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Soundscape: Schafer’s heritage and an annotated bibliography

Raymond Murray Schafer (1933–2021), the Canadian composer, author, educator, and ecologist who coined the term soundscape, died on 14 August at 88. Through the years Schafer’s concept of soundscape has inspired scholars in not only musicology and ethnomusicology, but also history, anthropology, and more.

In 1969, with the aim of “finding solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape that harmonizes the relationship between human society and its sound environment,” Schafer founded the world soundscape project at the Simon Fraser University. Based on this project, his book, The tuning of the world, was published in 1977 (reprinted in 1993 and retitled as The soundscape: Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world). Schafer’s visualization of the sound environment led to the concept of soundscape, which refers not only to the sounds in people’s environments, but also to the interactions between people, their hearing, their sound environment, and their social environment.

The concept of soundscape inspired new approaches for musicological research. Since Schafer first suggested this term, generations of scholars not only focused on sound itself, but also interpreted various cultural phenomena from the perspective of sound: echo, noise, silence… these terms are seemingly abstract, yet each contains deep meaning and controversy. Since the 1970s, the sound environment we live in has been changing rapidly. Considering the harmony and balance that the concept of soundscape has emphasized from the very beginning, what will be the relationship between human communities and ecology in the future? Please join RILM in following recent publications on sound studies.

(Introduced and compiled by Liu Xintong)

Schafer, R. Murray. The soundscape: Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world (Rochester: Destiny, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-3992]

Abstract: Studies the evolution of soundscapes in connection with culture, urban development, and technology. The soundscape—a term coined by the author—is our sonic environment, the ever-present array of noises with which we all live. Beginning with the primordial sounds of nature, we have experienced an ever-increasing complexity of our sonic surroundings. As civilization develops, new noises rise up around us: from the creaking wheel, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, and the distant chugging of steam trains to the “sound imperialism” of airports, city streets, and factories. The author contends that we now suffer from an overabundance of acoustic information and a proportionate diminishing of our ability to hear the nuances and subtleties of sound. Our task, he maintains, is to listen, analyze, and make distinctions. As a society we have become more aware of the toxic wastes that can enter our bodies through the air we breathe and the water we drink. In fact, the pollution of our sonic environment is no less real. Schafer emphasizes the importance of discerning the sounds that enrich and feed us and using them to create healthier environments. To this end, he explains how to classify sounds, appreciating their beauty or ugliness, and provides exercises and “soundwalks” to help us become more discriminating and sensitive to the sounds around us. This book is a pioneering exploration of our acoustic environment, past and present, and an attempt to imagine what it might become in the future. 

The study of soundscape has developed considerably since Schafer first used the term. However, Schafer’s own work and his world soundscape project have received much criticism, primarily because of his way of treating sound as an objectified presence, ignoring its experiential nature, and his project’s failure to include the sound cultures of Canada’s First Nation peoples. However, Schafer’s concept of soundscape opened up new horizons in sound studies, and subsequent scholars have continued to build on his foundation to expand the theoretical framework of soundscape. Below are some examples of cutting-edge research on soundscape.

Abe, Marié. Resonances of chindon-ya: Sounding space and sociality in contemporary Japan. Music/culture (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-3821] 

Abstract: Investigates the intersection of sound, public space, and sociality in contemporary Japan. Chindon-ya, dating back to the 1840s, are ostentatiously costumed street musicians who publicize a business by parading through neighborhood streets. Historically not considered music, but part of the everyday soundscape, this vernacular performing art provides a window into shifting notions of musical labor, the politics of everyday listening and sounding, and street music at social protest in Japan. Against the background of long-term economic downturn, growing social precarity, and the visually and sonically saturated urban streets of Japan, this book examines how this seemingly outdated means of advertisement has recently gained traction as an aesthetic, economic, and political practice after decades of inactivity. It challenges Western conceptions of listening that have normalized the way we think about the relationship between sound, space, and listening subjects, and advances a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship that examines the ways social fragmentation is experienced and negotiated in post-industrial societies.

Ochoa Gautier, Ana María. Aurality: Listening and knowledge in nineteenth-century Colombia. Sign, storage, transmission (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-65359]

Abstract: Explores how listening has been central to the production of notions of language, music, voice, and sound that determine the politics of life. Drawing primarily from 19th-century Colombian sources, the author locates sounds produced by different living entities at the juncture of the human and nonhuman. An “acoustically tuned” analysis of a wide array of texts reveals multiple debates on the nature of the aural. These discussions were central to a politics of the voice harnessed in the service of the production of different notions of personhood and belonging. Thus, Latin America and the Caribbean emerge as a historical site where the politics of life and the politics of expression inextricably entangle the musical and the linguistic, knowledge and the sensorial.

Daughtry, J. Martin. Listening to war: Sound, music, trauma and survival in wartime Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-10080]

Abstract: A groundbreaking study of the centrality of listening to the experience of modern warfare. Based on years of ethnographic interviews with U.S. military service members and Iraqi civilians, as well as on direct observations of wartime Iraq, the author reveals how these populations learned to extract valuable information from the ambient soundscape while struggling with the deleterious effects that it produced in their ears, throughout their bodies, and in their psyches. He examines the dual-edged nature of sound—its potency as a source of information and a source of trauma—within a sophisticated conceptual frame that highlights the affective power of sound and the vulnerability and agency of individual auditors. By theorizing violence through the prism of sound and sound through the prism of violence, the author provides a new vantage point for examining these strangely conjoined phenomena. Two chapters dedicated to wartime music in Iraqi and U.S. military contexts show how music was both an important instrument of the military campaign and the victim of a multitude of violent acts throughout the war.

Dillon, Emma. The sense of sound: Musical meaning in France (1260–1330). New cultural history of music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-25429]

Abstract: Among the most memorable innovations of music and poetry in 13th-century France was a genre that seemed to privilege sound over sense. The polytextual motet is especially well-known to scholars of the Middle Ages for its tendency to conceal complex allegorical meaning in a texture that, in performance, made words less, rather than more, audible. What did it mean to create a musical effect so potentially independent from the meaning of words? Is it possible such supermusical effects themselves had significance? A radical recontextualization of French song in the heyday of the motet ca. 1260–1330 makes the case for listening to musical sound against a range of other potently meaningful sonorities, often premised on non-verbal meaning. In identifying new audible interlocutors to music, our ears are opened to a broad spectrum of sounds often left out of historical inquiry, from the hubbub of the medieval city; to the eloquent babble of madmen; to the violent clamor of charivari; to the charismatic chatter of prayer. Drawing on a rich array of artistic evidence (music, manuscripts, poetry, and images) and contemporary cultural theory locates musical production in this period within a larger cultural environment concerned with representing sound and its emotional, ethical, and social effects. 

Manabe, Noriko. The revolution will not be televised: Protest music after Fukushima (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-13996] 

Abstract: Nuclear power has been a contentious issue in Japan since the 1950s, and in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, the conflict has only grown. Government agencies and the nuclear industry continue to push a nuclear agenda, while the mainstream media adheres to the official line that nuclear power is Japan’s future. Public debate about nuclear energy is strongly discouraged. Nevertheless, antinuclear activism has swelled into one of the most popular and passionate movements in Japan, leading to a powerful wave of protest musicMusic has played a central role in expressing antinuclear sentiments and mobilizing political resistance in Japan. A combination of musical analysis with ethnographic participation offers an innovative typology of the spaces central to the performance of protest music—cyberspace, demonstrations, festivals, and recordings. These four spaces encourage different modes of participation and methods of political messaging. The openness, mobile accessibility, and potential anonymity of cyberspace have allowed musicians to directly challenge the ethos of silence that permeated Japanese culture post-Fukushima. Moving from cyberspace to real space, the author shows how the performance and reception of music played at public demonstrations are shaped by the urban geographies of Japanese cities. While short on open public space, urban centers in Japan offer protesters a wide range of governmental and commercial spaces in which to demonstrate, with activist musicians tailoring their performances to the particular landscapes and soundscapes of each. Music festivals are a space apart from everyday life, encouraging musicians and audience members to freely engage in political expression through informative and immersive performances. Conversely, Japanese record companies and producers discourage major-label musicians from expressing political views in recordings, forcing antinuclear musicians to express dissent indirectly: through allegories, metaphors, and metonyms.

Schwarz, Arman. Puccini’s soundscapes: Realism and modernity in Italian opera. Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini: Premio rotary Giacomo Puccini ricerca 2 (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-58613]

Abstract: From the bells in Tosca and the birdcalls in Madama Butterfly to the horns and sirens in Il tabarro and the music box melodies that inspired Turandot, Puccini’s operas rely to an unprecedented degree on realistic and seemingly unmediated acoustic objects. Focusing on the pervasive if little-discussed aspect of the composer’s art, presented are two categories of sound and realism to rethink the shape of Puccini’s career, and to offer new interpretations of many of his major works, as well as those of his contemporaries. It asks how Italian composers responded to some of the fundamental transformations of auditory culture during the fin-de-siècle, and resituates their works within the discourses (aesthetic, political, and technological) of Italian modernity.

Rasmussen, Anne K. Women, the recited Qur’an, and Islamic music in Indonesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-6148]

Abstract: Going to the heart of religious musical praxis in Indonesia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, this book explores a rich public soundscape, where women recite the divine texts of the Qur’ān, and where an extraordinary diversity of Arab-influenced Islamic musical styles and genres, also performed by women, flourishes. Based on unique and revealing ethnographic research beginning at the end of Suharto’s New Order and continuing into the era of Reformation, the book considers the powerful role of music in the expression of religious nationalism. In particular, it focuses on musical style, women’s roles, and the ideological and aesthetic issues raised by the Indonesian style of recitation.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Musicology

The Philippine drug war, a hip-hop response, and an annotated bibliography on music and protest

Cover art for the 2019 album Kolateral (Collateral)

Since taking office in May 2016, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has actively pursued his “war on drugs”. Although the war is framed as benefitting the common good, its objectives extend Duterte’s authoritarian rule over the country. The war on illegal drugs and drug traffickers has been a major issue in the Philippines in recent years, and  Duterte’s supporters argue that it has made the Philippines safer by rooting out criminal behavior. Others attest that the name itself is a misnomer, instead calling it a war on the poor since it has largely been the urban poor who have been the targets of extrajudicial killings carried out by the police.

Philippine National Police (PNP) statistics put the total number of people killed in the war on drugs at around 8,000 since July 2016. Others suggest that the actual number is closer to 30,000 killed, and the killings have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic due to unnecessary arrests made under lockdown. Public figures who have openly criticized Duterte and the drug war have been punished and silenced. For instance, it is suspected that a court convicted Maria Ressa, head of the Philippine news website Rappler and 2021 Nobel prize laureate, in June 2020 on politically motivated charges of cyber libel due to Rappler’s consistent coverage of the drug war. It is also strongly suspected that the forced closure of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest television network, in 2020, was due to their coverage of the drug war.

Duterte holding a sniper rifle (Noel Celis/AFP Photo)

Besides these well-publicized cases, the effects of the drug war have been primarily felt by low-income families who, in many cases, have become poorer due to the loss of a father or brother. In addition to experiencing the psychological distress of losing a loved one, families have had to leave their homes and take children out of school. Further stress has been placed on the remaining parent and on family members who, in many cases, have had to take on additional jobs to support the family. The aftershocks of the killings resonate for years to come.

Musicians and artists have been at the forefront of resistance to Duterte’s drug war. Two Manila rappers, BLKD, whose stylized name derives from the Tagalog word balakid (obstacle, barrier), and Calix have become quite popular in the underground Philippine hip-hop scene through Manila’s FlipTop Battle League, a showcase for some of the country’s best local hip-hop talent. BLKD and Calix have performed at several benefit concerts and have worked together as the group Kolateral to release the concept album, Kolateral (Collateral) in 2019 and an EP, Kolateral: Buelo (Collateral: Buzz) in 2018, which explore the machinery and bureaucracy behind Duterte’s war on drugs. Themes for their music draw directly from government memoranda, executive orders, and “mission orders” to expose the government organizations who have carried out Duterte’s decrees. 

Cover art for the album Kolateral: Buelo (Collateral: Buzz)

“Makinarya” (Machinery) begins with a sound clip from a Duterte speech encouraging police to kill suspected drug dealers openly in the streets. The song’s initial beat is inspired by the sound of police knocking on doors as they search neighborhoods for suspected drug users. The lyrics to “Makinarya” explore how Duterte’s words are weaponized, literally transforming into bullets. The lyrics insist that although Duterte may not be the one personally pulling the trigger, he is responsible for the thousands killed. The song also explores the perspective of government employees who translate the Duterte regime’s ideas about the drug war into actual state policy. They describe how these orders travel through the government bureaucracy, culminating in orders given to police, local government officials, and barangay (neighborhood) leaders to eliminate suspected drug users and sellers.

Listen to the song “Makinarya” (Machinery) here.

Listen to the album Kolateral here.

BLKD at a 2016 FlipTop Battle League event:

– Russ Skelchy, Associate Editor, RILM

______________________________

Searching through the literature related to music and protest in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, we find articles, books, and edited volumes focusing on protest songs across the globe, including some on the Philippines and hip-hop respectively. The following annotated bibliography highlights a few of these works.

Rank-and-file supporters of the Bangsamoro rebellion (the fight for a breakaway state in the Philippines, 1972–77, among indigenous Muslims) articulated their personal sentiments about the war in a genre called rebel songs. The lyrics reveal that fighters’ personal aspirations often diverged from the official aims of separatist leaders. An analysis examines how rebel songs transitioned into Moro songs (a song repertoire of the Moro people) in the post–martial-law era, and why they came to more narrowly reflect the movement’s official goals of Moro unity and Islamic renewal. 

  • La Rosa, Alma de and Anna Leah de Leon. “Protest music: Before, during and after EDSA”, 1789-1989: Musique, histoire, démocratie, ed. by Antoine Hennion. Recherche, musique et danse 6–8 (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1992) 803–806. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1992-7501] 

Examines songs before, during, and after the successful revolt against Ferdinand Marcos (1986); the revolutionary songs were not Philippine in origin but came from the U.S. 

  • Maxino-Baseleres, Rosario and Zeny Sarabia-Panol. “Bayan ko and other songs: The soundtrack of Philippine political activism”, Music as a platform for political communication, ed. by Uche Onyebadi. Advances in media, entertainment, and the arts (Hershey: Information Science Reference, 2017) 1–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-53133]

Using historical and content analysis, this essay examines the role of music in the political awakening of Filipinos through the years. The researchers are mainly interested in popular music, and anchor the study on concepts of popular culture and the process of meaning-making. This study therefore recognizes the intersection of music as a universal element of popular culture and politics. It argues that politicized music in the Philippines is a contested site where meanings are negotiated and where the music of colonizers or a despotic ruler collides with songs of protest or resistance. While samples of the songs that defined various historical periods are analyzed, focus is on the anthems of the student protest movement of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s that led to the People Power Revolution. Attention is given to the message and why the lyrics resonated and galvanized Filipinos to action.

