The Western Standards of American Music- Even “The Queen of Jazz” Could Not Escape

What defines a true American singer? What “validates” their voice, style, or even their performing style? Is it the technique, vocal power, polish, etc.? Ella Fitzgerald, a.k.a. Lady Ella, was known as “one of the most loved and honored musical performers of the 20th Century.” 1 In discussions and interviews with Ella herself, it is clear to see that there was a disconnect when it came to how her fame and skill was viewed.

Ella Fitzgerald At 100: Early Hardship Couldn't Muffle Her Joy : NPR

Ella was not just renowned for her vocal talent, but she was highly respected and cherished by peers and the American public as a whole. But to some, this respect and cherished views were motivated by an external quality: her selfless and light-hearted nature. Even after her massive success, both nationally and eventually internationally, she remained “unchanged by her own tremendous significance.” 2

“She never refuses to talk to anyone, never refuses to see anyone. She will stay up until fantastic hours to help our in benefits which are legitimate.”2

It is clear that her personality shined through, despite her upbringing and situations thrown her way- whether it was being a successful woman in the music industry to insanely packed tour schedules. This was a largely emphasized reason often given when it came to defining her success in capturing the hearts of the American people.

The Chicago Defender; Chicago, Ill. 31 July 1954

In other opinions, Ella’s success seems to be defined in a different light. Opera News discusses Ella’s (and Frank Sinatra’s skill and technique as “bel canto” like, even claiming that they “had it easier than opera singers performing live.”3 They compared them to “Wagnerians”- having the same skills and techniques as them. 3
This raised the question, “Why are they taking two singers in a completely different genre, style, and audience appeal and still comparing it with Western classical music? I would assume that Ella was not actively trying to have a “bel canto” style in her voice. There is a dichotomy that I find in this article: Ella and Frank here are seen being recognized for their “virtuosic” technique, but it did not seem like many people of their time and beyond would consider them in a Western classical light. Though this magazine is clearly one that discusses opera, it seems like there is a major disconnect and quite a few liberties taken in terms of how Ella and Frank are viewed even to this day- jazz singers who simply embodied the same Western classical techniques as some of the great opera singers from the past and present. Though the writers of this article most likely had good intentions, it is still something that seemed like a bit of a stretch.

It was clearly seen by not only her die-hard fans, but also her peers and colleagues as well that Ella’s sheer presence and personality could light up a room. This should not be overlooked, and this reason alone is what I think made Ella Fitzgerald even more of an American legend. Sure, her voice could maybe be compared to some of the best opera singers that ever lived- from their technique to the color and style of her voice. But this really made me question how we are still viewing these singers and composers even to this day. The Opera News article was written in 1996, looking in hindsight of Ella’s career. The Chicago Defender was written in 1954, when Ella’s career was alive and booming. The way we look back at singers and performers in America, the more we need to dive into actual primary sources, telling about the lives and journeys of them, not just simply analyzing their voices and what made them “great” or “true American virtuosos” of their time. Ella Fitzgerald was so much more than an impeccable voice and presence in the music industry that still deeply inspires our current generation.

Bibliography

1 “ELLA FITZGERALD TRIBUTE: Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song.” Music Week, Apr 21, 2007, 15,https://www.proquest.com/magazines/ella-fitzgerald-tribute-first-lady-song/docview/232164800/se-2?accountid=351.

2 ALFRED DUCKETT Exclusive To,Defender Publications. “Ella Fitzgerald, ‘First Lady of Swing’ Rode A Yellow Basket to Fame: Today She Rates Tops with Patrons and Ace Artists Nation Over Mistake was made–Ella Laughed it Off.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jul 31, 1954. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/ella-fitzgerald-first-lady-swing-rode-yellow/docview/492983156/se-2?accountid=351

3 Innaurato, Albert. “Frank and Ella.” Opera News, 11, 1996, 66, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/frank-ella/docview/1784818/se-2?accountid=351

George Gershwin’s Whack at the Big Question…

Trigger Warning: Offensive Language

Defining “American Music” has become a topic harder and harder to grasp for me. It’s like trying to summarize terms like “classical music”, “pop music”, any music… Where do you start?!? How do you end!? Who?! What?! When?!! etc. Though this topic seems quite hard to pinpoint, George Gershwin took a seemingly confident swing at it.

George Gershwin

“And what is the voice of the American soul? It is jazz developed out of rag-time…”

 

This initial claim caught my attention. Surely he had an explanation- “a method behind his madness.” And sure enough he did. He goes on by clarifying…

“Does the American spirit voice itself in “coon songs”? I note the sneer. Oh, I hear the highbrow derision. I answer that it includes them. But it is more. I do not assert that the American soul is negroid. But it is a combination that includes the wail, the whine and the exultant note of the old mammy songs of the South. It is black and white. It is all colors and all souls unified in the great melting-pot of the world. Its dominant note is vibrant syncopation.”

