William Grant Still for a White Audience

On July 23, 1936, William Grant Still made his debut in Los Angeles conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The article I found on this, written by Lawrence LaMar, describes how “an outstanding history making triumph as been achieved.” This performance was only a couple of years after Still won the Guggenheim Fellowship award for “Land of Romance” and “Afro-Symphony Orchestra.” Our class has been looking at the impacts of black nationalism within “American” music and how it has shaped today’s music. This discussion couldn’t be held without William Grant Still and his “Afro-American Symphony.” Even during the 1930’s, the public knew of its impact and what was taking shape, and how it could change history in music. Out of the 20,000 seats at the Hollywood Bowl, 12,000 of them were filled. This sounded like an average amount of attenders based off how the author was describing it. However,

“about 250 of the 12,000 people assembled in the Hollywood Bowl that seats 20,000 were of the Race. This number, although small in comparison to the whole, represents an increase over past regular season bowl attendance of Negroes.”

 

It is interesting to read how 250 might not have been a large number of people “in comparison to the whole” but that it shows that persons of color are increasing in numbers for attending the bowl.
This article views William Grant Still and thus his pieces as valuably important for American and American music. The writer states, “Each of the gripping symphonies that conveyed the feeling of the Race American toward the land of his folklore was marvelously rendered by the great orchestra that responded readily under the left guidance of its first Race conductor.” I found that this article showed some of the feelings that the BIPOC community was feeling towards Still and his compositions. The article can be used to shed light on this aspect as well as the ideas of how that ties into the impact on American music.
Another interesting aspect of this article is the literal, physical context around it. Surrounding this column in the Chicago Defender are many more negative articles about “members of race.” Titles such as “State Picnic To Be Feature Of Kentucky Hanging” stand out instantly to the viewer upon opening this paper. The article on Still is captivatingly uplifting and hopeful right next to the article that paints such a horrific image for the BIPOC community.
Another aspect of the context around the article on Still is the emphasis on music that this community holds. Simply turning the page of this newspaper brings you to BOLD headlines you can view in the following photos.
Citations:
LaMAR, LAWRENCE F. “WM. GRANT STILL CONDUCTS SYMPHONY AT LOS ANGELES: 20,000 HEAR WORLD-FAMED COMPOSER IN DEBUT AT HOLLYWOOD BOWL; APPLAUSE DEAFENING.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Aug 01, 1936. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/wm-grant-still-conducts-symphony-at-los-angeles/docview/492575722/se-2?accountid=351.

Florence Price and the “Elevation” of Black Music

Founded in 1905, The Chicago Defender is an African-American run newspaper. In a 1935 publication, an article was published on composer Florence B. Price and her recent successes in composition. Most notably, she won prizes in the Wanamaker competition contest for her Symphony in E Minor and Piano Sonata in E Minor

Price was a notable composer that brought black music to a wider, whiter, audience with her ability to incorporate Black musical idioms into symphonic works. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which consists of three movements, was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall as well as at the Century Progress Exposition.

“Composer Wins Noteworthy Prizes for Piano Sonata.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), May 04, 1935. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/composer-wins-noteworthy-prizes-piano-sonata/docview/492427674/se-2?accountid=351.

This news article in The Chicago Defender quotes Glenn Dillard Gunn’s of the Chicago Herald and Examiner thoughts on Price’s piano sonata,

“A nationalist in my attitude toward the art, it is pleasant for me to record the brilliant success of Florence Price’s piano concerto. It represents the most successful effort to date to lift the native folk song idiom of the Negro to artistic levels”1

Music critic of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph was also quoted,

“Florence Price’s contribution in the form of a piano concerto was by far the most important feature of the concert for here we see what the Negro has taken from his own idiom and with good technique is beginning to develop alone. There is real American music and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows…”1

These ideas are also repeated and analyzed in Rae Linda Brown’s, “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance”. 2 This chapter from Black Music and the Harlem Renaissance discusses Price’s role in society as a black art music composer that embodies the “American Sound”. Black composers during the Harlem Renaissance, Florence Price included, hoped to elevate black folk idioms to the symphonic form. I’m still grappling with the idea of “elevating” certain music to a white standard and the racism Price and other composers of the time had internalized when thinking of their own music. 

Florence Price was a brilliant composer who did important work to include black artists and black music into the American music conversation. Yet, I think there’s work to be done on how we navigate these discussions on the hierarchy of music and specifically the interplay of race.

Ellington: A Look At One’s Own Identity

Discussion in class lately has focused a lot on what are the right ways to study music that is not from our culture or with things that are unfamiliar to ourselves. While we aim to learn and gain knowledge from those around us we often go about doing so in the wrong ways. I found myself captivated by the need to first look at my own identity before I can even begin to learn from someone else. I think it is important when trying to understand identity you have to understand your own and the significance of that.

Reading into Duke Ellington, I cam across a book that he wrote about himself. The book spans over 500 pages and is filled with his reflections on every aspect of his musical persona. Speaking in first, second, and third person narrative, Ellington delves into the depths of his music identity.Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Paperback): Ellington, Edward Kennedy: 8601421907941: Amazon.com: Books The book is falling apart at the seams and the plastic jacket put on by the library seems to be the only thing keeping it intact. Enjoying the book so much to the point of wanting my own copy I quickly found it near impossible to find a “new” copy of the book and every copy I can across was in similar condition. Skimming through the book one sees it is set up as a performance with multiple “acts” that divide the book up. The “blurb” or synopsis of the book (written by Ellington) draws the reader in with his third person perspective.

“My Favorite Tune? The next one. The one I’m writing tonight or tomorrow, the new baby is always the favorite….The author of these words has created some of the best-loved music in the world: ‘Mood Indigo,’ ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ ‘Caravan,’ ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘Solitude.’ More of a performance than a memoir, this book by Duke is Duke, with everything but the soundtrack. He never wanted to write an autobiography and he hasn’t. What he’s done is lay it all down– the times he’s had, the people he’s know. A superior name-dropper, the Duke only drops names he knows– and he’s known them all: Presidents, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, and most especially his own “boys in the band,” Billy Strayhorn, arranger–lyricist who was “my right arm, my left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head,” plus Sonny Greer, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, and many others. There are short takes: essays on his philosophy of life (Music, Night Life, God and Wisdom, all pass scrutiny); journals of his triumphant tours across the world; and his “Sacred Concerts.” Throughout, he writes with all the elegance, panache, sophistication, and innocence that are marks of his unforgettable music Duke Ellington’s talent radiates a special energy, and a magic that could only evolve from a grandiose love of life. His book, bursting with anecdote and spirits, honors that great gift.”

