Monday, September 29, 2008

HUM 223: mid

Humanities 223: Ethnic music
Springfield College – Benedictine University
Midterm Exam · Fall Semester 2008

Below are three essay questions – one worth fifty (50) points out of a hundred, and two shorter essays worth 25 points each. Please write at least two to four pages (500-1,000 words) on the 50-point essay and one to two pages (250-500 words) on each of the 25-point short essays. That adds up to three essays. Use plenty of detail from your reading in the textbook, the internet and handouts I have given you, as well as class discussion, to back up the points you make. Your grade will depend both on your analysis of the broad trends I ask about, and on the specific detail you cite in support of your analysis. I am more interested in the specific factual arguments you make to support your points than in whether you like or dislike a particular piece of music. So be specific. Remember: An unsupported generalization is sudden death in college-level writing. Due in class Tuesday, Oct. 7.

1A. Essay (50 points). African American religious music began with spontaneous congregational preaching and singing, what Shane White and Graham White called the “hollers, stories, prayers, sermons, work songs and, yes, spirituals" of 19th-century slaves. In Nashville, the Fisk Jubilee Singers turned the spirituals into a very popular art form with classical overtones. And musicians including African American opera star Paul Robeson and English composer Sir Michael Tippett made them into classical music. Do religious songs lose anything when they go from “fairly close-knit homogeneous communities possessing a strong sense of group solidarity” (one definition Daniel Kingman, author of our textbook, gives for folk music) to being sung by popular singers and by classically trained musicians? Do the songs gain anything when they cross over from folk to popular or art music? Or is it a trade-off?. Does the music transcend the specific cultural and religious norms of the people who sing it? If so, how? Be specific.

2A. Self-reflective essay (25 points). What have you learned about American roots music in this class so far that you didn’t know before? Consider what you knew at the beginning of the course and what you know now. What point or points stand out most clearly to you? What points are still confusing? In answering this question, please feel free to look at the “Tip Sheet on Writing a Reflective Essay” linked to my faculty webpage. In grading the essay, I will evaluate the relevance of your discussion to the main goals and objectives of the course; the detail you cite to support or illustrate your points; and the connections you make.

2B. Short essay (25 points). In class I will play a version of Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Session Band playing the African American folk ballad “John Henry” as recorded live on BBC-4 television -- available on YouTube at Write your response to the song, asking yourself: (1) What about this work stands out in my mind? 2. What in my background, values, needs and interests makes me react that way? 3. What, specifically, about the performance makes me feel that way? Is there anything in the song that transcends cultural boundaries?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Psalmodikon pix

Pictures taken yesterday, Sept. 27, of the psalmodikon on display in the Steeple Building at Bishop Hill. We visited with Debi's family during the Jordbruksdagarna (ag days) festival. Click on pix to enlarge.

Swedish books visible in the display case, from left, are: A bible, open to a foreword to the book of Psalms; a book by Erik Jansson, founder of the Bishop Hill colony; the 1819 Wallin psalm book used in services; and a copy of Luther's Small Catechism: Doct. Mårten Luthers Lilla Catechis, med Förklaring af Doct. Ol. Swabelius (1858).

A volunteer at the museum in the Steeple Building, which is maintained by the Bishop Hill Heritage Society, said a visiting scholar from Purdue took measurements of the instrument several years ago and said it is in unusually good shape. No living tradition of playing it in the area, but it would have been used in rural Lutheran churches.

A SAD NOTE. The Red Oak, one of the restaurants in town, had a flier up in its plate glass window saying, "State closings do not affect this business." I hope they don't!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

HUM 223: Fisk Jubilee Singers and spirituals

One of the great American stories tells of a group of black college students from Nashville, Tenn., who in the 1870s took a musical tradition with its origins in plantation life, transformed it into a form of sophisticated art music and in the 1890s attracted the attention of one of the foremost European composers of the time.

They were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and the musical tradition was the black spiritual, or "Negro spiritual" in the language of the day.

