El Son Mexicano y La Canción Mexicana

El Son Mexicano, or the Mexican song, is a type of folk music derived from classical music styles of the baroque in terms of rhythms and harmonies, but incorporated into a style of folk performances with guitar and singers.  E Thomas Stanford wrote a good article on the characteristics of the style, and the history of the term and style.  Stanford emphasizes the importance of dance in the style, although there is a vocabulary difference.  A Danza, which is often used as a synonym for Son, denotes a more “primitive” or “raw” version of the word Baile, which is reserved for formal dances.  Stanford also finds that there are elements of Baroque dance performance styles that had been lost or forgotten in other mediums, but rediscovered through the Son.  It is likened to the way Madrigals have been treated in England.  The Son is closer to an authentic madrigal performance than a choir singing from a stage, as both forms are intended primarily as dances.

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Contrasting with this is La Canción Mexicana, another form of mexican folk music.  This form is more popular in the area now known as the American Southwest and Borderlands and originated some time in the mid 19th century.  Peter J Garcia wrote an encyclopedic entry for the Latino American Experience, an online database of articles related to Latino American subjects.  Garcia characterizes the Canción as more emotionally driven than story driven, expressing feelings of intense sorrow, joy, grief, and gaiety.  Garcia claims that the Canción reached maturity in the 1850s, causing a “golden age of mexican song.”  The Canción takes its influences from Italian dramatic operas of the 18th and 19th century, using emotion as a drive rather than character motivation or storytelling.  This most cleanly fits into what Americans think of as Mariachi music, although it is not mariachi.  Mariachi is a distinct musical tradition with a set of specific instruments, although the two styles share some similarities.

Image result for mexican cancion

Now that a brief history of both terms has been established, we can get into the purpose of this blog post, which is listening to some performers of both styles and contrasting them to see if there is as clear a definition as García and Stanford would have us believe.

Our first musical example comes from the Naxos audio library, and is an album called Son de Mi Tierra (song of my earth/land) by a group from Veracruz named Son de Madera.  The tracks on this album are described by the group as a blending of old and new styles of Son, with a reverence for the traditions but an eye on the future.  Listening to the album, which can be done here, shows some link to Baroque senses of tonality, with the solo guitar line often mixing major and minor modes in a way reminiscent of Monteverdi and Allegri. The rhythmic nature of the lines, with clear beats in the bass line, also lends itself well to dancing.  The percussion (perhaps a guitar being hit, perhaps some form of drum) provides quite a bit of ornamentation around those beats, indicating a potential for some dancing ornamentation (think salsa dancing styles, with lots of hands and wardrobe accents on their dancing).  The themes of this music, being a clearer story and plot driving the narrative, also indicate that this would fit into the category of a Son.

    Son de Mi Tierra

If we have found a Son, what then makes a Cancíon.  The album “Con su Permisos, Señores” by Los Centzontles serves as our example here (found here).  The primary difference found here is the instrumental emphasis.  While the Son revolved around the stringed instruments, using the voices in conjunction, these Cancíones make heavier use of the voice.  This is to such an extent that the first track begins with an acapella chorus, beginning the themes of more emotionally driven music than plot.  In these pieces, an understanding can be gleaned without knowing Spanish or reading a translation.

    Los Cenzontles:

Works Cited

García, Peter J. “Canción.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019, latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1329518. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

Stanford, E. Thomas. “The Mexican Son.” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 4 (1972): 66-86. doi:10.2307/767674.


White Spirituals: An expression of culture or attempt at oppression?

While browsing the LPs available at the St Olaf Halvorson Music Library, I came across an interesting find:

This is an LP entitled “White Spirituals,” recorded by the Atlantic Record Label in 1959.  It comes from their Southern Folk Heritage Series, and contains 14 songs (7 per side) of various style and origin.  The timing of the album is what brought my suspicion, as 1959 seems a peculiar time to publish such a collection, and remarkably close to the Civil Rights Movement.  In fact, the 1950s saw a resurgence of racially motivated killings and beatings, as well as less violent forms of segregation.  1954 saw the passing of Brown v Board of Education, which received quite a bit of pushback in many states throughout the US.  1957 saw the passing of the civil rights act, propelled by the protests of Martin Luther King Jr in Montgomery starting in 1955-1956.  1959, the year this album was published, saw Mack Charles Parker beaten in his Jail cell by a mob while he stood awaiting trial for raping a pregnant white woman.  Parker was lynched shortly after in a park.

