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!

Screen shot 2015-04-27 at 12.54.44 AM

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?

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8lug09n1VQ.

3 “Birgit Nilsson “Salome’s final Scene” Salome,” Youtube video, posted by Addiobelpassato, November 9, 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lU_xMlOCyqw.



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.

Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 12.48.02 AM

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. http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/1586

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

“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 http://phw02.newsbank.com/cache/ean/fullsize/pl_004062015_2134_46699_913.pdf

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. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/715022. 

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. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/691638. 

Depression Era Changes in American Music: Aaron Copland, Critics, and Music for the People

During the Great Depression, the United States government took action to provide work for the unemployed musicians (70% of American musicians) that had been displaced by falling audience attendance in venues around the country. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Project Number One implemented relief for musicians with the Federal Music Project. The Federal Music Project employed musicians to perform in both concert and folk/dance settings, teach lessons, and conduct musicological research. The Works Progress Administration was the first instance of government funded music in the United States, and this shift in the way the country approached music affected both the music being made and the relationship between composers, audience members, and, as the letter below reveals, critics.1

In the following open letter from Aaron Copland, Copland clarifies the reasons for the intended conference between critics and composers at the Yaddo Music Festival and chastises critics for failing to attend:    Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 6.05.48 PM

Though this letter dates three years prior to the implementation of Federal Project Number One, Copland was already beginning to articulate the changes that were happening in American music. By the mid-1930s, Copland himself was transitioning into his fourth stylistic period which incorporated recognizable melodies into a major-minor tonal system in an effort to garner widespread appeal.2 Copland made the shift from abstract music to accessible music during this period because the Depression made audience appeal a significant factor in composing music. If music was to survive the Depression, it needed an audience to do so. Thus, composers like Copland sought to create music that the general public would deem valuable enough to listen to.

In Copland’s letter, he calls upon critics to play their role in the transmission of music from composer to audience. The following excerpt best captures his frustration with critics for their failure to adapt to–or even recognize the need to adapt to–the changing musical climate of the United States:

Our purpose was the thoroughly serious one of considering the relation between the American composer and the music critic of the daily press and to discover what might be done to make that relation more vital and more important than it now is . . . . [the critic] is an absolute necessity [to the composer], if only because he serves as a middle man between the public and the creative artist. . . . music critics of the daily press will soon come to realize that the position of the American composer has changed, and that he is no longer satisfied with the merely tolerant and often apathetic attitude of the press toward American music in general . . .3

With these words, Copland is saying that the music industry can no longer afford to be neutral towards the role the audience plays. He does not ask critics to manipulate their reviews in order to purvey American music to the public (in the sense of propaganda), but he does encourage them to have more of an opinion about American music, presumably  to incite discussion, curiosity, and even knowledge of American music among potential audience members. Critics were integral to garnering interest for the changing American music scene of the Depression era, and Copland calls on them–as he called upon himself–to ensure that American music would have a lasting future.


1 Richard Crawford,”‘The Birthright of All of Us’: Classical Music, the Mass Media, and the Depression,” in America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: Norton, 2001) 590.

2 Ibid., 587.

3 Aaron Copland, Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2006), 91.

Folk Music Revival During the McCarthy Era


In the 1950s, several Americans who worked in the public sphere were under attack from United States Senator Joseph McCarthy during a time known as the Second Red Scare. Attempting to rid American media and entertainment of any trace of Communist sentiment, Senator McCarthy blacklisted writers, actors, and musicians who were suspected of Communist allegiance or sympathy. Anxiety over Communism lasted well into the 1960s, and one such victim of late McCarthyism was folk singer Pete Seeger in 1963. In the video below, former Governor Gordon Browning speaks at a press conference about Seeger’s suspected alliance with the “Communist Conspiracy” to warn folk music consumers of this potential “threat” to American entertainment.Screen shot 2015-03-07 at 11.01.37 AM

Seeger’s alignment with populist / socialist sentiment and his incorporation of it into music was no secret. He had been a member of the Communist Party from 1942-1949, and he was a founding member of The Weavers, a folk group that performed songs like “Talking Union”1 at workers strikes and other such political events until McCarthy blacklisted the group in 1953. Just two months before the 1963 press conference, Seeger released his album “We Shall Overcome” which featured songs that aimed to rally supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. That Seeger’s music was political is undeniable.2