Starting in the 1870s, African American arrangers and composers took folk melodies and rewrote them as popular audience using the same kind of harmonies and dynamics as European classical or art music, and they brought the spirituals to the same level of musical sophistication as the lieder (songs) of Schubert or Brahms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Others took up the music. One was Anton Dvorak, the Czech composer, used the spirituals as thematic material for his New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, 1893). Another, whose work we will hear a little of, was the British composer Sir Michael Tippett. Dvorak was especially important, since he was a famous European composer and thus brought a feeling of legitimacy to Americans who had a kind of inferiority complex about their own art and music.

(Do you ever wonder why I put things in red sometimes on the blog? Do you think they might turn up on the midterm exam? Just askin'.)

In the beginning, African American spirituals grew out of "ring shouts" and ceremonies that were essentially religious, involving both singing and dance. Their history is sketched in briefly at the Spirituals Project website, a project of the University of Denver. More background, including sound files, is available from the Spiritual Workshop of Paris, France. (Be sure to listen to "Heaven” by JoAnne Stephenson, accompanied by Lorna Young-Wright, to hear some pretty fine left- and right-hand syncopation in a classical piano style.) All the sound files on the Paris website show how African American music was adapted to the styles of art music, but Young-Wright's playing has a "swing" to it you just don't get in a Schubert art song.

Central to the flowering of the black spirituals were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who took their polished arrangments on the road during the 1870s to raise money for their school, Fisk University. They suffered poverty, ill health and initially hostile audiences, but they sang before Queen Victoria and they won over the musical intelligensia of their day. They are still around, and their website tells their story. A slightly more detailed history is available on the Primarily A Cappella website. It is as dramatic as a romance novel, but the story is true.

W.E.B. DuBois, who studied at Fisk in the 1880s, was especially stirred by the spirituals. "Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past," he said. DuBois called them the "sorrow songs," and in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he said of them:

... by fateful chance the Negro folk-song — the rhythmic cry of the slave — stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
In the 1890s, Dvorak taught at a conservatory of music in New York City, and there he learned of the spirituals from Harry Burleigh, a student of his, whom he asked to sing them repeatedly. Burleigh went on to arrange "Deep River," which may have served as a theme for Dvorak's New World Symphony, and compose his own art songs. He wrote in 1917 of the values in his artistic arrangments of the spirituals:

Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then rhythm, for the Negro's soul is linked with rhythm, and is an essential characteristic of most all Folk Songs.

It is a serious misconception of their meaning and value to treat them as "minstrel" songs, or to try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the peculiar inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come and man - every man - will be free.
I haven't been able to find Dvorak's article on American music online, but a University of Texas feature story on the New World Symphony quotes from it:

[Dvorak] reveled ... in African American music, such as spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the likes of which he had never heard before. In fact, Dvorak recognized in black music the future music of America, and his prediction was borne out in the ragtime, blues and jazz that would be so central to the music of the 20th century.

“In the [N]egro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”
Most of the influence of black American music has been in blues, jazz and rock. But I think it's important to remember some of it was sung before the crowned heads of Europe and flourished at the highest artistic levels, too.

Compare Sir Michael Tippett's arrangements in the 1941 opera "A Child of Our Time" of "Go Down Moses" as performed at England's Royal Festival Hall; and "Deep River" conducted by Somtow Sucharitkul with the Orpheus Choir of Bangkok and the Siam Philharmonic. Tippet's opera was about the persecution of German Jews leading up to the Holocaust, and he was attracted to black American spirituals because they "came out of another time of great oppression with slavery during the 19th century and before."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

HUM 223: Folk, popular and art music

Here's a link to my Aug. 23, 2007, blogpost on the definitions of folk, popular and classical music in the second edition of our textbook "American Music: A Panorama." Or, as we've been calling it in class, back-porch, front-porch and art music.

It's worth knowing because: (1) we'll be dealing with these concepts all semester; and (2) there's a very, very good chance it'll be on the midterm. I'm going to highlight some things I think might be especially important as we prepare for mids.

