Thomson’s understanding of “American Music” is a little too white…

What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise. I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?”     (Thomson)

I found it strange, as did several others, that Thomson is asking this question about “american music” in the seventies, given that by this time several distinctly american operas, such as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Menotti’s “Old Maid and the Thief,” had been performed by notable ensembles and groups in America as well as Europe. 


To know of these works, and then say he can’t predict the success of american opera seems to signal that either he doesn’t believe these works to be american music, or that they are outliers, and not representative of american musical traits.

Virgil’s bias is especially obvious when he pays homage to other composers, with more obviously White-European heritage, like Ives and MacDowell, and hails them as fathers of american style. To cherry-pick certain well known composers like this and then disregard the international successes of others seems to imply some judgement by Thomson of them being less American. 

Menotti was an Italian immigrant, and Gershwin was of Ukrainian/Lithuanian Jewish decent. MacDowell and Ives were both born in america to white american parents. Without assuming too much about Thomson’s intent, it does bring into question his understanding and perspective of American music in how it relates to “whiteness” rather than “American-ness,” and how he may harbor some elitist perceptions of American music in how it relates to white European music tradition, rather than the innovation and creativity of non-white Americans of various immigrant heritages.


Gershwin, George. Porgy and Bess, New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

Menotti, Gian-Carlo. The Old Maid and The Thief, New York: G. Ricordi & Co. inc. 1939

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

“Good” Minstrels?

Throughout our classes, the aspect of Blackface Minstrelsy (and other forms of racial exploitation) that seems to be of greatest concern, is the way in which white society comodifies and reduces various races and cultures into stereotypical caricatures for the purposes of white entertainment. In Love and Theft, by Eric Lott, however, he discusses that in the case of Blackface Minstrelsy, there is the simultaneous presence of racism, fear, and even “fascination.” It struck me as a very unique and unusual statement, the idea that Blackface Minstrelsy could come out of and be perceived by some as an expression of fascination and twisted admiration. That was until I read the article “Good Minstrels” from page 6 of a 1919 issue of The Broad Ax, a Chicago newspaper.


This reviewer from the Chicago Tribune praises this Blackface Performance for it’s “…amazing Negro feeling for rhythm and pulse and life…” and even compares their performance to that of the Fisk cantors (the Fisk Singers being a historically well known African-american music ensemble).

Throughout the article, the reviewer expresses nothing but excitement and respect for the performance, even referencing “Negro” music in the same breath as Brahms and Dvorak. It is clear that this is Blackface Minstrelsy performance at a high caliber, and in this case, it’s not outwardly comedic or meant to be degrading. It was a performance that showcased black music as something worthy of being performed in the same venues and at the same skill level as that of western classical music. This is highly remarkable given date of this review. After reading even this one review, Lott’s claim, that there is a certain fascination and admiration for “blackness” present in white performances of Blackface Minstrelsy, doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it may first appear…

-Sources Consulted-

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), February 15, 1919: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 (Introduction and Chptr. 1)