While the book goes through each “Act” and looks at his tours, the numerous big names he has gotten to know, his personal philosophy of life, and different journal articles about it; it also includes an interview he holds with himself. This was a part I found most fascinating as he conducts a very well done interview with himself that asks questions such as “Do you consider yourself as a forerunner n the advanced musical trends derived from jazz?,” “How do you regard the phenomenon of the black race’s contribution to the U.S. and world culture?,” “What is God for you”, “What does America mean to you,” and so many more.

I was quickly taken by this book and immensely curious to its contents. I found that Duke’s performances have to include the art of writing this autobiography-that-is-not-an-autobiography. This book is valuable information into the life of Duke Ellington. If we could’ve had a book written like this (or maybe spoken aloud) by specific Native American tribes we would learn so much about their perspective of their own music. It’s a great example of quality sources with credible authors. In class (and especially in my education classes) we discuss how everyone is an expert in their life and to their identity. While looking at one individual is not always the best way to learn about a whole group of people it is a great place to start.

Aaron Copland and Jazz

American composer, Aaron Copland, is one of the most well known composers of the 20th century and one of the largest influencers of “American Music” … whatever that means. I still don’t know.

The Piano Concerto is one of Copland’s compositions with heavy jazz influences. It was first performed in Boston on January 28, 1927. While it is regarded a success today, upon its premiere it did not receive that recognition. After reading letters from listeners following the premier of the Piano Concerto, Copland wrote to Russian composer, Nicolas Slonimsky, on his reaction to the general public’s distaste of the composition.

“How flattering it was to read that the ‘Listener’ can understand Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky – but not poor me. How instructive to learn that there is ‘no rhythm in this so-called concerto.’” 1

Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, Letters of Composers, an Anthology (New York: The Universal Library Grosset & Dunlap, 1927), 401.

In this concerto,  “Copland himself explicitly states that he intended in this piece to explore the possible applications and extensions of jazz rhythm to modern art music”2. But why was the public so adamant against this piece? Perhaps it was the placement of jazz in the concert hall.

“The challenge was to do these complex vertical and horizontal experiments and still retain a transparent and lucid texture and a feeling of spontaneity and natural flow. If I felt I had gone to the extreme of where jazz could take me, the audiences and critics in Boston all thought I had gone too far.”3

Copland had many influences on his music, including Ravel, Rouseel, Satie, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. Copland’s main influence that I want to explore is jazz. Milhaud and Les Six are often credited with influencing Copland’s “jazzier” works. Something to explore in greater depth is the implications of limiting Copland’s influencers, especially when it comes to jazz, to white men and why the audience in Boston reacted the way they did when they heard jazz infiltrate their concert halls.

Minstrelsy: This is (Still) America

Content warning: offensive language and images

Childish Gambino’s, “This is America” and its accompanying video dominated conversations and social media feeds for days following its release in 2018 as well as receiving critical acclaim at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

The music video provides a commentary on gun violence and the lasting impacts of systemic racism and discrimination in America. Of these lasting impacts, one that stands out to me is the presence of minstrelsy in Gambino’s video. 

Minstrelsy is one of the earliest forms of appropriation of black culture in the United States. Eric Lott’s, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, explores the roots of minstrelsy and its lasting effects today. He argues that minstrelsy is not only an act of violence against black people, but also an act of love and fascination. When describing minstrelsy, Lott goes beyond appropriation, describing the act as “expropriation.”

“Cultural expropriation is the minstrel show’s central fact, and we must not lose sight of it… it establishes little about the cultural commerce suggested by one performer’s enthusiasm as he gathered material for his blackface act: ‘I shall be rich in black fun.’”1

White performers are exploiting black culture for (white) public entertainment and subsequently profiting off of it. 

40 seconds into the “This is America” music video as Gambino is dancing, he makes an over exaggerated smirk on his face and winks his eye, similar to the cartoonish way black people were represented in minstrel shows and drawings. Much like the “Turkey in the Straw” sheet music cover art and the Coon-Chicken Inn restaurant logo.

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Otto Bonnell, “Turkey in the Straw.” Mississippi State University, Mississippi State University Libraries (electronic version), 1921, accessed October 23 2021, https://cdm16631.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/SheetMusic/id/24823.

“Burgers in Blackface: Coon Chicken Inn,” “Coon Chicken Inn” in “Burgers in Blackface” on Manifold @uminnpress, accessed October 24, 2021, https://manifold.umn.edu/read/untitled-6b2e0c15-9dd8-4cec-a2b3-81298b9e74ec/section/f907c8e0-69d3-4a83-b630-57fcda04c072.

This subtle act is the first reference to minstrelsy in the video. 

The second reference to minstrelsy is a bit less subtle than Gambino’s facial expressions. At 51 seconds, Gambino pulls out a gun and takes a specific stance before pulling the trigger. This stance references Jim Crow sketches and is incredibly similar to the 1834 cover art for the sheet music of the minstrel song “Zip Coon.”

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1834.360780/.

Gambino’s placement of these references to minstrelsy in the middle of viral dances like the Nae Nae is especially compelling. Today, a major form of cultural appropriation is white people performing and profiting off of dances made and popularized by black artists. So, Gambino using his body to refer back to minstrel shows while performing the Nae Nae, which took America by storm in 2015, is no coincidence. 

Minstrelsy still permeates American culture today- When one looks up “Turkey in the Straw” on google, it’s described as a “folk tune” and suggests performances of the song by Bill Monroe and the Hi-Lo’s. This brings me back to my first blog post and specifically the idea of discovering the whole truth when it comes to American music. Minstrelsy is still alive and well, so what do we do with that information?

1Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 19.

A Guide to “Negro Minstrelsy”

As the class discusses minstrelsy and the history of such a vile music genre, I decided to take it a step further and delve into the nitty gritty aspect of minstrelsy. I found a guide book to “negro minstrelsy, containing recitations, jokes, cross-fires, conundrums, riddles, stump speeches, ragtime and sentimental songs, etc., including hints on organizing and successfully presenting a performance” (Haverly, 2).

Haverly describes the art of minstrelsy as something anyone can do. It further mocks people of color saying that it is an easy feat and that the audiences are fascinated by it.

Getting into the details of minstrelsy, Haverly sets up his guide to include any bit of information that one might need when researching minstrelsy. The guide starts by laying out valuable information on how to arrange the stage, who you should use as each of your characters (i.e. middle man, and end men), even getting into the makeup. Taking note of the make up routine of blacking one’s face one can find an art behind the cruel act. Idid not realize how detailed the make up process had to be. I had always assumed that one just rubbed ash or painted their faces with some sort of paint. However, the guide included the tip to first wear cocoa butter to allow for easy removal as well as the ear-mine to replicate larger lips in people of color’s facial feature (Haverly, 6-7).

