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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, September 8, 2019: Patsy Cline’s Performance Outfit

Hilda Hensley (maker), Patsy Cline’s Costume, ca 1958, National Museum of American History.

Patsy Cline: Icon and Iconoclast

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts producer Janette Davis made herself clear: for the show on January 21, 1957, “Walkin’ After Midnight” was a better choice than “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold),” and a sleek, blue linen, sheath dress was preferred over country western attire. That evening, the plucky and ambitious Virginia Patterson Hensley of Winchester, Virginia—Patsy Cline to her listening public—uncharacteristically put aside her pride and did what was asked of her, singing the song she once disparaged as “nothing more than a little old pop tune.” Had she not, there may have been no thunderous applause to guarantee her landslide victory on the televised talent contest and no rush for the label Decca to release a recording of the song that would climb to number two on Billboard’s “Hot Country” chart and number twelve on the “Hot 100” (pop) chart. In short, Patsy Cline the country western singer may not have become Patsy Cline the country-pop crossover star.

It is hard to overstate the incredible power that television had, particularly in its early years, to catapult the career of a performer like Cline. According to the advertising trade publication Sponsor, about half of all homes in the United States with a television watched Godfrey’s show, which was the fifth most popular of the week. Cline was not only heard by millions that night, but also seen by millions. Although a recording artist’s dress had always been essential in constituting a persona, television significantly amplified its ability to construct celebrity.

Across her career, Cline adopted at least three styles of dress that reflected her background, the different performance contexts available for country music, and changes being made within the genre itself. At a time when producers, arrangers, and sound engineers were developing what would be called the Nashville sound—replacing steel guitars, fiddles, nasal roughness, and regional dialects with more commercially viable string arrangements, background vocal quartets, and rhythmic grooves—Cline found herself negotiating the lines between the honky-tonk roots she held dear and an industry bent on expanding country western’s markets. Cline preferred to project “traditional” country markers of authenticity, and particularly in the early years of her career was able to toggle between the fringed cowgirl outfits her mother Hilda made for her (for early stage shows and TV performances) and the “barn dance” look, which relied on an imagined conception of life in the rural American West. To these two options were added the more pop-friendly, form-fitting cocktail dresses prevalent in the early 1960s. As Joli Jensen notes in her contribution to the collection of essays, Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline:

Patsy Cline embodied the tension between down-home and uptown country music…That tension was obvious visually as well as aurally, where hillbilly, cowboy, and pop visual markers all mix together. Pictures of the Grand Ole Opry stage include performers in business attire (men) and dressy little suits (women) standing in front of wagon wheels, hay bales, and other barn dance signifiers, with cloggers in petticoats and banjo pickers in dungarees. This disjointed visual quality mirrors the contradictory effort, during the period, to find a commercially successful sound that could stay country but still cross over and appeal to a wider audience.

Although we should be suspicious of clear sonic distinctions between “country” and “pop,” there can be no doubt that an artist’s look carried important signifiers. Unlike the wardrobe choice imposed on Cline for her break-through debut on Godfrey’s television show, the pink performance outfit featured here, made by Hilda in around 1958, was fashioned in the barn-dance mold. However, the inclusion of five hand-stitched, rhinestone-adorned, “record” patches, each containing a (modified) title of a Cline recording, illustrates the kind of contradictions pointed out by Jensen above. Clearly shown in the photograph above, “Come On In” and “Poor Mans Roses” sit atop the shirt’s left and right shoulders, respectively. “Stop the World” appears at the bottom of the suit’s left pant leg, “Yes I Understand” is affixed to the right, and “Walking After Midnight” takes its position on the outfit’s back. The point is that we have a costume that is at once country and modern, traditional yet boastful, rural and urban. The patches, as an overt method of promotion, betray a sense of (gendered) humility that would have fed into the concept of respectability so important to the middle-class aspirations of many 1950s Winchester natives. But at the same time, they epitomize the striving for upward class mobility that characterized much of the decade as a whole.

