Solidarity Forever: Unions, Unity, and Music

Delano grape workers' strike and march (1966)

In 1966, a group of grape workers organised by famous labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez marched 300 miles from Delano to Sacramento, CA to protest the low wages they worked for. While they marched, they sang a variety of songs, including both pieces in Spanish, known to the majority-Latino workers, as well as traditional union songs – a category of American music that I didn’t realise existed until finding a video source for this blog post. Here you can hear a classic union anthem, Solidarity Forever, the melody of which you will probably recognise. Below are the lyrics.

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.


Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

There are a further 3 verses, somewhat different in tone. They are aggressive, proclaiming the evils of the wealthy who the unions are working against, and the comparative goodness of the union members. This dichotomy is probably not what was used in actual negotiations with the growers in order to get wage increases, as calling some one evil tends to not make them want to treat you very kindly. However, putting yourself of the side of justice and right does make for a very compelling and energizing song when you’ve decided to walk several hundred miles to make a point.

This type of music has some interesting nationalistic parallels, as does any music whose goal is to unify people for a common cause. This kind of parallel seems somewhat concerning to me at first glance, because anything that dehumanizes some people in order to lift others up is not a sustainable way of viewing the world. However, it’s worth remembering that humans, by nature, must simplify and group things in order to understand the world and not be constantly overwhelmed and paralysed by its complexity. As long as songs like this are able to serve their role in empowering and motivating people through trying times and also understood in a more complex way in their particular context, they can be a helpful, not harmful, tool.

Works Cited:


1. “Farmworker Movement: &Deg;Huelga!, March to Sacramento.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience video. 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.
2. “Delano Grape Workers’ Strike and March (1966).” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Image. Accessed November 11, 2019.
3. Wikipedia contributors, “Solidarity Forever,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 12, 2019).


Christmas Music versus Sheet Music

Now that rehearsals for Christmas Fest have begun, I thought it might be time to talk about every musician’s favourite (and longest) season of the year. The amount of Christmas and Christmas-adjacent winter music that musicians of all stripes play during the end of fall and winter is staggering. This is as true for pop musicians as it is for classical musicians, and it has been since the days of Tin Pan Alley. In fact, the origins of much of the most-played Christmas music comes from the times and artists that we’ve been discussing in regards to the sheet music extravaganza that was the early 20th century.

Image result for irving berlin christmas

Think of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” or the many Christmas songs sung by old-time crooners like Bing Crosby. If you’ve been exposed to this music anywhere near as much as I have, the voices of these singers (along with a good 3 or 4 other arrangements) will pop immediately into your head. Much like the sheet music of the 1890s to 1920s, Christmas music floods the market every year in such quantity that there are many, many hits to be drawn upon. As Horacio Lopez discusses in his Manitou Messenger article, “Music on Trial,”  almost every artist that you can think of has released a Christmas album, be it Pentatonix, Nat King Cole, Kanye West, or R.Kelly (to mention a few of Lopez’ examples). Whether the majority of this massive musical output is any good is very much a matter of opinion. Lopez, calling himself Grandmaster Ho (presumably in reference to Grandmaster Flash and other hip hop icons), in fact doesn’t seem to like almost any of the songs he mentions. Instead, they are primarily sentimental to him, being from albums he was gifted or heard at Christmastime.

  On the other hand, Andrew King of Canadian Musician thinks that all the vast quantity of Christmas music has value, even if some of it the unifying force of people’s annoyance at hearing the same songs over and over again. He challenges his readers to seek out new or less-traditional Christmas songs, and to keep searching for the musical value in these pieces.

His argument reminded me of Dr. Epstein’s discussion of sheet music, in which the quantity of music makes said music simultaneously worthless and priceless. Claiming Christmas music as a unifying cultural force is certainly problematic – it comes from a Christian tradition drawing on pagan traditions, and isn’t representative of or important to a lot of people. However, here in North America Christmas, especially Christmas music, has an unquestionably lengthy reach into our collective cultural experience.

Works Cited:


  1. Lopez, Horacio. “Music on Trial: Not-so-Traditional Christmas Jingles to Jangle the Soul.” Manitou Messenger, 9 Dec. 2013,
  2. King, Andrew. “In Defense of Holiday Music.” Canadian Musician, vol. 41, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2019. Music Periodicals Database, EBSCOhost, ISSN: 0708-9635p. 9.


Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and the Creative Process

In Source Readings in American Choral Music from 1995, a review of Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat, a work of “mysticism” and “direct dramatic appeals,” is paired with her discussion of the mystery surrounding the compositional process, particularly when it comes to creating choral works. This idea of mysticism is a common one in perceptions of classical and art music, and can perhaps shed some light on why art music has been such a difficult realm for minority or oppressed groups to break into.

“Each form brings requisites of its own… the steps the composer follows in developing any of these types depend, naturally, upon his own inborn abilities, the force of his creative urge, the way his mind and soul ‘work’, his background, and his training.”


“The text called melodies to my mind. I went out at once … and the text took possession of me. As if from dictation, I jotted down the notes…”

Amy Beach, while one of the few known female composers of the early 20th century, seems to fit very much the mold of a composer – a different breed than the rest of humanity, to whom melodies and musical works come, almost complete, in their moments of inspiration. To those who have spent any time composing, the actual process is extremely difficult to describe, which only lends to this sense of mystery around the creation of music. This contrasts very strongly with our understanding of popular music like that of Tin Pan Alley, in which commercial music is pumped out almost mechanically fitting any formulas.

No wonder, then, that there is so much of a gulf in people’s minds between “high” art music, which comes from individual inspiration and personal expression and “lowly” pop music. And even less wonder that, given the stereotypes applied to oppressed groups such as women and black Americans in the early 20th century, that people were unlikely to accept art music composers from these groups. If there are so few true composers among the “normal” (see: white, Western European, male) folk, how many fewer are likely to come from the margins?

Image result for amy beach

On the other hand, this sense of mysticism is appropriate in one way: men have long viewed women as mystical creatures who are near-impossible to understand. Whether this conception plays a role in Philip Hale’s review when he says that “the mysticism [in the Mass in E-flat] at times approaches obscurity” is hard to say. It could, of course, be a genuine, objective critique (although musical critiques are rarely purely objective). And indeed, Hale claims Mrs. Beach as a part of the larger American musical identity, saying, “It is a pleasure to praise the sincerity of the composer’s purpose, to admit gladly the many excellences of the work, and to welcome it as an interesting contribution to the musical literature of the United States.”

Here, then, is one of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach’s many contributions to the American musical canon. Enjoy!

Works Cited:


  1. Budds, Michael J., editor. “Music from 1830-1920.” Source Readings in American Choral Music, College Music Society, 1995, pp. 74–79.
  2. “Amy Beach Kyrie from Mass in Eb Major.” Performance by Concerto Chamber Orchestra, YouTube, 8 Aug. 2018,
  3. Curtis, Liane. “Amy Beach at 150 Proclaimed.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer, 5 Sept. 2017,


J.P. Webster’s “In the Sweet By and By”


It’s very likely that you know this famous American hymn – it’s been performed most famously by both Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and seems to be well known today as a traditional Southern gospel tune. However, this piece was in fact composed by one of my ancestors: Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875), who was born in Massachusetts and lived much of his adult life in Wisconsin. Originally a touring singer, JP Webster suffered from a bout of bronchitis that robbed him of his voice. From there, he became the composer of over 1,000 hymns, ballads, and patriotic songs, including “Lorena” and “In the Sweet By and By.”

JP Webster’s House in Elkhorn, WI

The publications of this song on the Sheet Music Consortium are from several different arrangers. The one I looked at was published and arranged during JP Webster’s lifetime, and is seen below. However, there are also several other interesting versions, including an arrangement in four parts as performed by the Kelly and Leon Troupe – upon a little digging, this turns out to have been a highly successful blackface minstrel troupe. Perhaps when minstrelsy became more of a Southern phenomenon, this song went with it, or perhaps it followed the pattern of musical traditions which migrated from the Puritan northeast after Lowell Mason’s hymn reforms (Mason was, in fact, one of Webster’s main music teachers).

My interest in this topic and song stem mostly from my family’s personal connection; however, it amazes me how well it ties into our course topics so far. Aside from the connection to minstrelsy, this song has clear connections to the complex history of Southern gospel and country music, having migrated South from traditional musical origins in the northeastern US.  JP Webster is also one example of a composer who may have been revived in the search for an American musical sound in the 1900s, since many of his songs (“Lorena” in particular) were written during and for the Civil War, and this was one of the musical periods mentioned by Annegret Fauser as a source for tracking American music. This is yet another possibility in explaining the revival of his music, so that it is well-known even today.

