Nowadays, and throughout much of history, highbrow classical music has typically been reserved for an estranged elite – an exclusive club that everyone could hypothetically join, but hardly anyone ever does. (Other than you of course, dearest Reader, who are most exceptional) The reason for this hierarchical cultural separation, both in music and other areas, is manifold, ranging from snarky snobbery to preposterous pretentiousness. However, this need not, and – perhaps more importantly – has not, always been the case. As noted in the March of Time database’s newsreel, Upbeat in Music1,
America’s serious composers are winning recognition from an ever-widening public, through performances by symphonic conductors like the New York Philharmonic’s Rodzinski…. The nation’s crowded concert halls testify to the new and growing enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens for good music. The classics they have heard on records or on the radio, the moving artistry and musicianship of singers, who today are being heard by the whole country. And, like Marian Anderson, are singing songs which are part of the native music of America.
The 3 Tenors – one of the strongest examples of classical musicians who became outrageously popular beyond the traditional classical sphere
As Karene Grad explains2, the divide between classical and popular music was much smaller in post-WWII America. She even goes so far as to say that “the years following World War II saw the popularization of high culture in America.” The arts at that time were a fundamental piece of the struggle to create an exceptional American identity. Unfortunately, arts are no longer such a valued piece of American culture and identity today. It seems as though new cuts are made in arts programs across the country every day, and that it is hopeless to try and fight against America’s modern STEM-centric worldview. However, we can take solace in the fact that there was a time when arts did play a central part in American culture, and perhaps, if we work at it hard enough, such a time might come again.
Over the course of these blog posts, my classmates and I have discussed an enormous range of subjects and, for the most part, usually tried to connect them back to race and identity in American music – the topic of the course. However, this week, I have decided to stray from said topic into something a little lighter: A composer renowned for his ideas about tonality that were later lauded as incredibly forward-thinking and were vital in forging an American modernist identity. A man whose music was written almost entirely for himself and close friends and then (figuratively) left in his desk for future musicians to discover. A figure who thought that classical music as he knew it was overly refined, feminine, and therefore emasculated. If you hadn’t figured it out already, today I will be talking about none other than Charles Ives. More specifically, I will be talking about Charles Ives’s correspondence1 with his fiance and eventual wife, Harmony Twitchell.
Charles Ives and Harmony Twitchell
I miss you all the time & feel how rich I was when I had you last week – to hear your voice & put my hand & feel you – never mind. I have your love and that is everything after all – I was quite wrong when I said that it was a year ago that I knew I loved you[.] It’s been all the time just the same but I never said it right out to myself until a year ago & gloried & rejoiced in it…
How endearing! It can be so easy to forget the humanity of historic figures, (and modern day ones as well) but the act of reading someone’s correspondence with a loved one is one of the easiest ways to avoid such selective amnesia. In the blink of an eye, Ives goes from being a one-dimensional curmudgeon, to something a little more complex, a little more human. And that makes all the difference.
1 Ives, Owens, and Owens, Thomas Clarke. Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives. Roth Family Foundation Music in America Imprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Bob Dylan – https://www.biography.com/people/bob-dylan-9283052
Bob Dylan was (and still is to some extent) a folk icon. He was born on May 24th, 1941 in Duluth Minnesota and went on to have a remarkably successful career as a musician in both performing and songwriting. Sarcastic blog-post titles aside, it makes sense that St. Olaf’s student-run newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, would have mentioned Bob Dylan at some point. Sure enough, Laurie Dion wrote a short piece in 2001 titled Bob Dylan rolls home like a rolling stone1. In the piece, Dion does a post-concert write-up of Dylan’s performance at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, where she says:
“Dylan proved that his music remains “Forever Young.” And after 40 years in the music world, he’s still got what it takes to electrify an audience of retirees and teenagers alike. . . . Despite performing in his home state, Dylan didn’t mention a word of his Minnesota past. He didn’t even bother to introduce his songs — he just let the songs speak for themselves.”