The outfit also points to the rise of the disc as a medium through which to encounter music in the postwar era. After World War II, it was no longer necessary for the United States to restrict the commercial production of shellac, the material required for the construction of the record. Once records were again mass produced and displayed for all to see in jukeboxes, their prominent role as a means through which to disseminate country music could not be denied. Cline’s patches not only advertised her music, but also laid bare the most profitable medium through which it could be brought to the consumer.

Patsy Cline was simultaneously a country western musician and a pop star; the first female solo country artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Despite her untimely death, her lasting impact is, in no small degree, due not only to the songs she brought to life in her recordings and live performances, but also to the personas she projected. Both icon and iconoclast, Cline’s images remain as emblazoned on the history of American popular music as the record patches sewn on her suit.

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

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

Bibliography

Cline, Patsy. Love always, Patsy: Patsy Cline’s letters to a friend. Comp. by Cindy Hazen and Mike Freeman (New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-5126]

Gomery, Douglas. Patsy Cline: The making of an icon (Bloomington: Trafford, 2011). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-24682]

Patsy Cline remains a much beloved singer, even though she died in 1963. By 1996, Patsy Cline had become such an icon that The New York Times Magazinepositioned her among a pantheon of women celebrities who transcended any single cultural genre. The making of an icon is a cultural process that transcends traditional biographical analysis. One does not need to know the whole life story of the subject to understand how the subject became an icon. This book explores how Patsy Cline transcended class and poverty to become the country music singer that non-country music fans embraced, going beyond a traditional biography to examine the years beyond her death. (publisher)

Hofstra, Warren R., ed. Sweet dreams: The world of Patsy Cline. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-8235]

Jensen, Joli. “Patsy Cline, musical negotiation, and the Nashville sound”, All that glitters: Country music in America, ed. by George H. Lewis. (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University, 1993) 38–50. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-10704]

A brief survey of the life and career of Patsy Cline (1932–63), whose career spanned a transitional period in country music—the developing “Nashville sound” of the early 1950s. Her recording sessions reveal the search for a commercial country sound, combining pop with country. Her struggle to maintain a country definition demonstrates the defining power of music as a cultural form. (Judy Weidow)

_____. The Nashville sound: Authenticity, commercialization, and country music (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-8200]

A history of country music. Emphasis is placed on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the growing country music industry developed what has become known as the Nashville sound. The style was less twangy, softer, lusher, and more influenced by pop music than the country music styles that preceded it. The sound sparked debates about whether country music had “sold out.” The notion of country music’s authenticity in relation to charges of its commercialism is examined, and the development of the countrypolitan Nashville sound is explored in detail. (Terry Simpkins)

Jones, Margaret. Patsy: The life and times of Patsy Cline (New York: Harper Collins, 1994). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1994-2174]

Nassour, Ellis. Honky tonk angel: The intimate story of Patsy Cline (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-3776]

Patsy Cline, the beloved country singer, soared from obscurity to worldwide fame before her life tragically ended at age 30. After breaking all the barriers in the Nashville boys’ club of the music business in the 1950s, she brought the Nashville sound to the nation with her torch ballads and rockabilly tunes like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy,” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Earthy, sexy, and vivacious, she has been the subject of a major movie and countless articles, and her albums are still among the top five best-sellers for MCA almost 30 years after her death. In the end it is her music, a standard feature on jukeboxes from Seattle to Siberia, that prevails and keeps on keeping on. Patsy’s colorful and poignant life is explored in intimate detail by a veteran of The New York Times, Ellis Nassour. She is remembered in Honky Tonk Angel by the country stars who knew and loved her, among them Brenda Lee, Roger Miller, Loretta. Lynn, George Jones, Jimmy Dean, and Ralph Emery. With an introduction by the late Dottie West, a complete discography, and many never-before-published photographs, Honky Tonk Angel lovingly re-creates the life of an American legend whose music lives on forever. (publisher)

 

 

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Filed under Mass media, Performers, Popular music

Music & science

 

In 2018 Sage launched Music & Science, a peer-reviewed open access online journal dedicated to the idea that the sciences can help us to make sense of music and its significance in our lives.