This brief racial history of the 1950s in the US serves to give us a backdrop for this album and its insistence on “White Spirituals.”  If George Pullen Jackson is to be believed, all spirituals have their origins in white music.  In fact, George Pullen Jackson had written most of his work between 10-20 years prior to this albums recording, so its possible that the producers were familiar with his work and seeking to support his hypotheses.  Interestingly though, it seems as not all of the recorded songs would support Jackson.

There are three in particular that seem to point this album towards the path of cataloguing, rather than racial politicking.  A5-A7 are all songs in the Lining Out or Sacred Harp style, an easily identifiable style of music popular in the Appalachian and Southern Churches, although they were brought to prominence in New England before the independence of the colonies.  After seeing these three songs, I looked into the other artists and they are all quite prominent musicians of the southern Gospel tradition.  Estil C Ball is the most prominently featured musician, and he is a songwriter/singer/guitarist performing his own original music, informed by the bluegrass tradition in Appalachia.  This is to say, I don’t believe this album is a political statement towards the whiteness inherent in spirituals at all.  The title does not refer to spirituals in the “Negro Spiritual” sense, but rather songs of the south that are sacred in nature.

This is all a longwinded, and potentially completely unwanted explanation, on how my personal biases have been shown rather false.  I was struck and intrigued by an album called White Spirituals, and I hoped it would be a treasure trove of racist bile.  My confirmation bias led me to initially criticize the album for being published at such a time.  In the end, however, research won out and showed me an example of good musicological work with an unfortunate title.

The Musical Musings of HT Burleigh

Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh is often credited as one of the leading Black Art Musicians of the 20th century, if not of all time.  He is known to be the father of the concert spiritual (which could be debated, as the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been performing concert spirituals for some time by Burleigh’s birth). as well as a competent composer and performer of art music in the European style.  Burleigh is also known for his connections to several figures of the Harlem Renaissance, namely WEB Du Bois and Booker T Washington.

For this post, however, we’ll be looking at a specific part of Burleigh’s art, his “Album of Negro Spirituals.”

The collection I reference was published in 1969, 20 years after his death, however it contains Burleigh’s original markings, as well as footers with Burleigh’s own edits made during the composition and revision process. I’ll look at 3 of his most famous arrangements, looking at them through a theory lens to try and deduce influences Burleigh had.

Deep River

This piece is the undisputed champion for “most famous spiritual.”  If we look at Burleigh’s vocal line, it differs from most of the other songs in this collection, in that it does not use dialect.  Burleigh is very specific about his use of dialect in singing, as we’ll see later on with “Wade in de Water.”  While “Deep River” does not use the word “the” in it at all, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and “the” is the most common dialectical word to change: we do still see “that” and “river,” both of which are commonly changed into “dat” and “ribber.”  The accompaniment is sparse, with mainly rolled chords, however it does make use of some melodic material, reminiscent of some Schubert accompaniments.  This can be seen most clearly in the last two measures of the first page.

Wade In De Water

This piece exhibits more of the stereotypical spiritual traits, with a fast, agitated, syncopated piano accompaniment.  This style is often likened to drums or more rhythmic performances, which is commonly associated with spirituals here.  The text is also in dialect, with words like “de,” “a-goin’,” and “dat.”  Furthermore, we see a common them of spirituals, which is a reference to Moses and the Israelites.  This make sense for a source material for spirituals, as Moses famously led the Israelites out of slavery, a plight the African slaves in the United States were all too familiar with.

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

For our final piece, we have a bit of a hybrid in styles.  This seems most in line with what we’ve talked about for Burleigh’s views on Black music as art music.  It takes source material and performance stylings (dialect), and combines it with a European sense of harmony and texture.  The piano texture would not feel out of place in a Brahms or Wagner lied, while the melody has a certain ebb and flow more reminiscent of a work song.  The constant forward and back drives that home, while the crossing countermelodies in the piano, seen best during the refrains of “a long way from home.”

