Saturday, October 31, 2009

Radio podcast on Swedish roots music in Minnesota, w/ link to an interesting studentspelmanslag ["Student Folk Big Band"] in Sweden

Aired Oct. 28 on KFAI-FM (Minneapolis-St. Paul), on the Scandinavian Cultural Hour, hosted by Dick Rees. Program listing:
Following the music from MN back to Sweden, then back a few centuries. A one hour journey to the roots of the roots.
For this program, link here:

Hosted by Rees and Dean Johnson, the Scandinavian Cultural Hour "presents a wide range of music from Scandinavia, both old and new," according to the program listing. "It features Scandinavian releases of every musical genre: Instrumental, vocal, classical, folk and jazz." Value to this cast, along with the music, is what Rees says about the music between selections.

Especially nice: "Hinsvals & Hinspolska," medley by Bollnäsbygdens Spelmanslag beginning at 11:18. Background on student spelmanslag clubs since Linköping Folk Festival in 2003. According to their MySpace profile, their "music mixes old and new, back-country fiddle and distorted electric guitar." It features 30-plus fiddles, "recorders, cellos, accordion, key-fiddles [nyckelharp], guitars, percussion, cittern and bass." Interesting sound. More on spelmanslag ["Student Folk Big Band"] movement at Studentspelmanslags-VM website. Mostly in Swedish with an English summary (click on British flag) and links to YouTube clips on "Historisk" page.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

HUM 223: Term paper assignment

HUM 223: Ethnic Music
Springfield College in Illinois
Fall Semester 2009

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art. -- Charlie Parker

Term Paper – Fall 2009

One of your requirements in Humanities 223 is to write a documented term paper (at least 2,000 words or eight pages in 12pt type) on some aspect of cultural and artistic expression in traditional music or a commercial genre derived from traditional music. This handout tells you how to do it. The instructions, and updates, will be posted to my teaching blog at -- Pete Ellertsen, instructor

Your overall assignment. Choose a musician, band or group whose work you enjoy or whom you want to know more about, and write a paper about their artistic influences; how their culture and/or artistic shaped their life and career; how they dealt with issues of commercial and artistic success; and their place in the history of American popular music.

You may choose your own topic, i.e. the artist you write about. But since this is a roots music class, you will do best if you choose a historical figure or a contemporary musician whose art has been influenced by traditional music and who seeks to modify those traditions in today’s world. Be sure to clear your topic with me before you begin researching it; I must approve the topic ahead of time. Your opinions and your response to the artist’s music are an important part of the paper, but you need to research your artists’ career and respond to their music in order to support your opinion. In other words, it is a documented research paper. A “Citation Machine” is available on my faculty page.

How to approach your paper. In researching and writing your paper, you’ll want to address the following points. Not all of them will be appropriate for every paper you write (for example you don’t need to spell out for me that gospel singer Mahalia Jackson didn’t use drugs), but you’ll want to touch these bases in your research:·

  • Some biography of your artist or band members, including musical influences, artistic vision (i.e. anything they said about music, like the quote from jazz saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker above), and how they made a living from their music. How did they handle the stresses of a musical career, including drug use, road trips, etc.? How successful were they?
  • What compromises, if any, did they make between their artistic vision and commercial success? How successful were they, both artistically and commercially?· What does your artist’s career tell you about what it means to have a career in the arts in American society? What does it tell you about American popular culture?
  • If you do a historical figure, how did they influence later musicians? If you do contemporary musicians, how do they build on the music of the past?· How well was your artist or band received in their time? By the public? By other musicians?
  • Listen to some of their music, and ask yourself: (1) What about it stands out in my mind as I listen to it? (2) What in my background, values, taste and interests makes me feel that way? (3) What specifically about the music leads me to my response to it? Consult the reflective response handout linked to my faculty webpage and my sample essay linked to that page for more ideas on how to write about music. Your response to roots music is what HUM 223 is all about, and this response is an essential part of the paper.

In researching the paper, you should both read up on the musicians and listen to some of their music. You will find some sources in the library, others on the Internet. If you have trouble tracking down recordings or sound files, see me and I’ll help out.

Who to write about? Any of the artists we have talked about in class are fair game. You can find plenty on historical figures like Stephen A. Foster, the Fisk Jubilee Singers or Louie Armstrong. Blues and/or jazz vocalists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday would be good subjects. Gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson (mentioned above) or Thomas A. Dorsey who also sang blues as “Georgia Tom,” or more recent evangelists like Kirk Franklin who have their roots in gospel music.

As you read “Deep Blues” by Robert Palmer, You will learn a lot about Delta and Chicago bluesmen Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as the rock artists like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan or the Rolling Stones who emulated their music. You will get other ideas as we watch “Feel Like Going Home” and other DVDs from Martin Scorese’s PBS series “The Blues” we screen in class during the remainder of the semester. Just be sure to clear your topic with me first.

What are my deadlines? There are three. You will give me a two-page typewritten proposal by Tuesday, Nov. 10, in which you tell me which performer(s) you will research and what your tentative thesis is; and list, in MLA or APA format, three to five specific sources you have consulted. Link here for the assignment sheet for the proposal.

Your papers will be due the day after Thanksgiving vacation, which is Monday, Nov. 30. I will post further directions and/or suggestions to Hogfiddle, and we can discuss paper-writing stragegies in class.

If you have questions please don’t hesitate to ask me. The quickest way is to email me at

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Period music workshops at New Salem historic site

Submitted to The Prairie Picayune, interpreters' newsletter at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site.

What does an old fiddle tune have to do with
Rev. John Berry’s service in the War of 1812?

