Bill Robinson taps past Jim Crow

During the Great Depression Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple made a number of films together in which narratives depict an America where black people are happy slaves or docile servants, Civil War (even southern) soldiers are noble Americans, and voracious capitalists are kindly old men. But within these minstrel tropes and origin stories designed for uplift, the films challenge regressive ideologies through Robinson and Temple’s incendiary dance partnership.

For example, while the stair dance in The little colonel is part of the story, it is bracketed as a time outside the movie’s narrative flow. This thrusts the dance through the fixity of Jim Crow social constructs to reveal them as constructs, demonstrating the layered and molten nature of race and gender, and offering moviegoers a vision of the sociological and existential structures of U.S. society reimagined.

This according to “Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple tap past Jim Crow” by Anne Murphy, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of screendance studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 731–47).

Today is Robinson’s 140th birthday! Above and below, the celebrated stair dance.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, Performers

Angelic bird musicians

Angelic concerts were an extremely popular motive in late medieval European painting. Music-making, singing, or dancing angels co-created an aura of beauty, happiness, and harmony that artistic tradition associated primarily with the figure of Mary. The nascent tradition was taken up by Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427), who created an original vision of the Heavens filled with sweet unearthly music, reigned over by the Mother of God.

The most interesting is Gentile’s first work, painted around 1395 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie), which depicts Mary with her Child on a throne. There are two lilies, one on each side, and in the background are two trees hiding pink angels who hold musical instruments gleaming with gold light. The bird-like angels in the foliage are a visual reference for the poetic metaphor of birdsong as an earthly manifestation of Heaven’s angelic songs in eternal praise of Mary.

This according to “Bird-like angels making music in Mary’s garden: Gentile da Fabriano’s Madonna and child with saints” by Sławomira Żerańska-Kominek (Music in art XXXVI/1–2 [2012] pp. 177–190).

Above, the painting in question (click to enlarge); below, music by Francesco Landini accompanies a sequence of Fabriano’s paintings, including this one.

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Filed under Animals, Iconography, Middle Ages

Queercore and all-girl bands

Queercore is a loose community of like-minded individuals who have developed a culture of fanzines, films, art, and music. Initiated in Canada and the U.S. during the mid-1980s, queercore spread throughout North America and Europe during the 1990s and 2000s.

The movement was inspired by feminist, postmodern, and queer theories that rejected binary understandings of sexual identity as homosexual/heterosexual and gender identity as man/woman. These theories were put into punk practice to confront heterosexist society.

Central to queercore are all-girl bands whose music confronts lesbian invisibility, misogyny, homophobia, and sexual violence, and who create vital spaces and communities for different ways of doing and being queer. These bands and artists draw on discourses of girlhood, femininity, womanhood, lesbianism, and queerness within radical music-making, lyrics, and performances affiliated with DIY queer culture.

This according to “Queercore: Fearless women” by Val Rauzier, an essay included in Women make noise: Girl bands from Motown to the modern (Twickenham: Supernova books, 2010, pp. 238–58). Above, Team Dresch, one of the bands discussed in the article, in the 1990s; below, one of the band’s more recent performances.

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Filed under Popular music

Balasaraswati and bharata nāṭyam

T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.

Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.

This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).

Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Performers

Irving Berlin and jazz

In his four Music box revues (1921–24), Irving Berlin introduced a series of songs that were widely construed as jazz. That view has not prevailed, but the jazz label becomes more intelligible through efforts to restore its original milieu, including the songs’ distinctive musical and linguistic elements, their theatrical context, and the cultural commentary surrounding Berlin and his work in that period.

At a time when the term jazz had only recently entered public discourse, and when its meaning, content, and value remained in flux, Berlin deployed a variety of ragtime and blues figures and combined them in such a way as to produce a jazz trope, a musical construct created by juxtaposing disparate or even contradictory topics. When repeatedly set to lyrics that celebrate illicit behavior, the music gained further associations with things that jazz was thought to abet.

