The Spanish-American War Meets Tin Pan Alley

I seem to have a knack for digging up old American patriotic songs. In a previous blog post, I compared three sets of sheet music written between 1916 and 1918 and compared them to Virgil Thomson’s definition of musical traits post 1910. In the Latin American Experience database, I found a piece titled “The Yankee Message or Uncle Sam to Spain” by Edward S. Ellis and Chas. M. Hattersley. This one, however, was written in 1898, a full 20 years before “Come On, America” and its counterparts exemplified Thomson’s traits of 8th note continuity, separation between dynamics and tempo, and “phonetic distortion without loss of clarity.”

Like the other pieces, “The Yankee Message” is primarily in 2/4 with the eighth note driving the rhythm. The refrain is in 6/8 with alternating quarter and eighth notes. Syllabic text setting gives it a distinctly march-like feel, and dynamics and tempo are independent. The cover art features an American flag, and the “Yankee” title situate it firmly as patriotic

The date, title, and content leaves little guess work about the context of this piece. In 1898 the Spanish-American War began and ended in a matter of months. The most immediate and oft-pointed to cause of the Spanish-American War was the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898. However, the U.S. had long had interest in purchasing Cuba, and the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain was harming US monetary interests. After the Treaty of Paris concluded the conflict, Cuba gained independence, and the US received control over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The lyrics of this piece read:

“1. I hear across the waters, From out the southern sea, The wail of sons and daughters, In wo[e]ful misery, If you must act the butcher, And helpless ones roust die, I swear by the Eternal! I’ll smite you hip and thigh!


2. We’ve got the boys to do it, A million men and more; We’ve got our new born navy, And Deweys by the score. We’ll smash your grim old Morroe[?], And brign them round your ears, And make the measure honest, With a thousand ‘Volunteers.


[Refrain:] Then hurrah, hurrah for Cuba! Our free Cuba.

We strike, we strike for wage and fight the battle. We strike, we strike for liberty! Until our Cuba’s free!


3. We greet you gallant Cubans, We’re fighting side by side, Not yet, O fair Antilles, Hath sleeping Freedom died; We’ll make that horde “walk Spanish,” (You hear my thund’rous voice,) And as between two evils, We’ll give you ‘Hobson’s choice.’


4. Our tears for the dead heroes, The Maine and martyred crew; A sigh for smitten sailors, Who died as patriots do; But sure as dawns the morrow, and sure as sets the sun, We’ll avenge our murdered brothers, Avenge them ev’ry one!



There’s a lot to unpack in the lyrics alone, especially as they are quite lengthy. The focus on freedom, liberty, and martyrs, suggest the war was fought for purely humanitarian reasons, a narrative the US government encouraged. Many phrases would require substantial investigation to understand from a contemporary perspective.

If the previous pieces I studied fit Thomson’s ideas to a fair extent, and this piece does as well, what does this say about American music? For one, perhaps identifying music after 1910 as distinct is not particularly helpful. Or, perhaps these pieces are more representative of a different genre, that of American patriotic marches. The design of the cover suggests Tin Pan Alley and pop music. Perhaps the exclusion of popular music was implied in Thomson’s writings. Regardless, examining patriotic music is helpful because these are the pieces that explicitly try to define themselves based on a national identity. From this we can gain insight into which common sonic features are thus implicitly “American” and recognize their significance when they appear outside of this context. This piece is also a great example of how current events routinely impact musical production. “The Yankee Message” is significant because it can be viewed as both a mirror to and an active participant in the discourse surrounding the Spanish-American War.

(Like my last blog post, I was unable to find a recording of this piece. Perhaps this calls for a recording session of American patriotic marches composed during war times?)

Works Cited

Hattersley, Chas. M. and Edward S. Ellis. “The Yankee message; Uncle Sam to Spain.” Trenton, New Jersey: Chas. M. Hattersley, 1898.