Folk music. "... evolves within fairly close-knit homogeneous communities possessing a strong sense of group solidarity. It is music known to and enjoyed by a large proportion of the community, who identify it as 'their music,' made by and for themselves. Many of the members of the community … perform the music themselves, with varying degrees of skill." Used to be rural and geographically isolated, but this is no longer always true. Conventional in style. Catchy melodies. Often easy to sing. Emphasis is on the song and not the singer. Other the music has a purpose in daily life beyond making pretty sounds -- e.g. work songs, dance tunes, reglious music used in worship. In the past learned by oral tradition instead of written music, "but this must now include by extension radio, recordings, television, and film." Often the community is defined by ethnic identity. But not always -– e.g. protest songs, labor songs, other types of music sung by close-knit groups with a common purpose. A lot of sacred music started out as folk music.

Popular music. “… created for and enjoyed by the vast majority of the people, undefined by region. No specific ethnic background is requisite to fully appreciate or identify with it. It is primarily (though not exclusively) music for entertainment, and as such it makes only modest demands on its listeners’ musical knowledge and experience. It tends to adopt sounds from both folk and classical music that have become sufficiently familiar to the wider public.” Played by skilled professionals. [p. xvi] It's commercial, sold as sheet music in the old days, now radio, sound and video recordings. Is gospel popular music or folk music? Or both?

Art music (which the 2nd edition calls “classical”). Has been around longer than pop music, and includes music from earlier periods. Says Kingman (main author of the 2nd edition), “As cultivated music it rewards a certain degree of musical experience in the listener, though its devotees are not defined by any intellectual, social, economic, regional, or racial classification.” I like calling it “art music,” as the 3rd edition does instead of classical), because it includes both classical music and a lot of jazz. However, art music often uses techniques and conventions borrowed from classical music -- symphonies, concertos, operas, requiem Masses, etc. The online Wikipedia encyclopedia says art music “primarily refers to classical traditions (including contemporary as well as historical classical music forms), focuses on formal styles, invites technical and detailed deconstruction and criticism, and demands focused attention from the listener.” It also tends to demand a very highly skilled, totally focused performer (most of us can't sing opera). So are the members of a good techno band like classical musicans? Are they art musicians?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

HUM 223: Work songs, field hollers, prison songs and the roots of jazz

A lot of secular folk music in the African American tradition evolved out of the practice of singing at work. Two very brief clips on YouTube that illustrate it ...

The first is a French video on the "genesis of jazz" (my translation) that shows still shots of slaves dancing in Congo Square in New Orleans, where they were allowed to gather on Sundays. Elsewhere dancing was banned as a result of Protestant beliefs that dancing is evil, but in originally French "catholique et permissive Louisiane," it wasn't. Listen for the drums in the background.

[For more information on Congo Square and a dance called the bamboula that was set to piano by classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, see the description in Sonny Wilson's website. A MIDI file of Gottschalk's "Bamboula, Danse des Nègres" (opus 2) is available on the German-language Kunst der Fugue (Art of the Fugue) website. We'll come back to it -- several times -- as we return to New Orleans and the city's profound influence on American music.]

The rest of the video deals with field hollers and work songs that people would sing in the fields. The rhythm of the songs would set the rhythm for a group of laborers swinging hammers, hoes, axes or other tools in unison. People had sung as they worked in Africa, too, and these songs were an important way that African musical traditions were transmitted to America.

The second video was filmed by folksingers Pete and Toshi Seeger, their son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson at a Texas prison in 1966. The first clip shows inmates swinging axes in time to the singing.

We'll also listen to selections from our textbook, pages 23-27, and music mentioned in the book "Sounds of Slavery" linked below.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HUM 223: 'Sounds of Slavery'

We can't go back in time, and we don't have sound recordings before the early 20th century. But we can get a feel for what early African American music would have sounded like from a book called "The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech" written in 2005 by two Australians, Shane White and Graham White.

If you want to read the first chapter, follow the link to the PDF file on Beacon Press' website. It explains the role of music in the daily life of African American slaves. Gena Caponi Tabery, former professor of American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a church pianist in Austin, Texas, says in a review in Christian Century magazine, compares it to the role of music in today's society. She says:
Thanks to our individual, portable, downloadable personal stereo units, we are the most aurally privatized society that has ever lived. More than ever we work, walk and drive to the beat of different drummers. We create our own soundtracks.
That makes it difficult for us to get into a culture in which ".. there was a continuity of the sacred and secular, of work, worship, leisure and play, so that no part of daily life was too lofty or too trivial to be excluded from the commonest work chant or song of praise." DIfficult, but not impossible.