This song is merely one personal example of the relevance and complexity of what we have discussed in this course to our musical lives today. Few traditional songs have a clear path through history from their composition to how they exist in the public mind today, and while this is one example in which the composer is very clear, even it has its mysteries and complexities. Knowing the history is not merely interesting on a personal or intellectual level, it lends a great deal to our understanding (or recognition that really we know very little) of American musical history.

Works Cited:

  1. Webster, Joseph Philbrick & Bennett, Fillmore. (1870). Sweet by and by Retrieved October 18, 2019, from
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Joseph Philbrick Webster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 17, 2019).
  3. Tubb, Benjamin Robert. “The Music Of Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875).” The Music of Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875), Benjamin Robert Tubb, 9 Apr. 1999,
  4. Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Joseph Philbrick Webster House, IM30910. Viewed online at

Identity and Music in the 1968 Chicago Protests

In the following video from the Popular Culture in Britain and America database, several different scenes are depicted from the protests surrounding the Democratic Party Convention of 1968, when Hubert Humphrey beat out anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy for the presidential nomination (1). The protests and Convention took place in Chicago, and the protests were led almost exclusively by students. It’s kind of remarkable that, much like the history of minstrelsy, many of the events of these protests have vanished from the country’s collective memory. There were extreme shows of police brutality and repression of the free press, and yet like so much history that is distasteful, it is rarely taught or discussed.


Depicted left: a protester’s sign, which says,

“Get troops out of Chicago, Black America, Vietnam NOW! Stoners Against War and Fascism” (2)


While this video has very poor sound quality and jumps around a great deal, one of the things that I noticed was that it featured very little of the Black America mentioned in the sign, with the exception of the brief shot beginning at time 8:54 and ending at about 9:23. In this clip, although the audio does not line up with the video, you can hear someone drumming and leading a call and response and a group of “African American people dancing to music and chanting,” as the database description says. This is our only taste of one of the major features of the anti-war and countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s – protest music.

Watch the video here: http://

Black musicians and their music featured prominently in the anti-war movement – especially folk musicians, although there were many rock and roll musicians as well. Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the all-white folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary are just a few of the most famous musicians who wrote protest music during this time (3).

This struggle against widespread violence is just a continuation of the history we have been learning about in class. Like with every other genre or group of people we have discussed, music has an important role to play in both representing a movement or group to the rest of the world and in moving events forward in its own way. In protest music, this is by being a platform for viewpoints to be shared and by being a unifying force for those who hold the same (or similar) views. Protest music pushes on people’s conception of right or wrong, and thereby identity within those norms, in their society by working through stigmatized forms and symbols – in the Vietnam protests, these included connections to the Civil Rights movement and use of rock and roll and drugs (see Stoners Against War and Fascism, pictured above).

Works Cited:

  1. Editors of “Protests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”, A&E Television Networks, 21 July 2010,
  2. Huntley Film Archives. “Anti-Vietnam War Protests in Chicago during the Democrat Party Convention, August 1968.” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, Adam Matthew, 2011,
  3. Lindsay, James M. “The Twenty Best Vietnam Protest Songs.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 Mar. 2015,

Blackface at Mardi Gras: Paint and Mask

Mardi Gras – It was a beautiful day yesterday, even though the heat was somewhat oppressive. The joyful children of the chaos celebrated Mardi-Gras with dignity. The balls/dances were not empty of beautiful or ugly masks. Some people failed to keep their masks on, while others maintained them. And so went the world, beautiful alongside ugly; light, then shadow. If there was anything that would have struck strangers who had never seen a Mardi-Gras masquerade in New Orleans, it would be the large quantity of people who had masks depicting a “negro” character. Our caucasians have the gift of imitation, to a high degree/standard, because the greater part among them imitate the “negro,” and above all the traditional “negro” which is represented to us by the Olympic Theatre minstrels, with a perfection that denotes to our cousins’ home (as belonging to our cousins, either referring back to the Theatre minstrels or to caucasians) a grand superiority. (1)

The last short segments of the article go on to describe one or two other events which occurred at the Mardi Gras parade, including a mysterious musical group. However, this is the most striking segment. Rarely, aside from a description of coming musical acts, is blackface or minstrelsy so directly addressed in the newspaper articles of this particular decade (at least of those I encountered). It’s an interesting peek into history to see celebrations such as Mardi Gras occurring during a time that we usually only study to discuss the violence that was committed.