  • Bodden, Michael. “Rap in Indonesian youth music of the 1990s: Globalization, outlaw genres, and social protest”, Asian music: Journal of the Society for Asian Music 36/2 (summer–fall 2005) 1–26. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-7366]

In 1995 B.J. Habibie, the Indonesian Minister of Research and Technology, sharply criticized the rising popularity of rap, punk, and hard rock among Indonesian youth. He considered rap a vulgar and inappropriate North American influence on Indonesian culture. Rap artists asserted that their use of rap in Indonesia as a form of protest against oppressive conditions in an authoritarian state distinguishes it from North American rap. A reprint is cited as RILM 2012-15686.

  • Saavedra Casco, José Arturo. “The language of the young people: Rap, urban culture and protest in Tanzania”, Music and protest, ed. by Ian Peddie. The library of essays on music, politics and society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012) 273–292. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-15681]

Briefly recounts a history of rap in Tanzania, the social and political contents of Tanzanian hip-hop songs, the characteristics of the messages, and their impact on Tanzanian youth. It also describes local elements, besides the use of Swahili language, contained in Tanzanian rap that were inherited from pre-colonial Swahili poetry. Finally, it gives several examples of the social and protest contents in songs of remarkable Tanzanian hip-hop artists, such as Mr. II, Professor Jay, and Wagosi wa Kaya.

  • Norton, Barley. “Vietnamese popular song in 1968: War, protest and sentimentalism”, Music and protest in 1968, ed. by Beate Kutschke and Barley Norton. Music since 1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 97–118. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-4247]

Examines how the experience of war influenced musical expression and how musical protest was configured in relation to the fractious politics of war. Although much musical activity in both Vietnams around 1968 was connected in some way to the conflict, this essay is restricted to an examination of Vietnamese popular song, known as ca khúc. Ca khúc was one of the most influential mediums for protest and for the expression of sentiments about war.

  • Illiano, Roberto, ed. Protest music in the twentieth century. Music, criticism & politics 1 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-15649]

This collection is about protest music and dissident composers and musicians during the twentieth century, with a particular focus on the forms with which dissent may be expressed in music and the ways in which composers and performers have adopted stances on political and social dissent. In 21 articles, scholars of different nationalities explore the way protest music is articulated in artistic-cultural discourse and political matters, as well as the role it played in situations of mutual benefit. Moreover, the phenomenon of dissent is investigated in the context of musical historiography and criticism, approaching the topic from historical, sociological, and philosophical points.

  • Onyebadi, Uche, ed. Music as a platform for political communication. Advances in media, entertainment, and the arts (Hershey: Information Science Reference, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-53131]

A comprehensive reference source for the latest scholarly perspectives on delivering political messages to society through musical platforms and venues. Innovative research topics on an international scale, such as election campaigns, social justice, and protests, are highlighted.

  • Ellison, Mary. Lyrical protest: Black music’s struggle against discrimination. Media and society (London: Oxford University Press, 1989). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1989-5948]

The coupling of Black music and protest happened naturally.  Since the first songs by blacks were heard in Africa, black music has expressed resistance to oppression. Black music reflects life in a very balanced way.  Music explores the human choices for black people through the words of the songs, supported by the music of the songs.

  • Lewis, George H. “Storm blowing from paradise: Social protest and oppositional ideology in Hawaiian popular music”, Popular music 10/1 (January 1991) 53–68. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1991-10789]

Hawaiian protest music originated as a reaction to the negatively perceived cultural and ecological impact of the commercialization of Hawaiian culture and music beginning in the early 20th c. The main view was that commercialized music trivialized the Hawaiian people and supported the destruction of their land and past. Lyrics sung in Hawaiian and expressing hostility towards tourists and criticism of their impact on Hawaii became characteristic of Hawaiian Renaissance music.

  • Samson, Valerie Brooks. “Music as protest strategy: The example of Tiananmen Square, 1989”, Pacific review of ethnomusicology 6 (1991) 35–64. http://ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/prevol6.pdf. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 1991-11064]

A first-hand account of the role of singing, chanting, recorded music in uniting the populace during the struggle for control of the square from April to June 1989, from the early demonstrations through the imposition of martial law to the military invasion; the singing of the Internationale assumed particular significance.

  • Sharp, Chesla. “Coal-mining songs as forms of environmental protest”, Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association 4 (1992) 50–58. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1995-9321]

Many of the Appalachian miners’ protest songs were written during the Harlan County coal strikes of the early 1930s. Over time the nature of these songs changed: Early songs expressed cries of desperation, or the awareness of a problem without commitment to action; later songs urged audiences to connect with a movement or ideology.

  • Treece, David. “Guns and roses: Bossa nova and Brazil’s music of popular protest, 1958–68”, Popular music 16/1 (January 1997) 1–29. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1997-459]

Traces developments in Brazilian popular music between 1958 and 1968, with close attention to the interaction of politics, economics, and culture. Antonio Carlos Jobim, Carlos Lyra, Baden Powell, Edu Lobo, Geraldo Vandré, and many other figures are discussed, with analysis of musical examples.

  • Grossman, Alan and Áine O’Brien. “Kurdish lyrical protest: The terrain of acoustic migration”, Journal of ethnic & migration studies 32/2 (March 2006) 271–289. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691830500487365. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-50515] 

Foregrounds acoustic memory and migration in the production of a performative ethnographic documentary about the exiled Kurdish singer and composer Muhamed Abbas Bahram, one of many accomplished Kurdish musicians residing in Western Europe. The title of the documentary, Silent song, alludes to a poem written in 1976 by a Kurdish radio and television broadcaster commemorating the musician’s refusal to perform in a concert at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad before an audience of Ba’ath party members.

  • Makina, Blandina. “Re-thinking white narratives: Popular songs and protest discourse in post-colonial Zimbabwe”, Muziki: Journal of music research in Africa 6/2 (November 2009) 221–231. https://doi.org/10.1080/18125980903250772. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-11523]

The economic and political meltdown in Zimbabwe over the past decade have given rise to protest songs as artists became the mouthpiece of a population that is enduring economic hardships. One such artist is Samm Monro, popularly known as Comrade Fatso. He is one of the emerging young musicians who, through his protest music, has become an inspiration to ordinary Zimbabweans from all walks of life because his songs are insightful commentaries on what is happening in their country. The protest discourse that his wide audience finds appealing is discussed, focusing on the lyrics from excerpts of four songs on his album Chabvondoka.

  • Peddie, Ian, ed. Music and protest. The library of essays on music, politics and society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-7257]

Brings together some of the best writing on music and protest from the last thirty years. Encompassing a variety of genres, from classical to many different kinds of popular music, the collection selects articles on a broad range of topics–including revolutions and uprisings, environmentalism, class, identity, struggles for self-determination as well as rights and the historical legacy of protest music–and from at least 15 different countries, confirming the contention that music is one of the primary languages of protest.

  • Friedman, Jonathan C., ed. The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-4309]

This collection of essays analyzes the trends, musical formats, and rhetorical devices used in popular music to illuminate the human condition through a history of social protest music.

  • Mostafa, Dalia Said and Anastasia Valassopoulos. “Popular protest music and the 2011 Egyptian revolution”, Popular music and society 37/5 (December 2014) 638–659. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2014.910905. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-9178]

Music and performance have been at the heart of the ongoing Egyptian revolution since its outbreak on 25 January 2011. Popular protest music in particular has helped to shape and articulate emerging desires and aspirations, as well as participating in criticisms and grievances at the site of political change. We aim to demonstrate, through the analysis of popular protest songs, how the 2011 Egyptian revolution has been imagined, articulated, and defined in popular culture. We trace the links between older revolutionary songs and how they have impacted new ones, while engaging with a number of theoretical issues on the role of popular music during periods of revolutionary struggles, to contextualize the domain of protest songs representing the Egyptian revolution.

  • Ibarraran, Amaia. “African-American and Mexican-American protest songs in the 20th century: Some examples”, Journal of popular music studies 29/2 (June 2017) 17p. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpms.12211. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-23982]

The construction of the United States as a nation has always been linked to agriculture and the possession and exploitation of the land. The African slaves’ work during the 17th and 18th centuries in the Southern territories and the efforts of Mexican braceros in the Southwest after the annexation of the Northern territories of Mexico are essential to understanding the history of U.S. agriculture. The exploitation of these workers has always been accounted for and justified in historical, literary, and journalistic texts. This essay begins with the premise that popular songs produced by African Americans and Mexicans offer an important corrective to biased official texts, providing key historical and sociocultural information without the distortions arising from the need to justify the subjugation of a people in the name of economy and patriotism. The article aims to understand the relevance of popular song for the denunciation of the difficult working conditions in agricultural fields, as they were experienced from the colonial era through the 20th century.

  • Budji Kefen, Ivoline. “Utilizing sounds of mourning as protest and activism: The 2019 northwestern women’s lamentation march within the Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon”, Resonance: The journal of sound and culture 1/4 (winter 2020) 443–461. https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2020.1.4.443. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2020-54124]

Examines how women of the northwestern Grassfields of Cameroon transpose and deploy lamentation sounds as a means of nonviolently resisting, challenging, counteracting, and controlling the audio-sphere hitherto militarized through the weaponization of the sounds of war. The main argument is that contrary to the popular narrative of African women as passive recipients of sociocultural norms and traditional political powers that propagate female marginalization and oppression, African women can and do consciously draw from these same norms to achieve their sociopolitical aims.

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Filed under Asia, Politics

The Taliban and music: An annotated bibliography

Music has always been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, conservative Muslims nevertheless believe that music (especially instrumental music) tends to lead people astray by indulging in sensual pleasures.

The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist militant group that originated in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, emerged in 1994. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban essentially banned music altogether in Afghanistan, until 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Yet with the recent Taliban recapture of most parts of Afghanistan, there are renewed concerns about the situation there. Will music be banned again?

Looking through the literature related to the Taliban and music, we can find that scholars, journalists, and directors have left us valuable information through their articles and films documenting musical life in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban rule. In chronological order of publication, we can outline a brief history of music in Afghanistan in the last two or three decades through these documents.

  • Yusufzai, Rahimullah. “All quiet in Kabul”, Index on censorship: The global magazine for free expression 27/6:185 (November–December 1998) 135–138. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-26068]

Abstract: With the takeover of the Taliban regime in 1996 the cultural policies of Afghanistan changed dramatically, as music and any form of electronic entertainment were forbidden. The consequences of this prohibition are described and an excerpt of the Taliban’s official statement is provided.

  • Majrooh, Naim. “The Talibans have banned all music in Afghanistan”, 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, 20–22 November 1998, ed. by Marie Korpe (Freemuse: København, 2001) 27–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-20196]

Abstract: Afghanistan’s centuries-old art and folk traditions began to decline after the communist coup of 1979 and the repression that followed, but they suffered a far greater blow with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1992 women and music were banned from Kabul radio and television, and in 1995 all musical life was proscribed. While musical life continues in remote villages, in the cities even weddings and funerals are held without music. A black market in smuggled cassettes, enjoyed discreetly in private homes, shares many similarities with the drug trade in the West.

  • Baily, John. “Can you stop the birds singing?”: The censorship of music in Afghanistan. Freemuse report (Freemuse: København, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-20183]

Abstract: The people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule are subjected to an extreme form of music censorship. The only musical activity permitted is the singing of certain religious songs and Taliban chants.

The report traces the gradual imposition of music censorship since 1978, when the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki came to power in a violent coup d’etat. During 14 years of communist rule, music in Afghanistan was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture, while in the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning. The roots of the Taliban ban on music lie in the way these camps were run.

In the Rabbani period (1992–1996) music was heavily censored. In the provincial city of Herat, the newly formed Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (religious police) enforced a virtual ban on live public performance, but private music making was permitted. There was a little music on radio and television, and audiocassettes of music were freely available. In Kabul conditions were somewhat more relaxed until Hekmatyar became prime minister; cinemas were then closed and music was banned from radio and television.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 a number of edicts were published against music. All musical instruments were banned, and when discovered by agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were destroyed, sometimes being burnt in public along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, TVs, and VCRs. The only forms of musical expression permitted today are the singing of certain kinds of religious poetry, and so-called Taliban chants, which are panegyrics to Taliban principles and commemorations of those who have died on the field of battle for the Taliban cause.

The effects of censorship of music in Afghanistan are deep and wide-ranging for the Afghan people, both inside and outside the country. The lives of professional musicians have been completely disrupted, and most have had to go into exile for their economic survival. The rich Afghan musical heritage is under severe threat. The report concludes with a number of recommendations intended to counteract the effects of censorship.

  • Broughton, Simon. Breaking the silence: Music in Afghanistan. VHS (BBC Education & Training, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-15784]

Abstract: The Taliban’s prohibition of music was the most severe in history. Apart from unaccompanied chants, all music was banned and instruments were broken and burnt. This film documents the remarkable moment when the country was reconnected with its musical culture. Shot in Kabul and Peshawar (Pakistan) in January 2002, two months after the fall of the Taliban, this film is an introduction to the music of Afghanistan and the way it’s been caught in the crossfire of conflicting regimes over the past 25 years. Most poignantly, it shows the musicians in Kabul who are now rebuilding Afghanistan’s devasted musical life. Directed by Simon Broughton, it won the documentary prize at the Golden Prague Festival in 2002.

Includes: Sarinda-player Mashinai, forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban; Singer Aziz Ghaznawi, who had no option but to sing for them; Female singer Naghma, whose tapes flooded the Kabul bazaar as the Taliban fled; Rare footage of Sufi gatherings where Islam and music fervently meet; Ensemble Kaboul, the best of the traditional Afghan groups in exile, who formed when the very survival of Afghan music seemed under threat.

  • Seybold, Dietrich. “Kulturkampf und Musikzensur: Über die Hintergründe des Musikverbots der Taliban”, Musik & Ästhetik 9/33 (Januar 2005) 104–112. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2005-256]

Abstract: Historically examined, musical censorship is an almost commonplace phenomenon. Less common is a ban as radical as that imposed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996. The reception of the ban in the Western public sphere is analyzed, unifying the insights offered by various disciplines. Embedding this particular phenomenon in a historical examination of the theme of extreme, religiously based opposition to music, patterns of such opposition are revealed; these are also found in the occidental tradition, albeit focusing on a different problem complex: the stance of Islam, including its marginal, sect-like manifestations, in relation to music.

  • Alagha, Joseph. “Jihad through ‘music’”: The Taliban and Hizbullah”, Performing Islam 1/2 (2012) 263–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-13894]

Abstract: Discusses the cultural politics of the Taliban and Hezbollah. While Hezbollah embraces “resistance art” and encourages purposeful music and artistic expressions as pious entertainment, the Taliban censor music and restrict artistic activities, considering them innovations (bida’j) that distract from the practice of “authentic Islam” and “true worship”. To discuss the interplay between the “power of music” and “music in power”, this article uses samples of anashid (alternate spelling anachid or anasheed, meaning songs, hymns, and anthems) of the Taliban and Hezbollah, both of which practice jihad through music.

Most notably, both employ the same Qur’anic concept of “action of excellence under God’s guidance”, either to legitimize and justify certain artistic expressions and practices (Hezbollah) or to ban and prohibit them altogether (the Taliban). Hezbollah’s contextual argument leads to a music theory, whilst the Taliban’s prohibition in the absolute curtails cultural politics all together.

