Show Me The RECEIPTS: What the Critics Can’t Predict

Artists have an ongoing love-hate relationship with critics in the press. Whether reviewers of artistic works use their words to uplift or pick apart what they’ve seen and heard, it feels like performers, producers, and audiences alike put too much emphasis on the words of critics. While I myself am certainly a fan of giving my own lengthy monologue detailing the highs and lows of any musical production I see only moments after exiting the lobby, my words are rarely given a hint of importance offered to those that take to newspapers and online sites to review professional productions. But, how important are the thoughts and words of these critics?

This question came to a head when looking for newspaper reviews for the original Broadway production of West Side Story in 1957. As a #megafan, I new that initial reviews of the work were mixed, and that the work aged quite well despite initial concerns from critics. In an article from the Daily Defender published in 1958, I though in perplexing that a review of the recent Broadway season listed a musical I had never heard of.

As seen in the article above, the show used in what should be the attention-grabbing title of the article was not my beloved West Side Story, nor the Tony-Award-winning-for-best-musical The Music Man, rather a musical entitled Jamaica. A quick google search of the musical shows an initial success and relatively positive reviews along with a slew of Tony Award nominations, but also a show that hasn’t aged well due to its musical choices and a sort of cultural cringe factor evident in too many creations of a racist America.

So this still leaves my original question unanswered: Do the voice of critics really matter? What impact do they have? It appears that to get this answered, we must follow the money (or, as the kids say these days, “show the receipts” *clap clap*). There has been scholarship that factors the opinions of critics into statistical models of successful and not-so-successful musical theatre endeavors (as well as other forms of arts and entertainment).1 While it appears the opinion of critics rarely shows any correlation of commercial success with theatrical productions, scholarly models note the importance of the opinions of critics in forming audience interest and ideas about the production prior to possibly seeing it or buying a ticket

Fig. 1: A visual model that describes the factors in determining success in Broadway Shows

So, I guess my conclusion here is that critics don’t always get it right. While they might think their educated inferences should ultimately dictate the fate of the Broadway musicals they struggle to sit through or heartily applaud, the reality is much more complicated. When I came across the newspaper article, I was confused about how the review of a Broadway season somehow featured a now unknown and unperformed musical at its heading. But hindsight is 20/20, and I have the luxury of time that was not afforded to the critics writing in the heat of battle on The Great White Way.

A quick P.S.: while it is certainly arguable whether we should look at money and commercial success as the main factor for determining a successful piece of art, this blog post fails to engage in that conversation. That is another topic for another blog post/paper/thesis/lifetime of research.

Primary Source

“Jamaica’ Tops on Broadway.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Jan 07, 1958.

Secondary Source

1 Reddy, Srinivas K., Vanitha Swaminathan, and Carol M. Motley. “Exploring the Determinants of Broadway Show Success.” Journal of Marketing Research 35, no. 3 (1998): 370-83. doi:10.2307/3152034.

The Yellow Rose of Texas: Evoking State Unity and Geography in Song

In a past blog post I explored a small evolution of the national anthem in written and notated forms, and this post I hope to extend a bridge from that topic towards my eventual final research topic of state songs. Finding common threads in state songs can be tricky, as distinct similarities between all of these tunes is rare. However, I believe looking at states with the older official state songs- and songs written at a similar time with a similar subject or tone- can provide important clues as to what sort of formula, template, or resemblance these pieces had with one another.

It was on Columbia Records “Great Songs of America”, compiled in 1961, that I found a recording of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. While this is not the official state song of Texas (that honor goes to “Texas, Our Texas”), the piece offers an example of how a particular location is essentialized and remembered in American song. The song conjures ideas of a military march, complete with constant snare drums and occasional piccolo interludes between verses. The male chorus sings lively tune in tight harmony, with moments that sound almost like barbershop. The peppy tune uses vivid imagery of the Texas landscape, although there are varied versions to the lyrics when searching online. 