“The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War.” Hispanic Reading Room. Library of Congress.

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits.” American Music Since 1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA

Cover of St. Olaf Orchestra’s 2005 recording of Highway One, USA by William Grant Still

In 2005 St. Olaf Orchestra recorded William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA under conductor Philip Brunelle. This recording recently made national news in the New York Times’ article “Operas by Black Composers Have Long Been Ignored. Explore 8.” Here, the St. Olaf recording is linked as the go-to alongside a shout-out for a recording from Sony’s 1970s Black Composers Series. Luckily, both of these recordings are available through the libraries, the former in an online database and the latter in the Halvorson Vinyl Record collection.


Cover of the Black Composers Series recording of Highway One, USA

The Black Composers Series is a 9-volume box set featuring works by William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Ulysses Simpson Kay, George Theophilus Walker, Roque Cordero, José Mauricio Nuñes-Garcia, and José White, among others. In addition to the arias “What Does He Know of Dreams?” and “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, Still’s Afro-American Symphony and Sahdji: Ballet for Orchestra and Chorus are featured. The inside cover notes that this 1986 reissue was a project by the Committee on the Status of Minorities of The College Music Society in consultation with the Center for Black Music Research, firmly situating the album in a socio-political agenda of representation.

Liner Notes from St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording

While the Black Composers Series is valuable in providing an anthology of recordings that have been often marginalized, St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording is arguably more in line with Still’s ambitions because it presents the opera without qualifying it based on the composer’s race. By presenting the opera as it would any other recording, the publication avoids further alienating or segregating works in the classical music genre.

Because the St. Olaf Orchestra recorded this in collaboration with the accomplished Twin Cities-based VocalEssence, I went into the Manitou Messenger archives eager to find content about the recording’s process and reception. Unfortunately, despite extensive digging I was unable to find anything about the recording. Much less notable concerts were covered, including what felt like an endless slew of post-tour home concert summaries.

Although I was unable to find anything about the recording session of Still’s opera, I was so excited to see the headline “St. Olaf Orchestra concert to feature wide variety of composers” come from a March 1996 article of the Manitou Messenger. Since we’ve been talking about racial representation in classical music, and performing works by marginalized groups is one way to reform this narrative, I was interested to see what this article had to say about the concert.

I was more than a little disappointed when the “diversity” I expected to see was no other than the white-boy trinity of Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Samuel Barber. In addition to being Euro-centric and commonly performed as a part of the Western Classical Canon (although perhaps not household names for those unfamiliar with the genre), they are all 20th century composers. The author does not address why he considers this to be a “wide variety.”


Works Cited

DeRose, Jason. „St. Olaf Orchestra concerto to feature wide variety of composers.” The Manitou Messenger 13, vol. 109. March 15, 1996. 9.

Still, William Grant. “What Does He Know of Dreams?” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.

Still, William Grant. “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.


W.C. Handy & William Grant Still: A Bromance?

Samuel Floyd Jr. and Rae Linda Brown both allude to the tight community of black composers during the Harlem Renaissance, but I did not process the significance of this until I read some of W.C. Handy’s letters to William Grant Still. Even reading just a few of these letters gave me a much better idea of the relationship between Still and Handy.

Brown notes that Still worked for Pace & Handy’s publishing company first in Memphis and then in New York, acknowledging that:

“Handy’s office was to become important in Still’s career. It was here that prominent black musicians met and made personal contacts so critical to their professional survival.”(72)

Letters between Handy and Still prove an intimately personal in addition to professional relationship. This relationship is most obvious in the non-musical discourse between the two, particularly the familiarity of their greetings and discussions. Handy’s salutations most commonly read “Dear Friend Still,” and he routinely closes with a greeting from his wife or an update on the health of his two daughters, Katherine and Lucille.

My personal favorite letter dates from April 29, 1941. I am particularly drawn to it because of the synthesis of personal endearment and professional collaboration.