  • Cara, Gibney. “Dr. Ahmad Sarmast”, fRoots 39/10-12:418-420 (spring 2018) 31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-1109]

Abstract: A profile and interview. Ahmad Sarmast is founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, which asserts in its mission statement: “We focus especially on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan—orphans, street-working vendors and girls”. It’s been long, hard, dangerous work developing a music institute in Kabul focused on these marginalized populations, and the struggle isn’t over.

Ahmad Sarmast left Afghanistan in the 1990s, seeking asylum in Australia away from the relentless Afghan civil war. During his years away from home he pursued a music education that would develop skills and knowledge essential for the years ahead, ultimately becoming the first Afghan national to obtain a PhD in music. He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 after the defeat of the Taliban, a land where music was banned for many years.

ANIM opened its doors in 2010, and now offers a core academic syllabus including math, languages, and social sciences. It offers studies in Afghan music, Western music, and various ensembles including Zohra—”the first-ever all-female ensemble in the history of Afghanistan”.

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Filed under Asia, Politics

Smithsonian Collections Object: The Sony TPS-L2 “Walkman” Cassette Player, National Museum of American History

For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons–Iain Chambers, “The Aural Walk”

When first launched by Sony on July 1, 1979, you would have called it something different depending on where you lived. In the United States, it was the Sound-About; in Sweden, the Freestyle; in the United Kingdom, the Stowaway. Such diversity reflected concerns that, while acceptable in Asia, Latin American, and the Middle East, the name Walkman was just too grammatically awkward, too “Japanese-made” to be marketable in the Anglophone world. However, like much of the music it mediated, its catchiness could not be denied. The Walkman would become the standard not only for a specific stereo cassette player made by Sony, but for all personal cassette players throughout the world. There was a time when, just as you might reach for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or a Xerox instead of a photocopy, your portable listening device was the Walkman, even if it was not one proper.

As urban populations continue to swell, and portable, “smart” personal devices rapidly accumulate functionalities, the Sony Walkman seems like a relic and a premonition: an icon of the last two decades of the 20th century that helped construct the idea of the modern “urban nomad.”

First introduced in the United States in June of 1980, the TPS-L2 Walkman (featured above) was clad in sleek blue and silver, weighed 14 ounces, and came with a carrying case and headphones. This original model featured two headphone jack sockets and a hotline feature that allowed you to talk to your companion without having to lower the volume or remove your headphones. Early commercials for the product present it as a device that could unite different cultures and ages, a meeting ground for the traditional and modern:

Two commercials, aired in Japan in 1979, promoting the Sony Walkman

Another commercial—this one featuring the TPS-L2’s direct offspring, the “classic” Walkman II (WM-2)—shows us how the stereo cassette player and radio can provide an enhanced version of the everyday work day.

People of all ages, but especially young, energetic, modern urbanites, are illuminated, in color, by the (“hi-fi”) sounds offered by the Walkman. The scene features enclosed, autonomous characters listening to their personal devices in a social context. The commercial’s negotiation of the ambiguous boundary between diegetic sounds (i.e., music is a part of the narrative; we assume the characters on screen can hear it) and non-diegetic sounds (i.e., disconnected from the narrative; music that remains unheard by characters) drives the point home: when the jingle fades in, only after the protagonist “sees the light” (that shines on the Walkman side of the street of course), some people—couples and shopkeepers—clearly dance to the same music we hear. But perhaps others—the roller skater, the juggler, the skateboarder—are left “to their own devices” (quite literally, as Sony would release different versions of their Walkman to suit specific youth tastes). This polyphony of movement streams suggests a freedom and escape from the silent, black-and-white “dark” that enshrouds the toiling city-dwellers who, alone without the Walkman, fail to take part in a shared experience.

Over and above these media texts’ “datedness” and function (to sell you the product), they point to an issue that is just as provocative now as it was when sociologists and media/cultural studies researchers approached the Walkman in the early 1980s: the social consequences of the potential for personal, portable devices to blur the boundaries between the domestic and public spheres in an urban environment. By roughly 1983, the hotline feature was removed, and two headphone jacks brought down to one. Contrary to Sony head Akio Morita’s conviction that it would be rude for one person to listen to music alone, he discovered shortly after the device’s release that “buyers began to see their little portable stereo sets as very personal.” More than sharing music, people were more interested in curating their own unique “theatrical” experiences—with themselves as protagonist—as they traversed urban environments. The Walkman became a part of an urban strategy, an autonomous and perhaps solitary (but not isolating!) means through which to negotiate the urban soundscape.

If Walkman users were protagonists, some spectators (non-Walkman users) were not entertained or enthused. “Cultural moralists,” as Umberto Eco has called them, had serious reservations about the mixture of the two spheres, public and private, just as Morita did. Included in the primer, Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, which takes the Walkman as a case study through which to examine key concepts in sociology and media studies, we find a reprint of a brief article that details the experiences of one Walkman user in London. In his short piece, “Menace II Society,” Vincent Jackson writes,

You pull out your Walkman, You stick in your tape […] You press the play button. BAM! The Eyes. Ice glares tell it all. In the short time it takes for the other passengers to look you up and down with utter contempt, you have already had a huge label slapped across your forehead. You are a scumbag, a low-life, a loser. For some strange reason, the Walkman has become the scourge of the modern day traveler, the leper’s bell, symbolic of the endemic rebellion in today’s youth culture. Wear a Walkman and you’re travelling strapped. A Menace to Society.

Despite the hyperbolic tone of this account, it is undeniable that, particularly in the direct wake of its release, the Walkman’s ability to facilitate isolation in a public setting, where it “doesn’t belong,” was disquieting to many an onlooker. Never mind that testimony from Walkman users themselves revealed that many found the device not only useful as a way to shut out unwanted aspects of the city, but also to sculpt the city’s sounds and images in such a way as to commune with it. To many, Walkman users were flaunting a secret—what are they listening to?!—in plain sight. Perhaps the silence of this secret was louder (and more offensive) than the cacophony of all the city’s ambulances, police cars, fire engines, construction, and subways combined.

Whatever one’s perspective, it is undeniable that the Walkman opened a door to practices—both intimate and social at once—that have endured. For this reason and many others, it is of extraordinary value, not only as a cultural object, but also as just one example of human beings’ desire to use music as a vehicle through which to situate themselves among others.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bull, Michael. “Investigating the culture of mobile listening: From Walkman to iPod”, Consuming music together: Social and collaborative aspects of music consumption technologies, ed. by Kenton O’Hara and Barry Brown. Computer supported cooperative work 35 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006) 131–149. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2006-26623]

_____. Sounding out the city: Personal stereos and the management of everyday life. Materializing culture (Oxford: Berg, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2000-57258]

Examines the auditory experience of self and place by exploring the reasons why and the ways in which people tune into their personal stereos (e.g., Walkmans, etc.) and tune out city sounds. Urban, cultural, and anthropological studies have been dominated by explanations of experiences drawing upon notions of visuality. But culture always has an auditory component that shapes attitudes and behavior—perhaps nowhere more so than in the city, where sound is intensified. Strictly visual approaches to culture are challenged here by proposing an auditory understanding of behavior through an ethnographic analysis of personal stereo use. Our understanding of how people, through the senses, negotiate central experiences of the urban—such as space, place, time, and the management of everyday experience—are reformulated, and the critical role played by technology is examined. (publisher)

Chambers, Iain. “A miniature history of the Walkman”, New formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 11 (summer 1990) 1–4. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1990-40156]

_____. “The aural walk”, Audio culture: Readings in modern music, ed. by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner. (2nd ed.; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) 98–101. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-15440]

_____. Urban rhythms: Pop music and popular culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1986-4279]

Chow, Rey. “Listening otherwise, music miniaturized: A different type of question about revolution”, The cultural studies reader, ed. by Simon During (2nd ed.; London: Routledge, 1999) 462–478. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-62371]

Du Gay, Paul and Stuart Hall, et. al. Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman (2nd ed.; Los Angeles: Sage, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-46759]

What does the Walkman have to do with the 21st century? The long-awaited second edition of this classic textbook takes students on a journey between past and present, giving them the skills do to cultural analysis along the way. Through the notion of the circuit of culture, this book teaches students to critically examine what culture means, and how and why it is enmeshed with the media texts and objects in their lives. Students will gain practical experience with the historical comparative method, learn to think about some of the cultural conundrums of the present and their relation to the past, unpack the key concepts of contemporary culture, such as mobility and materiality, look with fresh eyes at today’s media world and the cultural practices it gives rise to, and practice their critical skills with up-to-date exercises and activities. This book remains the perfect how-to for cultural studies. It is an essential classic, reworked for today’s students in cultural studies, media studies, and sociology. (publisher)

Hosokawa, Shūhei. “The Walkman effect”, The sound studies reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012): 104–116. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-11796]

The 1980 Sony invention has been paramount in the creation of “musica mobilis”, a music whose source follows “the corporal transportation of the source owner”. The internal effects of listening, the internal-external relationship between inner hearing and outside (urban) sounds, and the external theatricality of “wearing” a Walkman are all examined. It is argued that to think about the Walkman is to reflect on the urban itself.

_____. “Walkman as urban strategy”, OneTwoThreeFour: A rock ‘n’ roll quarterly 6 (summer 1988): 40–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1988-26630]

Schönhammer, Rainer. “The Walkman and the primary world of the sense”, Phenomenology + pedagogy 7 (1989) 127–144. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1989-14178]

Williams, Andrew Paul. The functions of Walkman music (Ph.D. diss., The University of Adelaide, 2004). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2004-26911]

Since its release in 1979, the Walkman has engendered new modes of musical experience for millions of listeners. Its portability and the apparent isolation offered by its headphones enable Walkman users to listen to music in situations where it would otherwise be impossible. They can also use Walkman music to achieve outcomes for which other forms of music may not be suited. Eleven functions of Walkman music, ten adapted from Michael Bull’s (2000) strategies of Walkman use and one derived from this study’s fieldwork results, are examined here. Following Timothy Rice’s (1987) model for ethnomusicological study, the functions’ origins in historical musical practice are investigated, as well as their maintenance in social interaction and listeners’ individual experience of them. This study demonstrates Walkman listeners are focused entirely on their Walkman music in only two functions, either enjoying it or trying to learn it. Four functions involve Walkman listeners’ interactions with their surroundings—namely, listeners use Walkman music to control their environments’ soundscapes, to ease their negotiation of places they consider unpleasant, to control personal interactions and, in combination with their surroundings, Walkman music gives listeners the impression they are viewing or acting in a film for which their music is the soundtrack. Listeners use Walkman music for its effects on themselves in five functions. They choose rhythmic music for motivation during exercise or music which will influence their mood. Listeners also use Walkman music to simulate the presence of a companion or because they consider it a more enjoyable or productive use of time they would otherwise consider wasted. Finally, Walkman music can prompt listeners’ memories of past events. While similar observations have been made in previous studies and particularly by Bull, music’s role has not been appropriately acknowledged. This study’s examination of Walkman music in terms of the functions it fulfills for listeners corrects this imbalance. Observations in the literature relating to Walkman use are tested for their resonance with Walkman listeners in ethnographic interviews conducted in Adelaide, Australia. Conclusions are drawn regarding the degree of isolation listeners actually achieve from their surroundings and also regarding the relative novelty or otherwise of the uses to which listeners put their Walkman music. (author)

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Filed under Curiosities, featured, Mass media

Smithsonian Collections Object: Debbie Harry Photography, National Portrait Gallery

Debbie Harry Portrait, 1986 (printed 2004), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of The Motion Picture Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA USA.

“Color me your color, darling, I know who you are” –Debbie Harry

In this picture taken by Francesco Scavullo—a fashion photographer well known for his 1972 Cosmo centerfold photo of a hirsute Burt Reynolds splayed across a bearskin rug—Debbie Harry appears in a leather jacket, metal-studded bracelet, heavy raccoon-style eye makeup, and artfully mussed/moussed blonde hair with black roots peeking through.

A promotional shot for Harry’s second solo album, Rockbird (1986), the image is much more stereotypically “punk rock” than most images seen of her before. The juxtaposition is all the most striking given that Rockbird is the most purely pop album of Debbie Harry’s or Blondie’s career (and probably the most dated, for better or worse, given the transparently time-stamped mid-1980s production).

As a photographic subject Debbie Harry has provoked seemingly endless fascination—at least judging by the massive volume of images in circulation—not just for her striking appearance but also, it could be argued, for the intimate, yet equally enigmatic, nature of so many of the photos. Taken together, the images invite comparison to pioneering female photographers ranging from Cindy Sherman to Francesca Woodman—except for the fact that most of the photos are not technically self-portraits.

Debbie Harry has to be one of the most photographed women in rock history (notably, almost every biography of Blondie and Debbie Harry is presented as a “pictorial biography” as well). Her image has long been considered so crucial to the band Blondie, featured on posters and in books and magazines—some of which would notoriously crop the rest of the band out of the original image—that their label Chrysalis Records saw fit to launch a “Blondie Is A Group” marketing blitz in 1978. But the band were hardly dupes in this image-making enterprise.

For one thing, this imagistic breadth reflects the band itself that Harry has fronted for all these years. Nominally a “punk” band who were in the mix of the early CBGB scene, Blondie was ultimately better known for being on the vanguard of multiple musical crossovers and cutting-edge stylistic trends than for their “punk rock” cred—weaving together old and new, mixing elements of punk primitivism with melodic ‘60s pop, Phil Spector studio productions, classic girl groups, Jamaican rocksteady, disco, early rap, and many other genres besides.

In Lester Bangs’ long out-of-print band biography (and extended think-piece-cum-rant) titled Blondie (1980), he quotes drummer Clem Burke who asserts “that music goes hand-in-hand with image.” A somewhat novel sentiment for a rock band in the early MTV era—especially one that emerged from one of the most sacrosanct undergrounds of all time—Debbie Harry and Blondie were just as savvy and creative with their imagery as with their music. Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist and most frequently-featured songwriter who also happened to be Debbie Harry’s life partner at the time, was also an avid photographer on the side. His primary subject was, unsurprisingly, Debbie Harry (alongside bandmates and his life as a working musician).

In his book Lester Bangs goes on to criticize the band for its ever-expanding stylistic palette and its alleged inauthenticity as a result. A study in contrasts in his own right, Bangs was known for being in-equal-measures rhapsodic and curmudgeonly. His Blondie book began life as an authorized biography but was ultimately published without the band’s imprimatur. Referring to Debbie Harry’s “Lolita” image in particular, Bangs writes that he would “lay any odds…it sure as hell ain’t the same person as the one called Deborah Harry.” This all seems a strange line of reasoning, however, for a critic who lionized artists such as David Bowie and Lou Reed (who, to be fair, Bangs was also quite critical of at times) known to be similarly “blank” or “kaleidoscopic” in their music and image.

In Blondie Lester Bangs champions this very quality of self-invention when it comes to punk rock in the broader sense. He praises early punk and proto-punk bands, the New York Dolls in particular, for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to its roots as “the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action,” for which the main quality required is nerve (“If you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about.”) By this criteria, given their penchant for constant self-reinvention, it would seem that Blondie were the ultimate punk band of the CBGB scene, even if stylistically they didn’t fit the sound and the look many thought of as punk.