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was known before the American Civil War, but became quite popular among the soldiers of the Confederate Army, especially those from the state. The song shared among these men fighting together created a camaraderie within the piece, a connotation that goes beyond simple performance practice. In addition, the piece has been situated in its own mythology of sorts, with a popular legend that a young woman by the name of Emily West aided in helping the Texans win a decisive battle in the war for independence from Mexico.1 Scholarship has noted the inaccuracies in these mythologies2, but the fact of the matter is that the piece still gained notoriety for representing a land that many young soldiers longed for and remembered as home.

Primary Source

Great songs of America. Place of publication not identified: Columbia Records, 1961.

Secondary Sources


Phillips, M. “Emily D. West and the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ Myth.” Journal Of Southern History 81, no. 2 (May 2015): 457–458.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: West Side Story and the Broadway Group Project

The iconic West Side Story is one of my favorite pieces of art, just ask any of the people who surround me about my numerous excited rants about the show or my incessant humming of its melodies under my breath at all times. When looking at the creation story of the musical and artistic landmark, what sticks out to me is the massive team that was utilized in its birth. The history of Broadway and the American Musical Theater is littered with creative duos that write and compose blockbuster hits. Whether you think of Rodgers and Hammerstein churning out what would become the Golden Age of the art form, or more modern examples like Pasek and Paul, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, or Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. One conclusion is clear: Power couples have long ruled the scripted stage.

What was unique about West Side Story was the size of its creative team- a team in which each member contributed greatly. The production assembled names that are now known as musical theater heavyweights and masters of their craft. Compositions by Leonard Bernstein, a book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim combined in the groundbreaking piece to tell a story that continues to resonate with audiences today.

In a letter to Bernstein, a young Stephen Sondheim oozes gratitude and affection for his colleague. Throughout his writing, Sondheim emphasizes the friendship the experience has engendered, specifically referencing not only Bernstein but Laurents and Robbins as well. It should be noted that although Sondheim was very early on in his career, this letter doesn’t communicate a feeling of hierarchy. Instead of using words like “mentor” or “leader”, Sondheim opts for a connotation of “collaborating”.

Stephen Sondheim’s letter to Leonard Bernstein, September 26, 1957. Collected and edited by Simeone Nigel in “The Leonard Bernstein Letters”, published by Yale University Press, 2013.

Exploring this unique friendship and team dynamic has led some scholars to draw conclusions about the factors that led bonds among these men to be so strong. Scholar David LaFontaine asserts that all members of the creative team “were all in various stages of coming to terms with their homosexuality in the oppressive atmosphere of 1950s America.”1 Further scholarly speculation points to the themes of troubled love in the song “Somewhere” from the musical as an anthem from four men who were personally and romantically troubled in a world that didn’t allow them the expression they yearned for.2 Back in the letter to Bernstein, Sondheim’s use of the word “us” when talking about the four men working together gives us hints to the bond that solidified among the creators of the innovative story. It is important that we remember the creation of such a powerhouse group in this art form was not only due to artistic merit, but also a shared identity.

“May West Side Story mean as much to the theater and to people who see it as it has to us.”

-Stephen Sondheim in a letter to Leonard Bernstein, 26 September 1957

Primary Source

“West Side Story,: 1955–7 (Letters 359–409).” In The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by SIMEONE NIGEL, 341-90. Yale University Press, 2013.

Secondary Sources

1 LaFontaine, David. “Inside West Side Story.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, vol. 24, no. 6, 2017, p. 22+. Expanded Academic ASAP,

2 Lovensheimer, Jim. “West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 65, no. 1, 2012, p. 285+. Expanded Academic ASAP,

Let Freedom Ring: Tracking Variations in Notation of The Star Spangled Banner

Many of us are familiar with the national anthem of the United States of America: It’s presence at countless sporting events and televised competitions offers a display of patriotism and a national musicality. Recently, the reaction to players in the NFL kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality in the country has sparked conversation and controversy. But long before players took a knee during the national anthem, there were other controversies surrounding the performance practice of a song meant to unify and represent an entire nation. 

Throughout history, there have been widespread reactions in the American public backlashing against performances of the anthem deemed incorrect, inappropriate, or inconsistent with a sort of ideal performance. Recent examples include comedian Roseanne Barr’s controversial performance of the anthem at a Major League Baseball game in 1990 which drew rebuttal from the public as well as the US President at the time. More recently, American pop singer Fergie performed an allegedly jazzed-up version of the anthem, but her unique rendition drew criticism and laughter from players and fans, and went viral.

