Monday, August 25, 2008

HUM 223: Three questions to ask yourself

Here are some quetions that are designed to get you thinking about your response to a piece of music ... or any other piece of art. Ask 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 specific things in the work trigger that reaction?
We'll ask ourselves variations on these questions all semester. Please note: If you were taught in English class never to say "I" in a paper for school, you're off the hook in HUM 221! There's no way you can write about these questions without saying "I." One would guarantee it. I guarantee it.

Keep these three questions in the back of your mind. We'll keep coming back to them.

Here are links to earlier posts I put on "Hogfiddle" about how to write about music and on the literary theory the questions are modeled after, which is called reader response and which works just as well for music as it does for literature.

Friday, August 22, 2008

HUM 223: Irish folk roots, popular music

Many of the deepest roots of American popular music are Anglo-Celtic, and we can hear some things in Irish traditional music that we'll meet again in America. We'll trace one or two of them by watching some Irish folk music and seeing how some of its features show up in 21st-century popular music. What changes as the music crosses from folk to popular styles? What remains? What is lost? What is gained?

First, this YouTube clip of a young Irish girl singing a Gaelic song in the "sean nos" (old style) manner shows how our vocal music began. Notice how matter-of-fact and unemotional her expression is, like that of a ballad singer, and listen for the quality of her voice. Sean nos singers tense up the mouth as they sing, and their throat muscles are tight. This is the authentic style of traditional Irish singing as it has come down over hundreds of years. Notice how proud the older man (her grandfather?) is that this young kid is carrying on the tradition. The language is Gaelic.

A more popular Irish singer is Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (her name is pronounced like Murin Nick'olive) of the band Danu. Link here to her home page and to her MySpace page. In this clip from the Comhaltas traditional music website she sings “An Spealadóir” (a West Kerry song) and plays two reels, “The Caucus” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley.” She is backed by Michelle Mulcahy on accordion and Billy McGlynn on bouzouki. Do the two instrumental numbers remind you of American old-time string band music?

A review in the electronic magazine Rootsworld says Nic Amhlaoibh has "steered [her band] in a more accessible, if less daring, direction" and "possesses a clear, pleasant, and steady voice suited to both traditional and MOR soft rock tunes." In other words, she's a crossover artist. She sings in folk and popular styles alike. Compare her singing to the descriptions of folk and popular music in the handout from Daniel Kingman I gave you in class.

Another band that has made Irish traditional music very popular is called the Chieftans. In this YouTube clip they play the "Dublin Reels" for Irish step dancers. This is a very traditional combination of music and dance, although the movie and dance troupe Riverdance crossed over into pop music several years ago. Notice how stiff the dancers' upper bodies are and how intricate the footwork is.


Another type of Irish traditional music is featured by Sinead O´Connor, seen here with the Chieftans rehearsing "The Foggy Dew," a song of the Easter Rebellion in 1916, for an album released in the 1990s. Click on "More info" to see the lyrics. Since O'Connor is singing in English, you can hear another feature of sean nos singing -- the way she bends words like "city" so it sounds like "c-i-i-ty" or "Their armed lines" like "The-ir ar-r-med lines." It's called ornamentation, and you'll hear it again in American singing. How does O'Connor's singing style compare with Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's? With the traditional sean nos singer we heard first? Is she more emotional? More expressive?

Finally, we'll listen to Emmylou Harris and The Chieftains singing an Irish lyric song called "Lambs on the Green Hills" in concert in Nashville, Tenn. (It's also on the CD "Further Down the Old Plank Road," an album featuring the Chieftans and U.S. country musicians in Nashville.) Click here for the lyrics as printed in Padraic Colum, ed. "Anthology of Irish Verse" (1922). Harris is an accomplished professional whose songs have been on the country, folk and alt. country charts more more than 30 years. How does her style compare to a more traditional folk singer's? Listen for ornamentation, expressiveness, emotion

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

HUM 223: 'Saints' and madrigals

Harry Belafonte once said if it weren't for the African-American contribution to U.S. music, a quintessentially American song like "When the Saints Go Marching In" might have sounded like an old English madrigal -- one of those songs with a lot of "tra la la's" that sound like old-fashioned Christmas carols. It was a joke, but I think there's something to it. And it's central to what we'll be studying in Humanities 223.

To get into the spirit of Belafonte's joke, let's first watch some buskers (street musicians) in New Orleans playing "The Saints" on April 28, 2007, in the old French quarter of New Orleans. (Notice the people who stop and put money in the trumpet player's basket. That's how buskers make money.) We'll also see Louis Armstrong playing it during a 1959 festival in Stuttgart, Germany. The song, like so much of American music, got its start from New Orleans street musicians a lot like the ones we see playing here. And Armstrong was one of the most famous jazzmen of the 20th century worldwide. Even from an old TV screen grab, we can see why.

