A Use of Fame

As the black rights movement began to gain popularity in the mid-1900s, mainly due to burgeoning public awareness about unequal opportunities and treatment, music played an important role in creating a unique space to express emotion and build community. However, the people behind the music held a significant amount of power and influence, a reputation built up as they gained rapport. Especially as audiences were able to see more and more of their favorite performers, on television in interviews and sometimes in multiple forms of media (performing music and acting in movies, for example) an artist’s opinion often held great weight. Therefore, although one might not think of Frank Sinatra as someone fairly important to civil rights movements, primarily considering he was of Italian heritage, it turns out that his reach was more extensive than some people may think.

Frank Sinatra performed a great variety of genres over his long and extremely successful career of singing and performing, but in the 1940s and 50s he was known primarily as a crooner, or a male singer who sang in a smooth an intimate style. This was primarily enabled by the development of better microphones in the 1940s that could pick up a wider range of pitches and harmonics, and was popularized by big bands and jazz vocalists. Frank Sinatra had a significant amount of contact with different jazz groups, singing in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, before becoming a solo artist as World War 2 rolled around, however it should be noted that both bands were composed almost entirely of white men playing jazz, with few actual black performers.

Despite him not singing with any major black ensembles of the time, nor significantly collaborating with black artists, Sinatra was a tremendous advocate for racial equality. In 1945, he sang at the anti-black strike at the Froebel high school in Gary, Indiana, where he, according to one article in the Chicago Defender, “told the teen-agers to ‘kick out’ the adult instigators.”1 Ironically, Sinatra was also passing up the chance to attend a New York rally honoring him for racial tolerance in order to sing in Gary. He also spoke with students and adults of the school and urged them to study the Springfield Plan, which was a historic plan first implemented in the primary school system of Springfield, Massachusetts, and served to define how multiracial schooling should be established throughout the United States.

Even though Sinatra was unsuccessful at ending the strike, his attendance at the event was noted and the school even reported that student attendance increased following his visit, even though the strike continued. Hilariously, the principal of Froebel, according to the article, “indicated that he believed the singer should have been ‘tolerant’ towards the anti-Negro strike leaders.”2 This serves as a small example that, regardless of background, there were those who were trying to use their influence and fame to foster tolerance and equality.

Works Cited:

1 RICHARD DURHAM Defender, Staff Correspondent. 1945. “Frank Sinatra Fails To Break Gary Hate Strike: Talk, Songs Win Applause But Walkout Still On Crooner Introduced By Negro Youth At Big Rally Of 5,000 ‘THE VOICE’ BLASTS GARY HATE STRIKE.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Nov 10. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/frank-sinatra-fails-break-gary-hate-strike/docview/492782477/se-2.

2 Ibid.



On Copland’s View of Jazz

Aaron Copland, born November 14, 1900, is a composer best known for his incredibly accessible works, with pieces such as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Fanfare for the Common Man being written in the 1930s and 40s. He was an American composer, although he studied in Europe for a good portion of his early career, and returned to America around the 1920s, where he lived in New York during the height of the quest to define what ‘American’ music was.

Copland composed in a great deal of styles, ranging from piano passacaglias to full symphonies. He was part of several jazz bands while in New York, as well as the League of Composers, and was well-known and respected, writing articles for their local magazine. One such piece was about George Antheil’s Jazz Sonata for piano, written in 1922, and was not well-received by the composer, although the original article perhaps did not warrant such a response. Copland wrote a letter to Antheil, perhaps to diffuse the situation,  in which he notes:

The idea of writing that article came to me as a result of the reception given your Jazz Sonata at a concert earlier in the season. All the music critics took the stupid attitude that you were a mere bluff, trying to scandalize the musical public…1

Considering that Copland was part of several jazz bands, it can be assumed that he is referring here to the negative perception afforded jazz and similar genres, even when written by white composers, something prevalent surrounding the time of the early Harlem Renaissance, when such music was to be confined to night clubs only. Copland’s view of jazz seems to be very positive, demonstrating that he was open to a variety of music styles, especially considering that this piece was most likely performed in a concert with other works, that is to say as an art song rather than a dance number or similar. This may demonstrate the shift from jazz being considered a ‘scandalous’ genre to something worthy of a concert, something with legitimacy.