 

Haverly left nothing out and included how to make the most out of advertising for the public. I did note that he stated “if procurable 

from your local printer, get humorous darker cuts to insert upon it–thereby making it attractive or something that will not be immediately thrown away” (Haverly, 8)

Throughout the guide, Haverly includes dozens of pages of various jokes, riddles and songs that a minstrel could use for a show. Before he gets into all of the examples he includes an example program set up.

Just one state over, four years after the guide was written, I found an advertisement for minstrelsy. It was from the Freeman newspaper written for a primarily black audience. Two Thirds of the way down the advertisement is an inclusion of “White and Drinkeley” with blackface clowns.

These two sources tell us the prevalence of this musical genre. It can show researchers the popularity of this music from. You can gain valuable information of the details behind minstrel shows. They are excellent sources for researchers looking at the history of American music or for those looking into more of the racist ordeals of our country. The information I briefly touched on above only begins to convey the information that Haverly includes in his all-encompassing guide. I strongly recommend looking further into the guide for more information.

 

Citations:

“Advertisement.” Freeman, vol. XIX, no. 14, 7 Apr. 1906, p. [5]. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B28495A8DAB1C8%40EANAAA-12C55E8EC9FC1378%402417308-12C55E8F07B85568%404-12C55E900B6CBA78%40Advertisement. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

Haverly, J. (1902). Negro minstrels a complete guide to negro minstrelsy. United States–Illinois–Chicago.; United States–Illinois–Chicago. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=Q58J56BLMTYzNDAxMTMwNy4yNzY1ODA6MToxMzoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjg0&p_action=doc&p_queryname=10&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-147E02C4840557B8@4658-14A4E19D75C56D38@8

 

Sylvester Russell Claps Back at a Racist White Lady.

A big question that I have been grappling with and something we have discussed in class has been the origin of American music, and more specifically, the role of slave songs in American music. We’ve touched on two opinions already in class surrounding this question at the beginning and middle of the 20th century; those of Henry Krehbiel and George Pullen Jackson. Krehbiel argues that enslaved people were the only people in America that were capable of producing true folk music because of their circumstances1 and Jackson argues that music from enslaved people in America was all taken from European music 2. After reading these opinions, I was interested in learning some other opinions surrounding this topic.

Luckily for me, I encountered a newspaper article that discussed this exact topic. Check out the full newspaper here. This newspaper article was written in “the Freeman”, an Indianapolis newspaper for people of color published on July 30, 1904. This article is titled “Music of the Slaves: America’s Original Music” and is written by Sylvester Russell who was a music critic of this era. In this piece, he is commenting on another article written by a woman named Emma Bell Miles in Harper Magazine. This essentially, is the 1900s equivalent of “clapping back”. Even the tone of this article left me laughing to myself. Russell is a savage and uses the most hilarious tone to trash Emma Miles. One of my favorite insults is: “Miss Miles, poor thing, like many lucky women, got a chance to write for a great magazine without knowing anything much to write about…”.

Russell states that Miles argues in her article: “It is generally believed that America has no folk music, nothing distinctly native out of which a national school of advanced composition may arise”. Russell does not like this at all, and argues that there is plenty of research being done on the folk music of American slaves, and in fact, the “advanced composition” that has come from this tradition did very much exist and that it is referred to as “ragtime”.

As much as I love this “clap back” article, I’m not exactly sure that Russell has fantastic evidence for his argument. And to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Miles had much evidence for her argument either. Russell at least gives a name to the music genre that has come from American slave songs, and that’s good evidence. However, as much as I love his condescending tone against this racist white lady, I think he might need some more concrete evidence to support his argument.

1 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs. (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.), 22.

2 Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeld Song Making and Singing among Our Country Folk. (Locust Valley, NY: J.J Augustin Publisher, 1975.), 293.

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.

https://www.loc.gov/item/playlist?embed=resources&tracks=jukebox-275361|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.

 

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.

https://www.loc.gov/item/99470814/?&embed=resources

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

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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: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b35698/)

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.

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.

https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-128141/?

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?

Citations:

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, <www.loc.gov/item/2015650289/>.

Work, John Wesley, et al. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. 1909. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-128141/>.

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.

 

Citations:

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 https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014435?rskey=pQuzQC.

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/what-is-good-music/docview/136934140/se-2?accountid=351.

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002283077?rskey=ittjn6.

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://songofamerica.net/song/old-folks-at-home/.

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002252809?rskey=Yle74c&result=1.

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

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 https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/bluegrass-style/docview/114687317/se-2?accountid=351

NPR. (n.d.). Carolina Chocolate Drops. NPR. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/artists/99046725/carolina-chocolate-drops.

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. https://www.nytimes.com/1959/08/30/archives/bluegrass-style-mountain-music-gets-serious-consideration.html

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:

“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.

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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoILPBDsfvI.

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.

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. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000002409.

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. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000002409.

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 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-166692271>

Dvorak, Anton and Klages, Raymond, “Down De Road : From The Largo Of The New World Symphony” (1925). Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection. Score 4824.
https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mmb-vp-copyright/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 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-170769555>

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, https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/.

 

Popular Music and Moral Panic

I came across an article from the Chicago Defender by Oscar Saffold with a completely different topic in mind for my post.  The article describes a situation in which a white composer by the name of John Powell came up with a similar theory to George Pullen Jackson’s on the nature of spirituals. Using quotes from Krehbiel, H. T. Burleigh and other notable authors and composers, Saffold argues against these attempts to appropriate the history of the spiritual; however, I was struck by a quote at the end of the article that didn’t quite fit in.  “We only have to preserve them and discourage the tendency to set them to jazz.  They… should be spared this prostitution.” [1]  This confused me, as spirituals have a long history of being set in classical music; However, when you think about the reputation of early jazz at the time as a form of popular music, it is easier to understand why these classical critics and performers would be so adverse to it.

“Never before have such outrageous dances been permitted in private as public ballrooms, and never has there been used for the accompaniment of the dance such a strange combination of tone and rhythm as that produced by the dance orchestras of today.”[2]

Jazz wasn’t taken seriously as a form of music due to it’s function as popular dance music.  It was seen as an art which required less skill, was constantly compared to other genres and was predicted to die out relatively quickly.  Oftentimes the criticisms weren’t about the music itself but of racialized fears of a musical ‘other’.  Knowing how widespread and accepted jazz is now, some of these criticisms seem laughable.  Surely we can all appreciate the timelessness of this quote about early jazz: “Certainly if this music is in any way responsible for the condition and for the immoral acts which can be traced to the influence of these dances, then it is high time that the question should be raised: “Can music ever be an influence for evil?”[3]

Front cover featuring Elvis Presley, Teen Life, April 1957

From the days of early jazz to Elvis in the 1950’s, rock and roll in the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and even to rappers today, we can look back throughout history and see many instances of backlash against popular music for being a corrupting force of the youth.  We oftentimes look back and laugh, and ask what we were so afraid of; however, whenever anything new comes we keep on asking the question: Can music ever be an influence for evil?