But where do these different versions of the anthem come from? Shouldn’t a national anthem be consistent, unchanging, and notated in stone? Why has our national anthem changed so much? The answer seems to be found in the earliest times of musical notation of the anthem. Drawing on sheet music found in the UCLA Sheet Music Consortium, we see a handful of different arrangements and publishers trying their hand at notating the national anthem. In scans of arrangements spanning roughly 1840-1970, there are already plenty of different notations and variations within the anthem and its arranged accompaniment.

While some arrangements are clearly named and marketed as a sort of theme and variations of the national anthem, others are simply entitled “The Star Spangled Banner” and fail to list an arranger (and sometimes a composer). Although some of the arrangements give compositional credit to Francis Scott Key, it is unclear who had written the embellishments and variations in some of these arrangements. However, what is clear from these pieces is that from very early on in the American musical life of The Star Spangled Banner, there were liberties taken with arranging and performing the piece- a rather American mindset. 

Screenshots from a government issues pamphlet with choral harmonizations to the Star Spangled Banner.

Some things have remained consistent, which should be noted. For example, many of the arrangements have marked con spirito, a rather unique and distinct marking that is found in many of the arrangements of this time period. While I could not find any sources that dove into arrangements of the anthem specific to this time period to further discuss marking such as the con spirito found in so many, I speculate that even though arrangers felt at liberty to try new things, they felt a sort of obligation to maintain specific aspects of the piece’s identity. This is also reflected in other similarities between the arrangements: most are in the same key, have the same exact notated melody, and include similar harmonization. Although The Star Spangled Banner would not officially be adopted until 1931, the artistic license to embellish, recreate, and change the piece had been established long before. Since then, American performers had the autonomy to take risks and try new ideas with our national anthem with and without public support.

Primary Sources

A Whig Of Providence. TheWhigs of Columbia shall surely prevail. Oliver Shaw, Providence, monographic, 1840. Notated Music.

Rziha, Francis. Star Spangled Banner. W. C. Peters, Baltimore, monographic, 1850. Notated Music.

Hazel Scott: Swinging the Classics

Current music platforms such as Spotify certainly have their ups and downs, but rarely enough troubling side effects for most people to be deterred from utilizing their systems. One sweet serendipity of these platforms and their algorithms are the occasional chances in which they play something new and exciting that gets the listener interested and wanting to learn more. I found myself in a similar situation. After weeks of listening to stations devoted to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Etta James, I was introduced to Hazel Scott. 

When looking for more information about Scott, I came across countless advertisements and articles detailing various endeavors she made in a storied career. It is a shame I have not heard of her until now, and I ask the question: Why isn’t Hazel Scott consistently included with the names of influential African-American jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday? How does a woman buried near Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong get a smaller narrative in a music she helped create and popularize?

The answer appears to lie in the latter parts of her career. From sources gathered, we can see that Hazel Scott was a groundbreaking and often controversial artist. 

Newspaper article describing the resistance to Scott performing at Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital. One of the many instances that contributed to resistance to Scott’s success from white audiences and public figures.

Not only did Hazel Scott push racial boundaries in a racist country (requiring many spaces to integrate their stages for her and her popularity despite historical precedence of white-only performers), but later in her career Hazel Scott was vocal against the Cold War and much of the harmful anti-Communist sentiment prevalent in the country. Scott was even called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee along with several other performers and artists who spoke out.1

I will always remember the very first piece I heard Hazel Scott play: her Two Part Invention in A Minor. The piece begins with the opening strains of Bach’s own Invention in A Minor, but she quickly takes off into a jazzed up version which was a typical style of Hazel Scott’s. Her performance practice is often referred to as “swinging the classics”.

Take a look at the opening melodic material of Bach’s invention (just the first 20 seconds or so are important).

Now listen to what Hazel Scott has done with Bach’s melody. At about 0:56, she finishes the invention and takes off. You can hear the addition of a drum set in the background as well.

