olaf Carl Seltzer (1877-1957) in the Flaten Art Museum Collection. The first word that came to mind when I saw it was ‘dignity’; the second was ‘still’.


Seltzer lived in Great Falls, Montana from the time he was 19 until his death. From that, I inferred (with the consultation of a map of Native American tribal territories) that this study is of individuals belonging to the Blackfoot tribe. A simple google image search confirmed this suspicion, as I found numerous portraits of Blackfoot members whose hairstyles and earrings strongly resemble those in the study.


Of course I don’t mean to suggest through this analysis that the Blackfoot people or any other group of Native Americans needs a white man to recapture their dignity. But it is refreshing to see that there is at least one instance in American art of someone capturing the dignity of Native Americans authentically not through violence, but through still portraits. Even if it is just a study.

In studying the history of American music, we have seen multiple times how non-white cultures have been repeatedly misrepresented. The violence latent in portraits by Russell and Remington can be found in stereotypical musical depictions of Native Americans that rely on similarly simplistic and vulgar generalizations: I’m thinking especially of pulsing drums, war-whoops, and melodies that only use pentatonic scales.

Even recent depictions rely on the simplistic drum patterns and repetitive melodies that have been stuck to Native American’s since the beginning, even when the atmosphere isn’t as frenetic, violent, or (in the case of Peter Pan) partially sexualized.

Who then is the Seltzer of American music? In other words, is there anyone that we can point to as capturing the essence of Native Americans without cheap theatrics? Perhaps the closest is Edward MacDowell’s Indian Suite (1892), which utilizes (alleged) Native American melodies. Luke provides an excellent study of this depiction here.

The unfortunate truth remains that we are relying on inauthentic depictions of Native Americans by whites to explore Indian-ness. But isn’t to say that there aren’t any Native American composers trying to do the same; a simple YouTube search shows otherwise. Unfortunately, these composers don’t hold a firm place in the current music history curriculum. While articles like this are a start, we as musicologists must strive to support authentic depictions of Native American music while remaining critical of the Russell’s and Remington’s of American music.

Social Implications of Rap Music

After thorough investigation of Frederic Remington’s life and travels, I found no evidence of him traveling to China or studying Chinese people… So I will do my best to interpret the Chinese Figure Study that Remington drew in the late 1800s, in relation to rap music of the 1990s. The Chinese Figure Study (see below) is and ink on paper drawing of three figures, presumably Chinese men. The most striking element of the drawing is the differences in each three men. From left to right they represent a different Chinese man: the far left, a Chinese man in traditional garb, perhaps more wealthy and to the far right, a westernized Chinese cowboy who represents a lower class immigrant.

Chinese Figure Study - Frederic Remington

Chinese Figure Study – Frederic Remington

If my interpretation is correct, the above artwork can be compared to the hip hop music from the 80s and 90s we studied. Rap/Hip-hop culture emerged in the Bronx, New York among young African Americans. This new hip-hop movement was a musical outlet for expressing the voices of the low-income Americans. The lyrics of hip hop music is very indicative of this internal and external battle the youths were facing. Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” exemplifies the battle of white and black social hierarchy:

“While the Black bands sweatin’
And the rhythm rhymes rollin’
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power”

In the song, Public Enemy talks about the rights of man and that they should fight for their rights. The painting displays a sort of classifying of man by race and socio-economic value. The binding similarities of an oppressed people are illustrated in both Remington’s Chinese Figure Study and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Walt Minstry: Jungle Book’s Blackface Performance

Disney’s The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was a huge box office success. The film was praised highly for its attention to voice casting as a primary identifier of character’s personality and animation. Unfortunately, it is this exact quality which creates some problematic issues.

The monkeys of the jungle are racially coded as black, a problematic choice of animal characterization, and further worsened by aural stereotypes. In their essay “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t,” scholars Susan Miller and Greg Rhode note that “Jungle Book frequently relies on verbal class and gender stereotyping for its “innocent” fun, displacing the visual black and white of Song of the South onto aural stereotypes.” While the animation of monkeys would clearly not be racist, specifically representing those monkeys as African American puts the innocence of intentions a little more into question.

The very lyrics and style of the song King Louis sings become quickly controversial in light of the black coded nature assigned to his character. The famous song, “I Want to Be Like You” which King Louis and the monkeys sing, is all about the desire they hold to be human. The refraining chorus states: “Ooh, ooh, oh! I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too ooh, ooh. You’ll see it’s true, ooh, ooh! An ape like me, ee, ee. Can learn to be Juoo ooh man, too ooh, ooh.” Writing an entire song about the monkeys desiring recognition as humans, and clearly coding those monkeys as black poses an incredibly racist issue in the film, highly inappropriate for a children’s animation.

Next, the issue of the black coded nature becomes further problematic by the fact that they are once again played by white actors. Just as Jim Crow in Dumbo was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, so King Louis is voiced by white actor Louis Prima. While it would clearly be racist to choose African American voices to present these stereotypes, it is in many ways worse to choose a white actor to play a clear racial stereotype as this is the exact premise behind blackface minstrel performances.

Even within the plot of jungle book itself, the idea of minstrelsy is promoted by the fact that Baloo dresses up in monkey attire, and proceeds to imitate and sing the same song as King Louis. Baloo, as a non-monkey, donning “monkeyface” and performing in exaggerated style, his perceived understanding of what that means, is a close parallel to blackface in which a white, dons “blackface” and proceeds to imitate a black coded performance based on offensive stereotypes.

Comparing the images of Baloo in monkey attire, with images of blackface performers, once again the similarities are disturbingly similar. The hair, large lips, cartoonish body language, Baloo is clearly putting on a blackface performance with King Louis.

jungle bookblackface

The images and parallels, promotion and reinforcement of blackface minstrel performance in today’s society is still present and alive in areas many don’t realize. Perhaps more disturbing is attempting to understand how to respond to such images in our culture. It is difficult to determine the intentionality of these types of images and stereotypes present in The Jungle Book. Are the creators deliberately placing racist material in their films, or are these simply embedded structures that people promote without realizing or understanding the implications of their meaning? Would boycotting any film which presents these stereotypes prove helpful in any regard? Ultimately, the only way that a society can change is through each individual influence on it. Becoming better educated in historical traditions, mistakes, and problems can help us become more aware of them in today’s society and prevent us from incorporating them into our own productions of art, actions, or words. By understanding the history of traditions such as blackface and minstrelsy we can become more aware of their presence in films such as The Jungle Book and make better judgments and criticisms of their problematic issues and hopefully prevent the continuation of them in future films.

Works Cited:

Miller, Susan, and Greg Rode. “The Movie You See, The Movie You Don’t.” From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture.” Ed. Bell, Elizabeth, and Lynda Haas, Laura Sells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. 86-103. Print.


Walt Minstry: Dumbo’s Jim Crow

Disney’s feature film Dumbo, released in 1941, tells the tale of a loveable baby elephant born with unnaturally large ears which he is consequently able to use for flying. One of the scenes presented in the film presents some highly problematic material however. Halfway through the film, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who assist in motivating, encouraging, and teaching him to fly. By aid of the “magic feather” the crows give him, Dumbo is then able to return to the circus and perform a revolutionary new act which crazes the nation.

Unfortunately, the crows Dumbo runs into are presented as African Americans. The very fact that Disney chose the particular characterization of crows to display black-coded stereotypes is questionable, but to make matters even worse, their leader’s scripted name is Jim Crow. The blatant reference to the offensive term of Jim Crow, the stereotyped language given to the crows, the voice casting of African Americans as the crows they’re playing, the animator behind their creation, and the role they play in the film’s plot all pose large problems which can’t be overlooked.

“Jim Crow” is a term full of racial connotations most often associated with the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900’s. Historian C. Vann Woodward notes that while, “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity. Thomas D. Rice wrote a song and dance called ‘Jim Crow’ in 1832, and the term had become an adjective by 1838.” The origin and etymology of the term comes specifically from a minstrel performance by Thomas D. Rice from the early 19th century. Although the exact origins of Rice’s inspiration for the Jim Crow character are unknown, it quickly became a sensational performance phenomenon. In his book Jump Jim Crow, W. T. Lhamon Jr explores the history and characteristics of the Jim Crow craze. He states that “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endures such widespread censure as well as continual appropriation.” Such a widespread cultural figure can’t be referred to without indicating the negative racial stereotypes associated with it. A visual comparison between the two characters confirms the similarities between T. D. Rice’s representation of Jim Crow in minstrelsy and the animation of Dumbo’s crows. Even the poses, dance, and body language of Dumbo is a direct tribute to the original minstrel tradition.jim crowjim crow dumbo

Having already established a problematic visual representation of Jim Crow, the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” next adds a disturbing linguistic stereotyping of African American language. The main line of the chorus uses speech reminiscent of early minstrel songs: “But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see an elephant fly” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics of this song in current Disney songbooks have changed the lyrics to “But I think I will have seen ev’rything when I see an elephant fly.” The removal of dialect from the printed sheet music seems to reflect a recognition of the racist implications to it.

The controversial visual and linguistic stereotypes presented in Dumbo’s crows are further complicated by the voice casting. Jim Crow is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while the rest of the crows are voiced by the African American choir Hall Johnson. (The same chorus Disney used in the racially controversial film Song of the South.) Whether it’s more problematic to have African American actors voicing racist stereotypes or to have a white actor voice a caricature of Jim Crow is difficult to determine. To have a white actor giving a racially black coded performance, even if animated, is the same act as a blackface minstrel show. And if the animated character being performed is Jim Crow himself, what makes this any different than T. D. Rice’s own performance a century prior to Dumbo’s release?

Works Cited:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

Lhamon, W. T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Disney Productions: The New Illustrated Disney Songbook. New York: Abrams, 1986. Print.

Miles Davis’ Jazz-Rock: Dichotomies of Sound and Experience

The cover of Miles Davis’ 1970 album Bitches Brew has in many ways become more iconic than the album itself.[1] Illustrated by Mati Klarwein, the mystical, Afro-centric imagery fused with psychedelic textures intensely deals with contradictory themes and ideas that were undoubtedly relevant in American political and racial culture at the time. Simultaneously, Klarwein’s contradictory images seem to capture the conflict inherent in Davis’ work throughout his career: how does a jazz giant like Davis continue to innovate without moving too far away from jazz?

The gatefold cover of Bitches Brew, illustrated by Klarwein

The gatefold cover of Bitches Brew, illustrated by Klarwein

His answer was to explore contradictory influences even further. Bitches Brew spearheaded the jazz-rock-fusion movement, replacing numerous components of his ensemble with electronic instruments, and rejecting traditional jazz structures in favor of the looser, long-form rock style. Davis also utilized a massive, rotating group of musicians, on numerous tracks using three keyboardists, two drummers, and two bassists.

This dichotomy was inherent to reception of the album as well. While some lauded Davis’ creativity in synthesizing what was commonly viewed as two divergent forces in American music, jazz purists thought that Davis had crossed the line and had abandoned jazz altogether. Critic Bob Rusch even went so far as to say, “this to me was not great Black music, but I cynically saw it as part and parcel of the commercial crap that was beginning to choke and bastardize the catalogs of such dependable companies as Blue Note and Prestige….” [2]

Davis singlehandedly changed many conceptions of what made jazz and jazz musicians

Davis singlehandedly changed many conceptions of what made jazz and jazz musicians

In typical Davis fashion, his response to the jazz establishment was essentially a giant middle finger: a second electronic, jazz-rock album titled Live-Evil, released in 1971.[3] As the title suggests, it featured live recordings by Davis and his personnel at the Cellar Door music club in Washington DC, most of whom also appeared on Bitches Brew. But the “live” component made up only half of the music, the rest of which was recorded in Columbia Studios. Again, we see Davis exploring dichotomies in the later stages of his career, balancing the chaotic violence of a live performance with the hyper-controlled realm of a studio session.

The cover art (again provided by Klarwein) provides a striking realization of this strange contrast. The pregnant, yet skinny black woman on the front is a perfect foil to the pale, grotesque, bloated monster on the back. As part of the ‘reflective’ nature of the album, the upper-left corner of the back says “Selim Sevad Evil”: “Miles Davis Live” backwards. John Szwed’s biography of Davis provides some clarity as to the origins and meaning of the cover art, via a quote from Klarwein:

“I was doing the picture of the pregnant woman for the cover and the day I finished, Miles called me up and said, ‘I want a picture of life on one side and evil on the other.’ And all he mentioned was a toad. Then next to me was a copy of Time Magazine which had J. Edgar Hoover on the cover, and he just looked like a toad. I told Miles I found the toad.”[4]


Gatefold cover of Live-Evil, illustrated by Klarwein

Ironically, Live-Evil was much more well received than Bitches Brew, despite the fact that it took what critics dislike about BB to further extremes. It was lauded for its accessibility and musical purity, even though the tracks had greater levels of electronic manipulation.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the holistic art of the vinyls is the liner notes. Bitches Brew contains a lengthy, poetic assessment of the music by Ralph J. Gleason, American music critic, founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and cofounder of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Its an abstract piece of writing that seemingly rejects the nitpicking of other critics concerned with such subjective notions as genre:

“so be it with the music we have called jazz and which i never knew what it was because it was so many different things to so many different people each apparently contradicting the other and one day i flashed that it was music.
that’s all, and when it was great music it was great art and it didn’t have anything at all to do with labels and who says mozart is by definition better than sonny rollins and to whom.”[3]

But when one opens the centerfold of Live-evil expecting to find another passionate defense of Davis’ innovations, they instead find a series of candid pictures of Miles.

