The Accordion: Quintessential American Instrument

The Accordion wasn’t invented until the mid 1800s in Eastern Europe, and its form has had undergone countless innovations and stylistic changes since then. The accordion has long been associated with the music of lower class people, partially because it could provide the basic elements of melody and bass all within one instrument. This instrument thrived as nationalistic styles emerged throughout Europe, and later when immigrants arrived in the United States it maintained cultural specificity.

In a series of photographs taken in 1977 Chicago found in the Library of Congress Photography Collection, several cultural celebrations feature an accordion player, including a Norwegian Festival, a Lithuanian wedding, a Spanish heritage meeting, and a school ensemble. 

Norweigan Cultural Dinner

Spanish Heritage Ensemble

Lithuanian Wedding

In “The Accordion in the Americas,” a collection of essays about Accordion music throughout North and South America, Helena Simonett writes “The accordion reflected the zeitgeist of the industrial era of the late nineteenth century. In a time of technical excitement, the new, mechanically sophisticated instrument came to symbolize progress and modernity.” Simonett explains that the accordion was an emblem of not only cultural, but musical progress. So how did the instrument become so closely associated with small cultural expression?

The accordion is such a compelling case study for American music because while it might otherwise be thought of as a marking for “other” or closely held ethnic enclaves, in reality its history is more complicated. Just like with so many musical traditions, it wasn’t only European immigrants who held claim to the accordion. The accordion was a major part of the folk revival movement. The stories that have always been told are not necessarily the stories that we must continue telling. 

“Introduction.” In The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!, edited by SIMONETT HELENA, 1-18. University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Jazz at St. Olaf – A Lost Legacy

While St. Olaf College has been well known for a strong choral program since its inception, as it turns out Jazz didn’t take long to become a part of music on campus. In fact, during the 1920’s Jazz music was regularly positioned as an opposing musical form to choral music. In a 1924 visit to St. Olaf by Princeton Professor Dr. J Duncan Spaeth, a Manitou Messenger article quotes him saying

“The production of your choir, alone would make St. Olaf a worth while institution,” said Dr. Spaeth. “To hear a choir sing classical music, and sing it well, in this age of jazz, is to me, a spiritual bath. I feel that people who have learned to appreciate the type of music sung by your choir, should also be able to discriminate between the genuine and the jazz in poetry, art, journalism, and drama.”1

St. Olaf Choir album from 1949

While Dr. Spaeth’s biases (he continues on to praise the “Nordic” appearance as “refreshing in comparison to foreign types” and makes an argument against co-ed teaching) undoubtedly reveals his racist sentiments about the value of classical music as superior to Jazz, he is not alone in this opinion. In fact, both choir and jazz come up many times in the 1920s and 1930s as moral opponents. However, students also expressed their frustration through the campus news paper. In 1933, a Campus Opinion article wrote this notable complaint

“Maybe people at large would begin to realize that actual human beings attended school at St. Olaf if our “Jazz Band” programs were broadcast. Why be afraid to admit that St. Olaf is not a monastery? Too many false presentations of Manitou life have already escaped. Surely the criticisms of a pep orchestra would be neglible in comparison to the criticism of other “evils,” if all were known.”2

A 1925 “Student Pulse” article started with the important claim that Jazz was not being played on the campus radio show despite possible students efforts to have it played.

“[Correction: An error based on misinformation as to facts inadvertently crept into the Student Pulse column of last week’s issue. Careful perusal of recent WCAL programs will disclose the fact that the station is not now, nor has it been broadcasting Saturday night “jazz” programs.]”3

While campus attitudes almost 100 years later don’t represent the same perspectives on choral superiority, the Vinyl collection is heavily skewed towards choral recordings. A quick library search yields 43 Jazz recordings, only one of which is by the award-winning St. Olaf Jazz Band whereas there are some 225 vinyl records by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles. Vinyl is particularly interesting in this context because it has been passed on as a preferred recording technique, and offers a snapshot of what the school was choosing to not only save, but to sell. The St. Olaf Jazz recording, on the other hand, is from 2017 and heralds a slightly more futuristic view of where St. Olaf Music could be going.

