Cohen Quest: Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

1 O’Day, Caroline. [Supporters [arranged alphabetically] M-W: O’Day, Caroline]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository.  https://colenda.library.upenn.edu/catalog/81431-p31g0hx4c (accessed September 27, 2021).

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

3 Special to the New York Times. Throng Honors Marian Anderson in Concert at Lincoln Memorial. Newspaper. New York: The New York Times, 1939. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/throng-honors-marian-anderson-concert-at-lincoln/docview/102759828/se-2?accountid=351.

4 Cohen, Charles C. [Howard University, 1939: Cohen to Hurok]. Letter. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository.  https://colenda.library.upenn.edu/catalog/81431-p3fj29g1s (accessed September 28, 2021).

5 Hurok, Sol. [Howard University, 1939: Hurok to Cohen]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository.  https://colenda.library.upenn.edu/catalog/81431-p3610vv2q (accessed September 28, 2021).

6 Cohen, Charles C; Fred Hand. Letter from Cohen (Howard) to Hand with his reply. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939.  https://www.dar.org/sites/default/files/8_SCR_DAR%20Subject%20Files_Anderson%
2C%20Marian_February%208%2C%201939%20Letter%20from%20Cohen%20%28
Howard%29%20to%20Hand%20with%20his%20reply.pdf (accessed September 28, 2021).

7 Roosevelt, Eleanor. Letter of resignation from Roosevelt to PG Roberts. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939. https://www.dar.org/sites/default/files/12ABC_SCR_DAR%20Subject%20Files_Anderso
n%2C%20Marian_February%2026%2C%201939%20Letter%20of%20resignation%20fr
om%20Roosevelt%20to%20PG%20Robert.pdf (accessed September 27, 2021).

(Mis)representation: The Westernization of Native American Music

It is difficult to determine exactly when influence from another culture turns into misrepresentation. Edward MacDowell, a white American composer wrote the piece Woodland Sketches, Op. 51: No. 5: From an Indian Lodge which was published in 1896. The piece begins with a fortissimo, perfect 5th interval, an interval which was often used to categorize “exotic” music. This is just one way in which MacDowell exhibits an inaccurate representation of Native American music. MacDowell’s composition undoubtedly brings up issues, both in his inaccurate, westernized representation of it, but also in his use of Native American culture without permission.

Chickasaw Composer, Jerod Tate

This conjures up the questions, is it always wrong to misrepresent a certain culture’s music by westernizing it? What if the composer is someone of that culture? Could that even be considered “misrepresentation”? Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate is a self identified citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and works to make Native American music relevant within the classical music world. One of his pieces, “Oshta”, written for the solo violin is loosely based upon Choctaw hymn 53.

Choctaw Hymn 53 came into existence as a consequence of Christian missionary work done in Native American land. Work to evangelize Native Americans was done essentially since the first Europeans came to the Americas. Religion was one way in which Europeans felt superiority, which often lead to a desire to teach Native Americans about Christianity in order to help them escape their “savagery”. Missionary work and evangelization is what lead to the creation of things such as the Choctaw Hymn Book, a bigger collection of hymns with Choctaw Hymn 53 comes from. Composed by Native American citizens, these hymns were considered a type of “hybrid music”; a combination between western hymns and a Native American style of music.

Choctaw Hymn #53 (2/2)

Choctaw Hymn #53 (1/2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As seen in the images of Hymn #53, the words are all in Choctaw. Listening to this recording of the hymn, characteristics including the occasionally present dissonant harmonies distinguish it from traditional Christian hymnal music. The group singing is a characteristic which is also comparable to many other Native American music.

Listening to both Tate’s piece as well as the hymn it was inspired by, it is clear that they are vastly different, not only in their instrumentation, but in their melody and structure as well. Interestingly enough, Tate’s piece exhibits a perfect 5th double stop about 15 seconds in, making it possibly more similar to MacDowells’s intro than to the intro of the original hymn. Tate was clearly influenced by Native American music, much like MacDowell, but took it and made it his own.

To answer the questions I posed earlier, I would argue that no, a person like Jerod Tate cannot misrepresent his own culture, even if he is creating a sort of fusion between it and western culture. To argue with this, one might say that an implication of this fusion music is that it is a way of giving into assimilation by actively westernizing Native American culture. In reality, one cannot grow up in the United States without being exposed to western culture. I argue that even within one’s own identity, it is impossible to completely separate the western side from one’s ethnic and cultural heritage. Composers like Jerod Tate musically represent that dual identity within their work, thus making the Native American-Western fusion a presentation of pride of their culture and identity rather than a misrepresentation.

Sources:

  • Choctaw Hymn 53: Chahta vba isht taloa holisso. Choctaw Hymn Book, Richmond, Presbyterian committee of publication, 1872.
  • MacDowell, Edward. Woodland Sketches, Op. 51: No. 5: From an Indian Lodge. Barbagallo, James. Naxos 8.559010, 1994. CD.
  • Mill, Rodney, Frank Oteri, and Susan Feder. “Orchestral music.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed February 18, 2018. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002224888?rskey=tPlwS5&result=2
  • Stock, Harry. “A history of congregational missions among the North American Indians”. The Newberry Library, 1917. http://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/Ayer_MS_835
  • Tate, Jerod. “About: Artist’s Biography.” Jerod Tate. Accessed February 18, 2018 http://jerodtate.com/about/
  • Vba isht Taloa #53, Choctaw Hymn Book. Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvana: School of Choctaw Language.

