While browsing St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum collection, I stumbled across the painting shown below, and for some reason it just caught my eye. Perhaps it was the very textured brush strokes, revealing the painter’s very deliberate actions. Maybe it was the mysterious nature of the coloring and contrast, with the shadows distorting the facial features and making it hard to get a clear grasp about what what is going on in the portrait. The title of the painting, “Head of Boxer,” gave me some clues as I started to research this painter in the hopes of uncovering the identity of whomever was being painted.
It turns out that the artist, George Wesley Bellows, was part of something called the Ashcan School of Art, a group of artists painting through realism who focused on American society in all its forms. In an online article The Art of Boxing: George Bellows, the author points out Bellows’ interest in painting boxing matches, specifically amateur boxing matches. Drawn by the intensity of the sport itself, and its rising popularity in New York, it made sense that a painter in the school of realism would be capturing these sort of events.
I couldn’t find the actual name of the boxer in this portrait, as many amateur fights were happening, and the man most likely never became famous, but searching for answers brought me through the history of boxing and provided some insight on perhaps why Bellows was capturing these fights, and what it had to do with presenting America through the light of realism.
During class last week, we focused on musical theater in the United States and its “American-ness.” I thought it would be a fun adventure to dig through some of our musical theater history at St. Olaf. Below is an article from April of 1980 in the St. Olaf school newspaper ManitouMessenger.
It caught my eye when I read the title of the musical and it was Dames at Sea. It is, indeed, a rags-to-riches story about a variety of women actresses, or the “dames” in the musical. The director of the show, mentioned here as Margerum, refers to its patriotism as a story resembles the idea of the American dream. Margerum also points out the coincidence of picking this play before “all of the war news came out,” and I’m assuming he’s speaking about the Cold War.
However, what I found to be the most exciting about this news page was the role of women in theater, and how both articles offered different viewpoints on the subject. Although the Dames at Sea story has very stereotypical love triangle (or hexagon) theme, the women are the centerpiece of the story, and provide the vessel through which the American dream is fulfilled. The article directly below this, however, offers a different view on feminism, sponsoring a theater production revolving around a woman and her “survival of the brutal sixteenth-century frontier.”
I guess I just find some pride that even in 1980 the St. Olaf community was fighting for feminism. Some people think of the Women’s Rights movement as something that happened in the late 1800’s with women’s suffrage, and then is continued today in modern feminism. However, just 4 years before this article in The Manitou Messenger was published, it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife. In 1978, just two years before this article, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, forbidding employers to discriminate hiring, firing, or forced leave based on women’s pregnancy. Those laws were found on a women’s rights timeline site found here and the rest of the timeline can be viewed if you like. There are many more in different encyclopedias and on the web, too! With that being said, it looks like St. Olaf was just following in the footsteps of years before, continuing to keep feminism in discussion among the St. Olaf community, and I’m glad this tradition has continued.
Bebop was a jazz form birthed from a revolt against popularized commercial music. As such, it was bound to have backlash and evoke strong reactions among the listeners. While researching this topic, I didn’t expect to find what I did: throughout decades of this music being around, the reactions have been somewhat… racist. And the racist remarks coincidentally point to the Chinese. See for yourself, as the article below shows a conversation at the U.N. which was published in the New York Times October of 1953.
This article aims to point out the bias of the Chinese interpreter at the U.N. discussion. As the English representative used the work “bepop” which was a cognate in 4 of the 5 languages present. However, the Chinese interpreter translated “bepop” to “vulgar music.” So why is this strange? Well on the front page regarding Bepop in the book Music in the Modern Age, there’s a quotation from Louis Armstrong as he disparagingly referred to Bepop as “Chinese music.” This is pretty funny, isn’t it? After all, the Chinese representative would probably disagree with Louis, unless he thinks Chinese music is vulgar.
A modern band today known as The Far Eastside Band even includes this quotation in their liner notes, calling out Louis on his lack of knowledge on the subject. They Proclaim something that Armstrong would never imagine: how American jazz could integrate the American greats like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman with Asian instrumentation and improvisation. Those liner notes can be found here and they introduce their new album “Caverns.”
So why did I decide to write my post about this? I think the article really struck me and resonated when reading Armstrong’s quotation because this is not the first time in history it has happened. We have associated Eastern music with something that is different and, often, strange. Bepop was a strange form of jazz, and it was easy for listeners to describe it as Chinese with a negative connotation, labeling it strange and foreign, and perhaps unpleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, this trend has not disappeared, as film scorers often use pentatonic scales to invoke the environment of Eastern lands or foreign places, tying down that scale to just that one location. Even the soundtrack of Bug’s Life is ridden with this, and it won many music awards. I just think we as viewers and listeners need to be conscious of how we associate certain sounds with certain cultures, being careful to see music as an open connection where cultures and individuals can influence one another, not a stagnant and reliable sound to be scrutinized.