However, Browning brings up an interesting point when he says:

Folk singing, for hundreds of years, has been a highly respectable art, and a very wonderful form of entertainment, and now we are concerned that the Communists are moving into this field and that they are going to pervert this wonderful form of entertainment so it will satisfy their own needs.3

Were folk revivalists, as Browning believes, using folk songs for political causes they were never meant to support, or has folk music always belonged to populist / socialist causes? In some ways, both are correct. It is certainly true that folk revival songs like “Talking Union” had more overtly political messages than traditional folk ballads like “Barbara Allen:”

Was in the merry month of May
When flowers were a-bloomin’
Sweet William on his deathbed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen

Slowly, slowly she got up
And slowly she went nigh him
And all she said when she got there
“Young man, I think you’re dying”

“O yes I’m sick and very low
And death is on me dwellin’
No better shall I ever be
If I don’t get Barbara Allen”4

Yet, folk ballads such as “Barbara Allen” often addressed universal themes like love and played important roles in rural, often poor and oppressed communities like those in Appalachia. While traditional folk song did not always directly encourage political activism like songs of the folk revival movement did, they represented the common person. So, Browning was not mistaken in noticing the overt political messages in folk revival music that were absent in earlier folk music, but he was wrong to assume that traditional folk music did not support the same sentiments that the Leftist songs of the folk revival movement did.


1“Talking Union,” Youtube video, posted by farmboy10001, December 8 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osnjAb-hoPo

2“Seeger Pete.” In Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Larkin, Colin. : Oxford University Press, 2006. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195313734.001.0001/acref-9780195313734-e-25192.

3Gordon Browning, “Folk singers linked to alleged ‘Communist Conspiracy,’ Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, 2:25, August 19, 1963, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/video/videodetails.aspx?documentId=664253&videoSearch=Pete+Seeger  

4“Ballad of America.” Barbara Allen (American Folk Song). Accessed March 8, 2015. http://www.balladofamerica.com/music/indexes/songs/barbaraallen/index.htm.



“Rock Island Line” and Questions of Authenticity

In search of music authentic to the African-American tradition–that is, music passed down from slavery and unsullied by white influence–folk music collectors of the early 20th century made recordings at prisons and penitentiaries where music like the work song was more likely to be alive. In 1934, John Lomax recorded a group of African-American prisoners at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas singing a tune called “Rock Island Line.” You can listen to Lomax’s original 1934 recording below.

Figure 1

This recording contains evidence of the work song tradition in its call and response structure and the sound of shovels hitting the ground rhythmically.  However, the polished harmonies sound closer to the music produced by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was based on slave music but was highly modified to fit the tastes of white audiences. Another threat to authenticity was the presence of Lomax, his recording equipment, and the cognizance of a future audience during the making of functional music. Consider this photograph of an inmate pausing briefly from work to be photographed in comparison with the following photograph of the Cummins State Farm inmates congregated to perform “Rock Island Line” for Lomax’s recording.

Figure 2

Figure 3

In the first photograph, the prison officer is amongst the inmates, and the inmates do not seem to be coordinating their work. In the second photograph, the prison officer stands apart from the group of prisoners–much like an overseer–while the prisoners swing their shovels in synchronization over a small patch of land. Are both of these representations of Arkansas prison life accurate or is the second photograph staged to look more “authentic” to the work song tradition?

In the same way, the musical categorization of “Rock Island Line” is complicated. Is it a work song as the second picture above seems to show? Is it a blues song like Lead Belly’s 1949 rendition would have us believe? Or is it an American Folk song as white artists of the 1950s, 60s, and beyond would portray? The only thing we can say conclusively is that Lomax’s recording and Lead Belly’s subsequent reworking and marketing of the song changed it into a song well known but of questionable authenticity in America’s musical history.