_____

  1. Saffold, Oscar E. “How American Folk Songs Started.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 25, 1933. https://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351.
  2. Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History
  3. ibid

Works Cited:

Front cover featuring Elvis Presley, Teen Life, April 1957. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/VisualResources/VisualSourceViewer.aspx?imageid=991897&visualsearch=elvis&vpath=gallery

Saffold, Oscar E. “How American Folk Songs Started.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 25, 1933. https://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351.

Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History

A Symbol That Transcends Race?

As I began looking through images of bluegrass musicians from almost a century ago, I realized that amidst the controversial discussion about which culture bluegrass music sprang from, one element in this polarized history remains constant. It was present whether the musician was Celtic or Cajun, young or old, man or woman.

Front porches… they abound in the bluegrass music world. Scroll through the Lomax photo archives from the 1930s, or do a quick, modern-day Google search, and your results will be similar. Front porches have become a constant, universal symbol of a bluegrass musician. Front porches had no racial bias–they crossed the lines between races at a time when no other thing did. Cajun fiddlers and white fiddlers, black guitarists and Mexican guitarists, cajun singers and black singer-songwriters alike; Lomax images show that front porches were the bluegrass musician’s favorite place.

 

Nicknamed “pickin’ parlors,”[1] front porches became the unofficial location for jam sessions to break out in 1930s southern communities. One might argue that front porches are a favorite performance venue for bluegrass musicians because of their great acoustics, or because the intense heat of the south required musicians to play outside in the breeze, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that. I think that by playing on a porch, these musicians were inviting neighbors, relatives, and friends to enjoy this musical tradition.

The front porch lives on in the modern bluegrass scene. There’s a Spotify-curated playlist called Front Porch: Sit back, stay awhile, and savor the soft, sweet sounds of this folksy collection. Front porches remain in country music today. There’s a Front Porch Bluegrass band, an annual Front Porch Bluegrass Festival and Pork Roast, and a bluegrass radio station called Front Porch. It seems that we simply can’t call music “bluegrass” without reference to a front porch.

No matter the person’s race, front porches offered their wooden floors and rocking chairs to any musician.

 

 

[1] Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian,Science Monitor. “Pulled Up by the Banjo Strings: ALL Edition].” The Christian Science Monitor, Jun 23, 2005. https://search.proquest.com/docview/405544729?accountid=351.

Pictures referenced:

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Singers & dancers, New Bight, Cat Island, July. Bahamas Cat Island, 1935. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660223/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Pete Steele and family, Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton Ohio United States, 1938. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660375/.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Lolo Mendoza and Chico Real, with guitars, at the home of Mrs. Sarah Kleberg Shelton, Kingsville, Texas. Kingsville Texas United States, 1940. [Sept. 20] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660028/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Bill Tatnall, sitting, playing guitar, Frederica, Georgia. Frederica Georgia United States, 1935. June. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660089/.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Cajun fiddler, Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660087/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Wayne Perry playing fiddle, Crowley, Louisiana. Crowley Louisiana United States, None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660067/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Cajun singers, southwest Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Summer. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660227/.

The Choctaw Hymn Book and Native American Hybrid Music

While we weren’t able to take much time on it, I was intrigued by the article we looked at in class on Native American hybrid music.  In my research, I happened upon the names of a few hymn books, but the one that interested me the most was the Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso of the Choctaw.  I was also able to find corresponding letters from the missionaries who had shared their hymns with them, which I found interesting.  

Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va, 1872. Print.

The hybridization of Native American music and Christian hymnody adds complexity to the oftentimes oversimplified narrative of the erasure of Native American culture.  While the Choctaw welcomed the missionaries and adopted the tradition of hybridized music, other groups reluctantly converted, and “…people [who] had initially pretended to convert in order to survive, went on to ask, ‘At some point, did we forget we were pretending?’”[1] Such practices oftentimes came about through generations of forced acculturation; however, for some groups, they were accepted into the culture, expanded upon with original works and have been ingrained within their practices to the point of becoming a part of their musical tradition. 

“MISSIONARY PARAGRAPHS.: AGENCY TO THE MEDITERRANUEAN. BOOKS IN THE CHEROKEE LANGUAGE. HYMNS IN THE CHOCTAW LANGUAGE. BOOKS IN THE SENECA LANGUAGE.” Christian Watchman (1819-1848), Nov 13, 1829

 

“MISCELLANEOUS.:CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET.” American Annals of Education (1830-1839) 1, no. 11 (11, 1831): 537

While we’ve been talking in class about the “Vanishing Indian” trope in the context of 19th century classical music, I believe the same ideas of misplaced nostalgia and oversimplification are prevalent today and relevant to the delegitimization of modern Native American culture.  As hinted at in some of the letters above, Choctaw were thought to be more receptive to conversion due to the available access of their language in printed form. This aspect might have aided in their conversion; however, it also aided in the preservation of their language and the transmission of what is now seen by them as their own traditional music.  The collection and performance of these hymns, original and translated, have helped the Choctaw maintain its ethnic identity through frequent meetings and the continued use of native language [2]. While these hybrid forms were born out of the gruesome history of Native American genocide and cultural erasure, to invalidate this living tradition due to its western sound is, in my opinion, just as problematic as the commodification of a curated characterization of what this music ‘should’ sound like.

_____

  1. “Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 
  2. STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).

 

Works Cited:

Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va, 1872. Print.

“MISSIONARY PARAGRAPHS.: AGENCY TO THE MEDITERRANUEAN. BOOKS IN THE CHEROKEE LANGUAGE. HYMNS IN THE CHOCTAW LANGUAGE. BOOKS IN THE SENECA LANGUAGE.” Christian Watchman (1819-1848), Nov 13, 1829, 1, https://search.proquest.com/docview/127208190?accountid=351

“MISCELLANEOUS.: CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET.” American Annals of Education (1830-1839) 1, no. 11 (11, 1831): 537. https://search.proquest.com/docview/89620393?accountid=351.

“Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 

STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).

Skulls: a 19th-Century Justification for Racism in Music

 

Anyone could read this short passage and recognize that the author is approaching music with a problematic, racist mindset, but I had no idea the undercurrent of “science” propelling these opinions until I dug a little deeper…

The pseudoscience of phrenology was running rampant in mid-19th century society. Racist beliefs and actions were justified through this “science.”[1] Phrenologists argued that a person’s character, intelligence, and opinions could be deduced from the shape and size of their skull.[2] This was fodder for 19th-century minds to be opposed to whole races and ethnicities, solely based off the external shape of their skulls. Samuel George Morton wrote Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America[3] in 1839. Crania americana allowed racism to reign in 19th-century thinking under the guise of science, as the book was published in great quantities and spread across the continent and across the ocean to Europe.[4] Through drawings like the ones below, Morton provided “reasoning” for the acceptability of racism against Native Americans. Phrenology directly influenced how people viewed Native American music and musicians.