St. Olaf Jazz Band Album

As a choir member on campus, I sometimes find myself quick to disregard complaints that St. Olaf Music favors the choirs too heavily.  However, in that act of dismissal I am engaging in a centuries-old practice of prioritizing a specific musical form which causes true detriment to the success of other types of music at St. Olaf. How do we celebrate legacies of music that are known for excellence and tradition when that recognition was partially entrenched by creating an environment that punished other types of music?

Undine Smith Moore on Musical Value


Helen Walker-Hill’s 2002 book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music chronicles the lives of eight black female composers. This resource 1
not only provides detailed biographical research and quotes from these eight figures, but contextualizes each composer within the historical space in which they worked. Undine Smith Moore is one such composer whose career and academic legacy provides a crucial perspective about the unique challenges and strengths that accompany the way we interpret her work.

I first heard of Undine Smith Moore when I performed her choral piece We Shall Walk in the Valley of Peace at St. Olaf. That striking melody has stayed with me ever since I learned it, but I never encountered any of her work outside of performance. Moore lived from 1904-1989 and attended college at Fisk University from 1924-1926 where she received the first scholarship from Julliard for her studies. Post-graduation, Moore worked in North Carolina and Virginia before pursuing her Master’s degree at Columbia University. The artistic arc of Moore’s life was shaped around academic institutions, and the powerful mentorships that follow. However, Moore also addresses a prevailing sentiment she encountered as a composer, writing:

“There is in addition the fiction of women’s inability to deal with the abstract. Because music is an utterly non-verbal art, there is inevitability a certain quality of the abstract in the approach to the composer’s art. Women, for a long time in the past, were indoctrinated with the widely held belief that the abstract is not their sphere…Over and over, it has been held that the objective discipline which is necessary to transmute inner sources by giving them artistic form is a discipline suitable only to men”

Moore expresses a very specific frustration in this quote, arguing that the reproduction of existing music may be acceptable for women, but that the act of composition is tied to an internal understanding of something abstract. Legacy and respect, therefore are earned through creation as opposed to the borders of excellence that women were expected to stay within. Undine Smith Moore echoes this point when discussing power dynamics in black churches

“Women could and did influence the building of a school, the choice of teachers, and the order and content of the church service, but there must have been a subtle etiquette that kept them in a particular place. Further, so far as I know, the influence of women on the music and the culture in the life of the Black community, while known and applauded, was rarely, if ever, documented.”

If Undine Smith Moore is correct in her assertion that as a musical culture we value the things that we document, how can recent efforts to re-examine these “lost” histories of music makers do that in a way that doesn’t reinforce a hierarchy of “abstract” musicking as legitimate and all others as less thoughtful, less truthful, and ultimately less powerful.

1Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies : African-American Women Composers and Their Music Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Never Forget Your Dear Mother: Tin Pan Alley’s Creation of Genre

While scrolling through the Sheet Music Consortium database I started by searching by certain keywords which grew increasingly absurd, although I started with reasonable concepts I quickly found myself only looking at sheet music only written about frog romances. It seemed that if you found the right topic, there could be 50-60 pieces on something as specific as songs about owls that were symbols for men who liked to stay out late at night.

One such treasure trove is songs about mothers including amazing titles such as “That Wonderful Mother of Mine,” “Every Day is Mother’s Day to a Mother,” “Dreaming of Mother and my Sweet Home,” “Cheer up, Mother,” “There’s No One who Loves you Like Mother,” and my personal favorite, “The Little Grey Mother who Waits All Alone.” I told my own mother about what I found which garnered this guilt-inducing response.
So where do all of these songs about mothers’ come from? They are all mostly published between 1911-1920 and follow similar trends about a child leaving home to the dismay of the Long Suffering Mother. The sheer volume of such similar songs is not a coincidence, this extremely specific genre of sheet music comes from the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting which Robert W. Randall1 explains as  “Music publishers and composers alike operated in a world where success, measured by profit, hinged on their ability to understand through emotional cognition the yearnings of their audiences.”