Over the course of three sentences, Dion manages to allude three times to Dylan’s timelessness, which I believe is an important part of his appeal. The fact that multiple generations can enjoy hearing Dylan perform his music – which is itself a smorgasbord of different styles – is a testament to his timelessness, something which only a rare few musicians achieve. Does this mean that Dylan has secured his place in the pantheon of great musicians forever? Only time will tell. However, if one wanted to hear his music themselves, and in vinyl format no less, one need look no further than St. Olaf’s own Halvorson music library2.
Tee-pee Blues12 is not your average song title. In fact, to a reader such as yourself, who is taking time to read blog posts for an American Music class that focuses on race, identity, and representation, such a title is at least astoundingly crass, if not downright offensive. How did someone possibly think it would be a good idea to write lyrics such as “Red man, for his canoe lonely,” set them to music that doesn’t remotely resemble Blues form, and then call it a Blues song? The answer however, as far as I am aware, is quite unsatisfying, and certainly not redeeming. Simply put, early 20th-century Americans were obsessed with exoticism (though admittedly that’s not what they called it then) and Tin Pan Alley loved nothing better than trying to capture Americans’ obsessions in music that could be marketed to them. And so, musical fluff that is more memorable for the tastelessness of its title than for its notes on the page was born. However, not all music produced by Tin Pan Alley was bad – it also produced classics such as Take Me Out to The Ball Game3. (“Classic” in this sense means something that pervaded popular culture, not to be confused with something that has an especial musical merit.)
All of this raises the question: what do we, as diligent musicologists, do about the fact that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans enjoyed and bought music like this? Do we simply frame it as a relic of times gone by, and justify our fellow Americans’ behavior as such? No! It is our duty to work to fight the cultural and economic forces that led to the production of such derogatory music, as such forces still play an incredibly active role in our lives to this very day. Spoiler: we have a lot of work to do.
Folk music underwent a major resurgence in the mid-1900s. In this time, folk music served as a major vehicle for spreading and reinforcing major social movements. Naturally however, wherever in history one finds an attempt to enact social change, one can just as easily find a backlash to said proposed social reform. As Sir Isaac Newton put it so eloquently: “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” (Admittedly, Newton was referring to thermodynamic systems, not societal ones, but the statement holds nonetheless) This brings me neatly to today’s artifact – an opinion piece by Harry Golden from 1967 titled: Only in America… Democracy Hangup1. There is a certain irony present throughout the article, but it peaks when Golden, after spending more than one paragraph complaining about liberal college students, says:
“It is for that reason we have checks and balances written in the Constitution. Left to their own devices, the collegians would elect Bob Dylan President and Joan Baez Secretary of State.”
If only Golden could see America now – how the turntables have turned!
Historical irony and The Office aside, it is fascinating to see how some things really do seem to never change. The generation of which Golden refers to as “militant college students” representing “democracy at its entropy” is the very same generation that has turned around and started saying “kids these days this…” and “millennials that…” Granted, the statements I am making are overly generalized, there are certainly many members of older generations who are more than understanding of social issues today, and many so-called millennials who are much less so, but the existence of such sayings at all is reflective of an unfortunate underlying truth – a fundamental fear of relinquishing control and passing the baton to the next generation, and the distrust that goes alongside said fear.
Nonetheless, I digress, for the fascinating topic that this Golden article alludes to is that of music as a fundamental part of social movements. As Ray Telford says in his piece in Volume 3 – Issue 13 of Rock2:“[Sedaka] “felt the time was right” for a composer with something to say.” Whatever Sedaka’s motivation at the time may have been, it is worth noting that music, whether it be folk then, or rap now, has been a key part of social movements for a long time. Perhaps Newton could have said: To every action there is always an equal… piece of music?