Looking back at the first excerpt,[5] it is easy to witness how this undercurrent of phenological thought influenced the cultural norms of the 19th century about racism towards Native Americans. This passage comes from the American Phrenological Journal, a publication by scholars of this pseudoscience. Much to my chagrin, this journal would have held great authority over its original audience, an audience well-accustomed to phrenological thought. American Phrenological Journal deems the music of the “wild Indian” to be lesser, because they believed that a Native American’s brain did not physically have the same capacity for music making as a European did. Before even hearing the music, phrenologists had deduced the music to be less advanced than “Christian” music, purely because of the shape of the musicians’ skulls. Along with making assumptions about the music before listening to it, the author makes conclusions about the whole people group based off of the music. They say that “it is a fact” that people can be judged by their music, and that this serves as confirmation that white European-descendants are “superior,” as organs and pianos are a testament to.

 

 

[1]  SciShow. “Victorian Pseudosciences: Brain Personality Maps.” YouTube. YouTube, December 1, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBv1wKinQXw.

[2]  Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Phrenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed September 16, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/phrenology.

[3]  Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana, or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America to Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.

[4]  “Skulls in Print: Scientific Racism in the Transatlantic World.” University of Cambridge, March 19, 2014. Accessed September 13, 2019. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/skulls-in-print-scientific-racism-in-the-transatlantic-world.

[5]  “MUSIC, AS A PHYSICAL AND MORAL AGENT.: MYSTERIES OF MUSIC. 1. MUSIC AS A PHYSICAL AGENT. 2. MUSIC AS A MORAL AGENT. 3. MUSIC AS A COMPLEX AGENT. MUSIC AS A CIVILIZER.” American Phrenological Journal 43, no. 4 (April 1866). https://search.proquest.com/docview/137924894?accountid=351.

Activism: A Rant on Music, Minstrelsy, New Orleans, and Today’s Racism

“Minstrelsy is thing of the past!” my old high school teacher once told me. Is it actually a thing of the past? Just because it is no longer featured and accepted in mainstream media it does not mean that the racism in the United States has ended. It has only evolved. We still hear remnants of this racist entertainment culture in sing-along songs that have been played to many children growing up. There are still references made to minstrelsy through the use of costumes in cartoons such as Mickey Mouse. Have African-Americans, or minorities in general, ever been put first when it comes to economic and emergency aid from the United States government or population? If so, why did Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. ever have to step on that soapbox to put minorities first themselves?

Martin Luther King. Jr. Quote

Is it a cultural norm for the United States to be considered a nation that puts their people last? Unlike the Swiss and Germans, who have helped their people in times of need, New Orleans says a lot about the reality of the United States and the government’s attitude towards affirmative action aimed at minorities, specifically African Americans.

“While Swiss and German governments have paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and those killed in the Holocaust, black intellectuals have pointed out that there has been no such concentrated effort by the United States to repay African Americans for the unpaid labor required under slavery” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

Looters make their way into and out of a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continue to rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage when it made landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and changed the lives over millions of others. One of the cities most affected by this hurricane was New Orleans, LA. The majority of the people affected by this disaster were African-Americans. According to DataUSA.io, the 75.8% of the New Orleans population is Black, 18.9% is White, and 5.3% is Hispanic.

New Orleans, LA Population Bar Chart of Ethnicity

“The problems that plague the urban poor, who are disproportionately African American, were tangible throughout Louisiana—especially in New Orleans, which sustained the most damage—and in Mississippi near where the storm made landfall. The catastrophic storm only amplified ways the black urban and rural poor in the American South had been ignored” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

It is clear that a disproportionate amount of African-Americans in this part of the South were left without sufficient aid by the US Government emergency systems. According to the article about “New Leadership,” Sanders states that there are many African American intellectuals today drawing on evolving conversations about black identity to “reignite a debate on the need for reparations to African Americans” (Sanders). This debate is similar to that of minstrelsy in the context of African American reparations. What can the United States offer to African Americans as reparations in a post-slavery world? Does the United States do enough for African Americans today? This question is complicated because we must define “United States”. The United States as in: government, citizens, immigrants, and companies. There are many different ways the United States can act as an entity.

The Black Law in Missouri, 1861

Minstrelsy poses the same concerns because it requires reparations in its own context. The question posed with regard to minstrelsy is, “Should minstrel songs and culture be erased from history or should we educate our following generations on its history?” For lack of a better way to state this, I will say it as it is: The United States as a whole is not doing everything it can do to owe reparations to African Americans today.

 

Sources:

  1. Sanders, Joshunda. “New Leadership, 2001–2008.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/39.
  2. The Black Law in Missouri. The National Era (Washington D. C., United States), Thursday, January 26, 1860; pg. 15; Issue 682 (224 words (1860/01/26/): https://goo.gl/P7Ahw6
  3.  https://datausa.io/profile/geo/new-orleans-la/#ethnicity
  4. Simpson, George. “Disney race shock: Mickey Mouse ‘was based on blackface minstrels’.” Express.co.uk. February 3, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/762722/Disney-racist-Mickey-Mouse-gloves-blackface-minstrels-Vaudeville-The-Opry-House.

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?

Children’s Songs Become Folk–“Rosie”

Unsure of what to research, even after spending hours scrolling through and skimming journals, narratives, pictures, and musical selections, I inevitably turned to children’s songs on the Library of Congress Lomax Collection. I have always been fascinated by culture and media for children, be it stories, rhymes, or whatever else–I’m even writing a non-fiction book on Nigeria for children right now.

An intriguing aspect of these children’s songs is their folk quality. For example, I dug quite a bit into the song “Rosie.” There are several recordings available in the Lomax Collection and each–despite being recorded within days of each other (May 1939) and in the same area (Livingston, Alabama)–is a little different. These are the versions: Vera Hallthe McDonald Family, and Ed Jones.

This is a classic call and response song, with a leader calling out and the group responding emphatically as a whole. The chorus is essentially the same in each with the “ha ha Rosie” and referring to her as either “baby” or “pretty girl.” The verse lyrics differ, but the overall structure remains the same, as well as the clapping beat underneath. Another recording, from the Smithsonian Folkways Records, is of children at Brown’s Chapel School in Alabama singing the tune:

“Rosie Darling Rosie” appears alongside various other play songs, including ones we may recognize, such as “Mary Mack” and “Loop de Loo.” The lyrics of this one also fall in line with those mentioned above, the chorus following “Rosie darling Rosie / ha ha Rosie / Rosie darling Rosie / ha ha Rosie” and the verses having different words but the same structure. The verse seems to suggest that the song (or at lease this particular rendition of lyric) is from the time of slavery, a slave calling upon his baby to run away with him to Baltimore (a notedly free place in those days) to escape their bondage.

