Sylvan Worship

First of all, I would like to say that this is an incredible database! I had no idea that there was a collection of these African American newspapers that spans more than a century. 

It took me a few tries to find a nice buzz word to put into the database search. I found that the word “spiritual” got me results that most relate to this course. This text “Sylvan Worship” was a bit difficult for me to read at first. This newspaper doesn’t make clear who Curtis, the narrator of the text, was. This made it hard for me to fully comprehend what they were saying without the slightest bit of background. Because all of the texts from this database are from African American newspapers (or other types of text), I first assumed that the narrator was black. However, the more I read, the more I felt that this person was from the African American community. This is not based on his knowledge or opinions on the topic of African American spirituals, but the language he used to speak on the topic was from an outsider point of view. In this sentence, “No race is more devotional than the African and to no class of people does the camp meeting revival prove so effectual as with them.” it sounds like Curtis is making statements based on his own observations of Africans and African Americans as an outsider.

Whether or not Curtis is African American, his points are huge generalizations and he doesn’t really use specific examples to illustrate these points. This definitely would not slide in a modern-day discussion (especially in our class). 

After reading the text over one more time, I have a strong feeling that Curtis is not black.

“‘Sylvan Worship.’.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans, Louisiana), September 18, 1875: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Tracking Scott Joplin’s Career through Primary Sources

Scott Joplin, now considered the most premier composer of ragtime, led a complicated professional and personal life. He found extreme fame within his traditional ragtimes, including “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” however, was consistently on the poverty line, forced to sell his possessions and manuscripts. In examining newspaper articles, we can examine the public perception of Joplin and also review these writings with historical perspective. 

Continue reading

How Should Plantation Songs Be Preserved? An Early 20th Century Dialogue

Romanticized notions about plantation life have a strong grip on the white American imagination – think Gone With The Wind, and a plethora of novels like it. This genre typically depicts enslaved people as happy and contented and focuses on the lives of the usually benevolent seeming enslavers. Overall the scene is idyllic, despite what the conditions for the enslaved people were actually like. This romanticized, exoticized view of enslaved people and their descendants is relevant to many publications from both before the Civil War and after, including one that I am going to focus on today: Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and Other Negro Lyrics & Monologues by Eli Shepperd with “Pictures from Life” by J. W. Otts, published in 1901.

First just look at the cover of this book. There’s a banjo, some upside down corn, and some sort of exotic looking squirrel. The inside is full of photographs of rural Black people and poetry/song lyrics that have no context. When I first found this source I was thinking “What on earth is this? There has to be more context.” And it turns out there is, and that the context is intimately related to the plantation romance genre. Eli Shepperd was the pen name of a well known white Alabaman author, Martha Strudwick Young. Young was wealthy and educated and specialized in writing dialect poetry and fiction – in other words, she used the language of Black people, wrote from their perspective without their consent, and made a successful career out of it (Kobzeff).

The house of JW Otts,  (Library of Congress)

I found the photographer, J.W. Otts, to be similarly wealthy and white, and this perspective definitely shows through in the photographs, which make out the lives of the Black people to be simple and happy. The picture at right is a good example of this bias. Interestingly, Young later went on to write several poems (again, from the perspective of Black people) about Black resistance to white photographers, which seems to indicate that she found the activities of photographers ethically questionable but never applied the same standards to her own work (Matthews).

Intrigued, I set about to find other perspectives that existed at the time regarding plantation songs, and began searching African American newspapers. One of the more interesting articles I found was titled “Coon Songs” and was written in 1914 for the Savannah Tribune, just a little over 10 years after the publication of Plantation Songs.

It wasn’t clear to me whether or not the author themself was Black, but the newspaper is definitely directed at a Black audience. The article actually had something in common with Young’s book – it makes a case for the preservation of plantation songs as a historical heritage. This is where the similarity ends. The author bemoans the fact that plantation songs are not being preserved by the new generation.

“The young colored people of our day cannot sing [plantation songs] and do not appreciate them. It seems to me a pity that the young colored people patronize the minstrel shows that merely burlesque sacred songs of the old days.”

The author suggests that young men form classes to learn the old plantation songs “from the old people who are passing off the stage”, concluding that “a spirit of genuine patriotism and race pride calls upon intelligent men to preserve these true songs”.

The major difference between this article and Young’s book is that the author of the article argues for the preservation of plantation songs by learning from old performers for the purpose of uplifting Black people, while Young’s book attempts to preserve Black heritage in book form, through a white lens, for urban white people’s imaginations. Both respond to what was evidently viewed as a problem in the post-Reconstruction South – the old plantation songs were disappearing. And both strive to offer a remedy. The difference is who the remedy is for.


“Coon Songs.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XXIX, no. 23, 21 Feb. 1914, p. [4]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The J.W. Otts House, Greensboro, Alabama. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Kobzeff, Joel. “Martha Strudwick Young.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 15 Mar. 2021,

Matthews, Scott L. “Protesting the Privilege of Perception: Resistance to Documentary Work in Hale County, Alabama, 1900–2010.” Southern Cultures, vol. 22, no. 1, University of North Carolina Press, 2016, pp. 31–65,

Shepperd, Eli. Plantation songs for my lady’s banjo and other Negro lyrics & monologues by Eli Shepperd with pictures from life by J. W. Otts. R.H. Russell; New York, 1901. Afro Americana Imprints.


Dancing Through History: A Political Presentation of Music and Dance

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.

Our last few class sessions have asked us to consider how history presents Black music and culture and the ways that we can critically evaluate those presentations. Our syllabus assigned us a series of readings about Black music, which were all categorized under the subheading “The White Hypothesis.” The authors of these articles, Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923) and George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953), each highlight a relatively convoluted set of principles that they saw to be universal truths about the origins of Black music and spirituals. Though Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s arguments are different, and even contradict each other on many points, they’re both rooted in inaccurate assumptions about Black culture, identity, and music. 

Continue reading

National Jukebox

I couldn’t help but think about how this process of selecting and digitizing records for the National Jukebox is sort of like the process of creating a digital map. Especially while looking at the fourth picture slide and reading its description, the way they had specific elements that were consistent with each record to easily identify each one is a lot like how we choose specific elements that we would want to show along with our maps. However, the rest of the process is much more tedious. I found it really cool that someone pulls every single copy of the same record, examines their physical conditions, then chooses the best one from that same set of records. This, of course, being after the records are chosen for the National Jukebox. (This process still remains unclear to me but clicking around different links on the websites helped.) It’s like an assembly line. Once a step is completed, they seamlessly move on to the next step and it is nicely shown by the slide of pictures which gives off the feeling of a fixed process with anticipated steps. 

I find this process to be very cool because as you go along, you see and read about how many different people are involved in this National Jukebox creation. This process requires many different people with knowledge in many different specialized fields to carry out each different step. It is no surprise at all that it took the better part of a year (2010) to complete this process.


“Making the National Jukebox  :  Articles and Essays  :  National Jukebox  :  Digital Collections  :  Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 6, 2021.

More on Henry Krehbiel

When reading selections from Henry Krehbiel’s 1914 publication of Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music,1 Music 345 was perplexed to compare his eagerness to embrace African American folksongs as American creations attributed to Black people in America to the writings of George Pullen Jackson in White and Negro Spirituals (1943). 2There was a general consensus among us that as history progresses, so do our politics. So I want to know: what was Krehbiel inspired by, and what can his background tell us about his research and publications?

I do not seek to answer this question in full with a blog post, however I do think it is worthwhile to consider where his inspirations came from. Henry Krehbiel was a first generation American growing up in a German speaking family. He started working for the New York Tribune around 1880 and soon rose to the title ‘music editor’ which gave rise to his writings on American music. His 1914 publication cited above is said to be inspired by his attendance of the World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. The World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was quite frankly a great show of American exceptionalism meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus in 1492 featuring over 200 buildings boasting neoclassical architecture as well as artists and musicians, including African American music from the Dahomean village. 3

First page of the program for the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago, 1893.4

The very music Krehbiel heard from the Dahomean village at the World Columbian Exchange inspired the musical, In Dahomey, a piano-vocal score written by Will Marion Cook and vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. According to some sources, this was the first publication of its type and was performed over 1100 times in the United States and England from 1902-1905.5,7

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music.

The history behind the Dahomey village as it existed in America has somewhat of a different origin story. The kingdom of Dahomey was a West African kingdom located in present day Benin that was colonized by the French, so many of the artifacts on display at the World Columbian Exchange were actually collected by the French Colonial Office during the scramble for Africa between 1880 and 1885.7 Knowing that the Dahomey village in America was the product of colonialism and that Krehbiel was probably enthralled in an exotic fascination of their music greatly informs how we think about his research. This being said, Krehbiel’s colonial bias does not detract from the impact of  Dahomean music on American music as a genre. We must instead lend some more credence to the instrumental role African Americans played in creating the genre of American music.

Krehbiel’s interest in the music of the Dahomean village is somewhat analogous to Dvorak’s fascination with folksongs that inspired the New World Symphony which was also written in 1893. This work supposedly also contributed to his own research in gathering music from Americans and immigrants to study and write about. Knowing that Krehbiel, though not an anti-racist by any means collected his own research and information perhaps lends more credence to his work than Jackson who relies strictly on conjecture and other researchers.


“Whitewashed” and Romanticized Notion of Blackness

As I was browsing through the prints and photographs archives of the Library of Congress, I come across an interesting primary source– “The Negro Element in American Life”, a published oration by Abraham Lincoln DeMond (1867-1936).

The cover of the published oration, The Negro Element in American Life, by Rev. A. L. DeMond, Jan 1st, 1900.

Demond, a minister and advocate for African-American emancipation in the late 10th to early 20th century, published his speech at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on January 1st, 1900 and published it as “The Negro Element in American Life”. In the oration, he eloquently points out and argues for the contributions and achievements of black folks to the United States since before the country was even formed. His speech pushes back against forces and trends that challenges the validity and worthiness of black Americans as “authentic” American, urging people of his time to see the contributions and achievements of black Americans towards the founding and prosperity of the country as well as being full embodiments of American values and aspirations.

In the past week on Henry Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s readings, our class explored some of the arguments for and against whether people should consider black spirituals, folk songs and plantation music as “original” and as “American”. Krehbiel believed and tried to prove that black music is spontaneous, native and original by both locality as well as musical characteristic, although Jackson pushes back on this idea by contributing most “origins” of black music and tunes towards European roots.

“If the songs which came from the plantations of the South are to conform to the scientific definitions of folksongs as I laid it down in the preceding chapter, they must be “born, not made”; they must be spontaneous utterances of the people who originally sang them; they must also be the fruit of the creative capacity of a whole and ingenuous people, not of individual artists, and give voice to the joys, sorrows and aspirations of that people”

Henry Krehbiel, Songs of the American Slaves (1914), P.22

These discussions around identity, race and nationalism are so intertwining that we simply cannot talk about one without the other. Complementary to Krehbiel’s arguments, DeMond calls for people to consider black folks in America as Americans who belong on this land and carry this “American” identity just like all their white European counterparts in the country both by locality and by merit.

However, the positionality of DeMond narrative as a white pastor inevitably whitewashed the experience, merits and achievements of the African Americans on this land which is the foundation of his arguments. For instance, he pictured black folks as the silent, obedient and hardworking contributors of the prosperity of the United States, and that the statue of liberty was the hard labour of black Americans doing the job for the wage that white American workers declined. By doing so, he presented an almost romanticized idea of African Americans on this land as what Jackson has briefly mentioned in his writing.

The privileged subjectivity from a white man’s perspective is both a path for change and call-for-actions as well as a subject to be criticized from romanticized notion of race and identity in the United States.


Demond, A. L, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Emancipation Proclamation Association, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. The Negro element in American life. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. Pdf.

Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962).

Who’s allowed to use dialect? Not me, that’s for certain.

I know, I know, you’re disappointed this is not another installment of my world famous series Cohen Quest. Fear not, dear reader, for yet have an interesting history to uncover. After an obligatory “Cecil Cohen” and “Charles Cohen” search in the National Jukebox Collection, I found myself sorting the recordings by date; the first recording to pop up was that of a song called “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?”, composed by a Mr. Will Marion Cook, and recorded by “Sousa’s Band”, conducted by Arthur Pryor.1

At first I was more than a little disturbed by the use of dialect and automatically assumed this was a blackface minstrel song and prepared myself for the worst as I looked up the contributors. Hoo boy was I wrong!

Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was a prolific and accomplished composer and conductor; he studied at Oberlin College, the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and under Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory for Music, and because racism prevented him from having a career in classical music he switched to composer popular music and was extraordinarily successful. His musicals Clorindy (1898) and In Dahomey (1903), composed for the comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker, were the first all-black composed, produced, and performed musicals on Broadway.2

The text of Clorindy, where “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?” comes from, was written by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The use of dialect, in this case, was not in mockery; at the time Clorindy was first performed, operetta and minstrelsy were all the rage. As it was one of the only ways black musicians could be successful, Cook and Dunbar wrote their musicals in the styles of minstrel shows to appeal to white audiences, and subsequently helped usher in a new era of musical theater.3 Listen to the tenor William Brown sing the original version of the song, and perhaps follow along with the lyrics:

There was once a great assemblage of the cullud population,
all the cullud swells was there,
They had got them-selves together to discuss the situation
and rumours in the air.
There were speakers there from Georgia and some from Tennessee,
who were making feather fly,
When a roostah in the bahn-ya’d flew up what folks could see,
Then those darkies all did cry.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
Blame de lan’ let white folks rule it,
I’se a lookin fu a pullet,
Who dat say chicken is dis crowd.

A famous culled preacher told his listnin’ congregation,
all about de way to ac’,
Ef dey want to be respected and become a mighty nation
to be hones’ Fu’ a fac’.
Dey mus nebber lie, no nebber, an’ mus’ not be caught a-stealin’
any pullets fun de lin’,
But an aged deacon got up an’ his voice it shook wif feelin’,
As dese words he said to him.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
What’s de use of all dis talkin’,
Let me hyeah a hen a sqauwkin’
Who dat say chicken in dis crowd.4

There are a few things going on here: Cook and Dunbar were incredibly talented artists caught in a time in which, because of national trends and the distribution of money, they were forced to write in a style that was a bastardization and exploitation of their very recently enslaved ancestors. Perhaps this is one manifestation of DuBois’s “double-consciousness”: this second sight encourages black artists to incorporate the proclivities of white consumers to have a chance at success.5 We could easily track the long history of black artists capitulating to white sensitivities in order to survive, starting from enslaved instrumentalists performing at plantation balls as described by Eileen Southern. However, for the artists involved, this can also be a way to take back some power: their use of dialect and minstrelsy styles gave the production team a larger audience and greater notoriety in a time where all-black productions were rare.

1 Cook, Will Marion, Sousa’s Band, and Arthur Pryor. 1900. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”. Library of Congress National Jukebox. Audio.

2 Library of Congress. “Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)”, accessed Oct 4, 2021.

3 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “minstrel show.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 2, 2020.

4 Cook, Will Marion, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”, Library of Congress Sheet Music. 1898. Notated Music.

5 Du Bois, W.E.B.. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”. The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg. 7-14.

Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare

Felix Arndt’s piece Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare, takes works by classical composers Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Sinding and rearranges them in a rag style, which was a popular musical genre in the early 1900s. Rag or ragtime is a musical genre that originated from and was created in African American communities. Rag can be identified by its syncopated rhythms and “ragged beat”. Rag was a precursor to the “swing” jazz and Blues, both musical traditions deeply rooted in Black culture, that developed throughout the 1910s and later years of the 20th century.

Scott Joplin, one of the first well-known composers of ragtime music and known as “The King of Ragtime”, stated the following in an interview for the newspaper New York Age: “that there had been “ragtime” music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago[in the 1890s].’” 

Joplin was referring in part to the white composers and bands beginning to arrange their own ragtime music in the 1910s and 20s, and also to the rising popularity of ragtime being played in minstrel shows; “entertainment” in which actors or singers performed in blackface and utilized racist stereotypes in typically comedic skits at the expense of black people. 

The increase in popularity of African American musical genres was met with opposition by many upper and middle class white people. This was especially true in the classical music sphere. A strong indication of this cultural sentiment is the presence of a counter culture to resist it, however superficial and performative some aspects of the movement might be. 

Arndt was a white, middle class, classical pianist, and, even if he obviously has an appreciation for ragtime, it is evident he had no intention of furthering recognition and appreciation for black art-forms in the mainstream.

Desecration Rag, published in 1914, contained the subtle subtitle “Introducing ragtime perversions of “Humoresque (Dvorak)…””. The syncopated, ragtime beats Arndt included in his work were labelled a “perversion” of classical music, and thus, a “classical nightmare”, by no other than himself and his production team. Even in modern times, one could easily identify it as a shock-value publicity stunt. 

To provide ragtime the same respect classical is given in the “mainstream”, is a tangentially different objective from instigating fear of the desecration of classical music.

If an artist sought to celebrate dialects, they would not call them a “Desecration of  the English Language”, as that would elicit an immediate negative response, and attract “purists”. An artist would only do this to create controversy, an endeavor most lucrative in the artistic profession. 

What Arndt’s piece elicited was the expected reaction from both conservative and more liberal white audiences, a reaction that entirely relies on anti-blackness, elitism, and young artists rebelling against the status quo. Arndt was not publishing this record in recognition of the brilliance of ragtime, or to empower those who pioneered it; he was just taking advantage of white middle class fears to evoke an emotional response from an early 20th Century audience, which now paints a staggeringly clear picture of racism in America. 


Arndt, F. & Arndt, F. (1914) Desecration rag A classic nightmare. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 24). Ragtime. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from

Photographing African American Affluence

I enjoy this image for many reasons: the intelligent stare from the African American man giving lessons, the graceful hands of the pianist, the cloth draping over the upright piano, the ornate room with crown molding and intricate windows. Whether it features posed subject matter or a day-to-day occurrence, this particular piece draws  me into this piano lesson. 

This image is part of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s collection of almost 400  photographs called African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition. W.E.B. Du Bois was an African American writer with a passion for social justice. These pictures, in particular, depict African American life in the regional south and take a different approach to the racist ideology circling both academic and public thought among white people. At the time of this exhibition, the world had taken to portraying African Americans (or any person of color, for that matter) as a race lacking the means to “attai[n] great material and cultural achievements”. However, W.E.B. Du Bois’s collection of photographs, like the one above, portrayed African Americans as “a proud people, dressed in splendor, as accomplished scholars and intellectuals studying the world with as much competence” as any student of the classics. Simply, Du Bois debunks many racist assumptions of African American citizens by photographing many men and women who work and live in affluent positions.

I think this photo of an African American man giving piano lessons serves as a wonderful example of Du Bois’s goal with the collection. To this day, playing the piano maintains a certain level of social sophistication– a skill that could be a party trick, the main entertainment, or a sign of affluence in one’s community (pianos are #expensive). Playing the instrument well requires diligent practice and lots of hours dedicated to improvement. Furthermore, African American pianists are not restricted to music that originates from their experience (i.e. spirituals, folk songs, psalmody…). Learning any instrument provides exposure to composers that wrote music particularly for that music-making machine. Even though it is difficult to see in this image, these African American pianists could be playing the same music as white pianists. 

At this moment, I recall our Eileen Southern reading: The Music of Black Americans. Southern  includes African Americans in the same musical and social practices as early white colonists, something scholarship was lacking  prior to her work. She uses language like the following phrases throughout these initial pages : “a variety of informal social activities were available to colonial villagers, participated in by white and black alike…” and “white or black, servant or master, religious instruction was not only an essential prerequisite for membership in the church, but was also a basic part of daily life.” Similar to how Southern takes back the narrative of African American life in the early settlements of America, Du Bois’s collection reclaims that African Americans are not only capable of producing intelligent cultural products, but also have always succeeded in doing so. 


Du Bois, W.E.B (William Edward Burghardt),  collector. [African American man giving piano lesson to young African American woman]. Published 1899 or 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Photograph. Accessed on 1 October 2021. 

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Provenzo, Eugene F.. Illustrated Souls of Black Folk. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

The W.E.B Du Bois Center. W. E. B. du Bois’s Data Portraits : Visualizing Black America. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

Black American Musicians Through the White Lens

From the many sources we’ve read in class, we know that black American instrumentalists existed, playing many instruments that could be classified in the  “folk” or “blue-grass” genre today. In Eileen Southern’s book, we learn about the runaway slaves who were fiddlers, singers, and guitar players. We also know the banjo originated from a West African stringed instrument made out of a gourd.  ( And from Rhiannon Gidden’s speech, we learned that bluegrass has always been a black genre. So I wanted to know: What stories do the pictures tell?

Factually, the same thing. These instruments have always been a part of black history. But of course, with almost anything from these time periods, the narrative is always in the hands of white people. And that’s especially true with the photographic sources that are available today.

This first photo is taken from a popular (in the 1800s) cartoon by Currier and Ives called Blacktown, a satire aimed at making fun of black people. Its one of the first images that results from the search of the word “banjo,” yet we know that banjo was a popular instrument in black communities. Its a useful source to pair with Southern and Gidden’s points, because it places the banjo in the black musical canon, yet it’s entirely controlled by the white people who made it.

Gassman PickaninniesThis picture, from 1901, is of a “picaninny” performing child, a popular vaudville act, in which children performed for white spectators, often for humor, under the hand of a white adult female. The children often travel with the troupe without their families. Again, the mandolin places the instrument into the black music narrative, but the picture is likely taken by a white person for other white people. I find this picture especially disturbing, as the child is nameless, naked, and smiling (is she happy?). She is viewed as an object for entertainment; property to the act. This is another example of white people in control: not only of the picture and narrative, but of the life of this child.

"Retrospection". Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo

Although pehaps not as sinister, this 1902 image isn’t light-hearted either. Once again, we see the banjo and the player, yet he looks somber– Is it because a white man is taking his photo?

When looking at these pictures I keep asking: where is the joy? For me (and for most of us, I think) music is about expression, joy, happiness, and freedom. I want to see pictures of black people playing their instruments joyfully, like we know they must have; like Southern and Giddens both provide proof for; like we might’ve gotten if black people were allowed to control their own narrative.



Retrospection, Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo. United States, 1902. Photograph.

“Banjos.” Smithsonian Music. Accessed October 5, 2021.

Currier & Ives, creators. Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!. United States, 1886. Cartoon.

Gassman Pickaninnies. United States, 1901. Photograph.

Giddens, Rhiannon. “Community and Connection.” IBMA, April 26, 2021.

“The Picaninny Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. Accessed October 5, 2021.

biased and bright, ‘ppropriated and proud

It is so interesting (and frankly funny) to look back at history and see what embarrassing things people have said and done, it’s like that feeling when you log onto your old social media account and see that cringey selfie with the horrible fashion choice. Thankfully, even though we did not live to see the past, we have databases to help us dig up some dirt on those arrogant scholars. What I want to highlight is the hypocrisy when it comes to the origins of certain music and how the mainstream (which is the white community at the time) perceived them completely differently.

In this week’s reading and discussion, we focused on some articles that had a lot of racist opinions and language. In his book , Jackson cited some different views on the origin of African American spiritual singing. Wallaschek argued in his Primitive Music (yikes) that the black community simply imitated white music, which is similar to what Jackson ends up arguing. In White and Negro Spirituals, Jackson pulled up a map and a statistic table in and tried to prove a point that the white hymnals is the direct causation of black spirituals’ existence.

For this blog, I searched up some open ended keywords, and in my research I found out something interesting.

This is a collection of notated music for banjo. It was published in Philadelphia in 1885 by S. S. Steward(/t), and the file is titled “Plantation Jig.” This source is quite trustworthy because S. S. Steward is a big name in the banjo world, and is often being brought up when talking about banjos and their history. This collection is quite similar to what a modern music book looks like, it has some music scores and the first four pages consist of information about what to look out for when purchasing an instrument, prices of sheet music and performance notices. It even has advertisements. This collection is clearly marketed towards those who want to know more about the banjo. It is interesting that on page 5, the drawing of a white man shows up. His name was J. E. Henning, and he was a banjo teacher. I did a tiny deep dive on him, and it turns out that he is still a name that pops up in the banjo making industry.

The actual musical content is also very interesting and… eurocentric. It is written similarly to an instrumental method book, with explanations of how to do certain things on the instrument as well as basic technique training. What stood out to me is that the music selected in this collection are all very European. On page 9 of the digitized file, the two titles are Waltz and Schottische, which is a slow polka dance of European roots. Basically, in this book, Steward planted the European music traditions onto a non-European instrument. It is nuts to me that the banjo, an instrument that is 100% African in its DNA, was whitewashed since 1830 and still is being whitewashed (Winans, 174). 

Both the spirituals and the banjo are parts of American music history that involve African American and the white Americans. However, the way the white scholars/musicians went about this is very problematic and telling of societal issues. When there’s similarities in white and black practices, the white scholars are quick to claim that the black community assimilated the white practices; but when the white community picked up on banjo, they did not credit the black community, but instead whitewashed the instrument and the repertoire.


Works Cited

Holmes, Michael I. “Identifying S. S. Stewart Banjos.” Identifying SS Stewart Banjos, 1997,

Jackson, George P. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship. New York, J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1943. 

Jackson, George P. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. New York, Dover Publications, 1932.

“John E. Henning.” Henning # – Vintage Banjo Makers, 

Stewart, S. S. Plantation Jig. Steward, S. S., Philadelphia, monographic, 1885. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Winans, Robert B., and Charles Reagan Wilson. “Banjo.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music, edited by BILL C. MALONE, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, pp. 174–75,

Who is she? History blanks on Elsie Blank

The summary of this 1929 photo from the Library of Congress reads, “Mrs. Elsie Blank holding a huge tuba and her son Jack holding the music for her at the Orchestra Hall, Chicago.”

The combination of this image and these words immediately sparked an avalanche of questions in my mind. Who was Elsie Blank? Why was this photograph taken, and why was her son there? How “huge” was the tuba? Was it 5/4 size, or does it just look “huge” to the summary writer in the arms of a woman? Did Mrs. Blank even play the tuba? If so, did she play in the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra as suggested by the caption of the photograph (“Features of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra”)? 

Advanced searches for any kind of answer in every plausible database available left me with next to nothing. Interestingly, the most consistent results were offers to purchase the photograph as a poster (by which I am strongly tempted).

Lost in a sea of browser tabs, search boxes, and quotation marks, I started to get the feeling that I was the only person in the world who wanted to know who Elsie Blank was. But then there was Linda Dempf.

Dr. Dempf, a professional French horn player, author, and librarian with an interest in the history of all-women orchestras in the United States, had written an article on the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. I learned that the orchestra had existed in two versions, the “Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra” (1924-1928) and the longer-lasting “Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago” (1925-1947). Thus the plot thickens: if Elsie Blank was indeed a member of such an orchestra, which group was she part of? These groups and other similar all-female orchestras were started in the 1920s for a reason that one might predict: lack of opportunities to take part in professional music-making controlled by men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity continues today as the lack of written records renders me unable to learn much at all about the all-female orchestras, especially about Mrs. Elsie Blank. 

I am currently hoping for a response to an email that I sent to Dr. Linda Dempf, asking if she has any more information on the personnel of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra and specifically any information on Elsie Blank. As I wait, I must turn to my imagination to reflect on my questions about this photograph. Mrs. Blank’s correct positioning of the tuba (see a counterexample) makes me believe that she did indeed play the tuba. Perhaps her son was in the photo to show a glance at the home lives of the women in the orchestra, who ranged from high school girls to grandmothers. I have hope that some real answers to my questions are out there somewhere, and that I’m not truly the only one who cares who Elsie Blank was.



Dempf, Linda. “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” Notes 62, no. 4 (2006): 857–903.

Features of the Chicago Womans Symphony Orchestra. , 1929. Nov. 7. Photograph.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Women With Tuba. United States, 1928. Photograph.

The Genesis of the Blues Is Earlier than You Think

I’m sure many of us associate the blues with the early 20th-century; the 19-teens being the “Blues Era” in American society, but what if I told you the blues was at least 45 years old at that point? The blues is a great deal older than what tends to be portrayed in music circles and wider society; the practice actually goes all the way back to Emancipation, if not further. (“Memphis Blues” recorded in 1914, considered one of the marquis blues songs of the 19-teens.)

W. C. Handy was the composer of “Memphis Blues” and is considered “Father of the Blues.”

The blues emerged around the time of Emancipation, coming from the traditions of the shout and the spiritual. It was an expression of the newly available social and cultural structures that were previously unavailable, but it was also an expression of the new experiences regarding self-reliance and freedom. The way the blues evolved into a more standardized practice was through the migratory patterns of formerly enslaved people; whether that was from having to work as migrant farmers or moving to new areas due to the formerly unavailable ability to migrate as they pleased. Different regional forms of the blues would be exchanged as people moved around the South and later also moved to the North during the Great Migration. Regardless of the standardization, the blues began as a deeply personal form of expression and remained a personal form of expression for many Black artists. It was a way to express their reactions to their new found freedom, but it was another form of oral history and storytelling. Early blues songs were used to tell the stories of great Black heroes and what they accomplished, in spite of everything American society told them they weren’t. (“Ain’t That a Shame” the oldest blues recording I could find in the National Jukebox archives, recorded in 1901.)

 The early form of the blues does not take the form we would anticipate it to take. The blues is associated with a 12-bar, 3 line, AAB structure, but the most that could be found to be similar with the blues just after Emancipation would be the 3 line structure that came from the shout. One of the ways the early blues were able to be separated from spirituals and shouts is the usage of instruments within the music. Spirituals and shouts were primarily a capella due to restricted access to many instruments on plantations, but after Emancipation a wide variety of instruments were now available be used within their musical traditions. The guitar was an instrument that became quite popular among blues players for 2 main reasons: it was similar to the banjo(which many formerly enslaved people were familiar with) and it was an instrument that could be played and still retain the ability to sing. This usage of guitars(and other instruments) resulted in a further standardization of the blues because now vocalist had to be cognizant of the tonality of the instruments they were singing with. (“Homesickness Blues” recorded in 1916, as the genre was beginning to take off within wider society.)

Nora Bayes, the performer of “Homesickness Blues”, showcasing the acceptance of blues music into white audiences and homes, but only through the rendition of white artists themselves.


The reason we are mistaken as to the general era of the blues is because the genre didn’t become popular with white audiences until the 20th-century. The reason recognition was even taking place was because the blues lyrics were shifting from AAVE(African-American Vernacular English) to the typical American English standard. It was at that point white record labels began to seek out blues musicians to potentially teach their white performers, but seeing an opportunity, many blues composers began to seek out white performers in order to further spread their music. This is when the blues was brought into the mainstream music scene of early 20th-century America. The blues is a musical tradition far older than we(as a broader society) give it credit for, and it greatly helped to develop the popular music styles of the 20th-century. The blues could exist without jazz, but jazz could not exist without the blues.



Handy, W. C, Morton Harvey, and W. C Handy. The Memphis blues. 1914. Audio.

Hess, Cliff, Nora Bayes, Cliff Hess, and Walter B Rogers. Homesickness Blues. 1916. Audio.

Queen, John, Silas F Leachman, and Walter Wilson. Ain’t That a Shame. 1901. Audio.


Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021. W. C. Handy. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 4 October 2021]. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nora Bayes.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 15, 2021.


Baraka, Amiri. “Primitive Blues and Primitive Jazz.” In Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed from It., 72-92. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1963., Stephanie. The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz. Library of Congress, February 24, 2017.

Louis Armstrong and the Traces of Minstrelsy

Louis Armstrong is perhaps one of the most well known and respected jazz musicians of all time. As a trumpet player and vocalist, he played a large role in the development of jazz, and his music had a lasting impact on the genre. He used his trumpet as an extension of his voice, popularized scatting after forgetting the words to “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926, and developed the individual solo aspect of jazz playing.1 With his soulful playing and cheerful stage presence, he captivated audiences around the globe.His contemporaries looked up to him for his artistry, although his music-making did not go without criticism from others. Known for his wide grin and cheerful, silly stage persona, as can be seen in this caricature drawn by Makoto Wada3, this aspect of Armstrong’s playing was controversial because it evoked traces of minstrelsy in his performance.



The 1932 short film, Rhapsody in Black and Blue, displays these traces well. Armstrong plays jazz in a dreamland called “jazz mania” while depicting African Americans as “savage” along with other stereotypes. As a response to Armstrong’s stage presence, Miles Davis said of him, “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.”, while others accused him of being an “Uncle Tom”.2


Although Armstrong may have depicted stereotypes while catering to a white audience, through his music, he was able to celebrate his black individuality. He used the roles as opportunities to advance his career, and as he gained popularity, he used his music as a form of protest. In 1931 after being arrested, put in jail, and then bailed out so he could perform, Armstrong dedicated the song “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You” to the Memphis Police Force.2 He later spoke out against segregation in the audience, losing many of the audience members who came to see him.2 Although Armstrong sought to entertain, above all he was proud of his heritage, outspoken in his individuality, and paved way for many other African Americans.




W. C. Handy and the Blues

H.E. Krehbiel (right), 1917

In 1914, Henry Edward Krehbiel published Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. Although white, he was critical of the research that had come before him in relation to black music. In his book, he notes that the “overwhelming majority of the travellers who have written about primitive peoples have been destitute of even the most elemental knowledge of… music.” (13). This was in response to the gross misclassification of African instruments by people such as Dr. Richard Wallaschek. It was also a widely known fact in musicology back in the day that black folk music came as a result of white spirituals. While Krehbiel admits later on that “[s]imilarities exist between the folksongs of all peoples.” (14), he ultimately concludes that “the songs of the black slaves of the South are original and native products.” (22).

W. C. Handy

It was from this environment that William Christopher Handy was born. Those of you know know jazz history may know W. C. Handy for his influence in blues, pre-jazz, and in early jazz. While scouring the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, I looked up blues songs by date and saw “The Memphis Blues” early on. The earliest recording in the National Jukebox is, coincidentally, also from 1914, although the sheet music is from 1913.|jukebox-41556

Songs like this and “St. Louis Blues” helped shape the face of popular black music and eventually popular music as a whole through what’s known as the 12 Bar Blues. This song form repeats a particular 12-bar harmonic structure throughout most of the song, only varying it slightly between different songs. This was not only popular throughout the early 1910s and 20s, but can also be seen throughout much of popular music in the 50s and 60s, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

It’s all a bit ironic in hindsight to see the original claims of white music influencing black music end up being quite the opposite today. While it’s not fair to say that it was a one way influence, it’s impossible to go through the journey of American music through W. C. Handy to Chuck Berry to Beyoncé and not recognize the huge influence of black musicians and black music in general on what American music is today.


A Closer Look

Upon approaching research for this week’s blog post, I stumbled across this image in the Library of Congress’ digital archive of images. In the name of the thirst for knowledge, I looked for further images; maybe one that was a more readily used piece of music, or maybe a log of a certain event that might point me towards the cultural events of a given time period. Though educational and truly interesting, I kept remembering the painting of the happy black fiddler and the happy white family and the happy children dancing happily. 

image link:

The picture’s description as it states in the Library of Congress’ web archive is as follows:

Print shows an African American man playing fiddle and family dancing. It resembles, but is an Americanized variation of, Auguste Dircks (1806-1881) “Dancing to the fiddle” now in the Josef Mensing Gallery, Hamm-Rhynern, Germany. 

The reading of Eileen Southern jumped to the front of my mind. Her reading explores the means of musical practices in the the South during the years of slavery, and the ways that black musicians were often times used as entertainment for white slave owners. With that knowledge, I began to consider the circumstances of this image’s creation, as I was very taken aback by the painting’s lighthearted nature. Certainly a painting depicting a slave and white family happily coexisting to the credit of some fire fiddle music should have been painted by a white person, someone with a stake to try and “paint” the history of black Americans playing music in servitude in a far more positive light. 