Theatrical setting further reinforced the songs’ links to jazz. Berlin wrote many of the numbers for a flapper-style sister act, often placed them in a climactic program position, and juxtaposed them with sentimental and nostalgic songs that lacked jazz flavor and whose lyrics, in some cases, pointedly denied jazz’s attractions.

Beyond the stage, the songs and their theatrical presentation flourished within an emerging perspective that identified Jewish Americans, such as Berlin and George Gershwin, as the key figures in jazz and musical theater. Berlin’s Broadway jazz stands as an influential and revealing intersection of musical, linguistic, theatrical, and social elements in the early 1920s.

This according to “Everybody step: Irving Berlin, jazz, and Broadway in the 1920s” by Jeffrey Magee (Journal of the American Musicological Society LIX/3 [fall 2006] pp. 697–732).

Today is Berlin’s 130th birthday! Below, Alice Faye sings his Everybody step, an example from the article.

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Filed under Popular music, Reception

“Bengawan Solo” and pan-East/Southeast Asian identity

Bengawan Solo (Solo River) was written by the kroncong singer Gesang Martohartono (above) in September 1940. A tribute to the beauty and significance of the river for the common people, the song subsequently assumed national importance, symbolizing the struggle for independence during the Japanese occupation of Java (1942–45).

The first widely popular song by an Indonesian composer written in Bahasa Indonesia, the Malay-based national language adopted by independent Indonesia, Bengawan Solo now evokes images of Indonesian revolutionary fighters to whom homage must be given. The song has spread throughout Southeast Asia, and it has even become popular in Japan and China, making it a potent symbol of pan-East/Southeast Asian identity.

This according to “The pan-East/Southeast Asian and national Indonesian song Bengawan Solo and its Javanese composer” by Margaret J. Kartomi (Yearbook for traditional music XXX [1998] pp. 85–101).

Below, a recording featuring the voices of the composer and Asti Dewi Christianna.

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Filed under Asia, Popular music, Reception

Blind Willie McTell’s legacy

The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.

When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.

This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).

Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Beats and bites

In an experiment, eleven subjects unknowingly participated in a study of the effects of music tempo on the number of bites per minute and the total time of the meal.

Three music conditions were used: fast tempo, slow tempo, and no music. A significant increase in the number of bites per minute was found for the fast-tempo condition, suggesting arousal as a possible mediator. No difference was found in total time of meal.

A questionnaire revealed no evidence that subjects were aware of the music.

This according to “The effect of music on eating behavior” by Thomas C. Roballey et al. (Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society XXIII/3 [1985] pp. 221–22). Many thanks to Improbable research for bringing this study to our attention!

Above and below, do diners chew faster at the Hard Rock Cafe?

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Science

Elgar’s rabbit

A white rabbit named Peter joined the Elgar family in 1905. He appears in numerous items of correspondence and is credited, as Pietro d’Alba, with writing the words for Elgar’s songs The torch and The river.

Elgar also welcomed musical criticism and suggestions from Peter; for example, after conducting the London premiere of his second Wand of youth suite in 1908, the composer wrote to him:

My dear Peter,

Your idea—the vigorous entry of the drums—was splendid. Thanks.

Yrs affectly

Edward Elgar

This according to “Peter Rabbit: The biography of an inspired bunny” by Martin Bird (The Elgar Society journal XXI/1 [April 2018] pp. 32–39).

Below, the composition in question; Peter’s contribution begins at 17:29.

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Filed under Animals, Humor, Romantic era

Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan

As a small child, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan proved able to reproduce songs after hearing them once, and she could recognize individual rāgas when she was three years old.

As word of this talented child spread, a neighbor arranged for her to study Karnatak music. She gave her first full-length concert when she was 11; the next year she performed on All India Radio, and soon she had a contract for regular broadcasts.

While she enjoyed a successful career, she never pushed for stardom—she was content to earn the respect of her colleagues and maintain an unstressful schedule as a performer and teacher. One of the pioneering career women in Karnatak music, she also demonstrated the possibility of leading a full family life at the same time.

This according to “Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan: A lifetime of music” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Sruti 266 [November 2006] pp. 33–45).

Today would have been Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan’s 90th birthday! Below, a recording from her heyday.

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Filed under Asia, Performers