The marketplace of music for these creators was not purely about creating music for an existing audience, but creating an audience out of music that they could create. Randall continues “But more than merely promoting songs, music publishers produced them on a factory scale, generating vast quantities of theme-driven songs that would enable them to both test and shape markets for tunes that would become “hits.” 

The historical era for the rise of songs about not forgetting mothers would make more sense within the context of WW1, but a fair number of these pieces were published far before any military involvement. The significance of this music appears to be more closely tied with national allegiance and loyalty, and undoubtedly a little bit of guilt.

In “Never Forget Your Dear Mother and Her Prayer”2 the lyrics echo this sentiment.

“Never forget your mother tho far away you may roam, Always remember she’s praying, For you to come back home, Temptations round you will gather, Face them with courage and care, Never forget your dear mother and her prayer”

The creation of Mother’s Day in 19143 by Woodrow Wilson is likely closely tied to this era of music, establishing a commercial holiday that has since been tied to lavish displays of wealth and public adoration. While music written specifically about missing your mom is a fun example of how Tin Pan Alley created concepts of identity based around  profits, it is crucial to examine how thin the lines are between commodity and sentiment if that line exists at all.

George Beverly Shea: Crusader and Gospel Singer

Billy Graham was a remarkably powerful Evangelical preacher who fostered a rebirth in Christian enthusiasm post-WWII. This movement was led through effective media appearances and “crusades” in which Graham’s organization would rent out stadiums or other large spaces to host elaborate religious services for crowds in the tens-of-thousands. An important component of these services was the musical prelude to Graham’s sermon. The Chicago Defender1 reported on a 1962 Chicago Crusade in which George Beverly Shea, the famed soloist for Graham’s services is honored as a hometown hero.

Shea and Graham

George Beverly Shea was born in Canada in 1909, and after moving to the U.S. he eventually began a career which captivated radio, TV, and festival audiences. Shea’s popstar-adjacent promotional opportunities and close personal ties with Billy Graham led to consistent performances intertwined with religious power. The Evangelical church has since been known for savvy music marketing, George Beverly Shea likely being an early example.

“As an imitation of contemporary secular music and fashion, contemporary Christian music bolstered the identity of young evangelicals who feared being alienated from their peers because of their religious faith. At the same time, however, by its incessant promotion of media consumption, the contemporary gospel industry subtly affirmed American materialism..” – William Romanowski2

In a 1970 edition of the music magazine “SuperStars” on Johnny Cash3, this image of Johnny Cash and Billy Graham is captioned “Johnny and Dr. Billy Graham discuss possibility of joint appearance in Tennessee” as the two talk closely. Cash and Graham were known to be close friends throughout their lives, and Cash performed at multiple “crusade” concerts.

Cash and Graham

Music, religion, and power have always been closely intertwined in America, but the marketing of religion alongside popular music is something relatively new. George Beverly Shea, Johnny Cash, and their relationship to Billy Graham as advocates for Christianity while still being working musicians with wide audiences adds another layer of market segmentation. While Shea was firmly a gospel performer, Cash is remembered as a country singer yet they still benefitted from the same audiences. At what point did Evangelical music blend into mainstream performance and at what point did it become hard to hear the difference?

Minstrelsy and the Audience: What we don’t know

When racial ambiguity was built into the performative framework of blackface minstrelsy, what did it mean for the audience? The racial make-up of audiences is extremely difficult to track down, particularly when it comes to performances of blackface minstrelsy in the Industrial North. One way to accomplish this is to research the race of the owner of the venue but that identity could mean nothing. Another way to learn more about audience is by reading critical reviews of blackface performance, or to examine advertisements for those performances. 