Not much is known about August Dircks other than the information that he was German-born and lived from 1806-1871. With the knowledge that this painting was not American born, my viewing of it was altered slightly. Though it is important to mention the African diaspora was not exclusive to the United States, knowing this painting came from a mind outside of the Antebellum South shifted my focus. My attention went toward the black fiddler in the center of the painting, the only character painted who does not have attention paid to his expression. Rather his face is obscured by the fiddle he is being forced to play, looking downward as a slave player like him would likely be privy to not making mistakes when performing for his oppressors. Obscured, ignored, relegated to the painting’s source of joy without the slightest mention of his experience or attitude, this man fades into ambiguity. 

I think that this painting is actually quite interesting, as the experience that I had dissecting its contents is likely the desired experience for Dircks. As a white person in America, the circumstances of my upbringing have predisposed me to ignore the experiences of minority individuals. My white eye went directly to the white family having a good bit of Southern fun, and not the enslaved black man, quite literally playing for his life. This realization is the painting’s purpose, a mirror image towards the viewer’s worldview. 

I don’t know if I did this assignment entirely correctly, but I just had an interesting experience researching this image and was reminded that music research can be flawed as well.

Duval & Hunter, and James Fuller Queen. Power of music / chromo. of Duval & Hunter, Philadelphia ; Jas. F. Queen after A. Dircks. New York: published by A. & C. Kaufmann. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

The Crucial “Contradictions” in Black American Church Music History

When you think of a hymn, what sound, mood, and/or style pop into your head? In a typical Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. worship setting, I think that we can all agree that we would expect to hear something similar to the sheet music below written by Philip Bliss: 4 system, 4 verse, chordal song, verse-refrain format, etc.

“Hold the Fort” (1876) Written by Philip Bliss

Although, when looking into various Gospel hymns of the 20th century, I noticed something different about these hymns, particularly when performed or recorded. Listen to this version of “Hold the Fort” that was recorded in 1899.

As you can hear, it is not sung as “straight” as some scholars would maybe expect this song to be sung in a typical church setting. There are rhythmic and slight melodic liberties taken- from rubato to sliding up to certain notes and cadence points. In another example that I looked into, this song “Leave it There (Tkae Your Burdens to the Lord)” written by Charles Tindely- a widely renown black gospel hymn composer- was notated in the same format as seen before in 1916. 

“Leave it There (Take Your Burdens to the Lord)” (1916) Written by Charles Tindley

Continue reading

Sometimes, Maps Don’t Tell All

The Context

As I was (somewhat blindly) perusing the Library of Congress prints and photographs database, I came across a collection1 of maps showing various demographic data about African Americans living in Georgia around the year 1900. The first map I came across (Figure 1) initially caught my attention because of a striking similarity to a source we looked at in class. Have you guessed what yet?

Figure 1. The very first map I came across. Look familiar?

Yeah. It’s George Pullen Jackson’s book titled “White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship2.” More on that later. I decided to look at this collection of maps and the more I read about them, the more interested I became. Continue reading

Higinio Ruvalcaba

I knew Mexico was home to classical composers and had its own history in classical music, however, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea about the extent of its history. Mexico was creating music in the classical style at least as early as the seventeenth century during the baroque period. Unfortunately, many of these great composers have been forgotten or been written about so little. For that reason, this week I would like to discuss Higinio Ruvalcaba, a Mexican composer, and violinist who lived from 1905 to 1976.

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Doing research on Ruvalcaba has certainly been very challenging. There are very few resources and documents about him in Spanish and even fewer in English. His son Euginio Ruvalcaba did publish a book on him in 2003, but I unfortunately did ot have access to it. For the purposes of this blog post, I will summarize the sources I could find and link the texts in the footnotes.

I could write an entire paper on his life, but I think his daughter Marcela Ruvalcaba does an excellent job of summarizing it in her article “In Memory of the Virtuoso Violinist Higinio Ruvalcaba”. I would highly reccomend checking it out. It is in Spanish and for the purposes of this post I read it in spanish, however you can hit the translate button and get the genral idea of the article. According to his daughter, Ruvalcaba was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1905 and was a child prodigy on the violin and with composition. he began composing for strings at a young age. He learned the violin at four years old by listening to a mariachi player and imitating the sounds coming from his violin on his own instrument. Throughout his life, Ruvalcaba played in many orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Mexico city Philharmonic. He also conducted and composed many works1

The first piece of of Ruvalcaba’s work I came across was his piece “Chapultepec” (listen here) in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox archive. This particular recording was performed in 1923 in New York, New York by the International Novelty Orchestra. The piece is labeled a foxtrot. A foxtrot was popular during the 1920s and is in 4/4 time with a lilting beat2
.Ruvalcaba’s foxtrot “Chapultec” has the style of a foxtrot with some added instrumentation and musical ideas that bring in Spanish culture. One example of this cultural blending is the utilization of castanets in the recording. Castanets are an instrument popularized by flamenco music and dance and they are made of wood and make a unique wooden clicking sound.

Another interesting fact about this piece is that every recording I found utilizes different instrumentation and stylistic add ons such as the addition mordents, the melody being played by a salterio instead of a wind instrument (I struggled with identifying the instrument used in the 1920’s recording). A salterio is a traditional instrument used in Spanish music dating back centuries3.

In some ways, the recorded version of the piece performed in America is definitely more Europeanized, but since I could find little evidence or notation of Ruvalcaba’s piece I am unsure as to which recordings are more true to his intentions. Given that he was classically trained in what was accepted as the western canon, but also raised around and inspired by Mariachi I could see his vision going either way. I attached some other recordings below so you may compare them yourself.

The first is at this link!

Overall, I wish I had more answers About Higinio Rulvacaba and his life, but I was and still am excited by what I did find.

1Ruvalcaba, PorMarcela Flores, Marcela Flores RuvalcabaBailarina, Bailarina, See author’s posts, and Nombre *. “A La Memoria Del Virtuoso Violinista Higinio Ruvalcaba.” Periodismo del sector cultural al estilo GRECU, April 20, 2020.

2Norton, Pauline. “Foxtrot.” Grove Music Online, January 20, 2001.

3James W. McKinnon, Nelly van Ree Bernard, Mary Remnant and Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. “Psaltery.” Grove Music Online, July 30, 2020.


Baptist Brethren

George Pullen Jackson

In the debate over the origins of Black spirituals in the southern United States, George Pullen Jackson, makes many problematic and strong claims. A notable musicologist specializing in southern hymnody, Pullen’s tone and voice in communicating his “true” origins of Black spirituals is heard loud and clear. 

In the telling of all history, however, it is commonly acknowledged that it is told from the perspective of the “winner”. Thus in good practice, it is important to search for and listen to the perspectives of other stakeholders in said history, who may tell a very different history.

As Black southerners were Christianized in the mid-1700s, four out of five Black church members eventually flocked to Baptist churches (Jackson, 286). This proportion is astounding, and impossible to not feel the need to inquire more about. This of course led me to wanting to know more about the first and oldest Black Baptist church. Continue reading

Folk Music, “Born not Made”

The spiritual, “Oh, Freedom”, popularized during the civil war, is American folk music at its core. In his book, Afro-American Folksongs, Musicologist Henry Krehbiel cites W. E. B. Du Bois when mentioning this song and its influences. 

“The song ‘Oh, Freedom over Me,’ which Dr. Burghardt du Bois quotes in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as an expression of longing for deliverance from slavery encouraged by fugitive slaves and the agitation of free [black] leaders before the War of the Rebellion, challenges no interest for its musical contents, since it is a compound of two white men’s tunes- ‘Lily Dale,’ a sentimental ditty, and ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom,’ a patriotic song…” 1

Here are recordings of the two “white men’s tunes” Du Bois mentions, “Lily Dale” and “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” as well as “Oh Freedom”-

Lily Dale (1910)

The Battle-Cry of Freedom (1907)

Oh, Freedom (1957)

Oh, Freedom (1965)

A casual listener can hear the melodic similarities, especially between the choruses of “Lily Dale” and “Oh, Freedom”. Lyrical ideas are also shared between “Battle-Cry of Freedom” and “Oh, Freedom”.

“Oh, Freedom”

O Freedom, O Freedom,

O Freedom over me!

Before I’ll be a slave.

I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord,

And be free!


“Battle-Cry of Freedom”

We will welcome to our numbers

The loyal, true and brave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;

And although they may be poor,

Not a man shall be a slave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.2


So, is “Oh, Freedom” an appropriated song? Sure, but at the end of the day, isn’t everything?

Enslaved black people took the white man’s songs and reappropriated them. “Battle-Cry of Freedom” was a song that swept over the north and united the union after Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers for the union army. The enslaved took this power the song created and used it for their own gain in this emancipation song. 

The many influences of “Oh, Freedom” from existing songs, as well as the lived experiences of the enslaved, highlights that at its core, it is a folk song. 

1Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 17.

2 “Civil War Music: The Battle Cry of Freedom.” American Battlefield Trust. The History Channel. Accessed October 4, 2021,

How Posters Communicate Musical Identity

Musicians’ public reception begins before they play a single note. The advertisements for their performances preview who they are and what kind of music they make. I was captivated by a poster for a Fisk Jubilee Singers concert between 1910 and 1950, designed by Winold Reiss. The artwork offers insight into who they were performing for and what themes the performance might have had.

Winold Reiss, “[Graphic Design for Fisk Jubilee Singers.] [Concert Poster with Harp and Mask Motif],” still image, last modified 1910, accessed October 4, 2021, resource/ppmsca.64409.

Before I sought recordings from the performance, I researched Winold Reiss, the poster’s creator. Reiss immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1913, three years after the earliest possible date this advertisement was published.1
While the Library of Congress lists 1910 as the earliest potential date of publication, the fact that Reiss had not yet moved to America makes this improbable. Still, he was devoted to non-white subjects, known for his portraits of the Blackfoot and Blood Indians of Canada and the northwestern United States. The Reiss Partnership summarizes the perspective he brought to his art, stating that,

“His idealism challenges the notion that as Americans we are anything less than “us,” a totality that includes rather than excludes.”2

To be clear, Reiss should not be seen as a sort of white savior just for making art that centers Black and Indigenous folks. However, his idea of creating an inclusive American identity mirrors the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ history, and later, this poster.

Continue reading

The South’s Struggle to Build Community Without Glorifying Slavery

CW: This post discusses the use of a term that many consider to be problematic.

One of the many great gifts of music is that it is a tool through which we can build community. After all, community is an innate human need. Unfortunately, however, in some of our attempts to form community, we forget or blatantly disregard the groups that we may be excluding from our community, and the harm that may be caused by our conscious or unconscious exclusion.

Below is the first verse of a 1915 song1 that clearly aims to build community:

Hello there, stranger! How do you do?

There’s something I’d like to say to you.

Don’t be surprised; you’re recognized!

I’m no detective but I’ve just surmised.

You’re from the place where I long to be.

Your smiling face seems to say to me,

You’re from my own land,

My sunny homeland,

Tell me can it be!

The first verse is innocent enough. I imagine that many would be able to relate to its sentiment. I remember hearing someone’s accent during my first year at St. Olaf and asking them if they, too, were from Memphis. We both lit up with excitement at the realization we could connect over our hometown. In the first line of the chorus, however, which also happens to be the title of the song, lies the song’s problem:

Are you from Dixie?

I said from Dixie?

Where the fields of cotton beckon to me.

I’m glad to see you.

Tell me how be you

And the friends I’m longing to see.

If you’re from Alabama, Tennessee, or Caroline,

Or any state below the Mason-Dixon line,

Then you’re from Dixie.

Hurray for Dixie!

‘Cause I’m from Dixie too!

The term “Dixie” is… complicated. Some believe that the term came from Jeremiah Dixon, after whom the Mason-Dixon line was named. Others believe it came from New Orleans, where some $10 bills were called “dixies”. Others, still, believe it came from a minstrel song that later was known as an unofficial Confederate anthem.2

The origin of the term is not as important as the harmful ways in which it was used. Whether the term originated with its links to the Confederacy or whether those ties developed later, the Confederacy and the term “Dixie” became intertwined. This led to the term being largely used by white people to refer to an image of their idealized, pre-Civil War South, a South in which white people lived on large, rich plantations built off of slave labor, and in which Black people were seen as synonymous with inferiority.

In the second verse of “Are You From Dixie”, this glorification of the Confederate South is more obvious via the positive reference to plantations:

It was a-way back in eighty-nine

I crossed the old Mason-Dixon line.

Gee! But I’ve yearned, longed to return

To all the good old pals I left behind!

My home is way down in Alabam’

On a plantation near Birmingham,

And one thing’s certain,

I’m surely flirtin’

With those southbound trains!

Then the cheery, catchy chorus5 is repeated. While the previously discussed term is still widely used in the South, and is in the names of Memphis fast food chains and famous TikTokers, it is slowly but surely being recognized as a glorification of horrific history and phased out. Dolly Parton removed the term from her Stampede dinner show3. The country music band The Chicks removed the term from their name4. Each attempt at the term’s removal seems to be shrouded in controversy, but my hope for our country is that we can prioritize the inclusion and welcome of all over our nostalgia for a past that wasn’t so nostalgic for everyone.



1 Cobb, George L, and Jack Yellen. Are you from Dixie?. M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1915. Notated Music.

2 Britannica Academic, s.v. “Dixie,” accessed October 3, 2021,

3 Garcia, Amanda. “Dixie Stampede Name Change Sparks Reaction From Fans.” WATE 6 On Your Side, WATE 6 On Your Side, 11 Jan. 2018,

4 Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Dixie Chicks Change Band Name to The Chicks.” NPR, NPR, 25 June 2020,

5 Cobb, George L, Ernest Errott Thompson, Ernest Errott Thompson, Jack Yellen, and Ernest Errott Thompson. Are you from Dixie?. 1924. Audio.

The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Music: giving us insight into the disgusting ideas held about black Americans.

As someone who is currently studying musicology, one of the main tasks required of me is to use music as a clue to make larger claims about society at that time. In other words, I sleuth around in musical documents to figure out how people thought. Just like any primary source, music leaves us a trail that can bring us to bigger discoveries about human nature. So this week, I decided to embark on the task of using musical documents to bring light popular sentiments about black Americans.

I decided to take a closer look at this document:


(It’s a little blurry here, so take a look here for a clearer picture:

This is a sheet music cover for a piece titled “the Contraband Schottische” written by Septimus Winner in 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). Winner dedicated this piece of music to Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was in charge of implementing the “Contraband Decision” in which escaped slaves who retreated to the North during the Civil War were considered “contraband” or illegally stolen goods. This allowed Slaves to live in a state not being owned but also not being free in the North. This was decided in retaliation to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in which slaves were to be returned to their masters if caught after escaping.1 On the cover of “the Contraband Schottische” there is a cartoon depicting a slave owner chasing his four black slaves rolling down the hill as if they are merely goods. Although the Contraband Decision ended up being a helpful decision for slaves as a side effect, we can’t sit here and celebrate Butler, he wasn’t even an abolitionist after all.

The depiction of slaves in this cartoon gives us an inside look into some of the attitudes held by society at the time. In this cartoon, slaves are illustrated to be synonymous with products or goods, as they are rolling down the hill like a sack of potatoes falling out of an 18-wheeler.

This sentiment of black Americans being treated as “property” or “goods” seems to infiltrate and inform other assumptions about their intellectual ability or identity as functioning humans. If we fast forward to 1943, this idea develops into another held by author George Pullen Jackson in his book White and Negro Spirituals. He holds the belief that black Americans are not capable of producing sophisticated spirituals, and therefore, must have developed all of their music from the influence of Europeans.

“We know that our fathers (Europeans) brought to this land a rich and hoary heritage of folk melody. We know that the negro slave entered into this heritage eventually by adopting it to the extent of his ABILITIES and desires”.2

This quote infers that black Americans would not have the ability to create music as sophisticated as Europeans. By looking at these documents surrounding music, we can see that the sick attitudes of black Americans as “goods” or “property” and the conclusion that they therefore can not produce sophisticated music are rampant for over a hundred years. That’s pretty disgusting.

Racism within the National Jukebox’s Tagging System

TW: Extensive use of slurs in both lyrics and titles of songs.

The last paragraph on the National Jukebox’s About This Collection reads as follows: 

These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the language, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users.

In early stages of research, I hoped to link musical traditions in modern musical theater to some of the early recordings within the “Humorous Songs” tag. However, as I scrolled, I began to notice how many of these songs were also tagged “Ethnic Characterizations.” We’ve begun to explore research and presentation of complicated data and information within this class, and I wondered how a database run by the Library of Congress would present difficult topics. I selected two songs tagged as “Ethnic Characterizations,” and examined what is missing and necessary for productive conversation.  Continue reading

Faces and Voices behind the Name

In class we spent a day discussing the origins of “black music” through the lens of white hypothesis. We spent time looking at the maps of slave songs through the states, a collection of southern folk music, as well as a map of the tours that the Fisk Jubilee Singers took in the late 1800s.

I had learned briefly about the Fisk Jubilee Singers back in my freshman musicology class and their story was one of the snippets of information that stuck with me after that class. I’m not entire sure why their story stuck with me. Perhaps it was the relatability to me of using music to afford college or perhaps the biblical reference to the book Leviticus with the history of the “year of Jubilee.” Whatever it might be I new I wanted to find out more.

As I researched the Jubilee singers I came to realize that all I had in mind of these strong-willed singers were a mixed gender group of people of color. For all of the time spent in class learning about them I had never stopped to imagine their faces. On top of that their voices never received the chance to be heard by the person learning about how they used their voices. I believe that an important aspect of researching is to create the setting of the topic. While backstory is a great place to begin, do you really know who you are researching. The image I chose was a print of what is believed to be the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. Their names are not encompassed by that title but also Isaac Dickerson, Ben Holmes, Greene Evans, Thomas Rutling, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Porter, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, and Eliza Walker. Upon further research into their music I had come to realize I hadn’t listen to them either.

The link directly above brings you to a recording done by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. While this isn’t the original group of singers and while there isn’t a recording of those original singers, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers continue to sing today and uphold the legacy of the Jubilee Singers.

These two different sources allow a researcher to get to know their topic. When you look at the face of a human being and hear their voices, it becomes a personal research. It forces researchers to acknowledge their research topics as real people regardless of how long ago. In our class’s ties to discussion on race and identity today it is a reminder of the importance of recognizing people of color as real human beings no matter how long ago they walked this earth. How can we easily conjure up images of George Washington and Ben Franklin but fail to have an image of Crazy Horse (beyond outfits), the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Frederick Douglas, or Robert Smalls?


American Missionary Association, photographer by Black, James Wallace. Jubilee singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. / negative by Black. [Place not identified: Publisher not identified, ?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Work, John Wesley, et al. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. 1909. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021.


The Role of Christian Music in Cultural Cleansing

In class we have been studying how missionaries and colonizers brought English music, specifically sacred music, to the “New World”. The colonizers installed missionary schools to teach Native Americans how to sing hymns and psalmody. Christian music was also taught to African slaves.

These topics and histories led me to question the role music played in colonization and slavery. What was the purpose of teaching Christian music to non-Christians? 

The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes has helped me investigate this question and opened a door to a wealth of sources that depict the various ways Christian music has been weaponized as a tool of indoctrination.  

Published in the Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register on the 20th of May, 1844, The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes gives modern scholars an insight into the purpose behind this practice, and the reason why a magazine article would deem this article relevant to its readers.  

This literature also stands as testament to the historical trend of American Christians weaponizing religious music to dominate, disenfranchise, and uproot the cultures of non-Christians of color. 

The correspondence was written by a church musician who taught African slaves Gregorian chant on a plantation in the South, claiming that learning this music will be to their benefit.

“The benefits of all this to the negroes you will appreciate without my pointing them out. To learn so much, at once of Scripture and of the Church service; to learn it in a way to imprint it indelibly on their memories, and to have it ever at hand for their instruction, warning, comfort, and devotional use…”.

Gregorian Chant, which is taught orally and sung in unison,  is said to give comfort and purpose to those who learn it, according to the people who were deeply involved in the business of slavery and proselytization. 

There is very little literature confirming this that was not written for and by slavers and clergymen at the time; and it is likely that these ‘benefits’ were greatly exaggerated, as Gregorian chant also served to familiarize “new Christians” with scripture, which they learned and potentially memorized through active participation in worship service in the form of collective singing.  What the article provides is, in fact, a ‘helpful guide’ to the Gregorian chant as a reliable method of forced assimilation: most writings about the subject focus on the practicality of teaching Gregorian chant to slaves as a gateway into re-culturing those who they deemed uncultured. 

The author cites its singular ability to be taught to those who are “unacquainted with music”, blatantly contradicting his own assessment that “the religious songs which they [enslaved Africans] are now accustomed to” were, in fact, music.

In an eerily similar fashion to the missionary schools put in place to erase Native Americans through cultural as well as ethnic cleansing; the magazine writers seem more invested in diminishing these individuals’ cultural identities, as an entire new mechanism of exerting control, than in ‘gifting them salvation’.






THE GREGORIAN CHANTS–THEIR INTRODUCTION AMONG THE NEGROES. (1844, 05). Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register (1842-1853), 21, 45. Retrieved from

The Power of Images – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

While this well known adage has probably originated in comparatively recent times, the sentiment has existed for centuries. It certainly seems to have been the guiding business strategy of Frank Leslie, founder of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, whose success was largely due to the novelty and appeal of illustrations in news reporting. The paper, founded by Leslie in 1855 and printed for another 42 years after his death in 1880, was extremely popular in its day and now regarded as an important source of primary source evidence. In this blog post, I will focus on the extent to which this newspaper is a reliable way to learn about the musical activities of enslaved peoples before the Civil War, using one particular image printed Leslie’s 1857 newspaper as a case study.

The image in question is titled “Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” and can be seen below.

The illustration provides a wealth of detail about what holiday celebration might have looked like on a Southern plantation — central to the image is two black dancers and to the right a group of black musicians, one playing the fiddle and one playing the banjo (or similar instrument). The presence of white onlookers (presumably owners), shows that the celebration was not free of supervision.

The illustration provides strong evidence that enslaved people had and used musical instruments during their time off at celebrations, The musicality of enslaved people can be corroborated with other evidence, for example from colonial newspapers and runaway slave listings, which often make mention of enslaved people’s musical abilities on the violin, french horn, and other instruments (Southern). The setting of the musicians in this illustration also gives some evidence of the type of music being performed (most likely dance music). To this extent, the illustration is helpful in knowing some basic information about the musical activities on Southern plantations.

An excerpt from Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans, demonstrates the musical abilities of runaway slaves.

The illustration, however, also has some glaring omissions and hidden biases. One glaring omission is the location that the illustration claims to depict. The only indication provided is that it is on a Southern plantation, an indication that is very vague and generalized, making it easy to assume that that the celebrations of enslaved people were the same throughout the South — a fact that is, in all probability, false. This generalization shows a lack of respect for the musicians and also shows that this image is catered to the white imagination of his audience. Additionally, if a researcher was interested in more specific regional variation of musical practices, the illustration would be of no help at all. Of course, the newspaper’s aim wasn’t to respect the traditions of enslaved peoples or aid future researchers. The aim was to make money.

Keeping this purpose in mind is especially relevant for this particular publication. From 1855 to 1857, Leslie struggled to keep the newspaper in operation (Pearson). Publications from this time needed to sell. The paper was published in New York, so the audience was probably largely white Northerners, and the image likely caters to this subgroup, attempting to satisfy their curiosity about what life on Southern plantations was like. This could very well affect the way the scene is depicted.

Consequently, the illustrations in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are useful primary sources, but only if taken in context. The white audience and need to sell are key biases that must be recognized when working with this type of material, and while perhaps each picture is worth a thousand words, another thousand words may be necessary to analyze reliability of the source.



Pearson, Andrea G. “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly: Innovation and imitation in nineteenth-century American pictorial reporting.” The Journal of Popular Culture 23.4 (1990): 81-111.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Third Edition. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1997.

“Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. V, no. 108, p. 64. New York, 1857. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Black Is King

Non-Africans have such a narrow view of what Africa is and its diversity. In recent years, much of the culture, such as dances, music, and food, has become “trendy”. In 2020, Beyoncé released the visual album “Black Is King”. It has been over a year and I still have not seen it. I love Beyoncé. She is one of my biggest role models and the person who got me into music. However, I have an underlying dislike for this body of work. 

As a Nigerian American, it is frustrating to see my culture being glorified after many years of feeling ashamed of my heritage. As a child, I was made fun of for my name, certain words in my vocabulary, and my parents’ accents. I did not want to watch “Black Is King” because I thought it wasn’t fair for Beyoncé to receive so much credit for popularizing the culture that many of us have had to ride for their whole lives. Although I am not saying African culture isn’t their culture and I want Black Americans to feel connected with us, it is exasperating to see them profiting off the culture after it took them so long to fully claim it.

This is almost similar to the creators of the “Map of Slave Songs of the United States” researching and accrediting white abolitionists.

In this text, Ghanaian-American writer and editor Karen Attiah talks about the collaborations Beyoncé made for the “Black Is King” album. Attiah also addresses the criticism Beyoncé received for the album. A one-dimensional view of Africa is that the men are kings and the women are their wives, mothers, and guardians and this perspective is reinforced in “Black Is King”. I think that non-Africans believe this perspective is empowering for us, and it can be, but not when it is the only perspective. This is a narrative that is repeated in The Lion King and Black Panther. These are two of the most popular African-based movies and they share the same father-to-son becoming a king theme for men and wife/mother/guardian theme for women. While I appreciate that some of these stories are trying to bring to light “African culture”, in the long run, this repeated portrayal might do more harm than good. 

In regards to the author of the text, I validate her credibility because she is African. Validation by white american means (PWI education and experience) carries no weight with me in this context. This is completely separate from white people. To me, her validity lies in the fact that she is well connected to her Ghanaian roots and has knowledge of Black America and perceptions of Africa because she has grown up experiencing both.




Attiah, Karen. “‘Black is King’ is Built on Problematic Narratives. Still, its Power is Undeniable.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post, last modified Aug 07.

Hot Takes with Henry Hanchett

I have to commend Henry Granger Hanchett, a musician, doctor, and lecturer, on one thing: his choice of title for this piece, which was published in The Outlook (a New York magazine) in 1896. Posing the question, “What is ‘Good Music’?” in the title of an article implies to me that the author intended to answer that question to some degree of certainty within approximately one page, something most authors would be cautious of. In fact, Hanchett appears to have had few reservations about answering such large musicological questions, having also written during his lifetime a book with the title, “The Art of the Musician. A Guide to the Intelligent Appreciation of Music.”

In this particular article, “What is ‘Good Music’?”, Hanchett explores typical themes such as church music, the purpose of music, personal tastes, the roles of instruments and performers, and so on. However, what I found to be the most telling about Hanchett in this article, as well as the role of race and identity in his musical opinions, were his offhand comments about “Gospel Hymns”. He uses the example of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee [Swanee] River” being performed by a beloved opera singer, Christine Nilsson, to illustrate that even the most inferior compositions can be made into good music through a virtuosic  performance. In the midst of an article otherwise dominated by a casual and exploratory tone, Hanchett shifts to an exasperated condemnation of what he believes to be gospel music. He describes these “Gospel Hymns” as “not really worth the paper upon which [they are] printed,” having “no musical sense or meaning,” and overall, “not good music.”

As I attempted to get a clearer understanding of what Hanchett’s definition of a “Gospel Hymn” was, I searched for recordings of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (also called “Old Folks at Home”). This immediately led me to a video of Al Jolson, a popular minstrel show performer in the 1900s, performing the song in blackface in the movie Swanee River.

Diving deeper into the background and the lyrics of this song, it turns out that “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” is, in fact, a minstrel song written by Stephen C. Foster (and currently the Florida state song??). In addition to being written by a white guy for other white guys in blackface to perform, the song makes no reference to religion or the gospel. I may not know a perfect definition of what a Gospel Hymn is, but I’m pretty sure that this is not it. All available evidence leads me to assume that Hanchett hates this particular song, as well as the musical style, not because it is rooted in the racist practice of minstrelsy but because he actually perceives it to be genuine Black music and he’s just super racist. Although Henry G. Hanchett had his knack for musicological confidence, behind that confidence was the privilege and ignorance that make his opinions irrelevant today.



Crawford, R. (2005). America’s musical life: A history. W.W. Norton.

Goldstein, H. (2001, January 20). Jolson, Al. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287,

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Southern, E. (1983). The music of Black America: A history. Norton.

Complicated Crossroads of Colonialism

In the grand search of defining the term “American Music”, the deeper you dig, the more muddy and complicated it gets. It is seen even in this simple sheet music cover published in 1898 that the so-called “Yankee message” was something that was emphasized at one point or another, having an impact on what they coined as “patriotic music” (“Patriotic American Sheet Music.”)

The phrase “The Yankee Message” caught my eye and caused me to want to research the context and intention of this particular music. This piece of music was published and written in the midst of the Spanish-American War. According to an article from the American Mosaic talking about the Spanish-American War, for the United States, much of this war was ignited by the desire and push for American Expansionism (“Spanish-American War.”). Most Americans saw the conflict between Cuba and its colonial combatant Spain as an “in” for greater expansion and influence:

“Some were attracted by the idea of new financial markets; others were inspired by the notions of spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions of liberty and equality to other peoples.”

This raised the question for me: “How can we look at music from this time period without the harsh influence of the American urge to be a world power?” The concept of “spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions” made me think of the article we read by Richard Crawford pertaining to the Early Christian Music-Making that took place in colonial America where much European influence took place in the beginning formations of music in general of America when it came to sacred music-making and how colonization had a huge part in this movement of music at the time. This can point to the fact that this piece of music pointed to a sort of “patriotism”, even though much of the surrounding context revolved around wanting to gain total power and influence. It also made me think of the article we read by Drew Edward Davies discussing the topics revolving around “local music” and the music of “New Spain.” Reading about the influence that Spain had on the Latin music that has survived up until the present day (“villancico” and the Latin-Baroque style) compliments the backdrop and context of this sheet music cover from the Spanish-American war. The ideas that Davies raised at the end of their article pertaining to challenging the assumptions of particular genres of music involving various cultures that Spain (and eventually America) dominated and dialoguing about the “repertoire’s problematic issues” are ones that should be taken in consideration about these types of pieces as well.

Looking into the greater context of this piece of sheet music greatly coincided with the topics discussed around the locality and dominant influences of Europe when it comes to music produced and composed in times like the Spanish-American war and beyond. Terms like “The Yankee Message” can go beyond a simple phrase and raise questions around the context of various music composed and what directly and indirectly influenced the music of that time.

Davies, Drew Edward. “Finding ‘Local Content’ in the Music of New Spain.” Early Music America 19, no. 2 (2013): 64–62.

“Patriotic American Sheet Music.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“Spanish-American War.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

Cohen Quest: Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert


Welcome to Cohen Quest! In the very first installment, I have some exciting letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles to share and discuss that solidify our guy Chas’s1 place in history. Spoiler alert, it has to do with Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert; but you already knew that, didn’t you? You’re so smart. 

I should start with an explanation of what the Cohen Quest series is: last year, I received the art song “Epitaph for a Poet” composed by a Cecil Cohen. In doing my song research, I had extreme difficulty finding information on the composer besides two short biographies from the African American Art Song Alliance and the African Diaspora Music Project, respectively. This lack of information is indicative of a greater issue:  composers of color are often left out of history, their stories forgotten and pushed to the side. Who was this man who composed a “deceptively simple”2 but absolutely gorgeous piece? And why is it that I, an undergraduate vocal performance major in Minnesota in 2021, am seemingly the first person to try to piece together a narrative of Cohen’s life? This series, I hope, will get to the bottom of both of these questions. So let’s get started before I hit the word count!

Dorothy Maynor sings Cohen’s “Epitaph for a Poet” live at the Library of Congress, accompanied by Arpád Sándor.

On April 9th, 1939, the very famous contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.3 The story goes, after being denied access to Constitution Hall because she was black, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes invited her to perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial, an extraordinarily high honor even for a celebrated singer like Anderson. What does this have to do with Cecil Cohen, you ask? Well, at the time, Cohen was the chairman of the Howard University Concert Series, and therefore in charge of organizing and producing Marian Anderson’s concerts in Washington, DC, and therefore directly involved with one of the largest classical music concerts in modern American history.4

Newspaper article describing Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9th, 1939.In early January 1939, Charles Cohen approached the manager of Constitution Hall, Fred Hand, inquiring about renting it for a concert on April 9th. Cohen was informed of two things restricting their use of the space: firstly, the National Symphony Orchestra was already set to perform that afternoon, and secondly, a 1932 DAR policy restricted use of the hall to white performers. Due to the enormous popularity of Anderson, Cohen needed to book an auditorium large enough to accommodate at least 1,500 people; outstanding circumstances prevented the use of other sizable auditoriums in the area.

Cohen contacted the impresario and Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok about the issue who then contacted the DAR and was informed that Constitution Hall was available April 8th and April 10th.5 When Cohen again contacted Fred Hand to book the hall, Hand once again denied him, saying it “will not be available on either April 8th or  April 10th for the Marian Anderson Recital.” 6 The reply is short and sweet, and it speaks to Hand’s dismissiveness and callousness in the face of mounting pressure to open the hall to non-white musicians. That March, several prominent members of the DAR, including Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization, further increasing the conflict’s presence on the national stage.7 Then Secretary Ickes stepped in and Anderson performed for thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and the day was saved.

A news clip from Marian Anderson’s concert on April 9th, 1939, at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Obviously, the story is a little more complex than that, but we’ll save those primary sources for next time. The point is, there was an extremely important figure completely left out of the narrative to make a cleaner, more concise story; not to mention his exclusion from history as a talented and forward-thinking composer and pianist. Hopefully we’ll continue to uncover more secrets of Cohen’s life as the semester goes on, the guy certainly deserves it.

1 O’Day, Caroline. [Supporters [arranged alphabetically] M-W: O’Day, Caroline]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 27, 2021).

2 Story, Rosalyn M., [liner notes to] Dorothy Maynor, soprano, Historic Performances from the Library of Congress, December 18, 1940, compact disc, 16.

3 Special to the New York Times. Throng Honors Marian Anderson in Concert at Lincoln Memorial. Newspaper. New York: The New York Times, 1939.

4 Cohen, Charles C. [Howard University, 1939: Cohen to Hurok]. Letter. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 28, 2021).

5 Hurok, Sol. [Howard University, 1939: Hurok to Cohen]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 28, 2021).

6 Cohen, Charles C; Fred Hand. Letter from Cohen (Howard) to Hand with his reply. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939.
Howard%29%20to%20Hand%20with%20his%20reply.pdf (accessed September 28, 2021).

7 Roosevelt, Eleanor. Letter of resignation from Roosevelt to PG Roberts. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939.
om%20Roosevelt%20to%20PG%20Robert.pdf (accessed September 27, 2021).

Rise and Shine – African American Religious Music

In Eileen Southern’s writing, there were a lot of passages where she talked about hymnals and prayer music. She also introduced us to different practices, traditions and schools of psalmody singing, which all work with each other in the dome of music sung and played by the enslaved. While in class and doing readings, I have been thinking about what the music actually sounds like when they were sung by the enslaved African Americans: will they add their own harmonies? Any changes to the melodies? I found a source that also aimed to look into that.