As we can see from these three examples, Burleigh wrote in a predominantly European style, using spiritual melodies as inspiration, but not attempting to stick to a folk tradition of performance.  There are times when he leans into the folk origins a little more, particularly on Wade in de Water, but this makes sense thematically.  Wade in de Water is neither hopeful nor sorrowful, but provides specific instructions for escaped slaves on making it to freedom (wading in rivers helped to mask their scent from tracking dogs).  Nevertheless, the piece is included alongside works closer in style to Burleigh’s secular art music, showing its pedigree as art music.

The First Publications of the Spiritual

While the spiritual tradition has a long history in the United States, dating back undoubtedly to the first slaves taken from Africa and brought to the colonies, it can be difficult to trace a lineage of sorts.  This can be due to a number of factors, but the most prevailing is the fact that slaves were not seen as people, and thus could not have a culture worth documenting.  Thus it fell on free African-Americans to document this culture, a task that was blocked at every turn by the segregation and racism present through the 20th century.  Then take into account how many freed slaves had enough musical training to create a published representation of their music, training that was denied to them by conservatories on the basis of their race, and you can start to see the problem.

While the first published book of spirituals was “Slave Songs of the United States,” it was written by three white authors who sought to collect the music of slaves shortly after the dismantling of the institution of slavery.

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This collection was published in 1867, and while interesting and insightful, is still a representation of Black music, specifically slave music, by white authors.  This brings to mind a common saying in modern choirs, especially those that are predominantly white, “we can’t sing this spiritual because we don’t know what it was like to be a slave.”  A common counterargument is that nobody knows what it was like to be a slave, since it has been so long since the institution of slavery was abolished.  With this book, however, the compilers didn’t know what it was like to be a slave, while the people they collected from TOTALLY DID.  Like they were actual slaves, who had just been set free 2 years earlier.  Does this mean that the white authors misrepresented the sentiments of their queries?  Probably if we’re being honest, but we’d have to look to the former slaves for that insight, and many of them were illiterate (both musically and linguistically) due to those same racist institutions.

Enter Fisk University, one of the first educational institutions founded by and for formerly enslaved persons.  This university was founded in 1866, shortly after emancipation, with the goal of providing the education so long denied to African Americans.  You can probably see where I’m going with this, being a musician who just brought up Fisk University, but it’s Fisk Jubilee Singers time.  The Jubilee Singers introduced the Spiritual to the world in 1871, and published this folio of sheet music in 1881 (that’s when the stamp of copyright for the library of congress is dated).  Fisk Jubilee Singers sheet music folio

This folio contains seven works arranged by the Jubilee Singers, all but two of whom were former slaves.  These publications, made famous by the tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, are directly responsible for the popularity of the concert spiritual.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers proved that their folk tradition made for just as high quality art music as any other, and brought the idea of Black excellence to the stage as early as 1871.  We’ve talked in class about recognizing what is representative of a style and what is an appropriation or perversion.  This publication by the Fisk Jubilee Singers is perhaps the most definitive way to see how former slaves viewed their music, and the continued performances of the group give us that direct lineage to the source that we so long for.

Black Music and Religiosity: One and the Same or Just Friendly Relatives?

When asking American music students to name a distinctly Black style of music, most will jump onto the term “Spiritual,” or even “Negro Spiritual” if they feel the need to be more precise (as though we ever refer to sacred songs by White composers are “White Spirituals”).  This shows some kind of link between Black music that has been made popular in the Western Canon and the Christian faith.  Are all instances of Black music in the historical canon from the Spiritual tradition?  Or is that just our personal biases and preferences creeping in.

I’m sure you can tell by the way I phrased it that the answer is no, since of course not every instance of Black art music comes from a background of Spirituals.  Only a Sith would deal in such absolutes.  What may be more accurate to ask is why we have formed such a close tie between Black music and Black spirituality, and what makes that tie different.  Even Black newspapers seem to make this connection, with the Chicago Defender titling an article “Presents Black Music” (Oct 11, 1975) to describe a church’s choral program’s opening concert featuring exclusively spirituals and hymns written by Black composers.