MD portraits

Not concerned with critics, nor legacies, these liner notes simply say “This is me.” Or perhaps, “Me is This.”

Notes:     Both Vinyls are available in Halvorson Music Library. Bitches Brew call number: M1366.D3 B5.  Live-evil call number: M1366.D3 L5.

Entire Bitches Brew liner notes by Gleason available at:

[1] Davis, Miles. Bitches Brew. Columbia, 1970. LP.

[2] Rusch, Bob. Ron Wynn, ed. All Music Guide to Jazz. AllMusic. M. Erlewine, V. Bogdanov (1st ed.). San Francisco (1994): Miller Freeman Books. p. 197.

[3] Davis, Miles. Live-Evil. Columbia, 1972. LP.

[4] Szwed, John. So What: the Life of Miles Davis. Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (January 9, 2004) p. 319.

Minstrelsy Never Really Died—it Simply Changed Media

While many of these southern folk music pieces wrote by Stephen Forster presented sympathetic portrayals of African American characters, like the heartbreaking “Old Black Joe”(I mentioned in my first post), songs like “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna” became linked with offensive stereotyped images of slaves, and was used in minstrel performance. Strangely, in the early and mid-twentieth century, in addition to using the songs to establish geography and time period, film scores and cartoons also began using Foster’s music as a way to negatively define a minority character’s station in life.

067.017.000.webimage 640

Although they by no means initiated the trend, film like Blazing Saddles used “Camptown Races” in a shorthand way of defining characters’ region (southern), race (african American), and personalities (hedonistic). The boss assumes his request was misunderstood. He wanted a “darky” song, like “Camptown Races.” In the film, when the boss starts to sing it, he wants to imitate a buffoon in minstrel performance with his untrained voice, awkward dance movements, and exaggerated “negro dialect”.

Cartoons like the Bugs Bunny shorts also used “Camptown Races” to strengthen the stereotype. The song was used to reinforce a drastic change in a character’s personality, or a costume change; this often happens when a character suddenly takes on blackface or even slave-like characteristics, as in Bugs Bunny’s transformation into a minstrel performer singing “Camptown Races” at the conclusion of Fresh Hare (1942). When we watch animated cartoons, how much does music shape our perception of the narrative? And why are Stephen Foster’s songs so prevalent in cartoon music in what has come to be known as animation’s golden age (1930s–1960s), especially in cartoons that depict African American slaves, blackface minstrelsy, and the South? Is it because Forster’s songs no longer deal with some exotic setting in another continent, but rather with real people in real places within the United States (Smolko, 348)?

As Daniel Goldmark says, “Minstrelsy never really died—it simply changed media.”


Work Cited:

Smolko, Joanna R. “Southern Fried Foster: Representing Race and Place through Music in Looney Tunes Cartoons.” American Music 30.3 (2012): 344-372.

Popular Music at the Pause circa 1977

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For many students at St. Olaf, the Pause is a hub for campus activities and a source of music on weekends (I may be biased as an employee…).  Obviously the genres of popular music have changed, but so has the culture and environment of the room in which we choose to listen to music.  Searching through old Mess articles show just how differently students spend their free time.

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Article about the opening of the New Pause 1977


Currently, the Pause is a big concrete box of sharp angles and harsh corners.  It just screams “nightclub,” in its vibe, and as every tour guide can tell you, it was modeled after the Minneapolis venue, First Avenue.  Events in the space owe their success to the intelligent lights that spin, strobes placed behind the drum risers, huge powerful subwoofers, black lights illuminating the pit, and blinder lights that yes, blind the audience.  In short, very flashy lights and loud sound are used best with DJs and for large dramatic concerts–the recent Betty Who, Matt and Kim, or Hoodie Allen.

But the old Pause was completely different.  Located in the basement of Ytterboe, it was nicknamed a “Hobbit Hole” due to its small entrance and hidden feel.  Articles written when the old Pause was the new Pause say that “the atmosphere of the new Pause is still quite Bohemian” (S. Crumb).  Gold candles and a dark wood stage contributed to the coffeehouse vibe–which it indeed was.  No pizza was served, but coffee, cheese and crackers, and yogurt (?!?).  Performances consisted of many folk groups and students covering folk songs.  Hall and Oates, Seal and Crofts, Joan Baez, Loggins and Messina, Cat Stevens–artists who based most of their music around a voice and a guitar, all singer/songwritters.  The folk revival was in full swing.

Kenny Loggins, House at Pooh Corner

Seals and Crofts, Prelude / Windflowers

As a result, Mess articles describe performances in the Pause as “mellow” and “smooth.”  Students looked for more intellectual, introspective entertainment, and the venue responded to them.  Popular music can totally define architecture and design of a space. Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.17.48 PM Sources:

Muss, Solveig, “Mellow on Friday at the Pause.” From The Manitou Messenger:  Volume 093, Issue 007, 08 Nov, 1979.  Accessed 4/21/15.

S. Crumb, “Grand Opening of New Lion’s Pause.”  From The Manitou Messenger:  Volume 091, Issue 003, 29 Sept. 1977.  Accessed 4/21/15.

It’s Musical Theater! So it’s ok… right?

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.41.47 PMThis week we have the great opportunity to delve into the history of our community at St. Olaf by looking through the well preserved archives of the college’s student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger. The “Mess” as it is often referred to by current students captures events on campus and student news ranging from academia to athletics and yes, music. From our class discussion on American musical theater, I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of our theater department and it’s musical productions and my search yielded an article about the St. Olaf performance of Gypsy in 1987.

gypsy merm Gypsy, a 1959 musical with book written by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, andlyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee (1914-1970). Rose Lee was an entertainer who specialized in burlesque, a style of dramatization intended to cause laughter.  The musical centers of Gypsy’s mother who attempts to turn one of her daughters into a Vaudville star.  Rose, Gypsy’s mother, eventually convinces her younger daughter Louise to do a striptease on stage which catapults her into fame. Louise soon becomes known as “Gypsy Rose Lee” and eventually rejects her mother’s assistance in her ascent to stardom.

Our course this semester we have talked about a wide array of political and societal issues concerning American music and musical theater is no exception. Setting a story to music and then putting that story on stage adds multiple layers for contention.  Women in music has been a common point of interest for the course and Gypsy puts a controversial topic at center stage. Director Patrick Quade stated that “the production has accepted the responsibility of trying to avoid offending people” when asked about the musical’s touchy subject. The arts often provide the opportunity to push the envelope and Quade certainly took that opportunity.  My favorite quotation from Professor Quade addresses the controversy directly as he states: “why are we doing a play that treats women as sexual objects?… This aspect of the musical is part of American history, and you don’t wipe out history.” For Patrick Quade, the purpose of putting on a production of the musical Gypsy was not to spark an uproar, but to spark a conversation. Examining musical theater and the progression of musicals as a form of entertainment provides a hefty amount of insight into not only the musical style of the time period, but also the issues of the era. These conflicts are preserved though the musical work and provide the unique opportunity to serve as entertainment and as an educational tool with each production.


Brown, Dave. “Musical Comedy “Gypsy” Opens Thursday.” Manitou Messenger, November 6, 1987, Lifestyle/Arts sec. Accessed April 21, 2015.

A Time for Singing; Take-home Hymns for the Church Year

Today, the majority of congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America use the most recent book of worship, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published by Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis in 2006.  Before that time, congregations mostly used the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship.  20 years prior to the release of LBW, the red Service Book and Hymnal was printed.

In the year 1971, Dale Warland, most famously known for having conducted the Dale Warland Singers in St. Paul until 2004, and Paul Manz, well-known organist in the Minneapolis area, recruited a chamber choir, and small brass ensemble to record 62 hymns representing the entirety of the church year.  Recorded by Lutheran Records, it was distributed by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis.



As the subtitle suggests, this record was meant for families to play in their own homes as a way of learning hymns and worshipping at home.  Between each track is a 10-second band of silence so as to find each track easily.

The back of the record sleeve indexes the hymns used to outline the church year.  Next to each hymn, there are two numbers.  One represents the page number where the hymn can be found in Augsburg’s The Hymn-of-the-Week Songbook.  The second number, preceded by “SBH” represents the hymn number of its occurrence in the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal.  The inclusion of these referential numbers makes these records an accessible teaching tool.  Those families that want to teach their children about classic hymns, or those that want to worship in their own home, are able to locate each hymn with ease, both on the record, and in their songbook or book of worship.



Within the record sleeve are paragraphs explaining each of the seasons and high feasts of the church year.  These paragraphs give the listeners and worshippers a little context of how each hymn fits in with the corresponding season or feast.



I think this is a very fun and effective way of introducing hymns to homes.  Unlike many CDs today, this record is very interactive.  Given the size of these LPs, there is plenty of jacket space to provide very useful and pertinent information.  What makes it more musically appealing is the fact that the musicians are not your average church musicians or church choir.  Paul Manz and Dale Warland have established themselves in the organist and choral worlds as being phenomenal musicians.  There is no information about who the singers are, other than “12 professional singers,” but under the direction of Dale Warland, they are superb.

As a Church Music major, this record makes me want to go out and purchase a turntable and listen to it all the time!

Live from the hill: KSTO’s second wave

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How did students get their news in the 1960s? The Manitou Messenger was the main source, but events were also broadcast through KSTO, the radio station which went through several ups and downs in the past 60 years, and which now occupies the 93.1 air wave. Acting as KSTO’s assistant manager has led to my interest in the station’s history. What were the goals of the original staff, and what kind of music was broadcast? Putting together a more comprehensive history than our blog’s page is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and the Manitou Messenger seemed like a logical and reliable source. I tracked the first few years of KSTO’s history through Mess articles, and surprisingly, I found more information about the station’s managerial past than the musical catalogue. Ultimately, I found that the music and news came from the hill more than the Great Beyond. But still, culture and drama ensue! Read all about it:

KSTO’s official “History” page states that the station began broadcasting in 1957, beginning each day with “Fram! Fram! St. Olaf” and ending with “A Mighty Fortress.” The Mess began its coverage of KSTO in 1959, writing about the grand reopening of the station (songs played during the first day included selections by the Kingston Trio, the St. Olaf Choir, and “a smattering of mood music interspersed with Broadway show hits”). The paper reported that “Plans…provide for regular news broadcastings which will include information of scheduled Hill activities and side lights.”

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Early broadcasts kept students posted on campus activities, but “music of the type conducive to study” was played during evenings from 6-10 pm. The radio station occasionally advertised their events in a small box entitled the “KSTO Korner” (this only stuck around for a few years, maybe due to the unfortunate name that can only be attributed to the happy-go-lucky, “gee whiz!” tone of the 50s-era Mess). What we learn, however, is that KSTO supported live campus talent through its show “The Dessert Inn”–we can only assume that some of the campus talent involved music.

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KSTO underwent more changes in the early 1960s, installing a Current Carrier system that connected the station to the student dorms. Reports from the 60s are pretty sparing, although KSTO’s history page notes that the station had a weekly publication of top ten hits at the time. Large events in KSTO’s history–most notably a fire in 1970 that destroyed $3,000 worth of equipment–went unreported, but we know that debates and school sporting events were broadcast across campus.

KSTO has evolved significantly from its 1959 iteration, but there are still some similarities between the new and old station. There were budget proposals (despite the fact that the 1960 request of $125 is a far cry from our current budget), shows with student discussions, and a regular programming schedule. Interestingly enough, some of our current goals for the station–more campus involvement, a bigger focus on news, and field reporting from live events–resemble the focus back in the day. And luckily for us, the station’s connection with the Manitou Messenger is stronger now, with the paper reporting on upcoming concerts and publishing the station’s schedule every semester. We’d like to continue that partnership–even though we could potentially nix the impassioned editorials.

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“History.” KSTO 93.1 FM. Accessed April 20, 2015.

“Thursday Night Marks Grand Opening; Return of KSTO Station to Campus Radio.” Manitou Messenger, May 1, 1959. Accessed April 20, 2015.

The Great Hope of Whitewashing in 1890s ‘Ethiopian Song’

“Would you Paint All the Colored People White?”