“Original 1934 John Lomax recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ by Kelly Pace and Prisoners,” Youtube video, posted by Jan Tak, September 10, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NTa7ps6sNU


“[African American convicts working at an outdoor location].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934-1950. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660147/resource/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“[African American convicts working with shovels, possibly the singers of “Rock Island Line” at Cummins State Farm, Gould, Arkansas, 1934].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.00422/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“leadbelly rock island line,” Youtube video, posted by Northern soul, September 23, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iJEVOUqepo


“Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line (Live) 15/6/1961,” Youtube video, posted by Paul Griggs, December 29, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI4nRD-DRpk

“A novel sight”: Women and Southern Singing Conventions

A prominent event in Southern music making of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the singing convention. In rural areas of the South, families from neighboring farms would gather to sing sacred Christian music from shape note singing books such as The Sacred Harp. The singers used this type of musical notation because its utilization of only four solfege syllables and corresponding symbols made reading music easier (than traditional Western notation), and most people were able to learn the notation by attending local singing schools. In the excerpt below, a journalist from the Atlanta Constitution reports his observations from the 1892 Chattahoochee Musical Convention near Carrollton, Georgia:

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.04 PM   Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 10.21.25 PM Figure 1

The journalist seems to be writing for an urban audience that would not be familiar with such a singing tradition. By referencing how a mother might sing these songs “as a lullaby for her babe,” he emphasizes the music’s importance as a transmitter of culture for rural folk.

The shape note singing described above ensured that anyone could participate after little practice. The singing style at singing conventions reflected this inclusive attitude as well as valued the individual spirit. Singers were not expected to blend with one another; rather, they sang at full volume in order to praise God at their highest capacity. The ability of individuals to worship depended on their zeal as they sang, not their wealth, community standing, or musical sophistication. The clip below from the 2010 Chattahoochee Musical Convention shows that this atmosphere remains today.

Figure 2

As documents from the nineteenth century reveal, gender also carried less importance at singing conventions, which made them significant events in the lives of women. The Atlanta Constitution article states that women were allowed unusual freedoms like being permitted to lead songs at singing conventions.

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 7.24.41 PM Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 8.17.34 PM

Figure 3  and Figure 4

While female leadership seems to shock the journalist observing the convention, Mrs. Denson’s leadership makes sense in the context of the convention’s democratic ethos.

Singing conventions also held importance for women because they provided a venue at which members of the opposite sex could mingle. In the following short story excerpt, published in Arthur’s Home Magazine (a magazine marketed toward women), the author describes a young couple who attends a singing convention together not because they enjoy the singing but because the young woman’s parents allowed her to leave the house with young man only because they would be attending a singing convention.

Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 7.20.44 PM Screen shot 2015-02-22 at 8.17.17 PM

Figure 5 and Figure 6

The women who read Arthur’s Home Magazine would have been interested in a story about a singing convention because the singing convention represented an arena in which a woman could participate in social activities without much attention paid to her gender.

Singing conventions were important in the lives of women for three main reasons: 1) they were integral to the transmission of culture, which has traditionally been the role of women,  2) they gave women leadership opportunities in worship, and 3) they provided social venues in which women had more freedom. However, while the democratic nature of the singing convention allowed for more equal treatment in regard to gender, it should not be overstated, considering that the spirit of inclusiveness did not extend to African-Americans. The tradition I have described above refers to white Southerners. Whether or not a similar treatment of gender occurred in separate African-American singing conventions remains a question for another blog.


A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015, http://search.proquest.com/americanperiodicals/docview/194108303/fulltextPDF/1485C5C5DBB94281PQ/8?accountid=351

“Sacred Harp Chattahoochee Convention 2010,” Youtube video, posted by THEbubbleskid, September 9, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQkYnRdkbqM 

A.B.F., “Old Time Singing: Devotees of the Old ‘Sacred Harp’ System of Melody,” The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA), Aug. 9, 1892, accessed Feb. 22, 2015 http://search.proquest.com/americanperiodicals/docview/194108303/fulltextPDF/1485C5C5DBB94281PQ/8?accountid=351

Sacred Harp Singers. Available from http://marfapublicradio.org/blog/talk-at-ten/ryan-p-young-on-sacred-harp-singing/ (accessed Feb. 22, 2015)

Hester Grey. “At the Singing Convention,” Arthur’s Home Magazine (1880-1897) 65, no. 6 (1895): 570, accessed Feb. 22 2015, http://search.proquest.com/americanperiodicals/docview/124515702/fulltextPDF/$N/1?accountid=351

Arthur’s Home Magazine, 1867. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur%27s_Lady%27s_Home_Magazine#mediaviewer/File:1867_Arthurs_Home_Magazine_v29_no4.png