The journal’s goal is to be truly interdisciplinary: to give researchers from the many different scientific traditions that have been applied to music the opportunity to communicate with—and to learn from—each other, while encouraging dialogue with music scholars whose work is situated in artistic, performative or humanistic domains. In short, it aims to publish research from any discipline or perspective that can illuminate—or that can be illuminated by—scientific approaches to understanding music.

Music & science is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

Below, Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Petits préludes sur les 8 gammes du plain-chant pour orgue, the subject of an article in the inaugural issue.

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Non-insect arthropods in popular music

 

The occurrence of non-insect arthropods in popular music illuminates human attitudes toward these species, especially as compared to insects.

Crustaceans are the most commonly referenced taxonomic group in artist names, album titles, and cover art, followed by spiders and scorpions. The surprising prevalence of crustaceans may be related to the palatability of many of the species.

Spiders and scorpions were primarily used for shock value, as well as for their totemic qualities of strength and ferocity. Spiders were the most abundant group among song titles, perhaps because of their familiarity to the general public.

Three non-insect arthropod album titles were found from the early 1970s, then none appeared until 1990. After 1990, issuance of such albums increased approximately linearly. Giant and chimeric arthropods are the most common album cover themes, indicating the use of these animals to inspire fear and surprise. Song lyrics also illustrate the diversity of sentiments present, from camp spookiness to edibility.

This according to “Noninsect arthropods in popular music” by Joseph R. Coelho (Insects II/2 [2011] pp. 253–63).

Above and below, Alice Cooper‘s The black widow, one of the examples discussed in the article. Yes, that’s really Vincent Price in the video!

Related posts: Insects and music

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Popular music

Kitty Wells’s persona

While Kitty Wells’s publicity depicted her as sweet and subservient, her performances told a different story; her steel-blade voice conveyed a maturity and temerity that was impossible to misread.

Confident but not flashy, plaintive but not abject, Wells tapped into a rich vein of deeply loyal fans who heard the grit and forbearance of her experience as she sang to and about them. A role model for women who felt both fidelity and frustration toward family values, she was a transitional figure who represented changing times: a fierce traditionalist with her band, the career wife in an otherwise traditional marriage, and the voice of women who predated the feminist movement but still embraced women’s universal desire to be heard.

Projecting a toughness and stamina honed by 16 years as a professional musician, Wells forged feminine stereotypes into tools of power and strength. She built her reputation on this contradiction: She would not make waves and she would open doors.

This according to “Kitty Wells, queen of denial” by Georgia Christgau, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 211–30).

Today would have been Wells’s 100th birthday! Below, her signature hit It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels.

BONUS: A classic cover of the song.

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Filed under Popular music, Women's studies

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.

The Banjo at the Crossroads

The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.

This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:

Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.

In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.

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

Conway, Cecilia. “African banjo echoes in Appalachia: A conclusion”, From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, ed. by Kip Lornell. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010) 15–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-54]

The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)

Dubois, Laurent. The banjo: America’s African instrument (Cambridge: Belknap, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-935]

The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A banjo on her knee. I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument”, The old-time herald: A magazine dedicated to old-time music 8/2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-26661]

In an article titled In praise of banjo-picking women published over 10 years ago in the pages of The old-time herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)

Eyre, Banning. “Banjo adventure”, fRoots 31/9 (March 2010) 29–31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-20391]

In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw down your heart: Africa sessions (2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Gussow, Adam. Beyond the crossroads: The devil & the blues tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-28092]

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “The Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)

John, Emma. “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior”, The guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-4111]