Debbie Harry encapsulates many of these “contradictory” qualities in her image, voice, and stage presence. She’s a Jersey girl who became the ultimate New York City hipster. A disco queen and a punk diva. A woman in her 30s by the time Blondie started scoring hits, Debbie Harry and Blondie created “teenage fun for adults and vice-versa” (Bangs). Debbie is a convincing and powerful singer of oft-sublime songs who at the same time can sound (and look) a little bit detached from it all—which only heightens the dramatic tension in the best of cases, check out “Atomic” for example—contributing lyrics that mix-and-match searing emotion, ironic twists, and occasional surrealism. In the visual realm, Debbie is widely considered to be beyond glamourous. But often with an observable wink, not to mention charmingly awkward at times.

Official video for Blondie’s “Atomic”

For those paying attention the pose may be transparently apparent, just as it’s most likely meant to be. For this reason, perhaps, Debbie Harry has become an icon of queer culture. On an early Blondie demo titled “Platinum Blondie,” Debbie sings in character—“I even tried wearing a wig for a while…but I got some peroxide at the beauty supply”—lyrics that would do most any drag performer proud. To this day she’s a fixture on the New York City LGBTQ scene, attending events like Squeezebox (in the 1990s) and Jackie 60 productions such as Night of a Thousand Stevies up to the present. If, in fact, there are “a thousand Debbies” it is very much by design. The tensions and potentials brought about by this pastiche-driven creative process—a playful overlapping of elements that at first appear to be disparate and incompatible—is hinted at in the image captured by Francesco Scavullo, a photograph that overlaps visual markers of authenticity and obvious stylization which resonate with Debbie Harry’s musical history.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bangs, Lester. Blondie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-32447]

Bayley, Roberta. Blondie: Unseen, 1976–1980 (London: Plexus, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-34941]

Blondie were the most commercially successful band to emerge from the New York punk scene of the mid 1970s, producing a series of number one albums between 1977 and 1982 and selling over 50 million records worldwide. This book features 235 photographs of Debbie Harry and Blondie taken by the famous first-wave punk rock photographer. (publisher)

DeRogatis, Jim. Let it blurt: The life and times of Lester Bangs, America’s greatest rock critic (New York: Broadway Books, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2000-5597]

A biography of the gonzo journalist widely considered a romantic visionary of rock criticism. In publications such as Creem, The Village voice, and New York rocker, Bangs agitated during the 1970s for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, in the course of which he charted and defined the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. He was treated as a peer by musicians such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Captain Beefheart, the Clash, and Debbie Harry. Bangs’s life and writings provide a window on rock criticism and rock culture in their most turbulent and creative years. (publisher)

Harry, Deborah, Chris Stein, and Victor Bockris. Making tracks: The rise of Blondie (Repr. ed.; New York: Da Capo, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-8232]

Harry, Deborah. Face it (New York: Dey Street Books, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2019-8835]

Musician, actor, activist, and the iconic face of New York City cool, Debbie Harry is the frontwoman of Blondie, a band that forged a new sound that brought together the worlds of rock, punk, disco, reggae, and hip hop to create some of the most beloved pop songs of all time. As a muse, she collaborated with some of the boldest artists of the past four decades. The scope of Debbie Harry’s impact on our culture has been matched only by her reticence to reveal her rich inner life, until now. In a mix of visceral, soulful storytelling and stunning visuals—including photographs, bespoke illustrations, and fan art installations—this book upends the standard music memoir while delivering a truly prismatic portrait. With all the grit, grime, and glory recounted in intimate detail, it re-creates the downtown scene of 1970s New York City, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Following her path from commercial success to heroin addiction, the near-death of partner Chris Stein, a heart-wrenching bankruptcy, and Blondie’s breakup as a band to her multifaceted acting career in more than 30 films, a solo career, and the triumphant return of her band, and her tireless advocacy for the environment and LGBTQ rights, this is a cinematic story of a woman who made her own path, and set the standard for a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps. (publisher)

Marcus, Greil. “Ripped to shreds”, Ranters & crowd pleasers: Punk in pop music, 1977–92, ed. by Greil Marcus. (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 105–108. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-16366]

A discussion of Lester Bangs’s book Blondie, (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447), published in Rolling stone, 24 July 1980. In the book, Bangs, a quickie-band-bio gun for hire, uses the opportunity to deconstruct the band—as well as the marketing of Deborah Harry as a sexed-up ice-queen bombshell—while lending depth to any analysis or appreciation of Blondie to follow. One of his key points is that the erstwhile punk and new wave band blazed new trails in emotional ambivalence—or, as he eventually argues—total lack of emotional content. Bangs writes that “what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried”. Bangs’s book is as much a treatise on postmodernist art as a simple band biography. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Metz, Allan, ed. Blondie, from punk to the present: A pictorial history. Musical legacy 1 (Springfield: Musical Legacy, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-12082]

Needs, Kris and Dick Porter. Blondie: Parallel lives (London: Omnibus, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-26761]

Drawing upon extensive new firsthand interview material from Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and many other significant players in the band’s long history, plus a sizable archive of personal materials and unpublished interviews, this book is the definitive eye-witness account of the group’s long and often tumultuous existence. Beginning with the band members’ childhoods, backgrounds, and influences, the book is also an evocative homage to the unique New York scenes of the 1970s—CBGB, punk rock, disco, hip hop—that found their way into Blondie’s music. It charts the development of Blondie to their massive popular success and eventual break up. It also details how Debbie Harry set her career aside to nurse Stein through a debilitating and life-threatening genetic disease. It recounts the group’s 1997 reformation, subsequent renaissance with their No exit album, the controversies surrounding the 2006 induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ending in the present with the release of Panic of girls. (publisher)

Peraino, Judith A. “‘Rip her to shreds’: Women’s music according to a butch-femme aesthetic”, repercussions 1/1 (spring 1992) 19–47. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 1992-4598]

The butch-femme aesthetic allows women to explore traditional gender roles and provides an alternative to the patriarchal basis of previous formulations of women’s music. Phranc, the folk singer, and Deborah Harry, the lead singer of the defunct rock group Blondie, consciously use irony and gender conflation in their performances, but present opposite extremes in musical style and in the portrayal of femininity. (Brian Robison)

Stein, Chris. Negative: Me, Blondie, and the advent of punk (New York: Rizzoli, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-21260]

On the occasion of Blondie’s 40th anniversary, Chris Stein shares his iconic and mostly unpublished photographs of Debbie Harry and the cool creatures of the 1970s and ’80s New York rock scene. While a student at the School of Visual Arts, the author photographed the downtown New York scene of the early ’70s, where he met Deborah Harry and co-founded Blondie. Their blend of punk, dance, and hip hop spawned a totally new sound, and Stein’s photographs helped establish Harry as an international fashion and music icon. In photos and stories, this book provides a snapshot of the period before and during Blondie’s rise, through photos and annotations, by someone who was part of and who helped shape the early punk music scene—at CBGB, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the early Bowery. Stars such as David Bowie, the Ramones, Joan Jett, and Iggy Pop were part of Stein’s world, as were downtown characters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hell, Stephen Sprouse, Anya Phillips, Divine, and others. As captured by one of its central artists and instigators, and designed by Shepard Fairey, this book is a celebration of the new wave and punk scenes, whose influence on music and fashion is just as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

_____. Point of view: Me, New York City, and the punk scene (New York: Rizzoli, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2018-50487]

A new collection of unseen photographs of New York City’s 1970s punk heyday, by one of the icons of the city’s golden age of music, Blondie’s Chris Stein. For the duration of the 1970s—from his days as a student at the School of Visual Arts through the foundation of the era-defining band Blondie and his subsequent reign as epicenter of punk’s golden age—Chris Stein kept an unrivaled photographic record of the downtown New York City scene. Following in the footsteps of his previous book Negative, this new book presents a more personal and more visceral collection of Stein’s photographs of the era. The images presented here take readers from self-portraits in his run-down East-Village apartment to candid photographs of pop-cultural icons of the time and evocative shots of New York City streetscapes in all their most longed-for romance and dereliction. An eclectic cast of cultural characters—from William Burroughs to Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol to Iggy Pop—appear as they were in the day, juxtaposed with children playing hopscotch on torn-down blocks, riding the graffiti-ridden subway, or cruising the burgeoning clubs of the Bowery. (publisher)

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 14, 2019: David Bowie and Bing Crosby Christmas Single

Album Cover, David Bowie and Bing Crosby Christmas Single, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” National Museum of American History, The Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music.

The standard party line on “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one of the more unlikely Christmas standards to be added to the Christmas canon in the past 50 years, perhaps second only to “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl—is that its charm lies in the “opposites attract” pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby. And there’s certainly some truth to this oil and water pairing. The song was originally recorded for a 1977 television special titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which sees Crosby riffing on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Swinging Sixties icon Twiggy and singing the aforementioned duet with Bowie. The latter is typically seen as the “oil” in this formula—“slick” both in the sartorial sense and in his slippery public image, which in the preceding decade had flitted between alter-egos from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the Brian Eno-assisted “Berlin Trilogy” era (still in progress) that saw Bowie renounce some of his previous excesses both in music and lifestyle.

Bing Crosby, on the other hand, was the “water” in this formula—bland, familiar, seemingly safe and comforting to older, more conservative viewers. The two apparently had very little familiarity with one another’s work. David reportedly accepted the musical cameo because of his mother’s affection for Crosby, while Bing and the show’s producers sought to infuse their special—in the hoary variety show format complete with a convoluted overarching “plot”—with some young blood (even though David Bowie was 30 years old by this point in time). The producers intended for the duet to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” an oddly martial song celebrating the earthly inception of “the newborn king,” composed by classical pianist and pedagogue Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1940 and first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951—none others than the Nazi-evading inspiration for The Sound of Music.

But Bowie wanted no part of singing one of the more staid tunes in the already-staid Christmas music repertoire and nearly backed out from the special. A last-minute emergency songwriting session with the show’s producer, scriptwriter, and songwriter-for-hire produced the contrapuntal “Peace on Earth,” whose wide-ranging melody and dovish lyrics served as a more passionate and pacifistic counterpoint to “Little Drummer Boy.” About midway through, Bing and Bowie snap into a sudden unison on the refrain: “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man / To give all the love that he can.”

Bing Crosby and David Bowie Perform “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” 1977

An oddly heartwarming moment in the midst of an otherwise stilted television special, legend has it that the newly-penned musical mashup was rehearsed for no more than an hour and captured on tape in only three takes. Following some charmingly awkward scripted banter, the performance proper gets underway with David Bowie’s keening vocals and hopeful lyrics, soaring over the musical anchor of Crosby’s rich baritone—singing the familiar Christmas standard—and a new Christmas classic was born (even if it took years, and really decades, to reach such an exalted status, helped along by a UK single release in 1982 that went to #3 on the charts). After their brief contact during taping, Bing pronounced that Bowie was “a clean-cut kid and a real asset to the show” who “sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.” With Bowie getting ready to enter the most commercially-successful phase of his career after the song’s 1982 re-release—especially in the States, complete with a newly clean-cut, blue-eyed-soul image and a clutch of Nile Rodgers-produced post-disco pop megahits on the 1983 album Let’s Dance—the song suddenly resonated more deeply than it likely did during Bowie’s experimental Berlin period when the song was original recorded. Adding extra pathos to the broadcast of the original Christmas special, Crosby died before its 1977 airing, turning it into an unintended posthumous tribute.

So far, so familiar—the song’s oil-and-water formula, however accidental, created a magical musical moment. But what’s more intriguing, one could argue, are the unexpected parallels between Bing and Bowie—at least if one goes back to the place Crosby inhabited in the cultural imagination when he was just around 30 years old himself. Just as Bowie was widely praised and/or condemned for kaleidoscopic role-playing and musical ventriloquism, Crosby was likewise viewed as a “master of artifice” in his day. Beginning in the mid-1930s, just as he was entering his late 20s and early 30s, Bing turned himself into one of the first truly multimedia stars—an icon on record, on the radio, on film, and on television—creating a total, medium-spanning image that may not have been equaled until David Bowie came along, especially with the advent of the glam rock era and its emphasis on theatricality and storytelling.

Technological shifts in the recording studio were a key aspect of this transition in Crosby’s career, just as David Bowie benefitted from the advent of new sound processing technologies—and the rise of the music studio conceived as a musical instrument in its own right—starting in the late 1960s and coming to full fruition in the 1970s. In the early decades of the 20th century, sound recording was very much built on the established vaudeville norm for popular vocalists, with singers reaching for the “back row seats” of the auditorium even in the recording studio; and in fact, singing forcefully into a megaphone was well-nigh necessary to adequately capture vocals recorded onto a wax cylinder. With the transition from mechanical to electrical sound recording in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the great strides that were made in microphone technology—specifically the condenser microphones that were developed during the same time—the act of singing was transformed in the space of a handful of years.

Suddenly, the era of the vaudeville shouter gave way to the age of the crooner, whose intimate, hushed vocals—with microphones picking up every subtle nuance, every vocal inflection and emotional shading—were criticized by some at the time as overly “feminized” (another parallel with the gender-bending rise of the glamsters). The singer-songwriter and popular music critic Ian Whitcomb describes the controversy generated by the rise of the crooners: “The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the ‘crooning boom’ by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: ‘Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes’.” The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation.” Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk.”

Still, despite Lee de Forest’s protestations, crooning took over the airwaves. And with radio’s shift from relying on live broadcasting as its sole practice to embracing the opportunities offered by magnetic tape—a technology developed by Nazis to spread propaganda—the new crooner-recordists such as Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby could further manipulate and theatricalize their music and image. This was accomplished, at least in part, through the use of splicing and other sound editing techniques facilitated by tape (these recorded “performances” no longer needed to be approached as equivalent to a linear live performance, but instead could be edited and otherwise manipulated after the fact). But, much like David Bowie, Bing Crosby was a master of the medium—using the latest in high-technology and cutting-edge aesthetics to create deeply human portraits, aching and hyperemotional one moment, uplifting and utterly transcendent the next (no surprise then that David Bowie’s singing style was strongly influenced by the crooner-throwback style of English actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley). With the Christmas season largely perceived and encountered, especially in the modern secular imagination, as a time of new beginnings and personal transformations—all the while returning “home for the holidays”—a period suffused with both nostalgic regression and hopeful projection, it makes a great deal of sense that the duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie would create a Christmas classic that taps into many of the same psychological dynamics, the tangled jumble of hopes and anxieties that likewise animate the crooner-glam musical continuum and its developments over the decades.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Dempsey, John Mark. “Bing Crosby: Rock ‘n’ roll godfather”, Going my way: Bing Crosby and American culture, ed. by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck. (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007) 67–78. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-26943]

Considers the reputation of Bing Crosby for contemporary audiences, having moved from the “epitome of cool” to being considered somewhat of a relic. This trajectory overlooks how Crosby played a major role in the technological revolution that aided in the development of rock music, specifically when it came to the emotional intimacy and sonic fidelity made possible by (then) modern-day microphones and audio engineering that led to the rise of the “crooners”—an influence that made its way to David Bowie via Anthony Newley. The Bowie/Crosby duet on Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy (1982) has taken on legendary status over the years, marking Crosby’s newfound relevance among younger audiences and Bowie’s movement into the commercial mainstream leading up to Let’s dance in 1983.