When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to the United States near the end of 1892, he was met with welcoming arms in the musical community. With a salary at the National Conservatory of about 3 times that of a U.S. Senator, it’s fairly easy to see he was wanted in America.1 There is some evidence of his popularity in some personal correspondence to Dvořák which I found in Dvořák and His World while perusing the Halvorson Music Library at St. Olaf College.2
Among the letters sent to him are those written by amateur musicians, requesting feedback on scores, thanking him for his compositions, and asking for rights to perform his published works. However, digging through the letters, I found some rather interesting ones. One group of letters that caught my attention was by that of an Auguste Roebbelen of the New York Philharmonic Society. He requested that the orchestra perform his newest work, the “New World Symphony” that year (1893) in December.2 A letter on January first of 1894 confirmed that they did receive permission, and he says that the concert
“was epochal in its character, for it was the first production of a new work, by one of the greatest composers, written in America, embodying the sentiment and romance derived from a residence in America and a study of its native tone-expressions.”
These “native tone-expressions” link back to an earlier letter in this volume sent to Dvořák by a music critic and writer Henry Krehbiel. Thanking him for the permission to do the notes on his symphony, and providing him with “3 more Negro songs from Kentucky” in case Dvořák wished to use them while working on his new quartet and quintet. This interested me, and I followed the rabbit hole further, tracking down the original notes that Krehbiel wrote on the premier of the New World Symphony.
On December 15, 1893 Krehbiel wrote an extensive analysis and explanation of The New World Symphony in the daily publication of the New-York Tribune. In the article, he seems to capture words that Dvořák had said to him during their interview, noting that the melody of the second movement Largo is inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. His article even mentions the work of Alice Fletcher, who worked on transcribing and notating Native American music in the later 1800’s. All in all, it’s amazing to see what sort of influences other people could have on Dvořák or the music he composed. Letters from an orchestral society allowed them to play piece of his that hadn’t been published yet. The request for writing notes by Krehbiel gave him an interview which eventually led to my knowledge of what inspired Dvořák for a small portion of his symphony. These letters set the stage for what we now know of Dvořák: a man who took melodies from truly American tradition, whether positive or negative, and insisted that they be used for the core of American music. Continue reading →
Who knew that Bob Dylan was in a movie? I sure didn’t, until reading this clipping from Chicago Defender‘s issue released May 23, 1973. Announcing the premier of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, the author gives a short summary of the film and introduces the cast, which includes Bob Dylan. About the actors, he writes, “The cast is…truly noteworthy and Peckinpah acknowledges that the process of finding the right actor for the right role was painstaking work.” 1 Peckinpah was the director of the film and had experienced success in the past, and he comments on the cast of stars with newcomer Bob Dylan to the scene. He says “It pays off…with a great cast like this it’s almost gratuitous to say you’ve got a lot going for you.” 1
It appears that Peckinpah was perhaps counting on the fame of Dylan to bring the same success to this movie as others, as his acting is far from winning any academy wards in this film… and you can see for yourself.
The movie turned out to be a bust, and failed pretty miserably at the box office. According to the IMDb website, it netted only $4.5 million in contrast with Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch which 4 years earlier netted $10.5 million. I find it interesting that the author of the Chicago Defender article, as well as Peckinbah, make no mention of Dylan’s musical contributions to the production. After all, he provided much of the film score and music backing for the scenes, and perhaps the movie would have seen more success had it been advertised as having the music of Bob Dylan.
There was one success in the film, however, and that was the writing of Dylan’s original “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Coming towards the end of the film, this song covers the scene in which a wife watches her husband die of a gunshot wound, and the lyrics and emotion are poignant.
This song saw a lot of success outside of the film, being performed on stage by Dylan himself, and covered by many other bands. Some people forget that Dylan originally wrote the song, most often hearing covers by bands from Guns N’ Roses to even Avril Lavigne.
The final question remains: Why would Dylan even agree to be in a movie in the first place? I could see him doing the score for a film when hired, but acting was something he had never done before. I think people could use this as an example of Bob Dylan’s willingness to sell out for money. It’s been said that he started writing and performing folk music in the first place because he saw there was an audience for it in New York. After “going electric,” he revealed that he didn’t really like folk music all that much and preferred his plugged-in style. If he was willing to sell out his musical style, why not be a terrible actor for money as well?