There is no qualifier in the Article’s title, but it does go on to specify it is a concert of “Sacred Music.”  So why is it referred to as “Black music” and not “Sacred Music” or “Black Sacred Music.”  If it were a concert of only white sacred music, it would simply be called something vaguely inspiring with a Bible verse with no reference to race.

This must indicate some subconscious association with Blackness and Spirituality, perhaps best exemplified by a well-meaning, but woefully ignorant, lady in my church choir, saying, “Those Blacks sing so well because they put the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – oh I’m sorry I mean the Holy Ghost as they call it – in every note.”  It is certainly a pervasive concept in our collective consciousness that Black singers excel at being Spiritual, but our acknowledgement of the excellence of Black singers in other regards have nothing to do with their race.  When we talk about Lawrence Brownlee, his race and spirituality stay out of it until someone brings up his performance of Spirituals.

I’ll only posit one possible reason, since I am no expert on cultural consciousness and race, but I have seen quite a bit.  Spirituals and Slave Songs (which are almost always sacred in some regard) were among the first types of Black music to become truly popular.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers in particular helped with that becoming the first American ensemble to tour internationally, bringing an entirely sacred style of singing to the world.  I would argue that since then, our ability to separate Blackness from Spirituality has diminished greatly.  This may have nefarious purposes in stereotyping Black people as overly emotional or passionate, but could just be an honest inability to separate from our initial impression (this phenomenon is called Reference Dependence in Behavioral Economics, and plays a huge role in your willingness to pay certain prices for certain items).

The Pervasiveness of Blackface Minstrelsy

While to our modern sensibilities, Blackface Minstrelsy is a abhorrent sight worthy of outcry (and rightly so, with its racist background, undertone, and purpose), however it is important to understand the reception of Blackface to understand just how ingrained it is in our society’s pop culture.  While it isn’t pretty, it is undeniably there, and what better way to see this than one of the most famous classic movies of the 20th century: Holiday Inn.

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For those who haven’t seen it: go watch it then come back and keep reading, it’s an American classic that should be seen to understand the culture of America in the 1940s and 50s, plus it has some of Fred Astaire’s finest dancing in the 4th of July scene (complete with actual firecrackers he threw at his feet).

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Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, into the meat of why this movie is relevant in a discussion about blackface.  Spoiler alert: they use blackface in this film.

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They don’t use it because it’s funny or to incite racist hatred of the only black character in the movie (named Mamie and well loved by all the characters for her stern discipline and folksy wisdom, which is a problematic stereotype present in many blackface troupes but we can talk about that later).  They use blackface as a plot device to conceal the identity of Linda Mason (played by Marjorie Reynolds) who is the leading lady to Jim Hardy (played by Bing Crosby).  It plays well in the film for one key reason: blackface was everywhere.  It isn’t suspicious that a performing group uses blackface, even though they have never used blackface until that point, because it was so pervasive in American culture that they were seen as merely experimenting with a different form of comedy and performance.  To the audience in the movie, they were essentially trying an improv show.  Maybe a little out of character for suave and smooth Bing Crosby, but not out of the realm of possibility.

This highlights the problem I’m discussing here: blackface is everywhere during this time.  Even in 1942, when blackface is past its prime of popularity, a new blockbuster movie can feature a blackface scene with confidence that it won’t be criticized until at least 1970.  In fact it wasn’t until the 1980’s that showings began to omit the blackface scene (a practice continued on AMC to the current day, so if you haven’t seen it yet you’ll have to go to Turner Classic Movies to see the unedited version).  This practice is problematic in its own way as it pretends that such actions did not exist, and were not common.  The film uses blackface in this way for a reason, and can provide important context (intentionally or unintentionally) on the pervasiveness of blackface in performance.

Tradition and the New Chocolate Drops

Southern music is often categorized as predominantly “white,” due to the prevalence of famous white country stars and white bluegrass groups throughout history.  And while the history of Southern music, and bluegrass in particular, would be incomplete without legends such as Bill Monroe or JD Sumner, the contributions of musicians of other races and ethnicities should not and cannot be brushed over.  The art of Black String Bands goes back to the 19th century, predating the Blues, Bluegrass, and Country by several decades.  A paper by Sean K McCollough explores the background of bluegrass as it relates to race (article found here).  McCollough points out that fiddle playing in the America’s grew in the south, with many African slaves being trained to play the fiddle and accompanying dances or parties that their master’s threw.  This tradition of fiddle playing was then passed down through the generations as a new part of the distinctly African-American culture that was arising (which I differentiate from Black American culture, as not all Black Americans can trace their lineage back to Africa and the slaves taken from their).  This tradition then grew in the late 19th century to become the Black String Bands.