This is an article that is, in my opinion,  “woke” for the time. The point of view of this article is neutral and unarrogant (unlike a lot of writings from that time), respectful of the culture, and the author acknowledges that more research needs to be done. The title of this article is Music: The Slave as a Revitalist. It was written by Horatio C. King, and was published in the Christian Union periodical on January 26, 1876. This article analyzed the music of African American religious gatherings (that are referred to in text as “sperichuals”… so is it spirituals?), and King provided information on what that is like, “To a stranger the peculiarity most striking is the intense emotion which pervades their singing and prayers as well as their preaching (pp. 78).” The outpour of emotions is not the only thing that stood out to him; he highlighted the importance of singing by stating that a meeting without singing will not accomplish much, and will also not uplift and enlighten people (pp. 78). 

King also pointed out some of the problems he encountered in his research. He stated that the harmonized melodies in the articles “must not be inferred that the ex-slaves sing thus strictly; nor on the other hand that they sing only in unison (pp. 78).” This is a slippery slope when it comes to musicological research because when music from a non-European tradition is transcribed into staff notes… you might lose some of that spice. King used the word “weird” when describing the tones of the music, and he is not the only one: in another periodical article, Penick, someone who is not a musician, said, “I am not able to analyze the weird melodies of the negroes.” (pp. 33) I bet some of that “weirdness” is lost in translation. 

I felt a bit lost with the property of this source, because it occurred to me that it is a combination of primary and secondary sources. It was written back in the days, and it has music scores from that time. However, it clearly states that some of the sources King cited were melodies heard from other people, and he understood that the melodies can’t be fully dictated, thus making it less authentic… Maybe this is the curse of doing research! 🙂 I think this topic is very interesting because you can’t avoid the discussion around authenticity, and the author approached the topic in an interesting way by combining African Americans’ religious life with their musical practices, and I find that quite interesting.


Works Cited

King, Horatio C. “Music.: THE SLAVE AS A REVIVALIST. THE OLD ARK’S MOVING. MY LORD, WHAT A MORNING. RISE AND SHINE.” Christian Union (1870-1893), vol. 13, no. 4, Jan 26, 1876, pp. 78. ProQuest,

Penick, C. C. “NEGRO MUSIC AND FOLK LORE.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897), vol. 24, no. 2, 02, 1895, pp. 33. ProQuest,

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans, 3rd Edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Credit where Credit is Undue

While reading Eileen Southen’s passage about psalmody and hymnody practices in New England meetinghouses in the 1600s, I was interested to learn more about the separated and unseparated musical practices in the church based on skin color. Specifically, I was interested to learn more about when the separation of parish choir members shifted to include members of the black community — and why.

This curiosity led me to learn about H.T. Burleigh, dubbed “The First of His Race to Sing Among Vested Vocalists in a White Parish” by the New York Herald in 1894. The article highlights Burleighs trailblazing position as baritone soloist at St. George’s Church in New York City. The author, though unnamed, outlines Burleigh’s musical achievements, and throughout the article, praises all of the people that helped him along the way — people who are most likely white. 

While I’m sure it is true that Burleigh received much help along the way, this help is what the article focuses on. In doing so, the author seemingly takes much of the focus away from Burleigh and instead focuses on the people who made his success possible for him. With the likelihood that the author of this article is also white, it is impossible to ignore how their own musical experiences and perspective influence the means in which Burleigh’s story is presented.


This writing and tone of this article is therefore like many others of its time when the subject is the accomplishments of African Americans and Black people in the United States in that it either highlights or focuses on the role that white people played in such accomplishments. The tone of these writings intend to take some or all of the credit for the success of Black people in America and instead contribute it to the resources and doings of white Americans. 


A common theme in African-American and Black music-making, this portrayal of Burleigh’s success points to the overwhelming role that oppression played and has continued to play in American history. With this in mind, it is important to compare and contrast this primary source with other written histories in order to find the “truth”.

One way to do this is to read and learn about these histories in sources written by people with differing musical experiences, similarly to how we learned contrasting histories surrounding the origins and highlights of American bluegrass music. Though it is not a primary source, G. Yvonne Kendall’s recount of Burleigh’s career successes and highlights in The American Mosaic: The African American Experience paints a very different picture as to how Burleigh came to be the first Black chorister in a white parish, attributing it to his success at the Chicago World’s Fair.

This history considered, it is also hard for me to ignore the very title of this article, “No Color Line in this Choir”. The title attempts to diminish and ignore the role that race and ethnicity play in the lives and successes of African Americans and Black people. This title is nearly equivalent to the phrase “I don’t see color” and ignores the history and sacrifices that needed to be made in favor of continuing the oppression of African American and Black success.]



Kendall, G. Yvonne. “Concert Music: 1861-1919.” The American Mosaic: The African 

American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“No Color Line in This Choir.” New York Herald, 1894.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.


Mexican Corrido and Music Born of Revolution

The beginning of the 20th century brought about a slew of cultural and political revolutions in Mexico, more specifically 1910-1920. Fleeing the political turmoil, typically as a result of stolen land from wealthy capital owners, hundreds of thousands, left from the one tenth of the population’s live lost, of immigrants migrated to the US. With blooming inductres in the sector of mining, agriculture and ranching, the hundreds of thousands of hungry Mexican immigrants answered the call, and were met with radicalized violence and discrimination, as was probably customary at the time. It was in this time of integration that the Mexican tradition of Corrida was born, or folk songs that were sung between migrant workers to bring them together. 

Understanding the Corrido tradition requires close examination of the political turmoil happening at the time. Pofrio Diaz ruled Mexico from 1876-1911. Under his administration, the goals of the government lied towards bringing in investments from outside the country and revitalizing the country’s infrastructure. However altruistic, these goals were met from direct exploitation of the peasant working class, and many were forced from their land. Work conditions were incredibly terrible.

Corrido de la Cucaracha broadside by artist José Guadalupe Posada showing a full-length figure of a simply dressed woman with a shawl around her shoulders and hands on her hips, 1915. The song conveys the story of la cucaracha, which literally means “cockroach,” but during the Mexican Revolution this term was synonymous with “camp follower” and referred to women who would follow and live with their male partners in the war camps.’

These songs were sung by the Mexican immigrants working in America’s booming industries. Due to the nature of this musical practice’s tradition, many of the contents of it citation do not exist, though the primary source I’ve chosen to analyze is, in fact, written down. 

Music born from political roots, and born form the direct experience of assimilating into another culture, is something we’ve touched on in this class and classes previous. Not necessarily born in Mexico, thought deeply rooted in existing Mexican musical tradition, Corrido is an interesting mix of assimilationist hardship and musical creation. I found this practice particularly interesting as it relates to our conversations about American music being a shared experience, not necessarily born from one group with one distinct sound.

Christian faith, the role of music, and comfort zone

During a recent picnic social with our ELCA church congregation in Lonsdale, I get acquainted with a retired pastor who so happened to be talking about the brief founding histories of early colonizers in Minnesota from different parts of Europe who used church, religion and congregation as a way of reinforcing identity which inevitably set rules and definitions to exclude “others”. This led me to reflect on the purpose of music and musical practice in religious settings which I’ve been learning and putting much thought into for a musicology class about Race, Identity and Representation in American Music at college.

In Eileen Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans that we are currently studying, she pointed out that commercial and religious outreach formed the basis for Europe’s settlement of North America which confirms what the retired pastor was sharing with us during the picnic. Considering the first book published in the United States (the colonial America) was the “Bay Psalm Book”, printed by Stephen Daye in 1640 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not hard perceiving truly how significant a role Christian faith played in people’s identity formation as well as the development of music in the colonial America.

“Bay Psalm Book”, the first printed book in colonial America.

By searching through the American Periodicals Series Online 1740-1900, I came across a primary source publication, Western Recorder (1824-1833) volume 2, by American Periodicals Series II in Apr 26, 1825. In the column “Poetry and Music”, they first presented a translation of an ancient Spanish Poem, then followed by a reflection of the purpose and performance practice of music in religious congregational settings during services.

“The following is a translation from an ancient spanish poem, which, says the Edinburgh Review, is surpassed by nothing which we are acquainted with, in the Spanish language, except the ode of Luis de Lean.”

Extremely few background or ethnographic information was provided except describing the piece as an “ancient Spanish poem” and it is interesting that no effort was made to at least include the original Spanish title of the poem. Instead, only “Kindled only at the skies.” This stands out to me as a form of using language (English) as a way of creating a new collective identity. Given that the language, the shape and sound of it plays a significant role in poetry, I’m surprised that zero efforts were made to include original texts in this column. I’ve tried briefly searching for the original texts with the English translation with no success.

In the section that follows, the writer discusses the fine line of the use of music during worship, that is to invoke a state of deep contemplation on the end of the worshipper without making the music too much of a distraction. The writer argues that in achieving such an ideal state of worship, the repertoire must be drawn from familiar tunes, with minimal use of dissonance or technical brilliancy or skills displayed by the musicians. While using familiar psalms and tunes provides security being within the comfort zone for the congregation to engage in contemplations and worship, it raises the question of how far the church and its congregations is willing to engage in truthful yet difficult topics that reflects Christian values and how progressive the church congregation is.

The religious movement, “Great Awakening”, during the 1730s has greatly shifted the music scene at congregations throughout colonial America. Slow, dragging and sometimes monophonic psalms are gradually getting out of favour while the more lively and vibrant hymns take over in many congregations. While this Western Recorder article was published in the early 19th century, it somewhat reflects a conservative drawback on the congregation and Church leadership.


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

POETRY & MUSIC. (1825, Apr 26). Western Recorder (1824-1833) Retrieved from

Art as Social Community mid 1800s


The art of Musicking is seen throughout generations, across oceans and countries, throughout the vast variety of cultures that fill our world. It links together humans by allowing us to see similarities between all people groups in the way they do music. As I started researching I was reflecting upon the use of music in cultures and people groups. We have been discussing in class how the colonists and the people in America during the 1700s and 1800s used music.

Upon reflecting on that I was thinking about music as a social construct. In class we had been mostly focusing on the psalmody and different forms of church music of the time. Simply looking at the way slaves used an excited celebration style of music for church while their slaveowners focused more on the liturgical aspect. However, we haven’t yet really delved into the use of social music.

I found a newspaper article from January 3, 1856 written in Brooklyn. The article is title “Social Music” and found in the “Home Paragraphs” portion of the paper. Reading through the article, the unknown author uses a poetic writing to describe the beautiful uses of social music in the mid 1800s. Beginning their article, the author introduces other “studies” of the time that fall short of the enticing aspect of music such as history, arithmetic, and French. None of these can compare to the stunning use of music that brings a people together.

“Community as this, to the pleasure we experience in listening to music discoursed by a great variety of instruments, in the hands of skillful players, and all making beautiful harmony with each other… When this is done–when an individual produces a perfect sound–it brings every other member into sympathy with him. It kindles the elements of love and unity in his own heart and in the hearts of all around him.” –Home Paragraphs

The picture above is just one of the fine ways people used music as a social construct. The artist, John Doyle, portrayed this “Rehearsal” as an opportunity for the beauty that the Home Paragraphs described as “bringing every other member into sympathy with him.

A journal article from February 17, 1855 titled “Music and the Pianoforte” from the Scientific American opens with,

“In all civilized nations has mustc been cultivated as one of the fine arts, and even among savages has it received some attention. Any country may well be judged of its advancement  in civilization by the musical progress and education of its people. Inspired by the love of melody, man has made and used various instruments for the production of music, from the eights generation to the present time.” -Music and the Pianoforte


Works Cited:

Artist: John Doyle (Irish, Dublin 1797-1868 London), et al. Ancient Concerts – A Rehearsal / HB Sketches, No. 538. p. 1, The Metropolitan Museum of Art;

B. “Music and the Pianoforte.” Scientific American, vol. 10, no. 23, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1855, pp. 179–179,

C, A. R. “Home Paragraphs.: SOCIAL MUSIC.” Circular (1851-1870), Jan 03, 1856, pp. 199. ProQuest,


The Persisting Whiteness of Bluegrass Music in the Media

By, R. S. (1959, Aug 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE: MOUNTAIN MUSIC GETS SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from

NPR. (n.d.). Carolina Chocolate Drops. NPR. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

When someone has a question they want answered quickly, their first instinct is to take out their phone and Google it. Usually, a quick Wikipedia blurb will pop up at the top of the page and that’s settled, your question is answered. But what if it wasn’t? Not to the fullest truth anyways. 

If anyone is curious about the bluegrass genre and looks up the term “bluegrass music” on Google, they would find that “the genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.” A little further down they would find that the originator of bluegrass music is in fact Bill Monroe. Our hypothetical casual researcher would likely be satisfied with their answer and put their phone away after this. 

They shouldn’t be. 

Bluegrass musician, Rhiannon Giddens explains in her 2017 Keynote Address at the IBMA Business Conference that bluegrass is the result of cultural exchange. “[it] is actually a complex creole of music that comes from multiple cultures, African and European and Native” not from “a Scots-Irish tradition with ‘influences’ from Africa”.1

Going back to our hypothetical casual researcher Googling terms on their phone, if they wanted to learn a bit more about bluegrass music, they would find that the fourth search result when you Google “bluegrass music” is a link to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame website. A quick skim through the list of inductees would show them that every person ever inducted to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame is white. 2 

Similarly, a Rolling Stones Article titled “The New Bluegrass: Five Acts to Watch” names five bands where almost all musicians are white. 3 

So, where does the media’s fascination with equating whiteness and bluegrass come from? A New York Times article on bluegrass from 1959 gives us some insight. 4

…a form of ‘hillbilly’ music known as ‘bluegrass’ (for Kentucky, the Blue Grass State, where it was born)”.4

Shelton also continues to list many bluegrass artists such as Mike Seeger, Don Stover, Chubby Anthony, and Eric Weissberg, who, like from the Rolling Stones Article, are almost entirely white. 

Shelton, R. (1959, August 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE; Mountain Music Gets Serious Consideration. The New York Times.

This issue extends beyond black music. Latino artists also contribute to and create bluegrass music. Jerry Garcia is widely known as the lead singer of the Grateful Dead, but his work with his bluegrass band, Old and in the Way, is not discussed nearly as much. 5 

When we look at early reports on bluegrass along with the complicated history of American Music, it is not entirely shocking that credit is not given where it’s due. A good step in the right direction is to acquaint ourselves with some bluegrass artists who aren’t just white, because they exist and have for a long time. 

Some Artists to listen to and know:

Reverence, Ignorance, or Danger

When approaching a musical tradition that I find unfamiliar, I hope to analyze that particular tradition with the reverence it deserves. Additionally,  I aim to avoid making sweeping statements that describe this music in terms that fit only my personal musical experience. 

In today’s entry, I will examine some of the dangers of failing to do these actions within research through Reverend George H. Griffin’s article “The Slave Music of the South,” published in The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music in February of 1885. It is important to note that even though this article is published years after slavery became illegal, the scars of its horrors were still fresh and did not dissipate immediately (if at all). 

At first, when I stumbled onto this article, I was taken aback by the glowing praise of slave songs packed into such a short blurb. This author not only labels African American songs as exhibiting the “real genius of music,” but also describes their emotional power on all who experience it. However, after further contemplation, I find his language ultimately misleading and maybe even dangerous.

In this article, Griffin begins with an examination of how the music of enslaved people feels to “outside” listeners. He introduces the concept of the “soul of music” and how this music provokes a “responsive thrill in every human breast.” I find that  beginning an article in this manner is interesting. In a lot of musical discourse, authors seem to dive into the sonic descriptions of the music they study before tackling the emotions that these sounds promote. For example,  Griffin points to the hauntingly pure melody of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”  Ultimately, I think genius for Griffin seems to be primarily how the music makes him feel, not the way it sounds. 

The sound of a slave song, however, does contribute to Griffin’s categorization of a “genius” piece of music. Upon his listening, this author points to different aspects of African American song that co-exist with Western Classical ideals. These songs contain balanced and rich harmonies, interesting melodies, abrupt “resolutions,” expressive bass line, common tempo, and “strange points of emphasis put upon syllables and unexpected cadences in rhythm, which are well nigh unreducible to musical notation.” Even though “[n]o exhaustive analysis of slave music is here attempted,” Griffin manages to describe this music in purely western musical terminology (e.g. “harmony,” “resolution,” ad libitum) . The crux of his description is how all “the children of bondage knew nothing of the methods of the school”  This music sounds  like “genius” to Griffin because these European-esque characteristics appear in enslaved people’s music without a “proper” musical education.

Despite both of these problematic ideas, I found that Griffin’s ending line made my stomach churn the most:

“The sweetest utterance of the sacred poets of all the centuries have been those ‘song in the night’ that came forth from the bitterest experiences of human woe.”

This line may seem bittersweet, because it sounds as though all beautiful creations come from absolute despair — then, “real genius” will manifest. I am somewhat surprised Griffen did not make a reference to ye olde Ludwig Van Beethoven at this moment. Anyway, what I find most troubling about this line is what is the audience supposed to do with this assertion. It seemingly justifies the horrors of slavery with reference to the beautiful music that resulted from the suffering of the enslaved. What are we supposed to do with this conclusion? These questions remind me of Mark Monmonier’s article regarding the way scholarship (in this case, maps) can deceive and justify the unimaginable. Here, Monmonier references the way “Nazi propagandists also used facsimile maps to prove their opponents’ treachery and justify Germany’s advancing western front” (Monmonier 104). I wonder if Griffin is subtly engaging in something similar–with intent, I am not sure. 

After sifting through this primary source, I include some questions that came up while writing this post:

  1. Could an article praising the beauty, emotional power, and “naturally” Western-ness  of  slave songs justify the actions of those participating in the horrid institution? 
  2. Is this an article to alleviate white guilt? 
  3. Or was the purpose to canonize slave songs within Western Classical Music by pointing out the sonic similarities?

Leave a comment if you have some thoughts!



Griffin, George H. “THE SLAVE MUSIC OF THE SOUTH.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897), 02, 1885. 35,

Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps  Third edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.–ubpi6ivwKxafR71b9xA 

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Streaming Audio. Recorded by Water Garrick. U.S.A. South Negro Folklore Collection.

Corridos and the Stories They Tell Us

I have always found that one of the most powerful aspects of music is its ability to tell a story, whether that story is triumphant, despondent, funny, or meant to act as a soothing balm to the soul. There is a folk genre among the Mexican community that encompasses all of the previously mentioned stories and more; it’s called Corrido.

Corridos have a documented history to pre-colonial Spain during the medieval era, but they were called “romances” instead of corridos. They were epic tales and lyrical poetry composed to entertain the people of Spain, from the poorest laborers and servants to the courts of nobility. Romances were tailored to their audience, exemplified by shorter pieces and the addition of refrains due to public demand for favored passages to be repeated, but missionaries found they could also be tailored to emulate the epic tales of the Indigenous people they resolved themselves to convert.

Corridos didn’t truly take hold in Mexican culture until around the time of the Mexican Revolution, but that isn’t to say that it was an immediate transition from religious propaganda romances to corridos. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and to that point, once the romances arrived in the colonies(especially the northern colonies) there began to be a shift in the format and topic of the epics. Instead of serenading audiences with religious stories and tales of love, the subjects changed to infidelity, incest, the majesty of the landscape, and other more novel topics. Examples of the shift from romance to corrido date back to 1808 in New Mexico and 1824 in Santa Barbara, California.

It was with the Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, that corridos really became a part of Mexican culture. They were used for communication between various regions and towns, to relay information during battle, and as a way to proliferate propaganda across the country. It was these very practices that led to the corrido form used today; it’s known to have a three-part structure(introduction, events, and farewell) to chronicle the great deeds of those that came before us.

There are also subgenres within corrido: border ballads are one of them. The border ballads were a social unionizer of sorts; they told stories of resistance against the ruling class and an oppressive society, and it helped to create a national identity due to many Mexican citizens being able to empathize with the heroes of the story and their desire to be free from societal oppression. These ballads wove tales of exploits and daring escapes, but they had various endings too. Some were triumphant with the escape of the bandit and others showed the bandit’s defeat, at times from double-crossing confidants or the bandit’s surrender. An example of this is the corrido of Aurelio Pompa who killed a man in self-defense, was convicted by an all-white jury, and killed.

The link below will take you to the transcript:

Through learning more about corridos, I have come to understand how much information and how many stories can be told through music. I also have greater respect for everything Mexican citizens and immigrants have gone through to be able to share corridos with their communities. We have a chance to learn from these corridos, to understand the issues facing Mexican communities today, but that also means we are given the chance to try and help fix these issues. Stories are told so that younger generations may learn from previous mistakes, so let us listen and learn to ensure that the subsequent generations have just a little less to fix when it is their turn.


“‘Life, Trial, and Death of Aurelio Pompa’ (1928).” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2021.

Kanellos, Nicolás. “Corrido.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2021.

Avila, Jacqueline. “Corrido.” Grove Music Online. 16 Oct. 2013; Accessed 26 Sep. 2021.

“‘Venimos De Matamoros’ [3:13].” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience audio. 2021. Accessed September 27, 2021.

Pompa, Carlos A. “Aurelio Pompa (CORRIDO).” May 17, 2018. Youtube video. 6:04.

Leadbelly, Lomax and Leftism

On the first day of musicology the class had a candid, inquisitive discussion about the origins of American music. We gracefully came to the conclusion that what we consider American music likely did not start with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s, and that it is more plausible that American musicking had been going on for hundreds of years before then, as Rhiannon Giddens suggests. We concluded by emphasizing the subjectivity of what American music is, and how identity and power often manipulate our definitions.

In researching early American music for this blog post, I noticed that much of the research I turned up quoted a father and son by the names of John and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax is quoted as a credible historian and ethnomusicologist of the time who travelled across the US and Haiti documenting and recording local musics. One especially enthusiastic source exclaims that few sources deserve greater praise than him for “the preservation of America’s folk music.” It is astounding that he recorded over 5,000 hours of song recordings from people across the world during his travels which is mostly all accessible through online databases.

I rested on one particularly interesting set of recordings which features a singer by the stage name of Leadbelly. The story goes that Lomax discovered Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) and his music when visiting the prisons in Louisiana where he was imprisoned for murder. When he got out, the Lomaxes took him on tours around the United States where he performed and gained popularity to the point where many of his songs are today considered folk classics.

At this time in America during the depression of the 1930s the Lomaxes were in search of a cohesive identity for Americans to find in music. The fact that they looked to cotton plantations, ranches, and segregated prison music was purposeful and undeniably has altered the documentation of American music. However they also altered the music in which Leadbelly was able to perform. Listen to a Leadbelly original, Mr Tom Hughes Town as it was originally recorded in 1934:

…and now listen to this recording which was for the American Record Company:

For our purposes, I think it is most important to understand simply that these recordings are much different in their storyline and musical style. The Lomaxes often changed his music or told him to learn new music in order to appeal to audiences, specifically Whiter audiences. The second recording is thought to appeal more to Northern, whiter audiences as it is less “sharp-sounding.” In order to gain popularity, they would even have him dress in his prison clothes and purposefully include his backstory in shows to get people interested.

Retrieved from, Monaco, J. (1977). Gordon Parks’ LEADBELLY. Cinéaste, 8(2), 40–40.

This is a stark contrast to the movie made about him some 40 years later in the 1970s in which he ends up in prison for playing music in a segregated country club. (see newspaper clipping attached)

I think the alteration of Leadbelly’s music illustrates importantly how progressivism may act as a convenient disguise for perpetuating the inequalities that such an ideology seeks to overcome.




Lomax, Alan, 1915-2002, by Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide. (2001). In All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music (p. 1). San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books. Retrieved from Music Online: African American Music Reference database. 

Field Recordings Vol. 5: Louisiana, Texas, Bahamas (1933-1940) [Streaming Audio]. (1998). Document Records. (1998). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 

FERRIS, W. R. (2007). Alan Lomax: The Long Journey. Southern Cultures, 13(3), 132–143.
Filene, B. (1991). “Our Singing Country”: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past. American Quarterly, 43(4), 602–624.
Leadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-1949 – Disc B [Streaming Audio]. (2006). JSP Records. (2006). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 
Monaco, J. (1977). Gordon Parks’ LEADBELLY. Cinéaste, 8(2), 40–40.

Music Shaped by Oppression

As Eileen Southern points out in The Music of Black Americans, African Americans had many opportunities to make music during colonial times, whether it be psalm singing, slave songs, or fiddle playing. Additionally, many enslaved people were valued for their musical abilities (Southern 26) due to a high demand for plantation dance fiddlers. While reading Southern’s chapter, it struck me that African Americans were able to learn new instruments by teaching themselves and practicing during odd hours of the day. Learning a new instrument is difficult enough the way it is, and even more so given the constraints imposed on them through slavery.

This brings up the point that much of African Americans’ music making was shaped by oppression. A common reason for fiddle playing in the first place was to fulfill the demand for colonists, and other music making was a response to oppression. African Americans had to learn new instruments because they did not have access to the ones they were accustomed to from their homeland, and they were given no other option but to find the time to practice during odd hours of the day. Additionally, they were forced to give up their native tongue.  This does not mean, however, that all of the music of black Americans was devoid of their African roots. There were many ways of infusing music with traces of Africa, whether this be with musical tools, imagery, or language. 

An excerpt from an 1847 magazine features a conversation about a slave song that highlights how the music of African Americans can be shaped by oppression, yet carry with it its roots:

This evening the female slaves were unusually excited in singing, and I had the curiosity to ask my negro servant Said, what they were singing about. As many of them were natives of his own country, he had no difficulty in translating the Mandara or Bornou language. I had often asked the Moors to translate their songs for me, but got no satisfactory account of them. Said at first said, ‘Oh! They sing of Rubee,’ (God.) ‘What do you mean?’ I replied impatiently. ‘Oh, you don’t know,’ he continued, ‘they asked God to give them their Atka!’ (certificate of freedom.) I inquired, ‘What else?’ Said: ‘They remember their country, Bornou, and say – Bornou was a pleasant country, full of all good things; but this is a bad country, and we are miserable!’ ‘Do they say anything else?’ Said: ‘No; they repeat these words over and over again, and add-O God! Give us our Atka, and let us return again to our dear home.’


Those who sung this song did so in their Native tongue, with references to their own religion and homeland. Although we can’t know what it sounds like, these markers in their language show how music continued to carry traces of Africa in it.

However, it is important to note that at its core, this song is still shaped by oppression because it functioned to comfort those who faced the horrors of slavery, and connect them to a homeland that they were torn away from. 



Boahen, A. Adu. “JAMES RICHARDSON: THE FORGOTTEN PHILANTHROPIST AND EXPLORER.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 1 (1964): 61–71.

J, G. WHITTIERNational Era. A Song of Sorrow: Song of the Slaves in the Desert. Christian Secretary (1822-1889), Feb 05, 1847. 4, (accessed September 26, 2021).

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

Humanizing Narratives of Incan Musical Practices

We understand music through the lens of our identity and lived experiences. Musical narratives differ, and the predominantly-known history of music is written by those whose identities hold power by associating their idea of musical skill with the self.

I thought of Neil Rosenberg’s book on the development of bluegrass, which focused on the impact of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. 1 Rhiannon Giddens offers a more holistic perspective and insists that bluegrass is a blend of African, European, and Native traditions. 2

Musical histories like these are even harder to uncover when their records are further removed from the present and written by colonizers. One of those histories is that of the pre-Columbian Incan Empire in present-day “Peru.”  Continue reading

A Critical Look at a Liberator Article



TW: racism and violence

Francis or “Frank” Johnson, an African-American composer and performer, is said to have helped pave the way for Jazz and Ragtime, and therefore modern music as we know it. Johnson published works in a variety of genres and he was the first black composer to have his sheet music published and also the first black musician to tour Europe. His music was enjoyed by white and black people alike and he reached immense fame. However, he was still confronted by racism, hatred, and violence1

The text I would like to focus on this week is an article entitled “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s band mobbed”. The article was published in the Liberator in 1843 and covered the violence against Johnson and his band on March 17th in Pittsburgh after a performance benefitting the temperance movement. The writer reports 

A large rabble of men and boys gathered around the doors and windows, and by their hooting and yelling did what they could to mar the pleasure of those within, who had previously paid their money for a rare musical treat”“Francis Johnson”2

My first instinct was to applaud this author for condemning the appalling racist behavior of the mob. However, upon digging deeper and thinking more critically I came to the realization that they were not condemning racist behavior per se, but disruptive behavior. Behavior that made themselves and their peers miss out on something they paid for. A commodity. There was no mention of the effect on Johnson or his band members beyond their physical injuries. The author then goes on to describe the attack on Johnson and his band after the show. 

“The mob followed Mr. Johnson and his company shouting (a racial slur)… and hurling brick-bats, stones, and rotten eggs… One poor fellow was severely, it is feared dangerously wounded in the head, and others were more or less hurt… Every well disposed citizen deeply regretted the disgrace thus brought upon our city…”2

The word choice leads us to believe the author was less concerned about the safety and well-being of Johnson and his band, but rather how the actions of the mob made the city look.

 I do want to be clear that the article was written in a time where condemning the violence at all was very progressive, but I cannot help but wonder at the reasoning for the condemnation. Beyond the feelings of being sighted out of a show they paid for, the author likely has other motivations.

 In their parting words in regards to this event, they state “of course no friend of the temperance enterprise could be engaged in this cowardly affair”2

Clearly, not only is the writer offended by the ruining of their evening, but they also want to use it to push their own political agenda. By stating only people against the temperance movement would engage in violent mob behavior the reporter demonizes those against the abolition of alcohol. 

Overall, the fact the creator of this article condemns the actions of the mob is a step in the right direction, but their motives do not feel pure to me.


1“Francis Johnson.” University Archives and Records Center,

2 “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s Band Mobbed.” Liberator, 9 June 1843, p. 93. ProQuest, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

One Man’s Perception of Music in America


Having your own opinions is a good thing. Feeling the need to make your opinions heard is sometimes a good thing. When looking through stacks of newspaper articles from the mid-19th century, sometimes what you really want is a good opinionated article to take you inside the mind of a minister from 1838. 

Portrait of Rev. John Todd.

Rev. John Todd

Take Reverend John Todd from Philadelphia. He has a lot of opinions, but the one he felt the need to publish in Christian Register and Boston Observer on October 6th, 1838 was this one: Music is good.

Well, that’s cool.

But why does Todd feel so emphatic about music? What would a minister from Philadelphia in 1838 have to say about music? Probably that it’s a glorious gift from God so therefore must be used to praise God in worship, right? Well, yes, but he says more too.

As I read through this article, I realized that it’s essentially an opinion piece with a clear argument and a bit of rambling.

In his article, Todd brings up religion, as well as national pride and status, as things music can fortify in one’s life. I thought it was interesting that he spent so much time discussing one’s status and national price, especially because the title of the article would lead me to believe that it would be entirely about religion. Just look at the opening line:

“God has created the soul for music, and made provision to supply its desires1 ”.


A few paragraphs later, Todd says: “Any price will be paid for exquisite music”. 

He goes on to describe how a famous violinist would make more money in a year than “eighty of our ordained missionaries”. According to Todd, these examples show the strong love we all have for music.

Next, Todd discusses how music contributes to one’s sense of national pride and identity. He talks about “Yankee Doodle” and how the song “will probably create an American feeling as long as our nation exists”.

However, the point which Todd focuses on the most is how music is innate to children. He demonstrates his point by describing instances where music was included in school teachings. According to Todd, German schools commonly taught singing and music, and every child was expected to read, write, and perform music.

In Todd’s view, this has been widely successful, and in the few cases in which it has not, was most likely because the songs were too lengthy or complicated. This can be connected with Eileen Southern’s descriptions of the movements led by Elias Neau at Trinity Church in New York to educate servants in psalmody. According to Southern, Neau at one point taught over one hundred servants in the singing of psalmody2.. However, Todd never explicitly mentions Black musicians – in fact, he never mentions race at all.

Elias Neau

Elias Neau

An interior view of Trinity Church, New York.

An interior view of Trinity Church, New York.

I would like to compare this source with some primary sources from Black musicians at the time to see where and how they differ. I wonder how the perception of music would differ by author, and if it does, why? Does it have to do with social status, race, location, occupation, or all of the above?


[1] Todd, John. “RELIGIOUS MISCELLANY.: VALUE OF MUSIC. SINGING IN SUNDAY SCHOOLS.” Christian Register and Boston Observer (1835-1843), Oct 06, 1838, 1,

[2] Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

Music and Identity at American Protests

In December of 2005 an immigration bill was passed that greatly increased the restrictions on immigration and undocumented immigrants. And although people from every country immigrate to the US, one community always seems to get singled out in the discussion: the Hispanic community. In response to the bill, protests occurred all across the country, with over a million people protesting in Los Angeles alone. 


This picture, taken in Los Angeles during one of the protests, depicts a mariachi band leading the protest, framed by signs and waving american flags. To me, this image is a perfect representation of a cultural identity existing in America, being celebrated with music. The mariachi music is displaying feelings of pride in one’s culture and in one’s immigration status. The band, with their traditional clothing, displays a strong hispanic pride, while protesting in america shows a unity to the country and to their community. In fact, the sign behind the band reads, “If you think I’m ‘illegal’ because I’m a Mexican, learn the true history. Because I’m in my homeland,” most likely referring to the Pobladores, a group of Mexican families who lived in (and named!) Los Angeles before the USA existed. 

I think that by performing and leading this protest, the mariachi band is completing the highest form of protest: celebration. By celebrating hispanic heritage and culture with mariachi music– something that’s usually joyful and special– their placing the joy of their culture and their community within the view of people outside of their community (ie. white people). Their adding to the significant history of protest music in the US, a genre that captures the emotions and qualms of politic unrest in the US. 

The music at the protest also somehow makes the atmosphere more lighthearted, which is sometimes needed at a protest, to remind people that their is hope and a future worth protesting for. 

Interestingly, many of the areas in which mariachi is suspected to have originated are the same areas from which mexican immigrants are from. Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Sinoloa are all areas with heavy emigration and areas in which there is a strong mariachi presence. 

Below is an example of mariachi music being played at a protest– this time against Donald Trump, who is famously anti-hispanic immigration. 



“Mariachi Band Leads Protesters.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.

Hameed, Fatimah. Millions in the U.S. Protest Immigration Policy, 2006, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

“LA History.” COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, 15 Nov. 2017,

Is generalizing all white people at the time of slavery as monsters a way for us to separate ourselves?


As I was doing my class reading in Eileen Southern’s book “The Music of Black Americans” something she mentioned caused me to pause, mainly, the way that she describes the relationship between white and black settlers. She makes multiple mentions of the almost nurturing nature of certain relationships between slave and master, as she mentions:

“Throughout the region, slavery a assumed a milder form than in the southern colonies, although in some places the harsh and severe treatment of black slaves provoked more than one rebellious uprising. Generally, slavery tended to be paternalistic, slaves being regarded as part of the family” (Southern 35).

She also mentioned the encouragement by members of the clergy to convert black Americans to Christianity (Southern 36). These views completely shook up my view of slavery and how it occurred in the Americas. In school, we were fed the narrative that slave masters and owners, treated all slaves as subhuman. Slave owners whipped their slaves, beat them, and treated them as livestock. Although these things were common, Southern for the first time made it seem as if this were not always the case.

To be clear, I am not looking to diminish the horrors of slavery. Even “milder forms” of slavery (as Southern puts) are disgustingly immoral. However, Southern challenged my assumptions and brought me to ask the question: Was the degree of severity and inhumane treatment of slaves something that was dependent upon region? Was it dependent upon religion? How did the ideologies of the time shape the treatment of American slaves? And what were some of the different ideologies surrounding the treatment of slaves around at the time? These are some the questions that I grappled with after reading through Southern’s book.