From the first section of the letter it is clear that Handy has sent Still a “script” for his scrapbook. Although the exact context is unclear, my interpretation is that this was a speech of Handy’s. Here, the professional is closely intertwined with the personal; the speech itself was most likely professional in its content, but the familiar tone of the letter suggests that it was sent to his friend simply for Still’s enjoyment. The paragraph closes with a promise to make a new disc so that Still’s son Duncan will have a recording of Handy’s voice.

In addition to a discussion of sponsorship, new recordings, and the recent Ziegfeld picture, it is clear that Handy’s primary reason for writing this letter was to ask for advice on what he should charge for an appearance in Birth of the Blues as well as for a book. This simple request demonstrates the familiarity with which Handy is able to ask for Still’s opinion and shows that their close relationship is still rooted in their professional lives.

W.C. Handy and William Grant Still, 1939-40.

The letters of this collection are important to see how personal relationships worked alongside the professional musical output of this period. Based on this (albeit limited) evidence, I think Brown’s statement can be amended to include the importance of personal contacts to their social as well as professional survival.






Works Cited

Brown, Rae Linda. “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem renaissance.” Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. 71-86.

Handy, W.C. and Eileen Southern. “Letters from W.C. Handy to William Grant Still.” The Black Perspective in Music , no. 2 (1979):199-234. Accessed October 26, 2019.

American Patriotic Songs from 1916-1918

Virgil Thomson spent a considerable amount of effort trying to define traits of American music after 1910. I wanted to test his theories by comparing them to patriotic marches because they can be considered unambiguously American. The keyword “America” brought a number of such pieces to my attention, of which I picked three to study. I was interested in these particular pieces because of a number of similarities that immediately caught my eye, so they should not be considered a random selection.

First, some brief introductions: “Come On, America” was published in 1918 with words by Vance Cooke and music by Kenneth Murchison. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! Tis the Land We Love!”  was published in 1916 lyrics by J. Will Callahan and music by Eddie Gray. Ironically, although published in Chicago this piece was distributed by an Australian company. “America My America“was published in 1917 with words by Ray B Powers and music by Edith Powers. An inscription reads “Dedicated to Elk’s Regiment Portland Oregon Lodge.” Elk’s Lodges are patriotic fraternal organizations, and I foundit timely to come across this note as I have just recently driven past many an Elk’s Lodge in my most recent journey through the Midwest.

Thomson covers such a wide range of genres that it seems laughable to apply common traits that are specific to American music. He particularly focuses on rhythm, noting that “a very large part of what has been composed in the last forty years assumes the existence… of a steady continuity of eighth-notes, on top of which other metrical patterns, regular and irregular, lead an independent life.” (American Musical Traits 19) All three of these pieces certainly fit this trend as they are in 2/4 with the eighth note driving the piano accompaniment. However, none of the pieces have more than a few instances of syncopation, let alone a “large amount” (19).

Another trait Thomson presents as “American” is the “non-accelerating crescendo and… the non-retarding diminuendo” (19). After the initial tempo markings of con brio, allegretto con spirito, and marcia respectively there are no subsequent marked tempo changes with the exception of a ritardando before the chorus of “Come on America.” In this instance there is indeed no dynamic change marked. Dynamic markings as a whole appear secondary to the marching drive of the eighth note. Crescendos and diminuendos appear only in “America First,” and “America My America” has only four dynamic markings with the final already appearing in the third line. Although all this may support Thomson’s assertion that “the American… inclines by instinct to keep his rhythm patterns independent of volume patterns” (19), these trends are perhaps due in larger part to the patriotic march sub-genre than their American origins.