An early band of this style was the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, but they’re not who this blog post is about.  Instead I’ll be looking at a group that may have taken inspiration in both their name and makeup, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  This group is much more recent, having been founded in 2005, and bases its style on the string bands of the early 20th century.  In the groups “About” page, which can be found here, they describe their founding as having been something of a happy accident.  The three founding musicians (Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemens, and Justin Robinson) would travel together to the home of fiddler Joe Thompson to hear stories and “jam,” as they put it.  Thompson himself inherited much of his fiddle technique from generations of family musicians, potentially stretching back to the slave musicians described by McCollough.  Now Thompson was passing down his skills to a new generation, and when he passed away the three students chose to form a group to honor his legacy and continue the musical tradition.  The group has since changed membership slightly, losing their fiddle player and gaining a cellist, and has gone on to win several Grammies.

Article Cited:

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s Hammer Ring: Moving Beyond Black and White Images of Appalachian Music.” Kaleidoscope of Cultures: A Celebration of Multicultural Research and Practice: Proceedings of the MENC/University of Tennessee National Symposium on Multicultural Music. R&L Education, 2010.

The Reception of Edward Macdowell Throughout The 20th Century

In our studies of Native American music, I have come across the name “Edward Macdowell” several times.  Most recently in an article by Daniel Blim entitled “Macdowell’s Vanishing Indians.” This peaked my interest in the composer to see what his general reception was amongst the musical community.  Much of his music uses themes from Native Music that is fraught with problems in respect and appropriation (to modern listeners), as can be represented by the Blim article. There are two reviews of Macdowell that I will be exploring to do this, one from 1944 in the Music Educators’ Journal and one from American Music in 1987.  

The first review takes Macdowell’s Second “Indian” Suite under fire as a piece for High School Orchestra.  The full text is short and is reproduced below:

The piece is lauded for its musical accessibility and distinct “Americanness” and its ability to rekindle interest in Macdowell, who it describes as “much neglected on our present day concert programs.”  The only acknowledgement of source material in this (very short) review are that the melodies are suggested by the North American Indians. The score can be found here, for reference to the melodies that it describes.  Despite the short nature of this review, there are a few things we can safely extrapolate from it.  The first surrounds the “much neglected” comment. This shows that Macdowell was not a key facet of many, if any, concert programs in 1944, just 36 years after his death.  The reason for this is not specified, but it does go to show that the use of such Native American Melodies was not popular for composers to do, as Macdowell did with a number of pieces (he has at least two full Indian Suites as the title of the piece suggests).  This could be for a number of reasons, among them being a general disdain for non-white-sounding music (possible, but severe speculation) or a loss of interest in the music of American Composers who weren’t Aaron Copland (again, speculation).  

The second review is much longer, and is regarding a recording of several piano works by Macdowell.  For our purposes, we can just look at the material regarding the piano work itself. The reviewer, Margaret Barela, found Macdowell to be compositionally important to the development of American Music, but not because he “lacked foreign influence.”  Barela likens Macdowell’s music to that of Liszt and Chopin, although Chopin died before Macdowell was born and Liszt died when Macdowell was 26, so they were not contemporaries. Barela praises the first two sonatas of Macdowell for their narrative splendour, but had little good to say about the second two.  This might shed some light on why Macdowell was “much neglected,” even by the 1940s. Macdowell, while an important composer in the development of American music, did not do enough to revolutionize it to gain a spot on the pedestal of history that we historians reserve for the “greats.” It would indeed be ironic if the music of Macdowell “vanished” with history, just as his Indians did.

Works Cited

Barela, Margaret Mary. American Music, vol. 5, no. 2, 1987, pp. 231–233. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3052177.

Louis G. Wersen. Music Educators Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, 1944, pp. 42–42. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3386289.