There it is! From “coon songs” (i.e. minstrel songs) to being “all the colors” a part of the “great melting-pot”, the generalizations are not seldom in this handful of sentences. Gershwin was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and I would think that some of these immensely generalized statements came from his experience being raised by them. This fact could be seen in his next statement saying that if he was a first-generation American, his view of American life would be

” nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar.”

Though I have no extravagant, bold claims or conclusions about Gershwin’s perspective and statements pertaining to American music and the responsibility he put on himself as an “interpreter of American life in music”, questions still fill my mind. Why did Gershwin feel the need to make these claims? What was pushing him to do so? How did his experience growing up with immigrant parents possibly affect this viewpoint? Despite his generalizations, is Gershwin on to something or is that not even something we should try to consider?

The questions don’t seem to end on this one, but nonetheless, there are many things to consider and contemplate about the big question: “What is American music?”.

Sources:

Tick, Judith., and Paul E. Beaudoin. Music in the USA a Documentary Companion Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.

(original primary source was nowhere to be found- but direct quotes are in Tick’s book!)

Women in Native American Music: Can Egalitarian Tradition Translate Into the Music Culture?

Who knew that a simple word search of “women” could bring me to thinking about feminism in the United States in relation to Native American women and their influence? In my search for primary sources, I wanted to dive deeper on my understanding of the Native American culture pertaining to women. But the obvious question reveals itself: what about women in Native American music? This question was secondary to my research- I found it necessary to get a really solid foundation on Native American women traditions. But regardless, there is something to say about the history and traditions of Native American women and how they were viewed and how they viewed themselves within the environments they lived in. This search process started when I came across various newspaper articles and book sections that discussed Native American women- in tradition and in practice.

Akwesasne Notes, Vol. 13, No. 5, Dec 1981, © The Newberry Library

This first primary source I came across was written by Katsi Cook, a young Mohawk woman, “lay midwife and organizer around women’s health care issues” who played a vital role in Native American women’s advocacy and health. She is the found of the Women’s Dance Health Program in Minneapolis, MN- “translating traditional concepts into a practical tool” for women’s health. Cook goes in great depth about the “origin” of the woman and how various cosmologies have shaped the way that women are viewed in the Native American culture and how they’ve viewed themselves. Cook’s descriptions of the traditional view and journey to womanhood in the Native American culture leads to the emphasis on the dire need for women, the “center of the Circle of Life”, in their culture.

“Women are the base of the generations. They are the carriers of the culture.” -Katsi Cook

I found a newspaper article that supports the theme of the importance of women and the strong role that they have in the Native American culture. This article advertising the Native American Women’s Action Council stood out to me in just how much importance this seemed to hold, even in the 1970s, when the US at the time was ramping up its second wave of feminism pushing for equality. But that’s the thing. Native American women are viewed as equals in their societies. In an article written by Sally Roesch Wagner, the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquis) Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes) women have lived with “rights, sovereignty, and integrity” a lot longer than the European settlers that came after them. The suffrage leaders Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Fletcher, etc. learned a great deal from the Native American women in the late 19th century. There were stark differences in the way women were treated, viewed, and valued.

“Fletcher explained to the International Council, ‘As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: ‘As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.’” -Wagner

In reading about all the ways Native American women were able to participate and have authority over so many aspects of their culture, it made me ask about how that translated to the music. Did this egalitarian culture of the Native Americans have any influence on how women were involved in the music scene? I couldn’t help but think that it did. It honestly makes me sad that I do not know more about this type of representation. And I feel as if I have barely scratched off the very top layer on this topic. In our Western education, we put a lot of emphasis on mis- and underrepresentation of white, Euro-American women composers and performers, but there is so much more music that has yet to be emphasized and women to be recognized.

A Little More “Fascination” Talk…

I was quite “successful” in finding sources for this blog post, and please take the air quotes with a lot more weight than a grain of salt. Let’s just say I wasn’t super thrilled with the plethora of findings I had in searching this topic. This post “piggybacks” off of my last post talking about fascination. Let the conversation continue!

It should be no surprise that Asian Americans have constantly dealt with harsh racism throughout American history. Although, the proof of this racism can be found in the musical scene of the first few decades of the 20th century in particular. From derogatory slang to severe stereotypes, this music is not lacking in either. The interesting content I found can seamlessly tie to Eric Lott’s thoughts, despite his focus on specifically blackface minstrelsy, points to the dichotomy regarding “love and theft” and “envy as well as repulsion” (page 8) in regards to how white people have gone about these traditions.