Ford, Paul. “How Bing Crosby and the Nazis helped to create Silicon Valley”, The New Yorker (May 8, 2013) https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-bing-crosby-and-the-nazis-helped-to-create-silicon-valley. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-47258]

The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit White Christmas is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby’s role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley; and that Crosby, quite deliberately, took full advantage of new sound recording technologies that were developed relatively early in his career—from electrical recording to the development of condenser microphones to the advent of magnetic tape. His use of these technologies placed Crosby at the forefront of the crooner movement, which was considered quite daring and controversial at the time.

Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: A pocketful of dreams—The early years (1903–1940) (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-13056]

Part I of a biography of Bing Crosby (1904–77). The author argues that Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 (Heebie jeebies) and 1927 (Muddy water) and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors, and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn’t exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies—even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent. Part II in this series is abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6672. (publisher)

Hoskyns, Barney. Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the glitter rock revolution (New York: Pocket Books, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-35073]

Glam rock was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. From 1970 to 1974 glam rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T. Rex, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop injected life into the pop-cultural landscape. With glitz artistry, they were the gender-bending, trendsetting performers of the music movement that was centered in London but spread around the world. Glam rock’s progenitors are discussed, from Oscar Wilde to Liberace, as is the continued influence of glam on diverse artists, including Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, The Smiths, Adam Ant, the New Romantic movement, glam metal (e.g., Poison), and Suede. (publisher)

Whitcomb, Ian. “The coming of the crooners”, Survey of American popular music, ed. by Frank Hoffmann and Robert Birkline. (Huntsville: Sam Houston State University, 2010) https://www.shsu.edu/~lis_fwh/book/roots_of_rock/support/crooner/EarlyCroonersIntro2.htm. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2010-47550]

The apex of the crooner is traced—including the technological transformations they helped usher into the music industry and the criticism they faced in some quarters. In some cases, male crooners were criticized as not being “real men” and for “sapping the national virility”. The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the “crooning boom” by moral authorities. In January 1932, they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: “Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes”. The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation”. Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk”. The story begins in the 19th century, where the world of drawing rooms and minstrel shows propelled American vernacular singing into the 20th century. Modern technology—most notably, the phonograph, radio, and the cinema—transformed pop music into a commodity, which still retained the musical and lyrical sentiments of the Victorian romantic tradition. With the microphone becoming a totem pole of the early crooners, the crooning phenomenon would become international in scope. The natural American voice, conversational in tone with a touch of gentility, would become lingua franca of popular music.

Discography

Jones, David Robert (David Bowie) and Bing Crosby. Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy. 45-rpm record (RCA Records JV13400; PH13400, 1982). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1982-45536]

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music, Uncategorized

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 2, 2019: Harmonica Used Aboard Gemini 6

Wally Schirra’s 8-note Hohner “Little Lady” harmonica. Gift of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford Jr.

From turntables to banjos, drumsticks, pianos, and beyond, musical instruments tell powerful stories about the multiple meanings of music in everyday life, highlighting how musical objects are never just things. Rather, they are often the result of complex processes arising from their production histories and circulation, accruing multiple layers of meaning through their varied uses and their associated cultural, ideological, affective, and economic values. Enter the humble harmonica, the free-reed wind instrument also known as the mouth organ or the French harp. How did a harmonica reach outer space in 1965? And what might it mean that it was the instrument of choice for the first song ever to be played outside planet Earth?

*****

When you pack your astronaut bag, you might smuggle a harmonica and miniature bells, if you are anything like Walter “Wally” Schirra or Tom Stafford. There is always some extra room next to the oxygen and the medication. Schirra and Stafford packed a Hohner “Little Lady,” a harmonica now given “The space traveler” moniker on the maker’s website, capable of playing one octave through its three-and-a-half–centimeter body. Why a harmonica, of all instruments? For one, it is portable, possessing a travel-readiness that has allowed it to circulate globally. The history of the harmonica is linked to that of its sister instrument, the accordion, especially during the mid-19th century. German instrument makers offered an extensive catalogue of accordions and harmonicas, pioneering a transformation of musical instruments into mass-produced commodities. As part of its global circulation, it has become a ubiquitous fixture in imagery that is, appropriately, about travel, as in the prototypical American Old West scene; characters like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the harmonica, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have often carried a harmonica in his pocket. Remarkably, it is also present as a shamanic instrument of power used in healing rituals within some Amerindian shamanic traditions in the Amazon. A small instrument can travel far.

*****

The rendition of “Jingle Bells,” the first song (just its melody) played in outer space, is a precedent to the famous 1977 Voyager recording and the first instance in a long list of musical activities in space. These have included, among many others, the recording of a music video for “Space Oddity,” played by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013 and the 20-day radio transmission of the song “Dongfang Hong,” or “The East Is Red,” from China’s first space satellite of the same name, in 1970.

Commander Chris Hadfield Performs a Version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Rare Earth Series, Published by Onward Music Limited 

“The East Is Red” with English Subtitles, Posted by User Joaquin2123

Other instruments that have traveled outside the Earth include the flute brought onboard by Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician and NASA‘s first female Hispanic astronaut, Carl Walz’s keyboard, and Aleksandr Laveykin and Yury Romanenko’s guitar, among many others. The recurrence of the musical within extraterrestrial voyages demonstrates the ubiquity of music as part of shared human activities, be it in mundane settings or in the extraordinary context of riding in a spaceship or living in a space station. Which is a more fitting rhetorical question: Why music in space? or, Why not music in space? If astronauts in close quarters going through physically and intellectually demanding activities of massive proportions still have to monitor closely their physical needs, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, and digesting, the presence of music in the spectacular encounter between the earthly and the extraterrestrial is a wonder in its own right.

*****

The first song played in outer space was “Jingle Bells.” The first SMS (short message service) text message, sent in 1992, read “Merry Christmas.” These instances demonstrate the embeddedness of technology with specific cultural contexts; even though the Gemini 6 mission was completed in December 1965, the song played by its crew could have been any other. “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–93) and first published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was originally about a (sleigh) ride, but not one linked to the imagery of Christmas holidays beyond the shared snow. “Jingle Bells” is also reported to have been one of the songs selected in the first recording of a Christmas record in an 1889 Edison cylinder. As the theater historian Kyra Hamill has demonstrated, the song gained prominence in 1857 after being performed as part of the blackface minstrel repertoire. That Schirra and Stafford performed it for humorous reasons tells us something about music and comic relief at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, only a few years before the historic moon landing. That this specific context is one of many that are a part of the song’s history demonstrates the multi-layeredness and depth of any one musical object, no matter how trivial it might seem.

*****

On December 16, 1965, the following three-way conversation took place between Gemini 6, Gemini 7, and the NASA Mission Control Center (“Houston”), with a reported sighting of Santa Claus in outer space:

Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”]. 

 Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].

 Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.

 Houston: You’re too much, Six.

Performance in Space by Astronauts Schirra and Stafford, Posted by User Buzzlab

The objective of the Gemini 6 mission was to test the ability of two crewed spaceships to rendezvous. The musical moment performed through “Jingle Bells” highlights the desire and possibility of contact and communication. Effectively, Gemini 7 and the Houston ground control were morphed into audience members, with Gemini 6 clarifying that what they had indeed witnessed was a live performance. Both of their acknowledgments close a communicational loop of great significance. Communicating with the beyond and the non-human has also been a constant preoccupation in space travel, as explored in the selection of “world music” onboard the Voyager, or in Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures Project,” which includes a “micro-etched disc with one hundred photographs, encased in a gold-plated shell, designed to withstand the rigors of space and to last for billions of years. Inspired by years of conversations and interviews with scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers, the images chosen for The Last Pictures tell an impressionistic story of uncertainty, paradox, and anxiety about the future.”

*****

The presence of the harmonica brings a certain nostalgia to the fore in the musical moment created by the Gemini 6 mission. As a quintessential travel instrument, the harmonica in outer space can be interpreted as an instance of employing the familiar in order to ground a sense of place in the face of novelty, given its mainstream recognizability as part of the folk revival movement that peaked in the decade of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of tradition and modernity could not be starker in the moment it was brought to life through a Hohner “Little Lady” playing a Christmas song with a troubled racialized history hundreds of miles outside planet Earth. Yes, it was a funny moment, but it was more than the laughter.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Andrés García Molina, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bermúdez Cujar, Egberto. “Beyond vallenato: The accordion traditions in Colombia”, The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more!, ed. by Helena Simonett. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) 199–232. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-10356]

Accordion music in Colombia has a much longer history than the music that is called vallenato, and is not confined to the Valledupar region that allegedly gave it its name. This essay examines the development of accordion music in Colombia (including Panama before its separation from Colombia in 1903) and its role in Colombian traditional and popular music. Drawing on archival research and oral history, the author begins with the accordion’s arrival in Colombian territory in the second half of the 19th century and concludes with vallenato’s incorporation into the national and international popular-music circuits. (author)

Field, Kim. Harmonicas, harps, and heavy breathers: The evolution of the people’s instrument (New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-13329]

García Molina, Andrés. “Labor and the performance of place in the Upper Putumayo”, TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review 20 (2016) 27–45. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-45171]

I develop a problematic around two interrelated themes: labor and the performance of place. Drawing from fieldwork conducted among taitas, or shamans, from the Colombian Upper Putumayo region, I investigate the varied ways in which taitas understand and use sound in their ritual practice. Taitas sing and perform songs for long periods of time and under strenuous circumstances during tomas de yajé, rituals that involve drinking yajé, a psychoactive brew made from local plant species. Taitas claim one main reason they sing and play during the ritual is to recreate the sensorium of Amazonia, performing a ritual place that becomes replicable wherever they might conduct rituals, whether in rural Colombia or in urban centers of the West. I argue for the importance of understanding what taitas do—and conversely, shamanic practices in general—as a form of labor; in doing so, I propose a framework that permits theorizing the commodification of cultural practices that, even though embedded in present-day capital relations, exist concurrently in imaginaries that situate them in a distant precapitalist past. The increasingly common encounter between taitas, non-indigenous Colombians, and Westerners in general, allows us to reconsider basic questions of labor and place through the music—and more broadly, sounds—that taitas perform in ritual. (author)

Hamill, Kyna. “‘The story I must tell’: Jingle bells in the minstrel repertoire”, Theatre survey: The American journal of theatre history 58/3 (September 2017) 375–403. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-12510]

Lankford, Ronald D., Jr. Sleigh rides, jingle bells, & silent nights: A cultural history of American Christmas songs(Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2013-8609]

When Bing Crosby’s White Christmas debuted in 1942, no one imagined that a holiday song would top the charts year after year. One of the best-selling singles ever released, it remains on rotation at tree lighting ceremonies, crowded shopping malls, and at warm diners on lonely Christmas Eve nights. Over the years, other favorites have been added to America’s annual playlist including Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas, the King Cole Trio’s The Christmas song, Gene Autry’s Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Willie Nelson’s Pretty paper, and of course, Elmo & Patsy’s Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Under the surface of familiar melodies and words there lie jolly Santas, winter wonderlands, and roasting chestnuts—both masking and representing an intricate cultural landscape crowded with the meanings of a modern American Christmas. Songs that most readily evoke those meanings, desires, and anxieties have become classics, painting a portrait of the American psyche past and present. Viewing American holiday values through the filter of familiar Christmas songs, the author examines popular culture, consumerism, and the dynamics of the traditional American family. He surveys more than 75 years of songs and reveals that the “modern American Christmas” has carried a complex and sometimes contradictory set of meanings. Interpreting tunes against the backdrop of the eras in which they were first released, he identifies the repeated themes of nostalgia, commerce, holiday blues, carnival, and travesty that underscore so much beloved music. (publisher)

Licht, Michael S. “Harmonica magic: Virtuoso display in American folk music”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 24/2 (May 1980) 211–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1980-3491]

In the USA a virtuoso tradition of harmonic playing developed that used special mouth, hand, and nose techniques. It was influenced more by African than by European traditions. Public competitions fostered the development of special effects such as the fox chase and the locomotive. With the growth of audiences (e.g., for television and radio), the practice of accompanying spoken narratives became increasingly widespread. The author explores the symbolic meaning of some harmonic music genres, referring to the conflict of man and nature (in fox-chase pieces), and the growth of industrialization (in locomotive pieces). (Jeffrey Rehbach)

McCrory, Knox. “Notes on the harmonica: Toy or musical instrument?”, Missouri Folklore Society journal 20 (1998) 159–166. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-23779]

Simonett, Helena, ed. The accordion in the Americas: Klezmer, polka, tango, zydeco, and more! Music in American life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-10346]

An invention of the Industrial Revolution, the accordion provided the less affluent with an inexpensive, loud, portable, and durable “one-man-orchestra” capable of producing melody, harmony, and bass all at once. Imported from Europe into the Americas, the accordion with its distinctive sound became a part of the aural landscape for millions of people but proved to be divisive: while the accordion formed an integral part of working-class musical expression, bourgeois commentators often derided it as vulgar and tasteless. This rich collection considers the accordion and its myriad forms, from the concertina, button accordion, and piano accordion familiar in European and North American music, to the exotic-sounding South American bandoneón and the sanfoninha. Capturing the instrument’s spread and adaptation to many different cultures in North and South America, contributors illuminate how the accordion factored into power struggles over aesthetic values between elites and working-class people who often were members of immigrant and/or marginalized ethnic communities. Specific histories and cultural contexts discussed include the accordion in Brazil, Argentine tango, accordion traditions in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, cross-border accordion culture between Mexico and Texas, Cajun and Creole identity, working-class culture near Lake Superior, the virtuoso Italian-American and klezmer accordions, Native American dance music, and American avant-garde. (publisher)

Studwell, William E. “From Jingle bells to Jingle bell rock: Sketches of obscure or fading American popular Christmas songwriters, 1857–1957 (and a little beyond)”, Music reference services quarterly 5/1 (1996) 1–20. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1996-1302]

Although many people are familiar with the enduring and even classic American popular Christmas songs that are reprised every holiday season, the creators of these songs are obscure or fading from the collective American consciousness. In an effort to help preserve their names and accomplishments, biographical sketches of 34 writers of popular Christmas songs are presented.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 22, 2019: Jenny Lind Concert Program

Jenny Lind Concert Program, 1850, National Museum of American History, Gift of Sarah Ella Cummings.

“Music is prophesy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible. It is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.” –Jaques Attali

Jenny Lind, aka the “Swedish Nightingale,” was a nineteenth-century European opera singer who helped birth American popular music and celebrity culture as we know it today. By the estimation of historian Neil Harris writing in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum, following the massive success of her 1850–52 tour of American concert halls (including Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia), “Jenny Lind had become and would remain the greatest musical sensation of the nineteenth century.” How and why did this happen, and what did it mean for the future of popular music and celebrity culture? In his chapter on Lind, whose U.S. concert tour was proposed and publicized by Barnum—an equal partner in the tour’s profits of course—there are several salient factors.

For one, Lind was promoted not only as a marvelously talented artist, but also as an avatar of nature itself, as suggested by the “Swedish Nightingale” sobriquet that was first bestowed by the English. Praised by American audiences as much for her plain clothes, modest deportment, and charity work as for her voice, Jenny Lind’s natural authenticity was as crucial to her popularity as was the labor-intensive effort and artifice more commonly associated with the operatic voice.