During this year’s off-season, some of us will be swapping tunes that go back to New Salem days – or have a strong connection with New Salem – in a series of workshops on the folk music of our period. One of our first tunes will be the “Eighth of January.”

It’s an old fiddle tune I like to play on the mountain dulcimer at New Salem, but it’s only one of several tunes we’ll swap. When we had similar off-season workshops in 2006 and 2007, we came up with a variety of music – and had a wonderful time comparing our different styles for sharing our music with visitors. Norm Waltzer has tablature for a great fiddle tune called “Illinois Cotillion,” and I’ll have a couple of songs from Carl Sandburg’s “Songbag” (1927). We’ll meet, at least the first time, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at the Visitor’s Center.

Back to “Eighth of January.” According to Andrew Kuntz in the online Fiddler’s Companion, an indispensible source of information, it commemorates Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans Jan. 8, 1815, at the end of the War of 1812.

“This victory, by a small, poorly equipped American army against eight thousand front-line British troops (some veterans of the Napoleonic Wars on the Continent), came after the peace treaty was signed and the War of 1812 ended, unbeknownst to the combatants,” Kuntz says. “The victory made Jackson a national hero, and the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was widely celebrated with parties and dances during the nineteenth century, especially in the South. Around the time of the Civil War, some time after Jackson's Presidency, his popular reputation suffered and ‘Jackson’s Victory’ was renamed to delete mention of him by name, thus commemorating the battle and not the man.”

As with so many fiddle tunes, its precise origins are obscure. And there’s a much more recent vocal arrangement to the same tune, written in 1958 1936 by a high school history teacher from Arkansas named James Morris (Jimmy Driftwood), who wrote it in an effort to get his students interested in history. It worked. [Ed. note: Don't know where I got that wrong date from.] In fact they loved it, and he later recorded it as “The Battle of New Orleans.” His song was covered by all-around country, rockabilly and honky-tonk virtuoso Johnny Horton, whose version was the top country-and-western song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959. [Ed. note: OK, it must have been recorded in 1958.] There was even a British version, by skiffle band leader Lonnie Donegan. And it’s been covered ever since by artists from Johnny Cash to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

So Jimmy Driftwood’s version is the one most of us know, but the old fiddle tune is widely attested, with a lot of variants, and it surely traces back to the 19th-century celebrations of Jackson’s victory.

When I have my dulcimer with me in one of the Berry-Lincoln stores, I like to play “Eighth of January.” It’s a cheerful tune, and if visitors are interested, I’ll tell them William Berry’s father fought under Jackson at New Orleans on the 8th of January in 1815. The Rev. John McCutcheon Berry is known to us, of course, mostly as the pastor at Rock Creek Cumberland Presbyterian Church and father of Abraham Lincoln’s partner in the stores. But R.D. Miller’s history of Menard County fills in his back story.

“When twenty-two years of age he made a profession of religion and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian church,” Miller says. “He was a soldier in the war of 1812 and participated in the battle of New Orleans. The Logan Presbytery [of Tennessee and Kentucky] licensed him to preach in 1819, and in 1822 he was ordained by the same body. He removed to Indiana in 1820 but returned to Tennessee for ordination. Soon after his ordination he came to Illinois and settled in the limits of Menard county, on Rock creek, near where the Cumberland Presbyterian church there stands.”

Berry was one of the founders, in 1828, of the Sangamon Presbytery. He was remembered as quite a singer, too, in his day. Alice Keach Bone, who wrote a centennial history of Rock Creek church in 1922, never forgot the camp meetings of her youth.

“Prominent among the preachers on the platform was Rev. John M. Berry,” she wrote. “He would give out the hymn, read it, line it, and, in a strong voice, lead the singing himself, the people joining in one after another.” She recalled his leading the congregation in “On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,” “How firm a foundation” and “There is a fountain filled with blood” at Rock Creek campground. “Then came an earnest, heartfelt prayer and, sometimes, another song,” she added. “After this he announced the text and began to preach. He did not time his sermons, neither did the people turn uneasy glances toward their camps.”

Berry was not immune to the religious prejudices of the day, but he was remembered as a forceful preacher and a man of strong conviction.

“As Mr. Berry was the first Cumberland Presbyterian preacher in this part of the state, it is due to history and to the cause to say something more of him,” Miller said in 1905. “As said before, his education was limited, owing to the circumstances surrounding him when he was young, but his natural gifts, in every respect, were far above the average. He was independent in his manner of thought, gentle and kind, but uncompromising and unmerciful in his opposition to everything that he thought to be wrong. He was charitable in his feelings to the views of others but unyielding in his convictions until he was convinced by the force of argument. As a speaker, he was plain, solemn and unassuming, making no effort at rhetorical display or dramatic effect, but possessing a commanding presence and a voice full of force and persuasive attractiveness it is not surprising that he exerted a wonderful power over men.”

For more information about the workshops, contact Pete Ellertsen by email at or, if you don’t have email, leave a message by voice mail at Benedictine University, 217-525-1420 ext. 519.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

COMM 207, 317, HUM 223: No class Mon., Tue.

I'll be at a conference on student learning outcomes assessment. Classes resume Wednesday, Oct. 28.

HUM 223: 'It's all music?' Tin Pan Alley, 'potted palm music' and Duke Ellington

It's all music. -- Duke Ellington.

In addition to his music, Duke Ellington is known for his snappy quotes about jazz. One of his song titles is "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" is probably quoted more often than it's listened to. (Which is too bad, because it's a good piece of music.) My favorite quote of all: "To keep a band together, you simply need a gimmick. The gimmick I use is to pay them money." Something to keep in mind as we explore the commercialization of music.