The titular question of what the sheet music claims is “Walter Dauphin’s Great Ethiopian Song” sounds simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. One on hand it seems to be pleading to God on high to make the ‘Colored People’ white, easing their lives of trial and hierarchical suffering. On the other, it seems to be asking, “if you could, would you?”

PaintPaint 2

A closer look at the text of the song affirms that the desired emotion of the song is hope, as the idea of painting them is a scheme for the speaker to do the things he’s been “dreaming” about. Presumably, becoming white would allow this individual greater freedoms previously unable to them. This seems like a truthful sentiment coming from a black person in 1893, but of course thats not really the case. The title page also says “Sung with Great Success by ‘The Eldridges’ and all the Leading Minstrels”, confirming that this was definitely a piece associated with blackface performances, though this doesn’t change the fact that this music is surprisingly and spiritually tender.

On the other end of the spectrum is “When the Black Folks Turn White”, a jaunty tune by Ragtime composer Joe Haydn (Not Franz Joseph). This 1898 composition has an extremely different tone from the Dauphin, with a text stating that God’s creation of African Americans was an accident. The ‘joy’ of the piece then, emerges from humorous impossibility of Blacks ever achieving a better life status.


While their is a hope for salvation with the coming of the millennium, it doesn’t make sense for this idea to be taken seriously with the light nature of the sheet music, especially compared the religiosity latent in Dauphin’s composition. Instead, the significance of both these pieces is that they deal with the idea not of blackface, but of whitewashing. What does this say about blackface performers that they would be willing to adopt blackface in order to sing about wishing they were white? Is it possible they were actually grateful for the life they were given based on their skin color? Or were they just rubbing it in?



The Runaways Planted a Cherry Bomb in the Rock Industry

The Runaways

The Runaways in the 1970s.

The Runaways were one of the first all-female rock bands in the 1970s. They recorded and performed from 1975 to 1979. The band was formed in 1975 by Joan Jett and Sandy West (rhythm guitarist/songwriter and drummer, respectively) with the help of producer Kim Fowley. After several arrangements of members, the “original” five were completed by Lita Ford on lead guitar, Cherie Currie on vocals and Jackie Fox on bass.

Best known for their single, “Cherry Bomb,” The Runaways were not well-known in the United States during the time that they were active, achieving greater success in Japan due to that single and a successful 1977 tour.

“Cherry Bomb,” inspired by Currie’s “cherry-blonde looks and name,” was written on the fly at her audition to be the lead singer of the band after she had shown up planning to sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Combined with Currie’s choice to don a pink coset she bought from a small lingerie shop, the success of the song impounded as Currie’s sexual appearance added to her stage presence, increasing the appeal of the song to their audiences. The song became the Runaway’s anthem and fight song, and by blatantly using Currie’s sexuality and sexual appeal, they inspired many people to divert from societal expectations and become more daring in their dress and expression.1

In an interview for a 2010 issue of Goldmine magazine, Currie said that she is “proud of what The Runaways did [. . .] That we went from just kids in the Valley – and Huntington Beach and Long Beach – to following our dreams and standing up there for the rights of girls and women everywhere, that [showed that] hey, we can do this and we can do it as well as [men] can.”

Shortly after their tour of Japan came to a close before 1978, the band’s lineup as followers commonly know it disbanded with Currie leaving. Throughout the band’s existence, the group has had five different bassists (Micki Steele, Peggy Foster, Jackie Fox, Vicki Blue and Laurie McAllister). Three members remained relatively unchanged: Joan Jett on vocals and guitar, Lita Ford on guitar and Sandy West on drums. The “original five” appear on their first three albums together, and for the final two, West, Blue, Ford and Jett performed as a quartet. Due to disagreements over which direction the band should go in musically, the band split up in 1979.

After their breakup, each member went on to pursue their own projects. Joan Jett went on to found Blackheart Records, through which she wrote and performed music as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as well as helping other artists with furthering their work. Currie is under contract on Jett’s Blackhearts label and spends the majority of her time chainsaw carving after spending years as a drug counselor for addicted and at-risk teens. Ford and West worked on music together for a time that did not come to much fruition and are now involved with their own projects.

The Runaways were important to the rock genre because they were one of the pioneering all-female groups in the 1970s. Continuing in the vein of all-female musical acts prior to the 1970s, The Runaways trod into the unfamiliar territory of the male-dominated rock genre, using their sexuality as a mode for making their music accessible and appearing “less threatening” to male listeners as they sang songs about female liberation and rebellion to the pulse of heavy rock. The Runaways were a truly subversive, producing music that fit into an already rebellious genre, they achieved international success in a field that was not immediately welcoming to them while deconstructing the stereotypes the rock music industry had for women breaking into the genre.


1. Lindblad, Peter. “The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ gets a chainsaw.” Goldmine (10552685) 36, no. 8 (April 9, 2010): 44-46. Music Index, EBSCOhost(accessed April 21, 2015).

2. The Runaways. Cherry Bomb: Live in Japan. Concert excerpt, Japan 1977.

Dames at Sea? All Aboard!

During class last week, we focused on musical theater in the United States and its “American-ness.”  I thought it would be a fun adventure to dig through some of our musical theater history at St. Olaf.  Below is an article from April of 1980 in the St. Olaf school newspaper Manitou Messenger.

manitou messenger pic

It caught my eye when I read the title of the musical and it was Dames at Sea.  It is, indeed, a rags-to-riches story about a variety of women actresses, or the “dames” in the musical.  The director of the show, mentioned here as Margerum, refers to its patriotism as a story resembles the idea of the American dream.  Margerum also points out the coincidence of picking this play before “all of the war news came out,” and I’m assuming he’s speaking about the Cold War.

However, what I found to be the most exciting about this news page was the role of women in theater, and how both articles offered different viewpoints on the subject.  Although the Dames at Sea story has very stereotypical love triangle (or hexagon) theme, the women are the centerpiece of the story, and provide the vessel through which the American dream is fulfilled.  The article directly below this, however, offers a different view on feminism, sponsoring a theater production revolving around a woman and her “survival of the brutal sixteenth-century frontier.”

I guess I just find some pride that even in 1980 the St. Olaf community was fighting for feminism.  Some people think of the Women’s Rights movement as something that happened in the late 1800’s with women’s suffrage, and then is continued today in modern feminism.  However, just 4 years before this article in The Manitou Messenger was published, it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife.  In 1978, just two years before this article, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, forbidding employers to discriminate hiring, firing, or forced leave based on women’s pregnancy.  Those laws were found on a women’s rights timeline site found here and the rest of the timeline can be viewed if you like.  There are many more in different encyclopedias and on the web, too! With that being said, it looks like St. Olaf was just following in the footsteps of years before, continuing to keep feminism in discussion among the St. Olaf community, and I’m glad this tradition has continued.

The Music of Salome: Western Fabric, Eastern Accents

As evidenced by the artwork on the album cover and liner notes of this 1961 LP recording of Richard Strauss’s Salome,1 the artists involved in making this recording aimed to create an atmosphere of exoticness, the East, and “Otherness.” On the cover, Birgit Nillson, who plays Salome, bears her teeth and pointed, red nails in a vicious, animalistic stance, and on the liner notes, the illustration focuses around the exotic peacock motif. Screen shot 2015-04-20 at 4.14.15 PMScreen shot 2015-04-20 at 4.16.34 PM

The opera aims to portray “Otherness” in more ways than just the visual. In terms of the libretto, as the liner notes state, “Its exotic language caresses an exposed nerve in the type of elegant audience for which it was written.” As for the music, the notes read, “Strauss enclosed Wilde’s drama in music that is . . . extraordinarily concise yet lavish in detail. Mood is everything: from the first clarinet notes one is plunged into the Byzantine night and the tension is never relaxed.” With Salome, Strauss aimed to create a comprehensive portrait of the “East” through which to portray a story of violence and immorality.

As I listened to the final scene of Salome on Halvorson Music Library’s own copy of this LP, I noticed several elements of auditory “Otherness” in the music. At the beginning of the scene, sudden crashes of brass and percussion are reminiscent of Classical era uses of the sublime to convey terrifying foreignness. Surprising keys and chromatic turns have a similar effect. Toward the end of the scene, Strauss conveys exoticism through the clarinet, whose chromatic motif evokes the Asian/North African street tradition of snake charming. As the opera ends, percussion reverberates like a gong (there may even be a gong in the second recording below) and a blaring trumpet enters unexpectedly to play the closing melody. I included a Youtube recording of the Vienna Philharmonic with Birgit Nillson2 (similar to the LP recording I listened to) as well as a Youtube recording of Nillson at the Metropolitan Opera3 for an American comparison. I noticed that the closing trumpet in the Met version sounded even more raw, jazz-like, and surprising than its European counterpart. Perhaps this is because, for white Americans, jazz automatically signifies a racial “Other” as well as lowbrow music.

All of these “exotic” elements are so noticeable, however, because the basic auditory backdrop of Salome is Western. The orchestra consists of European instruments (like the clarinet) that play in an “Eastern” manner instead of actual instruments from ancient Judea (southern Israel) where the opera takes place. Too, the unexpected harmonies–while used in an Orientalist manner–are not uncommon for a piece of Modern music, so they would not have been scandalous to the ear when Salome first arrived.

So how does all of this relate to American music? Let us put the music of Salome in the context of its failed opening performance at the Met in 1907. As the audience watches a high art version of Salome portraying subversive female sexuality through dance, it also hears music that evokes the “East” but ultimately asks to be taken seriously as high art. The European fabric of Strauss’s music makes it difficult for audiences to dismiss it as inferior, but the “exotic” auditory decorations are frequent enough to cause discomfort. For this reason, the music of Salome contributed to the tensions over legitimate and non-legitimate art that caused the Met audience to reject the opera.


1 Strauss, Richard. Strauss: Salome / Solti, Nillson, Vienna Philharmonic. Decca 000692102, 1961, LP.

2 “Richard Strauss: Salome (Solti),” Youtube video, posted by Scherzo Music, September 25, 2013

3 “Birgit Nilsson “Salome’s final Scene” Salome,” Youtube video, posted by Addiobelpassato, November 9, 2013



Jazz at St. Olaf

Lentjazz It seems St. Olaf has been hesitant to embrace Jazz as a sound musical genre, especially in regard to liturgical music. In this 1968 article of the Manitou Messenger, Ms. Berglund summarized a student jazz liturgy setting performed in chapel and asks questions that point to Jazz as a potentially profane and intrusive art form for worship. “Is jazz profaned by its association with night-clubs or can it also be a song of praise?”[1]


Contrast this with an article from 1977, when The Preservation Hall Jazz Band visited St. Olaf in what the Manitou Messenger calls the “most enthusiastically received concert at St. Olaf.”[2] The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is made up of a pool of musicians that rotate over the years, but was started by Allan and Sandra Jaffe in 1961 New Orleans, who were interested in preserving the traditional jazz style free from commercial imperatives.[3] Becoming famous by touring and recording, Preservation Hall is internationally known and remains one of the popular tourist sites of New Orleans, so of course it was a big deal that they came to our humble little bubble at St. Olaf.


The writer goes on to say that “everybody has heard Dixieland jazz before, but this concert gave us all a chance to see and hear a jazz band doing it the way it was originally done. This style influenced every form of American music since 1900, from Joplin’s rags to Chicago’s rock.” Perhaps due to a lack of curriculum on jazz at St. Olaf at the time, or general lack of scholarship, the writer has a misconception that jazz influenced ragtime, when in reality the syncopated rhythms of ragtime along with the blues style are cited as the origins of jazz. In addition, to assume that the concert of 1977 was a presentation of how jazz was originally done is a pretty bold claim, considering any time a performance claims some kind of authenticity, there are certain details/styles included and excluded. These two examples suggest St. Olaf is not a little bubble, filled with scholarly prowess and immune to the world’s ideals. The stereotypes about the origins of jazz and its perceived development as a “profane” style pervade music history as well as St. Olaf history. We can’t say St. Olaf, as an academic and music institution, was above these problematic notions about Jazz then, so my question is, has much changed?

[1] Marcie Berglund, “Lent services feature Heckman’s jazz liturgy,” Manitou Messenger, March 1, 1968.

[2] Mike Stiegler, “Original Jazz Preserved for Olaf Audience,” Manitou Messenger, March 4, 1977.

[3]  Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed, s.v. “Preservation Hall Jazz Band.”

The forgotten vs the popular

This week two records are thrown into the cage and only one will be the victor. First up is After the Ball: A Treasury of Turn-of-the Century Popular Songs. Including songs “After the Ball”, “Good Bye, My Lady Love”, “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?”, and many other great hits from 1892 – 1905. These songs are all performed by soprano Joan Morris and pianist William Bolcom. The album features liner notes from Joan Morris as well.
20150420_140158Morris and Bolcom

In the other corner is Where Have We Met Before?: Forgotten Songs from Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. This record boasts tracks such as “Where Have We Met Before?”, “What Can You Say in a Love Song?”, “You Forgot Your Gloves”, and other forgettable tunes from 1931-1939 and 1944-1947. These songs are performed by all sorts of bands, small groups, and orchestras. The album is defended and presented by theorist Milton Babbit. Which of course begs the question, “Who cares if Milton Babbitt listens to unsuccessful tunes from years past?”