Under P.T. Barnum’s supervision, “biographies were prepared and distributed” months before Lind arrived in the States, “emphasizing Jenny’s piety, her character, her interest in philanthropy and good works.” The enthusiasm that Barnum managed to whip up for Lind’s tour led to a phenomenon then known as “Lindomania.” On her arrival to the New World, the New York Herald reported “the spectacle of some thirty or forty thousand persons congregated on all the adjacent piers,” people described as being “from all quarters [and] crowds.” Compared with the advent of Beatlemania and their similarly-hyped arrival in New York, Lind attracted crowds ten times as big as the Fab Four.

A final crucial point in this publicity campaign, returning again to the Harris text, is that “all of this extraordinary enthusiasm” was “designed to reflect credit not only on the object of veneration but the venerators themselves.” Landing in an America that had yet to develop well-known artistic and expressive forms distinctly its own, the nation suffered somewhat of an inferiority complex, especially when faced with venerated art and artists from the Continent. As Harris points out, “The spectacle of a proud republic voluntarily paying homage to a young woman (Jenny was already thirty but invariably described by Americans as a young girl) of great artistry demonstrated that the finer values, which Europeans had insisted were swamped by money-getting and chicanery, still ruled the New World.” Crucially, Barnum and Lind would flip the script here, the tour serving as a turning point in American culture where art and talent, money and chicanery, would be fused into a distinctly American art world later labeled as “popular culture” and “popular music,” and where fame was transformed into celebrity.

Fame is often contrasted to celebrity as a matter of talent and accomplishment (fame), versus mere notoriety for whatever reason or through whatever means (celebrity). But above and beyond this distinction—and bearing in mind that even so-called “meritocracies” are riven with subjective distinctions and prone to the biases of the already-powerful classes—celebrity is all about celebration. And this celebration extends far beyond the object of veneration (Jenny Lind in this case), but also to those doing the celebrating, who see their own ideals, tastes, and morals either reflected in a famous figure, or perhaps (in many of celebrity’s more recent manifestations) celebrate themselves as superior to the “pathetic” celebrities who will do anything to be famous. And finally, celebrity celebrates its own mechanisms and operational aesthetics. In a celebrity culture, credit is openly bestowed upon the publicists and other promoters (including celebrities themselves when serving in this capacity) and to the wider entertainment industry and advertising industry that perpetuate celebrity culture. Prescient evidence of this perspective is seen in the concert program pictured here—where advertisements for daguerreotype artists, portraitists, hairdressers, and tailors (nineteenth-century image-making enterprises one and all) were placed alongside the musical program itself, implicitly celebrating the image making behind Lind’s own celebrity.

To be sure, Lind came by her fame honestly. While no recordings of her exist, by all reports her singing was impressive enough that many listeners described it in transcendent terms. But she was also one of the first celebrities in the modern sense of the word—famous not only due to observable talent and accomplishment, but celebrated also for her sheer visibility, celebrated as a highly-promoted persona, one who was considered highly relatable to her public, a Platonic ideal of socially-desirable traits as perceived by her audience (notably, in more recent decades, it’s just as often the case that these “Platonic ideals” are the undesirable traits of a given anti-hero celebrity whose métier is controversy and outrage). For Jenny Lind, the constructed nature of her celebrity is highlighted by the fact that most of her “fans” had never heard her sing before, including P.T. Barnum himself as he undertook his publicity blitz before her arrival. By his own account, Barnum effectively “transformed the admittedly already famous ‘Swedish Nightingale’ into a celebrity, accompanied by endorsements, spin-off products, and fabulously successful concerts in many American cities” (Barnum).

Most readers today are familiar with P.T. Barnum as the famed American figure who turned carnival barking into a mass-mediated, wildly lucrative art form of its own—in many ways laying the foundation for the American entertainment industry and the advertising industry. Widely perceived as a hustler and a flim-flam man, or as an ahead-of-his-time impresario and the ultimate self-made man (see Hugh Jackman’s portrayal in 2017’s sleeper hit film The Greatest Showman, dir. Michael Gracey), the truth likely lies somewhere in between. Barnum was a man who created mass entertainments that combined pure spectacle, earnest pedagogy-for-the-people, and shameless chicanery (often at the people’s literal expense) at legendary institutions like Barnum’s American Museum and Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth (later, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus). His promotion of Jenny Lind, well after his public image was cemented in place, was Barnum’s (largely successful) attempt to go legit—a famed hoaxer and huckster applying his promotional acumen to the highest of high culture.

As it turns out, the carnivalesque “low culture” that Barnum trafficked in was more than compatible with the elite culture of opera. Thanks in large part to Barnum’s promotional efforts in the months leading up to her arrival, once Lind reached American shores the operatic wunderkind was already “venerated like a saint…because of her modest character and her charitable activities” (BruckmüllerSchindler) as much as for her singing. Despite the highbrow, elite affiliations associated with opera in the nineteenth century, especially among Americans who were far removed from European cultural centers, Barnum ingeniously aimed his advertising at those very “non-elite” outsiders with Lind portrayed as an outsider in her own right—a public image “constructed from her humble origins, demonstrations of concern for the underprivileged, her rejection of the opera stage and its elite audience, and her embodiment of the American ideal of womanhood” (Caswell). When it comes to the latter, her image was framed as “[running] counter to cultural associations of prima donnas with women of dubious lifestyles and questionable character” (Biddlecombe). In other words, she was a prima donna suitable for the established gender norms and the lingering Puritan morals, whether in practice or merely in principle, of the American audience.

While Jenny Lind’s largely-unheralded role in American popular music history may seem a bit contradictory—a European who helped birth a distinctly American culture, an opera singer who was one of the first icons of modern popular culture—it only reinforces how such contradictions lie at the heart of any definition of “the popular” as widely understood in contemporary culture. Popular music, in particular, is defined equally by its bottom-up populist nature (the music of the people) and its top-down commercial basis (filtered through the machinations of the music industry). What’s more, given the perceived inauthenticity of “popular culture”—even among many of those who most enthusiastically participate in the popular culture and consume its products—an offsetting “authenticity discourse” is central to much of popular music culture in which musical celebrities are constantly at pains to establish and maintain their perceived authenticity.

As laid out by Barker and Taylor (see bibliography below), far from being a simple metric, authenticity can be divided between various subcategories such as “representational authenticity” (the talents and abilities of a musician on display minus any behind-the-scene deception or technological enhancement), “cultural authenticity” (Does the musical expression arise “naturally” from a given subculture or other rank-and-file social grouping?), and personal authenticity (Does the music speak to and about the performer’s real life and identity?). These parameters are all the more potent in measuring the authenticity of singers, whether amateur or professional, given that, “voice has a long history in modern Western culture as a transparent signifier of subjectivity and presence” (Vella), and Jenny Lind was perceived as the gold standard of all three categories in her day.

This is all closely linked to what Neil Harris refers to as an “operational aesthetic” in which the hidden story behind a given person, object, or activity—and it’s factual recounting—is just as important as the person, object, or activity itself. In the world of celebrity, the “hidden” star narratives, especially when recounted in breathless Behind the Music­­ style, are just as central to popular music stars’ reception as the music itself. This aesthetic is likely attributable to a range of factors as laid out by Harris in his critical/cultural biography of P.T. Barnum, ranging from American individualism and do-it-yourself aspirational ideas (“the self-created man”) to the rapid rate of advancement in technology (making the seemingly impossible possible) and advertising (the science of convincing others through whatever means). Harris sums up the operational aesthetic thusly: “an approach to reality and to pleasure [that] focused attention on their own structures and operations…an approach to experience that equated beauty with information and technique, accepting guile because it was more complicated then candor.”

Entire sectors of the entertainment industry are now based around “behind the scenes” forensic examination of plainly false realities (e.g., reality television). Reality show producers and music documentarians understand exactly what Barnum came to understand over a century and a half ago: “that the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity, to discover how deception has been practiced, was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself…[where] people paid to see frauds, thinking they were true, [and] paid again to hear how the frauds were committed.” Perhaps, echoing into the new millennium, this operational aesthetic still resonates in part, given the routine unrealities of our own lives and the constant self-aware exertion that lies behind our own self-authoring. Whether trolling for “likes” on Facebook, or tweeting at and about celebrities on another social media platform, most of us today inhabit a celebrity-like ecosystem, authoring our own personal star-texts minus the actual stardom. In this and other respects, Jenny Lind anticipated the current age of social media and its promise of celebrity-for-all.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking it: The quest for authenticity in popular music (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-4996]

Whether it be the folklorist’s search for forgotten bluesmen, the rock critic’s elevation of raw power over sophistication, or the importance of bullet wounds to the careers of hip-hop artists, the aesthetic of the “authentic musical experience”, with its rejection of music that is labeled contrived, pretentious, artificial, or overly commercial, has played a major role in forming musical tastes and canons, with wide-ranging consequences. The question of authenticity in popular music is not only fundamental to understanding the music’s history, but fundamental to thinking about, listening to, and performing it as well. This question is tackled by examining turning points in popular music’s authenticity in relation to the blues, segregation in the Southern U.S., Alan Lomax’s field recordings, blackface minstrelsy, the birth of modern country music, Elvis Presley’s reinvention of rock ‘n’ roll, bubblegum pop in the era of singer-songwriters, the Monkees’ decision to play their instruments, Donna Summer’s 17-minute faked orgasm as the defining moment of disco, the “public image” of the Sex Pistols and punk rock, Kurt Cobain’s choice of a Leadbelly song as his swan song on MTV’s Unplugged, and Moby’s use of Alan Lomax’s field recordings in a sample-based electronic-music setting. The careers of John Lennon, Jimmie Rodgers, John Hurt, Neil Young, and the KLF are examined through the lens of authenticity. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Barnum, Phineas Taylor (P.T.). “P.T. Barnum and the Jenny Lind fever”, Music in the USA: A documentary companion, ed. by Judith Tick and Paul E. Beaudoin. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 185–189. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2008-36741]

The American promotion of the great soprano Jenny Lind by P.T. Barnum represents a watershed in the music business. Barnum transformed the admittedly already famous “Swedish Nightingale” into a celebrity, accompanied by endorsements, spin-off products, and fabulously successful concerts in many American cities. A risk taker, as shown in this selection from his Struggles and triumphs, or, Forty years’ recollections of P.T. Barnum (Hartford, J.B. Burr, 1869), Barnum offered Lind a huge contract for an American tour without hearing her sing. He exercised his genius in marketing and publicity, foreshadowing the extent to which these would become industries unto themselves in the following century. (editors)

Biddlecombe, George. “Jenny Lind, illustration, song and the relationship between prima donna and public”, The idea of art music in a commercial world, 1800–1930, ed. by Christina M. Bashford and Roberta Montemorra Marvin. Music in society and culture (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016) 86–113. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-2056]

Focusing on the role of imagery in promoting an idealized notion of Jenny Lind in Britain and the U.S., this essay explores how constructions of Lind’s persona in sheet music and other material commodities ran counter to cultural associations of prima donnas with women of dubious lifestyles and questionable character. By analyzing images of Lind on the sheet-music covers of ballads that she sang publicly, the author demonstrates that most of the illustrations were based on two paintings of her that signal femininity, innocence, and physical attractiveness. Some of the covers, along with commercially available prints of Lind, also enhanced her body and facial features to create an aura of beauty and unimpeachable morality. Since sheet music was mostly intended for the middle-class domestic sphere and likely purchased, played, and sung by young, often unmarried, women (for whom music-making was an important part of courtship), the Lind products were targeted at this group, in the hope of encouraging consumers to identify with the soprano and even to believe that a famous female singer was endorsing their own domestic space. Moreover, the author explores the qualities that attached to the English-language ballads Lind sang in concerts in both Britain and the U.S., arguing that this repertoire connoted modesty, domesticity, emotional restraint, and even national character and political values. Her performance of the repertoire created an ideology that further revealed the singer’s “internal self” and complemented the idea of Lind that was circulating in printed imagery. (Christina M. Bashford)

Bruckmüller-Schindler, Magdalena. “The diva between admiration and contempt: The cult state of exceptional music artists in the 19th century”, Europe in the time of Franz Liszt, ed. by Valentina Bevc Varl and Oskar Habjanič. (Maribor: Pokrajinski muzej Maribor, 2016) 150–161. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-44231]

Discusses aspects of the star cult of female opera singers at the beginning of the 19th century. It starts with a short introduction about stars and virtuosos who were deeply burnt into the collective memory, such as Liszt or Paganini, and then focuses on the “prima donnas”, who during their lifetimes were enormously successful and even venerated as almost godlike. Nowadays, they have been almost forgotten, but during their lifetimes some of them filled newspapers with gossip, leading to astonishment, but also to extreme forms of admiration. The apotheosis of the “diva”, Maria Malibran (1808−36) in the hour of her early death is the first of three episodes that are told in this article. The second is about the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (1820−87), who was equally venerated like a saint also because of her modest character and her charitable activities. Adelina Patti, as the third in the group, shows how the word diva was reversed into a negative sense. Diva became synonymous with a scandalous and wasteful lifestyle—and was even used in a chauvinistic way.