Today we'll listen to several different swing - and pop - musicians mentioned in Vera Lee's "Black and White of American Popular Music" and see if we agree - or disagree - with Ellington when he said, "It's all music.

The first is "Tin Pan Alley." It was named for a neighborhood in New York City where sheet-music publishers churned out pop music hits from the 1930s to the 1950s when 45rpm records and rock singers revolutionized the industry. Most of it was shlock, but that's true of any commercial product. And some of it was quite good. Which is also true of commercial products, if you think about it. One of the most popular for many years was Irving Berlin. We'll watch a tribute from the 1982 Oscars:

Vera Lee singles out Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians as a white band that played "sweet" swing music for dancers. Their stuff was sometimes called "potted palm music" because it so often featured bands playing for dances in old-fashioned hotel ballrooms decorated with potted palm trees. Here Guy's brother Carmen, who wrote a lot of their songs, on "Little Coquette" in the 50s. Note the ballroom dancers at the beginning of the clip.

Not all swing was shlock. Clarinet player and band leader Benny Goodman was known as the "King of Swing." His 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was legendary, and his was one of the first racially integrated bands. We'll see him perform a song called "Minnie's in the Money" about a World War II defense plant worker. [The YouTube title says it's ca. 1941, but it was clearly shot in the middle of the war. I'd guess 1943 at the earliest.] The jitterbug or "lindy," shown here, was the most popular dance from the 1920s into the 1950s.

We'll watch "Model of Leadership," a short (5:51-minute) documentary on Duke Ellington. Apparently directed and produced by Richard Moore and Ralph Gleason, who did a lot of jazz programs for KQED-TV San Francisco in the 1960s, it's on British saxaphonist and composer John Harle's website:

And this clip from a movie of Duke Ellington and other artists on "C Jam Blues" (1942). The movie, a three-minute R.C.M. Productions short, was produced by Sam Coslow and directed by Josef Byrne about the same time. It attempts to recreate a Harlem jam session.

A couple of performances :

A couple of other clips so we can hear more:

"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (movie, 1943)

"Take the A Train" (in concert in Berlin, 1969)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pix of Knud Henderson's, Ludvig Lindeman's Norwegian koralboker on Flickr

Found while trying to learn more about Knud Henderson, for the psalmodikon piece ... a query on Yahoo! ANSWERS by AnnG: "Have some old books that R not english. I need 2 find someone who could tell me what language they R?" They're available at AnnG1951's photostream on Flickr ... a lot of them are Norwegian devotional works, Luther's Small Catechism and commentary on Galatians, ... a clothbound Sangbogen (pub. by ??) with a song "Her samles vi" by Lina Sandell arranged by an A.L. Skoog that appears to be in Dano-Norwegian instead of Swedish. Andrew L. Skoog is listed in ... listed elsewhere as a translator of Swedish spiritual songs.

Several copies of the Koralbog by Knud Anderson, published in Chicago: John Anderson Publishing Co., 1906 and thereabouts in early 20th century.

Also: (1) a title page for Koralbog, indeholdende Melodier til Salmebog for lutherske Kristne i Amerika, til Landstads, Synodens og andere Psalmeböger, udsatte for blandet Kor, Orgel eller Pianoforte. Ludw. M. Lindemans Koralbog. Appears to be an American edition of Ludwig M. Lindeman's Koralbog (pub. 1872, 1877 in Norway); and (2) an edition of M.B. Landstad's Kirkesalmebog published in Minneapolis, sold at Frikirkens Boghandel [orig. pub. in Norway in 1869, date not in picture].

* * *

The money quote from "A Singing Church" by Paul Maurice Glasoe [Norwegian-American Studies 13 (1943) 92ff].
While Knud Henderson contributed very little to the choir literature of Norwegian-American pioneer history, he did a great service in the publication of the first Norwegian-American Koralbog, which appeared as early as 1865. More than twenty thousand copies of it were sold between the years 1865 and 1915. {9} He came to Chicago as a fourteen-year-old boy and in addition to his high-school education he had a thorough course in the rudiments of music. While he taught music and did some publishing, he resorted to other occupations as well; for eighteen years he did art painting and worked for a manufacturer of wagons and agricultural machinery. It is pretty certain that Henderson conducted the first singing schools among Norwegian pioneer youth. He interested himself in the salmodikon as a practical tool of instruction in singing and issued a Practical Manual for the Use of the Salmodikon.
Also some very good reminiscences of Glasoe's father using the psalmodikon in 1870s in rural Minnesota.

Monday, October 19, 2009

HUM 223: Paper due Friday, Oct. 30

Write a two- to four-page essay reacting to the following question. Remember, an essay has a beginning, a middle and an end -- or, in the terms you learned or are learning in English 111, a thesis statement that sums up the main point of your paper, a body giving evidence for your thesis and a conclusion in which you tie your evidence back to the thesis. The question is designed to give you a starting point, but it is up to you to turn it around into a thesis statement; in other words, you will either agree, disagree or partly agree and partly disagree with the premises of the question. Your paper should be typed, in 12pt Times Roman or 10pt Verdana type, with standard Microsoft Word margins. Cite your quotations from Vera Lee in parentheses. The paper is due in class Friday, Oct. 30.

As jazz evolved from its roots in folk music, gospel and the playing of New Orleans street bands, it gained something and lost something as it reached the wider audience of popular music. In the heyday of Dixieland and swing during the 1920s and 1930s, it became commercialized. In so doing, it crossed over from African American community to a predominantly white American culture.

