The Latin American Blues

What does the salsa have in common with the blues? Well according to Tito Puente, it too is just a broad categorization of a minority’s music:

The word salsa combines all kinds of music into one, like the mambo, the cha-cha, the merengue, all music with Caribbean origins. When they call it salsa, you don’t actually define what rhythm is. That’s why I don’t particularly care for the word. However, sometimes they call me the “King of Salsa,” so I’ll go along with it, I won’t dispute it, as long as they don’t call me the “Queen of Salsa.”1

This quote reminded me of the discussions we’ve had about the idea of “the blues,” and how throughout the term’s history it has been a broad and vague way of categorizing African American music. Likewise, Puente writes that the term “salsa” refers to an amalgamation of many musics of Caribbean origin, and that it obfuscates the different styles’ unique rhythmic identities. This leads to an at best vague conception of what salsa is among those who are not intimately familiar with it, and a lack of understanding and appreciation for the differences it encompasses — including differences in rhythm, which is an integral part and differentiator of these styles of music.

If this generalization and lack of understanding of minority cultures leads to anything, it’s stereotypes. The other parallel I saw in this quote was that to the double-sided coin of black-face minstrelsy. Puente writes that while he doesn’t “particularly care for the word [salsa],” he’ll “go along” with being called the “King of Salsa.” While against the vague misrepresentation of Caribbean music, he doesn’t complain that it is by this misrepresentation that he is risen up, much like it was through the stereotypes perpetuated by black-face minstrelsy that many African American performers got their start.

However, this compliance with stereotypes, while having benefits, also reinforces them. Louie Pérez writes about this, and how it serves as a motivator for him:

This is music made by Mexican-Americans, but if you looked that up in the dictionary, I don’t think you’d find our picture. We’re not the kind of music people would expect, which excites me. It’s nice to show that as Latinos, we can do a lot of things.2

Pérez’s showing that Latinos can “do a lot of things” sounds similar to what African American black-face performers encountered when they pushed the boundaries of what they could perform. As we discussed, their beginning to perform European art songs, for example, illustrates their expansion into an art form that not only wouldn’t have their picture in the dictionary, but would likely picture a decidedly European performer to represent a music that is decidedly European, sometimes to a racist extent.

Thus salsa might be called the Latin American blues, indicative of a broad, uninformed amalgamation of musics that are not fully understood or appreciated, indicative of the misrepresentation and pigeonholing that this categorization can cause, and indicative of the unfortunate commonalities between the oppression of different minorities in America.

1 “Tito Puente: Quote on Salsa Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019. http://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1328036.

2 “Louie Pérez (Los Lobos): Quote on Not Fitting a Stereotype.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019. http://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1508248.

Pushing the Limits of Band Expectations

Why is it that bands are not held to the same standards as orchestras? This is what I found myself asking when reading a Manitou Messenger article from 2007 titled, “St. Olaf band pushed limits.”

Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007, https://stolaf.eastview.com/browse/doc/44635111.

The “limits” to which the article is largely referring struck me as notably particular to the band world:

Over the years, the St. Olaf Band has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles. Mahr is deliberately expanding the traditional band repertoire through his own compositions and daring concert programming. The band’s home concert in the Skoglund auditorium on Feb. 8 was a solid portrait of the agility of style that the band has reached.

One of several highlights of the concert was alternating tour soloist Jennifer Maki ’07 performing the jubilant Weber Clarinet Concertino. The texture of the band accompaniment playing this delicate late classical-period music with Maki exceeded my expectations.1

Why is it that having the ability to play “delicate” music well constitutes “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”? Orchestras are certainly expected to be able to play delicately. The focus of the article is not on the quality of the band intrinsically, or as an undergraduate band, but basically that it’s very good for a band. This provides some interesting insight into the hierarchy of the ensembles. This also to me does not seem to be through any fault of the instruments themselves—woodwinds, for example, are known for their delicate sound.

Woodwind delicacy is one of the features of the Weber Clarinet Concertino mentioned above. To hear what may have been so impressive about a band arrangement of this, I listened a recording of the original orchestral version.

The first thing I noticed was the very heavy beginning, with the strings’ thick, full, not very delicate chords. This style does not dominate the piece, but is very present in it. There are delicate moments in the strings, but such a description is not as all-encompassing as the article had me thinking. The most delicate part of the piece is the clarinet part—the band instrument.

So then what makes a band performance of this impressive? Is it simply that the artistic caliber expected of bands is less than that expected of orchestras? Or maybe that bands are stereotyped as not focusing as much delicate playing? The latter would make sense if it’s not seen as a band’s specialty, where its strengths lie. But this leads to the assumption that such delicate playing is the strength of the orchestra, and again we have bands not being held to the same standards as orchestras, by a margin that seems to me much bigger than the actual difference in instrumentation would suggest. To give such an assumption so much weight seems wrong to me. So are the expectations of the writer are accurately based in bands’ abilities? Maybe not. But if so, why does this performance constitute “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”?