Which brings me to the primary source that I want to highlight today.

I decided to explore some letters written in 1835 and 1836 by clergy member brother Jacob Zorn. The letters are addressed to someone known as “Brother” referring to another member of the clergy. Zorn seems to imply that the state of life for American slaves seemed to be improving by means of the Church. He quotes:

“When we call to mind the very different state of things thirty years ago, we bless the Lord for the special interest taken in these poor outcasts by the Christian of our day. By means of schools much good has been effected, perhaps as much indirectly to the parents as directly to the children. A few years ago the idea of schools for Negro children was ridiculed; now instruction is gradually spreading and many have already learned to read those precious pages on which are inscribed the truths of salvation”.

He also seems to imply that his church is particularly invested in including slaves in their congregation. Jacob Zorn makes this enthusiasm clear stating:

“Not a word, I am confident, need to be added to press the value of early religious education upon the friends of the negro race; they will not leave their work half done, by suffering the children to grow up in ignorance”.

Although Zorn makes it seem as if the church is bettering their treatment of slaves and encouraging their involvement in the church, this does not always seem to be the case. Southern argues that many slave owners were resistant to the baptism and conversion of their slaves to Christianity. And, to be clear, the conversion of Slaves to Christianity does not always reflect their treatment, as Christianity was also used to justify slavery.

By looking at these letters, it gives us a more accurate and nuanced look of the sentiments surrounding slavery and the treatment of slaves. Instead of generalizing that every white person treated slaves as subhuman, this letter gives us a small amount of insight into other ideologies surrounding this topic that were present in society around the time of slavery. The generalization of all white people as monsters during the era of slavery makes the current day population too quick to separate themselves from them. By making known a more nuanced version of the ideas surrounding slavery, we are reminded that we are just as likely to commit similar atrocities.


The Harp: Do You See It As A White Instrument?

If the average American were asked what they envision when they think of harp music, it is likely that their description would most closely match Western classical music. Their image of a harpist might match that of either a white woman, angel, or cherub.

Angel with Harp – The Art of N.A. Noël

a white-faced angel playing the harp in white robes1

Conversely, if the average American were asked what instruments they think of when they think of mariachi music, son jarocho music, or Mexican music more broadly, the harp would unlikely be one of the first instruments named.

Behind the Doodle: Exclusive Music from Celebrating Mariachi - YouTube

a Google Doodle of a mariachi band featuring a guitar, a violin, and a trumpet2

Traditionally, however, the harp was integral to the music of Mexico. Two primary source documents from 1875 and 1881, one detailing a visit to Mexico and one detailing a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, list the harp as one of the primary instruments of Mexican and Mexican American musical performances.

Detailing his experience in La Venta, which is present-day Tabasco, Mexico, a man by the name of D.S. Richardson writes in a publication of the Californian (1880-1882),

“… by the time we had finished our supper the music of harp and bandalon could be heard, and the dance was once more in progress”3

It is worth noting that the harp was the first instrument listed. J.T. Lippincott, in his Magazine of Popular Literature and Science (1871-1885), also highlights the use of the harp, although critically, during a Christmas Eve Celebration in New Mexico:

“A native harpist adds the music of his many strings; and not bad music either, though he does not know a quaver from a semibreve, and his harp is of his own manufacture. The sameness, however, caused by playing always and everything in the same key is perceptible.” 4

To clarify, the harp used would have been an arpa jarocha, a standing harp without pedals, which would explain why the key remained the same.

Clearly, harps were once known to be central instruments to Mexican music. Why is harp not so readily included in a modern American perception of Mexican music? The simplest answer would be commercialization.

The commercialization of son jarocho and mariachi music led to the erasure of harp from the average American’s perception of Mexican music. 

To support this case, I will use the popular song “La Bamba”, recorded by Ritchie Valens in 1958, the first Spanish song to take a number one spot on American charts.


Before it was popularized by Ritchie Valens as a rock song, La Bamba was a folk tune, part of the Mexican genre son jarocho. It was a wedding song, and, as part of the son jarocho genre, it featured the harp.6

(Here is La Bamba with harp:)


In Ritchie Valens’ recording and many covers that followed, however, including the famous Los Lobos cover, the sound of the harp is not found in the accompaniment. A likely reasoning for this is that harps are not very easy to tote around for commercial performances. Adrian Perez, who won SFA’s 2019 Master-Apprentice Artist Award for his dedication to teaching traditional forms of the Mexican folk harp to new generations, agrees with this reasoning, saying of the harp,

“It’s not practical to take to gigs. Because mariachi is a rural type of music. Later, it became commercialized and came down to Mexico City, from rural areas of Mexico, due to producers wanting to put money in film in the golden cinema age of Mexico and create an identity for Mexico backed with regional music. But the guy with the harp–everybody walks down with their violin, their guitar and, you know, they’re down there having a beer and stuff, and the poor guy’s still up there in the mountains slugging this thing down.” 8

(Below you’ll find Ivan Miranda and Adrian Perez playing the Mexican folk harp:)


Adrian Perez & Ivan Miranda on the Mexican Folk Harp from Southwest Folklife Alliance on Vimeo.

It is understandable why the harp is not as popular or easy a choice for accompaniment in commercial styles of Mexican music, but commercial styles of Mexican music are the styles that the average American is familiar with.

All this is to say, it is important that white Americans not conflate commercial music as being a full picture of the musical culture of a region. Additionally, if we think of an instrument and its music as being “white”, “Western”, or “classical”, that likely says more about us and our biases than a historically accurate picture of the instrument and its diverse uses.





1 Noël, N.A. Angel with Harp. Painting.

2 Laughlin, Kevin. Celebrating Mariachi. Drawing.

3 J, T. 1875. “A NEW MEXICAN CHRISTMAS EVE.” Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science (1871-1885), 01, 129.

4 “TWELVE DAYS ON A MEXICAN HIGHWAY.–I.” 1881.Californian (1880-1882), 05, 440.

5 Valens, Ritchie. “La Bamba (Recorded at Gold Star).” YouTube. 2:09.

6 Arrieta, Rolando. “’La Bamba’.” NPR, NPR, 15 July 2000,

7 Smithsonian Folkways. “José Gutiérrez & Los Hermanos Ochoa – ‘La Bamba’ [Live at Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2004].” YouTube. 1:47.

8 Staff, SFA, and Jim Johnson. “‘It Sounds Like Mexico’: Lessons in Mexican Folk Harp.” Borderlore, 25 Aug. 2020,

9 Southwest Folklife Alliance. “Adrian Perez & Ivan Miranda on the Mexican Folk Harp.” Vimeo. 2:00.

“Bad Singing Is Forbidden” – American Church Music in the 19th Century

We all know the feeling of standing out, and it’s no different in a group of singers: maybe you don’t quite know the words, sing a little off pitch, or a little too slow. Perhaps you’re afraid your singing might seem “unharmonius, complicated, strange” and perhaps, if you were a Methodist living in Cincinnati in 1837, you’d wake up one day to see those exact words printed in the newspaper under the ominous direction “Bad singing is forbidden.”

So then, where does this sentiment come from? And what exactly is “bad singing”?

Liturgical and congregational singing has a long history in Europe that was transported and developed in colonial churches. Psalm singing, or psalmody, was especially important to early worship functions — the practice of lining out, for example, was imported from England and involves a minister or leader singing or “lining out” each line before congregation sings it back  (“Lining Out”). In the 1720s, a reform movement that promoted “correct” singing, singing schools, and instruments to help people stay on pitch began to gain traction, and slowly the traditional practices of congregational singing began to be replaced with new ones, called by the reformers “regular singing” (Southern).

Of course, not all churches agreed with the reformists. Methodists generally promoted and underscored the act of congregational singing as a devotion to God for all and frowned upon the performance of any difficult works by soloists or choirs, as these were seen as exclusive and inaccessible (Tucker). They were also vehemently opposed to the addition of instruments like the organ well into the 19th century (Temperley).


The Winston Place Methodist Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, constructed 1884

Many of these discourses about congregational singing were reflected in the Cincinnati newspaper article mentioned earlier, “Congregational Singing: Of the Spirit and Truth of Singing” published in the Western Christian Advocate in 1837. The article is very strongly worded, and very opposed to the introduction of “foreign elements” to congregational singing.

“Satan is ever watching to insinuate superstition and other foreign elements into the pure and simple worship of God.”

The “foreign elements”, later described as “rituals of heathenism”, are supposed to come from (and blamed on) several groups throughout the article — Jews, Pagans, Roman Catholics, some American Protestants, and British Methodists — and refer primarily to difficult, complicated, pieces sung by soloists and choirs or played by instrumentalists. To combat this, the article offers a list of rules and regulations for singing.

“These [regulations] are so Scriptural, so full of good taste, and so well calculated to do good, and to promote the very best congregational singing”

Included in these regulations is the requirement that singing must be done with understanding of what is sung, everyone must sing, and only the Methodist tune books should be used. Interestingly, it also instructs that singing must not be too slow, for this would be too formal. Slow singing is more characteristic of the old way of singing (Southern), which this author generally tends to support rather than the reformed way, so it’s an interesting contradiction to note that there is an instruction to avoid slow singing in this text. Perhaps this is an example of a musical concession that has already been made to the reformers at this point in the history of Methodism.

And to prevent any “heathen” elements being adopted, the article concludes with a list of “what here is forbidden”, a list which seems to precisely forbid anything related to the reform movement — singing schools, instruments, choirs, and complicated music are expressly singled out. And, just to drive the point home, it concludes:

“Bad singing is forbidden: it is bad when unharmonius, complicated, strange, or confined to a few”

And here we come full circle. And so, what is “bad singing”? In the case of this 1837 newspaper, it is not just a general complaint about the quality of singing, but rather a targeted critique of an important religious discourse of the time.

The author of this article would probably be pleased that everyone appears to be singing, but horrified that this modern day United Methodist Church hymn is complete with a church choir and organ.


“CONGREGATIONAL SINGING.: “OF THE SPIRIT AND TRUTH OF SINGING.” Western Christian Advocate (1834-1883), vol. 4, no. 33, Dec 08, 1837, pp. 130. ProQuest,

“Lining out.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Date of access 27 Sep. 2021,<>

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Third Edition. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1997. 

Temperley, Nicholas. “Methodist church music.” Grove Music Online. . Oxford University Press. Date of access 27 Sep. 2021, <>

Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield. “Methodism.” Grove Music Online. 16. Oxford University Press. Date of access 27 Sep. 2021, <>



Samuel Coleridge Taylor: the African American Perspective

TW: Discussions of racism and mention of lynchings. 

Coleridge-Taylor’s preeminent work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African Composer – Mary Church Terrell Article from “The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts”


Before Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s first American tour, writer Mary Church Terrell traveled to London to profile Coleridge-Taylor as a prominent “Anglo-African Composer” for an American audience. Within her writing, we can see how an African American audience would perceive Coleridge Taylor’s music and status as a prominent British composer. Continue reading

A Song for A Mexican Soldier

For this blog post, I was going to focus on When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and its Civil War origins changed for the Glenn Miller Band. I like other blog posts are striving to write for narratives that don’t just tell a story of white culture. As my final blog post, this attempts to shine light on marginalized groups and the importance of music in ties to their story.

While Glenn Miller adapted the 19th century song to his style of jazz to rally national spirit against the US enemies of World War II, using jazz as a strictly white American identity, in Mexican culture, something similar happened. Pedro Infante recorded the song, El Soldado Rosa, in 1943 for Mexican soldiers fighting in World War II.


The lyrics state:


Me voy de soldado raso
Voy a ingresar a las filas
Con los valientes muchachos
Que dejan madres queridas
Que dejan novias llorando
Llorando su despedida.

Voy a la guerra contento
Ya tengo rifle y pistola
Ya volveré de sargento
Cuando se acabe la bola
Nomas una cosa pienso
Dejar a mi madre sola.

Virgen morena
Mandale su consuelo
Nunca jamas permitas
Que me la robe el cielo.

Mi linda Guadalupana
Protejela a mi bandera
Y cuando me haga en campaña
Muy lejos ya de mi tierra
Les probare que mi raza
Sabe morir…



I am going as a buck private,
I am going to the front lines
with brave boys
who leave beloved mothers,
who leave sweethearts crying.
Crying on their farewell.
I am leaving for the war content,
I got my rifle and pistol,
I’ll return as a sergeant
when this combat is over;
The only thing I regret:
leaving my mother alone.
Brown Virgin,
send me your blessing,
never allow
heaven to steal her from me
My lovely Guadalupe
will protect my flag
and when I find myself in combat,
far away from my land,
I will prove that my race
knows how to die anywhere.
I leave early tomorrow
as the light of day shines
here goes another Mexican
who knows how to gamble his life,
that gives his farewell singing:
singing to his motherland.
Brown Virgin,
I entrust my mother;
take care of her she is so good,
take care of her while I’m away.


I find the line that discusses one having to die in war in order to p

rove their race is worthy particularly striking. In modern media, Latinx people are not depicted with respect so I cannot imagine the kind of bigotry faced during this time of national pride and lack of representation in mainstream media.

In a correspondence with former bracero Adolfo González, he states how important these pieces were to Mexicans for their morale in the war. He states:

 “í, cÃémo no. De aquel señor Jorge Negrete que era entonces y el señor Infante, esos eran muy grandes, grandes cantantes que lo divertían a uno. Cantinflas. (risas) (“Of course. Jorge Negrete was popular back then and then Pedro Infante. They were popular, great singers. They would entertain us. Cantiflas. [laughter].”)

Recorded Interview Here

Many in Mexican culture considered Infante very popular. Many migrant workers would sing his songs including El Soldado Rosa. The content produced by record companies to support the war and music presented from the soldier’s perspective is infinite but in contemporary media, we often gloss over content of minorities (specifically Mexican) and how

the war affected the music they produced and wrote.


YouTube, YouTube,

-““El Soldado Raso”.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019, Accessed 18 Nov. 2019.

-“Bracero Program: Adolfo Gonzáles (Daily Life).” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019, Accessed 18 Nov. 2019.



Another College Kid with a Guitar

I never read the Manitou Messenger (please don’t tell anyone I said this). I’m not a huge fan of the writing and as a senior, I’m trying to slowly assimilate to the outside world. Finding “Whatever folks are singing…that’s what makes it folk music” delighted me because it addresses ideas we’ve concluded with readings and in class discussion.

The article advertises a folk music festival at the college, encouraging everyone to audition. The article opens with a quote by Pete Seeger (the focus of my final paper) defining folk music as “whatever folks are singing; that’s folk music” (even though its so much more complex than that). Later in the article, the writer attempts to categorize folk by stating it addresses themes such as love, death, work, and historical events.

I’m not sure if this is just me, but these are extremely broad topics that doesn’t narrow down or help the reader understand what they’re supposed to understand about folk. I don’t blame the writer for their lack of communication of what folk is. The writer takes a quote from another musician on campus saying, “born with a feeling, putting into words and given a melody”.

I’m also impressed that the article recognizes the debate between the self-labeled purists and commercial style that came from record labels selling folk as a specific style.



As discussed in class and in the beginning of the article, this genre is incredibly difficult to grasp conceptually. I’m impressed for an early 60s article of St. Olaf of how honest the writer is about genuinely not knowing to answer the folk question. They provide certain musicians’ definitions but never make a solid claim on folk music. My only issues with this article comes from its failure to acknowledge the racial component within the broad genre of folk. Part of the reason folk has so many different styles within this umbrella genre is because of the exchanges made interracially throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.



-Newbury, Jan. “Universal Databases.” Welcome to East View – Manitou Messenger (DA-MM), 1963, No. 1, Vol. 76,

Joan Báez

I have to admit that although I am Chicanx, I don’t know very much about Chicano music. In general, I haven’t heard much about Chican@ art other than celebrities like Selena. Of course, there was the Chicano movement of the ’60s which I was aware of but what I didn’t know was that there was an entire Chicano Renaissance [1]. In an essay titled, “Chicano Movement Music” from The Latino American Experience, Azcona gives an overview of the music of the Chicano Movement and specifically how higher education was a major part of the movement [1]. College campuses became springboards for Chican@ musicians where bands, as well as solo artists such as Joan Báez, got their start. 

JJ6537 Joan Baez circa 1966
American folk singer Joan Baez sings and plays acoustic guitar on stage during a European tour, East Berlin, Germany.
(Photo by Hulton Getty)

Joan Báez was just this year inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Game along with Tupac Shakur, Pearl Jam, Yes, and Electric Light Orchestra [3]. Her 1974 album, Gracias a la Vida was her first and only full-length album entirely in Spanish. She collaborated with other chican@ music ensembles such as La Rondalla Amerindia where they recorded a huelga or strike song called “No nos moverán” which translates to “They will not move us” [1]. 

From early in her musical career, she was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and marched alongside MLK from Selma to Montgomery as well as a number of other protests, rallies, marches, and toured colleges to encourage young men to resist the draft [2]. Her music was, overall, regarded as a means to spread the pacifist platform during and well after the civil rights era [2].

What I found particularly intriguing about Báez was that she was the daughter of an elite professor, was educated, and primarily sang at protests. Later in life, she founded Humanitas International, a human rights organization; but later when reviving her singing career she lessened her political activism and shut down the org. The questions I am left with are primarily about how her singing domestically and internationally counted as an action that supported change. It is one thing to sing “We shall overcome” but it is another thing to put forth change, which she did, but eventually put her singing career before her human rights organization. The ambiguity of the morality of her choice is pressing, however, perhaps the net impact of her returning to music and a life of advocacy is more fulfilling as well as influential. I think there is also an assumption that individuals who are associated with a marginalized group must choose the path of advocacy over anything else or be labeled as unauthentic. 


Sources Cited

[1] Azcona, Estevan César. “Chicano Movement Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 12, 2019.


[2] Meier, Matt S., Conchita Franco Serri, and Richard A. Garcia. “Joan Báez.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 12, 2019.

[3] Pulley, Anna. “JOAN BAEZ TO BE INDUCTED INTO ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME.” Acoustic Guitar, 03, 2017, 15,

St. Louis Blues Through the Years

For my final blog post, I wanted to focus on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and how it has evolved and survived throughout the years as a jazz standard.  I am particularly interested in its history because I will be performing the Bob Brookmeyer arrangement with Jazz 1 on Friday, November 22nd at 7:30 pm in the Pause Main Stage (hey, nobody said we can’t use these blog posts to advertise!)

The song itself first originated from W.C. Handy’s Blues: An Anthology, which Handy used to portray blues music as folk music (even though there were some complications with classifying it as such.)[1]  But nonetheless, it was touted as such by Handy as “The First Successful Blues Published.”  Its success not only comes from its publishing, but arguably its legacy as a standard as performed by various blues and jazz artists.  For the sake of the length of this blog, I am going to include 5 performers who are icons for their place in jazz history: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In Bessie Smith’s version, she ignores the tango-like interlude and the beginning she enters with the melody and the 12-bar blues form, accompanied by an organ and none other than Louis Armstrong responding on trumpet to her lyrics [2].  Her version may not be authentic to Handy’s original composition, but she owns this version and it well represents the NOLA jazz sound:

Moving into the swing era, with the likes of big bands such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and, as I will present here, Glenn Miller.  The Glenn Miller Orchestra was very well-known for its standards like “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “In the Mood,” but when Glenn Miller was enlisted to serve in Europe during World War II, he made sure to keep his music going.  Here is his version of St Louis Blues presented as a march:

From the Swing era, jazz musicians started to get a little more adventurous with exploring different textures in rhythm and harmony.  Musicians like Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie were at the forefront of the bebop era by taking old standards such as St Louis Blues and creating bebop-ified version of their roots in Handy’s composition.  Here is Dizzy Gillespie’s version, this time featuring the tango interlude that could likely be attributed to Dizzy’s fondness of Afro-Cuban music as he explored in “Manteca” or “A Night in Tunisia”:

On the other side of the same coin, West Coast cool jazz coexisted with bebop as a mainstay in jazz music in the ’50s and ’60s.  Still using the St Louis Blues standard, Dave Brubeck also uses that tango beginning, but goes into the form with a lighter feel in comparison to Dizzy Gillespie, which is apparent in Paul Desmond’s improv solo, which couldn’t possibly be lighter or more laidback:

To close the blog post, I leave you with Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of St Louis Blues as performed by the Thad Jones/Mel Louis Orchestra.  While it may not necessarily be faithful to Handy’s original idea for St. Louis Blues, it represents a culmination of St Louis Blues’ place in jazz history:


[1] Hagstrom-Miller, Karl. “How Blues Became Folk Music” in Segregating Sound (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010). 241-274.

[2] Smith, Bessie. “St. Louis Blues” on Nobody’s Blues But Mine. Future Noise Ltd., 2008, Streaming Audio.

The Accordion: Quintessential American Instrument

The Accordion wasn’t invented until the mid 1800s in Eastern Europe, and its form has had undergone countless innovations and stylistic changes since then. The accordion has long been associated with the music of lower class people, partially because it could provide the basic elements of melody and bass all within one instrument. This instrument thrived as nationalistic styles emerged throughout Europe, and later when immigrants arrived in the United States it maintained cultural specificity.

In a series of photographs taken in 1977 Chicago found in the Library of Congress Photography Collection, several cultural celebrations feature an accordion player, including a Norwegian Festival, a Lithuanian wedding, a Spanish heritage meeting, and a school ensemble. 

Norweigan Cultural Dinner

Spanish Heritage Ensemble

Lithuanian Wedding

In “The Accordion in the Americas,” a collection of essays about Accordion music throughout North and South America, Helena Simonett writes “The accordion reflected the zeitgeist of the industrial era of the late nineteenth century. In a time of technical excitement, the new, mechanically sophisticated instrument came to symbolize progress and modernity.” Simonett explains that the accordion was an emblem of not only cultural, but musical progress. So how did the instrument become so closely associated with small cultural expression?

The accordion is such a compelling case study for American music because while it might otherwise be thought of as a marking for “other” or closely held ethnic enclaves, in reality its history is more complicated. Just like with so many musical traditions, it wasn’t only European immigrants who held claim to the accordion. The accordion was a major part of the folk revival movement. The stories that have always been told are not necessarily the stories that we must continue telling. 

“Introduction.” In The Accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, Polka, Tango, Zydeco, and More!, edited by SIMONETT HELENA, 1-18. University of Illinois Press, 2012.

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.

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. 

The Rediscovery of Ragtime and Timelessness in Music

The liner notes to Ragtime Jubilee, recorded in 1947 in New York and released in 1999,  suggest that ragtime is an undying art, in much the same tone that blues musicians have suggested that the blues has always existed. While the context of the record’s quite late release date might make one immediately wary that the publishers’ desire to make money outweighs their desire to provide an accurate representation of the varied history of ragtime, considering the perspective offered is worthwhile, because it sheds light on how ragtime has been successful both as popular music and as art music.

Photograph of Rudi Blesh with his dog

Rudi Blesh, 1975

Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), a jazz critic and enthusiast (and, notable for this class, a white man), writes about ragtime in a very positive light; it is the “warmest, gayest, liltingest music ever born here” to him, and held the greatest potential to create an American sound. He remarked that Europe immediately understood its uniqueness and vitality, and while American society forgot it for a time, it persisted until “we simply discovered what had been going on all the time.” To Blesh, ragtime was not a museum piece but a living and dynamic art form worth as much as the works of Mozart.

This suggestion, that ragtime somehow has shed its need for an audience and survives on its own, simply by being passed down from musician to musician, is both strange and familiar. It once again recalls images of the blues always existing, whether or not the public knows about it, but also images from the western classical tradition. That tradition is not part of popular culture, yet lives on as conservatories and teachers pass their practices to further generations. Some elements of classical music have permeated popular culture, such as the symphony orchestra being used in movie scores, but it has largely been relegated to a niche audience. Ragtime has since fallen from the public eye as well, but it is still passed down in some form, which I can personally attest to as a pianist.

From sheet music of Scott Joplin’s “Felicity Rag;” click for a pdf

This context makes a piece of art included in the liner notes a bit ironic, as it appears to satirize the (largely German) classical tradition by implying the performer is unable to play the “new fangled stuff” that is ragtime, choosing instead to play old music that is considered to be great and timeless–not unlike how ragtime revival artists return to an earlier style when popular music has moved on to new things. There are some notable differences between genres–their respective focus on complex harmony versus complex rhythm, the varying lengths of pieces, typical orchestrations, not to mention the predominance of black composers in ragtime–potentially referred to in this record by “Jubilee,” a word which appears in famous spirituals and the names of groups which sing them. These differences aside, however, the similarities between changes in these genres’ popularity over time, as well as the continued practice and interpretation by new musicians, helps to elevate ragtime as an art form and dignified link in the evolution of American popular music.



“Jazz Scholar Rudi Blesh; Historian, Biographer, Critic,” Los Angeles Times (1985).

Tony Parenti’s Ragtimers & Ragtime Gang: Ragtime Jubilee. Recorded January 1, 1999. Jazzology, 1999, Streaming Audio. 

Sun Ra and the Origins of Afro-Futurism

Le Sony’r Ra (Professionally known as Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount) led an interesting life, to put it mildly. In addition to being one of the single most prolific recording artists of the 20th century (he recorded over 1,000 compositions on over 120 albums, according to Ra scholar John F. Szwed), he was a philosopher and mystic who worked with Amiri Baraka, in addition to many others, was possibly (probably?) the first person to integrate the concept of a “light show” into a live music performance, and was also possibly an alien abductee.

While we’ve spent quite a bit of time in class with text by Amiri Bakara, we haven’t actually touched on his role in founding the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 70s very much (if at all). To provide some quick context, the Black Arts Movement sought to create cultural institutions, such as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) that would allow black artists to express themselves and create without being overshadowed or governed by traditional Western (and white) critics and tastes. Sun Ra was an important member of this movement. Not only did he write many essays and pamphlets that helped to define his particular aesthetic that would crystallize into Afro-Futurism, he lived his aesthetic and philosophical ideals every day, according to everyone who knew him. Bakara wrote in his Autobiography,

“Sun Ra and Albert Ayler were always on the scene. For some, Sun Ra became our resident philosopher, having regular midweek performances in which he introduced the light-show concept that white rock groups later found out about and got rich from. When Ra would play his Sun-Organ, when he played low notes, deep blues and dark colors would light up on it. When he played high notes, oranges and yellows would light up, and we sat, sometimes maybe with fifteen or twenty people in the audience, and thought we were being exposed to the profundity of blackness” (Bakara 204).

The albums The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra vol. 1 and 2 (which are bundled into one album through the database) carry good examples of the developments Ra made to jazz as a genre. For example, Ra was the first person to utilize two string basses in a jazz ensemble instead of just one (according to Szwed), and this album is an example of that.

Ra’s philosophy is a little tough to grasp. Not only did his views profoundly change over time (which is to be expected with many philosophers, so that isn’t quite the point) (he initially identified with sentiments of Black Power and Black Unification, but later started to identify less and less with any race and identified more with divine beings such as angels), his philosophy has heavy esoteric influence and is written in almost a “beat prose” style. In his essay Lucifer Means Light Bearer, he argues that the Bible was not written for black people, and that african Americans allow themselves to be rendered complacent by white power structures that utilize religion as a tool for this purpose. (Ra 133-137)

Sun Ra is a fascinating figure within the context of the Black Arts Movement, and in my opinion, he has enough of his own writing as well as scholarship about him to merit a place within the MUS 345B curriculum. Hopefully a future class will have a chance to study him.

Works Cited:

Bakara, Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Freundlich Books, New York, 1984.

Ra, Le Sony’r. The Wisdom of Sun Ra. Compiled by John Corbett. WhiteWalls, Chicago, 2006.

Sun Ra. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. Recorded November 15, 2010. ESP Disk, 2010, Streaming Audio.

Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Pantheon Books, New York, 1997.


Mexican Pentecostalism and Hybridity in American Music

“Through the open windows of a second-story room opposite Hull House on a midsummer Saturday evening come the jazz strains of a gospel hymn being lustily sung in Spanish. If we were to trace this music to its source it would lead us into the midst of a revival meeting of the Pentecostals. There in a crowded room we would find a Mexican evangelist, eyes shining and face flushed by his enthusiasm, leading the singing, while an orchestra made up of a cornet, two drums, three triangles, and a piano beats out the rhythm with a will.”[1]

This is how Robert C. Jones and Louis R. Wilson describes an evening scene in a Mexican neighbourhood in Chicago. Their article was published in 1931 and addressed how many people from the migrant Mexican population converted to and adapted the beliefs and practices, including the musical practices of Pentecostalism.

Pentecostalism being defined in the Encyclopædia Britannica as a charismatic religious movement that gained popularity during the 20th century. The belief in a “post conversionreligious experience called baptism the Holy Spirit” [2] was (and still is) a defining trait for the associated denominations. Pentecostalism and similar movements grew out of a growing disregard for traditional religious practices in late 19th century. Expression of emotion and a more spontaneous articulation of the Gospel was preferred to the traditional church service. This was (and still is) very much present in the musical practices. “[…]the jazz strains of a gospel hymn lustily sung in Spanish” as described by Jones and Wilson, is an example of  what is described as “enthusiastic congregational singing”[3], a form of this emotional religious expression. This was a world away from the Latin chants of the Roman Catholic Church, in which the majority of Mexican immigrants were raised.

Just shy of a century after Jones’ and Wilson’s observations, services are still being held in Spanish in what identifies as Mexican or Spanish Pentecostal churches across America. This video from a Pentecostal service Hammond, Indiana, uploaded in 2013 around which I assume it was filmed, shows not only gospel elements but Latin elements within the music, and rightfully so. Maracas, and what could be a vihuela [4]  can be hard, as well as a variety of other rhythmic instruments.

The Spanish adaption of gospel music within Mexican Pentecostalism is a good example of the hybridity we find in so much of American music, even though the two styles of music, traditional Mexican music and the gospel music of the United States are not necessarily mutually exclusive genres. It has for instance been argued that gospel music has drawn from Latin and Caribbean influences as well as its African American and European roots.


Melton, J. Gordon. “Pentecostalism” Ecyclopædia Britannica. August 31th, 2014. [Accessed November 11th, 2019]

“Mariachi”. Ecyclopædia Britannica. January 29th, 2016. [Accessed November 11th, 2019]

Jones, Robert C.. Wilson, Louis R. The Mexican in Chicago (1931). Comity Commission of the Chicago Church Federation. The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. [Accessed November 10th, 2019]

“Sunday Service Spanish Pentecostal Hammond, IN”. Uploaded April 14th, 2013. Youtube. [Accessed November 11th, 2019]


[1] Jones et al. 1931

[2] Melton 2014

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Mariachi” 2016

The Latin American Blues

What does the salsa have in common with the blues? Well according to Tito Puente, it too is just a broad categorization of a minority’s music:

The word salsa combines all kinds of music into one, like the mambo, the cha-cha, the merengue, all music with Caribbean origins. When they call it salsa, you don’t actually define what rhythm is. That’s why I don’t particularly care for the word. However, sometimes they call me the “King of Salsa,” so I’ll go along with it, I won’t dispute it, as long as they don’t call me the “Queen of Salsa.”1

This quote reminded me of the discussions we’ve had about the idea of “the blues,” and how throughout the term’s history it has been a broad and vague way of categorizing African American music. Likewise, Puente writes that the term “salsa” refers to an amalgamation of many musics of Caribbean origin, and that it obfuscates the different styles’ unique rhythmic identities. This leads to an at best vague conception of what salsa is among those who are not intimately familiar with it, and a lack of understanding and appreciation for the differences it encompasses — including differences in rhythm, which is an integral part and differentiator of these styles of music.

If this generalization and lack of understanding of minority cultures leads to anything, it’s stereotypes. The other parallel I saw in this quote was that to the double-sided coin of black-face minstrelsy. Puente writes that while he doesn’t “particularly care for the word [salsa],” he’ll “go along” with being called the “King of Salsa.” While against the vague misrepresentation of Caribbean music, he doesn’t complain that it is by this misrepresentation that he is risen up, much like it was through the stereotypes perpetuated by black-face minstrelsy that many African American performers got their start.

However, this compliance with stereotypes, while having benefits, also reinforces them. Louie Pérez writes about this, and how it serves as a motivator for him:

This is music made by Mexican-Americans, but if you looked that up in the dictionary, I don’t think you’d find our picture. We’re not the kind of music people would expect, which excites me. It’s nice to show that as Latinos, we can do a lot of things.2

Pérez’s showing that Latinos can “do a lot of things” sounds similar to what African American black-face performers encountered when they pushed the boundaries of what they could perform. As we discussed, their beginning to perform European art songs, for example, illustrates their expansion into an art form that not only wouldn’t have their picture in the dictionary, but would likely picture a decidedly European performer to represent a music that is decidedly European, sometimes to a racist extent.

Thus salsa might be called the Latin American blues, indicative of a broad, uninformed amalgamation of musics that are not fully understood or appreciated, indicative of the misrepresentation and pigeonholing that this categorization can cause, and indicative of the unfortunate commonalities between the oppression of different minorities in America.

1 “Tito Puente: Quote on Salsa Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019.

2 “Louie Pérez (Los Lobos): Quote on Not Fitting a Stereotype.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2019.

“Tito Puente (Para Los Rumberos).” YouTube video, 5:01, posted by chulonga3, Jan 2, 2009,

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).


Americanizing Bizet’s “Carmen”

When I first scrolled through all the genres listed on the Alexander Street Jazz Music Library, the “Opera and Operetta” category immediately caught my eye, as jazz and opera rarely intersect. Only three results popped up, once of which was titled “Modern Jazz Performances from Bizet’s Carmen” by American jazz guitarist Barney Kessel [1]. The album, released in 1986, takes popular motifs from Bizet’s opera and transforms them into jazz tunes, featuring guitar, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was a French composer who wrote the opera Carmen three months before dying [5]. Carmen takes place in Seville, Spain and places heavy emphasis on the exoticisms of both Spain and the gypsy world. Bizet was drawn to the exotic cultures and music of non-Western European countries, and additionally wrote operas set in Sri Lanka and Egypt [4]. Habanera, or “Havanan Dance,” is sung by the title character Carmen as soldiers in the town square flirt with her and other female workers [3]. The aria frequently repeats the words “L’amour est enfant de bohème,” or “love is a gypsy child.” While Bizet allegedly believed the Habanera to be a folk song, he actually stole it from Spanish composer Sebastian Iradier. Bizet was forced to acknowledge Iradier after this was brought to his attention. 

I decided to focus on comparing Bizet’s famous “Habanera” with Kessel’s version, titled “Free as a Bird.” Habanera begins with a simple, pulsating cello ostinato that continues throughout the entire aria, against the soprano’s descending chromatic line. The rest of the strings join in pizzicato, along with the flute. The triangle and tambourine provide percussive elements.


In “Free as a Bird,” the guitar replaces the cello, and the soprano solo is traded between the saxophone and the flute. While Kessel essentially uses the same melody as Habanera, he adds other contrasting motifs and harmonies, as well as more complex percussion. Towards the middle of the track, the guitar plays a solo improvisation-sounding cadenza, taking Habanera’s basic melody and harmonizing it with 7 and diminished chords, common in jazz music. He then adds in a drumset, gives the melody to the brass, and has the guitar improvise on top. 

What I found most interesting about this album was Kessel’s choice to take Bizet’s melodies and essentially American-ize them by using jazz instruments and chord progressions. The album is also purely instrumental, thus removing all of Bizet’s French text. This choice is ironic, because Bizet did a similar thing when choosing to compose Carmen. As a French composer, he took, and sometimes stole, Spanish melodies, and made them more Western by adding French libretto and generally Western-sounding orchestration. However, Kessel’s adaptation of Bizet’s melodies is not as controversial in my opinion, because Bizet stole non-Western “exotic” music, whereas Kessel took music from a white French composer (and fully credited him).