"While many black bands thrived on blues and stomps, often in unfamiliar head arrangments, the white ones kept to a standard, recognizable repertoire of Tin Pan Alley tunes," says Vera Lee in our textbook, "Black and White of American Popular Music." Lee sees "a good deal of truth to the old stereotype which labels white band music of the time 'sweet' and the black ones 'hot'" (215-16), although she acknowledges the stereotype was overdone. As American popular music further evolved into bebop and modern jazz, it took on some of the attributes of art music. Again, it gained something and it lost something. Lee suggests that black bebop musicians of the 1940s and 50s sought complexity in their music partly as a reaction against overly commercial, under-talented whites (245-47). But she says the complexity took their music away from its roots in the African American community, where people "would turn instead to the more accessible rhythm and blues. And as for the bop experimentalists, ironically, they wound up performing mainly for white audiences and white critics" (254). On the other hand, in a preface to Lee's book, pianist and educator Ellis Marsallis says American society - and the music with it - has evolved to the point that race no longer matters. "Today, wherever I go, I can work with whoever fits the bill musically," Marsallis said. "As Miles Davis said, his musicians can be black, white or blue. None of that matters if they can play" (ix). Or, as band leader Duke Ellington famously said, "It's all music."

Vera Lee tries to give a balanced account of the role that racial attitudes played as jazz as it went from the music of a bounded folk community to America's most popular genre of music and then into a kind of art music. In your opinion, does she succeed? How much truth do you see in the stereotype that black musicians played a more authentic brand of jazz while whites played watered-down pop standards with a little jazz mixed in? Or are the differences between Dixieland, swing and bebop more about music? You can argue either side of this issue, or stake out a claim somewhere in the middle. But whichever position you choose, be sure to cite plenty of evidence from Vera Lee and whatever other sources you wish to consult.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

HUM 223: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and a remarkable show business career

Gertrude Malissa Nix "Ma" Rainey was of America's best recording artists. Ever. In any genre.

By all appearances she led a rough life, but she knew exactly who she was and she was always well grounded. She began performing at age 14, and she made her living in show business thereafter. But she invested her money, and she was able to retire comfortably during the Great Depression. According to a profile in the New Georgia Encyclopedia by N. Lee Orr of Georgia State University in Atlanta, she "was one of the first women to incorporate blues into minstrel and vaudeville stage shows, blending styles from country blues, early jazz, and her own personal musical idiom." Orr says:
In December 1923 Rainey began a five-year association with Paramount, becoming one of the first women to record the blues professionally, eventually producing more than 100 recordings of her own compositions with some of the finest musicians of the day. Her early discs — Bo-weavil Blues (1923) and Moonshine Blues (1923) — soon spread her reputation outside the South. Louis Armstrong accompanied her in Jelly Bean Blues (1924), and later her Georgia Jazz Band included at different times Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, and Coleman Hawkins. One of the few times her flair for comedy comes through is in her widely popular Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1927). Although these recordings scarcely do her vocal style justice, they do give a sense of her raw, "moaning" style and her exquisite phrasing. Her songs and vocal style reveal her deep connection with the pain of jealousy, poverty, sexual abuse, and loneliness of sharecroppers and southern blacks.
Here's something I really respect. She didn't let the ups and downs of show biz get to her, and she didn't blow the money she earned in the good days. Orr picks up the rest of the story:
Changing urban musical tastes began diminishing her appeal, and in 1928 Paramount dropped her, claiming that her "down-home material has gone out of fashion." The Great Depression further eroded her audiences, and she retired in 1933 to Columbus and Rome [Ga.], where she managed two theaters she had bought with her earnings.
Somewhere I've read she was a homeowner and she was active in her church in Columbus. She died of a heart attack at the age of 53 in 1939.

First, a tribute by Memphis Minnie, a famous blues singer in her own right. It was recorded in 1940, the year after Rainey's death.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was named for a dance, one of several we've read about in Vera Lee's "Black and White" that crossed over from the African American community to a somewhat uncomprehending white America. First we'll watch a 1920s-vintage movie about the dance.

Then we'll listen to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," recorded in Chicago in 1928 by the artist and her a pickup band, which was made up of members of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, at the time the top jazz band anywhere. To open a new window and follow the lyrics, click here. Try to ignore the stereotypes and the guy who shouts "Now Ma Rainey's going to show you her black bottom!" and listen to the music (scroll down and click on title).

No. On second thought, don't try to ignore the stereotypes. You can't. But remember Ma Rainey was 14 when she first sang professionally, and she did what she had to do in order to keep her career going. By the 1920s, she was deservedly considered one of America's top musicians.

We'll listen to "Booze and Blues" recorded in New York, Oct. 15 1924, by Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Band, Howard Scott (cornet), Charlie Green (trombone), Don Redman (clarinet), Fletcher Henderson (piano) and Kaiser Marshall (drums). The photo shows :

Among the people she also recorded with were Louis Armstrong and Thomas A. Dorsey, in the 20s a blues artist known as "Georgia Tom." We'll hear "Blame it on the Blues" by Rainey and Dorsey. He later became music minister at Chicago's Pilgrim Baptist Church and a revered gospel musician. This is one of the relatively few recordings of his earlier blues.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Antonin Dvořák, "Music in America" (1895)

Below are detailed excerpts from an important article in Harper's magazine by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. It's one of a series of pronouncements he made in the 1890s about the value of African American music.

Some background: In an article in The New York Herald, May 21, 1893, headlined "Real Value of Negro Melodies," Dvorak said the African American melodies he heard contained "all that is needed for a great and noble school of music." He followed his up in a couple of weeks with a letter to the editor. Details in "New Worlds of Dvořák: Searching in America for the Composer's Inner Life" by Michael Brim Beckerman, which I consulted via Google books.

