There’s a saying circulating around the internets that probably originated with a Lindsay Ellis YouTube video that goes something like “we all have the stink on us.”1 In her video essay, the “stink” refers to the stink of racism and, more broadly, bigotry, and how no one can escape the odiousness of racism regardless of how “woke” they are, to use Cool Teen Slangᵀᴹ. Her point was that she had slipped up and made several mistakes but did not deserve the barrage of hate and vitriol she received in the blood eagle ritual that was her Twitter cancellation because the very people crucifying her were just as odorous as she.
We can sniff out the stink in musicology too: if you turn up that nose, it’s not hard to run into a Pig-Pen or several, especially in the history of American music (should we retire the metaphor?). Amy Beach was extraordinarily progressive for her day, once writing in 1893 in response to Dvorak’s use of African American melodies in his 9th symphony:
“It seems to me that, in order to make the best use of folk-songs of any nation as material for musical composition, the writer should be one of the people whose music he chooses, or at least brought up among them.”2
Ironically, a decade or so later Beach would compose works using Native American themes and melodies, the first being a set titled “Esk*mos – 4 Characteristic Pieces for Piano”3 published in 1907. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to smell something funky.
Alas, Beach was not a lone durian fruit in a field of roses; her compositions using Native American melodies, whether authentic or not, was part of a wider trend of white composers attempting to define an “indigenously American” music. Some of the usual suspects were Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Arthur Farwell, the proprietor of Wa-Wan Press, which published his and other’s Western classical arrangements of Native American melodies.4 Needless to say, it’s like a corpse flower is in full bloom.
Beach’s stink is therefore somewhat understandable; she was following trends to stay relevant and didn’t have a framework to check herself against, nor the support from fellow composers to take a proverbial bath. So what do we do? I say we could at least stop performing her “Indian” pieces, and those of her white contemporaries. There is plenty of folk-inspired music by her and others to make up for whatever we feel we might have lost, and give them the bubble bath that they’ve long been needing.
1 Lindsay Ellis, “Mask Off,” 15 April 2021, video essay, 1:40:31, https://youtu.be/C7aWz8q_IM4
2 Beach, Amy, “American Music,” Boston Herald 28 May 1893.
3 Slur used against the Inuit people censored. Amy Beach, “Esk*mos, Op.64,” set of piano solo pieces, https://imslp.org/wiki/Esk*mos,_Op.64_(Beach,_Amy_Marcy)
4 Block, Adrienne Fried. “Amy Beach’s Music on Native American Themes.” American Music 8, no. 2 (1990): 141–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/3051947.