Blues Got You

As a relatively new country, America has had to define its own folk music rather forcefully, instead of allowing that definition to come about from hundreds and thousands of years of culture. Because of this, the line when it comes to what is considered folk music and what is not is relatively thin and grey. Folkways has been integral in this construction of a distinctly American folk music. 

Folkways was founded in 1948 by Moses (Moe) Asch and Marian Distler. Though the label also distributed “world music,” it was and is known best for its part in the 1950s American folk music revival. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label, that Folkways branched out into other genres. Now, Folkways releases  music from virtually every genre, with a Hip Hop anthology being released in 2020 (had to do my due intern diligence and plug it here).

So, why is this important? American folk music can be categorized and defined two different ways: as a genre and as a descriptor. Historically, American folk music as a genre has been very exclusive – meaning it has been dominated by white men of lower-middle and middle class backgrounds, and usually from rural/small-town America. As a descriptor, however, folk music has a much broader connotation. It is because of this that the Folkways of today looks little like the Folkways of 70 years ago. Blues, Jazz, and Hip Hop have all been recognized by Folkways as genres that fall within the definition of American folk as a descriptor. 

Volume 2 of Folkways Jazz Anthology (released in 1950, so one of the early signs of Folkways being a leading force in this new definition of folk music) is called The Blues. Both the foreword and the editor’s notes discuss the definition of the blues in a similar way to how I have discussed the definition of folk. The Blues is folk, it is defined by certain syncopations, an aural tradition, specific instruments, chords, and inflections, etc. My question is, there are so many characteristics specific to blues as a genre, but does that mean that tunes that have some of these characteristics and not others are not blues?

The blues are also defined in the liner notes as stemming from slavery and African/ African-American traditions. The content of the blues is often related to “protest, recrimination, and ridicule.” Because of the shifting and exclusive nature of these definitions, it is difficult to choose what to subscribe to. My personal favorite comes from Lead Belly, who defines the blues as a state of mind, saying, “Now I’ll tell you about the blues. All negros like blues. Why? Because they was born with the blues. And now, everybody have the blues. Sometimes they don’t know what it is. But when you lay down at night, turn from one side of the bed all night to the other and can’t sleep, what’s the matter? Blues got you.”

Copeland and the Creation of Identity

The late 1930s to the early 1940s  were a turning point for American identity as we now know it. In the midst of World War II, Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their relation to the world shifted dramatically with the rise of nationalism and a sense of a distinct American identity – one that did not revolve around the previously established identities of other nations. This creation of an American identity called for the generation of what we now consider the “American sound.”

Aaron Copeland was the pioneer of this sound. Hailing from Brooklyn, he became influenced by street jazz, as well as music from his travels to Paris, Mexico, and Cuba. He found real success beginning in 1939 with a move to Hollywood, where he composed commercial film scores, which led him to a New York premiere of a ballet – Billy the Kid. This premiere brought his name to national recognition, which led to, arguably, his greatest success and a key example of the aforementioned American sound, Appalachian Spring. 

1939-1945 was also a period of personal and musical identity exploration and definition for Copeland. In 1939, he began what would become a long-term friendship with composer Leonard Bernstein. The two wrote often, and it is speculated that the two were involved romantically from ‘39 to ‘41. When Copeland visited Havana, he wrote Bernstein about sitting in clubs for hours on end listening to music, saying “the thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me … and just to think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this.” 

I found it particularly interesting to see Copeland, who is the father of American sound, influenced by Cuban and Parisian music, especially at a time when it was so important for America to distinguish itself as a leading nation.

Works Cited:

CRIST, ELIZABETH B., and WAYNE SHIRLEY, editors. “Musical Triumphs, 1937–42.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 120–147. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nq05k.8.

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/keepingscore/copland-american-sound.html.

 

Commodification of “Authentic Blackness”

The 1890s were a turning point for black composers. For the most part, they were not able to rise to the level of white composers, except in the case of music written for minstrel shows. Performing in / composing for minstrel shows provided “chance for advancement and financial security” in a time of “shrinking possibilities” for black composers.