Very thought-provoking is a press release (of all things!) on a 2004 music festival commemorating the 100th anniversary of Dvorak's death, by Vivé Griffith of the Public Affairs Office at the University of Texas at Austin. The festival was billed as “New Worlds: Dvorak in Search of America,” and Griffith noted, "When Antonin Dvorak came to America in 1892, he encountered a country undergoing a national identity crisis. The music he wrote while here represented multiple aspects of the country and influenced American music for decades to come."

It's an interesting take, and one that I think has a lot of merit.

"Dvorak came to New York [in 1892] as director of New York City’s National Conservatory of Music at the invitation of the conservatory’s founder, Jeannette Thurber," Griffith said in the press release. "Once here, he entered a continuing conversation about just what constituted American music in a country that was unsure of its identity." She notes:
The range and variety of American music was thrilling for Dvorak. He made a visit to Spillville, Iowa, where he observed the landscapes Longfellow had evoked being brought under cultivation. There he was excited by the Native American melodies and chants he encountered.

He reveled as well 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 Negro 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.”

Taken with these influences, plus the popular music of Stephen Foster and others, Dvorak was ready to offer his take on America. His “New World Symphony,” which premiered late in 1893 at Carnegie Music Hall, was a resounding success, and it remains to this day one of the most popular symphonies ever composed on American soil.

“New World Symphony” is not American music. It is European music about America. ...
That's also true of Dvorak. He wasn't American. But he was an astute observer, and he had a lot to say about American music. A couple of years later, he elaborated in the Herald in "Music in America," Harpers 90 (1894-95): 428-34 [No. 537]. Some excerpts follow.
* * *

The American voice, so far as I can judge, is a good one. When I first arrived in this country I was startled by the strength and the depth of the voices in the boys who sell papers on the street, and I am still constantly amazed at its penetrating quality. (432)
* * *

A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this die of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before. When a Tsech [sic. Czech], a Pole, or a Magyar in this country suddenly hears one of his folk-songs or dances, no matter if it is for the first time in his life, his eye lights up at once, and his heart within him responds, and claims that music as its own. So is it with those of Teutonic or Celtic blood, or any other men, indeed, whose first lullaby mayhap was a song wrung from the heart of the people.

It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him, no matter how hardened he might be or how wretchedly the tune were played? Their number, to be sure, seems to be limited. The most potent as well as the most beautiful among them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland. The point has been urged that many of these touching songs, like those of [Stephen] Foster, [433] have not been composed by the Negroes themselves, but are the work of white men, while others did not originate on the plantation, but were imported from Africa. It seems to me that this matters but little. One might as well condemn the Hungarian Rhapsody because [Austro-Hungarian composer Franz] Liszt could not speak Hungarian. The important thing is that the inspiration for such music should come from the right source, and that the music itself should be a true expression of the people's real feelings. To read the right meaning the composer need not necessarily be of the same blood, though that, of course, makes it easier for him. [Franz] Schubert was a thorough German, but when he wrote Hungarian music, as in the second movement of the C-Major Symphony, or in some of his piano pieces, like the Hungarian Divertissement, he struck the true Magyar note, to which all Magyar hearts, and with them our own, most forever respond. This is not a tour de force, but only an instance of how much can be comprehended by a sympathetic genius. The white composers who wrote the touching Negro songs which dimmed [English author William Makepeace] Thackeray's spectacles so that he exclaimed, "Behold, a vagabond with a corked face and a banjo sings a little song, strikes a wild note, which sets the whole heart thrilling with happy pity!" had a similarly sympathetic comprehension of the deep pathos of slave life. If, as I have been informed they were, these songs were adopted by the Negroes on the plantations, they thus became true Negro songs. Whether the original songs which must have inspired the composers came from Africa or originated on the plantations matters as little as whether Shakespeare invented his own plots or borrowed them from others. The thing to rejoice over is that such lovely songs exist and are sung at the present day. I, for one, am delighted by them. Just so it matters little it matters little whether the inspiration for the coming folk songs of America is derived from the Negro melodies, the songs of the [C]reoles, the red man's chant,or the plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian. Undoubtedly the germs for the best of music lie hidden among all the races that are commingled in this great country. ... (432-33)

* * *

Not so many years ago Slavic music was not known to the men of other races. A few men like Chopin, Glinka, Moniuszko, Smetana, Rubinstein, and Tscaikowski, with a few others, were able to create a Slavic school of music. Chopin alone caused the music of Poland to be known and prized by all lovers of music. Smetana did the same for us Bohemians. Such national music, I repeat, is not created out of nothing. It is discovered and clothed in new beauty, just as the myths and the legends of a people are brought to light and crystalized in undying verse by the master poets. All that is needed is a delicate ear, a retentive memory, and the power to weld the fragments of former ages together in one harmonious whole. Only the other day I read in a newspaper that Brahms himself admitted that he had taken existing folk-songs for the themes of his new book of songs, and had arranged them for piano music. I have not heard nor seen the songs, and do not know if this be so; but if it were, it would in no wise reflect discredit upon the composer. ... (433)

* * *

An American reporter once told me that the most valuable talent a journalist could possess was a "nose for news." Just so the musician must prick his ear for music. Nothing must be too low or too insignificant for the musician. When he walks he should listen to every whistling boy, every street singer or blind organ-grinder. I myself am so often fascinated by these people that I can scarcely tear myself away, for every now and then I catch a strain or hear the fragments of a recurring melodic theme that sound like [434] the voice of the people. These things are worth preserving, and no one should be above making a lavish use of all such suggestions. It is a sign of barrenness, indeed, when such characteristic bits of music exist and are not heeded by the learned musicians of the age.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jazz: A quick-and-dirty summary - what to look for as you read Vera Lee's 'Black and White'