1 Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007, https://stolaf.eastview.com/browse/doc/44635111.

“C M von Weber: Concertino for clarinet and orchestra.” YouTube video, 11:19, posted by Joan Enric Lluna, April 29, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-dWhuck9nw.

Weber, Carl Maria von. Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor, op. 73; Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, op. 34; Clarinet Concertino in E flat major, op. 26. Recorded 1967. Turnabout, 1967, vinyl.

Copland’s Passion for American Music

In reading through the letters from The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, I was reminded of our discussions in class regarding the exerted effort to define and develop an American classical music. This proves to be a major theme in Copland’s letters, and it manifests in several ways.

One of the most explicit examples of his passion for cultivating American classical music is in a 1932 letter to the New York Times in response to his being misquoted as calling music critics a “menace” to American music. Regarding the conference during which he was misquoted, he writes:

Our purpose was the thoroughly serious one of considering the relation between the American composer and the music critic. . . . The composer needs the critic. . . . He is an absolute necessity, if only because he serves as the middle man between the public and the creative artist.

. . . The position of the American composer has changed, and . . . he is no longer satisfied with the merely tolerant and often apathetic attitude of the press toward American music in general . . . [as it is] no longer apposite to the body of vital music which is being created—and what is more, performed.1

In the postscript, Copland also writes:

In justice to myself I am forced to add that the above remarks are made distinctly in relation to new American music as a whole and not to my personal creations, which have almost always been quite sufficiently noticed, due to the particular auspices under which they were presented.1

Despite having great success as a composer himself, Copland is passionate about improving the attitude towards American music in general—a “thoroughly serious” matter regarding this “body of vital music,” in which critics are an “absolute necessity,” all very strong language, and aimed at the issue of American music more than the actual controversy of his being misquoted.

The conference at which he was misquoted provides more evidence for this passion. It was the First Festival of Contemporary American Music, in which Copland played a major administrative and musical role.2 In the letters sent around the same time as his note to the New York Times, he focuses on the success of the festival, and gives much encouragement to composers whose works were performed at the festival, an example of the encouragement he gives to other composers, students and colleagues alike, throughout his letters.

In his letter to Virgil Thomson about the festival, he writes, “I’m delighted for you because I feel it’s the first real success you’ve had in America. I’ll see to it that the League of Composers performs it in N.Y. next season.”3 This quote also brings up his involvement in the League of Composers, another organization championing American classical music.

In another letter about the success of the festival, he writes to Carlos Chávez of his fondness for the Mexican-inspired music at the festival, illustrating how Copland viewed Mexico as an appropriate and even desirable inspiration for American music.3 Incidentally, around this time Copland also traveled to Mexico, which his letters trace, and did seem to find the trip inspiring. In another letter to Carlos Chávez, he writes, “I regretted leaving Mexico with a sharp pang. It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in three months in Mexico.”4 The visit to Mexico inspired Copland’s piece El Salón México, which started him down the path of using Mexican and folk inspiration for his music, making it both American and accessible.5

American music was clearly a passion for Copland, and he was much more involved in developing and promoting it than he needed to be as an already successful American composer. From being active in organizations to supporting other composers to seeking out his own American inspiration, he saught to create an American music that would satisfy not only the composers but also as much of the American public as possible.

1 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, eds., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 91.

2 Ibid, 88.

3 Ibid, 92.

4 Ibid, 101.

5 Ibid, 89.

H. T. Burleigh on the Performance of Black Spirituals

In searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, I came across several spirituals arranged by H. T. Burleigh. These publications include a note written by Burleigh about spirituals, in which he describes them as “never ‘composed,’” but “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor.” He touches on other topics we have discussed in class as well, writing that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song,” and warning that they should not be treated as “‘minstrel’ songs.”1

Following his statement on folk music, he writes:

“Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then the rhythm, for the Negro’s soul is linked with rhythm, and it is an essential characteristic of most all the Folk Songs.”1

Here Burleigh seems to be arguing for an authenticity in both the feeling behind a performance and the presentation of the performance as rooted in the history of spirituals as black music.

On the other hand, he elaborates on his warning not to treat spirituals as minstrel songs with the following:

“It is a serous misconception to . . . try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the particular inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively . . .”1

Obviously trying to make a serious song comical undermines it, but I was struck by the extent to which Burleigh connects an unworthy and unimpressive presentation directly with how literally black performance practice is imitated. “Swaying the body,” “clapping the hands,” and singing in dialect are all things that St. Olaf’s choirs, for example, do in an effort to present the music with “deep spiritual feeling,” as Burleigh encourages earlier. He also writes, “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit,” yet he implies that the very things here connected to the spirit take away from the spirituals’ worth. Though he is discussing making a song comical, he strongly suggests that imitation of black performance practice itself is antithetical to an impressive performance.