A serious difference between these two contenders is their (re)interpretation of the songs. In the case of Morris and Bolcom, they create a team that likely would have been familiar in the homes of first listeners. Most of these early songs success depended on sheet music sales which meant that common, untrained musicians had to like them and buy them for casual performance and entertainment. However these songs also would have been initially presented on stage for Broadway productions and had slightly larger orchestrations than voice + piano.

In contrast Where Have We Met Before? gives us original recordings that are all within a year of the publication or first performance of the song. In his liner notes, Milton Babbitt gives an overview of the history of the songs from sheet music to radio to movies and back again. Babbitt also delves into questions of genre in popular music and what it means that these songs all present similar form and style as our other contender, but either didn’t sell or did and were forgotten. Most of these songs are written by Tin Pan Alley greats Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, among others. Babbitt argues that these songs were a victim of history, caught between favored genre and technological change.


Of course there is the ever present issue of Milton Babbitt as our liner note writer. Babbitt gives these songs meaning that they might never have had otherwise. Why present songs that were forgotten if you are a distinguished theoretical mind and professor. My personal theory is that while Babbitt was spending all of those hours in university basements composing and putting together his pieces he listened to these obscure pop songs from the 30s and 40s and found love for them. More on the point, does Babbitt give these songs undue authority? Do these songs represent something that the successful ones cannot? Do they mean more because they were written and forgotten, but Milton Babbitt says that we should listen to them?

Perhaps it is just a way to pay homage to great writers and songsters that are not appreciated fully and only remembered for a few super hits. Possibly it has something to do with a little blurb at the bottom of the page.


This could be Babbitt’s ego manifesting itself as a Tin Pan Alley fan.

Racism v. Nostalgia in Oklahoma!

FullSizeRender-2Oklahoma! the musical opened on Broadway in 1943, the first written by the Rodgers and Hammerstein duo. The musical premiered during WWII when this show was needed to provide an escape for Americans from the horrors of war. It ran on people’s nostalgia for the great American West and a time of “no conflict.” The show, interestingly, leaves out Native Americans and any hints of conflicts that actually occurred in the Midwest.

Oklahoma! centers around a cowboy named Curly, his romance farm girl Laurey, and Jud the farm hand who Laurey develops feelings for later on. It’s set in the town of Calremore, OK in 1906. Laurey and Curly represent the “wholesome American” ideal that was common in mythic story around WWII. Cleanliness and a separation from “animal nature” in humans was a critical part of this image, and it was science and technology that were seen as essential to their achievement. For example, women during this time were discouraged from nursing their babies; bottles were considered more hygienic than human tissue. “Scientifically-concocted” formal was said to be more wholesome and nutritious than breast milk. Modern was equated with wholesome and good.

By tapping into this “modern” movement, Oklahoma! became a raging success. It ran on Broadway for over 5 years. According to the Manitou Messenger, even the St. Olaf Theater Dept. put on its own production of Oklahoma! in 1962.

Recently, Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2012 made waves with its production of Oklahoma! with its choice to reflect the historical presence of African Americans in the Oklahoma territory because it amplified “one of the ugliest stereotypes in our history: an imposing black man ravaging a petite white woman and the white hero.”1 It made “clear references to lynching…the “Dream Ballet” had a sinister, sexual tone and ended with Jud dragging Laurey away to be raped.”

Jud appears to be keeping Laurey and Curly apart in the "Dream Sequence" in 5th Ave. Theatre's 2012 production of Oklahoma!

Jud appears to be keeping Laurey and Curly apart in the “Dream Sequence” in 5th Ave. Theatre’s 2012 production of Oklahoma!3

One critic wrote “Rothstein’s (the director) Oklahoma! is now the story of a crazy, sex obsessed black man … lusting violently after his white mistress, who ends up murdered at the hands of a white man, who gets off scot free after a mock trial.”2

So what’s worse? The original Oklahoma! blatantly leaves out all minority groups to try an create this sense of nostalgia for “simpler times.” But, the 2012 Seattle version obviously reinforces horrendous stereotypes in an attempt to include African Americans in the show. Should we try to include minority groups that were originally written out of the show or try and fit them in? It seems like neither is a great option…

1 Brodeur, Nicole. “Oklahoma Seen in a New Light.” The Seattle Times. Feb 20, 2012.

2 Strangeways, Michael. “Oklahoma at the 5th Avenue Is a Bit Problematic.” Seattle Gay Scene. Feb 10, 2012.


How Jewish should Fiddler be? The creative process behind “If I Were A Richman”

“Fiorello” was the 1959 Tony Award-winning hit that had made Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick a famous Broadway duo. Their next project: turning Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye Stories into a musical that “just happened to be Jewish.”1 Bock and Harnick had personally, for the most part, left Jewish religious observance and Yiddish behind. However, they still wanted to engage with Aleichem’s themes and historical implications with their next project.

mvsrch_front-22In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof made its Broadway debut at the Imperial Theater, encompassing perceptions before and after WWII of Jewish identity, as well as bringing “Jewishness” into popular American culture.

Hal Prince, who was financially backing the show (and who also happened to be Jewish) made clear that he would only support the show if Jerome Robbins (who had just done West Side Story (1957)) directed. However, it was very unlikely that Robbins would want to work on the project, as he had made clear that he “didn’t want to be a Jew…he learned ballet to escape the wondrous and monstrous dance steps he feared he’d find by digging down to his Jew self.”3

However, in 1959, Robbins had taken a trip to Poland in search of the Jewish village Rozhanka, where his father was born and he had such fond childhood memories. However, the village had been destroyed in the war, which Solomon argues is what “primed Robbins to lavish such tenderness upon the fictional Anatevka” and he agreed to direct Fiddler.4

worldkino3_zpsdc698faa5Robbins drew from shtetl histories and hosted screenings of “Laughter through Tears,” a film that depicts Jewish life in pre-revolutionary Soviet Russia for the show’s costume and set designers in hopes that they would draw ideas for the show from it. Robbins also crashed Jewish weddings with cast members in hasidic dress in Brooklyn’s Borough Park to observe the “schnapps-fuelled dancing.” He even attempted to bring Othodox social customs to the rehearsal hall by enforcing gender segregation, but his attempt only lasted a few hours before the actors rebelled!


Robbins interviewed his father about his escape from Rozhanka and modeled Yente after his memories of his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandmother, whose “Jewish backward ways he’d previously despised.”6

if i were a rich man sheet music7Zero Mostel, the original Tevye complimented Robbins with his superior knowledge of Yiddish literature and Jewish customs. It was Mostel who insisted that Tevye would never neglect to kiss the mezuza when passing through the doorway of his home, and Mostel who persuaded Harnick not to cut the verse in which Tevye dreams of a synagogue seat by the Eastern Wall from “If I Were a Rich Man.”

The song was inspired by the 1902 monologue by Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish, Ven ikh bin a Rothschild (If I were a Rothschild), a reference to the wealth of the Rothschild family. The lyrics are based on passages of Aleichem’s “The Bubble Bursts,” one of his short stories.

In the first two verses, Tevye dreams of the material comfort wealth would bring to him. I see this as Tevye’s character being drawn to “mainstream American culture” that values consumerism and capitalism, especially in postwar society.

In the final verse, Tevye further considers his devotion to God, expressing his sorrow that his long working hours are preventing him from spending more time in the synagogue praying and studying the Torah. I see this as Tevye’s character further being drawn back by his Jewish roots and culture and away from the temptation of materialism.

Finally he ends by asking God if “it would spoil a vast eternal plan” if he were wealthy. I believe this is Tevye summarizing his internal identity conflict with asking God how he can balance mainstream culture with his strong faith.

1 Solomon, Alisa. Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. New York: Picador, 2014.


3 Solomon, 2014.

4 Ibid.


6 Solomon, 2014.

7 Bock, Jerry & Harnick, Sheldon. “If I were a rich man.” Fiddler on the Roof. New York: Sunbeam Music Corp., 1964.

Did they Walk the Walk? (The Cakewalk.)

The entry on Grove Music Online under “Cakewalk” describes an origin of the contest from slaves on plantations in the American South.  Claude Conyer, the author, explains how the dance became a “strutting parade” parodying the fancy manners of the white slaveholders.  In Conyer’s origin story, the first cakewalks happened around 1850 and inspired the popular comedic minstrel shows that were all the rage.  However, minstrel shows were popular earlier on, beginning in the 1820s and continuing with the Virginia Minstrels’ first show in 1843.

Which came first?  Did slaves dress to the nines in order to make fun of the overly glamorous plantation owners, therefore creating a political statement?  Or did minstrels originate the “Zip Coon” figure, dressed to the nines as a favorite stereotype?

Does it matter?

Conyer’s simple statement is an example of the entire history of minstrel song and the misappropriation of Black Americans in minstrelsy.  He goes on to describe how the dance was performed as a grand parade entrance, dancers wearing ridiculously fashionable attire and exaggerating every gesture.  The accompanying music to the cakewalk often contained characteristics of early ragtime:  syncopated rhythms and leaping bass lines.  One example of a two-step or cakewalk piece is Kerry Mills’ “At a Georgia Camp Meeting,” composed in 1897.


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1st Verse

A camp meeting took place,

by the colored race;

Way down in Georgia

There were coons large and small,

lanky lean fat and tall,

At this great coon camp-meeting.


When that band of darkies began to play

Pretty music so gay hats were then thrown away

Thought them foolish coons their necks would break

When they quit laughing and talking

And went to walking, for a big choc’late cake.

The lyrics to this piece describe a culture without substance, intelligence, or more than base desires.  Every person at the gathering is labeled as a “coon,” and the “foolish coons” walk a cakewalk because no desire could be greater than a chocolate cake.

Although Sterns in Jazz Dance explains that “Negro specialists…everywhere were much in demand” (Stearns 42), it is obvious that even those attending cakewalks were only looking for material to be used as commercial gain.  The endearingly simple “coon” sold seats and gained laughter and applause.  But now the history of minstrelsy, more well-preserved than the history of Black culture, corrupts what we actually attribute to Black Americans.

Now that takes the cake.



Claude Conyers. “Cakewalk.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 14, 2015

Stearns, Marshall and Jean.  Jazz Dance : The Story of American Vernacular Dance.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

“At a Georgia Camp Meeting.” Kerry Mills. :: Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>.


It was all continued with a mouse…

If you were to open the VHS vaults in many homes you would find many unique tapes.  There may be some home videos, possibly last year’s Christmas special that you recorded, but almost certainly there would be a Disney film or two (or 17).  The Walt Disney Company, originally known as The Disney Brothers Studio, was founded in 1923. Since its establishment, Disney has produced dozens of films that have become staples in the entertainment industry and, as Walt himself always said, “it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse is arguably the most beloved Disney character and he got his debut performance in November of 1928 in the animated short Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie marks a turning point in the world of cartoon entertainment, as it was the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. This technological advance opened the door for music of the era to take a ride on a new venue and broaden its reach as a popular song of the day.

If you have not actually seen Steamboat Willie, I invite you to do so! It is truly a piece of Americana.

There are two musical selections that can be heard in Steamboat Willie: “Steamboat Bill” and “Turkey in the Straw.”


“Steamboat Bill” cover: Obtained from Duke University, Digital Collections


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“Turkey in the Straw” cover: Obtained from University of California, Archive of Popular American Music











Melody from “Steamboat Bill”: Obtained from Duke University, Digital Collections

“Steamboat Bill” is the first song we hear in the animated short. Originally written by the Leighton Brothers in 1910, “Steamboat Bill” gained immense popularity in the 1910s and 1920s to the point that the movie Steamboat Bill Jr. was named after the tune. So where exactly can we hear the tune of “Steamboat Bill” in Steamboat Willie? Undoubtably the most iconic element of the short is Mickey Mouse standing at the wheel and whistling away. That tune is actually the chorus of the popular song, “Steamboat Bill!” If you’re able, whistle the tune and you’ll see it is a perfect match!


Screenshot of Steamboat Willie and the music for “Turkey in the Straw”

So what about “Turkey in the Straw?” Well our first encounter with the piece is actually in its physical form. After landing on the steamboat, Minnie Mouse drops her music which includes the famous “Turkey in the Straw” which is quick consumed by a goat. The goat is converted into a record player of sorts and a minstrel-esque performance begins, complete with a washboard and a set of pots and pans.