This article is from 1869, only about 30 years after the first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans in 1837 and 4 years after the end of the Civil War. The tradition was brought to the area by French colonisers when Louisiana and the surrounding area were still under French control.  It has many ties to the Brazilian celebration of Carnival (2).

The attitudes portrayed here are unclear. The New Orleans Tribune, which published this article, was an African-American publication, and yet it seems to paint quite a complimentary picture of white folks in blackface. I believe, however, that the over-the-top, complimentary wording is likely ironic – it certainly came across that way on my first reading, although it may not be as clear in my rough translation, given above. Minstrelsy was still quite in its height in the South, where it became more popular after the Civil War by leaning into the derogatory, rather than abolitionist, ties. It may very well have been unwise for a black paper to be publicly decrying minstrelsy and white participants in Mardi-Gras, hence the use of irony.

This time is also the origin of another very complicated Mardi Gras tradition. Benevolent Aid Societies came into being after the Civil War as a form of community insurance among black members of these societies – they could provide financial and other support for those who fell ill or lost family members. From these Aid Societies eventually came a group known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which formed under that name in 1909 and still exists today (3).

As part of the Mardi Gras parade, this social and activist club has traditionally dressed in costumes representing Zulu warrior garb, including face painting. Now a multi-racial organisation, all members of the club, regardless of race, dress this way. However, while native Zulu face painting usually involves the bright colours seen in the costumes, the Zulu club relies on black (and some white) face paint. This has caused controversy several times in the club’s history, most notably in the 1960s, when it was condemned by several members of the Civil Rights movement as promoting negative stereotypes. Membership of the club dwindled to only about a dozen members that decade, and they switched to wearing masks instead of paint (3, 4). Since then, the Zulus’ numbers have increased again and transitioned back to face paint, causing yet another controversy in 2018. Whether they are drawing on the tradition of blackface, and whether it matters, is very much up for debate. Zulus claim that they are making no effort to conceal their race or pretend to be what they are not, that they are showing a positive portrayal, that it is a long standing tradition, and that it is not based in blackface. The last claim in particular is difficult to prove, although certainly their intention is important. The controversy in ongoing, but the overall consensus seems to be that the Black leaders of the club have the right to decide whether it is appropriate for their members to dress up the way they do. As long as they are deciding that it is, many other prominent figures have refrained from condemning the practice (4).

We must consider and decide, at least for ourselves, whether it makes a difference who is portraying a negative stereotype or drawing on a painful history, as well as their intention. Can blackface, in any form, be reclaimed?

  1. “Chronique Locale.” New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 10, 1869: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Mardi Gras,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 3, 2019).
  3. Becknell, Clarence A, et al. “History Of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Zulu Social & Pleasure Club,
  4. Krupa, Michelle. “The Black Leaders of an Iconic Mardi Gras Parade Want You to Know Their ‘Black Makeup Is NOT Blackface’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Mar. 2019,


Bluegrass and Black Appalachian Banjo

When I found a set of manuscripts collected by Alan Lomax on the playing of musicians in Black Appalachia, the last thing I expected was to end up reading about Earl Scruggs. Nevertheless, this letter from Stu Jamieson on field recordings done in 1946 of a trio of Black Appalachian musicians connected directly into our discussions of bluegrass music from Thursday’s class. The recordings this letter is referencing are of Murphy Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York on banjo, fiddle, and guitar respectively. Apparently a banjo player himself and familiar with the rise of bluegrass by the time this letter was written in about 1978, Jamieson writes to a friend and scholar at the Library of Congress about the Gribble’s particular styles of banjo picking and fingering. As with Bill C. Malone, part of the reason his recounting is convincing because of his own study and experience with the styles he discusses.

Very few of the recordings referenced are easy to find; however, three songs played by this trio appear on the Black Appalachia CD of Deep River of Song – the same series that supplied our listenings for Black cowboy music (1). The three songs can be seen in the list given to the right, labelled with Murphy Gribble’s name: “Christmas Eve,” “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” and “8th of January.” Notably missing from this set is the solo recording of Gribble that Jamieson spends most of his time discussing.