Jazz is another form of American music that went from folk beginnings, a lot of them in New Orleans, to a very popular art form and eventually crossed over into bebop and modern jazz, art forms that have a lot in common with classical or art music ... including very complex music, highly trained musicians and a limited audience. Vera Lee's "Black and White of American Popular Music" traces this progression. In the introduction to the book, Lee says:
... I trace the interactions of black and white music since the time of slavery until World War II and the rise of bebop. And rather than concerntrate on one particular area, such as jazz, I demonstrate how certain patterns recur in a variety of fields, such as show business, blues recording, music composing, publishing, and dance. (xi)
The pattern we'll be looking for is that progression from folk to popular to art music. At each step, black and white performers and audiences have contributed to - or stepped back from - what jazzman and educator Wynton Marsalis calls "this strange dance that we've been doing with each other since, really, the beginning of our relationship in America" (quoted in Lee, ibid). As we read about it, I want to refresh your a sense of what it sounded like.

We don't have time to do more today than watch a few video clips, but we need to do at least that because I think they'll help you know what to look for as you read Vera Lee. Terms in CAPS and boldface you should know, because you'll want to be slinging them around as you write your papers.

The big thing about jazz is it's IMPROVISED, like folk music is. It started in a "bounded community," the African American community of New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It went worldwide, but it always kept that focus on improvisation -- it's not played note-for-note from sheet music, so players can vary they way they play a song and build on each other's interpretations during a performance.

One of the first roots of jazz was brass band music of the Civil War. Hundreds of infantry and cavalry regiments were organized, and most of them had bands. The YouTube clip shows vintage photos with the Federal City Brass Band playing in the background (playing a Confederate anthem derived from an Irish fiddle tune called "The Jaunting Car"). Louisiana raised at least 30 regiments for the Confederate Army, and 11 regiments of African American troops for the union. That meant a lot of surplus musical instruments after the war, and more than a few of them found their way to street bands in New Orleans.

Marches were very popular everywhere. North and south, local bands played them in gazeboes. The tradition lingers to the present, when Springfield's Muni Band performs at gazeboes in the city parks. Here's a very early movie (1889) for the Thomas A. Edison Music Video Co. showing a regimental band. Recognize the tunes? I hear children's songs ... even an old camp meeting hymn called "Sweet Affliction" that I've also been hearing lately on an ice cream truck on the near west side of Springfield. The band numbers have essentially the same musical structure as fiddle tunes, polkas, ragtime and early Dixieland jazz.

Jazz has always been, and continues to be even now, band music. Religion, not surprisingly, was another deep root of jazz.

STREET BANDS combined the two. They grew up in New Orleans' black community in the late 1800s, and they developed a tradition that combined church processions with street dancing, Mardi Gras and what in time came to be called "dixieland" jazz. The band would play a solemn, dignified tune in the first line on the way to the cemetery. Often it was the old spiritual, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Afterward, on the SECOND LINE or way back from the graveyard to a celebration of the person's life very similar to a wake, the band would play upbeat numbers like "When the Saints Go Marching In."

We can't go back in time, but we can get a little sense of what the music might have been like in the early days from seeing what the tradition has evolved into in New Orleans, where roots musicians still maintain something like a bounded community. Many of them are professionals, and music is undeniably hyped for the benefit of New Orleans' tourism industry. Here's a link to a history on a funeral directors' website that explains the tradition, acknowledging its commercial vibes but concluding, "A symbol of life, a symbol of death and a symbol of re-birth, the New Orleans jazz funeral salutes a life well lived and the passage of a departed soul into a better world."

But the traditions survive not only in the tourist sections but also in the neighborhoods. We'll watch amateur video of a traditional jazz funeral for New Orleans tuba player Kerwin James, who died in Oct. 2007.

These brief shots in a tribute to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown show both first- and second-line playing at his funeral. Brown was a gifted bluesman and standout performer at the Chicago Blues Festival who died, some believed of a broken heart, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. Another YouTube clip shows a second line from New Orleans' St. Augustine Church in June 2007.

Louis Armstrong was one performer whose career spanned the popularity of jazz. He started out in street bands like those linked above, and evolved into a polished "big band" performer during the 1930s and 1940s. His career lasted into the period of "modern jazz," which was more classical in tone, but he was uniquely himself. And his music remained popular with mass audiences. Here he plays "When the Saints Go Marching In" with what looks like a 1950s television studio band. And here he sings his trademark song "Wonderful World" on BBC-TV in 1968. Backing him are Tyree Glenn on trombone, Joe Murany, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Buddy Catlett, bass; and Danny Barcelona, drums. The BBC show was one of Armstrong's last public appearances.

Jazz evolved into what some consider a form of ART MUSIC with the advent of players like Charles "Bird" Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Here the John Coltrane Quartet plays an arrangment of "Alabama" in 1963. McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones rounded out the quartet. Their playing is improvised, but very subtle, intricate and formal like art music. It came to be known as "modern jazz," and it still has a strong market niche mostly in college towns and major metro areas. You can even hear it Saturday nights on WUIS-FM in Springfield.