Copland’s view of the actual makers of jazz, that is to say the black community, has to be extrapolated from several different letters, as he says nothing explicit about his ideas about black musicians and performs. In one letter to Carlos Chavez, a Mexican composer of renown, he notes that “Kids are like Negroes, you can’t go wrong if they are on the stage.”2 This was in discussion about his opinion of the opera The Second Hurricane, and the child actors playing several roles within. A footnote in the Correspondence collection states that “Copland may have had in mind Four Sains in Three Acts, which sustained Gertrude Stein’s modernist libretto and Virgil Thomson’s music by means of its black cast…” which although not part of his actual letter gives some insight into Copland’s surroundings at the time of writing. Taking his sentence literally, he certainly seems to have a positive view of black performers, a view that is supported further by his thoughts on the ‘Negro Voice’:

What a music factory it is! Thirteen black men and me – quite a piquant scene. The thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me – it’s so sweet and moving. And just think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this. It’s awful tempting, but I’ll try to control myself.3

Although this excerpt comes from a letter to Leonard Bernstein from Havana, Cuba, written in 1941, it still is useful in giving insight into Copland’s views. He views the ‘black voice’ as something to be used more often in songs, something that is ‘sweet and moving’. Granted, this is in Cuba, not New York. There are different politics in play, and indeed, an entire different musical style. However, I believe that this is indicative of a general appreciation that Copland has for music, without much consideration for who is behind it. He has previously noted that the consideration of jazz as ‘scandalous’ is stupid, he has noted that ‘you can’t go wrong with Negro performers’ and then 20 years later goes to South and Central American and enjoys partaking in their musical traditions. In this way, a sliver of his view: that music should be appreciated and recognized, comes through.

Works Cited:

1 The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, ed. Elizabeth B Crist and Wayne Shirley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 48. Accessed November 2, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.

2 Ibid, 118.

3 Ibid, 141.

Government Documents for Indian Boarding Schools

It can be said that the worst outcomes come from the best of intentions. Of course, we look back in history and find that the definition of ‘best’ is thoroughly different between cultures, backgrounds, classes, races, etc. And obviously, if one were to take the extremely low-hanging fruit, it requires an impressive amount of logic leaps to find the ‘best intentions’ in some of the greatest historical tragedies, such as the Holocaust, any number of catastrophic wars, or the Trail of Tears.

While the history of Indian boarding schools is undoubtedly tragic, the discussion of the goals behind them is surprisingly frank and positive. As a report from a member of the Advisory Council on Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior (one who had the fantastic decency to write his name in an illegible scrawl at the end of his letter to said Secretary of the Interior, at the time Hubert Work; I therefore have absolutely no idea who wrote thing beyond this) notes that the primary goal is to “place the American Indian… upon the same basis as the rest of our citizenship, politically, intellectually, and industrially…” with the disturbance of “community life or tribal or family relationships” no more “than a growing degree of general participation in economic and… political affairs has interfered with… the Negro…”1

An excerpt from page 2 of a letter written to the Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work

Piercing through the incredible wordiness of this statement, it is perhaps difficult to gauge the true opinion of the report’s author. There is much wiggle-room presented in the goal, particular in the definition of an appropriate level of disturbance, but there does not seem to be explicit mention of disrupting family groups, of squashing heritage, and the like. Indeed, the report author notes that “the average American Indian should be educationally as well equipped and as self-reliant and self-sufficient as the average citizen of any other racial descent.”2 A noble goal, if not for the fact that the peoples in question had been self-reliant for well before the arrival of Europe in the New World.

Turning attention to the boarding schools established for the purposes of educating American Indians to the degrees mentioned above, analysis of their curriculum identifies that a significant amount of effort seems to have been put in to ensure a full coverage of all subjects, in science, history, math, and more. One example from the Office of Indian affairs, prepared for use throughout the Indian school service in 1915, dedicates 30 pages in its curriculum overview to Industrial work and over 130 pages to various vocational studies (trade, agriculture, home economics, nursing, etc)3.