A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the old banjo: How an African instrument got a racist reinvention”, Collectors weekly (October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s hammer ring: Moving beyond black and white images of Appalachian music”, Kaleidoscope of cultures: A celebration of multicultural research and practice, ed. by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010) 93–99. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-14904]

Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)

Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko”, fRoots 31/5–6 (November–December) 19. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22415]

A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachia is part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)

Shea, Andrea. “The banjo’s beauty, and its cultural baggage, is on display in a new digital museum”, WBUR: The ARTery (April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-2091]

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)

Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo roots and branches. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6748]

The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Instruments, North America

Urban hedgehogs at music festivals

 

Understanding the impact of human activities on wildlife behavior and fitness can improve species’ sustainability. A study sought to identify behavioral responses to anthropogenic stress in an urban species during a semi-experimental field study.

Eight urban hedgehogs (erinaceus europaeus; four per sex) were equipped with biologgers to record their behavior before and during a mega music festival (2 × 19 days) in Treptower Park, Berlin. Researchers used GPS to monitor spatial behavior, VHF-loggers to quantify daily nest utilization, and accelerometers to distinguish between different behaviors at a high resolution and to calculate daily disturbance.

The hedgehogs showed clear behavioral differences between the pre-festival and festival phases. Evidence supported highly individual strategies, varying between spatial and temporal evasion of the disturbance.

Averaging the responses of the individual animals or only examining one behavioral parameter masked these potentially different individual coping strategies. Using a meaningful combination of different minimally invasive biologger types, researchers were able to show high inter-individual behavioral variance of urban hedgehogs in response to an anthropogenic disturbance; such behavior might be a precondition for successful persistence in urban environments.

This according to “Music festival makes hedgehogs move: How individuals cope behaviorally in response to human-induced stressors” by Wanja Rast, Leon M.F. Barthel, and Anne Berger (Animals IX/7 [2019] pp. 2–19).

Below, urban hedgehogs in a gripping drama.

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Livre d’airs et de simphonies mélez de quelques fragmens d’opéra

 

In 2018 A-R Editions issued Livre d’airs et de simphonies mélez de quelques fragmens d’opéra, a critical edition of a collection of works by Pierre Gillier that was first published in 1697.

The appetite for amateur music making in late seventeenth-century France led to an unprecedented demand for published chamber music. Gillier’s volume, comprising 64 small-scale vocal and instrumental works with basso continuo accompaniment, was one of a number of publications designed to meet this demand.

The collection is unusual in offering a variety of genres and is especially noteworthy for Gillier’s strategy of organizing the pieces “in order to make small chamber concerts out of them.”

Below, an excerpt featuring the voice of Sara Macliver.

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Bali remixed and revisited

 

In May 2019 Songlines Magazine and the PRS Foundation launched a competition to find the best remix of David Attenborough’s recording of a performance of Balinese gendér wayang, a style of Indonesian gamelan that features a quartet of ten-keyed metallophones. Among the reactions of gamelan enthusiasts was concern that the unnamed musicians (or their descendants) were receiving neither recognition nor royalties for this reuse of their work.

The music and instruments in the recording (said to date from 1956 but in fact recorded in 1968, as discovered by Edward Herbst since the publication of the article) were instantly recognizable to people who knew the repertoire of the village of Teges Kanginan; the gamelan set is presumed to have belonged to this village for at least 100 years.

Soon after the competition was announced, the American ethnomusicologist Edward Herbst met with the village leader, his staff, and local musicians, and listened to the original recording as one of the current players tapped out the basic melody on one of the historic instruments. All the pitches matched, and everyone agreed that the recording was of the Teges gamelan, and that the royalties should go to that village.

Herbst presented the royalties to the village leader, and all were elated that the royalties would provide seed money for restoring and reviving this legacy gamelan, and that Teges could regain its heritage.

This according to “Bali remixed and revisited” by Edward Herbst (Songlines 150 [August–September 2019], pp. 50-53).