The final trait was harder for me to understand, let alone identify in practice. Thomson speaks to a “phonetic distortion without loss of clarity.” I took this to mean that text setting often prioritizes music over the natural rhythm of speech patterns. One example of this in “Come On America” is the quarter-eighth-eighth-half rhythm of the syllables of “A-mer-i-ca” which causes the “a” and “ca” syllables to be emphasized whereas a native English speaker would accent “mer”. Besides this, however, there was little unusual text setting and based on my understanding of the term I do not believe any of the three pieces utilize “phonetic distortion” to a large extent.

Obviously, these three pieces are too small of a data sample to make any definite conclusions about the accuracy of Thomson’s generalizations of American music, but I did find it to be a useful exercise in thinking through the theories he presented. I chose to undergo this (admittedly arbitrary) project in order to better understand the arguments Thomson lay out, and to that end I achieved my goal.

(Unfortunately, I failed in my noble quest to dig up recordings of these pieces… I guess we will just have to use our imaginations?)


Works Cited

Gray, Eddie and J. Will Callahan. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! ‘Tis the Land We Love).” Chicago: Frank K. Root & Co, 1916.

Murchison, Kenneth and Edmund Vance Cooke. “Come On, America!” Red, White and Blue Series: New Patriotic and War Songs. Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1918.

Powers, Edith and Ray Powers. “America My America.” Oregon: Oregon Eiler’s Music House, 1917.,1957.

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits.” American Music Since 1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Keeping it “real”: Spirituals as the authentic American music

Article from the Chicago Defender (April 22, 1933)

When German motion picture star Dorothy Welkes arrived in the US in April 1933, she was excited to hear the sonic landscape of America. Specifically, she longed to hear “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes.” Upon the fulfillment of this wish, she remarked that she believed spirituals “represent the real American music.”

This brief clipping from the Chicago Defender is only three paragraphs long, but there’s a fair amount to process. The fact that spirituals were gaining international acclaim is significant, particularly since the discussion about its origins (and thus by implied extension, legitimacy) was long from over. Furthermore, that a German celebrity would prioritize black music at the brink of racist totalitarianism under Hitler’s regime is significant and could be examined as an act of defiance. Even designating it as the “real” American music is amazing; while now we take it for granted that gospel and spirituals are a valuable part of the American sonic scene, defenses of African American music making as a legitimate field continued for decades after with writers such as Amiri Baraka.

The Southernaires (Ray Yeates, Lowell Peters, Jay Stone Toney, William Edmonson, and Spencer Odom)

Of course, the idea that any type of American music can be more “real” or “authentic” than another is questionable. Welkes’ insistence on hearing “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes” belies a level of exoticism and desire to view and examine black bodies in a commercial environment. In this sense then, the performers (in this case the musical group the “Southernaires,” not to be confused with the “Jackson Southernaires”) were forced to perform blackness for a white witness.  Although no black-face was used, her desire for “authenticity” is reminiscent of the “fear of and fascination with the black male” Eric Lott outlines in regards to minstrelsy.[1]

Section of the Decca Numerical Catalog ca. 1950 from the Popular Culture in Britain and America Database

In his chapter “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City,” Ray Allen describes how the Southernaires emerged out of the black university tradition pioneered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group was formed in 1929 and quickly gained acclaim for their national radio show “The Little Weather-Beaten Whitewashed Church” which featured traditional spirituals, secular southern folk songs, sermons, recitations, and guest speakers. They went on to record a number of records with label Decca, although these were never as successful as their radio show. While I faced a surprising amount of trouble in procuring information about this group, Allen asserts their importance by stating:

“The Southernaires’ smooth, barbershop harmonizing and rhythmic arrangements of spirituals undoubtedly influenced many black vocal groups of the 1930s and early 1940s, and introduced white radio audiences to the magnificent black university style of quartet singing.”[2]


The context provided by Allen raises new questions about the appropriateness of Welkes’ request. Her language certainly emphasizes their otherness in the context of her own whiteness, but their agreement to perform makes sense in the context of their commercial careers. As radio performers, they already had little control over who could listen to their music, and indeed the article shares that Welkes had already heard their broadcast. The significance thus lies in the choices made by Welkes and the author of the article when speaking about the event. The act of performance was itself not problematic, but Welkes’ word choice betrays her biases, giving us key insights into the psyche of the white observers of black sound.