A excerpt from the table of contents from curriculum proposed for American Indian students. Note the wide variety of topics available, especially relating to ‘practical’ work.

A section is, of course, dedicated to music. Although there is attention given to the coverage of ‘good’ music (which is something that many others have covered, I will therefore not beat a dead horse), interesting emphasis is placed on proper vocal techniques. Notes to have a “light, pure tone”, with special exercises for “preventing huskiness” and “the elimination of monotones” in the lower grade levels, perhaps were included specifically to ‘correct’ vocal styles that are used for Native American singing 4.

A excerpt from the table of contents from curriculum proposed for American Indian students. A guideline for vocal standards lays out what to prioritize while singing.

For example, in an analysis of different pow-wow singing styles, it is noted that the Great Lakes style uses a “medium-high voice, often with a gravelly or rough timbre” while in both the Great Lakes and Midplains style the women’s part is described as “high and tense”.5 These assertions are difficult to confirm, as during the early 20th century musical analysis of Native American styles was in its infancy, and unfortunately there is little literature that refers directly to behaviors or tendencies that need to be prevented (which would have been an obvious indicator of this type of connection), but the possibility of a link is still there.

In conclusion, this serves as a slightly different approach, as I was surprised to see that reports regarding Native Americans in the 20th century were not as overtly hostile as I might have suspected, going from history. This, of course, could entirely be fancy political language, and there is the additional factor of the majority not understanding the minority and wishing to impose upon them an idea of ‘correctness’, but I found it interesting regardless.

Works Cited:

1 Member of the Advisory Council on Indian Affairs, Report on Indian Affairs (United States Government, 1923), 1-2. Retrieved from American Indian Histories and Cultures https://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Images/Ayer_MS_668/3#Chapters (accessed Oct 26, 2023).

2 Ibid

3 Department of the Interior (Office of Indian Affairs), Tentative Course of Study for United States Indian Schools (Washington D.C: Government Printing Office, 1915), Table of Contents. Retrieved from American Indian Histories and Cultures https://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Images/Ayer_386_U5_1915/5 (accessed Oct 26, 2023).

4 Dept. of Interior, Tentative Course of Study, 111-113.

5 Tara Browner, Judith Vander, et al., Music of the First Nations: Tradition and Innovation in Native North America (University of Illinois Press: 2009), 137-138. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/stolaf-ebooks/reader.action?docID=3413835&ppg=147 (accessed on Oct 26, 2023).

Spirituals and Printed Music

It’s interesting to look at the published presentation of spirituals, which shows how the publishers were trying to market their printings. When trying to get a sense of the public perception of something during a different time in history, printed media plays a large role in perpetuating a particular view. The introduction of the Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies presents an interesting view of the relationship between blacks, their music, and publications.

An excerpt from the introduction of ‘Jubilee Songs’

The person the introduction is credited to is Harry Hanaford, manager. It’s unclear if he was the manager of the singers responsible for the songs, the Original Nashville Students, or of something else, and little elsewhere can be found about the name. However, it’s clear that a positive spin is being placed on things, with phrases like “The words belong to a race infatuated with a passion for song.” Of course, it is expected that an introduction to a published collection aim to promote that collection, but it is the positive framing of the origins of the song that raises an eyebrow.

It can be safely assumed that it is probably white folks reading this introduction, least of all because perhaps black folks would already know such tunes. Later in the introduction, Hanaford writes about how the Original Nashville Students have a world-wide reputation, remarking that it “must be attributed to their retaining the old Southern style, and giving a truthful representation of the negro as he appeared in the days of slavery.” Respectfully, I would either assume someone who aimed a phrase like that at a black audience to be either remarkedly condescending or severely out of touch. Rather, I would assume that such an opinion, which perhaps borders romanticization, is therefore born from a lineage that did not experience generations of slavery, and is trying to frame and sell a collection of ‘interesting songs’ to an audience that has little in the way of context.