As you listen to Coltrane, ask yourself the infamous three questions we ask in HUM 223: (1) What stands out as you listen? Does it have features of folk, popular or art music? Does it hold your attention? (2) What in your background, taste, experience, etc., influences the way you feel about it? Does it transcend boundaries and appeal to if it's unfamiliar? Or is it just too far removed from the music you like? (3) What, specifically, about the music and the performance do you respond to? Post your answers as comments to this post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

HUM 223: Harry Burleigh and European classical music

I don't want to leave you with the stereotype that black musicians only played in saloons and whorehouses, although both were common venues for anybody who wanted to be a musician in early 20th-century America. At the same time Scott Joplin was popular, a composer and church musician named Harry Burleigh studied at a conservatory in New York. Biographies appear on the Library of Congress website and, of course, Wikipedia. He was a serious classical musician, who made his living writing music and singing at St. George's Episcopal church in New York City. Here's a biographical video put out by the Erie Hall of Fame, a community initiative in Erie, Pa.

Burleigh's spirituals were arranged as art songs in the manner of classical German composers like Schumann and Schubert, or his contemporary Richard Strauss. We'll hear "Go Down Moses" Arranged By Harry Burleigh. Sung by Juarês de Mira, of Curitiba, Brazil, accompanied by Analaura S Pinto.

As a conservatory student in New York City, Burleigh studied under Czech composer Anton Dvorak, who was introduced by him to the African American spirituals and who famously said, "I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them." Here the Dublin Philharmonic plays a portion of Dvorak's New World Symphony that echoes the spiritual "Going Home."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

'Tennessee Bird Walk'

A lovely song from UT days (1970) by Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan, shown here on TV with Ralph Emery and Tanya Tucker (YouTube). Lyrics

Memorable for the image of "bald-headed birds" walking along the highway if we take away their birdbaths and chirping:
Oh, remember me, my darling when spring is in the air
And the bald headed birds are whispering everywhere
When you see them walking southward in their dirty underwear.
The logic, if that's the word for it, is inescapable.

HUM 223 -- Scott Joplin, ragtime and an American tragedy

One of the great stories of American music, although it has elements of tragedy, is that of ragtime piano composer Scott Joplin, who wrote the nation's first million-selling "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 but spent much of his career unsuccessfully trying to get publishers interested in an opera that wasn't performed until 1972.

"When I'm dead twenty-five years, people are going to recognize me,"he told a friend (as quoted in his biographical sketch in Wikipedia). It took a little longer than that. But in 1976 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, an honor that is not usuallly given posthumuously.

By all accounts, Joplin was gifted musically. The best account on the Internet, in my opinion, is Wikipedia's, which notes:
He was "blessed with an amazing ability to improvise at the piano," writes opera historian Elise Kirk, and was able to enlarge his talents "with the music he heard around him," which was rich with the sounds of gospel hymns and spirituals, dance music, plantation songs, syncopated rhythms, blues, and choruses.
And this:
Although he was penniless and disappointed at the end of his life, Joplin set the standard for ragtime compositions and played a key role in the development of ragtime music. And as a pioneer composer and performer, he helped pave the way for young black artists to reach American audiences of both races. And when he died, notes jazz historian Floyd Levin, "those few who realized his greatness bowed their heads in sorrow. This was the passing of the king of all ragtime writers, the man who gave America a genuine native music."
We'll listen to some of Joplin's work. But tirst, some background ...

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, white audiences were not ready to reward serious music from black artists. Typical was a dance called the Cakewalk ... which was performed to music that sounds like Joplin's. The dance got to be a fad in the early 1900s ... we'll watch some ... the first two clips, full movies shot in 1903, show professional dancers on stage, doing a very stereotyped version of the cakewalk, and the later clip shows people doing a simplified, popularized version of the dance on a beach. Notice the bathing suits! But notice also - this isn't about music or dance.

More typical of the music of the period, perhaps, is this clip of a recent cakewalk contest at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Mo. It reminds me of older couples I've seen doing the polka at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, and it makes me think these African American-inspired dance steps in turn influenced the polka. The music, by the way, is "At a Georgia Camp Meeting" by Kerry Mills, a favorite marching band and ragtime tune. Ragtime, polka and brass band music were all popular a hundred years ago, and they all influenced each other.

Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) was the first instrumental to sell a million copies, but mostly he eked out a living playing in cafes, restaurants and whorehouses. Opera historian Elise Kirk says he wanted his rags to be like classical msuc. "And he succeeded," she said. "Joplin's piano rags are more tuneful, contrapuntal, infectious, and harmonically colorful than any others of his era." But they weren't as commercially successful as his first one.

We'll listen to Joplin playing "The Entertainer" on a piano roll. That's right. Piano rolls were created by a machine that recorded a musician's playing on perforated rolls of tape, which were then played back. Even reproduced on this mechanical process, listen for how intricate and delicate the piano playing is.

Joplin turned from pop to classical music. Around 1907 he wrote an opera called "Treemonisha." It was like nothing that had been heard before.
In 1911, unable to find a publisher, he undertook the financial burden of publishing "Treemonisha" himself in piano-vocal format and as a last resort to see it staged invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem, in 1915. Poorly staged and with only himself on piano accompaniment, it was "a miserable failure," notes Kirk. The audience, including potential backers, was indifferent and walked out. Scott writes that "after a disastrous single performance ... Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out." He concludes that few American artists of his generation faced such obstacles: "Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed, largely because Joplin had abandoned commercial music in favor of art music, a field closed to African Americans." In fact, it was not until the 1970s that the opera received a full theatrical staging.
But Wikipedia continues:
Ragtime historian Terry Waldo notes that the opera was ahead of its time: "like ragtime music itself, "Treemonisha" was an entirely new art form that was probably only approached in style in the 1920s..." He notes that the opera is a combination of folk music in the framework of a European opera, but is also Joplin's re-creation of his own experiences as an African American man using an opera as a means of expression. But Waldo adds, "such an undertaking was doomed to failure - but failure on such a grand scale that it cannot be dismissed lightly. It is a magnificent attempt, and parts of it approach greatness."