Hazel Scott took classical music that many educated audiences were familiar with and gave it an American spin. By infusing jazz, a relatively young creation of the American musical mind, Hazel Scott excited and entertained audiences in a country yearning for a unified identity in a time of unrest and worldwide war. Unfortunately, her activism and commitment to her values cost her career opportunities, and has since affected her memory and legacy in American jazz and popular culture.

Want to learn more? You can enjoy this mini-documentary about Hazel! I strongly encourage you to learn more about this performer (some tidbits: she was the first black American to host a national television show and first to get leading roles in Hollywood films). Also, you can reach out to me and I will point you in the direction of countless Youtube videos, albums, and Spotify playlists!

Primary Source

Defender, Washington Bureau. “Report Truman to Probe Ban Against Hazel Scott.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 13, 1945.

Secondary Source

Mack, Dwayne. “HAZEL SCOTT: A CAREER CURTAILED.” The Journal of African American History 91, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 153-170.

Black Opera and Catholicism: A Case of Selective History

While the most recent course readings and discussions have focused on the (relatively little) good and (predominantly) bad effects of minstrelsy, discussion of other black performance in the 19th century has been limited or in passing. While browsing the archives of the African American Newspapers database, I came across a name that was mentioned multiple times in a few articles about black vocal performances in the Washington D.C. area in the latter half of the 19th century. A “Mrs. Smallwood” was cited multiple times for her performances at various churches. Further digging revealed Agnes Gray Smallwood to be a vocal performer, with multiple newspaper articles hailing her as an outstanding performer.

In this newspaper review, Agnes Smallwood is hailed for her solo singing after a concert given at a local church.

This announcement was found in many papers, noting Mrs. Smallwood’s achievement, yet failed to mention specifically which church she would sing at.

Mrs. Smallwood was a part of a group of singers that formed the little-known Colored American Opera Company, America’s first opera company for black singers. The group rose out of the need to raise funds for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., a catholic church that has long established itself as the “mother church of black Catholics”. The church established itself as a haven for free blacks in the final years of the Civil War, and has since been a spiritual and cultural refuge for blacks.

Although I could not find any video or other media related to the Colored Opera Company, take a moment to view a short video about St. Augustine Catholic Church and how the work of the opera company lives on today in this unique catholic church.


Although there were newspaper reviews praising the voices of colored singers with no conservatory preparation, any sort of monetary or moral support appears to have come from within the black community (despite evidence that white audiences attended the opera performances and enjoyed them). The opera company was formed in a short term effort to raise funds, so there appears to be no long term musical consequences from the formation of this opera company- it did not last beyond the short time the group performed to fundraise for the church. It appears Agnes Smallwood and her peers in America’s first black opera were victims of the selective history we’ve discussed in class. Despite creating opportunities for themselves as artists in a time when barriers hindered access to the art music of upper-class whites, Mrs. Smallwood and the legacy of the Colored American Opera Company have failed to get much recognition over time. They live in the dark shadow of minstrelsy, a legacy that imposes itself of the narrative of black musicians and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But, it is important to acknowledge their work where we can, and understand how their influence on places like St. Augustine Catholic Church live on in black music and experiences today.


Primary Sources

“That Concert.” People’s Advocate (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), March 22, 1884: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Personal.” Sentinel (Trenton, New Jersey), January 14, 1882: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Secondary Sources have been hyperlinked in the prose above.

There’s No Place Like… Home? Decentering Appalachia As The Home of Bluegrass

While perusing the “Introduction” to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, I was fascinated by the importance of location in the nostalgia of bluegrass. The folk scholar notes the creation of a fictional geography in commercial bluegrass production and performance.1 I was reminded of a similar conversation when we discussed country music- how decades of scholarship focusing on country as the music of the American South complicated and even diminished the truth in its origins. But this poses the question: If bluegrass really isn’t the music of Appalachia, where was this music being made?

The idea of Appalachia as a cohesive unit has a large element of mythology to it”

Bluegrass: a History, pg. 13

In searching for clues in a photography collection in the Library of Congress, I found a photograph that captured a geography that challenged the concept of bluegrass as an Appalachian genre. The picture, taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1937, was published in a set of photographs displaying the dwellings and lives of squatters and settlers in the area. While most photographs in the lot detail the shelters and natural surroundings of the settlers, this picture stands out.