What is the importance here.  This course pushes us to look beyond the “song and dance” if you will, and search for historical context.  Mickey Mouse is a beloved character known to millions around the world who got his start in “minstrelsy”. Is he in “blackface”? Not exactly, but in examining his actions it is pretty clear that he is, in fact, performing in the minstrel tradition. “Turkey in the Straw” is a song historically know for being a part of minstrelsy and the instrumentation and exaggerated movements of his performance reinforce the tradition.

Preserving the Binary with “The Dusky Salome”

After Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” hit the United States in 1907 in Strauss’s opera, an outbreak of “Salomania” occurred in which many songs and dances in the popular sphere took on a Salome theme. By 1908, vaudeville and burlesque shows were full of different Salomes, from “When Miss Patricia Salome Did Her Funny Little Oo La Palmoe” to “My Sunburned Salome” to “The Dusky Salome.” What all of these representations of Salome have in common is the fact that none of them are authentic to the opera’s portrayal of Salome and none of them try to be. The writers of such songs capitalized on inauthenticity, giving audiences exaggerated, drag-like performances of stock characters so far from reality that audiences could enjoy them.1

One stock character used for Salome was the white, American girl-gone-wild, and another was the overly ambitious African American woman performer.2 “The Dusky Salome” (lyrics below; listen here3) portrays the latter:

The fair Evaline was a ragtime queen
with a manner sentimental;
But she sighed for a chance at a classical dance
with a movement oriental.
When lovesick coons with ragtime tunes
sang, “Babe, you’ve got to show me,”
She’d answer, “Bill, you bet I will,
I’m going to dance Salome.
Oh, oh me, that’ll show me, For

CHORUS: [the music shifts to ragtime]
I want a coon who can spoon to the tune of Salome.
I’ll make him giggle with a brand new wiggle that’ll show me;
In a truly oriental style,
With a necklace and a dreamy smile
I’ll dance to the coon who can spoon to the tune of Salome.

One musical coon said tonight I’ll spoon
where the fair Salome lingers.
When she danced ’round the place he just covered his face
but he looked right thro’ his fingers.
He sighed “It’s grand my heart and hand
I’d give to see you do it,”
She only said: “Give me your head
I’ll dance Salome to it,”
I’ll woo it, that’ll do it. For4

Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 12.40.12 AM“The Dusky Salome” parodies that idea that Salome could be used to bridge the gap from low art to high art and from blackness to whiteness. This idea is ironic because Salome’s dance in Strauss’s opera is not traditional high art–it contains the exoticized sexuality more typical of popular music and usually required of African American women. Ultimately, the song reinforces the idea that sexuality, foreignness, and blackness belong to low art, not high.

What’s more, the song’s mixing of musical genres, use of “oriental” sounding lower neighbors (m. 16), and use of stock-characters (including the pejorative c–n character popular in minstrelsy) verifies popular song as a place of cheap thrills and commodification. The cover of the sheet music for the book in which “The Dusky Salome” appears explains it all with a male actor playing Hamlet but holding the head of John the Baptist as Salome does when she kisses it. The intent of this odd melange is obviously humor based on inauthenticity, not edification, which was reserved for the classical sphere.

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To conclude, songs like “The Dusky Salome” served to maintain the distinction between lowbrow music and highbrow music, perpetuating a binary system that kept sexuality and “otherness” at the bottom and edification and whiteness at the top.


1 Larry Hamberlin, “Visions of Salome: The Femme Fatale in American Popular Songs before 1920,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 59/3 Fall 2006, pp. 631-696.

2 Ibid.

3 Jerome, Benjamin, Edward Madden, and Maude Raymond. The Dusky Salome. Recorded August 2, 1909. Victor, 1909, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 14, 2015.

4 Jerome, Benjamin and Edward Madden. “The Dusky Salome.” In Eddie Foy in Mr. Hamlet of Broadway. New York: Trebuhs, 1908.

What sells sheet music?

Have you ever noticed that many ragtime tunes sound the same? Listen to the following two clips for their similar harmonic motion/progressions, the similarity in rhythmic syncopation/complexity, and form. Each have a general intro and short repeated sections, which unless you have become very familiar with the tune are very hard to remember.

The Felicity Rag:


The Ragtime Goblin Man:


How is it possible that publishing companies could sell something so similar sounding and make it popular? It is clear that the Felicity Rag’s cover draws on minstrel like, simian caricatures, while the Ragtime Goblin Man has an enticing cover with a devil-like character controlling two musicians who according to the lyrics will get caught by the goblin and be made to join his ragtime band. Even thought the tunes’ striking similarity make them seem unmarketable, they have been made unique and sensationalized by their evocative front cover art and titles/lyrics. Publishers, composers, and artists who could appeal to the popularity of minstrelsy, the exotic, or the romantic, had successful marketing strategies for popular music. On one hand, it is problematic to have popular tunes, that “represent” different meanings, sound the same because there is a whole lot more complexity to music across cultural/racial/imaginative boundaries. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate to put a minor mode or augmented second in the ragtime tune that is named for Jewish culture or another Other as was done in Schultzmeier Rag, a Yiddish novelty.172.106.000.webimage

Now, thinking about today’s popular music, with similar harmonic progressions, rhythmic variations, and subjects, the marketing strategies really haven’t changed that much. When you think about the image sold with the music, whether it is the caricatured lifestyle of a celebrity, or the sensational lyrics, today’s popular music continues these successful marketing strategies at the expense of perpetuating problematic stereotypes.

Irving Berlin

As the composer of such quintessentially American songs such as “God Bless America” “White Christmas” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Irving Berlin’s music can be quickly defined as American music. In spite of his exceptional ability to capture the spirit of America, he was born in Belarus formerly the Soviet Union (although his family emigrated to the United States when he was five).

Irving Berlin composed ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that defined American popular song. Later in life, Berlin was credited to being a songwriter who reflected the feeling of the crowd. In saying this, Berlin could capture that common American talk and made those words and feelings into poetry and music that was simple and graceful and easy to understand and connect to.

Berlin wrote his first song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 later receiving great acclaim and eventually selling over one million copies of sheet music.

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Not only acclaimed for his brilliant compositional style, Berlin was also attributed to his skillful ability to write his own text. In each piece his words could relate to any listener and earned a generally high approval of any work that he did. Over five decades Irving Berlin was able to keep up with the trending styles and wrote music and lyrics for close to 1,000 songs during his lifetime.

Through the myriad of genres and audiences to which he contributed, Irving Berlin assimilated into the American culture for which he was one of the primary providers. In 1988 at Carnegie Hall, famous musicians speakers and fans gathered to commemorate Berlin’s works on his 100th birthday. Irving Berlin lived to be 101.



“Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. :: Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <>.

“IRVING BERLIN’S 100TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION .28.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <>.


E.P. Christy’s Minstrel Troupe

American composer and performer, Edwin Pearce Christy, was an influential person in the history of Minstrelsy and theater in American history. His career in minstrelsy began in New York in the 1840s and from there he became a sensation. He and six other performers performed around the country in black-face and eventually he began composing his own minstrel songs and sketches. In 1855 he retired as a performer, but he continued to be involved in the theater as he managed his original group Christy’s Minstrels. This early form of minstrelsy was surely racist and prejudice, as slavery was still legal in the southern states. Here are a few examples of his work (note the cherubs are in black face surrounding Christy’s portrait… narcissistic racism at its’ finest.):

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The tune in the image above, “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay” is yet another false portrayal of the African American sentiment. Slaves were not happy to be enslaved, and the minstrel shows went out of their way to satirically demonstrate a falsehood among white audiences that African American individuals liked doing menial work on plantations. Stephen Foster, a colleague of Christy but more well-known, created similar portrayals of plantation life through music and sketches. However, Foster was perhaps more admirable in that he sought to ‘eliminate objectionable lyrics’ that didn’t serve any purpose but to degrade that African American race. This was either a tactic to gain more supporters, thus a social and political move to further his career or maybe he truly had a kind(er) heart.

Fun fact: Christy committed suicide during the American Civil War for fear of money troubles…



Saunders, Steven. “The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster’s Plantation Melodies.” American Music 30.3 (2012): 275-89. JSTOR. University of Illinois Press. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Christy, Edwin Pearce. “Happy Are We Darkies So Gay.” New York : Jaques and Brother: 1847. The Mills Music Library Digital Collection.

Zip Coon…Dance Tune?

Almost all of us know the melody of “Turkey in the Straw,” whether singing it at summer camp when we were kids or singing along with The Wiggles before school. The song “Zip Coon” is also based off of same melody and was most popular in the 1830’s and 40’s when it was sung in minstrel shows to depict the “coon” stereotype. Despite its controversial racist lyrics, the melody is catchy and works well for dancing.

When minstrelsy was becoming popular, so were the tunes that were being performed. What better way for people to enjoy these famous songs but to dance to them as well? One of the popular dance forms during the 1840’s was the quadrille, which is related to square dancing today. It contained six parts and four couples would dance in a square formation. This composition features six popular tunes from minstrel shows, including “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow,” and uses these tunes as the six parts of the quadrille. The cover features depictions of many famous minstrel show stereotypes.

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By the 1920’s, slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 following the American Civil War. However, segregation remained strongly prevalent throughout the United States. The mindset of white supremacy among non-African American citizens pervaded even into their music. In this arrangement of “Turkey in the Straw” by Otto Bonnell and arranged by Calvin Groom, the cover of the sheet music features an African American man playing a banjo.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 20.34.38

Or so it seems.

Upon closer inspection, the depiction of the man is clearly referencing blackface. When compared with the cover of “The Crow Quadrilles,” the large eyes and clown-like red lips are a means of hearkening back to the “good old days” of minstrelsy. The man is also missing teeth and his hands have an animalistic quality to them, characterizing the African American as less than human.

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The tune of “Turkey in the Straw” is set as an innocuous foxtrot in this arrangement with no racial implications. However, with the cover depicting African Americans in such a condescending fashion, it is clear the intent of the music is to invoke a feeling of nostalgia to a time when white men owned slaves. In that case, this piece is not any less offensive today than “The Crow Quadrilles.” Instead of titling it “Turkey in the Straw,” it may have just as well been labeled as a foxtrot based on “Zip Coon.”

1. Ashley, Robert. “The Crow Quadrilles.” New York City, NY: C.T. Geslain, 1845.

2. Bonnell, Otto. “Turkey in the Straw.” Arr. by Calvin Grooms. New York City, NY: Leo Feist Inc., 1921.

“Note for Note Indian”: Finck’s claim on Edward MacDowell’s “Indian Suite”

Henry T. Finck wrote in Century Illustrated Magazine about Edward MacDowell’s success in creating an American sound that is a “mixture of all that is best in European types, transformed by our climate into something resembling the spirit of American literature.” In fact Edward MacDowell has become well known as the writer of the 10 Woodland Sketches, including tunes such as “To a Wild Rose.”

Finck was specifically speaking of MacDowell’s Second Suite commonly known as the Indian Suite. As Finck points out, “the introduction has almost a Wagner touch thematically, but it is note for note Indian.” However, when have you listened to any type of Native American music and thought it sounded like Wagner? Even though MacDowell’s piece sounds western to our ears, MacDowell was trying to create a savage piece. However, The fact of the matter is that Edward MacDowell used the transcriptions of Native American by Theodore Baker entitled On the Music of the North American Indians. These tunes have been written down on a western staff using western notational conventions. As you may know, Western staff notation can only speak in notes and rhythms but fails to represent all the subtle dips and bends in pitch.

Yes, I would agree that Edward MacDowell’s Indian Suite is a note-for-note representation of Theodore Baker’s transcription, but I believe that it cannot be considered note-for-note Native American. Native American music’s style is so distinctive from Western style that I think it is impossible from western music to properly represent all the Native American music has to offer.

All Quotations from:

Finck, Henry T. “AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: EDWARD A. MACDOWELL.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906) LIII, no. 3 (01, 1897): 448.

The Jazz Singer: from stage to film

the jazz singerMuch of the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 is due to the massive popularity of the star Al Jolson. Regular concert goers and musical theater fans were familiar with Jolson who performed to sold-out audiences at the Winter Garden theater on Broadway. Jolson began performing in blackface make-up early in his career when he realized that it made him even more popular.[1]  Most of the music featured in the film is either traditional Jewish music such as Kaddish and Kol Nidre, or popular music of the time.

The popular music comes from successful writers Paul Dresser, Lewis Muir, Irving Berlin, and Walter Donaldson, among others. The popular music is all written and published before the filming of The Jazz Singer. Jolson often graces the covers of these published tunes, illustrating just how public he was in the music that he performed. While the movie plot follows the course of an aspiring minstrel singer, it basically functions as a minstrel show on film. This makes sense of course, but also falls to the problems with minstrel shows. Even more, the popularity of the movie comes from the popularity of Jolson and the music he has already made popular.