In my search on Sheet Music Consortium, I came across Gussie Davis (1853-1899), a composer from Ohio, who was a well known ballad writer. What I found particularly interesting about Davis is his involvement in northern minstrel shows. He wrote for minstrel shows, toured with minstrel groups, and even had his own minstrel troupe. What’s even more interesting? He was black. 

Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie is a piece written by Davis from the perspective of a former (freed) slave. The lyrics use racial slurs, telling the story of a freed slave meeting their former master again and longing for plantation life, saying “and the old plantation, how I long to see dat home once mo’.” Taking this piece out of context and just examining it as a black person being nostalgic for slavery, the piece is very peculiar. However, it is likely that this piece was performed as a part of one of Davis’ minstrel shows. In this context, it makes sense that Davis would write as such, because black minstrel performers needed to commodify their “authentic blackness.” This provided a sense of comfort for audiences, who had never experienced the horrors of slavery, and allowed them to look past those atrocities. 

“Black minstrels felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity…on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary.” – Was Davis doing this? It seems, judging based on this piece, that he was not. He did not do enough (if anything) to counter racist stereotypes. Instead, Davis just plays into these stereotypes, but understandably so, because his livelihood depended on it.

Works Cited:

 “Blacks in Blackface.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?id=DVsKAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA235#v=onepage&q=gussie&f=false.

“Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie.” Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/15339.

“The History of Minstrelsy : African American Minstrel Performers · USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits.” Omeka RSS, exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy/jimcrow-to-jolson/african-american-performers.

 

Psychedelic Citizenship: From Hendrix to Kaepernick

Since studying it in AmCon, then again in AMST 301, I have been fascinated with Jimi Hendrix’ version of the Star Spangled Banner that he performed at Woodstock in 1969. This version of the national anthem is warped and distorted, a reflection of the political climate in America at the time. Coming out of the ‘50s, Americans in the early ‘60s believed they were in somewhat of a golden age. With the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and the struggle for Civil Rights, it became clear that the 1960s were not to be a golden age, after all. Hendrix’ version of this patriotic anthem is representative of a shifting idea of what it means to be an American and a patriot at a time in which our nation is fraught with so much disaster.

This New Yorker article claims that “Jimi Hendrix’s Rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ is more relevant than ever”, by linking Hendrix’ performance to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protests. This comparison is particularly important because of the nature of the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick protests the anthem, not in spite of his country, but in spite of an administration that he believes threatens the country that he loves. In this article, Hendrix’s political statement is deemed a “psychedelic citizenship,” meaning that Hendrix does not reject his country by performing such a warped version of the anthem, but rather that his performance emphasizes his American identity in his call for recognition of horrendous acts by Americans and American administration. By performing the anthem in such a way, in such a public place as well, Hendrix acknowledges himself as a patriot in his own right, one that acknowledges the down-fallings of his country while still “[acknowledging] the promise and potential of the nation.” This same statement applies to Kaepernick.

Though we can retrospectively view Hendrix’ Woodstock performance as a performance of “psychedelic citizenship,” like Kaepernick, this act did not go without criticism. In this article from the Berkeley Tribe in 1969, the same year of Hendrix’ performance, the author writes of the Anti-Riot act as an attempt by the government to silence backlash against atrocities committed by the administration.

In a similar vein to Kaepernick today, artists at this time were punished for using their platforms to critique the American government. While Hendrix was calling attention to the Vietnam war, Kaepernick brings to light the issue of police violence that plagues our nation. These protests are not against America as a nation, but rather the perversion of American and human values.

 

If you’re interested – for my final project for AMST 301, I made a found footage music video to Hendrix’ Woodstock rendition of the national anthem (which is too big to include here but I’d be happy to send it as a google drive link).

 

Key & Peele as a Contemporary Minstrel Show

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Minstrel shows are characterized by stereotypes of black people imparted by white people, often with over-the-top comedy depicting caricatures of black life in America during the plantation era. So what does it mean when contemporary black performers employ these same created identities in their own work? 

Comedy Central pair, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele became household names in 2012, with “East/West College Bowl” and “Substitute Teacher,” which now have a combined 228 million views on youtube. 