H. T. Burleigh’s note in Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells1

Maybe this is simply because black performance practice at the time could not be separated from minstrel comedy. This could allow for the St. Olaf choirs’ use of elements of black performance practice in a time when it is no longer so directly connected to minstrelsy in audiences’ ears. However, Burleigh was also a major part of the movement to “legitimize” black spirituals by arranging them in a Western classical style. Given this, he could have indeed viewed the “spirit” he talks of as needing to be presented through a white musical context in order to give it legitimacy. On the other hand, if he was writing for a white audience, his message may have been at least partly motivated by his not wanting imitation of black performance practice by non-black performers. Whatever the reasons for the specific performance considerations he discusses, though, this short statement on black spirituals shows some of the many complexities that accompany their performance.

1 Burleigh, H. T. Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells. Sheet music. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. https://digital.library.temple.edu/digital/collection/p15037coll1/id/5379.

What It Means to Be Black: A People and Their Music

“Beyond the obvious fact that you are black, is your music black music?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“To answer that, I’m going to give you a brief musical background of myself.”1

Excerpt of Isaac Hayes’ interview in The Los Angeles Free Press1

So begins an excerpt from an interview of the “black superstar” Isaac Hayes from a 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, in which Hayes discusses the blackness of not only his music, but himself. He recounts hearing a “hillbilly sort of country & western” music in his early childhood before hearing any swing or other black music. In addition to this, he went through many other phases, including multiple classical music phases, and only after that started learning jazz, while also singing gospel in church. He concludes:

“So I wouldn’t say I’m black. Sure I’m a member of the black race, and I can relate to black experiences. But musically, you have a fusion of cultures. You’ve got Africa in it, you’ve got Europe in it, you’ve got Latin America, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got pop, you’ve got country & western, you’ve got it all.” 1

This could be seen as a quite liberating view of a black musician’s music—almost transcending race, identifying aspects of his music that are grounded in many traditions. However, Hayes also takes the interesting step of applying this back to his race: “I wouldn’t say I’m black.” Being racially black and having black experiences isn’t enough to be black in the larger sense, which in Hayes’ view seems to include something more. When asked what he would “classify as pure black music,” he points to “songs expressing the black experience in the ghetto . . . that’s black music.”1 So if he made that kind of music, would he be more black? This, to me, is a surprisingly narrow view of what it means to be black.

Beginning of letter in The Chicago Defender2

A letter in a 1965 issue of the Chicago Defender reflects a related view: “Attending a recital of a Negro singer in Orchestra Hall, recently, I was amazed, disappointed and hurt, to note, that she did not include in her program, any Negro spirituals.” The letter then gives examples of musicians who “wrote many manuscripts telling of our 300 years of sorrow,” but argues that now “integration and acceptance of a few, on their way to the heights, is making them forget the ‘depths from which we have come.’”2

This is not arguing that one must perform a certain music to be fully black, but rather that being black necessitates the performance of a certain music. It makes a compelling argument for black musicians to remember their history, but how much must the music one performs be rooted in their history? If black people must absolutely perform “black” music, this forges a link between the musician and their music that leads back in the direction of Hayes’ idea of black music and its connection to black identity. There can be clear benefits to connecting identity with music, but to connect them in such a way that one cannot exist without the other risks whittling them both down to an essence that fails to adequately represent either.

1 Van Ness, Chris. “Isaac Hayes: Superstar behind the soundtrack for Shaft.” The Los Angeles Free Press, Jan 14, 1972. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=1101225.

2 Ruth, Smith McGowan. “Reader Disappointed when Singer Omits Negro Spirituals.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 06, 1965. https://search.proquest.com/docview/493112600?accountid=351.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”

 

In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

The Camera Lens vs. the Public Lens: Perceptions of African Americans in the South

Portrait of Bill Tatnall1

When visiting the Library of Congress’s Lomax Collection, I was intrigued by the photos on the main page, which featured an African American man playing guitar (right). Clicking on the image, I saw “African Americans–1930-1940” listed as one of its categories, and clicking on that led me to a list of other images of African Americans in this time frame—standing, sitting, walking, running, and doing other normal, everyday activities, including more guitar playing (below).

