Merging of the Three Americas through Music

For the title of this course being “American Music”, it is strange that we haven’t discussed the fact that “America” is not synonymous with “United States”. It is often overlooked that Canada is indeed American, as it is part of North America, and Central and South America are usually both overlooked entirely. North America, Central America, and South America are all themes within Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias’s jazz album “The Three Americas”.

The opening track of the album, “An Up Dawn” starts as a jazzy song with prominent scatting and piano, but morphs in a very latin piece. The rhythms are very danceable and syncopated, keeping true to a jazz feel while incorporating some latin instrumentation, for example the samba whistle, which pops out of the texture to provide cultural depth to the piece. 

A stand-out song on the album is “Caipora”, as its opening feels like cool jazz but with a bit more spice than usual. The piano is very expressive, and leads to the expressive climax of the song when flute and voice come in together, eventually leading to the takeover of the melody by flute in an improvisational flurry. By this point in the song, there are many drums in the background providing a samba-like rhythm underneath the voice and flute. This seamless amalgamation of North American jazz elements and Brazilian samba makes it clear that “American” culture and identity can be a mix of any two, three or more (!!) elements.

The mixing styles of jazz and the Brazilian samba throughout this album help show how the three Americas have distinct qualities, but easily morph together to become one cohesive sound. American culture is capable of the same thing, but cultural integration is often met with more backlash than in music. Although it’s very cliche, music really serves as a unifier between cultures, with Elias’s album serving as a reminder that Americaness is more than just North America.


Works Cited


The Three Americas. Rec. 19 June 1997. Warner Music, 1997. Music Online: Jazz Music Library Database. Web. 

Music Ensemble Dynamics at St. Olaf

The Manitou Messenger is primarily a modern source, giving us access to information very close to home. Many articles focus in on issues that are affecting students on the hill. One recent such issue being the large donation that was given to the music department last year, allowing international tours to become free for all members of the St. Olaf ensembles. That being, the St. Olaf ensembles that are given the huge privilege of touring every year. Anna Moen’s article from last spring brings attention to the fact that there are many more ensembles on this campus that will not receive any benefit from this huge donation, making the members of these ensembles once again feel discounted (Moen). One could argue that the department is spreading funds to where most music majors are placed in ensembles, but on the same hand, many music majors spend at least one year, if not all four, in ensembles other than the St. Olaf Band, Choir and Orchestra.

This unsteady dynamic between the top ensembles and the others can even be seen visually in concerts like the annual Christmas Fest. The St. Olaf Choir is placed at the front of the ensembles, making sure they draw focus. Even on the Christmas Fest website, the St. Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra are listed at the top of the ensembles list, showing they take priority before any other group even though there are more participants in other ensembles within the massed choir, like Chapel Choir.

In the world of music, it is very nearly impossible to not make distinction between individuals and groups based on personal preference or reputation. I don’t believe it is any one person’s doing that some ensembles are treated more favorably than others, and no student in any ensemble should feel guilty for their placement. However, they all deserve to feel valued, and it seems the department could be doing more to make the majority of the ensembles on this campus feel that way.

Moen, Anna. “Money Donated to Music Department Should Benefit All”. Manitou Messenger. St. Olaf College, March 21, 2019.

“The St. Olaf Christmas Festival”. St. Olaf College, 2019.

Defending American Identity in Aaron Copland’s Letters

I have selected the letters of Aaron Copland, particularly those during the time of McCarthyism in the US, in order to discuss the class topic of the privileging of Western music in our society. 

Copland is one of the go-to American composers for most people, and many  are unaware of the struggles he went through with the American musical audience post-World War II. These letters help historians to better understand the political atmosphere in the US as communism was on the rise, and allows them to see the effects of the Cold War on areas one might not think of right away, like the Western Classical music. In the book that the letters are compiled in, The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, the letters are a useful way to understand the changes in Copland’s composition style that occurs after Copland’s personal struggles with McCarthyism. 