All this to say, it’s interesting to go back and see how things were presented. A significant amount of modern understanding of past sensibilities originates from analysis of media, written opinions of said media, and statements given about current and past events. It can be difficult to gain a sense of what the common mindset was over a hundred years ago, and each little bit found contributes something to the picture. In this case, a look at a (slight) romanticized framing of something in order to sell, which no was created to appeal to a specific audience. Did that indicate the sensibilities of those people, or a general opinion of them? Was it a new attempt? I’m not sure, but it certainly puts things into perspective for how varied looking back at history can be.

The full Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies can be found at the University of Tennessee Music Collection:


Hanaford, Harry. “Introduction to Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies.” New York, New York: Thearle, H.B., 1800-1922.

  • The exact date of publication is not listed anywhere on the original piece and covers an extremely large range. This author would like to note that an alternative edition was arranged by J.J. Sawyer and published in Chicago, IL in 1884, and that the Nashville Students themselves were founded in approximately 1882; it is unlikely that this work was published before then.

Conceptions about Minstrel Shows

Minstrel shows are most commonly known as a performance in which black culture is represented with an extreme amount of negative stereotyping. Blackface, the practice of having a white man imitate the skin tone of an African American through the use of burned cork makeup, is presented as one of the greatest demonstrations of bad taste and racist portrayals, and often as a defining feature of these performances. However, it is easy to forget that the reality was far more nuanced.

A snippet from the New York Globe newspaper, December 22 in 1883.

As this snippet from a prominent newspaper of the time shows, it was quite often that African Americans performed in minstrel shows. Gustav Frohman was a prominent theater manager, specializing in minstrel shows, and operated one of the most successful black performance troupes of the 19th century. In his remarks to the newspaper, it can be seen that he identifies that few opportunities for African Americans exist, and that his sentiment is to give as many opportunities out as possible.

Of course, it is difficult to know if this is what he truly believes or if he is doing a variation of virtue signaling by saying that providing opportunities is important despite what he truly believes. However, the presence of such a statement in a significant newspaper indicates that such things were important to at least a not insignificant amount of people. Otherwise, why would it be in such a large publication?

Statements like these perhaps contain the notion that these shows are a good thing, as they provide opportunities that would not otherwise exist and allow for the chance to demonstrate skills. Either way, in looking back on a practice that is considered to be very distasteful today, it is valuable to consider such statements, especially those in public view, and imagine what the public perception of the event must have been, unbiased by our modern assertions.


“Mr. Gustav Frohman.” New York Globe (New York, New York), December 22, 1883: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com.

Looking a little deeper

It was said in a keynotes speech by Rhiannon Giddens, a solo artist and 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo recipient, that bluegrass started as a combination of different styles and peoples coming together to make a unique sound. However, she laments that in the modern day, the words ‘bluegrass’ and ‘hillbilly’ lead to a particular image in everyone’s mind. Even looking back at a photograph of Bill Monroe, known as the father of Bluegrass, you can see where the ideas come from.

An image of Bill Monroe at Take it Easy Ranch in Callaway, Maryland. The above image is taken the Smithsonian, however the much smaller original can be found at the Library of Congress. 

Remaining both casual and semi-professional, the dress code hasn’t changed that much. Neither has the association with ranches, the country, and folk music. However, it’s origin story certainly has been altered.

One modern image, described by Rhiannon, sums this perfectly: “that while black folk were singing spirituals and playing the blues, white folk were do-si-do-ing and fiddling up a storm – and never the twain did meet…” However, Rhiannon goes on to explain how this is certainly not the case. How, primarily due to the record companies attempting to market towards specific groups, specific sounds were sought for their records. Blacks go the blues, as that seemed to be popular, while the ‘hillbilly’ label was created for whites, with all relevant music being shuffled under it, regardless of true origin.

I’m not hear to recount Rhianna’s entire address, you can go read it yourself; it’s quite interesting. I merely wanted to bring attention to a display at the Kentucky Bluegrass Museum, located in Owensboro, with a quote from Bill Monroe himself on it.

A display in the Kentucky Bluegrass Museum, to honor the words and memory of Bill Monroe.