  1. Barney Kessel : Modern Jazz Performances from Bizet’s Carmen. Recorded January 1, 1986. Contemporary, 1986, Streaming Audio.
  2. “Habanera Lyrics, Translation, and History.” liveaboutdotcom. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.
  3. Henson, Karen. “Exoticism in Carmen.” Bizet: Carmen; Columbia University. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.
  4. Macdonald, Hugh. “Bizet, Georges.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

Insights on Music Venue Research

I would like to start off today’s blog post with the poetic opening of a 1931 article, “the Mexican in Chicago”:

Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House

Through the open windows of a second-story room opposite Hull House on a midsummer Saturday evening come the jazz strains of a gospel hymn being lustily sung in Spanish. If we were to trace this music to its source it would lead us into the midst of a revival meeting of the Pentecostals. There in a crowded room we would find a Mexican evangelist, eyes shining and face flushed by his enthusiasm, leading the singing, while an orchestra made up of a cornet, two drums, three triangles, and a piano beats out the rhythm with a will. But we do not wish to loiter long within doors. There are other interesting things to be seen along South Halsted during this twilight hour. 1

This passage conjures an image of 1930s Chicago life that is not often represented in histories detailing the “Chicago Renaissance” years — the immigrant experience. This article in particular was originally published in the Comity Commission of the Chicago Church Federation that bears witness to the Protestant Mexican experience. The article, in which a few Mexican Protestants in Chicago are interviewed, makes an implicit claim about a sense of belonging. Members of these west side churches prioritized community over adherence to their Roman Catholic roots. The religiosity seemed to be a byproduct of wanting to find a community that could eat together, discuss openly together, and make music together.

As I continue to research for my final paper, I learn more and more about the overlap (and sometimes tensions) between religiosity and community. The author makes the observation that roughly 0.5% of Mexico’s population identifies as Protestant, whereas at least 3% of Mexican immigrants living in Chicago identify as such.2 These churches were not only supportive, but were also constructive in building a sense musical community. This newspaper article reminded me of an important lesson as I continue to read about venues both for my paper or in assigned readings. As researchers, we cannot project our expectations onto a historical event. If I had not read the whole article, I might have assumed that the only music was worship music. Or that most discussions happened in the context of prayer, service, or bible study. Rather, I found a  vivid account of how a space conceivably dedicated for one purpose was transformed into another. Don’t fall into the trap! When we assume, we make an … of you and me.

1 “Robert C. Jones and Louis R. Wilson: ‘The Mexican in Chicago’ (1931).” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.

2 Ibid.

El Son Mexicano y La Canción Mexicana

El Son Mexicano, or the Mexican song, is a type of folk music derived from classical music styles of the baroque in terms of rhythms and harmonies, but incorporated into a style of folk performances with guitar and singers.  E Thomas Stanford wrote a good article on the characteristics of the style, and the history of the term and style.  Stanford emphasizes the importance of dance in the style, although there is a vocabulary difference.  A Danza, which is often used as a synonym for Son, denotes a more “primitive” or “raw” version of the word Baile, which is reserved for formal dances.  Stanford also finds that there are elements of Baroque dance performance styles that had been lost or forgotten in other mediums, but rediscovered through the Son.  It is likened to the way Madrigals have been treated in England.  The Son is closer to an authentic madrigal performance than a choir singing from a stage, as both forms are intended primarily as dances.

Image result for son mexicano

Contrasting with this is La Canción Mexicana, another form of mexican folk music.  This form is more popular in the area now known as the American Southwest and Borderlands and originated some time in the mid 19th century.  Peter J Garcia wrote an encyclopedic entry for the Latino American Experience, an online database of articles related to Latino American subjects.  Garcia characterizes the Canción as more emotionally driven than story driven, expressing feelings of intense sorrow, joy, grief, and gaiety.  Garcia claims that the Canción reached maturity in the 1850s, causing a “golden age of mexican song.”  The Canción takes its influences from Italian dramatic operas of the 18th and 19th century, using emotion as a drive rather than character motivation or storytelling.  This most cleanly fits into what Americans think of as Mariachi music, although it is not mariachi.  Mariachi is a distinct musical tradition with a set of specific instruments, although the two styles share some similarities.

Image result for mexican cancion

Now that a brief history of both terms has been established, we can get into the purpose of this blog post, which is listening to some performers of both styles and contrasting them to see if there is as clear a definition as García and Stanford would have us believe.

Our first musical example comes from the Naxos audio library, and is an album called Son de Mi Tierra (song of my earth/land) by a group from Veracruz named Son de Madera.  The tracks on this album are described by the group as a blending of old and new styles of Son, with a reverence for the traditions but an eye on the future.  Listening to the album, which can be done here, shows some link to Baroque senses of tonality, with the solo guitar line often mixing major and minor modes in a way reminiscent of Monteverdi and Allegri. The rhythmic nature of the lines, with clear beats in the bass line, also lends itself well to dancing.  The percussion (perhaps a guitar being hit, perhaps some form of drum) provides quite a bit of ornamentation around those beats, indicating a potential for some dancing ornamentation (think salsa dancing styles, with lots of hands and wardrobe accents on their dancing).  The themes of this music, being a clearer story and plot driving the narrative, also indicate that this would fit into the category of a Son.

    Son de Mi Tierra

If we have found a Son, what then makes a Cancíon.  The album “Con su Permisos, Señores” by Los Centzontles serves as our example here (found here).  The primary difference found here is the instrumental emphasis.  While the Son revolved around the stringed instruments, using the voices in conjunction, these Cancíones make heavier use of the voice.  This is to such an extent that the first track begins with an acapella chorus, beginning the themes of more emotionally driven music than plot.  In these pieces, an understanding can be gleaned without knowing Spanish or reading a translation.

    Los Cenzontles:

Works Cited

García, Peter J. “Canción.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019, Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

Stanford, E. Thomas. “The Mexican Son.” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 4 (1972): 66-86. doi:10.2307/767674.


Ike For President

Barak Obama, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton have all used popular songs to further their presidential campaigns in recent years, but this idea is surprisingly not new to American politics.

When I began researching for my final paper, which is about presidential campaign songs, I wanted to gain a broad understanding of these songs and their usage, so I headed to Google. The first song that came up is “I Like Ike.” “I Like Ike” was used for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign in 1952. I wanted to take a closer look at this primary source for my blog post this week because this trend of using a pop song for a campaign song seems to have sprung up from “I Like Ike.”

“I Like Ike” was written by Tin Pan Alley songwriter Irving Berlin in 1950. It was published and performed under the title “They Like Ike,” first appearing in Berlin’s musical, Call Me Madam. The musical is centered around a Washington D.C. socialite-turned-ambassador. The show was a major hit and won a Tony Award for best score. At the time, Eisenhower was not running for the presidency, but Berlin was hopeful that he would.

The original publication of “They Like Ike” from Berlin’s musical “Call Me Madam”

Once Eisenhower announced his candidacy, Berlin switched the lyrics around a bit and changed the title to “I Like Ike.” The song became a cornerstone for the Eisenhower campaign strategy, as the phrase “I Like Ike” was widespread on advertisements, posters, buttons, and even license plates. With the change of a few words, Berlin’s Broadway hit became a driving force in winning Eisenhower’s presidency.

Some of the many forms that “I Like Ike” appeared across America in 1952

The 1952 “remix” used for Eisenhower’s campaign

The song has elements that make for a solid campaign song: a march-like accompaniment and a simple to follow melody line. If I was to take away the lyrics from the sheet music, you or I probably couldn’t tell this song apart from any other written in the lineage of Tin Pan Alley.

After Eisenhower won the presidency, Berlin continued in his role as musical fanboy for Eisenhower, as he would later update the song two more times to “I Still Like Ike,” “Ike for Four More Years,” and “We Still Like Ike.”


P.S. Unfortunately, all versions of “I Like Ike” are still under copyright, so we’re not able to view and compare them, except for the original publication of the campaign song that I was able to attain through The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection.

Primary Sources:

Berlin, Irving. I Like Ike. New York, New York: Irving Berlin Music Corporation, 1952.

Berlin, Irving. They Like Ike. New York, New York: Irving Berlin Music Corporation, 1950.

Secondary Source:

“Irving Berlin ‘They Like Ike’ from Call Me Madam.” Yale University Library: Exhibits at the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library: Hail to the Chief: Irving Berlin, “They Like Ike” from Call Me Madam, 2010, Accessed 11 November, 2019.

Broceros and their Songs

“Before the United States entered World War II, agricultural authorities warned the federal government that a labor shortage loomed due to American workers enlisting in the armed forces or taking jobs in the defense industry. To fill the shortage, the United States negotiated a guest-worker program with the Mexican government that led to the creation of the Bracero Program [1].” The Bracero Program allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work short-term on primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program.

a poster from 1941 promoting the Bracero program

In my research, I found some very painful songs that arose from this era in American history. These songs were called “corridos,” or traditional Mexican folk songs. One of the corridos I found was entitled “Corrido de los desarraigados,” or “The Corrido of the Uprooted Ones [2].” 

check out this link for a song that sounds similar to “The Corrido of the Uprooted Ones.”

I found it difficult to read the text of this song. Some of the lyrics are quite shocking:

“They work us like slaves
And treat us like dogs.
All we need is for them to ride us
And to put the bridle on us.

The men in the Bracero program were not treated well. “Guarantees for braceros were not kept. Many employers paid workers less than agreed. They also charged for workers’ food, housing, and tools. Some money was kept back in savings accounts, which were usually not given to braceros. Living conditions were often poor, and most braceros faced discrimination and hostility from local populations. Conditions resulted in some strikes by braceros, but force and threats of deportation to Mexico usually ended the stoppages [1].”

The men in the Bracero program found a way to express their suffering through music. I imagine that with all of the immigration conflicts America is currently undergoing, there is going to continue to be music that tells of the painful parts of the Latin American experience. My hope is that we as a nation will listen.


[1] Watts, Tim. “Bootstraps and Braceros, 1942–1948.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019, Accessed 10 Nov. 2019.

[2] Castillo, Arnulfo, “Corrido de los desarraigados,” 1942, transcribed and translated in Herrera-Sobek, María, Northward Bound: The Mexican Immigrant Experience in Ballad and Song, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, (1993), p. 164-165.

Contradictions in Jazz

Delving into jazz this week, I’ve realized that by own perception of the genre is full of contradictions. I simultaneously have a conception of jazz as a broad, far-reaching category of music and as a very specific sound. I would count myself as a peripheral consumer of jazz; I’ve listened to it intentionally a few times and been exposed to it in a vague sense for my whole life, but I’ve never studied it or fully immersed myself. In this sense, I’m probably fairly representative of the general public in my relationship to jazz; accordingly, I think many of the contradictions I find in my own perception of jazz show up in the way the general public talks about jazz.

Even our use of the word jazz itself reveals this contradiction; we use “jazzy” as an adjective almost constantly. It’s odd, considering that we wouldn’t really call anything “classical-y,” “rock-y,” or “country-y.” Usually, syncopation, a swing, a little dissonance, and some blue notes are what prompt us to label a music as “jazzy.” In this way, we have some very specific sounds that we think constitute jazz. Many early critics of jazz, such as Anne Shaw Faulkner and Frank Damrosch, found that these very characteristics of jazz were what made it “primitive,” “vulgar,” and even “evil.”1 I am more inclined to agree with Langston Hughes and Dave Peyton, who see jazz’s structure, style, and sound as enabling freedom of expression.2 It is this very quality that I suspect allows the span of musics that are considered jazz to be so vasts. This span is excellently illustrated just by the Wikipedia page “List of jazz genres,” which lists fifty-five distinct sub-genres of jazz.

Chico O’Farrill, circa 1950

My reflection on how we conceive of jazz was prompted by one of these sub-genres, Afro-Cuban jazz, which I stumbled upon while searching through The Latin American Experience database.The founder of the Afro-Cuban jazz genre, Chico O’Farrill, was a Cuban-born musician who is now regarded as one of the most influential figures in the forming of Latin jazz. Particularly, O’Farrill’s “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite” fuses Afro-Cuban drumming practices, Cuban dance forms, jazz styles, and classical music form.3

Chico O’Farrill’s “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite”

Listening even just to the first track, “Cancion,” we can hear the typical call and response solo style of jazz, the intense rhythmic drumming in Afro-Cuban style, the syncopation and melodic lines of a traditional Cuban “Cancion,” and the dissonant, sharp chords typical of big bang jazz. I think it was precisely the contradictory nature of our conception of jazz that allowed this kind of fusion to be fully embraced as a part of the genre.

1 Robert Walser, Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999), 32-44.

2 Robert Walser, Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999), 55-59.

3 Gail Cueto, “Chico O’farrill”, 2019.

Works Cited:

Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite. Recorded January 18, 2005. Verve Records, 2005, Streaming Audio. 
Cueto, Gail A. “Chico O’farrill.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 10, 2019.

Walser, Robert. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.


The Spanish-American War Meets Tin Pan Alley

I seem to have a knack for digging up old American patriotic songs. In a previous blog post, I compared three sets of sheet music written between 1916 and 1918 and compared them to Virgil Thomson’s definition of musical traits post 1910. In the Latin American Experience database, I found a piece titled “The Yankee Message or Uncle Sam to Spain” by Edward S. Ellis and Chas. M. Hattersley. This one, however, was written in 1898, a full 20 years before “Come On, America” and its counterparts exemplified Thomson’s traits of 8th note continuity, separation between dynamics and tempo, and “phonetic distortion without loss of clarity.”

Like the other pieces, “The Yankee Message” is primarily in 2/4 with the eighth note driving the rhythm. The refrain is in 6/8 with alternating quarter and eighth notes. Syllabic text setting gives it a distinctly march-like feel, and dynamics and tempo are independent. The cover art features an American flag, and the “Yankee” title situate it firmly as patriotic

The date, title, and content leaves little guess work about the context of this piece. In 1898 the Spanish-American War began and ended in a matter of months. The most immediate and oft-pointed to cause of the Spanish-American War was the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898. However, the U.S. had long had interest in purchasing Cuba, and the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain was harming US monetary interests. After the Treaty of Paris concluded the conflict, Cuba gained independence, and the US received control over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The lyrics of this piece read:

“1. I hear across the waters, From out the southern sea, The wail of sons and daughters, In wo[e]ful misery, If you must act the butcher, And helpless ones roust die, I swear by the Eternal! I’ll smite you hip and thigh!


2. We’ve got the boys to do it, A million men and more; We’ve got our new born navy, And Deweys by the score. We’ll smash your grim old Morroe[?], And brign them round your ears, And make the measure honest, With a thousand ‘Volunteers.


[Refrain:] Then hurrah, hurrah for Cuba! Our free Cuba.

We strike, we strike for wage and fight the battle. We strike, we strike for liberty! Until our Cuba’s free!


3. We greet you gallant Cubans, We’re fighting side by side, Not yet, O fair Antilles, Hath sleeping Freedom died; We’ll make that horde “walk Spanish,” (You hear my thund’rous voice,) And as between two evils, We’ll give you ‘Hobson’s choice.’


4. Our tears for the dead heroes, The Maine and martyred crew; A sigh for smitten sailors, Who died as patriots do; But sure as dawns the morrow, and sure as sets the sun, We’ll avenge our murdered brothers, Avenge them ev’ry one!



There’s a lot to unpack in the lyrics alone, especially as they are quite lengthy. The focus on freedom, liberty, and martyrs, suggest the war was fought for purely humanitarian reasons, a narrative the US government encouraged. Many phrases would require substantial investigation to understand from a contemporary perspective.

If the previous pieces I studied fit Thomson’s ideas to a fair extent, and this piece does as well, what does this say about American music? For one, perhaps identifying music after 1910 as distinct is not particularly helpful. Or, perhaps these pieces are more representative of a different genre, that of American patriotic marches. The design of the cover suggests Tin Pan Alley and pop music. Perhaps the exclusion of popular music was implied in Thomson’s writings. Regardless, examining patriotic music is helpful because these are the pieces that explicitly try to define themselves based on a national identity. From this we can gain insight into which common sonic features are thus implicitly “American” and recognize their significance when they appear outside of this context. This piece is also a great example of how current events routinely impact musical production. “The Yankee Message” is significant because it can be viewed as both a mirror to and an active participant in the discourse surrounding the Spanish-American War.

(Like my last blog post, I was unable to find a recording of this piece. Perhaps this calls for a recording session of American patriotic marches composed during war times?)

Works Cited

Hattersley, Chas. M. and Edward S. Ellis. “The Yankee message; Uncle Sam to Spain.” Trenton, New Jersey: Chas. M. Hattersley, 1898.

“The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War.” Hispanic Reading Room. Library of Congress.

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits.” American Music Since 1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

A Eulogy for the 1963 Birmingham Bombing

September 15, 1963: A bomb goes off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young African American girls are killed during church services, 14 more are injured.

September 16, 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy speak on the tragedy, each calling it cruel and charged by racial hatred and injustice.

1965: Suspects of the bombing emerge. Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Frank Cash—four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Witnesses don’t speak up and physical evidence is determined insufficient, so no charges are filed.

1976: Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopens the case.

1977-now: Chambliss, Cherry, and Blanton are each eventually charged with the bombing. Chambliss and Cherry died in prison; Blanton was denied parole in 2016. Cash dies without being formally charged.

However, this timeline is missing an event not typically added to timelines of the Birmingham bombing.

 November 18, 1963: Jazz performer, John Coltrane, records “Alabama” which, although never verbally confirmed by Coltrane, is known as a musical eulogy for the victims of Birmingham.

The song features a melancholy melody, a much slower tempo than many of Coltrane’s songs, and a hauntingly sorrowful tone from Coltrane’s saxophone. These aspects not only capture the tragedy and sorrow of the Birmingham event, but of the human injustice that ignited the civil rights movement.

It is said that Coltrane was motivated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the girls. This video, featuring King’s eulogy, also shows clips from the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting from 2015, which has evocative parallels to the 1963 Birmingham bombing:

In his eulogy, King states, “These children, unoffending, innocent and beautiful, were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity…They did not die in vain. God still has a way of bringing good out of evil.”

Jazz can be something joyful. It can be songs like “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman, it can be music that dozens dance to at weddings and in bars. But it can also be something politically motivated and inspired. “Alabama” was a source of solace for many individuals shaken by the tragedy; the rawness of the song shows the devastating nature of the bombing, but also the tragedy behind all African American lives lost during the Civil Rights Movement. Coltrane, a black musician, used what he knew best to make an impact on the Movement – music.

“Alabama,” among other politically motivated songs, remains known as an anthem of a kind for the Civil Rights Movement. Not an anthem that was sung during protests or at speeches by Civil Rights leaders, but that was heard on the radio and sparked a remembrance for the four girls who lost their lives in Birmingham in 1963.


“1963 Birmingham Church Bombing Fast Facts.” (accessed November 8, 2019).

A John Coltrane Retrospective: The Impulse Years. Conducted by Eric Dolphy. Recorded November 10, 1998. Universal Music, 1998, Streaming Audio. 

“Birmingham Bomb Planted.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Sep 21, 1963.

“MLK’s 1963 eulogy after the Birmingham church bombing.” YouTube Video, 2:26. “CBS Evening News,” June 15, 2015.

Sitton ,Claude, “Birmingham Bomb Kills Four Negro Girls” New York Times (1923-Current File), Sep 16, 1963.

“The Story Behind “Alabama” by John Coltrane.” The Music Aficionado. (accessed November 8, 2019).

Latino Experience as depicted through “West Side Story”

Above features the video “America” from West Side Story. Behind the distinctive Spanish rhythm and instrumentation Leonard Bernstein used,  there are depictions of the Puerto Ricans’ experiences in their home country versus America. When the musical debuted on Broadway in 1957, it highlighted tensions between the Puerto Rican migrants and “whites” of New York. The song, “America” serves as a testament of an interpretation and stereotypes of the Latino migrant experience.

Puerto Rican migrants arrive in New York, 1954. Library of Congress.

Migrants from Puerto Rico to New York exploded during the nineteenth century. In 1945, there were about 13,000 living in New York. That number reached a million by the 1960’s.1 One reason many migrated to New York was because they could make double the pay for the same work than what they were making in Puerto Rico, which was grappling with a depression.2 Meanwhile, New York Newspapers in the 1940’s and 50’s flashed daily headlines that emphasized the “whiteness” and good backgrounds of the victims, while painting the Hispanic assailants as unprovoked in their  horrible actions. This tension between the Puerto Rican migrants that were seen as taking over the city and their conflict and strain with other minorities in the city became the perfect canvas for the musical.

The lyrics in “America” contrast between the Hispanic girls and guys (in the 1961 version and video above). The females are optimistic, hopeful in there lyrics “I’ll get a terrace apartment”, “Industry boom in America” and “free to be anything you choose.” On the male side, their response is less bright with responses like “Better get rid of your accent,” “12 in a room in America,” and “Free to wait tables and shine shoes.”3 The contrasting feelings about being in America represent disunity in their experience, just as the musical overall represents disunity and plots the Italians against the Puerto Ricans.

While the musical may be artificial in representing the Puerto Rican experience in New York in some ways, the violence between gangs and different ethic groups is accurate. In the musical, a fight ensues between the two gangs, mostly over pride that ends deadly for both sides. One New York Times article published in 1955 has a headline “Hoodlum, 17, seized as Slayer of Boy, 15.”4 As one can imagine, the article depicts the victim as “well mannered” and a “good student.” The “hoodlum” on the other hand, Frank Santana, shot him “seemingly unprovoked.” The gang violence in this article is similar to the musical, but the “culprit” does not get to just walk away and evade the police.

If Bernstein’s main goal was to create an authentic example of the Puerto Rican experience in “West Side Story,” there are certainly better ways it could have been achieved. He does however underline the optimism some migrants had for the new country and leaving their past behind. The reckless and problematic violence in the musical between gangs is also emulated, but is lacking in the targeted blaming migrants had to face that is evident in the plethora of articles published at the time. Overall, while  West Side Story borders artificial is representing the Puerto Ricans, it is worth a watch and underlines issues faced by the Latino migrant.

1 “Immigration, Puerto Rican/Cuban” Library of Congress.

2 Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. S.l.], 2010.

3 Sondheim, Stephen. © 1956, 1957 Amberson Holdings LLC and Stephen Sondheim. Copyright renewed. Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Company LLC, Publisher.

4 Hoodlum, 17, seized as slayer of boy, 15: HOODLUM, 17, HELD IN SLAYING OF BOY. (1955, May 02). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from

The Depression Can’t Stop the St. Olaf Choir

What better use of the Manitou Messenger than to look into the history of the St. Olaf Choir! Having just gone on tour with the choir this past summer, I wanted to look into previous “homecoming” tours such as the tour of 1930. This tour, in particular, piqued my interest as it occurred during the depression and spanned 3 months and several countries, not including the winter tour to the south. Here is what the touring schedule included:

Manitou Messenger. June 3, 1930.

Manitou Messenger. June 3, 1930.












According to the SHAW-OLSON CENTER FOR COLLEGE HISTORY, the invitation to the celebration of the 900th anniversary of the Christianization of Norway was carefully considered and accepted [3]. This year, when preparing to leave for tour, it was emphasized that the return of the St. Olaf Choir was very much seen as a homecoming as I had stated and is further supported by Schmidt’s memoir [3].

My first question was primarily, how could students and their families afford a 3-month European tour during the Depression? One way was through selling sight-seeing tours for parties interested in touring with the choir which amounted to $6,500 then, approximates to $99,936 for adjusted inflation [2, 3]. Uff da! These additional funds were said to have alleviated some of the costs but any more details around financial issues were not mentioned [2]. More importantly, it was the celebration of Christianity being brought to Norway (as well as some good old fashioned sight-seeing!) that inspired donors and students alike. 

There was also mention of a farewell party, “to bid bon voyage” which I found endearing. Events surrounding the choir were published throughout the school year such as, “Choir Presents Concert Tonight In Minneapolis” on April 29th, 1930 and “Choir Leaves Northfield on European Tour,” June 3, 1930. A number of similar articles were published throughout the announcement of the tour and throughout the year. What I am trying to get at is 1) the events of the choir were always in the paper and 2) not even the great depression can stop the St. Olaf Choir from touring.

Works Cited:

[1] “Faculty Entertains Choir At Farewell Party Sunday; Speeches, Songs on Program.” Manitou Messenger, June 3, 1930.

[2] “Sale of Tickets Mounts as Norway Tour Approaches.” Manitou Messenger, January 7, 1930.

[3] Schmidt, Paul. “The 1930 European Tour,” Shaw-Olson Center for College History. St. Olaf College, 1967.

Rhapsody in Blue

After its 1924 premiere in New York City, George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ caught the attention of both critics and audiences, and Gershwin became known as the “man who had brought jazz into the concert hall” [1]. Gershwin intentionally combined musical styles from the classical and jazz worlds, creating controversy due to the African-American roots of jazz. As current discourse surrounding appropriation constantly increases among musicians, one may wonder why Gershwin, who was not black, would insert jazz music into his classical compositions.

Gershwin (1898-1937) began as a song plugger in NYC’s Tin Pan Alley when he was only 15 years old. He later became involved in writing Broadway shows, and eventually started composing concert music [1]

As Evan Rapport describes in his article “Bill Finegan’s Gershwin Arrangements and the American Concept of Hybridity,” widespread ideas surround ‘white’ versus ‘black’ music were incredibly binary and distinct from one another during the 1920s. As a result, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was considered a ‘symphonic jazz’ piece, a ‘hybrid’ of black and white music. Rapport states:

“[The concert] exploited the taboo appeal of playing music widely associated with popular entertainment and African Americans in a concert hall mostly patronized by wealthy white elites, with boasts such as “the first jazz concert that was ever given in the sacred halls of a symphonic hall“–although black composers and performers were absent from the concert, along with any mention of the black origins of jazz” [4].

Gershwin was so comfortable using black musical ideas because he regarded jazz as American, not specifically black, music; “In speaking of jazz there is one superstition . . . which must be destroyed. This is the superstition that jazz is essentially Negro. . . . Jazz is not Negro but American.” To Gershwin, “Jazz was ‘the voice of the American soul,’ which was ‘black and white . . . all colors and all souls unified in the great melting pot of the world’.” Others, however, believed that Gershwin was ‘diluting’ the quality of classical and jazz music by combining them [4].

Another fact to consider when speculating Gershwin’s intention behind ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is his Jewish heritage, and the “ambiguous racial position of Jewish Americans” at the time; “His Jewish race existed between black and white, linked to blackness and European otherness, and shaped by centuries of antisemitic rhetoric.” Gershwin’s use of jazz idioms could have therefore been geared “towards the possibility of immigrant assimilation and racial and social mobility in the New World” [4].

In a 1965 annual pops concert at the St. Olaf College Gymnasium was themed around Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ featuring a student as the piano soloist accompanied by the Chamber Band. The article describes the set-up:

Tables for four complete with tablecloths and candles will cover the gym floor, thus providing a cozy atmosphere. These will be on a first come, first served basis. During the first intermission refreshments will be served to those seated at the tables. During the second intermission those at the tables will be asked to change places with those in the bleachers who will in turn be served refreshments” [3]

This article echoes Rapport’s description of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’s’ premiere; St. Olaf, filled with a mostly white audience,  attempts to turn its gymnasium into a prestigious concert hall complete with tablecloths, candles, and refreshments. In my opinion, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a valuable American piece to study and perform, but one must discuss and consider its racial context and origins to understand Gershwin’s musical intentions.


  1. Carnovale, Norbert, Richard Crawford, and Wayne J. Schneider. “Gershwin, George.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 3 Nov. 2019, <>
  2.  Gershwin, George et al. Rhapsody in blue : American in Paris. Place of publication not identified: Vox, 1901. Print.
  3.  “Pop concert features ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.” The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 5, Vol.078, March 12, 1965, page(s): 1
  4.  Rapport, Evan. “Bill Finegan’s Gershwin Arrangements and the American Concept of Hybridity.” Journal of the Society for American Music 2.4 (2008): 507-30. ProQuest. 3 Nov. 2019 .

Doc Evans and Happy, Traditional Jazz

After realizing this blog post was due 3 days ago, I decided to search the term “Jazz” in the Manitou Messenger database just to see if there was anything of note.  Lo and behold, I found an advertisement for the Carleton graduate and cornet player Doc Evans and Dixieland Band in the October 23rd, 1959 edition:


(The only available records of Doc Evans were at Carleton, so here’s a recording I found on YouTube)

The advertisement seemed a little bit strange to me.  By calling his music “traditional” and “happy” jazz, it implies that his music being aesthetically “happier” makes it somewhat significant in the spectrum of jazz.  I would agree that Dixieland jazz is much peppier sounding, but it still seems like a weird emotional signifier in the context of jazz, which isn’t always the most jubilant music.  While I am also in Dave Hagedorn’s History of Jazz course, I should also point out that this advertisement and performance take place in 1959, which is a rather significant year for jazz in that it was the same year in which Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue released (and it is still the best selling jazz album of all time).  Obviously the comparison of Doc Evans to Miles Davis is a bit silly, but I think there is an implication that Doc Evans performs jazz the way it traditionally has been in contrast to Miles Davis and his iconoclastic approach to jazz.  Just for the sake of comparison, here’s “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

After learning about how jazz had been commodified throughout the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s by featuring primarily white jazz artists like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Bix Beiderbecke, and many others for consumers who were also primarily white, it does not seem unsettling to me that Doc Evans would be presented as such.  In fact, even the earliest recordings of jazz were from white groups such as the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917.  It’s likely that Doc Evans took it upon himself to learn jazz as it was “traditionally” performed and played in the Dixieland/NOLA style of the ’20s and ’30s because that was easier for him than learning the growing trend of swing and bebop.  Or it could have been the only thing for him to learn in Northfield, Minnesota.


[1] “Doc Evans brings Dixieland to delight Ole jazz fans.” Manitou Messenger, October 23, 1959.

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.

“Latin American Fiesta” and the Failure to Recognize the Latin American Perspective

I found this LP in the Halvorson Music Library collection.  If you look closely, you might be surprised to see Aaron Copland listed as one of the featured composers on this album.  In class we talked about other instances of Copland drawing inspiration from the folk music of Latin America, but I didn’t expect his music to be set alongside the music of artists from Mexico, Brazil and Portugal, like it is in “Latin American Fiesta”. 

While I find essentialism problematic in its own right, I have a hard time accepting Copland’s music into the genre of Latin American music, seeing as he is not a Latin American composer. I find his inclusion on an album of Latin American music problematic due to his position as an outsider of the musical tradition he is emulating as well as his place of privilege in the world classical music.  I see this as an instance where the white perspective wasn’t necessary, but was nonetheless held to an equal, if not higher importance than the perspective of those within the musical culture the album was highlighting.

More of these instances can be found on the back of the album cover, where conductor Leonard Bernstein comments about the “Latin American spirit”.  His exoticising of the music of Latin America as a blend of Native American and African music invalidates the genre as it’s own unique musical culture:

The sweet, simple primitiveness of the Indian music mixes with the wild, syncopated, throbbing primitiveness of African music; and both of these, mixed with the fiery flash of Spanish music and the sentimental sweetness of Portuguese songs, make up the music we know as Latin American.

While the inclusion of Copland and Bernstien’s views on Latin American culture are indicative of the ways the white perspective was favored in classical music, pieces like Bachianas Brasileiras, or “Brazilian pieces in the manor of Bach”, show that composers within different musical cultures were also being held to the standard of European classical music, and were changing their sound to fit a narrow mold reinforced by the educated, white, European and masculine standards set for classical music at the time.

While it is easy to see albums like this and think about how far we’ve come in, the failure to recognize the Latin American perspective is a more current issue than many realize, especially at St. Olaf.  In the 1989 Manitou Messenger article Olaf missing Latin American view, student Julia Kirst speaks about the struggles of being the only international student from all of Latin America, as well as the positives of celebrating diverse experiences.  I believe that providing a platform for people to share diverse experiences is the first step, and while the intentions of “Latin American Fiesta” may have been to provide such a platform, such intentions were undermined by the voices and perspectives they chose to include on the album.

Works Cited:

Davrath, Netania, et al. Latin-American Fiesta. Columbia, 1963.

Kirst, Julia. “Olaf Missing Latin American View.” The Manitou Messenger, 3 Nov. 1989.

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.

Blues Got You

As a relatively new country, America has had to define its own folk music rather forcefully, instead of allowing that definition to come about from hundreds and thousands of years of culture. Because of this, the line when it comes to what is considered folk music and what is not is relatively thin and grey. Folkways has been integral in this construction of a distinctly American folk music. 

Folkways was founded in 1948 by Moses (Moe) Asch and Marian Distler. Though the label also distributed “world music,” it was and is known best for its part in the 1950s American folk music revival. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label, that Folkways branched out into other genres. Now, Folkways releases  music from virtually every genre, with a Hip Hop anthology being released in 2020 (had to do my due intern diligence and plug it here).

So, why is this important? American folk music can be categorized and defined two different ways: as a genre and as a descriptor. Historically, American folk music as a genre has been very exclusive – meaning it has been dominated by white men of lower-middle and middle class backgrounds, and usually from rural/small-town America. As a descriptor, however, folk music has a much broader connotation. It is because of this that the Folkways of today looks little like the Folkways of 70 years ago. Blues, Jazz, and Hip Hop have all been recognized by Folkways as genres that fall within the definition of American folk as a descriptor. 

Volume 2 of Folkways Jazz Anthology (released in 1950, so one of the early signs of Folkways being a leading force in this new definition of folk music) is called The Blues. Both the foreword and the editor’s notes discuss the definition of the blues in a similar way to how I have discussed the definition of folk. The Blues is folk, it is defined by certain syncopations, an aural tradition, specific instruments, chords, and inflections, etc. My question is, there are so many characteristics specific to blues as a genre, but does that mean that tunes that have some of these characteristics and not others are not blues?

The blues are also defined in the liner notes as stemming from slavery and African/ African-American traditions. The content of the blues is often related to “protest, recrimination, and ridicule.” Because of the shifting and exclusive nature of these definitions, it is difficult to choose what to subscribe to. My personal favorite comes from Lead Belly, who defines the blues as a state of mind, saying, “Now I’ll tell you about the blues. All negros like blues. Why? Because they was born with the blues. And now, everybody have the blues. Sometimes they don’t know what it is. But when you lay down at night, turn from one side of the bed all night to the other and can’t sleep, what’s the matter? Blues got you.”

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.


The Success of Jazz: Blessing or Curse?

There is no question that jazz as a genre experienced much success throughout the 20th century. Around 1960, after it had begun to be replaced in popularity by rock n’ roll and bebop, its live performance was revived in part in New Orleans’ French Quarter.[1] Preservation Hall provided a space for aging jazz musicians to return to their art. “Almost all of the musicians have given up any work other than music, and have benefited from the new respect accorded to the New Orleans musician.”[2] Several jazz bands became affiliated with the space, among them the Wendell Brunious Band and Jim Robinson’s New Orleans Band. Manitou Messenger published an article in praise of the former,[3] and Halvorson Music Library has a record including recordings by the latter. But this success carried with it the baggage of preservation.