Let’s Save Negro Music1, written by John Henry in the Freedom periodical in New York, is interesting to me and relevant to our class discussion for a number of reasons. Primarily, it contains an interesting contemporary perspective on 1950s cultural appropriation. I can’t speak for my classmates, but it was news to me that cultural appropriation was discussed at all in that time. So, though the term ‘cultural appropriation’ itself may be a more recent invention, it is simultaneously refreshing and disheartening to know that it was discussed so long ago, relatively speaking. In the article itself, John Henry goes into detail on how white artists were capitalizing on America’s fascination with African American music, especially the Blues, and making significant capital in the process. One example that he uses is that of the popular singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Kay Starr. Henry says:
“[T]he country’s musical taste, shaped as it is by the hucksters, calls for denuding this music of its social meaning born in the struggles and hopes of Negro people. . . Hence you get Kay Starr’s best-selling “Didn’t it Rain.” But who remembers Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s great rendition of this exciting Biblical story? Get the two records and see which “moves” you more. That is, if you can find Sister Tharpe’s.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Henry’s striking assessment of the situation is both refreshing and depressing. To elaborate, on the one hand it is good to know that the issue of cultural appropriation is not some passing millennial fad, (not that I thought it was in the first place) but has been talked about extensively before now, and is rightfully reaching a boiling point at last. However, on the other hand, it is disheartening that such an issue has been discussed for so long and still not have reached any sort of conclusion. Whether that is due simply to it’s complexity, or to society’s stubborn insistence to turn the other cheek, I cannot say, though I would hypothesize that it is some combination of the two. Regardless, for what it is worth, when looking for recordings of the aforementioned “Didn’t it Rain”, I made an encouraging discovery. Not only was Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition2 easy to find, but there were many different recordings of her singing it. As for Kay Starr’s? Even though I searched multiple databases, it was nowhere to be found.
Late 1800s through early 1900s America was not a great time to be African American. I am not meaning to imply that African Americans have ever had it particularly well in America, but African American welfare throughout American history is a topic of whose discussion would be well beyond the scope of this blog post. Nonetheless, despite any social and cultural forces acting against them, African Americans still managed to keep spirits up and fight for a better future for them and their children. One of the ways they did both of these things was through singing spirituals. In slave times, the spiritual served as a musical outlet with which to keep spirits high, (or at least as high as one can keep spirits while enslaved) and a way to spread hidden messages, frequently about the Underground Railroad, without the slave-drivers realizing. After the Civil War, spirituals continued to aid in keeping spirits high, but took on the additional role of being a powerful force with which people used to fight for civil rights. One example of this is the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers can be heard in this recording1 singing the spiritual Golden Slippers. They were a group of singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee who became well-known after touring the United States and the world singing spirituals. However, one of the less remembered parts of their legacy is that of their civil rights tours from 1879 to 1882.2 As can be heard in the recording, the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought a style of singing and harmony to the white world that had been previously unknown and, in the process, won international fame for their university. While the Fisk Jubilee Singers were by not means the only African American musical ensemble singing spirituals,3 they are the most famous and remembered example to this day
In Our Wild Indians1, Richard Irving Dodge talks about his experiences “living among the Red Men of the great west.” Published in 1882, Dodge focuses on his time in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. Chapter XXVII focuses specifically on Indian music, musicians, instruments, and songs, so it is naturally of particular interest. One of the first things one notices upon reading through the (surprisingly brief, given the breadth of its topic) chapter, is how many ways Dodge succumbs to all the mistakes modern musicologists try to avoid. Dodge’s writing is the epitome of “not woke” and could probably be used as a textbook example of what not to do as a musicologist: he conveys clearly (and seemingly unintentionally) his belief in Western cultural superiority throughout.
All that being said, Dodge’s writing is not without its uses, and is one of the more engagingly-written accounts, to me at least, of interactions between Natives and Westerners. Dodge’s writing is highly descriptive and presents and interesting first person perspective on music that otherwise might be hard to come by. Furthermore, he deserves credit for acknowledging that when having his friend transcribe the music, he was forced to “reduce this music to score.” Though this is followed immediately by “The general similarity is so great that I give only a few illustrations,” I’ll give Dodge the benefit of the doubt in believing that he recognized that such music existed in a form that was not well-suited to be transcribed into Western notation. It really is a pity that the overall tone of the chapter can be captured so concisely by a quote from his transcriber, Mr. Aschmann, who says:
“The rhythm of Indian music is, as a whole, very poor. Almost every song keeps within the limits of one octave, without change or effort for harmonious melody. It is very seldom, however, that they bring in notes from different keys, or make other innovations sufficient to make the music discordant or unpleasant to listen to.”
According to Mr Aschmann, it would seem that the only thing more seldom than modal mixture in Native music is the absence of Western condescension when describing it.