I found numerous pieces of sheet music alluding to this dichotomy of this expropriation yet strange eroticization towards Asian people. For example, in From Here to Shanghai, a song written in 1917 by Irving Berlin, it explicitly brings up various aspects that Americans tended to deeply stereotype the Chinese. It references sitting in “bamboo chairs”, “sipping Oolong tea”, pairs of “wooden sticks”, “Chinaman that speaks away up high”, and the list goes on. This song alludes to a sense of fantasization of the Chinese- “I’ll soon be there”- referring to almost an urge to want to see this culture that differs from America.  

From Here to Shanghai (1917) – Irving Berlin

Another source I found points to the side of the dichotomy revealing themes of “envy” and eroticism. Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows talks about the narrator wanting to find a “sweet little China pearl” with “dreamy almond eyes.” It goes on in this “search for love”: “I’ll fix my lips for some Chinese kisses” and “I’m going to find what Chinese bliss is.”

Where the Yang-Tze (1917)- pg. 4

This overtly reminds me of the quote in Lott’s book:

“…because they were so attracted to the culture they plundered” (page 8).

 

Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows (1917) – Cover Page

It is painfully clear that there was an immense, oddly obvious attraction to the Chinese. This seems contradictory to other lines in the song that again refers to stereotypes and terrible generalizations. I couldn’t help but make the ties between this type of music with the practice of blackface minstrelsy. These songs written about the Chinese people can define the whiteness and white perspective of most likely a large chunk of the American society, especially considering the political climate emerging from the Chinese Exclusion Act published in 1882.  

The underlying themes that we’ve talked about in class have been perspective-altering, to say the least. The fact of how much they tie together astounds me, as well. It will be hard to look at any music from now on in a non-critical manner, which I think only benefits us as musicians in the long run.

References:

From Here to Shanghai:

https://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/collection/077/080

Where the Yang-Tse Ki-Ang Flows:

https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/where-the-yang-tze-ki-ang-flows-way-out-in-china/15790?item=15794

Why The Fascination?: Minstrel Shows in the 19th Century

The fascination. The excitement. The muse. I have so many mixed feelings when it comes to looking into minstrel show advertisements and newspaper article sections about these apparent highly sought-after shows. I cannot help but question where this grand excitement for these shows is rooted. Was it for entertainment? The humor? The sophistication? The representation? As I looked into newspaper sections that talked specifically about the Campbell Minstrel group, I started to find some possible answers and drew some parallels between our most recent reading by Eric Lott about the concept of love and theft.

The newspaper sections that I found are from the New Orleans Daily Creole, “a Creole pro-slavery newspaper launched in 1856.” Is it also noted that scholars of the African- American press generally exclude the Daily Creole when referring to these types of newspapers. In reading this statement written about this newspaper I found on a database dedicated to African American Newspapers, I found this to be quite odd. I see a pretty distinct dichotomy between the foundational intention of this news source vs. how they portray the minstrel shows in these newspapers. This can definitely allude to Lott’s mention on how there seemed to be a general theme of “love” (eroticism, “celebration”, etc.) vs. “theft” (exploitation, insensitivity, etc.)- both terms in a great deal of contradiction. The minstrel shows seemed to be quite “sophisticated” based on the fact that they had a “change of programme nightly.” This broad repertoire most likely appealed to the general public quite extensively, almost giving them more of a reason to come back each night to hear a different show, even getting to hear “new selections” of various songs written for the shows.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 20th, 1856.

 

This other section of a newspaper clipping brings out more fundamental draws and attractions to the minstrel shows. The sentence where it talks about how Matt Peel, “never tires the ear or the eye” goes to show the fascination with the visual and audio aspects of the minstrel show- being drawn to the aesthetics and physicality of enslaved people. Even when referring to the jokes and how they are “excellent”- this can apply to the concept of “celebrating” or treating the experiences of black enslaved people as mere entertainment or a type of comic relief.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 24th, 1856.