Caswell, Austin B. “Jenny Lind’s tour of America: A discourse of gender and class”, Festa musicologica: Essays in honor of George J. Buelow, ed. by Thomas J. Mathiesen and Benito V. Rivera. Festschrift series 14 (Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1995) 319–337. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1995-12612]

Jenny Lind, during her 1850–52 tour of the U.S., attracted a predominantly non-elite audience that took her as their own. This identity was constructed from her humble origins, demonstrations of concern for the underprivileged, her rejection of the opera stage and its elite audience, and her embodiment of the American ideal of womanhood. A tangible service to her credit and class was to temporarily restore to the non-elite the very music that others appropriated as a private preserve. (author)

Gallagher, Lowell. “Jenny Lind and the voice of America”, En travesti: Women, gender subversion, opera, ed. by Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith. Between men—between women: Lesbian and gay studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) 190–215. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1995-1209]

The prima donna who enacted the part of the long-suffering female victim must be a chaste goddess able to transcend earthly existence. During her mid–19th-century tour, Jenny Lind’s audience looked to her magical power to heal the social divisions of the nation. Lind made every attempt to fulfill her devotees’ expectations, and the playful perversity of opera’s gender-bent past gave way to a fetishist mode of diva-worship. (Judy Weidow)

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The art of P.T. Barnum (Repr. ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1981-24440]

This carefully researched study of America’s greatest showman, huckster, and impresario is both an inclusive analysis of the historical and cultural forces that were the conditions of P. T. Barnum’s success, and, as befits its subject, a richly entertaining presentation of the outrageous man and his exploits. (publisher)

Newman, Nancy. “Gender and the Germanians: ‘Art-loving ladies’ in nineteenth-century concert life”, American orchestras in the nineteenth century, ed. by John Spitzer. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012) 289–309. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2012-3608]

Drawing upon the work of Adrienne Fried Block (particularly the article abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-1343) on the continuum of female activity, from audiences and patrons to teachers and performers, as the mechanism through which U.S. women became incorporated into public musical life in the 19th century. This essay applies Block’s perspective to the situation of the Germania Musical Society. The members solicited women’s interest in multiple ways, offering matinees, engaging accomplished female artists, and publishing sheet music. The picture that emerges is that the Germanians recognized that women were essential to their corporate, commercial, and musical success. They also seem to have found their dealings with the opposite sex personally rewarding. This combination of professional and personal motives offers insights into the U.S. orchestra’s role in the evolving gender relations of modern urban life. Among the featured women performers were Jenny Lind (1820–87), Henrietta Sontag (1806–54), Camilla Urso (1842–1902), and Adelaide Phillipps (1833–82). (author)

Oakes, Jason Lee. “Listen to me now: Social media, celebrity, and popular music”, IASPMUS (2011) http://iaspm-us.net/pop-talk-listen-to-me-now-social-media-celebrity-and-popular-music-part-i-by-jason-oakes/. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-4108]

Celebrities dominated much of the public discourse of the 20th century, especially given the endless media coverage of their every triumph and tribulation. In the 21st century, many of these same “triumphs and tribulations” have bled over into the lives of the non-famous, with certain aspects of daily life coming to resemble the rarefied world of celebrities. Consider the rise of surveillance and resulting loss of privacy for the average citizen; the newfound power to broadcast one’s thoughts, actions, and movements to a limitless audience on social media; the addictive pull of self-validation, and the dread of being ignored or anonymously harassed this can produce; and the lack of financial security in a jackpot economy with increasingly long odds at success, but ever-more outsized rewards. Celebrity culture can thus be thought of as an emergent formation, one that is moving toward being a dominant formation, helped along by the rise of social media. Popular music has played a central role in these cultural transformations. When it comes to celebrity, popular music is the realm where fame has been most consistently, deliberately, and insightfully thematized. In many cases, stars and fans of popular music have taken on the role of organic intellectuals, analyzing the “fame game” at the same time they participate in it (the commentary around music-based Internet celebrities such as Rebecca Black, Chris Crocker, Tad Zonday, and Gary Brolsma, aka The Numa Numa Guy, provides one recent example). When it comes to social media, popular music has been at the center of every major development, both in terms of new technologies and in terms of people’s engagement with and understanding of social media. Napster, MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook are examined in this light. Given this track record, and given music’s prophetic power as theorized by Jacques Attali, it is likely that popular music will continue to point the way forward in the rapidly evolving social and technological landscapes of the 21st century.

Samples, Mark C. “The humbug and the nightingale: P.T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and the branding of a star singer for American reception”, The musical quarterly 99/3–4 (fall–winter 2016) 286–320. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2016-40602]

Analyzes P.T. Barnum’s pre-arrival promotional campaign for Jenny Lind’s American tour, and the effects that it had on Lind’s reception in the American press after her first concert in New York on 11 September 1850. This campaign constitutes the crucial process by which Barnum transformed Lind’s reputation in the American mind from a little-known European singer to a household name. The author interprets Barnum’s campaign as an early example of branding, a brand being defined as a dynamic, designed system of signs that mediates the relationship between producers and consumers. To create the “Lind brand”, Barnum orchestrated a campaign unprecedented in cost, scale, duration, and coherence. It established the main reception narratives that followed. From a musical perspective, it is perhaps easy to overlook this promotional campaign as peripheral and therefore subordinate to concerns such as repertoire selection and performance. Yet Barnum’s skilled guidance of the public’s view of Lind was not subordinate but generative, teaching listeners of all classes how to receive Lind, how to experience her artistry, and how to distinguish her from previous star singers who had toured in the United States. Though he would not have called Lind’s publicity campaign “branding”, Barnum bore in mind the tastes of the time as he launched it. He set the context for Lind’s American reception, as well as for the conversations about her in newspapers and other arenas of public discourse. The Lind campaign is notable both for its influence on musical promotions after the Lind tour and as an example of the potential that branding theory has as a methodological tool in cultural musicology. (author)

Vella, Francesca. “Jenny Lind, voice, celebrity”, Music & letters 98/2 (May 2017) 232–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2017-33082]

Voice has a long history in modern Western culture as a transparent signifier of subjectivity and presence. This ideology of immediacy has meant that exploration of singing voices as mediated has mostly been confined to classic technological turns marked by specific sound devices. This article examines voice in connection with the mid–19th-century soprano Johanna Maria Lind-Goldschmidt, known as Jenny Lind, and the broader London context of contemporary Lind mania. Mediation lends itself to canvassing questions at the crossroads of voice and celebrity studies, for the invocation of a linear, unmediated communication between particular individuals and their audiences lies at the heart of modern celebrity culture’s apparatus. The tension between voice and techne, presence and absence, evinced by printed and visual materials, suggests mediation was key to the perceptual and ideological system surrounding Lind’s voice. Attending to voice within a more porous, relational framework can help us move away from a concern with individuality and authenticity, and listen to a rich tapestry of human and material encounters. (journal)

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Filed under Iconography, Performers, Romantic era

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 13, 2019: Art Blakey’s Drumstick

Art Blakey’s Drumstick, 1947-1990, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Peter Bradley

“Let the punishment fit the crime.”
-Art Blakey

Art Blakey, Stoker of Modern Music

During an interview published in a 1978 issue of Modern Drummer, Art Blakey (1919–1990) asserted, “It doesn’t matter what kind of instrument the drummer has. It isn’t the instrument, it’s the musician…I got the fundamentals and rudiments down pretty good. There’s no technique or anything. I don’t think it has anything to do with the stick, ‘cause most of the sticks that come out today are crooked.” Later, in 1986, Blakey relayed the surprised reactions he received from some musicians after they confronted his “unconventional” (read: “not classically trained”) way of playing: “You know, like in England, the guys was there from the symphony orchestras, and the great drum teachers was there, and I was playing. They said, ‘Well, you play so unorthodox,’ I said, ‘Well, what is orthodox? Whether I play orthodox or not, I get results’.” When asked to elaborate on what specifically was so unconventional about his playing, the drummer responded, “Oh, the way I’ll pick up my sticks, or the way I’ll do something. There’s no certain way to do it; you don’t hold the sticks a certain way.” Even a quick listen to his 1973 drum battle with Ginger Baker, throughout which he alternates using a traditional grip and a matched grip, convincingly demonstrates the power of “unorthodox.”

For a drummer often credited for the development of hard bop—an R&B-, blues-, Latin-, and gospel-inflected extension of the bebop jazz strain rhythmically pioneered by drummers like Max Roach, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Chick Webb in the 1940s to 1960s—Blakey’s disinterest in technique (or at least conventional conceptions of technique) seems somewhat counterintuitive. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, “bop,” along with whatever prefixes or qualifiers appended to it, was an industry and fan term for what practitioners typically called “modern music” (or just “music”). And as a self-taught musician honing his skills in the Depression era, it should not be surprising that, for Blakey, abandoning traditional notions of technique or “right” and “wrong” became a precondition for exploration, a liberation of sorts. During wartime, as Blakey recounts, “[Y]ou just couldn’t get no sticks. We played with chair-arms, and it sure did swing, man.” And for all his innovative spirit, swing remained at the heart of his craft.

The stick pictured above, even if just as sufficient as any other in Blakey’s estimation, played a role in transmitting that feeling of incessant drive, motion, explosive power, subtlety, dynamic contrast, and, most importantly, swing. Although it would be going too far to assume that Blakey considered drumstick type to be completely fungible, there is some evidence to suggest that he used different models at different times across his career. Advertised as being “reproduced exactly from his ‘60s model stick,” Bopworks’s Art Blakey Centennial Edition stick is an 8D with a length of 16” and width of .530”. This can be contrasted with the stick made for him by Gretsch—one of his sponsors for a time—which was a 1A. Classification systems vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is hard to know the exact differences. With a height, width, and diameter of 15 7/8”, 5/8”, and 5/8”, respectively, the stick featured here approximates Bopworks’s commemorative stick in size, and its triangular tip presents another commonality.

The drumstick as shown here is well worn, particularly in its tip, shoulder, and upper shaft. As a right-handed drummer, we might speculate that this stick, with its gradual tapering and numerous nicks and gashes, was used for striking crash or ride cymbals. As the foundational time-keeper, replacing the kick drum’s danceable four-on-the-floor pattern, rhythms on the ride accommodated the modernists’ breakneck speeds, unconventional phrasings, and general fluidity. However, any such conjecture is likely futile, as Blakey’s exploration of “extended techniques” was part of his innovative spirit. Expounding upon the drummer’s time playing with Thelonious Monk around 1947—a collaboration that helped solidify the transformation from swing proper to modernist reaches—Burt Korall explains in his Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz—The Bebop Years that, “Blakey plays two basic roles: time player and interpreter-commentator. He adds both reason and the unexpected to the music. Using all the elements of the set, snare, tom-toms, the bass drum, the rims, the drum’s shells, the cymbals—all parts—the hi-hat cymbals and hi-hat stands, and even the sounds of the drumsticks themselves, he simultaneously defines Monk and himself.” One wonders how many “smokin’ press rolls”—Blakey’s common way to introduce soloists, as can be heard at 2:08 of the live recording of Bobby Timmons’s now classic “Moanin’” below—were executed on this drumstick.  

Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’,” Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (drums: Art Blakey, trumpet: Lee Morgan, tenor sax: Benny Golson, piano: Bobby Timmons, bass: Jymie Merritt), ca. 1958-1959.

Regardless of time, personnel, or style, Blakey always sought to bring out the best in those with whom he shared the bandstand. Conceiving of his drumming more as a method through which to enliven others than as conduit for flashy drum solos—though there is no paucity of the latter, to be sure—one of Blakey’s greatest contributions was his ability to accompany, to facilitate, to empathize. In more than one interview, Blakey contends, “Let the punishment fit the crime”; when he played briefly for Duke Ellington, he “played Ellington,” and when he played with Monk, he played Monk, in the words of Burt Korall, “responsively and responsibly.”

Blakey’s impressive career has been well documented, if at times imprecisely relayed by the drummer himself. From the tale of his being forced at gunpoint in 1934 to move out from behind the piano to behind a drum set (to make way for Erroll Garner), to his work in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra from 1939 to 1941, to his time with Billy Eckstine’s band between 1944 and 1947 (playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944), to his brief stint studying religion and philosophy in Africa in the late ‘40s (around which time he adopted the Muslim name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina, or just “Bu” to friends), to eventually taking leadership of his own ensemble, The Jazz Messengers, for roughly 35 years. But across all accounts of Blakey’s life, there is one constant: his vehement drive to accompany and support young, talented jazz musicians. The list of formidable young players who developed their own musical voice as one of Blakey’s Messengers include Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Timmons, Wayne Shorter, Wallace Roney, Benny Golson, Wynton Marsalis, and Keith Jarrett, to name just a small selection.    

Blakey’s success in accessing “the guts of the human soul” was fueled by a profound sensitivity to the desires and abilities of the musicians with whom he worked and the audiences he took care to entertain. If the drumstick here could tell a story, it would be just as much about the musicians it stoked to greatness as it would be the great musician who wielded it.   

 This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Blakey, Art. “Art Blakey”, Reading jazz: A gathering of autobiography, reportage, and criticism from 1919 to now, ed. by Robert Gottlieb. (New York: Pantheon, 1996) 205–213. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1996-23592]
Art Blakey, the dedicated and influential drummer, talks about his start, his career, and his ideas in this excerpt from a long interview recorded in 1976 in Jazz spoken here (1992). (editor)

Blakey, Takashi Buhaina, ed., “Art Blakey”, Art Blakey Estate, http://www.artblakey.com. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-82562]

Giese, Hannes. Art Blakey: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Schaftlach: Oreos, 1990). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-12184]

Goldsher, Alan. Hard bop academy: The sidemen of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-9125]
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was one of the most enduring, popular, reliable, and vital small bands in modern jazz history. Blakey was not only a distinguished, inventive, and powerful drummer, but along with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, he was one of jazz’s foremost talent scouts. The musicians who flowed seamlessly in and out of this constantly evolving collective during its 36-year run were among the most important artists not just of their eras, but of any era. Their respective innovations were vital to the evolution of bebop, hard bop, and neo bop. The multitude of gifted artists who populated the many editions of the Jazz Messengers are critically examined. In addition to dissecting the sidemen’s most consequential work with Blakey’s band, profiles are offered of everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Terence Blanchard to Hank Mobley to Wayne Shorter to Horace Silver to Keith Jarrett to Curtis Fuller to Steve Davis. Over 30 interviews with surviving graduates of Blakey’s hard bop academy were conducted, with many speaking at length of their tenure with the legendary Buhaina for the first time. (publisher)

Gourse, Leslie. Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger (New York: Schirmer Trade Books, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-47104]
In the 1950s, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers introduced hard bop, a blend of bebop, blues, gospel, and Latin music that has defined the jazz mainstream ever since. Although Blakey’s influence as a drummer and bandleader was enormous, his greatest contribution may have been as a mentor to younger musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Wynton Marsalis. Leslie Gourse chronicles Blakey’s colorful life and career, from his hardscrabble childhood in Pittsburgh to his final years as an international jazz icon. (publisher)

Havers, Richard. Blue Note: Uncompromising expression—The finest in jazz since 1939 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2014-11338]
Purveyor of extraordinary music and an arbiter of cool, Blue Note is the definitive jazz label—signing the best artists, pioneering the best recording techniques, and leading cover design trends with punchy, iconic artwork and typography that shaped the way we see the music itself. The roster of greats who cut indelible sides for the label include Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Norah Jones, and many more. Published for Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, this volume is the first official illustrated story of the label, from its 1939 roots to its renaissance today. Featuring classic album artwork, unseen contact sheets, rare ephemera from the Blue Note Archives, commentary from some of the biggest names in jazz today, and feature reviews of 75 key albums, this is the definitive book on the legendary label. (publisher)

Hentoff, Nat. “Jazz Messengers: Jazz Messengers blazing a spirited trail”, DownBeat: The great jazz interviews—A 75th anniversary anthology, ed. by Frank Alkyer. (New York: Hal Leonard, 2009) 52–53. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-23860]
An interview with the group published in the 22 February 1956 issue of DownBeat.

Howland, Harold. “Art Blakey: The eternal jazzman”, Modern drummer 2/4 (October 1978) 16–23, 39. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1978-20471]

Korall, Burt. Drummin’ men: The heartbeat of jazz—The bebop years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-8511]
Biographical sketches based on interviews with drummers of the 1940s through the 1980s, tracing the transition from swing to bebop, and highlighting some of the most innovative musicians. These include Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Lou Fromm, Billy Exiner, Denzil Best, Irv Kluger, Jackie Mills, J.C. Heard, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Don Lamond, Tiny Kahn, Philly Joe Jones, Mel Lewis, Ed Shaughnessy, Art Taylor, and Ike Day.