Jazz at Preservation Hall 2

The back cover of the record suggests overtones unsettlingly similar to those of the “Vanishing Indian” phenomenon. The album–indeed, even the name  of the hall which hosts the musicians performing on it–could be seen as portraying jazz as something which might fit well in a museum. If minstrelsy is understood to be an obsessive fascination with blackness, using primitiveness and exaggerated emotions as tropes to make something unsettling or intimidating approachable, seeing jazz as part of a bygone era that ought to be preserved meant society no longer feared blackness in music and could look to it for inspiration.

It should be noted that the founders of Preservation Hall, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, were white, and so could have had analogous attitudes toward jazz as MacDowell had toward Native music. That is, as a source of inspiration for new, less “other” art, even if the dominant race of performers at the Hall was still black.

Allan and Sandra Jaffe with their child

The Jaffe family

But this is not the only presentation of these groups on the album. While it clarifies that performers at the Hall don’t typically take requests (suggesting a static, less improvisatory style), it says that they do play popular and folk music alongside the traditional pieces that are being preserved, with more “consistently better” performance than before. Many of the performers also personally played at the turn of the century, when jazz was first taking off. The Mess also calls out the mixing of disciplines to create Preservation Hall’s style, as well as the improvisation which does in fact take center stage.

St. Olaf’s interest, in a region of the country comprised mostly of white people, could be seen as merely scholarly, fascinated by something which was unique and “other,” or as genuine interest in a revived tradition with new ideas to offer. Regardless, interest in jazz from all demographics has grown; whether this is seen as a black art being taken by white artists after its “death” or new creative cooperation, the genre has carved itself a lasting place in the repertory.


[1]   “History.” Preservation Hall. Accessed:

[2]   Pierce, De De, and Billie Pierce. 1963. Jazz at Preservation Hall, II. Atlantic.

[3]   Hosch, Jennifer. 1992. “Artist Series introduces traditional style of New Orleans improvisational jazz.” Manitou Messenger. Accessed:

Stephen Foster: A History of Praise

The blog post for this week has been based on this short article[1] from St. Olaf College’s very own Manitou Messenger published on October 20th, 1925:

This touches on a couple of interesting topics. Firstly, the fact that a white American man is categorized as a composer of “negro spirituals”. Secondly, it seems to me that the fact that someone was trying to promote Afro-American music, however narrowly defined as it may be, certainly got the attention of the unnamed writer of the article, hence the choice of title. This could indicate that this was an unusual topic for the time, and this might very well be an attempt to spark a discussion in the newspaper, and to draw in the readers.

The writer does not give any details of what “the Reverend M. A. Christenson” viewed as the American folk- sound, and if he personally differentiated between American folk songs and negro spirituals as stated in the article, as if they are separate from each other and had no connections whatsoever. I admit that this is slightly speculative, but it seems to me that what in the title seems like an attempt to advocate for African American music, is actually endorsing the separatist tendency we see in the scholarly writings of the time, trying to define American music history. He wants to praise the music, but trough white man’s authority and as his creation. This is of course based on the presumption that Christenson of Portland, Oregon is not an African American, this might be the case, but then the argument he is making might seem a bit regressive.

In the Vinyl collection I found this collection of Stephen Foster Favourites, containing a 1978 recording of “My Old Kentucky Home”, the song that superseded Christenson’s address. The Robert Shaw Chorale sings “My Old Kentucky Home” with a straight rhythm, classical technique, and the song itself is harmonised in a simple SATB-chorale style “spiced up” by some counterpoint nearing the end of the piece. This seems very “on-brand” when you look at the cover art for the record. The description in the back, if not in a bit condescending and romanticising way, does not, however, deny the Afro-American influence on Foster’s compositions:

“[…] he was under the spell of the minstrel shows, the singing of the Negroes […] on the riverboats from the South, and of the Negro worshippers in a little church near his childhood home”

Bever and Robinson in their 2018 article[2] on “My Old Kentucky Home” they write about the controversy surrounding it being sung annually at the Kentucky Derby. This discussion was seemingly sparked due to to the removal of Fosters rather racially unsensitive statue, made in 1900 and situated in Pittsburgh,  a few months earlier. Bever and Robinson quote critics expressing that the statue

“glorifies white appropriation of black culture, and depicts the vacantly smiling musician in a way that is at best condescending and at worst racist,”[3].

As much can also be said about Fosters music, and the way his role in the American musical canon has been presented both in the 1924, 1978 and as well as his borrowing from African American culture shows that much is glossed over to find that holy grail of authentic music without dealing with a painful past. The same goes for using his music for the sake of tradition in our own time. Bever and Robinson also include a quote by  Forster biographer Ken Emerson, which I chose to end this post with:

“ “Ironically,” Emerson said, “here is a song that was inspired by a great abolitionist novel, and which no less a leader than Frederick Douglass himself singled out as a song that awakens the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish. So, like all of Foster’s music, it’s thick with contradictions that, to this day, I think, are part of the American experience.” “[4]


“Chapel Speaker Praises Composer of Negro Songs”. The Manitou Messenger. No. 6, Vol.039, October  20th, 1925. Page 4. Northfield, United States

Bever, Lindsey. Robinson, Lynda. “‘My Old Kentucky Home’: The Kentucky Derby’s beloved, fraught singalong about slavery”.  The Washngton Post. May 5, 2018. [Accessed October 30th, 2019


Statue of Stephen Foster×0/smart/  [Accessed 30.10.2019]


[1] The Manitou… 1925: p. 4

[2] Bever and Robinson 2018

[3] Ibid

[4] ibid

Jazz at St. Olaf – A Lost Legacy

While St. Olaf College has been well known for a strong choral program since its inception, as it turns out Jazz didn’t take long to become a part of music on campus. In fact, during the 1920’s Jazz music was regularly positioned as an opposing musical form to choral music. In a 1924 visit to St. Olaf by Princeton Professor Dr. J Duncan Spaeth, a Manitou Messenger article quotes him saying

“The production of your choir, alone would make St. Olaf a worth while institution,” said Dr. Spaeth. “To hear a choir sing classical music, and sing it well, in this age of jazz, is to me, a spiritual bath. I feel that people who have learned to appreciate the type of music sung by your choir, should also be able to discriminate between the genuine and the jazz in poetry, art, journalism, and drama.”1

St. Olaf Choir album from 1949

While Dr. Spaeth’s biases (he continues on to praise the “Nordic” appearance as “refreshing in comparison to foreign types” and makes an argument against co-ed teaching) undoubtedly reveals his racist sentiments about the value of classical music as superior to Jazz, he is not alone in this opinion. In fact, both choir and jazz come up many times in the 1920s and 1930s as moral opponents. However, students also expressed their frustration through the campus news paper. In 1933, a Campus Opinion article wrote this notable complaint

“Maybe people at large would begin to realize that actual human beings attended school at St. Olaf if our “Jazz Band” programs were broadcast. Why be afraid to admit that St. Olaf is not a monastery? Too many false presentations of Manitou life have already escaped. Surely the criticisms of a pep orchestra would be neglible in comparison to the criticism of other “evils,” if all were known.”2

A 1925 “Student Pulse” article started with the important claim that Jazz was not being played on the campus radio show despite possible students efforts to have it played.

“[Correction: An error based on misinformation as to facts inadvertently crept into the Student Pulse column of last week’s issue. Careful perusal of recent WCAL programs will disclose the fact that the station is not now, nor has it been broadcasting Saturday night “jazz” programs.]”3

While campus attitudes almost 100 years later don’t represent the same perspectives on choral superiority, the Vinyl collection is heavily skewed towards choral recordings. A quick library search yields 43 Jazz recordings, only one of which is by the award-winning St. Olaf Jazz Band whereas there are some 225 vinyl records by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles. Vinyl is particularly interesting in this context because it has been passed on as a preferred recording technique, and offers a snapshot of what the school was choosing to not only save, but to sell. The St. Olaf Jazz recording, on the other hand, is from 2017 and heralds a slightly more futuristic view of where St. Olaf Music could be going.

St. Olaf Jazz Band Album

As a choir member on campus, I sometimes find myself quick to disregard complaints that St. Olaf Music favors the choirs too heavily.  However, in that act of dismissal I am engaging in a centuries-old practice of prioritizing a specific musical form which causes true detriment to the success of other types of music at St. Olaf. How do we celebrate legacies of music that are known for excellence and tradition when that recognition was partially entrenched by creating an environment that punished other types of music?

Pushing the Limits of Band Expectations

Why is it that bands are not held to the same standards as orchestras? This is what I found myself asking when reading a Manitou Messenger article from 2007 titled, “St. Olaf band pushed limits.”

Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007,

The “limits” to which the article is largely referring struck me as notably particular to the band world:

Over the years, the St. Olaf Band has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles. Mahr is deliberately expanding the traditional band repertoire through his own compositions and daring concert programming. The band’s home concert in the Skoglund auditorium on Feb. 8 was a solid portrait of the agility of style that the band has reached.

One of several highlights of the concert was alternating tour soloist Jennifer Maki ’07 performing the jubilant Weber Clarinet Concertino. The texture of the band accompaniment playing this delicate late classical-period music with Maki exceeded my expectations.1

Why is it that having the ability to play “delicate” music well constitutes “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”? Orchestras are certainly expected to be able to play delicately. The focus of the article is not on the quality of the band intrinsically, or as an undergraduate band, but basically that it’s very good for a band. This provides some interesting insight into the hierarchy of the ensembles. This also to me does not seem to be through any fault of the instruments themselves—woodwinds, for example, are known for their delicate sound.

Woodwind delicacy is one of the features of the Weber Clarinet Concertino mentioned above. To hear what may have been so impressive about a band arrangement of this, I listened a recording of the original orchestral version.

The first thing I noticed was the very heavy beginning, with the strings’ thick, full, not very delicate chords. This style does not dominate the piece, but is very present in it. There are delicate moments in the strings, but such a description is not as all-encompassing as the article had me thinking. The most delicate part of the piece is the clarinet part—the band instrument.

So then what makes a band performance of this impressive? Is it simply that the artistic caliber expected of bands is less than that expected of orchestras? Or maybe that bands are stereotyped as not focusing as much delicate playing? The latter would make sense if it’s not seen as a band’s specialty, where its strengths lie. But this leads to the assumption that such delicate playing is the strength of the orchestra, and again we have bands not being held to the same standards as orchestras, by a margin that seems to me much bigger than the actual difference in instrumentation would suggest. To give such an assumption so much weight seems wrong to me. So are the expectations of the writer are accurately based in bands’ abilities? Maybe not. But if so, why does this performance constitute “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”?

1 Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007,

“C M von Weber: Concertino for clarinet and orchestra.” YouTube video, 11:19, posted by Joan Enric Lluna, April 29, 2017,

Weber, Carl Maria von. Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor, op. 73; Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, op. 34; Clarinet Concertino in E flat major, op. 26. Recorded 1967. Turnabout, 1967, vinyl.

In the Heights, Hamilton, and West Side Story (Oh, MY!)

Since reading Carol Oja’s article, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” I’ve wondered how the existence of movie versions affect how musicians study and perform the shows.1 Movies act as time capsules, whereas broadway shoes, even iconic ones, have opportunities to be reimagined year after year as social climates change. Does an actor’s race (or the race they are made to resemble in the case of West Side Story’s Maria) cement how that role is portrayed in high school/college level productions?

During the 2013-2014 school year, the theater department put on a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” In her article Julia Pilkington noted that “the musical was selected in part because of its significance in the context of a college campus: Students come from various corners of the country and world, live here at St. Olaf College and are contemplating where they will go with their lives.”2 It is true that this is central to the plot, but outside of the Spanish pronunciation coachings the cast received, it seems that the cultural implications of being a Latinx person in Manhattan was not central as it was in the original production.

A discussion about the stakes of movie productions is timely considering the impending release of a movie version of “In the Heights” in which one of the original cast members of “Hamilton” plays the lead role.

Just like West Side Story or the Music Man before it, this version of In the Heights will undoubtedly influence if schools like St. Olaf choose whether or not to tackle this show. When Hamilton starts reaching high school theater departments with the same consistency as West Side Story, what will the cast look like? If there is a movie version of Hamilton, will that affect how it gets performed? Although this post relies on many hypothetical questions, they are questions that theater departments internationally will inevitably face as critical conversations of race (and performing race) continue to fill musical conversations.

1 Carol Oja, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 13-30.

2 Julia Pilkington, “‘In the Heights’ Seeks to Define ‘Home’,” Manitou Messenger, November 14, 2013,

The Folk Revival hits St. Olaf with Folk Festivals

During the 1960’s, folk music in the United States was gaining popularity. Folk songs accompanied by banjos and guitars that were a staple in the south earlier started to spread northward and found homes in college dorms across the country. One of these colleges happen to be our very own St. Olaf.

When sifting through old articles of the college newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, many stories appear of the folk music tradition on campus. Below, is a snippet from the Manitou Messenger about the traditional Folk Festival St. Olaf used to hold each spring.

During these festivals, there was a variety of banjo strumming workshops, watching videos of popular folk musicians at the time, performances by the St. Olaf Folk Dance Group and then of course the folk concert, by “some of the best folk artists of the Midwest.”1 As a musical campus, it is not surprising for the college to become a folk scene. In Pete Seeger’s words, “Whatever people are singing-that’s folk music.”2 What were the folks at St. Olaf singing? Aside from Beautiful savior, our folk scene brought “Talking St. Olaf Blues” and one “The ballad of Ytterboe” (about a dog, not the dorm), were written by a college student Paul Ingvolstaud in 1963.2 Unfortunately, in true folk song spirit, I have been unable to locate recordings of these.

In these campus folk festivals, various campus language clubs set up booths and different cultural food was presented. The St. Olaf Folk Dance Group danced different folk styles, from Scottish to Filipino.2 St. Olaf used the annual folk festival to not only embrace their folk tradition, but traditions of other cultures that made up the college’s identity. The revival of folk music and its spreading to colleges reflect its stickiness to the young generation at the time, especially on a campus that is known for their singing.

1 “Folk Festival Returns!” The Manitou Messenger. 5 April 1963. Digital.

2 “Whatever folks are singing….that’s what makes it folk music” The Manitou Messenger. 15 February 1963. Digital.

From Gershwin to Gomez

“Easy to listen to…” 

…were the words used to describe George Gershwin’s works in a 1949 piano faculty recital, according to the Manitou Messenger[1]. That evening, Prof. Joseph Running of St. Olaf College performed a piano concert consisting of all American works. He stated in his interview with The Mess that he is “desperately anxious to be a missionary for the contemporaries.” With this in mind, he programmed White Peacock and Sonata by Charles Griffes, Variations on a Bavarian Dance and The Camptown Races by Paul Nordoff, and the “easy to listen to” Three Preludes for Solo Piano by George Gershwin. (I found a recording of Gershwin, himself, playing them here!)

I took a listen to Gershwin’s Three Preludes, and what struck me is that while they may “easy to listen to” because they make us listeners want to tap our toe, they are not this way because of having a simple harmony or rhythm. In 1986, Leonard Pennario, the American pianist who performed Three Preludes on the LP recording I found in Halvorson Library’s Vinyl Collection, stated that,

“Gershwin’s music is very dear to my heart and is among the most beautiful music ever created.”[2]

People today find Gershwin’s Three Preludes just as beautiful and encapsulating of the American spirit as they did over 60 years ago. Nana Kwame, a Youtube user, commented,

“[They] just give you that ‘New York’ spirit.”[3]

Likewise, Dimitri A. commented on Youtube,

“Simply beautiful. Prelude #1 and #2 always give me the goosebumps. Gershwin was a genius.”[4]

As we’ve learned from readings and discussions in class, not all music that had its origins in Tin Pan Alley has had such long-lasting success. Each of the three movements of Gershwin’s piece are motif- or riff-driven: the first prelude is built upon a blue-note riff, the second is a blues-y lullaby, and the third combines these blues elements and sets them to a Caribbean beat. When I was listening to the LP and reading the YouTube and Mess reviews, I realized that Gershwin’s music contains a kind of “glue” that has influenced the American pop music genre: riffs. This riff-based inspiration is something that can be found in most any popular song to this day. Today’s #1 song on the USA pop charts is Selena Gomez’s Lose You to Love Me… a song that is based upon a riff that the piano opens with.

Because Gershwin’s innovations never departed from American pop music, his music has trained the American music consumer’s ear to find riff-based pieces… easy to listen to.


Primary Sources:

[1] “Running Is All-American In Last of Recital Series.” The Manitou Messenger, May 6, 1949. Accessed October 28, 2019.

[2] George Gershwins Song Book & Other Music for Piano Solo, 1986.

Secondary Sources:

[3] “George Gershwin: Three Preludes.” YouTube. YouTube, July 29, 2008. Accessed October 30, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

The Early 20th Century Othering of African-American Music

African-American composers and performers have long been disregarded and ignored in the American music industry. But visibility and exposure are the not the only problems they have faced; even when performances or recordings featured music by African-American composers, for example, they often did so in a way that presented these works as peripheral.

While searching through old articles written in The Manitou Messenger, one particular review of a vocal performance stuck out to me. The article is a review of a Canadian baritone, Cameron McLean, who performed at St. Olaf on December 6, 1923. Apart from several unintentional roasts by the author (“It was pleasing, but not especially brilliant”), one of the opening descriptions of the repertoire caught my eye. The author details the program, saying “His native Scotch songs were features of the program, although he presented several from other sources, Italian, American, Russian and German. One negro spiritual was also included.”1

Listing the spiritual song as separate from all of the other pieces featured is just one example of a way music by African-Americans was othered even when it was performed. By all rights, the spiritual should be included in the previously mentioned category of “American music,” but instead, it is viewed as something different that must be mentioned on its own. In addition to this, the actual content of the review specifically calls out the two spiritual-esque songs, “The Gospel Train” and “Goin’ Home” as weaker parts of the performance.2 It could very well be that the reviewer just thought the McLean did not connect with these pieces as well or that his performance was technically weaker, but I suspect the author had a personal and societally enforced bias against these songs.

When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records. 1976.

Though it came earlier in time, an album of “American Art Songs” found in the music library was less blatant in its othering of African-American spirituals. The album, called “When I Have Sung My Songs,” features twenty art songs by American composers, including three by H. T. Burleigh.3 While these three are not blatantly treated any differently than the rest of the songs on the record, the cover material does seem to set them apart a bit. There is a large informational timeline entitled “Highlights of German Immigrant Influence in the United States, 1859-1918” that takes up half of the back cover. Digging deeper into the other composers featured in the album, I found that the majority had connections to Germany. From Edward MacDowell, who studied in Germany, to Walter Damrosch, who was born in Germany, it seemed like German-influenced American composers were the theme of the album, with African-American composers such as H. T. Burleigh and J. Rosamond Johson once again conspicuously outsiders.

Clearly, even when African-American composers did begin to gain a little attention and exposure in the American classical music scene, the battle was not won. The early twentieth century may have allowed them to have a corner of the spotlight, but the way they were presented still made it clear that they did not fully belong.


1 “Music Review”, The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 13,  Vol. 037, December  11, 1923, page 4.

2 Ibid.

3 When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records, 1976.

Works Cited:

“Music Review”, The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 13,  Vol. 037, December  11, 1923, page 4., Accessed October 30, 2019.

When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records. 1976, Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

White Spirituals: An expression of culture or attempt at oppression?

While browsing the LPs available at the St Olaf Halvorson Music Library, I came across an interesting find:

This is an LP entitled “White Spirituals,” recorded by the Atlantic Record Label in 1959.  It comes from their Southern Folk Heritage Series, and contains 14 songs (7 per side) of various style and origin.  The timing of the album is what brought my suspicion, as 1959 seems a peculiar time to publish such a collection, and remarkably close to the Civil Rights Movement.  In fact, the 1950s saw a resurgence of racially motivated killings and beatings, as well as less violent forms of segregation.  1954 saw the passing of Brown v Board of Education, which received quite a bit of pushback in many states throughout the US.  1957 saw the passing of the civil rights act, propelled by the protests of Martin Luther King Jr in Montgomery starting in 1955-1956.  1959, the year this album was published, saw Mack Charles Parker beaten in his Jail cell by a mob while he stood awaiting trial for raping a pregnant white woman.  Parker was lynched shortly after in a park.

This brief racial history of the 1950s in the US serves to give us a backdrop for this album and its insistence on “White Spirituals.”  If George Pullen Jackson is to be believed, all spirituals have their origins in white music.  In fact, George Pullen Jackson had written most of his work between 10-20 years prior to this albums recording, so its possible that the producers were familiar with his work and seeking to support his hypotheses.  Interestingly though, it seems as not all of the recorded songs would support Jackson.

There are three in particular that seem to point this album towards the path of cataloguing, rather than racial politicking.  A5-A7 are all songs in the Lining Out or Sacred Harp style, an easily identifiable style of music popular in the Appalachian and Southern Churches, although they were brought to prominence in New England before the independence of the colonies.  After seeing these three songs, I looked into the other artists and they are all quite prominent musicians of the southern Gospel tradition.  Estil C Ball is the most prominently featured musician, and he is a songwriter/singer/guitarist performing his own original music, informed by the bluegrass tradition in Appalachia.  This is to say, I don’t believe this album is a political statement towards the whiteness inherent in spirituals at all.  The title does not refer to spirituals in the “Negro Spiritual” sense, but rather songs of the south that are sacred in nature.

This is all a longwinded, and potentially completely unwanted explanation, on how my personal biases have been shown rather false.  I was struck and intrigued by an album called White Spirituals, and I hoped it would be a treasure trove of racist bile.  My confirmation bias led me to initially criticize the album for being published at such a time.  In the end, however, research won out and showed me an example of good musicological work with an unfortunate title.

Do American jazz musicians make jazz American?

In 1971, the Archive of Folk and Jazz Music released a new record: “Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars.” On the back of the record packaging, there is a Statement of Purpose saying that the Archive wishes to bring historic jazz and folk records to the general public, as the modern jazz and folk music does not represent the “sincerity and soul of the [original] artists” 1

So, the Archive has taken it upon themselves to find and clean previously released records by jazz performers they find authentic who may have been robbed of the opportunity to record in a quality studio.

They hope to recognize these artists and ensure that the public is receiving top-notch recordings from “true” jazz performers.

“Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars” was one of those records. It was originally published in 1957 and featured songs such as “Jazz me Blues” and “South Rampart Street Parade.” Fountain was introduced to music early on, as his father played with various bands around Mississippi and Fountain eventually played with prominent bands before creating his own group, “Pete Fountain and his Three Coins.” In the records, you can hear Fountain implementing staple aspects of jazz, including blues notes and polyrhythm.

“Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars” record cover

In 1956, only one year before Pete Fountain released the original record, the St. Olaf Manitou Messenger published an article titled “An Introduction to Jazz,” written by Allan Townsend. It was published in a section called “Arts and the Man” and was written in anticipation of pianist Don Shirley’s visit to campus.  Townsend writes, “At last the great white gods of the conservative circles have been forced to openly recognize Jazz as a truly creative art.”2 According to Townsend, Shirley is honored as the missing link between classical and jazz music.

However, Townsend opens the next paragraph with, “Without being burned for heresy, we can now look at Jazz for what it really is—America’s greatest cultural contribution to the creative arts of the world.”2

Townsend’s article in the Manitou Messenger

He finishes: “Jazz is American. It breathes of the very stuff that has gone into making you and me what we are, and we should make an effort to learn about our own culture.”2

Both Townsend and the Archive of Folk and Jazz Music take authority in determining what they think is authentic jazz. However, they seem to have a similar opinion that jazz is a product of American culture. 

Sure, Shirley and Fountain are a part of American culture, but does that mean that jazz comes from America?

In my opinion, the answer is “no.” We can’t say that America is the birthplace of jazz, when two fundamental aspects of jazz that Fountain featured in his record—polyrhythm and blues notes—come from African roots. We can’t say that America is the birthplace of jazz if another factor of jazz, call and response, is a pattern characterized in African music. 3

Townsend says that jazz is in American culture, and yes, jazz has become a part of American culture, but that doesn’t mean that America created jazz. 

Whether Shirley and Fountain are “authentic” jazz musicians is a different question, but it is unquestionable that they are Americans who have infused jazz into American culture, not Americans performing American music. Jazz comes from roots all around the world; while Townsend and the Archive may want to claim jazz as America’s musical genius, it is simply not the case.


1  Fountain, Pete. New Orleans all stars. Place of publication not identified: Everest Records, 1971. Print.

2 Townsend, Allan. “An Introduction to Jazz.” Manitou Messenger, February 3, 1956, Arts and the Man sec. Accessed October 29, 2019.

3 Evans, Lee. “The African Origins of Jazz.” JazzEd, (accessed October 29, 2019).

William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA

Cover of St. Olaf Orchestra’s 2005 recording of Highway One, USA by William Grant Still

In 2005 St. Olaf Orchestra recorded William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA under conductor Philip Brunelle. This recording recently made national news in the New York Times’ article “Operas by Black Composers Have Long Been Ignored. Explore 8.” Here, the St. Olaf recording is linked as the go-to alongside a shout-out for a recording from Sony’s 1970s Black Composers Series. Luckily, both of these recordings are available through the libraries, the former in an online database and the latter in the Halvorson Vinyl Record collection.


Cover of the Black Composers Series recording of Highway One, USA

The Black Composers Series is a 9-volume box set featuring works by William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Ulysses Simpson Kay, George Theophilus Walker, Roque Cordero, José Mauricio Nuñes-Garcia, and José White, among others. In addition to the arias “What Does He Know of Dreams?” and “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, Still’s Afro-American Symphony and Sahdji: Ballet for Orchestra and Chorus are featured. The inside cover notes that this 1986 reissue was a project by the Committee on the Status of Minorities of The College Music Society in consultation with the Center for Black Music Research, firmly situating the album in a socio-political agenda of representation.

Liner Notes from St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording

While the Black Composers Series is valuable in providing an anthology of recordings that have been often marginalized, St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording is arguably more in line with Still’s ambitions because it presents the opera without qualifying it based on the composer’s race. By presenting the opera as it would any other recording, the publication avoids further alienating or segregating works in the classical music genre.

Because the St. Olaf Orchestra recorded this in collaboration with the accomplished Twin Cities-based VocalEssence, I went into the Manitou Messenger archives eager to find content about the recording’s process and reception. Unfortunately, despite extensive digging I was unable to find anything about the recording. Much less notable concerts were covered, including what felt like an endless slew of post-tour home concert summaries.

Although I was unable to find anything about the recording session of Still’s opera, I was so excited to see the headline “St. Olaf Orchestra concert to feature wide variety of composers” come from a March 1996 article of the Manitou Messenger. Since we’ve been talking about racial representation in classical music, and performing works by marginalized groups is one way to reform this narrative, I was interested to see what this article had to say about the concert.

I was more than a little disappointed when the “diversity” I expected to see was no other than the white-boy trinity of Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Samuel Barber. In addition to being Euro-centric and commonly performed as a part of the Western Classical Canon (although perhaps not household names for those unfamiliar with the genre), they are all 20th century composers. The author does not address why he considers this to be a “wide variety.”


Works Cited

DeRose, Jason. „St. Olaf Orchestra concerto to feature wide variety of composers.” The Manitou Messenger 13, vol. 109. March 15, 1996. 9.

Still, William Grant. “What Does He Know of Dreams?” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.

Still, William Grant. “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.


More than Just “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

The chill in the air around campus has started to make me think of the approaching Christmas season. Every year the caf fires up its ovens to make Fest Food ™, a huge Christmas tree is put up in Buntrock, and you may find students watching a particular movie huddled up in their dorms: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Released on December 6th, 1965, “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ incorporated unexpected elements in its animation – the voices of children instead of trained adults, jazz music, a Bible passage, and no laugh track [1].” Created from the popular comic strip by Charles Shultz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had a large sponsorship when it first premiered with the coca-cola franchise (in the midst of the pepsi/ coke wars). “In 1966,  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would go on to win a Peabody and an Emmy for outstanding children’s programming, The success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” changed the network’s prime-time philosophy [1].”

I would argue that the most well-known aspect of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the music. The music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special is engrained on millions of American memories, including my own. “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Skating” were both originals created for the show and are now sung around the world during the holidays. American jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi composed most of the music himself, while including traditional Christmas hymns such as “O Tannenbaum” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” In 2012 the album was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings

While looking through St. Olaf College’s Vinyl collection, I was shocked at how many versions and remakes the college owns of the songs from the original album:

There’s something about this film that seems to hit a chord with people (pun intended). According to Conlan Campbell of the Manitou Messenger:

I’m not a particularly big fan of Christmas media or a particularly big fan of the Peanuts series, but every year I find myself drawn to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Unlike most holiday specials, this one does not feel to me like an aside or cash-in on Christmas iconography. There is some essential quality in this film that sets it apart to me, making it perfect. […] Beyond the narrative, all the compositional elements are in perfect interplay. Vince Guaraldi’s iconic low-key jazz backs up almost every scene and the environments feel authentic. The world is flat and simple, but immersively so. Nature is compact but always shifting and the indoors feel cozy and certain. The night sky is constantly changing and the scale feels like childhood. What was small in a moment becomes immensely large and the characters shrink into it [3].”

Campbell is not alone is his love for the show. Over 15 million households around America (nearly half of all American television sets) tuned into the Christmas special on the night of December 6th, 1965, and it has run at least once every year after (2019 will be its fifty-fourth year!). This sweet, unassuming children’s special has turned into a musical tradition for generations of Americans, and remains a timeless part of American popular culture.


[1 Hagen, Carrie. “The ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Special Was the Flop That Wasn’t.” Smithsonian, 9 Dec. 2015.

[2] St. Olaf College Vinyl Collection, accessed Oct. 29, 2019.

[3] Campbell, Conlan. “Charlie Brown Film Achieves Perfection.” Manitou Messenger, 11 Feb. 2018.

Copland’s Passion for American Music

In reading through the letters from The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, I was reminded of our discussions in class regarding the exerted effort to define and develop an American classical music. This proves to be a major theme in Copland’s letters, and it manifests in several ways.

One of the most explicit examples of his passion for cultivating American classical music is in a 1932 letter to the New York Times in response to his being misquoted as calling music critics a “menace” to American music. Regarding the conference during which he was misquoted, he writes:

Our purpose was the thoroughly serious one of considering the relation between the American composer and the music critic. . . . The composer needs the critic. . . . He is an absolute necessity, if only because he serves as the middle man between the public and the creative artist.

. . . The position of the American composer has changed, and . . . he is no longer satisfied with the merely tolerant and often apathetic attitude of the press toward American music in general . . . [as it is] no longer apposite to the body of vital music which is being created—and what is more, performed.1

In the postscript, Copland also writes:

In justice to myself I am forced to add that the above remarks are made distinctly in relation to new American music as a whole and not to my personal creations, which have almost always been quite sufficiently noticed, due to the particular auspices under which they were presented.1

Despite having great success as a composer himself, Copland is passionate about improving the attitude towards American music in general—a “thoroughly serious” matter regarding this “body of vital music,” in which critics are an “absolute necessity,” all very strong language, and aimed at the issue of American music more than the actual controversy of his being misquoted.

The conference at which he was misquoted provides more evidence for this passion. It was the First Festival of Contemporary American Music, in which Copland played a major administrative and musical role.2 In the letters sent around the same time as his note to the New York Times, he focuses on the success of the festival, and gives much encouragement to composers whose works were performed at the festival, an example of the encouragement he gives to other composers, students and colleagues alike, throughout his letters.

In his letter to Virgil Thomson about the festival, he writes, “I’m delighted for you because I feel it’s the first real success you’ve had in America. I’ll see to it that the League of Composers performs it in N.Y. next season.”3 This quote also brings up his involvement in the League of Composers, another organization championing American classical music.

In another letter about the success of the festival, he writes to Carlos Chávez of his fondness for the Mexican-inspired music at the festival, illustrating how Copland viewed Mexico as an appropriate and even desirable inspiration for American music.3 Incidentally, around this time Copland also traveled to Mexico, which his letters trace, and did seem to find the trip inspiring. In another letter to Carlos Chávez, he writes, “I regretted leaving Mexico with a sharp pang. It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in three months in Mexico.”4 The visit to Mexico inspired Copland’s piece El Salón México, which started him down the path of using Mexican and folk inspiration for his music, making it both American and accessible.5

American music was clearly a passion for Copland, and he was much more involved in developing and promoting it than he needed to be as an already successful American composer. From being active in organizations to supporting other composers to seeking out his own American inspiration, he saught to create an American music that would satisfy not only the composers but also as much of the American public as possible.

1 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, eds., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 91.

2 Ibid, 88.

3 Ibid, 92.

4 Ibid, 101.

5 Ibid, 89.

“Copland: El Salón México ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Carlos Miguel Prieto.” YouTube video, 13:36, posted by hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Jan 22, 2013,

A European Composer with Opinions on American Music

© National Portrait Gallery, London Poldowski (Régine (née Wieniawski), Lady Dean Paul) by Bassano Ltd

The composer I’d like to center this blog around is one whose music I was introduced to last year when I was searching for female composers. Although she went by a handful of names, her pieces were published under the name of Poldowski, a nom de plume that had no signifier of her gender. She was born in Brussels in 1879, moved to England around the turn of the century, adopted British citizenship when she married in 1901, and composed art songs in french [2,3]. She isn’t an American however I found the intricacies of her background parallel to how we have been discussing identity in music. She did, however, “concertize” in the United States for two winters and a summer. Her passing in 1932 led to some striking obituaries, one in particular was in the New York Times ten years after she had visited. The obituary discussed the fame she had gained in both Paris and London and how her concerts in the United States helped to establish her as a great “writer of songs” in comparison to Debussy [2]. In that same obituary, certain musical qualities were associated to parts of her race:


“Through an Irish mother, she inherited an added gift of the fantastic and paradoxical in humor with the mixture of Polish ancestry, which gave her music the complex sadness and gaiety of harmonization….”

We don’t often discuss the essentialization of white composers since whiteness has become a term of homogeneity but it’s informative to see articles such as these that othered composers of different nationalities. 


What caught my eye, in particular, was an article she had written called, “The Influence of Jazz” in 1927. She is reflecting on the influence of Jazz on orchestrated music and her conclusion is:

“To admit the influence of jazz on music, is to admit the influence of cocktails on vineyards, or the cinema on painting! A composite American device is not a new creation, or any sort of creation, it is a stimulant, and a very good and healthy one, if kept in its own sphere.” [2] 

She compares jazz musicians to Wagner and Stravinsky and claims that the two were geniuses whereas jazz musicians are “stunt-monger[ers]”[2]. This type of critique is outdated but important to look back on, especially when choosing art-song composers to perform.  

Although she asked as she was dying, “Do look after my music!” I feel hesitant to continue to do so [1]. 

Works Cited

[1] Drucker, Ruth et al. “A Collection of art songs by women composers .” 1998: n. pag. Print.


[3] Kness, Karen. “An analytical comparison of the art song style of Poldowski with the styles of Debussy and Fauré.” (2012).

W.C. Handy & William Grant Still: A Bromance?

Samuel Floyd Jr. and Rae Linda Brown both allude to the tight community of black composers during the Harlem Renaissance, but I did not process the significance of this until I read some of W.C. Handy’s letters to William Grant Still. Even reading just a few of these letters gave me a much better idea of the relationship between Still and Handy.

Brown notes that Still worked for Pace & Handy’s publishing company first in Memphis and then in New York, acknowledging that:

“Handy’s office was to become important in Still’s career. It was here that prominent black musicians met and made personal contacts so critical to their professional survival.”(72)

Letters between Handy and Still prove an intimately personal in addition to professional relationship. This relationship is most obvious in the non-musical discourse between the two, particularly the familiarity of their greetings and discussions. Handy’s salutations most commonly read “Dear Friend Still,” and he routinely closes with a greeting from his wife or an update on the health of his two daughters, Katherine and Lucille.