“Rosie Darling Rosie” lyrics from Folkways Records https://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW07004.pdf

The pamphlet that accompanies this record also includes lyrics which the kids do not sing in this particular recording but are still often sung (pictured at right). In the recording of Vera Hall above, she uses these lyrics, except her rendition replaces “preacher” and “two” with “nigger.” Otherwise, it is the same. This illustrates both how folk songs change over time and place and simply who is singing the song, as well as that these folk songs from the days of slavery may be reworked over time to be more palatable to the general populace.

Vera Hall at the home of Mrs. Ruby Pickens Tartt, Livingston, Alabama http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2015645819/

I delved a bit deeper into Vera Hall, as I was most drawn to her rendition of “Rosie.” Apparently, nearly a decade after Alan Lomax recorded her singing in Livingston, AL in 1939, Lomax invited her to come perform at the 1948 Fourth Annual Festival of Contemporary American Music at Columbia University in New York City. She accepted and left Alabama for the first and only time in her life. During this time, she stayed at Lomax’s apartment where he recorded more of her singing (including two more renditions of “Rosie”) and commentaries on the songs and her life. She describes “Rosie” as a song she and the other children in her area would sing and play as a line game. It was a song passed around purely by word of mouth, which is a wonderful example of how folk songs such as this survive.

Dvorak as an American Artist

In his book Dvorak and His World, Michael Beckerman provides a plethora of correspondences between Dvorak and other musicians and acquaintances. One spirit interaction is a letter written by William Smythe Babcock Matthews from Chicago on April 18th, 1893. This letter is written regarding some of Dvorak’s works, their meaning to America, as well as his connections to other musicians.

Matthews is requesting that Dvorak provide him with some details regarding what he feels towards America and music in general so that he may publish them alongside an image of Dvorak. In his letter, Matthews discusses some of the pieces he’d been listening to of Dvorak’s such as his Requiem.

Matthews describes Dvorak’s Requiem as “One of the purest musical works the Apollo club has done for years.” His admiration for Dvorak’s work is obvious, especially as he continues to praise it in context to the changing musical climate in America at the time.

In short it is a great work. Your orchestration pleased us all very much, and I was particularly gratified by the moderation of it, considering the temptation to let loose after the manner of Berlioz on the “Dies irae.”

Matthews holds great respect for Dvorak and his praise for his work in the transitional musical atmosphere of America at the time shows the importance that Dvorak held within American music. Many people wrote to him with praise and support but not many went into details regarding the climate in which Dvorak made his appearance. His music was something sublime within the times and were greatly appreciated across America, especially within those who were, as Matthews put it, “a real admirer of the composer, and a would-be friend to the man.”

 

“Letters from Dvořák’s American Period: A Selection of Unpublished Correspondence Received by Dvořák in the United States.” In Dvorak and His World, edited by Beckerman Michael, 192-210. Princeton University Press, 1993. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s5r0.11.

 

Why Nadia Boulanger is Kind of Like Master Yoda

You know that scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Episode V when Luke Skywalker visits Dagobah to learn from the great Master Yoda? And there’s an awesome training sequence where Luke learns all this awesome stuff about the Force and raises his ship from the swamp. Now imagine that Dagobah is 20th century Paris. And Master Yoda is Nadia Boulanger. And George Gershwin is Luke Skywalker.

Okay, so maybe Star Wars and Les Annes Folles Paris are two very different thigns, but the concept is the same. In June of 1928 George Gershwin went full Luke Skywalker and sent Nadia Boulanger this letter:

Letter from Gershwin to Boulanger

The text of this letter reads;

Dear Mademoiselle,

I am in Paris for a short visit and would like very much to meet you again. I believe we met when I was here two years ago, through the Kochanskis. I have a letter to you from Maurice Ravel.

Please be so good as to telephone me at the Hotel Majestic or write me a note letting me know when and where we could meet. With all good wishes I am,

Most sincerely, George Gershwin

When they met, Gershwin requested that Boulanger instruct him in composition. Boulanger (unlike Master Yoda) declined. She told Gershwin that she couldn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. When one takes into consideration Gerswin’s musical styles,this letter and Boulanger’s refusal to teach Gershwin represent a unique perspective on developing American musical identity. While Gershwin’s contemporaries were building on European idioms and attemping to legitimize American identity thorugh the adoption and adaptation of American Folk idioms. Gershwin, one could argue, was also doing this, but instead of Anglo Folk idioms, relied on Jazz. His brand of symphonic jazz, already popular in 1928, has a unique sound. I posit that Boulanger’s recognition of this unique sound represents the changing perceptions of American music on the European continent. Boulanger recognized that jazz was one of the most unique idioms to come out of American music. Her approval of Gershwin’s symphonic jazz mirrors the world’s tacit approval of the appropriation of jazz in a symphonic sense. While white American elites, and (as evidenced by this letter) white European elites applauded the “raising up” of jazz idioms, composers and performers of color were struggling to gain a tenth of recognition composers like Gershwin were able to achieve. This notion reveals that the source material from which Gershwin drew was stil considered by many, even those in Europe, to exist outside of Art Music as an exotic “other”. Perhaps Boulanger’s refusal to teach Gershwin and mold his composition to her “refined” (read white westernized) musical ideals, as she did Copland, Glass, and others, helped American music to continue its unabashed appropriation of musical idioms from marginalized people. Perhaps this is the true identity American music.

More on Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger is practically the undisputed master teacher of the 20th century. From Copland to Bernstein, her mark on American music is distinct and far reaching.

Boulanger

Boulanger was born on the 16th of September in 1887. She officially began studying composition at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 9 working with masters of composition like Gabriel Fauré. Boulanger herself was a gifted composer, but nearly stopped composing completely after the devastating death of her sister, Lili, in 1920. While this personal tragedy blighted a promising compositional career, it opened the doors for her teaching to come through.

While you finish reading this post about Boulanger’s influence on American composers, listen to some of her compositions in this playlist.

Please take a minute to learn more about Nadia Boulanger here. As a teacher, composer, and scholar, Nadia Boualanger had an immense effect on our modern perceptions of American Music and deserves to be considered as a major facet of American Musical style along with her many pupils.

Sources

Spycket, Jérôme. Nadia Boulanger. Stuyvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1992.

Potter, Caroline. “Boulanger, Nadia.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 Jun. 2017. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/03705>.

Portrait of Nadia Boulanger from https://blog.edmodo.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/NadiaBoulanger_portrait.jpg.