The movie is an attempt to gain as much publicity as possible by including several popular songs and a most popular actor, Jolson. Using the minstrel techniques to gain popularity ignores where they come from and places them on a stage which legitimized blackface as a way to confront discrimination on all accounts.

[1] Oberfirst, Robert. Al Jolson: You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet. (London: Barnes & Co., 1980), 61-80.

Sheet Music Consortium

Library of Congress

Bebop Is Vulgar Music

Bebop was a jazz form birthed from a revolt against popularized commercial music.  As such, it was bound to have backlash and evoke strong reactions among the listeners. While researching this topic, I didn’t expect to find what I did: throughout decades of this music being around, the reactions have been somewhat… racist.  And the racist remarks coincidentally point to the Chinese.  See for yourself, as the article below shows a conversation at the U.N. which was published in the New York Times October of 1953.


bebop picture


This article aims to point out the bias of the Chinese interpreter at the U.N. discussion.  As the English representative used the work “bepop” which was a cognate in 4 of the 5 languages present.  However, the Chinese interpreter translated “bepop” to “vulgar music.”  So why is this strange?  Well on the front page regarding Bepop in the book Music in the Modern Age, there’s a quotation from Louis Armstrong as he disparagingly referred to Bepop as “Chinese music.”  This is pretty funny, isn’t it? After all, the Chinese representative would probably disagree with Louis, unless he thinks Chinese music is vulgar.

bebop chinese music picture


A modern band today known as The Far Eastside Band even includes this quotation in their liner notes, calling out Louis on his lack of knowledge on the subject. They Proclaim something that Armstrong would never imagine: how American jazz could integrate the American greats like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman with Asian instrumentation and improvisation.  Those liner notes can be found here and they introduce their new album “Caverns.”

So why did I decide to write my post about this?  I think the article really struck me and resonated when reading Armstrong’s quotation because this is not the first time in history it has happened.  We have associated Eastern music with something that is different and, often, strange.  Bepop was a strange form of jazz, and it was easy for listeners to describe it as Chinese with a negative connotation, labeling it strange and foreign, and perhaps unpleasant to listen to.  Unfortunately, this trend has not disappeared, as film scorers often use pentatonic scales to invoke the environment of Eastern lands or foreign places, tying down that scale to just that one location.  Even the soundtrack of Bug’s Life is ridden with this, and it won many music awards.  I just think we as viewers and listeners need to be conscious of how we associate certain sounds with certain cultures, being careful to see music as an open connection where cultures and individuals can influence one another, not a stagnant and reliable sound to be scrutinized.

Joan Baez and the Rise of the Folk Protest

Joan Baez with her guitar

Joan Baez with her guitar

The 1960s were a decade of political development and social unrest. American folk music became a method of conveying political ideas and protest, and the singer-songwriter fell into the important role as the purveyor and curator of civil disobedience. This style of folk music was adopted by college students who saw it as a meaningful vehicle for bringing about positive, humane change to the world. “Like Zen Buddhism and organic foods, folk music swept the colleges as a hip fad. Indeed, since the 1930s folk music had a close connection to the radical left in America (especially communists and socialists), and had increasingly been taken seriously by folklore scholars as a guide to past social mores.”

The prevalence of protest folk did not exist without criticism. Folk purists believed that protest songs were “pretentious, portentous and ponderous” and that folk-protest writers were “political hacks who wouldn’t recognize either folk music or folk style if it were walking along beside them in a peace march.”

Joan Baez was a folk singer-songwriter who made a name for herself in the 1960s (and then on) performing folk ballads. As the social and political climate heated up in the United States and around the world, Baez became a civil rights and universal nonviolence activist. “As the child of a decade of agitation, her attitudes and life-style evolved so smoothly that she seemed not to have changed at all. Joan blended into the protest tradition, into pacifism, into activism, into a publicized marriage and motherhood, into a vicarious martyrdom, . . . and finally into a national symbol for nonviolence.”1 She had a very appealing voice, which served her well in attracting audiences to her music.

Joan Baez wrote many songs of political and social protest, utilizing her distinct voice that became associated with the folk singer-songwriter genre. Saigon Bride is one of the songs she wrote, which appears on her 1967 album Joan. The following are the lyrics to Saigon Bride:

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

How many dead men will it take
To build a dike that will not break?
How many children must we kill
Before we make the waves stand still?

Though miracles come high today
We have the wherewithal to pay
It takes them off the streets you know
To places they would never go alone
It gives them useful trades
The lucky boys are even paid

Men die to build their Pharoah’s tombs
And still and still the teeming wombs
How many men to conquer Mars
How many dead to reach the stars?

Farewell my wistful Saigon bride
I’m going out to stem the tide
A tide that never saw the seas
It flows through jungles, round the trees
Some say it’s yellow, some say red
It will not matter when we’re dead

Starting out on a local scale in California, Baez ended up playing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960 and then signing onto Vanguard Records for the next 12 years. Baez played many shows internationally and during the Vietnam War, she began playing internationally, including a show in Tokyo, Japan in January 1967. At this show, the translator later admitted that he left out all of Baez’s political comments after being instructed to do so by a man who identified himself as a CIA agent.

Instead of interpreting her subtle antiwar sentiments in Saigon Bride, the interpreter told the audience that it was a song about the Vietnam War. It is interesting to see how time and again, governments have feared the strength of a song or piece of art. Instead of listening to something and learning about its meaning and background, we are told to move past that and consume something topically or refrain from interpreting and consuming it altogether.

Joan Baez is one of the first recognized folk protest singer-songwriters and someone who has really affected the style of political song today. With singer-songwriters pioneering the political song, it has moved through rock, country, to rap and hip hop. Political protest today takes its form in many ways and the efficacy of that art is dependent on the audience it reaches out to.

1. Rodnitzky, Jerome L. Minstrels of the dawn : the folk-protest singer as a cultural hero. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. x-87. Print.

2. Baez, Joan. Saigon Bride. Joan, CD, 1967.

Recreating Jewish Identity in the postwar era: Is Fiddler on the Roof Jewish enough?


Zero Mostel with ensemble in F... Digital ID: psnypl_the_5222. New York Public Library

Zero Mostel and ensemble in the original Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof (1964)1

After World War II, American Jews felt an increase in security and prosperity. There was a general decline in anti-semitism and an increase in political power. In parallel, many Jews pushed to assimilate economically, culturally, and symbolically in America.2 In the making of the 1964 musical, initially investors, particularly Jewish investors, feared the show would be considered “too ethnic,” meaning “too Jewish.” Later, with Rosie O’Donnell starring in the 2004 Broadway revival, it wasn’t Jewish enough.3

The story focuses on Tevye and his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions, while outside influences encroach upon his family’s lives. He is forced to cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who marry for love instead of following the matchmaker, Yente’s choice. Each daughter’s husband moves further away from the customs of Tevye’s faith and the edict the Tsar has made that evicts Jews from their village.

I find this storyline to be perfect for a postwar hit in line with the recreating of Jewish identity. Jews in America are no longer concerned with security and genocide, and therefore must come to terms with their faith–often questioning God, their faith, Jewish law as is seen in Tevye’s character.

I think this is clearly seen by the opening song, Tradition, which explains the traditional roles and social classes in Anatevka and the villagers trying to continue their traditions and keep their society running as the world around them changes. This echoes the real-life struggle to reshape Jewish identity in the postwar era in America.

In an interview with the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, he describes Tevye as “universal…he has no nationality, because he symbolizes the underprivelaged in every country– no matter what adversary he meets, he just puffs up his chest and goes on.”4 Even in Barbara Isenberg’s Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical, she writes

“Fiddler has become a sort of tabula rasa for terrorism, repression, and prejudice that seems eternally pertinent. Warning that “horrible things are happening all over the land” could apply to Nazi Germany, Vietnam, or Iraq as much as to pre-revolutionary Russia…If you are running a theater and you want to make money, Fiddler is a shoe-in: It’s a show people always want to see.” It’s a little like saying diamonds are pretty because they sparkle.”5

There seems to be quite a debate between Fiddler being too Jewish by creating a story centering around Jews so soon after World War II. But also and I think more so, that Fiddler isn’t Jewish enough because Jews (like the investors) wanted to tame the Jewishness of the show in order to appeal to a wide audience. Ultimately, the goal any Broadway is to sell tickets and fill seats. Perhaps though in the process of selling seats and appeasing a wide audience, much of Sholem Aleichem’s original story may have been misinterpreted and/or misrepresented.


2 Ciment, James. “The Meaning of Jewishness.” Postwar America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. New York: Routledge, 2015

3 Isenberg, Barbara. Too Jewish?: The Making of Fiddler on the Roof. Los Angeles: St. Martin’s Press, 2014

4 Stang, Joanne. “At Home With Tevye.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 04, 1964.

5 Isenberg, Barbara. Too Jewish?: The Making of Fiddler on the Roof. Los Angeles: St. Martin’s Press, 2014


Blest Be the Tie That Binds: Connecting Races with Music


The World’s Columbian Exposition, commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair, of 1893 served as a turning point for America in many ways. The fair brought almost 1/3 of the country to see a Chicago reborn out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, a shining White City representing the beautiful, though definitely idealized, America. As the world came to see the fair, many dignitaries and VIPs also visited.

Quinn Chapel, Chicago, IL.

In his mid-70s, the orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of these VIPs. His visit to Chicago elicited a reception in his honor at the Quinn Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The program welcomed men and women of all races to celebrate and honor the achievements of the Hon. Mr. Douglass by presenting on topics like “Why our ministers love him,” “From a business standpoint,” “The mothers of the race,” etc. Between the presentations and speeches (many notably by African American speakers), the assembly joined in the singing of songs and hymns.

The reception’s organizers knew the power of music to connect people. Hymns especially unite the Christian faith together, reminding how similar people really are, no matter the color of their skin or their eyes, or the amount of money they have (“Amazing Grace” immediately comes to mind). One of the hymns sung at the event strikes me as especially poignant, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” by Rev. John Fawcett, the pastor at a small church in Wainsgate, England, in the 18th century:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

I can only imagine the power of that moment, races coming together to sing a message of unity and hope, praying for the future of love and friendship to come soon and free all from toil and pain. As modern-day musicians, we must remember that the ability of music to proclaim messages calling for social change makes it the responsibility of musicians to write about, compose, and trumpet messages like this one. Sometimes we need a reminder, for as Frederick Douglass, calling for the end of lynch law, said in his final remarks, “What [Americans] needed was a higher Christianity, one that is not ashamed of any of God’s children.” We still need that higher Christianity today.

“The Douglass Reception: An Exceptional Affair in Many Respects–Something of the Programme and Certain Participants.” Cleveland Gazette. December 9, 1893.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, 2401 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed April 7, 2015).


Reinterpreting Billie

Billie Holiday

On the week of her 100th birthday, Billie Holiday’s influence on American music is clear. Her style, tone, and storytelling abilities paved the way for a strong vocal jazz tradition. As the narrator in the Creative Arts Television’s 1959 documentary “Portrait of Billie” puts it: “Today, if you sing jazz and you’re a woman, you sing Billie Holiday. There’s no other way to do it. She wrote the text.” The way that women, or any performers, choose to interpret that text, is just as important as Holiday’s original recordings.

Cassandra Wilson has put considerable thought into interpretation. The jazz vocalist, who has been lauded for “embracing a wide range of American music,” has taken on the Billie Holiday songbook as her latest tribute project. She will perform the collection of rearrangements, entitled “Coming Forth by Day,” on April 8th at the Kennedy Center; the vocals will be accompanied by rocker Nick Cave’s rhythm section. When discussing the album in an NPR interview, she stressed that her goal was to avoid cliches and reinvent the songs. In her words, “I couldn’t wait…to do some wild and crazy things to it.”

Cassandra Wilson

When reading the NPR article, I was initially struck by Wilson’s desire to sing the music so differently. With some tribute projects (see most classic rock tribute acts, for example), the goal is often to mimic the original artist as much as possible. But with jazz, change is necessary. Wilson comments: “It’s beyond improper–it’s considered rude, in jazz, to imitate someone. So for me to do a tribute to Billie Holiday and imitate her style or her context would be almost insulting.”

I immediately thought about quoting, or using another artist’s melody in a piece. This is common practice in jazz, but in the context of another song, the quoted melody hardly ever has the same tone. Wilson will change the music, but her main focus is on changing the context. Her rendition of “Don’t Explain,” a song about a cheating lover, will have a more empowered perspective, as opposed to being told from a victim’s viewpoint. In today’s context, the song should sound fresh, free from cliches, and open to interpretation.