White and White wrote their book around a collection of "recorded hollers, stories, prayers, sermons, work songs and, yes, spirituals" dating from the early days of sound recordings. They were sung by the children and grandchildren of slaves, but they give us the only window we'll ever have into the actual sounds of slavery.

We'll listen to some of them in class.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Missouri Harmony at Menard old settlers' meet

[Email from Mark Johnson, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, July 30, 2008]

Hello Peter,

Here is the bit about Missouri harmony being used at an old settler meeting:

Aug. 9, 1884

"--Old Settlers, hark! Don't fail to bring out your Missouri harmonies for the reunion on the 14th. All who have such laid away, hunt them up so that we can have some old-fashioned glee singing. E.M. Goff." [Petersburg Observer, 8/9/1884, 3:2]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

HUM 223: Polyrhythms to particle physics

It was bound to happen. The new Large Hadron Collider recently tested by CERN has been commemorated by a rap video.
(CERN is an acronym for the Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research, and the collider is the newest and largest particle accelerator used to study the nature of subatomic particles. A story on the video appeared in the online scientific newsletter published in England. And the video is available on YouTube.

Reports Iann Thompson, for
The video explains what the LHC is and will do to a background beat and features white coated scientist[s] dancing in the collision chamber. It has become a hit on YouTube, logging over 2.5 million hits in less than two weeks.

“Twenty seven kilometers, a tunnel underground, designed with a mind to send protons around,” the song goes.

"A circle that crosses through Switzerland and France, sixty nations contribute to scientific advance.”

The video was shot by Kate MacAlpine - rap name Alpinekat - who is a trainee at CERN.
The science is good. McAlpine holds degrees in physics and writing from Michigan State, and she collaborated with other scientists on the video. The music is OK.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

HUM 223: African roots - polyrhythm

Polyrhythm is just a $13.95 word for playing two (or more) rhythms at the same time, as the sound clips in Wikipedia make clear. Lorenzo Candeleria and Daniel Kingman, authors of our textbook, say African music is marked by "the dominance of rhythm, manifested in ... the sense of an inexorably steady pulse governing the music [at the same time as] a high degree of rhythmic complexity and diversity" (18) Listen for it in the clips we play in class, including the "Music in Praise of a Yoruba Chief" discussed in the textbook as well as selections by West African drummer Baba Olatunje and an African American church congregation in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia singing "Sheep, Sheep, Don't You Know the Road." Candeleria and Kingman speak of the same "steady pulse governing the music" as in the instrumental piece, with "the basic 'drumbeat' is present in the foot tapping that is steadily followed by a clap of the hands ... on what is called the offbeat (or backbeat)." They also note "call-and-response singing" in church. "In call-and-response we typically hear a lead vocalist 'call out' a statement, or even a question, that is followed by a 'response' from a group of participating singers" (10). We will hear both again and again.

On YouTube today we'll watch several extended video clips. As we do, listen carefully for the rhythms. Do you hear what Candeleria and Kingman hear? Polyrhythms or other complex patterns? Any call-and-response?

First we'll watch schoolchildren in Tanzania learning a variety of traditional dances at secondary schools funded by the WildiZe Foundation.

African influence isn't limited to the United States. Listen for polyrhythmic music in this performance of a dance called the Cutumba by Ballet Folklórico Cutumba de Santiago, Cuba. And a steel drum band from Trinidad and Tobago playing in London's Trafalgar Square.

We hear it in reggae as well. We'll hear a couple of sound clips from a Chicago roots reggae band called Waterhouse. And we'll watch a performance by Bob Marley of his song "Exodus" live In Dortmund, Germany.