Copland’s style had changed to reflect a more simple style that was easily defined as American, and his Folk song arrangements “Old American Songs” were a hit (Crist 192). This was at a time where the roots of American identity were important in order to push away any suspicion of being too left-leaning. The folk-song roots of the composition can be heard, not only through its melodies but by the lyrics, a tenor singing about being thrifty and seeing a pretty girl (Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra). However, Copland was not always seen as being as clearly American as these songs make him seem.

A series of correspondences Copland made about a conflict between Arnold Schoenberg and himself reveal the defensive nature toward communistic accusations that affected the way Copland interacted with other composers and the music he made. In a letter to Virgil Thomson, he writes “Imagine my astonishment on reading your column this morning to find Arnold Schoenberg coupling my name with that of Joseph Stalin as one of the suppressors of his art”. The letters expand to explain Copland thought the reason of Schoenberg’s attack was that Copland and Shostakovich had been photographed earlier that year, making Copland anxious that his political beliefs were being associated with Shostakovich, and in turn, Stalin. (196).  Copland’s tone of urgency in his letter reveals how important it was for him to not have any accusations against him that would lead people to believe he was betraying his Americanness. 

In more correspondences between Copland, Thomson and Schoenberg himself, it is made clear it was not the photograph that led to Schoenberg’s remarks. Instead it was composition advice of using “simple intervals” Copland had been rumored to give that led Schoenberg to group Copland and Stalin together. Copland replied to Schoenberg, stating that “It is quite untrue, for example that I have advised students to compose in a ‘certain style’ or that I have recommended ‘simple intervals’. These impressions must have been gained from isolated sentences taken out of context by persons who do not know me well”(198). The language Copland uses here is again defensive, and admits no fault, demonstrating another time that it was of utmost importance to Copland to maintain an image of freedom in not only his compositions, but additionally in the advice he provided to others. 

Early American values of freedom for all rose to become top priority for all who were avoiding accusations of conspiring with communists. Copland’s works from this era reveal this phenomenon trickled into the world of composition, and his letters show us these values were essential in maintaining tranquility between prominent composers of the time.


Works Cited

Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne, Shirley, editors. “The Post-War Decade, 1948–58.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 191–220. Print.

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. “Old American Songs, Set 1- Aaron Copland- LSCO & Jeffery Madison”. Youtube, Nov. 8, 2014.

Racism in American Sheet Music

Sheet music tells us many stories. It brings us on a musical journey, and can provide entertainment for many through the accessibility of the copies throughout the world. The shortcomings and racism of the classical music world is evident through many cultural primary sources, some of the best of them being sheet music.

“Ma little lump ob Sweetness” is an American folksong is described on the cover as “A Darkey Serenade”, using blatant racism as a way to attract more people to buy it; a selling point to appeal to the racist masses. The imagery on the cover suggests simplicity is an inherent trait of African Americans, depicting the man as playing the banjo, which has historically been stereotyped as a black folk-song instrument.

When one opens the cover, they would see the lyrics to the piece, which match the same level of racism as the cover. It reads, “Honey youse ma little lump ob sweetness, ‘deed you sets ma heart on fire” (Wilmarth). The piece is clearly being written in a dialect that African Americans spoke with, and exaggerates it in order to make fun of them and their romanticism.

The lyricist and composer of the piece, W. G. Wilmarth was also a white man, making it clear the piece is just an offensive caricature of the racist way in which Wilmarth perceived African Americans to be.

The racist imagery and lyrics in this piece of sheet music is not unique to “Ma little lump ob Sweetness”, and unfortunately many of the familiar and catchy tunes from our childhood belong to songs that are just as offensive.


Works Cited

Wilmarth, W.G. Ma Little Lump ob Sweetness. 1899. Washington, D.C. Henry White, 1899, print.

Portrayal of Women in Rock and Folk Music

For this week’s blog post I found an article from Rock magazine that was published in 1972. The article “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”, written by Toby Goldstein, depicts the music and backgrounds of artists Sandy Denny and Merry Clayton.  The characterization of these two female artists by the male author helps to expose the one-dimensional ways in which the world viewed women in music at the time of the article’s publication.