Above, Herbst (center) with the gathered villagers; below, the recording in question begins at 1:05.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 13, Grand Wizzard Theodore’s Turntables

Two Vestax PDX-2000 turntables

In the years between the invention of the phonograph and the rise of digital audio, aural playback devices were considered to be a one-way form of communication. The media they played back was fixed and finalized, ready for passive consumption. As the inventor of the needle drop, and the primary innovator of “the scratch,” Grand Wizzard Theodore helped to shift this mindset by lifting the stylus out of the entrenched path of the groove—dropping it down on other parts of the record, shifting its direction into reverse and back again, slowing down its motion and speeding it up. Based in part on his innovations, freed from the shackles of a non-responsive medium, DJs could suddenly respond to their live audiences in real-time, and in particular to the body language of dancers, bringing pre-recorded music back into the ebb-and-flow of oral tradition.

Granted, long before the birth of hip hop, there were a handful of avant-garde composers who willfully subverted the “fixed object” status of sound recordings. Seeking to break with tradition, composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer took recorded artifacts and playback devices (radios, record players, etc.) and tried to turn them into experimental musical instruments. Still, the first wave of hip hop DJs did something unique in comparison. Unlike the avant-gardists, DJs like Grand Wizzard Theodore, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa kept the groove going even after they removed the needle from the groove. Their music was danceable despite being experimental. It flowed even though it was built on rupture. It could be just-as-if-not-more-funky than the source materials it was built on. And it all began with the reinvention of the wheel—that is, the “wheels of steel”, i.e., two turntables placed in mutual musical dialogue. In taking this object out of its familiar “groove” and dropping it into another one, the record player was made amenable to an entirely new cultural and aesthetic matrix.

In the first video below, Theodore demonstrates his needle drop technique, and in the second video, he describes the genesis of the scratch. The origin story of the second video is well-known by now: After his mom reprimanded a young Theodore for playing his music too loud in the house, he stopped the turntable manually and held the record in place. Nudging the record impatiently back and forth with a rapid motion, he waited for his mother to leave the room. The sound that was inadvertently produced led eventually to the distinctive, futuristic-sounding rhythmic and timbral effect of the scratch, a sonic innovation added to the DJ’s arsenal. But it was an innovation achieved on an old and familiar technological device being used to play (for the most part) old records.

Record scratching is now part of the familiar sonic vocabulary not just of hip hop but also of electronic dance music, ranging from big beat anthems to melancholy trip hop tracks, and also mainstream pop hits like Hanson’s “MMMBop” as produced by the Dust Brothers. In taking an object once viewed as the very antithesis of “creative,” with the record player as delivery mechanism for “canned music,” and showing that in the right hands it could be just as flexible and adaptable as a standard musical instrument, a revolution of sorts was begun. And so it’s fitting that scratching itself has been adapted in so many musical settings over the years.

In the book Hop-Hop DJs and the Evolution of Technology, Andre Sirois describes DJ culture as being “founded on the notions that text and technology are manipulable.” When “hip hop DJ culture uses consumption as the starting point for production,” it “create[s] the meanings/uses of texts and hardware rather than accepting what is created by industries.” Through this “manipulation and…re-coding of recorded sound technology,” the DJ “undermines the read-only ideology of sound reproduction encoded into vinyl records and turntables,” an ideology derived “from more than 100 years of standardization and the exploitation of intellectual property rights by corporations” is subverted. There’s an obvious political dimension to this argument, where an object can be used and consumed in a way that undermines the underlying power relations through which it was created, distributed, and sold. But the object, and the conditions of its production, must be bought and “bought into” before this subversion can take place—resulting in a kind of consumerist double-consciousness that may likely have special resonance for many people of color (consider, for example, how the name “Grand Wizzard Theodore” borrows a white supremacist title only to subvert it).