This isn’t a hidden display. In fact, it’s located one of the largest Bluegrass Museums in the country, which holds regular Bluegrass programs and hosts many exhibits regarding the genre. The quote itself is pretty on the nose, talking about how many things came together to make Bluegrass, not just ‘white’ music. So perhaps, if you could take a couple seconds, look into history and see what the man himself had to say about the thing he’s said to have created, it would save a bit of time on everything.


Giddens, Rhiannon. 2017. “Keynote Address”. Transcript of speech delivered at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 26, 2017. https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/.

Horenstein, Henry. Bill Monroe, Take It Easy Ranch, Callaway, Maryland. Photograph: inkjet print on foam core. Library of Congress Call Number LOT 15174, no. 70 (FM – MCD size) [P&P]. 1973. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2021643190/.

Highsmith, Carol M. Display honoring the music, and thoughts, of Bill Monroe… Photograph: digital. Library of Congress Call Number LC-DIG-highsm- 63909 (ONLINE) [P&P]. July 14, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020722249/.

Why music?

Every decade or so, a different approach to analyzing music comes around, each trying to explain what it is about the idea that develops independently and uniquely across every culture. We’re asked regularly to consider “What is music?” or “Why is music?” as performers, in order to better understand our own art form and convey… whatever we’re trying to in our musical attempt.

Pleasure is something that the author S. ruminates on. As they wrote their letter to the editor of The Monthly Magazine, and the American Review with nothing more substantial for a signature, their identity is entirely up for question. This is not uncommon; the magazine was compiled from letters to the editors, commentary, and bits of philosophic thoughts about all sorts of topics ranging from orations of American Independence to church sermons to shavings (it is quite an interesting read). Specifically, S. focuses on the pleasure of music and where it originates from: the notes themselves or the ideas they incite? S. goes out of their way to talk about how “simple sounds are agreeable or disagreeable according as the vibrations they produce in the ear arrive at, or are above or below the pleasure point of action”1, which can be summarized by the following example:


For those still confused, S. is essentially theorizing that some sounds are just naturally terrible, that there exists an invisible bar that denotes the bare minimum of human tolerance, and that no sounds below it can exist with any form of musicality. They are, in essence, pointing out these sounds for the only purpose of ignoring them, as nails on a chalkboard (or anything similar) perhaps should never be included in a musical composition.

Therefore, the primary part of S’s argument focuses on ideas that music incites. They theorized that music acts as the starting domino in a long chain, setting off a cascade of ideas. When listening to a piece of music that perhaps invokes ideas of mountain rivers and chirping birds, it is actually the listener that is giving the song those meanings, even if it had been composed with the intent to inspire such ideas. S. notes this is extremely obvious with national music, citing a “Swiss Air that is forbid even to be played to their troops in foreign service, as it always produces the most unrestrainable desire to return [home].” Yet of course, if one has no particular love for the Swiss, they would most likely clap and move right along.

This notion comes to a head with the music of Native Americans. S. discusses this in brief, referring as an example to the Creek nation, which is now known as the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, where an observed song contained only three notes. To the unenlightened observer, such ‘music’ would have been laughable, however to those who have somber thoughts of war and strife associated with the slow, despondent melody, there is deeper understanding and shared meaning.

Extrapolating this to class readings and conversations, we return to the idea that ‘everyone lacks context’. When Frances Densmore, an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, recorded the traditional songs of Native American tribes during the early 1900s and carefully noted their meanings, there was lost context and understanding. In compilations of early colonist opinions regarding native music, there was lost context and understanding (made even worse by the lack of a shared language). Even recorded songs that can be heard in full inspire new domino-chains of thought that perhaps are not what the original composer or culture intended.

This, perhaps, is not a bad thing, as music can be shared between cultures and grow and change with each new person who ascribes meaning to it. But it lends certain doubt to that traditional sentiment: “Music is a universal language”.


1. S. 1800. Letter 2 — no title. The Monthly Magazine, and American Review (1799-1800). 02, pg. 85. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/letter-2-no-title/docview/88855456/se-2 (accessed September 21, 2023).

The entire collection (volumes 1-3) can be found publicly available at HathiTrust at the following URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009018879.