My personal favorite letter dates from April 29, 1941. I am particularly drawn to it because of the synthesis of personal endearment and professional collaboration.

From the first section of the letter it is clear that Handy has sent Still a “script” for his scrapbook. Although the exact context is unclear, my interpretation is that this was a speech of Handy’s. Here, the professional is closely intertwined with the personal; the speech itself was most likely professional in its content, but the familiar tone of the letter suggests that it was sent to his friend simply for Still’s enjoyment. The paragraph closes with a promise to make a new disc so that Still’s son Duncan will have a recording of Handy’s voice.

In addition to a discussion of sponsorship, new recordings, and the recent Ziegfeld picture, it is clear that Handy’s primary reason for writing this letter was to ask for advice on what he should charge for an appearance in Birth of the Blues as well as for a book. This simple request demonstrates the familiarity with which Handy is able to ask for Still’s opinion and shows that their close relationship is still rooted in their professional lives.

W.C. Handy and William Grant Still, 1939-40.

The letters of this collection are important to see how personal relationships worked alongside the professional musical output of this period. Based on this (albeit limited) evidence, I think Brown’s statement can be amended to include the importance of personal contacts to their social as well as professional survival.






Works Cited

Brown, Rae Linda. “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem renaissance.” Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. 71-86.

Handy, W.C. and Eileen Southern. “Letters from W.C. Handy to William Grant Still.” The Black Perspective in Music , no. 2 (1979):199-234. Accessed October 26, 2019.

Margaret Bonds and the Importance of Musical Community

This week was the first time I was able to really sit down and skim through materials useful for my final essay. Overall, I am interested in understanding Chicago concert music life between 1915 and 1930 to show that geographically limited micro-histories help us better understand musical life (as opposed to blanketing all music making under a period marked as a precursor to the Chicago Renaissance). Two books in particular, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music1 and Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-19432 make something very clear: community and camaraderie were vastly important to American composers, especially African-American ones. During my time at St. Olaf, part of which I thought I was going to major in composition, the “composer” stereotype described a person who spent most of their time locked in a room alone, maybe with a piano, writing. However, this representation shows no grounding in the black artistic communities of Chicago.

Image result for margaret bonds

One great example of such a community surrounded the composer and pianist Margaret Bonds. Bonds grew up in Chicago and learned to play piano from her musical mother, Estella Bonds, and Florence Price. She attended Northwestern University, and continued to teach and work in Chicago until age 26. In addition to her mentors Florence and Estella, her writings and letters reveal some of the most reputable names in black artistic life. For example, early in her career, Bonds worked with prominent soprano Abbie Mitchell. And early on, Bonds was introduced to Mitchell’s then husband, Will Marion Cook, marking the beginning of a life-long working relationship.”3

Or for example, the beginning of Bonds’ friendship with Langston Hughes:

“I actually met [Langston]…after I came out of the university. The first time I saw Langston was at Tony’s house in Chicago, Tony Hill, the ceramicist. Finally he came to my house. My family rolled out the red carpet. We were like brother and sister, like blood relatives.”4

My initial reaction to reading these letter excerpts was, “Wow Margaret was popular”. I’m sure that it was partly because of the political environment — because African Americans were shut out of other communities, they especially relied on one another. While this might have been true to a certain extent, why was I surprised that this musical community was so intertwined? Humans are social beings. We spend our lives building connections that produce more connections. However, maybe I was surprised because of the way we are traditionally taught history. In my experience, the names of community members, families, or others who helped the success of one person are often left out of history. This is especially when it comes to celebrities. I hope that in the future, these names will be included more and more.

1 Helen Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

2 Lawrence Schenbeck. Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-1943. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

3 Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies, 148.

4 Ibid., 149.

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression Part II: Electric Boogaloo

After my previous blog post, I left feeling somewhat incomplete about Virgil Thomson’s opinion of American opera not having a distinctive voice and how Thomson ignored George Gershwin’s works entirely, especially Porgy and Bess.  I wanted to investigate further if there may be a possible reason why Thomson made such an omission.  While I could not find any readily-available correspondences of Gershwin, I did manage to discover an interesting transcription of a letter by a University of Michigan undergraduate student that was discovered in the DuBose Heyward archives held by the South Carolina Historical Society.  This letter was written “about a year and a half before Porgy and Bess‘s premiere in September of 1935″ to DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy, which was the source material for Gershwin’s opera.  After discussing his early work on the music and the script, he describes seeing 4 Saints In 3 Works, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson:

I saw “4 Saints In 3 Acts”, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, with a colored cast. The libretto was entirely in Stein’s manner, which means that it has the effect of a 5-year-old child prattling on. Musically, it sounded early 19th Century, which was a happy inspiration and made the libretto bearable – in fact, quite entertaining. There may be one or two in the cast that would be useful to you. us [handwritten]. [1]

It is as though Gershwin saw Thomson’s opera as an opportunity to say “I like what you’ve done with this, but watch me do it better.”  If so, that is one hell of a flex on Virgil Thomson.  However, after reading some of the correspondence between Thomson and Gertrude Stein, I would imagine that Thomson felt that his work had not payed off to the reception that he had anticipated:

21 April [1934]

Dear Gertude

The opera is closed now for the summer and everybody has had a lovely time about it and I must say that in every way it was very, very beautiful and of course there were some who didn’t like the music and some who didn’t like the words and even some who didn’t like the decors or the choreography but there wasn’t anybody who didn’t see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful and I wish you could have seen the faces of people as they watched and listened. [2]

The letter continues with the logistics of their arrangements of the publishing rights split 50-50 between Thomson and Stein, which seemed to be an uphill battle for Thomson to demand an equal split between the composer and the librettist, but that’s a topic for another day.

Out of these correspondences from the same time-frame, I would imagine that there might have been some animosity between Thomson and Gershwin from Porgy and Bess standing the test of time as an “innovative” opera compared to Thomson’s 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which has not received the critical success that Gershwin did.  Perhaps that might explain why Thomson chose to not discuss Gershwin in the particular section of the reading from last week.  He has every reason to take personal offense to think Gershwin stole his thunder with Porgy and Bess and it certainly speaks to the idea that Gershwin frequently rode the line when it came to writing music from inspiration and straight-up stealing.


[1] Sobolak, Frances. “Making Porgy and Bess – The Letters,” The Gershwin Letters, University of Michigan, February 26, 2016,

[2] Thomson, Virgil. “Letters to Gertrude Stein, 1926-38.” Grand Street Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1988). 50-70. DOI: 10.2307/25007076

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,

Copeland and the Creation of Identity

The late 1930s to the early 1940s  were a turning point for American identity as we now know it. In the midst of World War II, Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their relation to the world shifted dramatically with the rise of nationalism and a sense of a distinct American identity – one that did not revolve around the previously established identities of other nations. This creation of an American identity called for the generation of what we now consider the “American sound.”

Aaron Copeland was the pioneer of this sound. Hailing from Brooklyn, he became influenced by street jazz, as well as music from his travels to Paris, Mexico, and Cuba. He found real success beginning in 1939 with a move to Hollywood, where he composed commercial film scores, which led him to a New York premiere of a ballet – Billy the Kid. This premiere brought his name to national recognition, which led to, arguably, his greatest success and a key example of the aforementioned American sound, Appalachian Spring. 

1939-1945 was also a period of personal and musical identity exploration and definition for Copeland. In 1939, he began what would become a long-term friendship with composer Leonard Bernstein. The two wrote often, and it is speculated that the two were involved romantically from ‘39 to ‘41. When Copeland visited Havana, he wrote Bernstein about sitting in clubs for hours on end listening to music, saying “the thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me … and just to think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this.” 

I found it particularly interesting to see Copeland, who is the father of American sound, influenced by Cuban and Parisian music, especially at a time when it was so important for America to distinguish itself as a leading nation.

Works Cited:

CRIST, ELIZABETH B., and WAYNE SHIRLEY, editors. “Musical Triumphs, 1937–42.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 120–147. JSTOR,

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,


Dilution to transcendence

Blogpost #6

This is a 1945 recording of Charles Ives’ “In the Inn”. The performer in question is John Kirkpatrick[1], a pianist who championed of Ives and other composers of his scope, for instance Carl Ruggles. This is evident in his lengthy, if not a bit irregular correspondence with Ives’, from the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s until Ives death in 1954. Kirkpatrick’s approach to the works of Ives and Ruggles is nothing if not thorough; always asking for clarification of his interpretations, and expressing a profound respect for the harmonic intent of Ives.

Th correspondence shows that Kirkpatrick quite continuously throughout these decades was helping Ives develop pieces and initiating projects regarding his works, including this recording of “In the inn”. The piece’s original draft was dated around 1915 and composed about a decade earlier. As the second movement of Ives’ A Set of Pieces for Theater or Chamber Orchestra it shares the overall ragtime feel of the collection. The repurposing of the something with such close ties to Afro American culture, albeit in a new harmonic context, may indicate that Ives’ idea of creating a “new music” does in fact not completely sever ties with the American past.

In one of what Owens calls Kirkpatrick’s “semiregular progress-report letters”[2] he finishes his letter with contextualising the works of first Ruggles (“good old Carl”) and comparatively:

“Take good old Carl, for instance,— the splendid freedom of his musical inspiration, and the almost pedantic preoccupation with his non-repetition-of-note principle — the startling “modern” quality of his dissonant harmony, and the unmistakably “romantic” Wagner-Strauss derivation of his melodic contour. And of course, nobody has ever combined in their music more diverse elements than Ives!”[3]

It is evident that drawing inspiration from a wide variety of musical influences, both aesthetically and with regards to musical traditions, from different time periods and cultures is something Kirkpatrick holds in high regard. Is the synthesizing of inspirational sources an attempt of constructing a music that transcends race, identity and nationality? One could argue that if one merges enough elements one dilutes the source material to the point of transcendence.


Primary sources:

“Ives: In the Inn (John Kirkpatrick, 1945)”. [Accessed October 23th, 2019]

Owens, Tom C. (ed.). Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives (2007). University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Secondary sources:

Barron, James. “John Kirkpatrick Is Dead at 86; A Pianist Who Popularized Ives”. The New York Times. November 11th, 1991. [Accessed October 23th, 2019]



[1] Barron 1991

[2] Owens 2007: p. 305

[3] Ibid p. 304

Copland vs. Downes—The Battle Between Musicians and Their Critics in the 1930s

A week in late April 1932 stirred up unexpected controversy between American art music composers and their critics. Yaddo, a five-day conference modeled after European composition festivals, was held to “give leading American composers an opportunity to present their lesser-known works before distinguished audiences.”[1] Yet, not a single music critic came to hear the “strange tunes, in which harsh chords rasped out above brooding harmonies.”[2] And Aaron Copland, one of the leaders in American music composition in the 1930s, was not about to let this incident go unnoticed.

In a letter to The New York Times on May 8, 1932, he wrote:

Copland’s outcry to music critics to take American music seriously prompted Olin Downes to chime in on the discussion. Downes, a music critic for The New York Times, had “considerable influence on musical opinion, although many of his judgments have not stood the test of time.”[3] In an article written in response to Copland’s letter, Downes wrote:


Apart from degrading the quality of new American works, Downes throws Wagner, perhaps the “most German” of all the German composers, into the ring. His comparison of American composers’ treatment versus German composers’ treatment reminds me of discussions we’ve been having in class about the significance of European (mainly German) composers to the identity of American composers. These German “greats” were the cornerstone of the building that is American music. However, following the building analogy, Downes thought Copland and his contemporaries were not building on the grand building that he envisioned American music to be, but rather, they were building a little hut off to the side.

I find myself getting frustrated with Downes’ dismissive attitude towards the new American works of the 1930s. Yet, how easily we Americans can still fall into this trap of constructing an identity for American music in 2019. The question for us is, are we going to continue falling into that trap?


Primary Source:

Copland, Aaron. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Secondary Sources:

[1] “COMPOSERS ASSAIL CRITICS AT YADDO.” The New York Times, May 2, 1932.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Olin Downes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, February 5, 2016.

[4] Downes, Olin. “The Daily Review Versus the Weekly Essay – The Native Writer’s Opportunities and Merits.” The New York Times, May 8, 1932.


Dvořák’s Letter to a Friend

Antonín Dvořák

As we have read in the latest Shadle reading, Antonín Dvořák’s interest in involving black music into a specific American sound sparked controversy in the American classical world of music. In a letter, Anton Dvořák wrote to Oskar Nebdal, his former student and principle conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1896 to 1906. The letter comes from Otakar Dvořák’s work, Anton Dvořák, My Father. The date of the letter is unknown but I believe its reasonable to guess it came after the publication of From a New World. Dvořák writes:

“I am sending you Kretschmar’s analysis of Symphony, but omit the nonsense that I used an American and Indian motif because it is a lie. I just wrote in the spirit of American national melodies,” (Dvořák 159).

(Hermann Kretschmar: German musicologist)

After reading this passage for class, I had questions regarding the intentions and thoughts of this composer. After finding this letter, I have more questions. If Dvořák sparked so much controversy in America defending his stance of Negro music needing to make American music distinctive, then why leave out details for his friends at home. What does he mean by the spirit of American national melodies? In my last blog post, I discussed the spirituality involved in Negro Spirituals argued by H. T. Burleigh and Samuel Floyd Jr.
Perhaps Dvořák didn’t want to explain the race relations of America to his Czech friends and the controversy following him around. Another possibility could be the composer wanting credit for the music and not being told he stole from other sources.

I find this letter fascinating. While it makes a clearer image of the life of Dvořák during this time, it brings up more and more questions about the thought process of the composer and what occurred during this time for him.



-Dvořák Otakar, and Paul J. Polansky. Antonín Dvořák, My Father. Czech Historical Research Center, 1993.

An “American Sound” — Identity or Simplification?

“The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music.” — Antonin Dvorak

“To classify music according to nationalities is to narrow its scope.” — Edward MacDowell

“To attain musical independence, more national consciousness is a present necessity for American composers.” — Henry Cowell

The more letters by composers one reads from the turn of the 20th century, the more clear it becomes that, just as much a focus as how to create an American sound, a primary issue of the time was whether to do so. Certainly many composers sought this end, including Dvorak and Cowell, as well as Gershwin, who suggested European composers like Dvorak may be more initially suited to extracting such a sound. Yet there were also voices like MacDowell’s, who resisted the others’ nationalism.

Photo of MacDowell

Edward MacDowell, image from

In a letter written in 1897, MacDowell replied to Mary M. Shaw regarding which pieces to program for an American-themed concert by saying the whole idea is unwise. Since audiences would only be able to compare between American composers, he believed they would elevate some composers to the disparagement of others. This problem does not disappear when comparing composers of all nationalities, but MacDowell did not advocate for a national sound. At the least, his approach prevents all of American music from being disparaged at once. His wishes advocate a different kind of independence: that of the composer from any restrictions on composition, rather than that of America from Europe.

This understanding of MacDowell’s argument is instructive with his second point as well, quoted briefly above. His choice of words is unfortunate, due to minstrel connotations–“In spite of Mr. Dvorak’s desire to clothe American music in Negro costume…”–but allowing composers freedom in their creativity is a worthy goal when separated from that institution, and being expected to conform to their national identity could be seen as restricting their expression.

The points MacDowell raised are not unreasonable (at least not outright, and without some problematic connotations), but they may have been futile. Virgil Thomson remarked on musical developments around the world, including American music. Young Italians, he said, would sit around late at night until world pop music came on the radio, waiting to have “the satisfaction of hearing real American music, by which they mean Duke Ellington and Bob Crosby . . . They don’t call that music jazz or swing or anything special; they call it la musica americana. And their hats are off to it.”

Art of Duke Ellington at the piano

Art of Duke Ellington by Leonid Afremov


Fisk, Josiah, and Jeff Nichols, ed. Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings, 2nd Ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Norman, Gertrude, and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, eds. Letters of Composers: an Anthology. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.

Page, Vanessa Weeks, and Tim Page, eds. Selected letters of Virgil Thomson. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Friendship ended with Henry Cowell, now Homophobia is my best friend

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer who has achieved international renown, though not during his own lifetime. He is notable in that he was not a career composer; he was an insurance executive, and actually laid the foundation for the modern system of estate planning as we know it today. Through his compositional career, he became close friends with Henry Cowell (1897-1965), one of the most prolific and ahead-of-his-time composers and music theorists of the 20th century. Cowell and Ives, in addition to their friendship, were bound together through the New Music Society, an organization run by Cowell that was dedicated to organizing new music concerts and publishing new music.

Despite advancing his career to the international stage, dark times loomed for Cowell. In May 1936, he was arrested for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts with a 17 year old boy. He was eventually sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Many of his composer colleagues lent him support and publicly campaigned for his release, but Ives, one of his best friends, cut contact with him.

In a letter from Harmony Ives (Charles’ wife) to Charlotte Ruggles (the wife of Carl Ruggles, another central figure in the modernist movement Cowell participated in), she describes Charles’ reaction to hearing the news.

“… I told Charlie and he and I feel just as you do. A thing more abhorrent to Charlie’s nature couldn’t be found. We think these things are too much condoned. He will never willingly, see Henry again — he can’t— he doesn’t want to hear of the thing— the shock used him up and he hasn’t had a long breath since I told him but he will get used to it— isn’t it shocking the things we “get used to”? He said characteristically “I thought he was a man and he’s nothing but a G——— D——- sap!” (Ives 245).

Ives is notorious within music history for his quite conservative and deeply impassioned views on masculinity and femininity (one might even call his views obsessive), but it shows how deep seated his prejudices were that he would completely cut off contact with one of his best friends for over 4 years. According to a 1994 New York Times article, “Ives apparently, in fact, suggested to mutual acquaintances that suicide would be Cowell’s only honorable option” (NYT July 10, 1994).

Ives and Cowell eventually reconnected after the latter’s pardon, but their friendship was much more restrained. Ives did not fully open himself up to Cowell until Cowell told Ives that he planned to marry Sidney Hawkins Robertson, who was an important ethnomusicologist in her own right. (Ives 286-288). It speaks to the societal and interpersonal prejudices Cowell faced that once he was exposed as a queer person, he was not able to shed off such a blow to his character until he married a woman. Though this is speculation on my part, it would make sense to think that Ives reconciled with Cowell because he felt that by marrying a woman, Cowell was somehow relinquishing his identity as a queer person. Though perhaps this idea of forfeiting or changing one’s identity out of personal necessity does not manifest in the same way it has in other areas of the class (black minstrel artists playing up stereotypes in order to make a living, for instance), Cowell had to undergo this process all the same.


Borchert, Kevin. “Gay Composers; behind Ives’ harmonic clashes.” New York Times, 10 July 1994, section 2, page 2. Web.

Hicks, Michael. “The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 44, no. 1, 1991, pp. 92–119. JSTOR,

Owens, Tom C., editor. “EDITORS AND PERFORMERS (1933–1944).” Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2007, pp. 209–314. JSTOR,


The Complex Contradictions of William Grant Still

One particular quote from Tuesday’s reading by Samuel Floyd grabbed my attention; Floyd reveals that “William Grant Still maintained that his purpose was “to elevate Negro musical idioms to a position of dignity and effectiveness in the field of symphonic and operatic music”.1 The fact that Still seems to imply that the current state of black “musical idioms” was lacking something puzzled me. My impression had been that Still was one of the composers who most explicitly worked toward making black voices and sounds heard. Indeed, Rae Brown says that Still “was consciously writing in the Negro idiom”, and Still himself says works such as “Darker America” are meant to “represent the American Negro.”2, 3 That Still seemed to believe that black music was in need of “elevation” at first seems at odds with these other sentiments.

Digging deeper into Still’s personal correspondences with his long-distance friend and colleague, Irving Schwerke, I found myself engrossed in a web of attitudes and opinions that sometimes seem to build on each other and sometimes contradict one another. In one enclosure to Schwerke, Still analyzes his own “Afro-American Symphony” and seems to build upon his previous implication that black musical idioms were at a lower level than classical music. He says that his symphony “portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions…These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally child-like. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity.”4  Still’s blatant comparison between this “class of American Negroes” and children actually shocked me. How do we make sense of one of the most prominent and accomplished African-American composers of the 20th century seeming to buy into many of the stereotypes of black music that we condemn?

Another of Still’s earlier letters to Schwerke perhaps reveals some of the psychology behind his remarks. A distraught Still writes “It is unfortunate for a man of color who is ambitious to live in America…I have never felt this so keenly as in the past few months. Friends who would lend me a helping hand, who would make it possible for me to make a living for my family, are unable to do anything because of those who are opposed to placing a colored man in any position of prominence.”5 This letter reveals some of the strain under which Still struggled during his career. It also made me think twice about my own criticisms of Still’s words. While we certainly should analyze a composer’s opinions, I think it is also important to not let a composer’s identity alter our expectations for these opinions. Perhaps we should criticize Still’s implication that some black melodies are in need of improvement, but we should also acknowledge that he was a composer struggling to make a living; it is entirely possible he was pressured to either conform to society’s stereotypes of black music or espouse them himself. Furthermore, it is natural for any composer to believe their genre of music is superior. It is a slippery slope to write off Still’s statements as pure pride or societal pressure, but I think it is an equally slippery slope to ignore these factors.

All in all, I have no clear answers or even arguments regarding Still’s words, and that is precisely my point. Like all of the issues we discuss, the opinions and words of a composer such as Still are complex and multi-faceted, and we must always strive to avoid oversimplification.

1 Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 13.

2 Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 75.

3 Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. 243.

4 Ibid., 245.

5 Ibid., 239.


Works Cited:

Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. New Yor,. Greenwood Press, 1990.

Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, Center for Black Music Research, 1992.

Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.

Thomson’s understanding of “American Music” is a little too white…

What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise. I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?”     (Thomson)

I found it strange, as did several others, that Thomson is asking this question about “american music” in the seventies, given that by this time several distinctly american operas, such as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Menotti’s “Old Maid and the Thief,” had been performed by notable ensembles and groups in America as well as Europe. 


To know of these works, and then say he can’t predict the success of american opera seems to signal that either he doesn’t believe these works to be american music, or that they are outliers, and not representative of american musical traits.

Virgil’s bias is especially obvious when he pays homage to other composers, with more obviously White-European heritage, like Ives and MacDowell, and hails them as fathers of american style. To cherry-pick certain well known composers like this and then disregard the international successes of others seems to imply some judgement by Thomson of them being less American. 

Menotti was an Italian immigrant, and Gershwin was of Ukrainian/Lithuanian Jewish decent. MacDowell and Ives were both born in america to white american parents. Without assuming too much about Thomson’s intent, it does bring into question his understanding and perspective of American music in how it relates to “whiteness” rather than “American-ness,” and how he may harbor some elitist perceptions of American music in how it relates to white European music tradition, rather than the innovation and creativity of non-white Americans of various immigrant heritages.


Gershwin, George. Porgy and Bess, New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

Menotti, Gian-Carlo. The Old Maid and The Thief, New York: G. Ricordi & Co. inc. 1939

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

Copland and his American Influence

Aaron Copland is widely known as “the dean of American music.” His music reflects Americanism and also helped in the World War II war effort. Aside from domestic efforts, his letters reveal his efforts in spreading American music and its influence to other countries and composers.

U.S. composer Aaron Copland in 1969

Based on Copland’s frequent travel, it almost seems like he did not like staying in America for too long. One country Copland’s musical travels brought him to was Mexico. The purpose of his visit was for a showcase of American composers. Prior to this musical festival, Copland writes to fellow musician Elizabeth Coolidge in 1937 speaking on what American music can do for the country.

“Having lived in Mexico before, I think I can understand what a profound influence such a series of concerts is most likely to have on the musical life of the country.” 1

His expectation of the concerts are later documented in his reply to Coolidge.

“On the whole,  from my own standpoint, the most important aspect of the Festival, was the opportunity it gave me for a cross section view of the present status of our own music. I came away feeling strongly encouraged for its future.” 2

Copland seems to view his performance’s success not only as spreading influence to Mexico, but as a validation for American music’s stronghold to itself. Later in regards to broadening his reach to other Latin American countries, Copland writes to Carlos Chavez, a growing Mexican composer.

“Any other bright ideas you may have, along the lines of furthering cultural relations between Latin American countries and the USA, via music, would be very welcome.”3

Copland and Bernstein

Aside from Copland’s American influence to Latin America via music, is to his admirers who ask for his advice on American nationalism in music. A *special friend* Lenard Bernstein known to Copland affectionately as Lenny, asked for advice while a student at Harvard for his senior thesis about nationalism in American music.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it.  There’s always the chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material.” 4

The fact that Bernstein asks for Copland’s opinions about nationalism in music secures Copland’s place as a stronghold for influence for American identity. Based on this and from his success in spreading American music to other countries show the success of spreading American music and his overwhelming influence on others.

Undine Smith Moore on Musical Value


Helen Walker-Hill’s 2002 book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music chronicles the lives of eight black female composers. This resource 1
not only provides detailed biographical research and quotes from these eight figures, but contextualizes each composer within the historical space in which they worked. Undine Smith Moore is one such composer whose career and academic legacy provides a crucial perspective about the unique challenges and strengths that accompany the way we interpret her work.

I first heard of Undine Smith Moore when I performed her choral piece We Shall Walk in the Valley of Peace at St. Olaf. That striking melody has stayed with me ever since I learned it, but I never encountered any of her work outside of performance. Moore lived from 1904-1989 and attended college at Fisk University from 1924-1926 where she received the first scholarship from Julliard for her studies. Post-graduation, Moore worked in North Carolina and Virginia before pursuing her Master’s degree at Columbia University. The artistic arc of Moore’s life was shaped around academic institutions, and the powerful mentorships that follow. However, Moore also addresses a prevailing sentiment she encountered as a composer, writing:

“There is in addition the fiction of women’s inability to deal with the abstract. Because music is an utterly non-verbal art, there is inevitability a certain quality of the abstract in the approach to the composer’s art. Women, for a long time in the past, were indoctrinated with the widely held belief that the abstract is not their sphere…Over and over, it has been held that the objective discipline which is necessary to transmute inner sources by giving them artistic form is a discipline suitable only to men”

Moore expresses a very specific frustration in this quote, arguing that the reproduction of existing music may be acceptable for women, but that the act of composition is tied to an internal understanding of something abstract. Legacy and respect, therefore are earned through creation as opposed to the borders of excellence that women were expected to stay within. Undine Smith Moore echoes this point when discussing power dynamics in black churches

“Women could and did influence the building of a school, the choice of teachers, and the order and content of the church service, but there must have been a subtle etiquette that kept them in a particular place. Further, so far as I know, the influence of women on the music and the culture in the life of the Black community, while known and applauded, was rarely, if ever, documented.”

If Undine Smith Moore is correct in her assertion that as a musical culture we value the things that we document, how can recent efforts to re-examine these “lost” histories of music makers do that in a way that doesn’t reinforce a hierarchy of “abstract” musicking as legitimate and all others as less thoughtful, less truthful, and ultimately less powerful.

1Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies : African-American Women Composers and Their Music Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Ives and Masculinity

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was known as perhaps the most influential American composers of the 20th century; “by his centenary in 1974 he was recognized worldwide as the first composer to create a distinctively American art music” [1]


Unlike the careers of many other prolific composers, he spent most of his working for insurance companies, composing only on the side. As a result, he was sometimes regarded as an amateur and did not become widely successful until late in his life. 


One hallmark ‘American’ feature of his music was his tendency to borrow Protestant hymn melodies and American popular songs, complexifying and inserting them into his pieces. He also heavily quoted European composers in his music, such as Beethoven, Bach, and Massenet [1].


However, Ives constantly went back and revised pieces he had already written, often times adding more dissonance to pieces as time went on, perhaps suggesting a level of insecurity in his composition. In 1921, Henry Bellamann, dean of Chicora College for women, wrote Ives and proposed to program his Concord piano sonata on a lecture recital. Ives’s reply “shows his reluctance to accept praise without a veil of self-deprecation” (Burkholder 215). Ives writes, “I am afraid [the Concord Sonata] will arouse little enthusiasm with most audiences…perhaps by this time you have decided that to undertake my music will be a too arduous and thankless job” (Burkholder 215). He also encourages Bellamann to feel free to make any revisions desired to the sonata. It is somewhat unclear what Ives means by the statement that his piece will be unsuccessful with “most audiences;” either he is unconfident in the sonata, or he thinks it is too good for average listeners to appreciate. I think that it is likely a combination of both sentiments. 



Ives’s father, who had taught Charles his fundamental knowledge in counterpoint and composition, died prematurely and suddenly in 1894 [1]. Ives’s health later began deteriorating, and he developed both diabetes and depression (which he refused to acknowledge and referred to as ‘n  x’). He also suffered from tremors, making it necessary for his wife and daughter to transcribe his letters for him. 


In a 1938 letter to composer and friend John Becker, Ives rants, “These Philharmonic-nice-lady-bird-afternoon-tea-parties are an insult to music and to ‘man’…any American Music (that is not American but made in America) the Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony….play has to be ‘emasculated’ to get the saps’ okay. I would get in a row with these g*dd*mn sissy conductors if I came within cussing distance” (Burkholder 237). Ives argues that ‘feminine’ music is inherently European and not truly American, regardless of where it was composed. This sentiment is interesting, considering Ives drew significant influence from European composers and often quoted them in his pieces. 


In my opinion, the sudden loss of a father figure combined with his forced reliance on the women in his life likely contributed to Ives’ anger towards women and ‘feminine’ music. His insertion of ‘masculine’ traits into his compositions reflect his own insecurities, also evident in how often he revised already composed pieces. However, I am honestly not sure where his view of Americanness and masculinity as synonymous originated from. 


  1. Burkholder, J. Peter, James B. Sinclair, and Gayle Sherwood. “Ives, Charles.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 23 Oct. 2019, <>
  2. Burkholder, J. Peter . Charles Ives and His World . Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.

The Musical Musings of HT Burleigh

Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh is often credited as one of the leading Black Art Musicians of the 20th century, if not of all time.  He is known to be the father of the concert spiritual (which could be debated, as the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been performing concert spirituals for some time by Burleigh’s birth). as well as a competent composer and performer of art music in the European style.  Burleigh is also known for his connections to several figures of the Harlem Renaissance, namely WEB Du Bois and Booker T Washington.

For this post, however, we’ll be looking at a specific part of Burleigh’s art, his “Album of Negro Spirituals.”

The collection I reference was published in 1969, 20 years after his death, however it contains Burleigh’s original markings, as well as footers with Burleigh’s own edits made during the composition and revision process. I’ll look at 3 of his most famous arrangements, looking at them through a theory lens to try and deduce influences Burleigh had.

Deep River

This piece is the undisputed champion for “most famous spiritual.”  If we look at Burleigh’s vocal line, it differs from most of the other songs in this collection, in that it does not use dialect.  Burleigh is very specific about his use of dialect in singing, as we’ll see later on with “Wade in de Water.”  While “Deep River” does not use the word “the” in it at all, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and “the” is the most common dialectical word to change: we do still see “that” and “river,” both of which are commonly changed into “dat” and “ribber.”  The accompaniment is sparse, with mainly rolled chords, however it does make use of some melodic material, reminiscent of some Schubert accompaniments.  This can be seen most clearly in the last two measures of the first page.

Wade In De Water

This piece exhibits more of the stereotypical spiritual traits, with a fast, agitated, syncopated piano accompaniment.  This style is often likened to drums or more rhythmic performances, which is commonly associated with spirituals here.  The text is also in dialect, with words like “de,” “a-goin’,” and “dat.”  Furthermore, we see a common them of spirituals, which is a reference to Moses and the Israelites.  This make sense for a source material for spirituals, as Moses famously led the Israelites out of slavery, a plight the African slaves in the United States were all too familiar with.

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

For our final piece, we have a bit of a hybrid in styles.  This seems most in line with what we’ve talked about for Burleigh’s views on Black music as art music.  It takes source material and performance stylings (dialect), and combines it with a European sense of harmony and texture.  The piano texture would not feel out of place in a Brahms or Wagner lied, while the melody has a certain ebb and flow more reminiscent of a work song.  The constant forward and back drives that home, while the crossing countermelodies in the piano, seen best during the refrains of “a long way from home.”

As we can see from these three examples, Burleigh wrote in a predominantly European style, using spiritual melodies as inspiration, but not attempting to stick to a folk tradition of performance.  There are times when he leans into the folk origins a little more, particularly on Wade in de Water, but this makes sense thematically.  Wade in de Water is neither hopeful nor sorrowful, but provides specific instructions for escaped slaves on making it to freedom (wading in rivers helped to mask their scent from tracking dogs).  Nevertheless, the piece is included alongside works closer in style to Burleigh’s secular art music, showing its pedigree as art music.

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.

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,


American Music: Brought to You by the Bohemians

I found a book in Halvorson Music library called Dvorak in America: 1892-1895, which is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the New World Symphony or other works of Dvorak’s that were influenced by the pursuit of creating “American” music.

An image of Dvorak over a Native American rowing a boat.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I was surprised to find what I assume to be a promotional image depicting Dvorak overlooking a Native American rowing a boat down a river of music notes in this book.  In class we focused on McDowell’s attempts to tap into the music of Native Americans to find sources of inspiration for his American music and Dvorak’s attempts to do the same through spirituals.  While Dvorak did search for inspiration for the New World Symphony in African American spirituals, “accompanying the premiere, Dvorak penned an essay in the New York Herald… now suggesting as well Native American melodies for that same purpose…. Dvorak’s suggestion of Native American music were largely overshadowed at the time by his assertion of African-American musics. But not long after Dvorak’s pronouncement, a so-called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism.” [1]

Transcriptions of three Iroquois songs given to Dvorak by Henry Krehbiel.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I found it incredibly interesting to see Dvorak’s interactions with many of the notable names from our course.  There’s a section on how Henry Krehbiel (questionably) transcribed some Iroquois melodies for Dvorak to take inspiration from in his New World Symphony and was clearly disappointed that he didn’t use them.  When reviewing the work as a whole and finding an insufficient amount of ‘Indian spirit’, he decided that the work was not American enough and that “Dr. Dvorak can no more divest himself of his nationality than the leopard change his spots.” [2]

Since our class discussions are ordered based on musical genre rather than chronological order, it was really interesting and informative to see the interactions between all of the people and ideas involved and how they overlap.  For those who want to learn more about the New World Symphony, Dvorak’s varying inspirations for music making and his interactions with other notable musicians and critics, Dvorak in America: 1892-1895 is a great resource and an interesting read.


  1. Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Works Cited:

Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

Copland’s Remarks on Race

Aaron Copland is widely regarded as one of the greatest American composers of all time. “The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit [1].” Reading through his letters, I found some interesting correspondence between Copland and his peers.

I stumbled across several letters. The first was a correspondence between Copland and Carlos Chávez. Upon further research, I figured out that Carlos Chávez was “a Mexican composer, conductor, music theorist, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra [2],” who was greatly influenced by native Mexican cultures. The second and third letters were between Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The fourth letter was between Copland and Irving and Verna Fine, whom Copland knew from the Tanglewood festival. 

#1- to Carlos Chávez 

I was so sorry you missed the opera. […] The end has something of the same ‘Freude, Freude’ feeling, tho in completely different terms. Of course the kids had everyone completely interested. Kids are like Negroes, you can’t go wrong if they are on the stage [4].





#2- to Leonard Bernstein 

“What a music factory it is [in reference to the music of Havana, Cuba]! Thirteen black men and me— quite a piquant scene. The thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me— it’s so sweet and moving. And just think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this. Its awful tempting, but I’ll try to control myself [4].”