This resonance has been seized upon in hip hop, in particular, when it comes to the turntable-as-object. As the stylus moves across the spiraling groove of the vinyl record, both linear and repetitive, it enacts a form of movement that echoes Black American history, where progress in civil rights has been repeatedly offset by the reincarnation of past travesties, reborn in new guises. On a more mundane level, it also echoes the back-and-forth interplay between consumption and production in hip hop, the disembedding and reembedding of found sounds in the music, the push-and-pull of rhythmic syncopations that define the music and its funky forebears, and the fuzzy line between innovation and repetition that’s at the heart of the creative process. These and other circular structures, movements, and aesthetics have long played a central role across the multiple pillars of hip hop: from call-and-response vocal interplay to the DJ riding the wheels of steel; from looped breakbeats to emcees battling in a cypher; from dancers’ uprocking and downrocking, executing headspins and backspins, to the rounded bubble letters of graffiti artists; and finally, in the very name of hip hop itself (“When you say hip, I say hop!”). There could be no better visual metaphor for all of this than Grand Wizzard Theodore’s turntables—objects than helped spawn a whole new process of music-making, a process rooted in the give-and-take interplay between music-as-artifact and music-as-oral-tradition.

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

Chang, Jeff. “Needle to the groove: Snippets from an omnidirectional history”, The record: Contemporary art and vinyl, ed. by Trevor Schoonmaker. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) 116–119. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-24934]

Recounts the accidental invention of “the scratch” by Bronx DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore, going on to survey the DJ’s power to conjure alternative worlds of space and time–worlds where sound, not geography or chronology, binds the universe. These worlds, however, are endangered by the culture industry and its ownership (in many cases) of the sonic raw materials used to transform time and space, a claim to ownership that is constantly and creatively subverted by collectors, crate diggers, and DJs. (Jason Lee Oakes)

D’Arcangelo, Gideon. “Recycling music, answering back: Toward an oral tradition of electronic music”, Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (Hamamatsu: NIME, 2004) 55–58.[RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2004-42094]

Outlines a framework for understanding new musical compositions and performances that utilize pre-existing sound recordings. In attempting to articulate why musicians are increasingly using sound recordings in their creative work, the author calls for and shows examples of new performance tools that enable the dynamic use of pre-recorded music such as record scratching and sampling. By using two variable speed turntables connected by a mixer, hip hop DJ began blending recording songs in seamless continuity. Blending and mixing gave way to scratching, or backspinning a record in rhythm. This gave DJs a way to put more of their own musical selves into the playback, featuring their rhythmic skills. Grand Wizzard Theodore is attributed with inventing scratching in 1975. Similar practices emerged concurrently in the New York art world around the same time in the work of conceptual artist Christian Marclay. If recorded sound creates fixed musical experiences that sit in our memory like non-biodegradable plastics, then the digital sampler is a kind of music recycling machine that breaks down, digests and processes these memories for reuse. This points the way to a new form of give and take in creative influence. The sampler has been a first step in re-establishing the process of call and response, familiar from oral traditions, in the all-electronic medium. (author)

Jam, Billy. “Creator of the scratch: Grand Wizzard Theodore”, Hip hop slam. Accessed August 9, 2019. http://www.hiphopslam.com/articles/int_grandwizardtheo.html [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-24934] [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2001-46832]

An interview with the hip hop DJ credited with the invention of the scratch. For someone who lives for scratch music, visiting legendary DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore (GWT)–the creator of the scratch–at his Bronx, New York home could only be compared to an Elvis Presley fan making a pilgrimage to Graceland to visit the King of rock ‘n’ roll in his day. Like many of the great pioneers of hip hop that created the genre on these Bronx streets three decades earlier, GWT was not rich from a culture that he helped shape and form. But unlike many of his contemporaries from hip hop’s seminal years, who are embittered by the fact that they live in comparative poverty/obscurity while contemporary “hip hoppers” are making millions off something they created, GWT is not at all bitter. In fact he is a warm and humble man who is gracious to be a part of a cultural movement that he never thought would spread from the streets of the Bronx to every other corner of the world. (author)