The latter half of “Portrait of Billie” does some quoting of its own. At the 19-minute mark, the documentary features a modern dance set to Holiday’s music. Carmen De Lavallade plays a woman who becomes an iteration of Holiday; she’s soon joined by John Butler, who represents Billie’s various struggles in life–her abusive relationships, her troubles with alcohol and drug abuse. The dance was choreographed the year of Billie’s death; at the time, she had recently passed away at the age of 44. While the dance is a fine artistic representation of her life, it does seem somewhat dated. I’d like to see what it would become in the hands of a modern-day choreographer. Would the dance be as allegorical? What songs would be used instead? Or would covers of Billie’s songs, like Wilson’s reinvented ones, replace the original recordings?

If listeners find all this requoting offensive, it’s important to remember that Holiday herself didn’t stick to the original material. According to the documentary, early publishers mistrusted Holiday’s tendency to play with the melodies and change the text–essentially, putting an improvisational spin on jazz that was as scandalous then as it is celebrated now. As a rising star, she claimed to be influenced by Bessie Smith’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s style of trumpet playing. She didn’t copy them exactly, but they served as her biggest inspirations. Quoting and changing the music in this context is not disrespectful–in fact, it’s the highest form of tribute a musician can pay.



“Cassandra Wilson ‘Couldn’t Wait’ To Reinvent The Billie Holiday Songbook.” NPR. April 5, 2015. Accessed April 6, 2015.

Portrait of Billie. Performed by Carmen De Lavvallade, John Butler. U.S.: Creative Arts Television, 1959. Film. Found on Alexander Street Press.


El Salón México: a Production of Political Ideology?

A few scholars had pointed out that Copland’s music in 1930s-40s was somehow associated with the idea of Pan Americanism. During the promotion of “Good Neighbor Policy” time, not only did Copland serve the government in an official capacity, but he published on Latin American music and composed Latin-American–style works such as El Salon Mexico.

Audiences are pretty sure that Copland’s deep interest in Latin America music absolutely went beyond the “Good Neighbor policy”, but I personally think that Pan Americanist aesthetic ideology actually influenced Copland’s way of composing. Some Argentine critics also pointed out that Copland’s interest in Latin America was largely motivated by his leftist politics, and that this ideology, moreover, permeates the very scores of his Latin- American–themed compositions (Crist 2003). They insisted that various forces had aligned to promote U.S folklore as an emblem of progressive politics.

However, Copland did care about his audience and the music public. It is said that in his memoirs, Copland claimed El Salon Mexico had “started the ball rolling toward the popular success and wide audience I had only just begun to think about.”


Crist, Elizabeth B. “Aaron Copland and the popular front.” (2003): 409-465.


To attract the public attention (or promote the belief of Pan Americanism), Copland tried new approaches in his composition. El Salon Mexico uses an abstract ideal of musical logic in favor of a rhapsodic form that emphasizes rhetorical coherence more than structural design. In addition, this one-movement orchestral fantasy features a new accentuation of melody. As the first of Copland’s works to make extensive use of folk song, this composition captures the spirit of the eponymous dance hall by quoting traditional Mexican tunes and evoking such popular musical. For example, it shows how Mexico rhythmic developments are free and always in transition.


Copland, Aaron. “The Story behind My El Salón México.” Tempo, No. 4 (1939):2-4


I would think that during Copland’s time, he promoted folklore to Latin American composers while cultivating accessible folkloric elements in his own music- and all these qualities also valued by the government committees on which he served.


Works Cited:

Crist, Elizabeth B. “Aaron Copland and the popular front.” (2003): 409-465.

Copland, Aaron. “The Story behind My El Salón México.” Tempo, No. 4 (1939):2-4

“We’re singing it because you ask for it”: Ella Fitzgerald, Scatting, and “How High the Moon”

Album cover for Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 album, Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife, which contains her legendary performance of “How High the Moon”

In the late 1950s and 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement took precedence in American politics, critics began to view music through the lens of race. Jazz was a frequent subject of scrutiny because of its history as an African American art form commonly performed by white musicians. Until this era, jazz was considered a “colorblind” art form, but as racial tensions rose, it became impossible to ignore the racial implications that came with the performance of jazz.1

Almena Lomax, a civil rights activist and journalist for the African American newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune, criticizes Ella Fitzgerald for her acquiescent attitude toward white producers in a 1960 article. Lomax asks, “how come once she is on it [a television program] and the magic of her name has been used to snare viewers, she is given the lesser roles . . . and why does she continue to sit still for such patronizing treatment?” According to Lomax, Fitzgerald had the ideal voice to sing Gershwin, but at a recent all-Gershwin program, Fitzgerald was relegated to sing “only the ‘virtuoso’ numbers–in the tradition of the Negro showing his ‘extra heel,’ or his sixth finger, or his tail, or whatever it is that stamps him as something else but human.” Lomax goes on to compare Fitzgerald’s rendition of “How High the Moon” to such Uncle Tom-like behavior:2
Screen shot 2015-04-06 at 8.36.46 PMWe cannot be sure of what rendition Lomax is referring to as the “last time” Fitzgerald sang “How High the Moon.” Fitzgerald first recorded the song in 1956 on her album Lullabies of Birdland, and another performance of it was recorded in 1958 at Mister Kelly’s, but the recording was not released until 2007. So Lomax is either referring to the Lullabies of Birdland version or a performance she heard live. She is not, however, referring to the famous Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife recording of “How High the Moon” because that concert did not occur until February 13, 1960, about a month after this article was published.

Assuming Lomax was using the Lullabies of Birdland recording as her reference, I am wondering if Lomax may have had different thoughts about the implications of “How High the Moon” after hearing the Ella in Berlin recording. You can hear the transformation Fitzgerald’s interpretation underwent between 1956 and 1960 by listening to the links below:

Lullabies of Birdland (1956)3

Ella in Berlin (1960)4 

In the earlier recording (which Lomax may have been referring to), one could feasibly make the argument that Fitzgerald’s scatting merely serves to please white audiences. She begins the song politely, moves into the expected scatting section using her bag of tricks, and then closes nicely in a little over three minutes. By contrast, the later recording carries a markedly more defiant tone. Taking nearly seven minutes, but a much faster tempo, Fitzgerald sings with an almost frightening virtuosity. As she transitions into the scatting section, her voice becomes brassy and her tone almost exasperated on the words:

We’re singing it
Because you ask for it
So we’re swinging it just for you

As her scatting progresses, she sings, “I guess these people wonder what I’m singing” but continues to scat at the same pace, showing that she does not care if the audience keeps up or not. Her scat includes low, exasperated sounds that make it clear she is not singing to please. She also quotes a number of songs, including “Ornithology” by saxophonist Charlie Parker, aligning herself with the bebop direction of jazz. Toward the end of the song, she seems to put on an affected operatic tone that arpeggiates the tune excessively, followed by a low “hng” sound imitating the sound of an instrument. She moves so quickly through these polarized styles that the effect is shocking more than it is impressive or pleasing to the ear.

So while Lomax is wise to be skeptical of Fitzgerald’s exclusive use of virtuosity in comparison to white performers, she could not yet know that Fitzgerald would reclaim this virtuosic style for herself in Berlin. On a final note, in is significant to consider the history of the song “How High the Moon.” Written by white broadway songwriters Lewis and Hamilton and first popularized by white singing duo Les Paul and Mary Ford, “How High the Moon” was in fact transformed into its scatting glory by Ella Fitzgerald. Rather than letting the song own her, she owned it.


1 Monson, Ingrid T. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

2 Lomax, Almena. “Notes for Showfolks,” Los Angeles Tribune (Los Angeles, CA), Aug. 1, 1960, accessed April 7, 2015

3 Fitzgerald, Ella, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, Sy Oliver, Gordon Jenkins, Benny Carter, André Previn, and Bob Haggart, performers. Ella: The Legendary Decca Recordings. Recorded August 29, 1995. GRP Records, 1995, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. 

4 Fitzgerald, Ella, Paul Smith, Jim Hall, Wilfred Middlebrooks, and Gus Johnson, performers. The Complete Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife. Recorded August 17, 1993. GRP Records, 1993, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. 

Mingus’ Epitaph: Jazz or Classical?

Many people write epitaphs, either for themselves or in honor of the death of another person. They are usually short texts meant to be inscribed on tombstones. Rarely does someone write a jazz composition that is over 4000 measures long and takes more than two hours to perform for their epitaph. To my knowledge, Charles Mingus has been the only person to create a jazz piece of such epic proportions.

Attempting to record the piece for the first time, however, was fraught with problems from the beginning. First developed in 1962, Mingus conceived this project as a “live workshop” with a big band for newly composed music. The plan was for him to write the music and record it with a live audience at The Town Hall in New York City. Thanks to United Artists Records, the deadline for the music was rescheduled five weeks earlier than originally planned. Mingus not only pushed himself to the limit, but the musicians as well, unleashing his notorious wrath upon them if he was not satisfied. As a result, the musicians were tense and fearful and the music was still being passed around during the live show. The Town Hall concert was so disastrous that Mingus never looked at the score again for the rest of his life.

In 1988, almost 10 years after his death, musicologist Andrew Homzy discovered the four foot high score for Epitaph. The first full-length recording was appropriately recorded after Mingus’ death and the 31 piece orchestra was conducted by Gunther Schuller at the Lincoln Center in 1989. Finally, Mingus’ magnum opus was fully realized.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 19.56.07


The importance of this work could not be understated. As a review from the New Yorker stated, “It marks the first advance in the composition of large-scale jazz works since Duke Ellington’s 1943 Black, Brown and Beige” [2]. Even more than 50 years after its completion, the piece still stands certainly as one of Mingus’ most difficult works. However, it is difficult to classify it as predominantly jazz or classical. Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue are considered jazz symphonies, primarily classical compositions with jazz influences. Epitaph transcends this and becomes an integration of the jazz and classical forms rather than a work that contains influences of the other. As The Boston Phoenix appropriately states, “It’s uncategorizable. It has nothing to do anymore with ‘jazz’ or ‘classical’ music, or anything. It’s just Mingus” [3].

1. “NPR Presents Charles Mingus’ ‘Epitaph.'” Chicago Metro News, Sept. 30, 1989. (Accessed April 6).
2. Balliett, Whitney. “Jazz: Mingus Regained.” The New Yorker, August 21, 1989. (Accessed April 6).
3. The Boston Phoenix. (Accessed April 6.)

Rosetta Tharpe – Religion or Rock?

I’m certain that if I asked the class if they’d ever heard to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not many would recognize the name. Tharpe grew up a gospel singer, both of her parents preachers, but what set Tharpe apart and probably what kept her from reaching the fame of the Arethas and the Ellas was her Rock ‘n Roll influence. Tharpe struggled to find a place as a successful musician while remaining a devout religious woman. Her inability to claim a single genre and run with it made Rosetta so remarkable, yet it is what kept her from reaching the top. Her unique guitar style along with her gospel like vocals made her a sensation, but her audience wasn’t one that could follow her as she wore too many hats. In an article in the New York Amsterdam News writes of Tharpe’s bounce back and forth between singer and church-goer.

Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 12.07.51 AM

The author, Jay J. Aye detailed her flip-flop between nightclubs and church and wrote, “Earlier this year after she [Tharpe] announced she was through with night clubs and would sing only in churches… Now, it looks as if the night club bug has stung Sister Tharpe again.” One wonders if Tharpe felt pressured by the music industry to go outside of the church, or whether her familial ties to the church held her back from truly reaching her full potentials as a Rock ‘n Roll singer with a gospel edge. Tharpe’s performing medium, while varied and inconsistent, was one she must’ve grappled with and one that music historians must take into account when studying her interesting and unique career.



Aye, Jay J. “Claims Sister Tharpe Torn between Church, Cabaret.” New York Amsterdam News (1943-1961), Dec 28, 1946, City edition.

Vocalese: A Vocalist’s Attribution to the Cats of Bebop

In Freedom Sounds, Ingrid Monson discusses how many jazz artists of the 50s and 60s were idolized as icons of the Civil Rights movement.  Cats like Hawkins, Coltrane, and Parker were given nicknames like “Bird” and were then lauded as the free, independent individuals many Black Americans wished to be.

The genre of vocalese is one such example of the sycophantic nature of many musical colleagues of the bebop jazzers.  Perhaps the originator of vocalese in 1940, Eddie Jefferson recorded many jazz hits such as Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  In the recording, Jefferson matches exactly Hawkins’ phrases but with added words.

The very first line of the track attributes the song to Hawkins.  “Don’t you know he is the king of saxophones?  Yes indeed he is….Hawkins is his name.”  Vocalese is an entirely different approach to jazz music than the bop stars of the era.  Instead of beginning with a “head” and trusting to the improvisatory skills of the musicians to solo over the chords, Jefferson obviously spent a lot of time carefully listening to Hawkins’ style and choosing the perfect words to correspond to the fragments of melody.  This genre of jazz is a great honor to the original performers, as it carefully matches their original solos while providing lyrics detailing their talents as well as contributing some important history.

Later on, The Manhattan Transfer recorded the same track, using Jefferson’s words, but in a four-part harmony.