We'll watch some selections from "Treemonisha" - as played at Sedelia's Scott Joplin Festival in 2008. Listen for the interplay between piano and violin, call and response on "Very Fine Day" vocal. Using the definitions we learned at the beginning of the semester, does it strike you as folk, popular or art (classical) ... or elements of all three?

TablEdit help files / manual

'Ljoset over landet dagna' ... sheet music

Two more links to information about "Ljoset over landet dagna" (Norwegian) or "Lux illuxit laetabunda" (Latin), a medieval hymn to St. Olav, patron saint of Norway. The hymn is derived from a musical sequence associated with Olsok, the saint's July 29 festival day, and pilgrimages to the cathedral at Nidaros (Trondheim.) It is No. 741 in the current (1985) hymnal of the State Church of Norway

Both have the hymn written out in standard notation. A MIDI file is available at Martin's Magazine personal website of Norwegian folk tunes.

Ljoset yver landet dagna (LH615)
... Tekst: Lux illuxit lætabunda, 1100-t
Melodi: Norsk middelalder (Lux illuxit lætabunda)
Bearbeidelse: Wolfgang A. Plagge 2000
Oversettelse: Bernt Støylen 1923

Also a PDF file ...

Hjelpestoff Kyrkjearkitektur og kyrkjemusikk
Vi legger også ved et vers av salmen LJOSET OVER LANDET DAGNA. Den står i den nye koralboken på nr. 741. Salmen bygger på en melodi fra Olavs-musikken fra ...

Later: A link to catalog entry for "Lux Illuxit Laetabunda" by Andrew Smith as follows:
For Mixed Choir, a cappella. This edition: NH37. Choral octavo. Published by Oxford University Press (OU.9780193355583).

ISBN 9780193355583.

for SATB (with divisions) unaccompanied Set to the text of a 12th-century Sequence in honour of the martyr St Olav and characterized by a mellifluous plainchant-style melody, this glorious motet pulses with understated intensity.
Price: $2.03 ~ 10% off. Minimum order 6 copies.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

COMM 223: Reading assignments and strategies for October

Now that midterms are over, we're changing gears. In the coming weeks, we'll be studying the way jazz originated in the African American community, especially around New Orleans; became popular nationwide with a predominantly white audience; took on some of the attitudes and practices of art music (what we sometimes call "classical" music) as it lost popularity with mass market audiences; and eventually turned into an upscale niche genre with fewer but perhaps more dedicated listeners. We'll see the same thing happening with blues by semester's end.

We'll be reading Vera Lee, "The Black and White of American Popular Music from Slavery to World War II." And I'll be assigning you a paper, due at the end of the month, in which you react to your reading. I'll give you a detailed assignment sheet in the next few days, but in the meantime here's the overall topic of your paper:

As jazz evolved from its roots in folk music and gospel, it gained something and lost something as it reached the wider audience of popular music in the heyday of Dixieland and swing during the 1930s and 1940s. As it evolved further into bebop and modern jazz, it took on some of the attributes of art music, and again it gained something and it lost something. Be ready to discuss what happened to the music as a form of artistic expression as it was commercialized and later reinvented as art music. What, specifically, did it gain? What did it lose? What, specifically is your reaction as a listener to those changes?

In class, we'll listen to some of the music Vera Lee mentions in the book. So you'll want to follow the discussion in your reading. (I hope you've been picking up on my hints to keep reading it, so you don't get behind.) Since you're essentially reading the book so you can quote it in a written assignment, you can read it more quickly than you would a math or biology textbook. For some of you, this may be a new kind of reading ... it's more like what you'll be doing as you choose a major and take more upper-division courses in your major. It's also more like the reading you'll do when you're in grad school.

So at the risk of insulting your intelligence, I'm going to give you some reading tips in class today from the resource centers at Virginia Tech, Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

Virginia. Ivy League. It doesn't get much better than that. If strategic reading works for them, it can work for us.

The first strategy is called "SQ3R." I'll link you to a good summary from Virginia Tech. It stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite and Review. I'm not sure the exact order of the three "R's," because in my classes I like to streamline it and only read the material once because we're going to come back to it when it's time to write the papers. Instead, I circle keywords, make notes in the margin and mark important passages with a paper clip (yes, a paper clip!) so I can find it quickly when I need it.

The second comes in an essay by Martha Maxwell of the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth College. It's on Dartmouth's webpage titled Reading Your Textbooks Effectively and Efficiently tells you how to read strategically. Scroll down past the SQ3R summary, and click on "Six Reading Myths." Here's the key to it:
Good reading is selective reading. It involves selecting those sections that are relevant to your purpose in reading. Rather than automatically rereading, take a few seconds to quiz yourself on the material you have just read and then review those sections that are still unclear or confusing to you.

The most effective way of spending each study hour is to devote as little time as possible to reading and as much time as possible to testing yourself, reviewing, organizing, and relating the concepts and facts, mastering the technical terms, formulas, etc., and thinking of applications of the concepts-in short, spend your time learning ideas, not painfully processing words visually.
We'll look at it in class. Let's also open up the "Harvard Reading Report." It suggests how first-year students at Harvard University are taught to get the most out of their reading:
The exercise of judgment in reading requires self-confidence, even courage, on the part of the student who must decide for himself what to read or skip. Dr. Perry [of the Harvard Reading-Study Center] suggested that students ask themselves what it is they want to get out of a reading assignment, then look around for those points. Instructors can help them see the major forms in which expository material is cast. Students should also "talk to themselves" while reading, asking "is this the point I'm looking for?"
And that, in a nutshell, is why I'm assigning a paper on Vera Lee's "Black and White." It gives you that point you're looking for.