Then, to get a sense of what Belefonte joked that "The Saints" would have sounded like, we'll hear an authentic English madrigal as performed in the fall of 2007 by the Herndon High School Madrigals in Herndon, Va. The song is "Now is the Month of Maying" by Thomas Morley (ca. 1558-1602). How does it differ from the versions of "The Saints" we heard? How is it the same?

Finally, we'll listen to Belafonte's version of "The Saints" in class, on a scratchy old LP of mine. It's a perfectly respectable version, backed up (unnecessarily, in my opinion) by a 47-piece Carnegie Hall orchestra in 1959, but the main thing I want you to listen for is Bellefonte's intro to the song. It's joke, sure, but ... think about it. What would American music have sounded like without the contribution made to it by black artists?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

HUM 223: Extra Credit -- Blues and BBQs Sat.

While blues had its greatest popularity as an art form during the mid-20th century, we have a good opportunity this weekend to hear some blues. It's at the "Blues and BBQs" festival in downtown Springfield. For extra credit, you can go to the festival and write a journal on it. Shoot for 750 to 1,000 words, if you can get it that long (that's three to four pages typed). Here's a link to the writeup in, an electronic magazine ("eZine") in St. Louis. Here's the main details:
SPRINGFIELD, IL – This year’s Old Capitol Blues and Barbecues music lineup should please the tastes buds of all kinds of blues fans. Some rock, Chicago-style, gospel, jump, and country blues are all on tap for Old Capitol Blues & BBQs on Saturday, August 23, on Fifth and Washington Streets, downtown Springfield.

Festivities get underway at noon with a baby-back rib cook-off and continue through the evening until midnight. Admission is $5 with children 12 and under free. Twenty BBQ vendors will serve dishes such as smoked chicken, pulled pork, pork chops, ribs, brats, beef brisket, Creole pan BBQ shrimp, chicken wings, catfish nuggets, kabobs, potato salad, slaw, chips, fries and fruit parfait — for prices ranging from $1-$6. Miller beer and Coca-cola products will be available to quench any thirst.
I'm making this assignment for extra credit, since I don't feel right about making anyone spend money for class credit. But I recommend this highly, even if you don't especially care for blues. Especially if you don't much care for blues!

Here are some tips for writing about music that I posted to this blog before the blues festival two years ago. For writing my response to any work of art, I like a "cookbook" or "fill-in-the-blanks" outline that goes like this:
Circumstances. Give a one- to three-paragraph introduction to your essay (and it can go longer for a term paper). Start by describing the concert, or if you're reacting to a recording by saying what's on your mind, where and why you're listening to the work - or listening to it again - what your first reaction was, how you feel about it now, what you had for dinner, what the weather's like, anything that sets the stage. In the case of "Blues and BBQs," I'd describe the scene.

Background. Here's where you give the necessary information about the piece. Title, artist, style of music. In this case, I'd quote from article.

Analysis. As always, argue a thesis. Support your thesis by quoting passages from the lyrics and analyzing the music. Check those suggestions from Dartmouth again. They'll tell you what to look for. Find some reviews on the internet and quote them. Agree with them, or disagree with them. And say why. Remember, in college-level writing, an unsupported thesis is sudden death!

HUM 223: An English madrigal

Chia-Fen Wu and Dirk Moelants playing Thomas Morley's madrigal "It was a lover and his lass" in Ghent on the Sept. 14, 2007.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rowdy Irish band w/ good Sean-Nós singer

The band is Danú, and the lead vocalist is Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, whose name, according to her Wikipedia profile, is pronounced MWI-ren Nick OWL-eve.

Other members of Danú are Tom Doorley on flute; Dónal Clancy (son of Liam Clancy), guitar; Oisin Mc Auley, fiddle; Éamon Doorley, bouzouki and fiddle; Donnchadh Gough, bodhran and uillean pipes; and Benny McCarthy, box accordion.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's MySpace page has downloads of "Isle of Malachy" and "Western Highway," plus several in Gaelic. There's a five-minute clip on the Comhaltas wensite that shows her singing "An Spealadóir" (a song from her native West Co. Kerry), and playing flute on two reels, "The Caucus" and "The Wind That Shakes The Barley." She's accompanied by Michelle Mulcahy on accordion and Billy Mc Glynn on bouzouki. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann describes itself as "a non-profit cultural movement with hundreds of local branches around the world" that promotes "the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music."