Portrait of Yoda from https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/starwars/images/d/d6/Yoda_SWSB.png/revision/latest?cb=20150206140125

Copland and Bernstein: two friends with diverging viewpoints on ‘American music’

 

Copland and Bernstein working together

It is no secret that Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland were great friends. Even though I had heard this going into my research, I had no idea to what extent the level of mutual investment and encouragement was! I was astounded and quite honestly touched to find the amount of loving correspondence that I did between the two composers. While there are extensive works devoted to both of their respective correspondences, I was particularly interested in a letter written by Copland to Bernstein that addresses their different viewpoints on American music.

In this letter, written December 7, 1938, Copland writes Bernstein with advice on Bernstein’s senior thesis at Harvard, which explores nationalism in American composition. His thesis, completed in 1939, is entitled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” in which he proposes a new American nationalism — one that is defined by the way in which the composer blends their own heritage with “Negro” and “New England” musical traditions, as these form the “sociological backbone of the country.”1

1938 correspondence from Copland to Bernstein

In all of the correspondence I’ve read between the two, Copland shows his affection for Bernstein while also giving “grandfatherly advice,” as he calls it in this particular letter. His advice regarding Bernstein’s thesis in the letter at hand is as follows:

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 a chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material.

This comment made me curious — what was Bernstein’s assertion about Gilbert, and who was this Gilbert anyway?

It turns out Henry F. Gilbert (1868-1928) was a composition student of Mcdowell’s, and was particularly interested in African-American music. Bernstein cites Gilbert’s Comedy Overture on Negro Themes and The Dance in the Place Congo in his thesis to make claims about American music. He asserts that these pieces contribute to the nationalistic process beginning in 1900, a process inspired by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, by engaging in artificial representation where “new indigenous materials were merely imposed upon an otherwise neutral kind of musical scheme.” Bernstein writes that despite Gilbert being a “sensitive and sound musician,” the way in which he incorporates ‘Negro’ material in his works is not American. 1
Here is a recording of Gilbert’s Comedy Overture on Negro Themes:

He complicates the definition of American music further when he categorizes the slow and lyrical sections of  the Comedy Overture on Negro Themes as European. He even writes that “There is no consequential development emerging inevitably from the thematic ideas themselves; there is no basic American “feeling.””1
So he is in fact defining American music by its
sound, which leaves me rather confused. Copland rather encourages him to look beyond the material, demonstrating that Copland has a much broader view of American music. He remarks that:

Composing in this country is still pretty young no matter how you look at it.

Copland has open arms when it comes to American compositions — an attitude which Bernstein does not share at this point in his life.

Note: The two were 18 years apart but died just 2 months apart — Bernstein at 72 and Copland at 90.

Sources

  1. Bernstein, Findings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
  2. Copland, Aaron. Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, December 7, 1938. In The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B Crist and Wayne Shirley. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.

A Copland in Paris finds American sound

I grew up on a farm. I have a recognizable Minnesota accent. I only call it “duck duck grey duck.”

These are not things I would have described as distinctive about myself as I was growing up. This is because I was surrounded by it. I felt no need to assert it as part of my identity – everyone around me also possessed these factors of identity. However, when I came to St. Olaf, a school where I am often surrounded by students from Oregon, New Jersey, Texas, and even other countries, my friends and peers informed me just how identifying these things about me are. I went to a place where I was no longer surrounded by people from my same background, and people pointed out things about me that made me distinctive to them. That made me all the more aware of my identity.

Similarly, in post-WWI America, Copland found himself studying in a new place entirely surrounded by something different: Paris. He grew up in New York at the turn of the century, the son of Russian immigrants, and he was thoroughly surrounded by the American soundscape. When he arrived in Paris, excited and determined to learn and make a living, he began working with Nadia Boulanger, respected and revered composer at the time.

Image result for Aaron Copland nadia boulanger

Unlike Virgil Thomson, who pursued American music sound after being rejected from the Parisian music scene (saying it would be better to try and cultivate American sound than try to even break into the European scene), Copland turned to the American sound at the strong encouragement of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger.

One of the other students working in this class, Brandon Cash, also posted on this topic in 2015. Cash successfully outlines the strong relationship between Boulanger and Copland, especially highlighting the doors she opened for him in meeting other composers.

Compositionally, too, Boulanger’s abstract approach to jazz, which removed it from its cultural context and saw it as a purely compositional force, carried on into Copland’s work.

Image result for Aaron Copland nadia boulanger

Source: Library of Congress

However, it is important to understand her importance in Copland’s development not as a middle woman between him and Stravinsky, for example, but as a valuable contributor in her own right. She encouraged him to define his American sound – otherwise he would crash and burn. Her blunt, heavily honest advice drove him to really define what he was trying to achieve in creating “American” music. Most importantly, she helped him realize that he had a unique identity in being American and having American sound, so he needed to focus and cultivate that. Like me, he didn’t realize he had certain distinctive aspects of his identity until he was in an entirely different place and someone else told him.

It is ironic that the vessel through which he found his American sound is in a Western European country. However, this is not surprising, given that the outside view of American music can give valuable insight just as the view from within. Boulanger did, indeed, encourage him to listen to other composers’ works, and after he heard Milhaud, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy dabble in Jazz, he incorporated it into several of his works. These include Rondino, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Music for the Theater, Dance Symphony, and Piano Concerto.

Below, these letters show Copland’s excitement at being in Paris and finding success and his correspondence with Nadia Boulanger.

Letter from Nadia Boulanger to Aaron Copland

Letter from Copland to Boulanger

Letter from Copland to his parents detailing his excitement at selling his first two compositions in Paris

Carole Jean Harris, “The French connection: The neoclassical influence of Stravinsky, through Boulanger, on the music of Copland, Talma and Piston.” State University of New York at Buffalo, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002.

Annegret Fauser, “Aaron Copland, Nadia Boulanger, and the Making of an “American” Composer.” The Musical Quarterly, Volume 89, Issue 4, 1 December 2006, Pages 524–554.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romanticizing Groups of People that We Slaughtered: American Music

Once white folk had finally finished settling in American, and only after they’d properly slaughtered thousands upon thousands of Native Americans, they could truly begin defining their musical compositions. Of course, per protocol, they began this by romanticizing those that they had previously eradicated and despised. Music has long since been composed through exoticism and romanticism of the “Other,” but it is brought to a new level when that “Other” is a group that was previously massacred in the place that this new music is now being composed.

My Indian Maiden, a beautiful piece composed by Edward Coleman in New York in 1904, is a prime example of this romanticism. He presents in the title a love story between a white man and his “Indian Maiden,” who is presented on the title page of the work as an exotic beauty of incomparable standards.
Coleman, Edward, Wilson, Harry H. My Indian maiden. New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904.: Page 1 of 4

Not only is this in itself problematic, but the music also holds some truly “exotic” melodies and aspects.