1 “‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ premieres.” Chicago Defender. May 23, 1973. Real Times, Inc. Accessed March 8, 2015. http://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493996634/fulltextPDF/71673A8288A44921PQ/1?accountid=351
Woody Guthrie is an iconic folk singer and performer in American history. Most famously known for his performances of “This Land is Your Land,” Guthrie traveled the United States through the 40’s and 50’s singing anything from traditional folk music to anti-fascist songs about Hitler. However, I would guess that very few people would mention him as a prolific writer, or perhaps know that he wrote an autobiography (bonus points for those of you who did know).
This newspaper clipping (the rest of the issue found here) comes from the Salt Lake Tribune in its May 30th, 1943 publication. The author of the article, initialed E.B.M., writes a sort of review or advertisement for Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, his autobiography published earlier that year. Acknowledging his musical prowess, she tries to draw the reader’s attention to “a book that will fascinate you, keep you awake at night.” She even goes on to call it “another of the great stories of America.” The autobiography itself details his life of travels through 44 of the United States. It tells a sad story of Guthrie starting out on his own at the age of 12 when his mother was placed in an asylum. Never resorting to begging, he painted signs or played music and sang for the money he earned. His story claims that he was even a fortune-teller in Texas at one point. E.B.M strongly points out Guthrie’s aversion to riches, quoting parts of his story when he ran away from his aunt (who led him out of the Texas dustbowl) after seeing her mansion, and how he left his $75 per week singing job in New York.
So why is this all important? The answer to that question lies in the ideals of folk music. As folk expert and Folkway Records founder Moses Asch explains, “folk means people, and this in turn means all of us, folk represents all of us.”1 This is what connects Woody Guthrie’s music, but also importantly his story, to the rest of us people. Asch goes on to say that “folk expressions are…so identified with the people who use them that they express conscious and subconscious feelings and experiences.”2 Guthrie’s story is that of a common man’s identity in folk — the story of a young, poor, boy who finds his life in music. Turning away (at least he claims) from fame and riches for the authenticity of folk ideals, his story can indeed represent all of us. Even without fame or riches, we can tell our own story, a book “bound” with glory.
Aretha Franklin is iconic. Known for her unbelievable talent as an American soul singer and songwriter from a young age, she is one of the few artists known by most generations of today’s Americans. Whether you grew up listening to Aretha as she poured out her soulful records, or just now get to appreciate her recent performances or recordings with Tony Bennett, you’ve most likely heard about or listened to this amazing performer. Her prowess as a performer catapulted her center stage, making her a symbol for the women’s and African-American movement through songs such as “Respect” among others.
However, she was not always respected as her famous song demanded, and this clipping from the New York Times in 1968 shows a more accurate real-time reaction to this rising star.
Albert Goldman, authoring this article, was no stranger to music critique and analysis. Writing epic-length books and articles about legends like Elvis and John Lennon, he commonly inspired outrage from his subject’s fans for his vulgar portrayal which saw no bounds. It seems that this article somewhat slipped under the radar, though, because the underlying themes he discussed were and are nothing new to American society. Trying to pinpoint what exactly provided the “it” factor for Aretha, what set her apart from the rest of the performers, we can already see his conclusion by looking at the title of the article. He credits her success to “the gift of being a ‘natural woman.'” He explains this as an embodiment of the full range of female emotion. Praising her ebullience and lack of self-consciousness as she sings each phrase effortlessly, he touches on the authenticity of her performance. Using her performance of Mick Jagger’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” as an example of what he thinks is her greatest recording to date, he dives in on the sexualization of Aretha Franklin.
He calls the song “A jubilee: a finger-popping, hip-swinging Mardi Gras strut that is the greatest proclamation of sexual fulfillment since Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy. You can watch her performance and decide for yourself whether this is an accurate description.
Goldman compares her performance to that of the original Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, calling their take a “wry, deadpan camp, a whispered confession that impressed many listeners as a titillating put-on.” The sexuality is taken down a few notches here, and I’m uncertain his review is accurate. After all, I wouldn’t describe their 1969 performance as a “deadpan camp.”
So why is this all important? The answer lies in the fact that this was not a one-time occurrence. It’s nothing new, it has happened before, and still happens today in our pop culture. The black female body has been extremely sexualized, tracing back to Europeans’ first contact with African music dance. Dr. Thompson of St. Louis University wrote an article and dissertation on this topic, documenting the sexualization through music from the 1600’s to present day pop culture. She claimed that the European “writers transformed African dance performances into pornographic scenes for consumption and sexual enticement for a mainly white male audience.” This created a precedent for society’s view on African and African-American musical performers, stretching from traditional African dance to the new single by Beyoncé. The concept is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it right.