One such advertisement is an 1889 flyer for “DeVere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags and Conundrums”1 featuring an ensemble seated on stage in blackface, with white on-lookers placed above the stage in fancy clothing. This artistic framing places a white observer at the forefront of the musical space, imposing a clear hierarchy between performer and audience member.

Why does audience matter? Eric Lott writes in Love and Theft that “Regarding even the class-bound audiences of the 1840’s, there was some confusion among commentators about just who was out there in the pit and the gallery. As I will argue later, one of minstrelsy’s functions was precisely to bring various class fractions into contact with one another, to mediate their relations, and finally to aid in the construction of class identities over the bodies of black people (67).”2 Lott makes the important point that minstrelsy wasn’t exclusively white and black performers acting out racist and harmful stereotypes for exclusively white audiences, it was more complex than that. 

In a Chicago Weekly Review from 19113, The Pekin Theater put on several acts, including a white ventriloquist, two “colored musical acts” and a blackface ensemble. Slyvester Russell4 writes in his vaudeville review “The Musical Randolphs gave an act which needs encouragement and may yet develop to become quite a feature. It will be necessary for this act to plenty of ragtime music with comedy action, but what’s the use of a blackface comedian if he doesn’t do something?” This is a black critic, writing for a black newspaper and therefore a predominantly black audience, attending a theatre which was programming lots of types of performances all within the same week. 

The audience therefore appears to be a fraught racial space, where the ambiguity and complicated racial politics being played out onstage were being echoed in the audience. In order to understand the popularity of minstrelsy, particularly as it was marketed and cultivated across geographic and cultural barriers it is crucial to consider the sheer magnitude of the audiences and to consider how it permeated and part of that research begins with combing through the legacy of performance space, not exclusively programming. 

Music and the Market: The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson were musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and powerful figures of what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Beyond being known for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which has been called the black national anthem, Johnson and Johnson thrived as songwriters in New York City during the Tin Pan Alley era of popular music, in which songwriters would churn out sheet music to be sold or recorded. In James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography “Along this Way”1 Weldon Johnson explains his process behind writing a hit song titled The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes

“In those days the royalties of a writer depended largely upon the young fellow who would buy a copy of the song and take it along with him when he went to call on his girl…In writing “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes” we gave particular consideration to these fundamentals. It needed little analysis to see that a song written in exclusive praise of blue eyes was cut off at once from about three-fourths of the possible chances for universal success; that it could make but faint appeal to the heart or pocketbook of a young man going to call on a girl with brown eyes or black eyes or gray eyes. So we worked on the chorus of our song until, without making it a catalogue, it was inclusive enough to enable any girl who sang it or to whom it was sung to fancy herself the maiden with the dreamy eyes (160).”

James Weldon Johnson makes it perfectly clear that in writing this piece of music, the objective was to make the song appeal to as large of a group of people as possible, something that is accomplished by literally listing several eye colors in the song. A 1902 recording of the song by the Victor Recording Company, sung by a Canadian tenor named Harry Macdonough accomplishes the precise sweetness that Weldon Johnson refers to in his account. For another, more recent recording check out this version by Melinda Doolittle.


The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

Part of the specific success of this song was due to new customs surrounding dating at the start of the 20th century. Magazines and journals made money off of marketing to new audiences and age groups, especially to a certain subset of young people who would eventually be called teenagers, Beth Bailey2 writes

“The middle-class arbiters of culture, however, aped and elaborated the society version of the call. And, as it was promulgated by magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, with a circulation of over one million by 1900, the modified society call was the model for an increasing number of young Americans (15).”

This new middle class is also something we tend to think of as predominantly white, a market that Weldon Johnson found great success in despite being a black artist. In his autobiography, he wonders if consumers of his music are aware of his identity, writing about a letter he received as follows.

“The very serious-looking Mr. Bok read me the letter and laughed uproariously over it. I laughed too; but me laughter was tempered by the thought that there was anybody in the country, notwithstanding the locality being Georgia, who, knowing anything at all about them, did not know that Cole and Johnson Brothers were Negroes (196).”