[1] Eric Lott, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

[2] Ray Allen, “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, 26.


Works Cited

Allen, Cleveland G. “GERMAN SCREEN STAR PREFERS ‘SPIRITUALS’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition). Chicago. 22 April 1933.

Allen, Ray. “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

“Decca Numerical Catalog, circa 1950.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. From Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Lott, Eric. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

“Southernaires ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen’ Decca 2859 (1939).” Published 20 November, 2014.


Simple Poster, Complicated Play

CW: Racial slurs, suicide 

I stumbled upon this advertisement in the Afro-Americana Imprints database and immediately had about a thousand questions. Why have I never heard of this play before? What is it about? How was this show cast? What does the title even mean? Scanning the list of characters and their descriptions set off more alarm bells as characters include “Wahnotee, an Indian,” “Pete, a Slave, an Old House Servant,” a number of judges, and more slaves. Given this list and the fact that the advertisement was published during the American civil war in 1864, I was fairly certain that if I dug in deeper I would find no end to the amount of problematic material it contained. Unfortunately, I was right.

What is The Octoroon? The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, opened in 1859 at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. The play itself was adapted from the novel The Quadroon by Thomas Reid (1856). Set in Louisiana, the conflict revolves around Zoe who is the “Octoroon,” a word that was used to describe someone who was 1/8 African, 7/8 Caucasian. (Note: Although I had never heard these terms before and they are fairly outdated,”octoroon”  and “quadroon” are listed in the Racial Slur Database). 

Although technically Zoe is a free woman, she is barred from marrying her (white) lover George and is pursued by the evil M’Closky. In the British conclusion the lovers are successful, but in the American version Zoe drinks poison and dies in George’s arms to prevent portraying an interracial marriage in American theaters. The play has been credited for its sympathetic view of slaves and their humanity, but Boucicault claimed that he promoted neither a specifically abolitionist or proslavery view.[1]

Was blackface used in this production? It was never explicitly stated in anything I read, but red-face was certainly used, so it can be assumed blackface was as well.

Is Octoroon still performed? The play does appear in and I was able to find evidence a performance in March 2013 and a movie in 1913. However, there is little else to suggest it is regularly performed although there is substantial literature in theater magazines as it relates to the changing portrayal of race on stage. The play seems to find its most relevance in an adaptation called An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Soho Rep, 2014), a play within a play which examines the writing of the original Octoroon.

Although most people may not know the show now, this newspaper excerpt from an 1884 New York Globe publication states that The Octoroon is a “play very familiar with most theatre-goers.”[5]

Furthermore, it demonstrates in pervasiveness in American society since it was performed by amateurs as well as professional companies.

How does this finding connect with readings that we’ve done? I’m not going to lie, I got a little distracted from my original investigation into the use of blackface. There is so much to unpack in the play itself, and a lot of fascinating literature about it, particularly Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s 2012 book Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction. Paulin sets out the argument that Zoe’s body acts “as a surrogate for other characters’ desires and for the intersecting racial, gender, and (trans)national ideologies informing the play.”[2] Because she is this surrogate, she can “perform dramatic and complex significations throughout the play, disrupting racial, gender, and sexual codes that govern those around her.”[3] I saw a parallel to this in Lott’s argument that blackface is tied to an obsession with black bodies. If we assume Zoe was portrayed in blackface, or at least extend this to encompass the performance of black-ness onstage, her relationship with George demonstrates a desire to control black sexuality as well as a fear of female power and autonomy.[4] Although not classified in the genre of “minstrelsy,” The Octoroon navigates similar themes as the examples outlined in Lott’s chapter.