Women in Music and Male Clothing…and Frankly Just Society in General

Before posting, I acknowledge that this post doesn’t directly relate to music, but I am also of the opinion that this topic can be spread to music among many other aspects of life.
The video that I kept getting drawn to was one that seemed as though it was going to discuss the act of being a man, or the requirements and limitations that society imposed on being male. Unfortunately, it seemed that I was wrong and that the video simply discussed the silly limitations that women placed on men in the form of clothes.
(Sarcasm warning) Of course, as the video stated, this was unreasonable as women had no idea what male fashion was and could not have chosen proper clothing to save their lives. In fact, it seems as though they are to be ridiculed for even attempted to aid in the choices that men made regarding their clothes.
As mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, etc… I find it tough to see how someone associated so much in the lives of the males in their families could have their opinions on such a small matter ignored, let alone ridiculed. The video seemed as though everyone agreed, presenting to the audience a completely disdainful commentary that looked down on women. This type of commentary cannot be flaunted on what believed to be a reputable program and it’s shameful to have been put forth at a time where such trivial disagreements such as clothing shouldn’t have been associated with sexism.
This type of argument can exist within music as well, spanning both women in music in the past as well as our learning now. The idea that women could be professionally involved in music was often disputed and, such as women choosing clothes for their husbands, laughed at. Even now, in learning about music history women are often ignored by what we consider to be the reputable sources, and their importance and involvement is still downplayed as we learn from curriculums that we trusted because we simply did not question them.
Overall, trivial matters such as clothes isn’t important, but rather an issue in the broader discussion of women’s opinions, ideas, and sheer existence in the public and male dominated sphere of being laughed at, downplayed, and downright ignored. It is in fact an issue that cannot be ignored and must be addressed, and we cannot perpetuate it within what some would consider to be reputable and trustworthy sources.
http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1792619

Documenting Native American Song

It’s no wonder that Americans have a narrow, stereotyped understanding of Native American song. On the one hand, there are mass media representations that run from the antiquated and embarrassing…

… to the downright confusing – I’m thinking especially of all the conflations between Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish musical culture in the 1920s and 1930s, including this one, and this one (at the very end). In fact, mass media’s propensity to get Indian song wrong is so cliché that the stereotyping itself has been parodied, most famously in the irreverent Fox cartoon Family Guy:

It’s not so hard to see where these misunderstandings come from. From the colonial era to the present day, the majority of Americans have never encountered Native American song themselves; they have mainly read accounts of it written by others. For example, Chicago’s Newberry Library preserves an 1835 account by John T. Irving, Jr. (accessible via the Adam Matthew database, specifically its “American West” collection) that describes an expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. We “hear” music through Irving’s ears, for example in this description of a group of Indians assembling before a journey:

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Likening the Indians’ song to a “low, and not inharmonious cry,” a “wailing moan,” and a “mournful chant,” Irving doesn’t really tell us what the “dirge” or “death song” sounds like. Rather, he sets the sounds he heard apart from what his readers might know; he renders the Native American song utterly Other.

It’s unfortunate that accounts like Irving’s have been more influential than systematic, respectful attempts to document Native American song, like that of Frances Densmore. A native of Minnesota, Densmore undertook an enormous study of Native American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under the aegis of the Bureau of American Ethnology, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Densmore’s prescience about the misrepresentations referenced above borders on the prophetic. In 1927 she wrote, “There is danger that the future will form its opinions of Indians from the sentimental movies and the theater music when the Indian is seen through the bushes. Neither the “love lyric” nor theater tom-tom music are genuinely Indian, in the best sense” (Qtd. in this Smithsonian Institute online archive; see footnote 5 for archival citation).

Building on the pioneering work of Alice Fletcher, another ethnologist and collector of Indian Song, Densmore published dozens of book-length accounts of music making by individual tribes, including a volume on Pawnee music.

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Her description of Pawnee music is nothing like Irving’s. Here’s an excerpt: “An important point, made evident in this comparative analysis, is the individuality of Pawnee music. It is distinct, in its entirety, from the songs of other tribes, though bearing a resemblance to one tribe or another in separate characteristics. The study of Indian music by an established system of analysis shows there are characteristics that are common to Indian songs of various tribes and different from the music of the white race, and also characteristics which distinguish the songs of one tribe from those of another. Among the former is the change of measure-lengths found in many Indian songs and the downward trend of the melody…” (Frances Densmore, Pawnee Music [New York: Da Capo Press, 1972, reprint of 1929 ed. issued as Bulletin 93 of Smithsonian Institution]). Below is another excerpt from the book, this one including a piece she transcribed from a recording made by one of her research associates.

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Densmore took Indian music as seriously as it deserved to be taken, and as a result, created an incredibly rich resource for anyone who’d like to know what music Native Americans actually made.

Other Resources:

Books by Densmore at the Carleton and St. Olaf Libraries

Minnesota Public Radio profile of Densmore

Libguide on Densmore created by the Minnesota History Center

Edward Curtis’s Photographic Ethnography of American Indians, hosted by the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project