‘Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan’. Taken by Russell Lee, May 1937.

Take a listen to the piece listed in the photograph description


Take a listen to an older recording here on another blog (not too different from this one!)

It should be noted that we can hear quite a bit of variation among performances and recordings of the piece. Instrumentation greatly varies between recordings, as well as ornamentations and some stylistic approaches to the core material of the music.

Upon consultation of scholarship regarding the movement of bluegrass, it is clear that Michigan and other states in the Upper Midwest created hotspots for this music as economic migrants traversed the country.2 In the years during and directly following the Second World War, places like Detroit got ahold of musics like bluegrass and marketed it to a country longing for an identity that harkened back to the days of peace and the free, roaming settler. 

It is fascinating to piece together how one photograph can demonstrate an amalgamation of Southern migrant histories and Midwestern musical production. But consultation of additional sources helped contextualize this photograph in the complex geography of bluegrass that had been previously simplified by production companies intending to sell a particular image of the bluegrass musician and backstory.


Primary Source

Lee, Russell. Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan. May, 1937. LOT 1044, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Secondary Sources Cited

[1] Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: a History. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) 3-13.

[2] Maki, Craig., and Cady, Keith. Detroit Country Music : Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013) 2-8.

Noise, More or Less: White Ethnologists and Their Role in the “Vanishing Indian”

Upon decades and even centuries of reflection, scholars can debate the true motivations and implications of the cultural observation and study of Native Americans. At best, the efforts of ethnologists like Frances Densmore and James Owen Dorsey can be hailed as necessary archival work that preserved cultures on the verge of extinction from a colonialist nation. At worst, their work can be essentialized as the groundwork necessary to provide a basis for the “Vanishing Indian” discussed at length by scholar Daniel Blim and our class. 

The latter is my understanding of the work of Rev. Myron Eells. In his article “Indian Music” published in an 1879 volume of The American Antiquarian: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to Early American History, Ethnology and Archaeology, the anthropologist and missionary studied many indigenous groups of the American Northwest.1 In his article, his first topic sentence immediately eases the fear of any upstanding, white American enjoying some ethnology from the safety and comfort of their log cabin: Eells assures readers the music of the American Indian is nothing complicated or culturally relevant.

“Music… consists more of a noise, as a general thing, than of melody and chords” – Rev. Myron Eells describing the music of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest

Eells compares the musicality of the Clallam and Twana people of the Pacific Northwest. Despite detailed accounts of the percussive instruments created and the diverse use of song in the daily lives of these peoples, Eells summarizes the music as plain and dull, with little variety save for loud or soft moments. The reverend does notate the various melodies described in his prose, but his level of analysis and specificity is but a shadow of the work of Frances Densmore- a scholar discussed at length in class who will release volumes of her own works just a few decades later. Eells’ work is important in providing a sort of early “part one” to the “Vanishing Indian” condition, assuring white audiences that the music of the Native American groups he’s studied the sophistication to deserve attention beyond defining their music as simply cacophony.

To further contextualize the “Vanishing Indian”, we look to an article published The Atlanta Constitution in 1906. In this article, we are informed that an ancient relic has been preserved that upends decades of historical understanding of Native American music. The article claims a portion of the “first, genuine Indian melody” has been found. Overlooking the concerning lack of scholarly oversight in this sweeping statement, the article focuses instead on composer Abe Holzmann’s2 arrangement of this melody while in-process. After further digging, I was able to procure both a recording of a military band arrangement and a score of a piano rag arrangement of the piece.

Scan of Holzmann’s “Flying Arrow” Rag for Piano

This sheet music was found in a rag piano collection at the music library of St. Olaf College

Recording of a military band performing Holmann’s band arrangement of “Flying Arrow”

The work of ethnologists like Rev. Eells signaled to broader American society a subordination and savagery of Native Americans, which allowed composers like Abe Holzmann to create music that glorified indigenous melodies (whether truly authentic or not). By comparing these two examples, we see how the passage of time allowed for conclusions from earlier ethnologists to be realized by the musicians of the early twentieth century.