Now what? In the end, I (understandably) left my research with infinitely more questions than I had begun. I felt like the more scholarly articles I read the less I understood. The play itself is dense and confusing to read, packed as it is with 1860s language and politics. I wasn’t even able to begin an investigation into the portrayal of Native Americans, gender, or power, and I obviously barely even touched the surface of race. Had I known that I would be leaving with more questions than answers, I might have picked a different artifact. However, even though I strayed away from music, this play and its multitude of complexities is certainly something I am interested in researching more in the future.


[1] Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire, ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

[2] Paulin, 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture,” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

[5] “Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884.


Works Cited

“[Playbill. 1864-04-22].” Afro-Americana Imprints. 

Lott, Eric. Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

Paulin, Diana Rebekkah. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire. ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

“Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884. African American Newspapers. 

Stavin’ Chain and the “Batson” Ballad

I was drawn to this photo because it was one of the few in the Lomax collection that depicted black musicians performing. The photo is titled “Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La,” although notes later on clarify that this titled was devised by library staff. The picture is from June of 1934 and is part of the Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, a collection that focused on the southern United States and the Bahamas.

The first question I had was what the ballad “Batson” sounded like.  While I eventually found the recording, in my search I also happened to come across a particularly helpful three part series of blog posts/essays (blessays??) by Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick. Winick’s analysis is a wonderfully detailed, albeit lengthy.

“Batson” is a ballad about a string of murders committed by Albert Edwin Batson in Lake George, Louisiana, and his subsequent trial and execution and subsequent trial. Winick examines how ambiguity in the song allows listeners to come to their own conclusions regarding Batson’s innocence. He also compares the ballad presented by Stavin’ Chain (Wilson Jones) and lesser-known versions collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, John Lomax’s Library of Congress predecessor.

Winick categorizes this ballad as an example of African American string bands, which Rhiannon Giddens notes as an influence to the development of bluegrass. This photo supports her argument that black musicians were participating in many types of music generally assumed to be “white.” The photo dates from 1934, before “bluegrass” became its own genre but after the white-washing of country music began. Although perhaps obvious, it is valuable in its depiction that black musicians were engaging in the genre of string band ballads in the 1930s which ultimately helps modern musicians rewrite the notion that these genres do not exclusively “belong” to white musicians.

At the beginning of her speech, Giddens asserts that the question should not be “How do we get diversity into bluegrass?” but rather “How do we get diversity BACK into bluegrass?” As a primary source, this photo helps document Giddens’ claim that bluegrass emerged from diverse roots rather than belonging exclusively to white Americans.

Works Cited

Caffery, Joshua C. Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. Featuring Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, Charles Gobert, and Octave Amos. “Batson.”

International Bluegrass Music Association. “Rhiannon Giddens – 2017 IBMA Business Conference Keynote Address.” 2017.

Lomax, Alan. “[Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad ‘Batson’ accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.]” June 1934.

Winick, Steven. “’I Didn’t Done the Crime’: Stavin’ Chain’s ‘Batson’ and the Batson Case.” Library of Folklife Today , July 27, 2017,


Henry Finck & the Construction of An American Sound

Henry Finck’s 1906 article “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer” was published in Outlook, a New York-based magazine in operation from 1893-1924. The article’s opening lines casually establish Finck’s authority on MacDowell by stating that in the summer of 1895 he “spent a few days with Edward MacDowell in a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva.”[1] He further drops a subtle brag that MacDowell was “sorely tempted to ask my advice about various details, but refrained for fear of breaking into my vacation.”[2]


This is Henry Finck. In addition to having an impressive mustache, Finck was an American music critic. Although German and a Wagnerite, he distrusted Germany. His 18 publications include Wagner and his works: the story of his life, Richard Strauss: The man and his works, Songs and Song Writers, an autobiography, and books on gardening and food. Finck was a music critic at the Evening Post for 43 years and a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Music (alongside Dvorak).[4]