The ways that Goldstein portrays them is very much as if he is trying to make the point that women can have personalities and depth, as if the default is to think that they do not. About Denny he continuously mentions her range, “In one hour, it is not surprising for Sandy Denny to sing ballads, a Dylan tune, some old-time rock‘n’roll, and even acapella with the band” (Goldstein). Of course the variety of the artist is of interest to potential listeners, but I feel the emphasis of his writing is on how surprising it is that she does this, not commending her musicianship and versatility. The same is done for Merry Clayton, describing her work in an admirable way, but also demeaning her in the same sentence. Goldstein states that “Merry Clayton is a woman possessed to work” (Goldstein). Although this is a compliment of sorts, a man with an identical work ethic would simply be described as “dedicated”, not “possessed”, as that word implies that there is some other force propelling her success other than her own practice and talent.

Another way in which Goldstein could’ve represented the women better was the order of the features of the artists within the article. He features Denny for about 90% of the first page, only getting to Clayton right before the page break. Although this is just a layout issue, I feel that Clayton should have been highlighted first, as her name is alphabetically before Denny’s. Mainly, I find issue with this because Clayton is a black woman, and is already facing more push-back in the music industry than Denny. This issue is more excusable, as in 1972 it was very significant to have a black woman featured in a rock magazine at all, but Goldstein could’ve helped to break down barriers more quickly had he put Clayton’s section first, in order for readers to learn about her work before they lose interest in the article, as many read magazines in a style likened to channel-surfing.

These critiques are of rather small details within the article, but the truth of the matter is that is far better that this article was written than not having it at all. From a modern standpoint, it is easy to pick out flaws in the author’s writing, but the intent and outcome of the article is still overall positive.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Toby. “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”. Rock, vol. 3- issue 16, March 1972, pp. 5-6.

Poetry and Minstrelsy

When discussing minstrelsy in class, we continuously mentioned that minstrelsy went on much longer than most people realize or care to mention. In my research I found a theme of disturbing nostalgia surrounding the practice. One example of this nostalgia can be found in poetry.

In W.D. Nesbit’s poem published in the Chicago Tribune in 1903, “The Yesterdays of Nations”, he states, “Once the trumpet in brazen glee sang at the palace gates; Once the masters of minstrelsy babbled of loves and hates”(“The Yesterdays”). This fondness of olden days is evident through Nesbit’s language, regarding the performers of this offensive practice as “masters”, as if they are people to still be held in high esteem.

The times that Nesbit’s poem reflects so fondly upon can be seen in a second poem. This poem by James Gnocott is “Resignation.- A poem”. This poem so casually mentions minstrelsy that it truly reflects the ordinariness of minstrelsy in entertainment and life, stating “Oh! Trust in patience- hoping, trust the Lord, Although unstrung thy harp of joy may be; Yet may it give a most harmonious chord, to bless the minstrel in the minstrelsy”(“Resignation”).  The fact that this music is being described in a godly way and played by minstrel players is disturbing. The poem is meant to be agreeable in tone yet it’s encouraging God to “Bless the minstrel”. Followers of the Christian faith are meant to act like God, sending the message that the Christian faith itself condones and promotes these crude caricatures of African Americans.

The sentimental value that is placed on minstrel performances is shocking, and yet believable. I think the reason the poems are so nostalgic in tone is because they reflect a time of music and minstrel performances being one of the only times people were brought together in a light-hearted setting. People were willing to look past the innate wrongness of the way African Americans were portrayed easily because it could be written off as just a song or a joke. This mindset persists in our modern world, as jokes and racial microaggressions are brushed off in the same way. Clearly the effects of minstrelsy are even more long-lasting than we realized.

Works Cited

“Resignation.” Freedom’s Journal, 31 Aug. 1827, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 1 Oct. 2019.

“The Yesterday’s of Nations.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XVIII, no. 39, 4 July 1903, p. [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.