Everything we know about the creators behind The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes makes it a piece of black art, with words by a black poet and a musical arrangement by a black composer, but in standard examples of what “black music” is, it would be highly unlikely to ever hear this song. In my preliminary search of Alan Lomax’s photo collection tied to his work on folk music in the south in the 1930’s I found no instances of pianos, despite the fact Weldon Johnson’s music, published some 30 years prior was based around a piano.

When music is cataloged and categorized, everything that doesn’t fit into those boxes gets left to the side because it fails to serve the central narrative about what that particular music means. While The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes is goofy and a clear grab for money, what new stories can we explore when it is as much of a piece of black music as any recording taken by Alan Lomax in the South?

1Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way : The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

What’s in a Fight Song?

As an Iowan growing up in a college town, Saturday football games were unavoidable. I’m from Ames which is home to the Iowa State Cyclones, and the biggest game of the year is when we play our in-state rivals the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. This last weekend was the biggest rivalry game yet, when some 160,000 extra people came to town just to celebrate and watch football. So when I went searching for a text that stood out to me, I was stopped in my tracks by the words written for a celebratory song called “The Proud Hawkeye State” by Richard B.B. Wood. I found the lyrics as part of an 1884 reunion for “The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”1 to be performed after a series of speeches celebrating what it meant to be an “Old Settler,” or in this case, someone who lived in one of the states prior to 1860 or who had been there for the last 25 years. Amid the triumphant chorus these lines stand out to me

They were long and tedious hours

When we sought these western bowers

Grown with rude uncultured flowers

In that time long ago

Now this happy land is beaming

Bright as angels that are dreaming

With the harvest that is teeming

On our own Hawkeye soil

Iowa became a state in 1846, only 38 years prior to the year the convention was held. While it is unclear, the general consensus by Iowa historians is that the “Hawkeye” nickname comes from fans of “The Last of the Mohicans” an 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper set during the French and Indian War in which “According to Cooper’s story, the Delaware Indians bestowed the name of “Hawkeye” upon a white scout and trapper, who lived and hunted with them, who also braved their perils in war against the Iroquois and Hurons.”2
It seems absurd but the nickname was bestowed by white Iowan newspaper men, inspired by a story by a white writer, in which Native Americans give a white man a Native American name. In Iowa, almost all of the Indigenous population was forcibly removed by the government by 19303, except for the Meskwaki Tribe which still exists to this day, so when this reunion was held there were likely attendees who were very familiar with this history.

“The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”

The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa

In Dan Blim’s “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”4
Blim explores the concept of the “Vanishing Indian” as demonstrated in Edward MacDowell’s compositions. Blim explains that by creating art that claimed to eliminate any threat from Native Americans, Europeans could incorporate that imagined other into their cultural heritage, and that by establishing that Native American culture had “died,” it outlined white, European culture as something triumphant and unifying. 

Similarly in these lyrics, Richard B.B. Wood celebrates  “Old Settlers” as a powerful group of people who arose from some sort of tension to create a shining and glorious land on “their own Hawkeye soil.” However, while history is no doubt alluded to with racist coding like “rude uncultured flowers” these tribes are never named. The song is more about proving the excellence of the “Old Settlers” whose identity is literally grounded in economic prosperity tied to the richness of the land. 

The act of singing a song meant to celebrate an identity in opposition to something is unifying. Anyone who cheers for a certain sports team can feel a sense of camaraderie with perfect strangers if they wear the same colors as us, hate the same people as us, and sing the same song as us. In the case of “The Proud Hawkeye State,” the team is the “Old Settlers” and the opponent is effectively unworthy of a name since it was defeated. “The Proud Hawkeye State” claims that something that once was “uncultured” has now been replaced to use a farming analogy as Iowans love to-do, it was uprooted. 

1Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. 1884-1887. Report of the first-[fourth] reunion of the Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association, of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Keokuk, Iowa: Tri-state Printing. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West.