Mathieson, Kenny. Cookin’: Hard bop and soul jazz, 1954–65 (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2002-18555]
Examines the history and development of hard bop and its offshoot, soul jazz. Hard bop was the most vital and influential jazz style of its day, and today remains at the core of the modern jazz mainstream. Drawing on bebop and the blues for its foundation, filtered through gospel, Latin, and rhythm-and-blues influences, hard bop was notable for the instrumental virtuosity it required and the elaborate harmonic structures it was built upon. The founding fathers of the form are profiled, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, along with Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Grant Green, and J.J. Johnson. (publisher)

Monson, Ingrid T. “Art Blakey’s African diaspora”, The African diaspora: A musical perspective, ed. by Ingrid T. Monson. Garland reference library of the humanities 1995 (New York: General Music Publishing Co., 2000) 329–352. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2000-8650]
Illuminates the principal political, religious, and musical contexts through which Art Blakey’s travels to Africa and his African diasporic musical explorations of the 1950s might be interpreted. Unraveling his relationship to the African diaspora necessitates exploration of three contexts pertinent to understanding the relationship of African American music and culture to Africa in the mid-20th century: anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Islam from the 1920s through the 1940s; African independence, Afro-Cuban music, and religion in the 1950s; and the indefinite nature of musical signification. The masterful disjunction between what Blakey said about his relationship to Africa and African music and what he actually played reveals the complex pathways through which music has mediated and continues to mediate the African diasporic experience. (author)

Rosenthal, David H. “Conversation with Art Blakey: The big beat!”, The black perspective in music 14/3 (fall 1986) 267–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1986-4417]

Squinobal, Jason John. West African music in the music of Art Blakey, Yusef Lateef, and Randy Weston (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-48924]

Discography

The Jazz Messengers. Moanin’. The Rudy Van Gelder edition. CD (Blue Note Records 724349532427, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-61955]

Comments Off on The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, November 13, 2019: Art Blakey’s Drumstick

Filed under Instruments, Jazz and blues, Performers

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 29, 2019: Fred Becker’s “Beale Street Blues”

Fred Becker, Beale Street Blues, 1937-1938, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from D.C. Public Library.

Beale Street Blues has been widely exhibited in post-WPA years, particularly in the last decade [1976–85]. Becker’s wonderfully jumbled composition, with its askew, disordered lines, suggests the melancholy dissonant notes of the trumpet player in his rather down-and-out surroundings.” 

– Harriet W. Fowler, University of Kentucky Art Museum

“The twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh) was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their under-privileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf, and had become a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feelings in a sort of musical soliloquy. My part in their history was to introduce this, the “blues” form to the general public, as the medium for my own feelings and my own musical ideas.”

– W.C. Handy, composer of “Beale Street Blues” 

Whether coincidental or not, there are some interesting parallels between W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” (1916) and Fred Becker’s wood engraving on cream wove paper (1937–38). Both are defined by a dynamic sense of motion, “wonderfully jumbled compositions” mixing various artistic elements and cultural antecedents, a product of parallel and perpendicular vectors, which taken together lead the viewer or the listener into unexplored, new territories.

Fred Becker’s Beale Street Blues depicts a musician alone in his room—if not a cheap hotel or flophouse given the looks of his surroundings—captured in a moment of intimacy. He sits on an unmade bed, one bare foot propped up on a chair strewn with tossed-aside clothing, the other foot pointing toward the empty bottle of gin on the floor next to his one remaining glass of alcohol, playing his horn in a state of deep repose, or drunkenness, or despair, or all of the above (it’s impossible to say). The immediate impact of this despondent musician sitting alone in a disheveled room brings to mind the school of social realist art—a prominent style in Depression-era America—but mixed with some abstract elements that are clearly not aiming for “realism,” such as the cubist-like illogical angles of the walls and their Lego-like disorienting wallpaper pattern.

While the viewer obviously cannot hear the music being played, there’s something here that suggests a talented musician whose time has come and gone (and perhaps never “came” in the first place). One can easily imagine the beautiful sounds being produced in the room with no one to hear them, swallowed up within the tough, unforgiving environment that many musicians (and other workers) faced in the midst of the Depression. There’s also a notable contrast between the trashed room and the sense of composure of the trumpet player, his inward gaze indicating he is lost in the music, in sorrow, in alcohol, or some combination thereof.

Fittingly, this was a work produced for the Federal Art Project, also simply known as “the Project,” a division of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a governmental relief program that’s never been equaled before or since—and his larger New Deal ideology. The WPA employed some three million Americans, only about 2% of those through the Federal Arts Project, which supported artists across various mediums. Despite being educated at relatively elite institutions such as the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles—Becker was born in Oakland and raised in Hollywood, where his father worked as an actor in silent films—the artist was commissioned by the Graphic Arts Division of the Program in 1935. This is also around the time he began creating realist/surrealist works with jazz musicians and other urban scenes as his primary subjects.

Becker’s employment at the WPA ended in 1939. It’s almost surely not coincidental that this was the same year that many Project artists came under attack by conservative political operatives, accused of spreading Communism to the masses through their art. Never before had public art been so widely disseminated in the United States, outside the sway of elite institutions that gauged their worth and in large part selected the audience for Art with a capital ‘A’. Although some viewed the social progressivism of the artworks produced by Project artists as a boon for artists and for the general public alike, others saw a form of propagandistic art where, in the words of art historian Harriet W. Fowler, “politics created it and politics permeated it.”

After Fred Becker lost his commission, he went on to a successful career, ultimately ending up on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Massachusetts. He also shifted his artistic style notably, exchanging the social realism of the 1930s for more abstract expressionist tendencies. Whatever the motivations for this shift may have been is impossible to say. But, quoting again from Fowler, it’s notable that,

[F]rom the standpoint of art history, the rise of abstract expressionism and other abstract art movements beginning in the late 1940s made some Project art look passé indeed. For many critics in those later decades, New Deal art, with its socially-minded mix of Art Deco, surrealism, Bauhaus, Mexican and Renaissance influences appeared studied, naïve, or just plain boringly academic—a “dropout” in the progress of art.

This brings us directly to W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” and to the blues in general. The blues is a form that rejects the hegemony of unilinear development—notions of the “progress” of art were closely related to the social Darwinism also popular in some quarters at that time—in favor of a more circumnavigational model. Rooted in musical techniques such as call-and-response, repetition and variation, overlapping polyrhythms, and musical themes not as ends-in-themselves but rather as the basis of improvisational exploration, this model creates a space of uninterrupted flow, cyclical time, and relatively equitable sharing of power (whether among musicians, between musicians and audiences, or between various spheres of musical influence).

More than just a mix of “black” and “white” elements, the African-American blues incorporated influences ranging from field hollers to Tin Pan Alley, from African musical retentions to European ballads, from the use of the “Spanish tinge” in general to the use of Cuban habanera rhythms more specifically. Although arrangements and individual performances vary, in almost all versions, the crux of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” is the pivot from the conventional four-line, 16-bar ballad stanzas organized in linear, squared-off fashion heard in the opening of the song—“You’ll see pretty Browns in beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled / You’ll find the business never closes ‘til somebody gets killed’’—to the 12-bar blues AAB structure. Here the first vocal phrase is repeated before closing with a new rhymed line that sets the first line in new perspective, accompanied by a cyclical chordal progression and melodies that make prominent use of non-chord tones that lie outside the established tonality of chords.

Notably, this musical pivot in “Beale Street Blues” is aligned with a perspectival shift in the lyrics, obviously composed to reflect the double-consciousness at the heart of the early blues and the musicians who created the music. The early stanzas of the song describe a touristic gaze, taking in the wonders of Memphis’s Beale Street (the historical black district of Memphis and ultimately the center of blues culture in the city) from an outsider’s perspective. The opening lines of Handy’s original composition compare Beale Street to iconic tourist destinations in the USA and in Europe (“I’ve strolled the Prado, I’ve gambled on the Bourse”) before concluding that the listener should “take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first.” The first section of “Beale Street Blues” provides a dualistic depiction of Memphis and the Beale Street district (see the “pretty Browns” stanza quoted above) that recognizes both “honest men” and murderers as a part of the cultural mix.

The last line of this section concludes with the following lyrics, the first of which is still well-known thanks to the 1974 James Baldwin novel that quotes it and the well-regarded 2018 movie version of his novel: “If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street blues.” The song then takes a literal perspectival shift, where the singer takes on the voice of the “blind man on the corner” who sings “I’d rather be here than any place I know / I’d rather be here than any place I know / It’s going to take the Sergeant for to make me go.” At the same time, the music shifts noticeably to the 12-bar blues chordal pattern and to a melody that makes heavy use of the blue notes that define the genre perhaps even more than the familiar chord progression. The representation of double-consciousness provided by W.C. Handy here could not be much more literal, where the singer inhabits the voice and the persona of another singer being observed in the song.

As Nick Bromell describes in his article, “‘The Blues and the Veil’: The Cultural Work of Musical Form in Blues and ‘60s Rock,” “Blue notes wouldn’t be possible, wouldn’t have any meaning, without the strictness with which musical pitches are treated in Western playing style and in the Western scales. Blue notes violate the distinctiveness of individual, discrete pitches, just as the so-called blues scale violates the principle of major/minor tonality. Like hip language, the blues signifies on an established musical language.” Through the use of both “bent” notes that violate the discrete boundaries of “consistent” pitches idealized in Western music, and the setting of flat 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths against the major key established by the harmony, these blue notes are a striking and resonant representation of double-consciousness as first defined by W.E.B. Du Bois.

In a way this is reflective of the city of Memphis itself as depicted by W.C. Handy. Memphis has long stood as a crossroads of the American South. The birthplace of revolutionary American businesses such as FedEx, Holiday Inn, and Piggly Wiggly (the first self-service grocery store), Memphis is synonymous with the mobility, flexibility, and cultural interchange that defined postwar America. But, on the other hand, it’s the central urban outpost of the Delta region of the American South, and as such, a repository for much more long-standing American traditions and for the most rural, and the most Southern lifeways of the rural South. Accordingly, it was also the urban center of the rural Delta blues, which bubbled up with the help of songwriters like W.C. Handy who brought the music to a much broader audience.

The son of former slaves, his father had gained status through his career as a preacher. Handy was formally-trained in music and culturally distant from the Delta blues. Raised in northern Alabama, and against his father’s advice, Handy left home, still a teenager, and led a peripatetic existence for a number of years as he tried to make it as a musician. Somewhat ironically, it was through playing in a minstrel show that he eventually found his way to being a respected professional musician. But it was during his briefly homeless period in St. Louis that he made his most important musical connection, albeit fleeting. In his autobiography, Handy describes encountering a street musician in St. Louis: 

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

Through this brief encounter, “the blues” as we know it today was born; born at a crossroads, but not the Devil-and-soul-selling crossroad widely associated with the blues. Handy later moved to the cultural crossroads of Memphis and rearranged the music he heard by the destitute musician. Perfectly timed to the technological transition precipitated by sound recording technology—blue notes really need to be heard rather than read off the page—he published the first blues-music sheet music and created a triumvirate of geographically-centered blues standards (“Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues”) that would transform the blues from an obscure, local form of music-making to a world-spanning and world-transforming musical revolution.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Becker, Fred. “The WPA Federal Art Project, New York City: A reminiscence”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 74–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47387]

Briggs, Ray Anthony. Memphis jazz: African American musicians, jazz community, and the politics of race (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2003-10637]

A chronological ethnography that reconstructs the history of the Memphis jazz tradition, identifies key musicians and individuals associated with it, and contextualizes the musical activity within a social-political framework, namely Jim Crow politics and the dismantling of legal segregation. The Memphis jazz community was, in part, shaped by the same social, political, and economic forces at work within the African American community at large, particularly legal segregation, which proved to be a significant factor in the livelihood of the jazz community, and at times worked as a galvanizing agent among African American musicians who honed their skills on Beale Street and other locales designated for Memphis’s African American citizens. In addition to the extramusical elements of the Memphis jazz heritage, individuals who have contributed to the music on a regional, national, and international level are also discussed. The Memphis jazz community has produced a number of renowned performers who have gone on to international recognition within the jazz tradition. A brief survey of artists who have carried the Memphis jazz heritage to the attention of jazz fans around the world is also included. (author)

Bromell, Nick. “‘The blues and the veil’: The cultural work of musical form in blues and ’60s rock”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 18/2 (summer 2000) 193–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2000-8321]

Originally, the blues form was an expressive version of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in a famous passage from The souls of black folk, called the “veil” in reference to the African American experience. The blues form performed a different kind of cultural work as it was absorbed into rock and roll of the 1960s and heard by white audiences. The specific formal features of the blues are understood to be blue notes, call-and-response structure, blues licks, and a tension inherent in the paradigmatic blues chord progression. These traits and their relationships to lyrics are observed in two different blues styles: classic blues (illustrated with Ruby Smith’s recording of Fruit cakin’ mama) and Chicago blues (illustrated with Muddy Waters’s recording of Willie Dixon’s (I’m your) hoochie coochie man). (Julie Schnepel)

Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street could talk: Music, community, culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-22]

Demonstrates the intimate connections among our public, political, and personal lives, and explores the vernacular culture of everyday life in order to understand the cultural ecology of the contemporary world. The examination shows how cultural practices become performances and how performances become artifacts endowed with new meaning through the transformative acts of imagination. It traces, for instance, how a blues song becomes a blues recording and enters a collection of blues recordings, joining other energies, both creative and exploited, both natural and human, that represent the residues of modern life and culture. Points of departure range from the visual and the literary—a photograph of Woody Guthrie, or a poem by John Keats—to major cultural exhibitions, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition or the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. (publisher)

Chametzky, Jules. “Introduction to Fred Becker’s WPA graphics”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 69–73. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47388]

Fowler, Harriet W., and Sophia Wallace. New Deal art: WPA works at the University of Kentucky—University of Kentucky Art Museum, August 25–October 27, 1985 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1985-28412]

Handy, William Christopher (W.C.). Father of the blues: An autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1941-249]

The author’s blues compositions—Memphis blues, Beale Street blues, St. Louis blues—changed American music forever. Here William Christopher (W.C.) Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. The versatile musician grew up a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from Memphis blues; how his orchestra came to grief with World War I; his successful career in New York as publisher and songwriter; and his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance. Handy’s remarkable tale reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but provides a unique vantage point over a wide scope of American music–from the days of the old popular songs of the South through ragtime to the birth of jazz. (publisher)

Ryan, Jennifer D. “Beale Street blues? Tourism, musical labor, and the fetishization of poverty in blues discourse”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 55/3 (fall 2011) 473–503. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-5464]

Examines discourses of authenticity concerning the blues venues in Memphis, particularly those of Beale Street, one of the country’s largest and best-known districts for blues tourism. The case of Beale Street invites a thorough examination of the authenticity discourses surrounding blues and the potential damage they can cause. The views held by Memphis musicians require that we rethink blues performance not as an idealized music but as a professional endeavor. In this article, the author argues that dismantling these discourses requires that we reconsider music as labor. She sets the views of Memphis musicians as a counterpoint to some of the most common discourses about them. She traces the transition of Beale Street from a vibrant African American commercial district to a tourist destination, and then examines in detail the most common treatments of blues authenticity, tracing their origins to discussions of essentialism in black music and to an emphasis on authenticity in folklore studies. She turns to the lives of Memphis musicians with an examination of their views on playing in Beale Street. The conclusion reconsiders these musicians as working professionals, an idea at odds with the expectations of the mythical bluesman. This approach reveals the lasting and pervasive nature of authenticity discourses and their incompatibility with an understanding of music as labor. (author)

Wechsler, James. “Fred Becker and experimental printmaking”, Print quarterly 10/4 (December 1993) 373–384. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-28755]

Comments Off on The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 29, 2019: Fred Becker’s “Beale Street Blues”

Filed under Jazz and blues, Visual art