Perhaps this sort of delving into history is what Rhiannon Giddens did when she started to discover the complex roots of bluegrass, which had been introduced to her as a white genre (2). While it is unlikely that these particular players had much to do with the spreading popularity of this style of play until it developed into bluegrass, Jamieson is certain that they are clues to a more significant history, and that there must have been more musicians who played like Gribble, Lusk, and York. As a broader style, and not simply a characteristic of a single isolated musician (or three), it likely would have spread and been one of the streams which fed into the development of mid-19th century bluegrass. In the letter, Jamieson says that the musicians told him what they were doing was “the way the black folks always played” (3). This discussion and the solo recording of Gribble’s playing are his main pieces of evidence in claiming that there is a “whole world” of black country music that has been missed by white recorders. His excitement is genuine and somewhat infectious, but it seems also to be a bit simplistic. Countless other strands of folk music traditions have not been recorded and preserved exactly as they were, but that does not mean they are completely lost; on the contrary, they exist in the traditions that they helped develop. And there certainly are plenty of recordings of black country musicians that could hold the keys that Jamieson says are missing. He himself admits that he saw “nothing new of note” until he persuaded Gribble to play alone; it’s distinctly possible that a similar style had been recorded, but not independently (3).

I also noted that toward the end of the letter, Jamieson (depicted below) tells his friend who to contact for permission to share the recordings they are discussing with a broader public (4). Any of the musicians who appear on the recordings, or any of their family members, as several of them had passed away by the time the letter was written, are not given as contacts. This is not directly relevant to the validity of the story being shared, but it does raise some interesting questions about the ways Jamieson thinks about the music he has recorded, in comparison with other statements about the treatment of black country musicians.

Works Cited:

  1. Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. Recorded January 1, 1999. Rounder Records, 1999, Streaming Audio. 
  2. Povelones, Robert. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association, 17 May 2018,
  3. Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, -1981, Black Appalachia. to 1981, 1978. Manuscript/Mixed Material.
  4. Wikipedia contributors, “Robert Stuart Jamieson,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 24, 2019).

The Way from Marginal to Mainstream: Another Early Example

I can freely admit that this playbill announcement caught my attention because I share a name with it. Helena, Montana and its musical and theatrical scene is almost as far from the musical encounters we have discussed between Europeans and coastal Native American tribes as I am, but I do believe that it has some connection to the development of an “American” music.

Native American references are markedly absent from this particular theatre’s presentation, although they seem to have been fairly common in other places at the time. The Montana Territory, not yet a state in 1866 when this playbill was published, was a frontier territory. Clashes between Native American tribes and European settlers were still common. Perhaps this continuing conflict is the reason for this music’s absence; theater is designed to be an escape, and comedy, farce, and melodrama were particularly popular in this period (1). The Vanishing Indian trope doesn’t fit well into the shows of an area that know the Indians have definitely not vanished yet.

However, there are plenty of interesting features of this program.  “Exotic” features or tidbits of a marginalised culture are often used as a draw in entertainment, so it is probable that this is the case here. Prominently displayed are the acts of “Ethiopian” comedian Ned Ward (who would have been a white actor in blackface) and the play “The Irish Diamond.” In discussion of anti-blackness and the racism particularly directed at non-white groups as a society and a class, we often neglect to be aware of the struggles of certain white (as they are considered now, in our black/white dichotomy) ethnic groups, such as the Catholic Irish who were marginalised in both Protestant America and Britain after the English Reformation. This playbill was published not terribly long after a large wave of Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1840s. This type of wave of immigration often comes with mixed feelings toward the group in question, and the Irish certainly were not met with arms all open. The prominence of an Irish drama in this program could be another example of what was discussed in our very first class session: the construction of a distinct American identity through reference to and use of the art and culture of marginalised American groups, in this case Irish culture and African-American culture through the lens of blackface. There is even a second Irish play in what appears to be a “coming soon to theatres” section at the bottom – Arrah-na-Pogue, which was written in 1864 and adapted into an early silent film in 1911 (2)!

American music and art has always been an amalgamation of cultures, and that of frontier Montana in the 1860s is no different. Home to mostly young, male miners (3), this playbill from a theatre in Helena, Montana nonetheless draws on different styles of music, dance, and theater, and conveys an interesting picture of the artistic landscape that people from this time would have encountered. Much like music of the time, American theater was moving away from its European counterpart and searching for a new identity in the cultural resources of the “New World.”

  1. Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama, New York: Feedback/Prospero, 1994.
  2. Williams, Henry Llewellyn, and Dion Boucicault. Arrah-Na-Pogue; (Arrah-of-the-Kiss.) or, The Wicklow Wedding. Founded on the Same Incidents as the Celebrated Drama. New York: R.M. De Witt, 1865.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, “Montana,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 16, 2019).