Katz, Mark. Groove music: The art and the culture of the hip-hop DJ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-1126]

It’s all about the scratch in this book about the figure that defined hip hop: the DJ. Today hip hop is a global phenomenon, and the sight and sound of DJs mixing and scratching is familiar in every corner of the world. But hip hop was born in the streets of New York in the 1970s when a handful of teenagers started experimenting with spinning vinyl records on turntables in new ways. Although rapping has become the face of hip hop, for nearly 40 years the DJ has proven the backbone of the culture. Here the author (an amateur DJ himself) delves into the world of the DJ, tracing the art of the turntable from its humble beginnings in the Bronx in the 1970s to its meteoric rise to global phenomenon today. Based on extensive interviews with practicing DJs, historical research, and personal experience, a history of hip hop is presented from the point of view of the people who invented the genre–from the 1970s beginnings of DJ Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, to 21st-century Concertos for Turntablists and Academies of Scratch. More specifically, the author focuses on what he calls the “performative DJ”: those who not only select recordings but manipulate them in real time for audiences. Interviews are included with figures such as Grand Wizzard Theodore (the man credited with inventing turntable scratching) and DMC-winning turntablist DJ Qbert. DJs step up to discuss a wide range of topics, including the transformation of the turntable from a playback device to an instrument in its own right, the highly charged competitive DJ battles, the game-changing introduction of digital technology, and the complex politics of race and gender in the DJ scene. (publisher)

Sirois, André. Hop-hop DJs and the evolution of technology: Cultural exchange, innovation, and democratization (New York: Peter Lang, 2016).

Smith, Sophy. Hip-hop turntablism, creativity and collaboration (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-3575]

Armed only with turntables, a mixer, and a pile of records, hip hop DJs and turntable musicians have changed the face of music. However, whilst hip hop has long been recognized as an influential popular culture both culturally and sociologically, hip hop music is rarely taken seriously as an artistic genre. This book values hip hop music as worthy of musicological attention and offers a new approach to its study, focusing on the music itself and providing a new framework to examine not only the musical product, but also the creative process through which it was created. Based on ten years of research among turntablist communities, this is the first book to explore the creative and collaborative processes of groups of DJs working together as hip hop turntable teams. Focusing on a variety of subjects–from the history of turntable experimentation and the development of innovative sound manipulation techniques, to turntable team formation, collective creation and an analysis of team routines–the author examines how turntable teams have developed new ways of composing music, defining characteristics of team routines in both the process and the final artistic product. This author also introduces a new turntable notation system and methodology for the analysis of turntable compositions, covering aspects such as material, manipulation techniques, and structure, while also outlining the impact of individual musicians such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Flare, and DJ QBert. (publisher)

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Hitchcock and music

 

Alfred Hitchcock held an ambivalent position toward the sound elements of cinema. He remained faithful to the idea of pure cinema realized through shots and sequences, and considered dialogue as a lesser expressive resource due to its tendency to break down the narrative tension gained by the images.

On the other hand, he considered sound effects and music to be highly effective devices, with their ability to modify the rhythm of the action, or to voice the depth of characters and the hidden forces of dramatic situations. He often gave sound effects and music central roles in dramaturgy and structure.

The 1956 version of The man who knew too much is a film completely pervaded by music. The recurring song Que sera, sera is one of Hitchcock’s most remarkable examples of diegetic music, informing the audiovisual structures in concurrence with concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze in L’image-mouvement.

This according to “Immagine, suono, relazione mentale in The man who knew too much (1956) di Alfred Hitchcock” by Matteo Giuggioli (Philomusica on-line XI [2007]).

Tomorrow is Hitchcock’s 120th birthday! Above and below, Doris Day’s iconic performance in The man who knew too much.

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