Hurston and others2

Hurston and others3

 

 

 

In contrast to these photos, the following two images also caught my attention, captioned according to the Library of Congress’s summaries:

Left: “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem:” Seven illustrations from Mid-Week Pictorial, May 23, 1936, showing conditions in the South, including a man with a horse, poor children, a shack, an Alabama steel mill, construction of a house, and African American cotton pickers.4 Right: Cartoon shows two men with rifles, walking away from a lynching victim hanging from a…5

These were some of the few images listed that were not plain photographs, but images of commercial publications. As both feature whites, they were likely both intended for white audiences. More striking, though, is their representation of African Americans. The title of the first image, “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem,” in addition to the summary’s indication that it is seven illustrations “showing conditions in the South,” would indicate that it is attempting to portray a broad view of the South. African Americans, though, are depicted only as cotton pickers, confining their place in the South to the cotton fields. The second image is even more striking; the two figures in the foreground are whites with guns, and in the background is an African American hanging from a tree, a lynching victim. This shows an even more explicit and extreme racial dynamic.

Neither of these images are surprising in their content, but stand in stark contrast to the many other images in the collection showing African Americans engaged in non-stereotypical and non-confining activities—acting like “normal” people and even playing “normal” Southern music. These two publications publications serve as a reminder that, for most of the commercialized white South of the early 20th-century, African Americans were African American first and Southerners second. They were cotton pickers and lynching victims, separate from the culture of white Southerners, from their horses and poor children to their banjo- and guitar-playing, despite the evidence we have that they were part of these cultural and musical phenomenon just as much as Southern whites.

1 Lomax, Alan. Portraits of Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring, Frederica, Georgia, from recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660097/.

2 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston and other African Americans, probably at a recording site in Belle Glade, Florida, 1935. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660344/.

3 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660101/.

4 The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem. 1936. Photomechanical prints. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98519128/.

5 Chase, William C. Man and son walking with guns, and man hanging from tree in background, and the / Chase. 1935. Drawing on illustration board, crayon. Cartoon Drawings, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679638/.

The Expansion of the “Vanishing Indian”

In his paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Dr. Daniel Blim writes that the “Indianist” movement of using Native American inspiration for American music owes its success largely to the composer Edward MacDowell, and especially to his Indian Suite, premiered in 1896. Blim connects this to the “vanishing Indian” trope: “the Indian as a cultural figure . . . began to ‘vanish,’ and no longer a threat, could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.” He discusses MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music as one way in which it aligns with this trope. Regarding MacDowell’s piece “From an Indian Lodge,” Blim writes, “the subject of this work is not Native America, but a reenactment, subtly Westernized.”1

Reviews of the Indian Suite support this view, showing a strong alignment with the “vanishing Indian” trope and praising MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music. Blim uses the Indian Suite as an example of MacDowell’s music before it reflected the shift to the “vanishing Indian” view, still depicting Native Americans as a “living oppositional force.” However, the following two reviews, though approaching the Indian Suite from opposite directions, both project the “vanishing Indian” trope onto the piece.

In 1898, the magazine The Critic published a review (right) praising MacDowell’s ability to “weave a series of tone-pictures out of . . . purely native material.” It contrasts his suite with Dvořák’s ninth symphony, stating that MacDowell “clings to what is elemental and more thoroughly representative, . . . carefully avoiding as inappropriate a too complex treatment of native themes.”2 Rather than seeing Native Americans as a living opposition still in need of Westernization, The Critic praises MacDowell for getting to the core of what is Native American, showing the extent to which their opposition had been replaced by an opportunity for inspiration.

In 1939, 41 years later, the magazine Forum and Century also published a review (left) praising the Indian Suite, but comparing it favorably with Dvořák’s symphony: “The Suite is in no sense a sequence of Indian tunes. It is a sweeping orchestral work, symphonic in nature, that evokes auditory images of our ancestors, their mores, and their cherished aspirations and bitter frustrations.”3 For Forum and Century, rather than Westernization being an obstacle, it allows the Native American to be more effectively appropriated, so much so that they are now “our ancestors,” and the music’s frustration that Blim associates with their oppositional position now reflects the “bitter frustrations” of the Native Americans themselves.

From only two years after the premier through the following several decades, MacDowell’s Indian Suite was fully enveloped by the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” Though approaching the piece from opposite directions, both reviews celebrate MacDowell’s synthesis of Native American music. They do not make Blim’s differentiation between the suite and pieces that more explicitly align with this trope. Rather, due to the strength of the national shift spurred by MacDowell himself, they project onto this piece the concept that the Native American has vanished and transformed into fodder for American music.

1. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

2. “Music: Notes of the Season.” The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898), Feb 05, 1898, 97, https://search.proquest.com/docview/124892533?accountid=351.

3. ARTHUR, WALLACE HEPNER. “THE RECORD REVIEW.” Forum and Century (1930-1940), 11, 1939, 1, https://search.proquest.com/docview/90883079?accountid=351.