Finally, we'll see videos of Michael Franti and Spearhead singing "Hole In The Bucket"(1994) and "Hello Bonjour (2007). It was shot on location in Africa, so in a sense the music has come full circle, from Africa to the U.S. and back to Afruca -- and the rest of the world.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Online fakebook w/ MIDI files of old-time, Anglo-Celtic fiddle tunes

What I've always needed! Call it an electronic fakebook with sound files Hetzler's Fakebook is "a web based MIDI fakebook of traditional fiddle music" with 550 American old-time, Celtic, English and Welsh fiddle tunes. explains Ed Hetzler, creator of the website:
Traditional paper Fakebooks consist of simple melody lines in standard notation sometimes with chords. Fakebooks enable musicians to access a larger repertoire of tunes. Hetzler's Fakebook goes one step farther. In addition to creating simple melody lines in standard notation when used with Notation Musician, you can hear the tune, adjust the tempo and play along.

Hetzler's Fakebook helps you improve rhythm, phrasing, and intonation. It helps you learn new tunes. It helps you practice tunes you already know. All tunes are in the public domain and arrangements are simplified for learning.
For those of us who play by ear, it has the advantage you can hear the tunes you want to learn.

HUM 223: 'Soldier's Joy' and 'Arkansas Traveler'

Two fiddle tunes --

One's mentioned in the book, at page 13. As I play it, listen for the "high strain" and the "low strain," each played twice. You can see why they're called that by watching the sheet music as I project it on the screen.

"Soldier's Joy" is an old, old fiddle tune that continues to reinvent itself in different eras and different genres of music, as this webpage from the Library of Congress makes clear. Andrew Kuntz, whose Fiddler's Companion is an indispensible online source on fiddle tunes, traces it back to the 1700s ... with versions in Scotland, England, Ireland, as far afield as Denmark and, of course, the United States. (Link to and scroll down.) Kuntz quotes the English novelist Thomas Hardy (1895):
'Then,' said the fiddler, 'I'll venture to name that the right
and proper thing is 'The Soldier's Joy' ‑ ... ‑ hey, my sonnies,
and gentlemen all?' So the dance begins. As to the merits
of 'The Soldier's Joy', there cannot be, and never were,
two options. It has been observed in the musical circles
of Weatherbury and its vacinity that this melody, at the
end of three‑quarters of an hour of thunderous footing,
still possesses more stimulative properties for the heel
and toe than the majority of other dances at their first opening.
Earlier this year it provided contradance music at a Victorian fancy-dress ball (in Carrboro, N.C.?). And Civil War reenactors calling themselves the the 7th South Carolina play the song here in a camp tent on instruments like those used in the mid-1800s.

"Soldier's Joy" is a staple of American folk music. In 1933 newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt heard Bun Wright's Fiddle Band in Warm Springs, Ga., playing "Soldier's Joy."

And the song just never goes away. Here's an up-tempo version by the band Old Crow Medicine Show. Originally from New York state and now based in Nashville, they have played what they call "their own brand of American roots music with a rock and roll attitude" at festivals including Bonnaroo and Telluride Bluegrass Festival. This week they're touring Great Britian, with concerts tonight (Thursday) in Edinburgh and this weekend in London.

Another old fiddle tune is "Arkansas Traveler," which dates to the 1840s. Listen for the low part, played twice, followed by the high part, also played twice. You can see them in the sheet music for an 1880s piano version. The story behind the song is explained by the Little Rock visitors' center. Here two Civil War reenactors play it on banjo and "bones," an African American percussion instrument we'll meet again when we study the ministrel shows.

Like most fiddle tunes, "Arkansas Traveler" is a dance tune. Here a group of English dancers perform an American clog dance to the tune. Notice the similarity to Irish step dancing, but also notice their arms are held more loosely. Here, at a festival in Kentucky, is a southern Appalachian clog dance in something more like its native habitat, at this year's Hillbilly Days festival in Pikeville, Ky.

One of the great southern Appalachian fiddle players was Tommy Jarrell, who plays "Arkansas Traveler" and other tunes, and talks about moonshining, in a segment from a 1980s television show narrated by Scottish fiddle player Aly McBeal, also a virtuoso performer in his own right. Jarrell has been named to the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame. Notice how English, Scottish and old-time American string band traditions are interconnected in all of these clips.