This recording travels even further from the improvisatory nature of bebop.  The close harmonies necessitate prior arrangements.  But the group kept the sycophantic nature of vocalese, changing some lyrics to include attributions to Eddie Jefferson instead of Jefferson’s original praise of Hawkins.  They continue the evolution of vocal jazz while still keeping many of the same characteristics.

Then along came Eddie Jefferson

He sang the melody like Hawkins played it

He sang it true, he sang it blue

Made words for it too

The Manhattan Transfer exemplifies the sound of another earlier popular vocalese group: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.  A trio, the group was successful for their tight harmonies and accessible imitation of jazz instrumental artists.  One of their most commercially successful tracks, “Four Brothers,” was based on the Woody Herman orchestra’s hit of the same title.

Hendricks’ lyrics feature very instrument-specific verbs.  As in the vocalese style, much is based upon the original instruments.  “Blowin’ that horn” is sung often, as if in their imitation, the singers are becoming instruments themselves.

Vocalese was a way for vocalists to enter the musically complex bebop scene while still remaining commercially relevant.  Popular vocal groups followed the trend of lauding musicians like Hawkins and Coltrane while still exhibiting their own significant talents in imitation and lyrics, a front not accessible by instrumentalists.



(I’ve included youtube clips for convenience, but original recordings are from Alexander Street Press.)

Herman, Woody, performer. Woody Herman & His Orchestra 1956. Recorded February 20, 2000. Storyville, 2000, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. 

Jefferson, Eddie, James Moody, Dave Burns, Barry Doyle Harris, Steve Davis, and Bill English, performers. Eddie Jefferson: Body and Soul. Recorded January 1, 1991. Prestige, 1991, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015.

Lambert, Dave, John Carl Hendricks, Annie Ross, Freddie Green, Eddie Jones, Sonny Payne, and Nat Pierce, performers. Sing A Song Of Basie. Recorded March 13, 2001. Universal Classics & Jazz, 2001, Streaming Audio. Accessed April 7, 2015. 

Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

Count Basie, a famed jazz pianist and jazz orchestra leader, wrote a tune called “A Study in Brown.” It sounds like the average big band tune, with ample time for piano solos. We can only make inferences about Basie’s reason for that title and tune, such as the fact that jazz’s roots are in improvisation styles popular in African American bands of New Orleans, African rhythms, and the blues. When Duke Ellington wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943, the connections and program were more obvious because places in the music clearly imitated the sound of hammers, African American spirituals, and included some lyrics. Listen to how “A Study in Brown” is more elusive to a statement like Ellington’s.[1] 

While the song was not Basie’s most popular and the intent behind Basie’s song is unknown, a few people have covered it. Below is a recording of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra in a recording from 1945. Notice, how the sound is smoother, less swung (except for the solo), and slower. Besides being a primarily white group, does the performance add another layer of meaning to the song? [2]

Furthermore, The Manhattan Transfer has made it popular by adding these lyrics.

Picture this: Rhythm n’ happiness
Souls in bliss ‘n havin’ fun
(Oh no)
If you can’t there’s nothin’ to it
(Oh no)
I’m thinkin’ I have t’ paint you one

I’m gonna paint a sepia panorama
So full of life the painting will come alive
Bathed in blues ‘n full of drama
An’ all the swing they needed so they’d survive
I’ll add some tans an’ yellow ocher
Such soul! So full of rhythm
An’ then some orange t’ tone up the black a bit
My goal is to be with ’em
Purple haze t’ lull the smoker
What swing! What syncopation
An cherry red t’ loosen the back a bit
That thing captured a nation

An’ then a mere patina of subtle green
Get down with me – you’ll dig my study in brown
To lighten up the purple n’ tone it down
Get down with me – tell about it all over town
A dancing glow to highlight the subtle scene
Get down with me – Dig how I’m paintin’ the town
An’ there you’ll have a study in brown
My study in brown

Well, git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
Well, git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Oh yeah, that’s some study

We’re puttin’ down “A Study In Brown”
Coda: (That’s why we’re callin’ it, “A Study In Brown!”)
Git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
N’ git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Oh yeah, that’s some study

Dig what I mean! It’s in the scene
Guitar solo
What cha’ talkin’ ’bout?
That’s my scene rhythm n’dancin’
You can add real romancin’
I’ll come clean,
That’s the way I like it
Why’ start real thin, then put some color in
Fuschia hues blended with subtones
Spread them blues, blarin’ trombones
Paint that scene
Just the way I like it
A dab or two, that’s how to do it.

Why’ talkin’ loud, hope people hear why’
Hey dad! Mama’s gonn git ‘cha soon as you git home!
That’s the ticket
But where’d why’fin’ th’ wicket?

Certainly, this adds a layer of meaning, and perhaps not a good layer….On one hand, performing covers gives the music more recognition and audiences. However, the lines add a meaning that wasn’t present in the original song, with words that insinuate a certain situation that brown is “bathed in blues and full of drama…all the swing they needed so they would survive.” The lyrics are a white perception of a black musical lifestyle, and the instrumentation, primarily vocal imitation of instruments, has a much different sound and connotation than the original. Additionally, as Dai Griffiths says in his chapter on cover songs and identity, when comparing white and black performances of a song we can’t “underestimate the asymmetry of power between black and white.”[3] We have to ask questions of power and exploitation when considering the Clinton and Manhattan Transfer covers of a Count Basie song. So, can covers be valuable? Perhaps we can’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t be allowed, but then how can we add layers of meaning with covers without exploiting/wrongly appropriating? How can we communicate the complexity of covers to the average person who will listen to the Manhattan Transfer cover and not even know Count Basie?

[1] Count Basie, performer, One Note Samba, Recorded May 11, 2009, Synergie OMP, 2009, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, 

[2] This Is Larry Clinton, Recorded June 1, 2010, Hallmark, 2010, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, 

[3] Dai Griffiths, “Cover versions and the sound of identity in motion,” In Popular Music Studies, edited by David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 51-64, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Women in Jazz: Sarah Vaughan

Crawford notes that the representation of women in jazz music was primarily restricted to vocal performance and singing. That being said, the contribution by these female performers was quite significant and one wonders how the nature of jazz could have been enhanced if more contributions existed of female composers or instrumentalists in the genre.

Sarah Vaughan has been hailed as a revolutionary vocal performer whose vast range of both vocal technique and emotional quality created a new standard of jazz performers. Even within the same piece, Sarah Vaughan’s style can change drastically as seen in her recording of “My Favorite Things”

[ iframe src=”″ frameborder=”0″ height=”145″ width=”470″ ]

While the beginning displays an incredible lyrical and smooth quality to it, the last half of her performance contrasts this with a much crisper consonants, harsher vowels, and an improvisatory, drawn out rhythmic quality.

Entirely other music techniques can be seen in her performance of “Nobody Else But Me” which possess much more of the style of the last half of “My Favorite Things.” Long, held-out alto notes create a power and confidence in her voice steering away from the more soft, sensual or sultry sound of other vocal jazz music.

[ iframe src=”″ frameborder=”0″ height=”145″ width=”470″ ]

The question of women’s role in jazz music can raise interesting questions of how the genre of jazz might have been different if more women composers had been represented. It is also interesting to contemplate how the genre may have changed, if at all, if it had possessed more female composers and more male vocal performers.


Armstrong’s LR9

Us Americans love our musical stars. In fact, many people idolize them so much so that what they say and do can have a significant impact. If Taylor Swift is seen wearing a certain dress one week, the next week it is sold out from every Forever 21 in the nation.  Likewise, if Adam Levine gets a new hairstyle, every other young adult male will be making an appointment to their local Great Clips to rock the new do. Okay, so maybe shifting one’s physical appearance isn’t what you would call significant, but what about political opinions? Many artists choose not to share their views in fear of influencing their fans, but that certainly doesn’t stop some musicians from offering up endorsements. In the most recent presidential elections, music stars such as Rodney Atkins and the Zac Brown Band sent their support to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the form of new songs and live performances.1 Musical celebrities hold a fair amount of clout in society and, for some, are not afraid to use it.

Louis Armstrong is still a beloved American musical figure for his soulful trumpet playing and unique blues and jazz sound who was also lucky enough to bridge the color gap with his music.  Adored by both white and black audience members, Armstrong had it all as a performer of the era, and he was able to shake the world with his influence.


Little Rock Nine –

After the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated schools was unconstitutional in the 1954  court case Brown vs. Board of Education, nine african-american students (later dubbed “The Little Rock Nine”) were refused entry in to the previously white Central High School in Little Rock, AK by the governor at the time, Orville Faubus. It wasn’t until the involvement of President Eisenhower did the students finally overcome their first of many hurdles by physically entering the building.2  The events surrounding the Little Rock Nine sparked media attention across the nation, but it not only reached American citizens everywhere, but also a number of famous celebrities including Louis Armstrong.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.49.42 PMArmstrong was furious at the discrimination faced by the Little Rock Nine and did not hold back.  In what was described as having the “explosive effect of an H-bomb”3, called out both Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower for their poor leadership. Armstrong was also quick to call off his government-sponsored tour to Russia, stating that these instances have adverse affects on U.S. relations with other countries and that when he was asked “What is wrong with you country”, he wouldn’t know what to say.4  Louis Armstrong stood by his beliefs and with his national image, was able to cause a noticeable impact. Some believe that it was Armstrong’s “verbal explosives” that expedited the whole process.5  Even if this is not the case, however, he did spark a bit of a push back among his peers. An article published in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, displayed that many many other african-american celebrities agreed with Armstrong’s thoughts. Singer Lena Horne and baseball legend Jackie Robinson are just two of the multiple black stars that took a stand with Louis Armstrong to show the power of what a little clout can do.6


1 Lee, Kristen. “Country Music’s Biggest Stars Singing Mitt Praises  .” NY Daily News. August 27, 2012. Accessed April 6, 2015.

2 Wallace, Vaughn. “Little Rock Nine: Photos of a Civil Rights Triumph in Arkansas, 1957 | LIFE |” LIFE. 2014. Accessed April 6, 2015.

3 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957.

4 “Satch Blows Up Over Ark. Crisis.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 19, 1957.

5 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957.

6 “Back Satchmo’s Blasts at Ike, Gov. Faubus.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 24, 1957.

Bird and Bebop Live On

When Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955, he left a massive void in the world of jazz. While tragic, it was inevitable: a long battle with heroin addiction had threatened his life in the past. Though he didn’t invent the genre, he was widely considered to be one of the “fathers of bebop” who had galvanized the transformation of Duke Ellington’s “specialized jungle rhythm” into the virtuosic, intellectual, and cutthroat style of post-war jazz.[1]

Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker (1920-1955)

Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker (1920-1955)

Less than a month after his death, the national edition of the Chicago Defender suggested that Parker’s passing also signaled the end of bebop. The article claimed that without ‘Yardbird’ Parker “time and wear may render [bebop] worthless commercially.”[1]

While this concern may seem legitimate in the face of tremendous loss, modern hindsight rejects the notion that death can halt the development of musical style, particularly when that development stems from a genius. Parker, aside from being responsible for the partial transformation of musical sound, was also responsible for the transformation of musical thought. He revolutionized the way jazz musicians though about harmonic approaches to improvisation. He also drastically increased the use of contrafact composition (composing over existing harmonic material), expanding the framework in which jazz musicians could operate and providing a model for how they could develop their musical chops.

For all of the praise that the Chicago Defender heaps on ‘Yardbird’ for his contributions to jazz, they neglect to mention why this was his nickname. The answer is provided in another national edition five years later:


The anonymous author describes a person that, trapped within the gritty and difficult world of the inner-city, finds consolation in thinking about Bird and memorializing him through graffiti. For him, Bird (Parker himself as well as the nickname) symbolizes the ability to know “the freedom inside his head that allowed him to dream- and fly up, out and away” from the challenging circumstances of his life.[2] The author invokes the name of Dadelus, the Greek man who dreamt to fly away from his prison cell via his own ingenuity. Dadelus serves as a parallel to Bird, who used his innovative music to fly away the past and change the landscape of jazz, becoming a mythological figure in his own right.

With these two articles together, it almost seems as though the latter serves as a direct answer to the former. Bird’s music will not die because people’s dreams will not die. And as long as people continue to dream, the creativity and passion of Bird will be memorialized in both stone and flesh. The connection of flight and dreams as they relate to Parker remained relevant into the 1960s, as jazz musicians reacted to the development of the civil rights movement. As Bird did before them, they used their own perspectives to mold jazz into an expression of freedom. Bird and his music lived on, and will continue to as long as musicians continue to dream.

[1] Special. 1955. “Death of ‘Yardbird’ Parker may Affect Bebop’s Fight to ‘Live’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 26, 6.

[2] F.L.B. 1960. “Bird Lives.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Apr 04, 1.