Dolly Parton: Breaking and Reinforcing Country Stereotypes and Fallacies

For this blog post I researched into Dolly Parton and the role she has played in shaping country music and challenged the ideas of the poor white hillbilly being the norm in this world. When one hears the word hillbilly they usually associate it with a man, which I think originates from the fact that the music industry was dominated by men at the time of country music being brought into popularity by white Southerners. So what is different about the way Parton presents herself? How does it simultaneously challenge the hillbilly stereotype and become extremely popular, leading her to become a timeless and iconic face within not just female country artists, but the entire genre?

The answer lies within her music and marketing. Dolly markets herself as the common woman, but not in the same “down on their luck” way that most people would expect country music to be presented. In her song, 9 to 5, which is also a feature film, Dolly presents us with the problems of the average person who is dealing with their dead-end job. Sure, this could be construed as someone being down on their luck, but the lyrics “They just use your mind And they never give you credit It’s enough to drive you crazy If you let it”(Parton). show this is a problem that is relatable to any listener that isn’t part of the upper 1%. The imagery of the poster shows how the working class, particularly women, are ready to take back the power from the wealthy (Gibert). This power-dynamic shift is again showing how Parton likes to fight against the typical country music narrative.

This specific line is a bit hypocritical, as country music rarely recognizes the fact that much of their origins come from African American music. Still, the spirit of the song, especially sung by a woman in 1980, is that of resistance. Is it reaching to black women and saying “I”m here! I’m your ally! We’re in this together”? Well, no. It is lacking in connecting that boldly and directly, much like most country music of that era. She presents an air of sticking to your roots but not being afraid to succeed, but isn’t showing off talented African American country and bluegrass singers alongside her.

Although she isn’t making that extra step, I feel she is still stepping out and fighting the patriarchal stereotypes of country music more than other female country singers of the era. She is known for performing alongside modern feminist folk singers, like Brandi Carlile, a known gay Grammy winner. She performed the song Just because I’m a Woman with Carlile’s band at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019 (Ballantyne). This shows that she is still pushing back against double standards that oppress women, while still staying true to the historical descriptions of bluegrass and country, as the lyrics do make it feel like a complaining song, just complaints that are more relevant and valid than some more patriarchal country songs.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Anna, director. Dolly Parton Sings ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’ with Brandi Carlile and the Highwomen at Newport Folk. YouTube, YouTube, 28 July 2019,

Gilbert, Bruce, producer. “9 to 5”. Poster. Twentieth Century Fox, 1980. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Web. 22 Sept, 2019. []

Parton, Dolly, director. Dolly Parton- 9 to 5 (Official Video). YouTube, YouTube, 15 Mar. 2014,

Misconceptions of Native American Music and Tradition

The source that I found for this blog post is Personal Experiences Among Our North American Indians 1867 to 1885 by William Thornton Parker. Parker was an author from New Mexico who studied at both Harvard and the Institute of Technology. One particular section of his book felt very relevant to our conversations from class, and was similar to the first assigned primary source readings we had. One segment focused in on the connection between dance and music that is so essential to Native American music, but is often left out in our education about it as a recording cannot fully convey what the Native American musicking experience was like. After he had personally observed a war dance, he states that “he [the dancer] dances with the peculiar motions of the Indian, so indescribable, yet so suggestive that he is able to convey to the onlookers the passions which sway him” (Parker, 14). I think this excerpt helps to demonstrate the complicated ways that Americans have historically, and currently, interact with native culture, and especially their music. They know it is passionate and feel the meaning but at the same time they find it odd and crude; simplifying it to be insignificant rather than putting effort into understanding.

Like in MacDowell’s Indian Suite, he is taking the elements from Native American music that he perceives to demonstrate the brute force and ignorant simplicity that Native Americans were inaccurately thought to have. He does this while wrapping it in a package of typical Western orchestration that is more palatable to a white audience, allowing them to further generalize and stereotype the culture from which this music was derived. Parker views these Native Americans in such a light, shown by his journals stating “the drums are, in fact, musicians skilled in this particular are of war-dance music” (14). The use of “in fact” in such a contrary way shows that the default idea is the Native Americans could not be skilled as musicians, and it’s almost as if he is patting himself on the back for noticing that there is actual depth to a cultural practice that has been going on for hundreds of years.

Works Cited

Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North [[American]] Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 15, 2019].