#3- to Leonard Bernstein

“You sound as if you were very much on the right track anyhow both as to ideas and composers’ names. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it. There’s always the chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material. Also, don’t try to prove too much. Composing in this country is still pretty young no matter how you look at it [4].”

#4- to Irving and Verna Fine

“The city itself is beautiful as ever. Streets are always full of people— no one ever seems to want to go home. Coffee every two hours till you are black in the face. A friendly, democratic feeling in the air that comes across because of the lack of color lines. Skins of all shades and faces of all shapes. Its endlessly amusing to sit at a sidewalk café and watch what passes [4].”



I found Copland’s remarks about race to be very interesting, especially in his correspondence from Cuba. He clearly wants to use the music he hears, but understands that he should “try to control himself.” I also found it interesting when he talks about “American Music” (those words sound familiar!). The “Gilbert” he is referencing is American composer Henry F. Gilbert, a white man who was greatly intrigued by (you could say appropriated) the music of African Americans. I think Copland is saying here that just because the source material isn’t white, does not mean that it is not American. 

In my opinion, Copland seems pretty “woke” for his time (1900-1999). He did have some questionable phrases in these letters, but overall I think It’s clear that Copland had a pretty good understanding of culture and was at least thinking about how culture was impacting the music he was composing. 


[1] Pollack, Howard (1999). Aaron Copland. NY: Henry Holt and Co.

[2] Chávez, Carlos. 1937. Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, translated from the Spanish by Herbert Weinstock, with eight illustrations by Antonio Ruíz. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Reprinted, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

[3] Parker, Robert L. “Copland and Chávez: Brothers-in-Arms.” American Music 5, no. 4 (1987): 433-44.

[4] Copland, Aaron. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B. Crist, and Wayne Shirley, Yale University Press, 2006.

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression

In the last Virgil Thomson reading, I was rather intrigued by a particular quote of his towards the end when he closed the chapter of “American Musical Traits” with some musings about America’s role in the opera genre:

“What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise.  I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?” [1]

Being as this was written in the 1970s, I honestly was not sure if Thomson is trying to claim that American opera does not have its own identity or that American opera had not existed up until then.  Either way, it seemed interesting that he would bring up the importance of composers like Edward MacDowell or Charles Ives in their roles as composers that encapsulate the American classical tradition and disregard someone like, say, George Gershwin and his opera “Porgy and Bess.”


It seems odd that Thomson would disregard Gershwin’s contribution to the American opera genre (and I certainly argue “Porgy and Bess” to be a part of it, especially if the Met Opera is currently performing it).  Perhaps Thomson has a rather elitist perspective of American music in how it relates to European music rather than influences from African-American folk song traditions or African music.  He hardly acknowledges the role it plays in the landscape of American classical music for sure by only mentioning the use of blue notes or blues/jazz genres and their relation to Asian musics, which seems to be a strange point, but whatever floats his boat I guess.

The likely omission of African-American-inspired music by Virgil Thomson demonstrates the idea that the characteristics found in such music were not regularly accepted by music historians or musicologists as a part of American music and rather it became an other, which could be referred to as “black American music.”


[1] Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

[2] Gershwin, George. “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

A Not-So-Sympathetic Read of the National Anthem

For many Americans, The Star-Spangled Banner may be one of the most recognizable tunes. With its message of patriotism and national triumph, it has firmly rooted itself within our national canon. Many of us, however, are only familiar with the first stanza of this song.

The third stanza reads as follows: (click the link)

Star Spangled Banner stanza 3

Other than the explicit reference to runaway slaves, this stanza is somewhat difficult to pick apart without an understanding of the historical context. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, was a lawyer, and later, a U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was a staunch anti-abolitionist who used his position as U.S. District Attorney to suppress and prosecute abolitionists for taking a public stance against slavery. Key wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner while he observed the successful defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Though some scholars as well as some widely held popular opinion would assert that the Star-Spangled Banner’s 3rd stanza is a celebration of the institution of slavery, I would like to provide a reading that is not so reductive. During the War of 1812, the British army raided southern coastal areas of the United States. As part of these raids, they would offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the Crown during the ongoing conflict. Many now-former slaves took advantage of this offer and joined a regiment of the British army that would be known as the Corps of Colonial Marines. A detachment of the Corps assisted in the burning of Washington D.C. in August of 1814 (Blackburn 288-290).

With this context in mind, Key’s bitterness over freed slaves fighting against other Americans becomes clear. In addition to celebrating American success in the Battle of Baltimore, he also uses the poem as a denouncement, or a sort of “not so hot now, are you?” of these former slaves who would dare to fight for their freedom against their former masters. All the same, the stanza is not so much a celebration of the institution as it is a denouncement of those who would try to end it.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848. London, Verso, 1988. P.p. 288-290.

Key, Francis Scott and John Stafford Smith. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sheet Music Consortium. Accessed 21 October 2019.

The New World Symphony and Spirituals

As my first search in Sheet Music Consortium, I mindlessly typed in “Dvorak.” Mostly using this search as a test run to see how the database works, I expected to come up with a hundred and one variations on “The New World Symphony.” Instead, what I found was a conglomeration of pieces by Antonin Dvorak himself and American popular songs that were evidently based on these works.

William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922. Sheet Music Consortium.

In particular, the fourth result up was a song called “Goin’ Home,” billed as a “Negro Spiritual from the Largo of The New World Symphony.”1
As it turns out, the Largo of the New World Symphony doesn’t really quote any particular spiritual directly, and “Goin’ Home” is not a preexisting spiritual but a song adapted from the Largo and set to words by one of Dvorak’s white students, William Arms Fisher.2
After reading in Douglas Shadle’s Orchestrating the Nation about Dvorak’s assertion that American music should be based upon spirituals, I found it extremely ironic to find that the chain of influence for one of the most well-known “spirituals” connected to Dvorak goes the opposite direction. Rather than finding any authentic spirituals on which Dvorak based his American symphony, I stumbled upon popular songs and “spirituals” that were manufactured from the precise melodies in Dvorak’s work.

Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7. De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911. Sheet Music Consortium.

“Goin’ Home” is not the only instance of this that I found right away. Another popular song, “In your moonlit bower,” by Jas. H. Harrington, popped up as a song “adapted from Humoresque by A. Dvorak.”3
While there was no actual sheet music available for the adapted song, the Humoresque is immediately recognizable to most of us by recording. The mere fact that American popular music seemed to conjure up some sense of American-ness by reverse engineering from Dvorak’s work, which may have contained minimal direct American influence in the first place, raises many questions for me.

Is it right to claim that we are placing African-American spirituals at the center of a new American music if the piece that started this new music only vaguely references this music? Is it right to create new music based on a piece which only gives a broad sense of what a white man perceived to be the “spirit” of spirituals? And how can we make sense of the Czech composer’s contributions to creating an American music when his direct exposure to actual American music was severely limited before the composition of “The New World Symphony?” All of these questions and more are issues we must grapple with as we consider the role Dvorak played in creating an “American music.”


1 William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922.

2 The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, “Goin’ Home, with Alex Boye – Mormon Tabernacle Choir”, Jan 2010.

3 Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7, De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911.


Works Cited:

Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7. De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. “Goin’ Home, with Alex Boye – Mormon Tabernacle Choir”. Filmed Jan 2010. Youtube video, 5:49. Posted Jan 2014.

William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

“The Tender Land”: A Wrong Place, Wrong Time Situation

In 1936, photographer Walker Evans released a photograph of a woman named Allie Mae Burroughs. She lived in Hale County, Alabama, with her husband Floyd and their four children, where they owned nothing: not even their home, land, mule or farm tools. The family of six leased these items (and more) from their landlord. Floyd was a cotton “sharecropper,” so at harvest time, he had to give his landlord half his cotton and corn crop, as well as pay off any other debts from the year, such as food, seed, fertilizer, and medicine.1

Allie Mae’s pursed lips, wrinkled brow, and tired eyes in the photo below record the hardships the family faced as a farm family during the Great Depression.

Walker Evans’ photo of Allie Mae Burroughs

The Burroughs’ story was not an uncommon one for farm families living during the Great Depression, which also coincided with the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. This photo, among other Depression-era photos by Walker Evans, are what prompted Aaron Copland to write the music for the opera, The Tender Land.  

Cover of “The Tender Land”

The Tender Land is set in the 1930s in the general Midwest and premiered at the New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. It takes place at the time of spring harvest and a high school graduation, and features a Midwest family experiencing challenges such as family expectations and unapproved love.

The opera was not received well by critics at the time of its premiere. According to Copland in a letter to Carlos Chavez on April 5, 1954 (only 4 days after the premiere of The Tender Land), the negative comments regarding the opera were “criticisms about the libretto, and the usual complaint about a few melodies” 2

However, Christopher W. Patton explains in his article, “Discovering ‘The Tender Land’: A New Look at Aaron Copland’s Opera” that The Tender Land first premiered in between the New York City Opera’s productions of Don Giovanni and Figaro. He writes, “The Tender Land’s small, intimate scale, meditative, introspective libretto and strong but finely wrought emotional content were lost somewhere in the vast reaches of City Center” 3

Between the humor and grandiosity of Don Giovanni and Figaro, the subdued The Tender Land was lost.

Additionally, there is also something to be said at the timing of the premiere of The Tender Lands; music and theater are often used as an escape from reality. In 1954, the memories of the Great Depression, as well as World War II and the Dust Bowl, were still fresh in the minds of many Americans. While the music of The Tender Land was lovely, the plot and themes brought Americans right back into the realities of the past 15-20 years, rather than allow them to escape. Therefore, if attending an opera, Don Giovanni or Figaro may have been more attractive.

Copland blamed the negative response to The Tender Land on complaints of just some melodies and plot issues.  But, based on his letters featured in “The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland”, it doesn’t appear that he considered that the melancholy themes of The Tender Land brought Americans too close to the reality of, specifically, the Depression that still haunted their minds.

Now, audiences have a more positive response to The Tender Lands. In fact, now, opera companies add The Tender Land to their season, such as the Berkeley Opera in April 2010.

After the trauma of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans may have not wanted to see such relatable, recent hardships depicted in art. In today’s opera scene, without the Depression looming over our generation as it did in the 1950’s, The Tender Land may succeed and receive high remarks, even between Don Giovanni and Figaro, as it was in its premiere.


1 MET Museum. “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife.” (Accessed October 19, 2019).

2 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, ed., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. Yale University, 2006.

3 Patton, Christopher W. “Discovering “The Tender Land”: A New Look at Aaron Copland’s Opera.” American Music 20, no. 3 (2002): 317-40. doi:10.2307/1350129.

“‘The Promise of Living’: The Tender Land,” Youtube Video, 4:58, “Echidnamedia,” May 15, 2010,

American Patriotic Songs from 1916-1918

Virgil Thomson spent a considerable amount of effort trying to define traits of American music after 1910. I wanted to test his theories by comparing them to patriotic marches because they can be considered unambiguously American. The keyword “America” brought a number of such pieces to my attention, of which I picked three to study. I was interested in these particular pieces because of a number of similarities that immediately caught my eye, so they should not be considered a random selection.

First, some brief introductions: “Come On, America” was published in 1918 with words by Vance Cooke and music by Kenneth Murchison. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! Tis the Land We Love!”  was published in 1916 lyrics by J. Will Callahan and music by Eddie Gray. Ironically, although published in Chicago this piece was distributed by an Australian company. “America My America“was published in 1917 with words by Ray B Powers and music by Edith Powers. An inscription reads “Dedicated to Elk’s Regiment Portland Oregon Lodge.” Elk’s Lodges are patriotic fraternal organizations, and I foundit timely to come across this note as I have just recently driven past many an Elk’s Lodge in my most recent journey through the Midwest.

Thomson covers such a wide range of genres that it seems laughable to apply common traits that are specific to American music. He particularly focuses on rhythm, noting that “a very large part of what has been composed in the last forty years assumes the existence… of a steady continuity of eighth-notes, on top of which other metrical patterns, regular and irregular, lead an independent life.” (American Musical Traits 19) All three of these pieces certainly fit this trend as they are in 2/4 with the eighth note driving the piano accompaniment. However, none of the pieces have more than a few instances of syncopation, let alone a “large amount” (19).

Another trait Thomson presents as “American” is the “non-accelerating crescendo and… the non-retarding diminuendo” (19). After the initial tempo markings of con brio, allegretto con spirito, and marcia respectively there are no subsequent marked tempo changes with the exception of a ritardando before the chorus of “Come on America.” In this instance there is indeed no dynamic change marked. Dynamic markings as a whole appear secondary to the marching drive of the eighth note. Crescendos and diminuendos appear only in “America First,” and “America My America” has only four dynamic markings with the final already appearing in the third line. Although all this may support Thomson’s assertion that “the American… inclines by instinct to keep his rhythm patterns independent of volume patterns” (19), these trends are perhaps due in larger part to the patriotic march sub-genre than their American origins.

The final trait was harder for me to understand, let alone identify in practice. Thomson speaks to a “phonetic distortion without loss of clarity.” I took this to mean that text setting often prioritizes music over the natural rhythm of speech patterns. One example of this in “Come On America” is the quarter-eighth-eighth-half rhythm of the syllables of “A-mer-i-ca” which causes the “a” and “ca” syllables to be emphasized whereas a native English speaker would accent “mer”. Besides this, however, there was little unusual text setting and based on my understanding of the term I do not believe any of the three pieces utilize “phonetic distortion” to a large extent.

Obviously, these three pieces are too small of a data sample to make any definite conclusions about the accuracy of Thomson’s generalizations of American music, but I did find it to be a useful exercise in thinking through the theories he presented. I chose to undergo this (admittedly arbitrary) project in order to better understand the arguments Thomson lay out, and to that end I achieved my goal.

(Unfortunately, I failed in my noble quest to dig up recordings of these pieces… I guess we will just have to use our imaginations?)


Works Cited

Gray, Eddie and J. Will Callahan. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! ‘Tis the Land We Love).” Chicago: Frank K. Root & Co, 1916.

Murchison, Kenneth and Edmund Vance Cooke. “Come On, America!” Red, White and Blue Series: New Patriotic and War Songs. Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1918.

Powers, Edith and Ray Powers. “America My America.” Oregon: Oregon Eiler’s Music House, 1917.,1957.

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits.” American Music Since 1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

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

Commodification of “Authentic Blackness”

The 1890s were a turning point for black composers. For the most part, they were not able to rise to the level of white composers, except in the case of music written for minstrel shows. Performing in / composing for minstrel shows provided “chance for advancement and financial security” in a time of “shrinking possibilities” for black composers.

In my search on Sheet Music Consortium, I came across Gussie Davis (1853-1899), a composer from Ohio, who was a well known ballad writer. What I found particularly interesting about Davis is his involvement in northern minstrel shows. He wrote for minstrel shows, toured with minstrel groups, and even had his own minstrel troupe. What’s even more interesting? He was black. 

Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie is a piece written by Davis from the perspective of a former (freed) slave. The lyrics use racial slurs, telling the story of a freed slave meeting their former master again and longing for plantation life, saying “and the old plantation, how I long to see dat home once mo’.” Taking this piece out of context and just examining it as a black person being nostalgic for slavery, the piece is very peculiar. However, it is likely that this piece was performed as a part of one of Davis’ minstrel shows. In this context, it makes sense that Davis would write as such, because black minstrel performers needed to commodify their “authentic blackness.” This provided a sense of comfort for audiences, who had never experienced the horrors of slavery, and allowed them to look past those atrocities. 

“Black minstrels felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity…on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary.” – Was Davis doing this? It seems, judging based on this piece, that he was not. He did not do enough (if anything) to counter racist stereotypes. Instead, Davis just plays into these stereotypes, but understandably so, because his livelihood depended on it.

Works Cited:

 “Blacks in Blackface.” Google Books, Google,

“Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie.” Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music,

“The History of Minstrelsy : African American Minstrel Performers · USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits.” Omeka RSS,


‘Music for the Masses’

In 1897, the Chicago Book and News Company published a volume of the National Home and Music Journal, a periodical that published music that was thought to embody elements of the national identity so well that they deemed it to be ‘Music for the Masses.’ From taking a look at the types of music they chose to include in these journals, we get an insider scoop into what was found to be “Americanness” in music.

The journal starts off exactly as we might expect, with The Yankee Tourist by H.S. Line and F.S Colburn. There aren’t any recordings available for this song, but one can imagine how it goes from the title. It follows a quarter note-eighth note pattern in 6/8 time, giving the piece a natural lilt.

The publisher then throws something interesting into this collection of ‘Music for the Masses’… a Beethoven piano piece. I hate to point out the obvious here, but Beethoven was not American. He was German. This inclusion shows that in 1897, a German piece of music was considered to be just as American as a piece like The Yankee Tourist.

Then, we are given a piece for mandolin and guitar—seemingly the “folk” piece of the collection. Also included are The Elk’s Two-Step, Treasure of My Heart, and Come Back to Your Mother, Madge (none of which have been recorded). Each piece selected by the editors was meant to highlight a specific aspect of “Americanness” as it stood in 1897. When I look at this collection, I see a journal that only equates the white, European-descendant’s experience with being “American.”

The question of what constitutes as “Americanness” has never gone away. The Washington Post recently published an article discussing what “real Americanness” looks like today. Their conclusion from analyzing a modern study is similar to my conclusion from analyzing a 200 year old publication:

[‘Americanness’] is interwoven through our history and runs deep in our culture. Our hope is that these findings help us understand the particular ways these tensions are manifesting today, and thus the issues we need to confront to address our differences and remember the core values that can bind us together as Americans.”[1]


Primary Source: Colburn, Frank S, R J Hamilton, and Samuel I Osmund. National Home and Music Journal 5, no. 1, 1897. pplcat/b10121535.pdf.

[1] Caleb Elfenbein, Peter Hanson. “Perspective | What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Real’ American?” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2019.


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.

Bias and Sexism in the Search for the Great American Symphony

When I was working on the readings for our upcoming class, I was perplexed by the choices made in order to procure the definition of ‘American’ music.  It just sounded to me like no one knew what they wanted, criticizing composers for sounding too European while accepting music from foreign enemies into the American cannon over those from marginalized groups of Americans.  Fauser’s and Shadel’s articles do an especially good job in complicating the relationship between American music and European opinion, as the idea that American music must be differentiated in some way came from the Europeans and was put into practice first by Dvorak in his New World Symphony.  This  was so well received that it established the bohemian composer as an authority on African American spirituals, and many adaptations were made from his symphony to be marketed as authentic spirituals.

Goin’ Home: Negro Spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Fisher

Down De Road: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, lyrics by Kagles

A Song of Home: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Lorenz

I was interested in the portion of Shadel’s article on Amy Beach’s response to Dvorak’s symphony and how she created her own interpretation.  Having been born and raised in America, one would think that Beach would have a leg up on Dvorak in composing American symphonies.  Her Gaelic Symphony, being the first symphony composed by an American woman, fits much of the criteria proposed of the idealized ‘great American symphony’. Meanwhile, Beach’s symphony was not taken seriously by critics due to her gender.  Compared to Dvorak and Chadwick, Beach’s music was described by critics as “delicate”, “beautiful” and “tender”, while “other early reviewers… did not comment at any length on the expression of a national identity given the works clear dialogue with Dvorak” [1].  It was striking that many of the quotes, whether positive or negative, couldn’t help but mention Beach’s gender in relation to the music, while “the most negative critics displayed heightened anxiety over the emergence of a truly valid American symphonic voice capable of speaking to international audiences” [2].  This is what people had been hoping for in the ‘great American symphony’; however, for some, the fact that this voice was coming from a woman was the sole thing rendering the attempt invalid.

Beach Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32 ‘Gaelic’

Follow these links to listen for yourself:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”, I. Allegro con fuoco

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”, I. Adagio- Allegro molto

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, I. Allegro sostenuto

Chadwick purportedly told Beach after her symphony’s debut, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine new work by any one of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you will or not—one of the boys” [3].

American music has a long history of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.  When we think about American music, we must also stop to think about who’s experiences we are validating and invalidating.  Who are we letting participate and why?  We cannot tout the idea of an American “melting pot” of musical culture if different groups are not all respected equally.


  1. Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  2. ibid
  3. Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Works Cited:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”

Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

Dvorak, Antonin and Fisher, William Arms. Goin’ home Negro spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony, op. 95 Adelaide: Cawthornes Ltd, 1922. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Dvorak, Anton and Klages, Raymond, “Down De Road : From The Largo Of The New World Symphony” (1925). Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection. Score 4824.

Dvorak, Antonin, Lorenz, E.J and Gray, Geofrey. A song of home from the Largo of New world symphony : two-part song Melbourne: Allan & Co, 1940. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Fauser, Annegret. Sounds of War : Music in the United States During World War II New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

“Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors.” Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors,


Floyd and Burleigh’s Spiritual Requirements

As a class, we have encountered H. T. Burleigh many times already. As an African American composer, he adapted many pieces of Negro Spirituals into concert spirituals. Burleigh has been criticized for not presenting these songs in their original style but also praised for preserving them. In the Sheet Music Consortium, I found a H. T. Burleigh piece, “Tis me, o Lord; Standin’ in de need of Pray’r” with a preface saying, “Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit;”. Burleigh takes part in the spiritual belief one must have when performing these songs. There are only a few other authors throughout this semester who argue this. One could say he’s trying to keep this works genuine because he goes on to warn against performing these songs by “treat them as ‘minstrel songs’”. Yet, he still relies on a spiritual aspect of performance.

H. T. Burleigh; Arranger of “Tis me, o Lord; Standin’ in de need of pray’r”


I found this text fascinating because I immediately thought of one of our dear friends Samuel A. Floyd Jr. and the notion of “cultural memory” he constantly brings up throughout the reading. He defines it as, “Cultural memory, obviously a subjective concept, seems to be connected with cultural forms-in the present case, music, where the ‘memory’ drives the music and the music drives the memory,” (Floyd 8). Both accounts suggest the almost metaphysical aspect to performing this music. They both stress the importance of the person’s spirit becoming involved in the music.

We’ve encountered these two accounts by black men telling us how spirituals must be performed. Both musicians have studied and lived with this music for their lives. As members of the black community with a long history with this music, do we take their notions of “cultural memory” and “spiritual feeling”. On top of all this, Burleigh wrote in classical European style, so how on earth does a white person approach this work keeping all these ideas in mind?

Samuel Floyd Jr.




-“Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. (1937-2016).” UC Press Blog, 25 Aug. 2017,


-“H. T.  Burleigh (1866-1949).” The Library of Congress, www.loc,gov/item/ihas.200035730


-Floyd, Samuel A. “Introduction.” The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States, Oxford University Press, 1997.

-Burleigh, et al. “Tis Me, o Lord; Standin’ in De Need of Pray’r; Negro Spiritual.” Duke Digital Collections, G. Ricordi, 1 Jan.1970,

Lowell Mason and the End of Shape Note

Shape-note singing has roots which may stretch as far back as 11th century Italy[1]. Solmization has been used ever since to teach new singers to sight-read melodies, and in the distinctly American case of the Sacred Harp, written by Benjamin Franklin White, congregations have used the familiar intervals and rhythms to sing loudly and emphatically. The presence of a ubiquitous hymn book further reinforces the traditionalism of the genre, which is often praised as one which invites everyone to participate democratically, rather than creating an audience/performer dichotomy. The anthems are always in four parts, with uncomplicated rhythms and melodies to facilitate singing unrehearsed.

I include one of the hymns from the Sacred Harp below; a contemporary rendition of the tune can be found on YouTube.

Shape Note sheet music, included for comparison.

A digitized copy of Windham, from the Sacred Harp, published 1844.

Perhaps in stark contrast, Lowell Mason is credited with popularizing European Classical music in the United states[2]. Mason is known to have derided shape-note singing as being a barrier to scientific musical study; he and his brother published a book called The Sacred Harp in 1835, but this was done to supplant the shape-note tradition which existed, replacing rural American tunes with European part-writing. The authors preface the work as “the introduction of an elevated style of Sacred Music arranged on the immovable basis of science and correct taste.”[3]

Mason later went on to write some 1600 hymns in his lifetime, some of which are incredibly popular today, such as Bethany, the tune of “Nearer My God To Thee.” I include here one of the more dramatic of his works I could find, with dotted rhythms, dynamics, and an instrumental part setting it apart from the above hymn. There is call and response among singers, and ornamented instrumental interludes. Sadly, I could find no existing rendition of this piece–it has since become a popular Lutheran hymn, with a changed musical setting.

An example of Lowell Mason's hymn-writing

Excerpt from Watchman, Tell Us of the Night, written 1830.

However, another piece of Mason’s, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, has an existing rendition available here. This composition complicates the distinctness between all the examples I’ve used. The sheet music is written in a completely different style, with vocal and instrumental parts combined, but it doesn’t seem to require an instrument. The part-writing may be European, but the rhythms look more alike to “Windham” than “Watchmen.” This is not a purely performer-audience example. There are leaders, but all congregants sing. The shift toward a plainer “Watchmen” is telling–Mason may have diminished the popularity of shape-note singing, but the style his music ended up in was not as much a copy of European music as he intended.

Four-part setting of the Lord's Prayer

A composition of Mason’s from 1879.

[1]  David Warren Steel. 2010. “Shape Note Singing.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed

[2]  “Lowell Mason.” Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

[3]  Nathan Rees. 2017. “From the Collection: An Earlier Sacred Harp.” Original Sacred Harp. Accessed

H. T. Burleigh on the Performance of Black Spirituals

In searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, I came across several spirituals arranged by H. T. Burleigh. These publications, such as Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells, include a note written by Burleigh about spirituals, in which he describes them as “never ‘composed,’” but “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor.” He touches on other topics we have discussed in class as well, writing that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song,” and warning that they should not be treated as “‘minstrel’ songs.”1

Following his statement on folk music, he writes:

“Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then the rhythm, for the Negro’s soul is linked with rhythm, and it is an essential characteristic of most all the Folk Songs.”1

Here Burleigh seems to be arguing for an authenticity in both the feeling behind a performance and the presentation of the performance as rooted in the history of spirituals as black music.

On the other hand, he elaborates on his warning not to treat spirituals as minstrel songs with the following:

“It is a serous misconception to . . . try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the particular inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively . . .”1

Obviously trying to make a serious song comical undermines it, but I was struck by the extent to which Burleigh connects an unworthy and unimpressive presentation directly with how literally black performance practice is imitated. “Swaying the body,” “clapping the hands,” and singing in dialect are all things that St. Olaf’s choirs, for example, do in an effort to present the music with “deep spiritual feeling,” as Burleigh encourages earlier. He also writes, “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit,” yet he implies that the very things here connected to the spirit take away from the spirituals’ worth. Though he is discussing making a song comical, he strongly suggests that imitation of black performance practice itself is antithetical to an impressive performance.

H. T. Burleigh’s note in Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells1

Maybe this is simply because black performance practice at the time could not be separated from minstrel comedy. This could allow for the St. Olaf choirs’ use of elements of black performance practice in a time when it is no longer so directly connected to minstrelsy in audiences’ ears. However, Burleigh was also a major part of the movement to “legitimize” black spirituals by arranging them in a Western classical style. Given this, he could have indeed viewed the “spirit” he talks of as needing to be presented through a white musical context in order to give it legitimacy. On the other hand, if he was writing for a white audience, his message may have been at least partly motivated by his not wanting imitation of black performance practice by non-black performers. Whatever the reasons for the specific performance considerations he discusses, though, this short statement on black spirituals shows some of the many complexities that accompany their performance.

1 Burleigh, H. T. Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells. Sheet music. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

“Oh, Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells.” YouTube video, 1:20, posted by Marian Anderson – Topic, Nov 8, 2014,

All in Good Spirit

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a Canadian-born poet, essayist, choir conductor and composer born in Drummondsville, a town founded by escaped slaves from the south of the United States. Being classically trained, he studied at both Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and Harvard University, finally getting his Master of Music from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was also the first African American that obtained an honorary doctorate from the Oberlin Conservatory.

His main body of work consists of “early English music, works from the Russian liturgy, Christmas carols, and arrangements of spirituals”[1], but he also wrote essays on “Negro Music”, warning about the dangers of commercializing it an consequently having it lose its meaning. Library of Congress’ biography on Dett refers to how his biographer Anne Key Simpson remarks his

“lifelong dedication to finding a musical form to bridge the gap between the music’s simple origins and its concert performance.”[2]

When listening to this performance as an example of his works I have selected his arrangement for solo voice and piano of “Follow Me”, categorized as a “Negro Spiritual” as collected by Mrs. Catherine Fields-Gay, about whom I found very little information. The piano accompainment provides a light harmonic texture in a style that in my opinion lends itself to the “Spiritual” genre. The  accompainment occationaly doubles or ecoes the rhythmic structure and/or the melody in the voice. This might be a slight nod to call-and-response. Examples of this are in meaures 16 , 20 and 24. He also also highlights the syncopation in the voice with a straight rhythm in the piano and vice versa, for instance in measures 19 and 27.

Baritone Richard Hodges performance of the piece:

In this performance Hodges skips the appoggiatura assigned, possibly an interpretation of the portamento-like slide into the note, so often associated with the African American singing style as either transcribed by Dett or Fields-Gay. Hodge’s style of singing is essentially classical. The span between the “authentic” performance practice of spirituals and a traditional, euro-centric practice might seem too far, and Dett’s mission impossible.

Whenever an oppressive culture interprets the oppressed’s, there is always the asymmetrical power relation to consider, but what happens when an African American composer and performer respectively arranges and performs but within that “oppressive” stylistic framework? Is this reclaiming the material? Or is it as Dett wished to unify the two musical traditions in a “best of both worlds”-like scenario? Or is this just an aspect of the gentrification of the spiritual, seen throughout the 19th century?

Primary sources

Dett, R. Nathaniel. “Follow Me” (1919). The John Church Company, Cincinati. [Accessed October 16th,2019]

“Richard Hodges- Follow Me by R. Nathaniel Dett”. November 18th, 2015. [Accessed October 16th,2019]

Secondary sources

Library of Congress. “R. Nathaniel Dett”. [Accessed October 16th,2019]


[1] Library of Congress

[2] Ibid

Never Forget Your Dear Mother: Tin Pan Alley’s Creation of Genre

While scrolling through the Sheet Music Consortium database I started by searching by certain keywords which grew increasingly absurd, although I started with reasonable concepts I quickly found myself only looking at sheet music only written about frog romances. It seemed that if you found the right topic, there could be 50-60 pieces on something as specific as songs about owls that were symbols for men who liked to stay out late at night.

One such treasure trove is songs about mothers including amazing titles such as “That Wonderful Mother of Mine,” “Every Day is Mother’s Day to a Mother,” “Dreaming of Mother and my Sweet Home,” “Cheer up, Mother,” “There’s No One who Loves you Like Mother,” and my personal favorite, “The Little Grey Mother who Waits All Alone.” I told my own mother about what I found which garnered this guilt-inducing response.
So where do all of these songs about mothers’ come from? They are all mostly published between 1911-1920 and follow similar trends about a child leaving home to the dismay of the Long Suffering Mother. The sheer volume of such similar songs is not a coincidence, this extremely specific genre of sheet music comes from the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting which Robert W. Randall1 explains as  “Music publishers and composers alike operated in a world where success, measured by profit, hinged on their ability to understand through emotional cognition the yearnings of their audiences.”

The marketplace of music for these creators was not purely about creating music for an existing audience, but creating an audience out of music that they could create. Randall continues “But more than merely promoting songs, music publishers produced them on a factory scale, generating vast quantities of theme-driven songs that would enable them to both test and shape markets for tunes that would become “hits.” 

The historical era for the rise of songs about not forgetting mothers would make more sense within the context of WW1, but a fair number of these pieces were published far before any military involvement. The significance of this music appears to be more closely tied with national allegiance and loyalty, and undoubtedly a little bit of guilt.

In “Never Forget Your Dear Mother and Her Prayer”2 the lyrics echo this sentiment.

“Never forget your mother tho far away you may roam, Always remember she’s praying, For you to come back home, Temptations round you will gather, Face them with courage and care, Never forget your dear mother and her prayer”

The creation of Mother’s Day in 19143 by Woodrow Wilson is likely closely tied to this era of music, establishing a commercial holiday that has since been tied to lavish displays of wealth and public adoration. While music written specifically about missing your mom is a fun example of how Tin Pan Alley created concepts of identity based around  profits, it is crucial to examine how thin the lines are between commodity and sentiment if that line exists at all.

Black Representation in Country Music

Country music is often seen as one of the most segregated, and “whitest” of music genres. In 2014, when hosting the Country Music Awards, country star Brad Paisley said, “If any of you tuned into ABC tonight expecting to see the new show Black-ish, yeah, this ain’t it. In the meantime, I hope you all are enjoying White-ish.”1 While it was intended to be a joke, many viewers took to Twitter addressing their concerns about the intentions and racism behind the joke. However, Paisley’s joke only highlights the truth behind the white dominated field of country music, with only a few black musicians.

Most notable for his success in country music despite his race is Charley Pride. Pride released his first single “Snakes crawl at Night” in January, 1966. The top executives of the label RCA agreed to sign him after listening to his demos before they knew his race. Fearing his success would be hindered from his race, the label producers shielded his race for the release of his first three singles by not putting his face on the album. Compared to Jackie Robinson, he endured any discrimination in silence, determined that his talent would earn his success. It showed because in his career he had 29 #1 Country Hits that no other black country singer has come close to matching.2

Currently on the rise in country music is Darius Rucker. Rucker has been the only black artist to top the Country chart since Charley Pride with his most known single, Wagon Wheel. In an interview, Rucker says he frequently has African-American fans approaching him at concerts or tweeting that don’t feel ashamed to like country music now if their friends give them a hard time. Rucker downplays his legacy as a pioneer saying “music is just music.” “People don’t want me singing country music. But I’ve never wanted to let anybody tell me what I can do.”3

When searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, it is nearly impossible to find songs about black cowboys, much less black country singers. I did however find a song published nearly a decade before Charley Pride was writing his songs. The song “My Dear Old Southern Home” touches on the same themes that country music embodies, such as home, and having a warm southern home away from the “harsh winters” Rucker sings about in the north in the song above. Based on the dialect in this song,4 it is through the lens of a black man returning to his southern home. Today, there is a universal dialect for country singers and it is not separated by race, but by being from the south.

“My Dear Old Southern Home” by Charles H. Yale. 1876.

So, the next time someone cracks a joke about the predominately whiteness that dominates country music, they are not wrong. However, there are black musicians in the genre that have been very successful and also reach a diverse audience. It is the universal messages of country music, like homecoming that transcends time and race.

The First Publications of the Spiritual

While the spiritual tradition has a long history in the United States, dating back undoubtedly to the first slaves taken from Africa and brought to the colonies, it can be difficult to trace a lineage of sorts.  This can be due to a number of factors, but the most prevailing is the fact that slaves were not seen as people, and thus could not have a culture worth documenting.  Thus it fell on free African-Americans to document this culture, a task that was blocked at every turn by the segregation and racism present through the 20th century.  Then take into account how many freed slaves had enough musical training to create a published representation of their music, training that was denied to them by conservatories on the basis of their race, and you can start to see the problem.

While the first published book of spirituals was “Slave Songs of the United States,” it was written by three white authors who sought to collect the music of slaves shortly after the dismantling of the institution of slavery.

Image result for first published book of spirituals

This collection was published in 1867, and while interesting and insightful, is still a representation of Black music, specifically slave music, by white authors.  This brings to mind a common saying in modern choirs, especially those that are predominantly white, “we can’t sing this spiritual because we don’t know what it was like to be a slave.”  A common counterargument is that nobody kn