The purpose of Finck’s article is not consistent. The first page seem to build up to the thesis that “It is time to drop the ludicrous notion that a truly national art can be built up only on folk-songs.”[5] This theme, particularly the importance of individuality, is further developed through the third page. Finck then suddenly switches to a lengthy discussion of MacDowell’s education. Interestingly, in this section Finck uses the same revering tone that he describes MacDowell using towards his own idols (particularly Liszt and Raff), even going so far as to assert that MacDowell was “the greatest pianist this country has produced.”[6] Finally, Finck ends with a quick overview of what he considers to be MacDowell’s best pieces and mourns the “loss to American music” caused by MacDowell’s death. He never seems to return to his “thesis” that individuality is the key to building a national art. In this way the article has a unique mix of informal musicological argument and half reverent biography.

I came upon this source about MacDowell while searching for more context on Dan Blim’s essay “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” I was excited to find this article because it seems to contrast some of Blim’s arguments. Blim’s essay states that:

“[A] so called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism. Pisani attributes the success of this movement in large part to the participation of Edward MacDowell, the preeminent American composer of the day, who premiered his Second Suite for Orchestra with the moniker ‘Indian,’ in 1896.”[7]

While Blim only quotes Pisani on this point, he does not refute it, leading me to the conclusion that he agrees with this argument. Blim in fact seems to take the argument for granted as it is presented in the portion of the essay dedicated to context. Although it perhaps was a personal issue that I didn’t catch this distinction the first time around, my first experiences with the article led me to think that Pisani’s claim was indeed a central pillar of Blim’s own argument.

However, Finck’s article gives evidence that MacDowell specifically didn’t want to create a new American sound based on Native American music. Finck states that MacDowell:

“…never indorsed the view… that a great American Temple of Music might and will be built with Indian songs as the foundation-stones. Nor has he ever countenanced the widely prevalent opinion that negro melodies form the only other possible basis of a distinctively American school of music.”[8]

In combination with his own argument that individuality is the key to building up an American school of music, Finck’s interpretation of MacDowell’s intentions (or lack thereof) contrasts with Pisani’s claim that the “Indianist” movement was conscious and deliberate. Finck only speaks towards MacDowell’s intentions, and because actions and intentions are not the same, it is highly plausible that both Pisani and Finck are correct. I synthesize these conflicting arguments into the claim that MacDowell did not intend to participate in the ‘Indianist’ movement but was nevertheless accidentally a key player in the construction of a US musical nationalism.

This was but one interesting tidbit in a rather long article. Other intriguing morsels that I don’t have space to unpack in this blog post include:

  • Your daily dose of sexism/engrained hypermasculinity (“exquisite feminine tenderness” and “sturdy, manly spirit”)
  • Condescension poorly hidden by Finck’s belief in his own open-mindedness (“The aboriginal Iroquois and Iowan songs which form its main themes are in themselves by no means without charm…”)
  • Was Finck in love with MacDowell? He’s really quite complimentary of his musical accomplishments, not to mention his handsomeness (“His face retains its unearthly beauty… and his eyes still have the light of genius in them.” However, Mark Grant says “Finck was an unabashed enthusiast, not a paid puffer but a booster, and he did not hesitate to write articles about his particular favorites… that bordered on press agentry.”)
  • Finck has strong opinions on what a “real American,” so much so that perhaps the establishment of an American identity can be better examined in the way music is talked about rather than in the music itself



[1] Henry Finck, “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer,” Outlook 84, no. 17 (1906), 1.

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] “Henry T. Finck,” Lapham’s Quarterly,

[4] Mark Grant, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Dan Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Vancouver, 2016, 2.

[8] Finck, “Creative Americans,” 1.

Works Cited

Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

“Henry T. Finck.” Lapham’s Quarterly.

Finck, Henry T. “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer.” Outlook 84, no. 17(1906).

Grant, Mark. Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.