Coleman, Edward, Wilson, Harry H. My Indian maiden. New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904.: Page 2 of 4

The piece is written in Em and even in the first bar presents stereotypically Native American musical tones. The chromatic grace notes in the top part could be associated to a war cry or horn. The rhythmic bottom line can also be tied to drums or body percussion, as it doesn’t change often and is the baseline of the music. The grace notes continue throughout the piece in the accompaniment to the melody, as well as a repeated e f g f e, highlighting the minor key and the minor third.

The lyrics portray a man venturing into a forest glade where a young Native American maiden sits outside her teepee, wearing beautiful beads and awaiting him. He then presents her with trinkets abound in riches and sings his love to her. Eventually, they will be together and all of the tribes will rejoice as they exist in harmony with nature.

Of course, these lyrics present a slightly different truth from what truly happened. Music that romanticizes the “Other” has always been present in society, but the levels to which we accept it as entertainment without either knowing the proper story or respecting that it is extremely problematic must be addressed. In children’s books, in shows, and in society as a whole, exoticism and romanticism run amuck in a disrespectful manner, and it must be addressed and discussed, else it will never be changed.

 

Coleman, Edward. My Indian Maiden. New York, New York: The American Advance Music Co., 1904. Link

Irving Berlin

As the composer of such quintessentially American songs such as “God Bless America” “White Christmas” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Irving Berlin’s music can be quickly defined as American music. In spite of his exceptional ability to capture the spirit of America, he was born in Belarus formerly the Soviet Union (although his family emigrated to the United States when he was five).

Irving Berlin composed ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that defined American popular song. Later in life, Berlin was credited to being a songwriter who reflected the feeling of the crowd. In saying this, Berlin could capture that common American talk and made those words and feelings into poetry and music that was simple and graceful and easy to understand and connect to.

Berlin wrote his first song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 later receiving great acclaim and eventually selling over one million copies of sheet music.

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Not only acclaimed for his brilliant compositional style, Berlin was also attributed to his skillful ability to write his own text. In each piece his words could relate to any listener and earned a generally high approval of any work that he did. Over five decades Irving Berlin was able to keep up with the trending styles and wrote music and lyrics for close to 1,000 songs during his lifetime.

Through the myriad of genres and audiences to which he contributed, Irving Berlin assimilated into the American culture for which he was one of the primary providers. In 1988 at Carnegie Hall, famous musicians speakers and fans gathered to commemorate Berlin’s works on his 100th birthday. Irving Berlin lived to be 101.

 

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“Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. :: Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://contentdm.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/18342>.

“IRVING BERLIN’S 100TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION .28.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uV4frZIkIQ&feature=player_embedded>.

 

Beach’s Variations and the Success of the American Female Composer

Amy Beach (September 5, 1867–December 27, 1944) was an American composer and pianist. She was primarily self-taught in composition and was the first successful female composer of large works as well as the first president of the Society of American WomenComposers. She worked to further the works of young composers and was also known as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach” at many of her concert piano performances.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

This is the cover of a manuscript being held in the Amy Cheney Beach Collection, which is housed in the Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections of the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60 was one of many great works she composed for piano. Based on songs “of unknown origin” collected by Reverend and Mrs. William W. Sleeper during their time living as missionaries in the Balkan region, the variations play upon “O Maiko Moya,” “Stara Planina,” and “Nasadil e Dado,” among other Balkan folk tunes. (Beach did not collect any of the folksongs her works were based on.) The variations employ switches between different themes to make up their complex texture.

The following is a loose translation of the text of “O Maiko Moya,” which is the first theme introduced in the work. Although there is no text to be sung or read with this work (this is a piano work, after all) this is important to the structure of the work and is suggestive of the overall tone of the variations and the cultural background that they were based on.

“O my poor country, to thy sons so dear,

Why art thou weeping, why this sadness drear?

Alas! thou raven, messenger of woe,

Over those fresh grave moanest thou so?”

The different folk songs do not all have to deal with Balkan nationalistic pride, rather, some texts relate to the mountains, or a story of a grandfather planting a small garden. As is the case in any piece written as a theme with variations, the variations gradually move away from the original motivic elements and provide new context for different themes.

In her analysis of Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Dr. Adrienne Fried Block suggested that Beach borrowed from Beethoven’s tonal scheme for his Six Variations, op. 34. Beethoven’s Variations was one of the pieces that Beach regularly performed in her solo piano performances and one of the few variations that she regularly played throughout her career. It makes sense then, that this piece had such an effect on her own music. The Balkan Themes were in minor, which affected the tonal adjustments she made to the piece and prevented her from using Beethoven’s Variations structure exactly as it is (it should be noted that the speculation that Beach borrowed from Beethoven is a part of Dr. Block’s correspondence to a E. Douglas Bomberger).

Overall, Beach’s Variations are lively, yet melancholy in mood. Beach was known to incorporate romanticism and delayed resolution into her work, later on moving away from tonality. It is no surprise that Beach has been declared the first successful American female composer of large-scale music, although I think it would be interesting to explore the published music of other female composers and try to understand where they “fell short” of the success of their male counterparts, causing America to have to wait until the late 1800s for a female composer of Beach’s accomplishment.

 

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Boston: Arthur P. Schmidt, 1906. http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/0/0f/IMSLP08550-Beach_-_Op.60__Variations_on_Balkan_Themes.pdf.

Beach, Amy. Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60. Performed by Virginia Eskin. Composed 1904.

Bomberger, E. Douglas, and Adrienne Fried Block. “On Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, op. 60.” American Music 11, no. 3 (1993): 368-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3052509.

William Billings: “America’s First Composer”

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The Chicago Defender possesses a number of music reviews and articles describing contemporary performances of the time. These are a valuable resource as they give insight into the way both audiences and critics of the time received or reacted to new music, composers, and performers. Articles written within days of the performance can help distinguish between ideas or sentiments about a particular piece or composer that developed at the time, or were formed later. Reading in a newspaper article from 1959 that William Billings was “the first American composer” carries with it a different tone than a music historian much later in history ascribing this title to Billings as an after thought or reflection.

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Reading that Ella Fitzgerald performed and sang William Billings February of 1959 also gives insight into the nature of performers and who was performing Billings, and to what audience they were performing to.

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Similarly this article from March also describes the prevalence of Billing’s legacy and popularity. Also describing his music as “American” the attribution of Billings music possessing some type of uniquely American quality to it, is a longstanding concept that these articles demonstrate has been around for a while. Using newspaper articles of more recent history are a valuable insight into discovering the roots or at least history and prevalence of an idea.

Works Cited:

http://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493899376/22CE16733AF34886PQ/5?accountid=351

http://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493694616/22CE16733AF34886PQ/4?accountid=351

http://search.proquest.com/hnpchicagodefender/docview/493701102/22CE16733AF34886PQ/7?accountid=351