These fascinations with the “grand” minstrel shows of the 1850s prove to show that there was a huge draw and attraction to the black experience- having shows go day after day. The “rage” continued for decades (as we can see in the Campbell Minstrels seeming to have toured for over 12 years). Although, it must be noted that all of these reviews and ads come from a pro-slavery newspaper- which alludes to the themes of “theft” and stealing of the black enslaved experience. It is so crucial to dive deeper into these themes that we read and really see the real-life evidence and sources that provide us with proof of these themes that we have read about.

https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans?p_theme=eai&p_product=EAIX&d_collections=ABEA&d_collectionName=ABEA&p_action=doc&p_topdoc=1&p_docnum=1&d_searchform=customized&p_text_custbase-0=14569&p_field_custbase-0=docnum&p_sort=YMD_date:D&p_nbid=N5CL5BQQMTYzMzk5OTc4MC4xMTQ0MzA6MToxNDoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjE1Mg&p_docref=

Minstrel Concert Ad, 1856

Works Cited:

“Advertisement.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 20 Nov. 1856, p. 3. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11B849020C1891B3%40EANAAA-11B95E54DF497DB0%402399274-11B86D1545DDADB0%402-1211B25BB46A165B%40Advertisement. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

“The Campbells.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 24 Nov. 1856, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11B849020C1891B3%40EANAAA-11B95E58D0501DF0%402399278-11B86D154E124B80%401-1211B2645EE918AF%40The%2BCampbells. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_African-American_newspapers_in_Louisiana#CITEREFDavis1983

The Crucial “Contradictions” in Black American Church Music History

When you think of a hymn, what sound, mood, and/or style pop into your head? In a typical Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. worship setting, I think that we can all agree that we would expect to hear something similar to the sheet music below written by Philip Bliss: 4 system, 4 verse, chordal song, verse-refrain format, etc.

“Hold the Fort” (1876) Written by Philip Bliss

Although, when looking into various Gospel hymns of the 20th century, I noticed something different about these hymns, particularly when performed or recorded. Listen to this version of “Hold the Fort” that was recorded in 1899.

https://www.loc.gov/item/99470814/?&embed=resources

As you can hear, it is not sung as “straight” as some scholars would maybe expect this song to be sung in a typical church setting. There are rhythmic and slight melodic liberties taken- from rubato to sliding up to certain notes and cadence points. In another example that I looked into, this song “Leave it There (Tkae Your Burdens to the Lord)” written by Charles Tindely- a widely renown black gospel hymn composer- was notated in the same format as seen before in 1916. 

“Leave it There (Take Your Burdens to the Lord)” (1916) Written by Charles Tindley

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Complicated Crossroads of Colonialism

In the grand search of defining the term “American Music”, the deeper you dig, the more muddy and complicated it gets. It is seen even in this simple sheet music cover published in 1898 that the so-called “Yankee message” was something that was emphasized at one point or another, having an impact on what they coined as “patriotic music” (“Patriotic American Sheet Music.”)

The phrase “The Yankee Message” caught my eye and caused me to want to research the context and intention of this particular music. This piece of music was published and written in the midst of the Spanish-American War. According to an article from the American Mosaic talking about the Spanish-American War, for the United States, much of this war was ignited by the desire and push for American Expansionism (“Spanish-American War.”). Most Americans saw the conflict between Cuba and its colonial combatant Spain as an “in” for greater expansion and influence:

“Some were attracted by the idea of new financial markets; others were inspired by the notions of spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions of liberty and equality to other peoples.”

This raised the question for me: “How can we look at music from this time period without the harsh influence of the American urge to be a world power?” The concept of “spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions” made me think of the article we read by Richard Crawford pertaining to the Early Christian Music-Making that took place in colonial America where much European influence took place in the beginning formations of music in general of America when it came to sacred music-making and how colonization had a huge part in this movement of music at the time. This can point to the fact that this piece of music pointed to a sort of “patriotism”, even though much of the surrounding context revolved around wanting to gain total power and influence. It also made me think of the article we read by Drew Edward Davies discussing the topics revolving around “local music” and the music of “New Spain.” Reading about the influence that Spain had on the Latin music that has survived up until the present day (“villancico” and the Latin-Baroque style) compliments the backdrop and context of this sheet music cover from the Spanish-American war. The ideas that Davies raised at the end of their article pertaining to challenging the assumptions of particular genres of music involving various cultures that Spain (and eventually America) dominated and dialoguing about the “repertoire’s problematic issues” are ones that should be taken in consideration about these types of pieces as well.

Looking into the greater context of this piece of sheet music greatly coincided with the topics discussed around the locality and dominant influences of Europe when it comes to music produced and composed in times like the Spanish-American war and beyond. Terms like “The Yankee Message” can go beyond a simple phrase and raise questions around the context of various music composed and what directly and indirectly influenced the music of that time.

Davies, Drew Edward. “Finding ‘Local Content’ in the Music of New Spain.” Early Music America 19, no. 2 (2013): 64–62.

“Patriotic American Sheet Music.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, latinoamerican2-abc-clio-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/Search/Display/1470303. Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“Spanish-American War.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, latinoamerican2-abc-clio-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/Search/Display/1671743. Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.