“East/West College Bowl” is a sketch which is comprised nearly entirely of black characters introducing themselves, stating their names and from which colleges they hail. The joke is simple: each of the athletes has an increasingly “funny” and ridiculous name. This joke is not one that is original to this skit, however. The notion that black people have names that are difficult/impossible to pronounce is one that has been perpetuated for years. The humor in this skit can also be traced back to minstrelsy. A distinguishing characteristic of minstrel characters was a lack of education: mispronouncing words, the perceived inability to form complete sentences, etc. 

“Substitute Teacher” challenges this idea of the uneducated black man trope found in minstrelsy, but not in the way one might assume. In this sketch, Key plays a teacher in a room full of white students. The bit here is similar to that of East/West, but different in one very important way. Instead of having the “difficult to pronounce” names being the black peoples’ names, this time it is the black teacher mispronouncing the white students’ names. In some ways, this is (potentially) attempting to break the stereotype that it si black people who have difficult-to-pronounce names, but at the same time it plays into this stereotype of the uneducated black man, which we also saw as a common caricature in our studies of minstrel shows.

The idea that Key and Peele are somewhat of a contemporary minstrel show is particularly disturbing because they are two educated black men. According to this Smithsonian article by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 

“poor and working-class whites who felt ‘squeezed politically, economically, and socially… invented minstrelsy.’”

This continued codifying of blackness furthers some of these harmful stereotypes, while their commercial success as black comics breaks down others. 

I found similar contradiction in the articles I found on the African American Newspaper database. I focused on three reviews of local minstrel shows, from the late 1880s and early 1890s. These reviews are mixed, with the Weekly Pelican describing the performance as “a complete success without,” while the Cleveland Gazette calls a similar show a “complete failure and a disgrace to themselves as well as others.” In another review, this time of a show with actual black performers and not just white people in blackface, the author says, “it is a pity that the coloured people cannot find something better in which to employ their talents… it would go a long way toward ridding us of the nuisance.”

These quotes reflect some of the same issues facing viewers of Key and Peele’s comedy today. These concerns are a part of the reason that Key and Peele no longer have a Comedy Central show, but the permanent nature of digital content and the continued views speak for themselves; audiences still connect with these deep-rooted, harmful stereotypes, and they make money.

 

Music as a Priority in Native American Culture

As a part of a personal diary, William T. Parker, M.D. and Indian War Veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote of his experiences with Native American populations and peoples in New Mexico, California, Canada, and Kansas between 1867 and 1885.

The section of his journal I found most topically interesting and pertinent to our class learning is titled: “Concerning American Indian Womanhood – an Ethnological Study.” In this section, Parker discusses the role of women in music and the arts in Native American society. 

Parker places most of the importance of this section of his writing on, what he takes to be, the poor prioritizing of Native American tribes. Unlike Macdowell’s “Vanishing Indians,” Parker’s writing does not discuss attempts to appropriate and commodify Native American music and art for white consumption, but instead belittles Native American emphasis on music and art. He consistently reinforces his biased belief that American Indian populations place too much importance on art, music, and religion, and not enough on health and traditional (European) gender roles, with respect to home life. He names Native American women as the reason for the poor education of children, particularly female children, in that they are taught music and art before they are taught homemaking skills. He also blames spikes in women’s health issues on this “poor education,” saying “if hygiene and manual labor could be looked after more carefully, then might follow the cultivation of the arts.” In stating this, Parker ignores the intersection between religion, the arts/music, and health, that we know existed and still exist in Native American culture, particularly the medicinal qualities of Native American music.

Parker’s accounts and opinions of his time spent with Native American populations seems typical of someone of his background at the time of his writing. Unlike Densmore, he did not write critically about Native American lifestyle as a viable and rich culture, but instead stuck to a pre-defined, Eurocentric view of what makes for an acceptable lifestyle. 

 

Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North American Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, http://www.americanwest.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/Graff_3197 [Accessed September 17, 2019].

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

Full text of “Frances Densmore and American Indian music : a memorial volume”. Accessed September 17, 2019. https://archive.org/stream/francesdensmorea00hofm/francesdensmorea00hofm_djvu.txt.