Category Archives: Curiosities

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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 2017-51193]

Krampert, Peter. The encyclopedia of the harmonica (Pacific: Mel Bay Publications, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 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 no. 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 no. 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 no. 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, no. 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 no. 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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Punk rock and the fall of the Berlin Wall

It began with a handful of East Berlin teens who heard the Sex Pistols on a British military radio broadcast to troops in West Berlin, and it ended with the collapse of the East German dictatorship.

Punk rock was a life-changing discovery. The buzz-saw guitars, the messed-up clothing and hair, the rejection of society, and the DIY approach to building a new one: in their gray surroundings, where everyone’s future was preordained by some communist apparatchik, punk represented a revolutionary philosophy—quite literally, as it turned out.

As these young kids tried to form bands and became more visible, security forces—including the dreaded secret police, the Stasi—targeted them. They were spied on by friends and even members of their own families; they were expelled from schools and fired from jobs; they were beaten by police and imprisoned.

But instead of conforming, the punks fought back, playing an indispensable role in the underground movements that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

This according to Burning down the Haus: Punk rock, revolution, and the fall of the Berlin Wall by Tim Mohr (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2018).

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall! Above, punks gathering on Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in 1981; below, the iconic punk anthem Überall wohin’s dich führt by Planlos, recorded live in 1983.

BONUS: The East German punk scene is reimagined in the 2001 film Wie Feuer und Flamme; the group in the clip is performing Überall wohin’s dich führt.

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Filed under Curiosities, Politics, Popular music

Beyoncé and the politics of looking

 

A close reading of Beyoncé’s Video phone illuminates the strategic interplay of subjectivities in a video that essentially disrupts and complicates heteronormative notions of viewing.

In this analysis, the workings of female power versus the male gaze lead to a theoretical conception of gender that contextualizes masculinity and hegemonic femininity. Ultimately, it is in the aestheticized landscape of Video phone that a counter-argument to mainstream heterosexual male imaginary emerges, one where the posthuman figure, in all its hyperreality, is musicalized in a way that defies all conventions.

This according to “Gender, sexuality and the politics of looking in Beyoncé’s Video phone (featuring Lady Gaga)” by Lori Burns and Marc Lafrance, an essay included in The Routledge research companion to popular music and gender (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017, pp. 102–16).

Below, the video in question.

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, September 25, 2019: Spacecraft Voyager “Sounds of Earth” Record Cover

Voyager Golden Record: Through Struggle to the Stars

An intergalactic message in a bottle, the Voyager Golden Record was launched into space late in the summer of 1977. Conceived as a sort of advance promo disc advertising planet Earth and its inhabitants, it was affixed to Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, spacecraft designed to fly to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, providing data and documentation of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And just in case an alien lifeform stumbled upon either of the spacecraft, the Golden Record would provide them with information about Earth and its inhabitants, alongside media meant to encourage curiosity and contact.

Recorded at 16 ⅔ RPM to maximize play time, each gold-plaited, copper disc was engraved with the same program of 31 musical tracks—ranging from an excerpt of Mozart’s Magic Flute to a field recording made by Alan Lomax of Solomon Island panpipe players—spoken greetings in 55 languages, a sonic collage of recorded natural sounds and human-made sounds (“The Sounds of Earth”), 115 analogue-encoded images including a pulsar map to help in finding one’s way to Earth, a recording of the creative director’s brainwaves, and a Morse-code rendering of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra (“through struggle to the stars”). In 2012, Voyager 1 became the first Earth craft to burst the heliospheric bubble and cross over into interstellar space. And in 2018, Voyager 2 crossed the same threshold.

Listen to the music recorded on the Voyager album with this Spotify playlist from user Ulysses’ Classical

A tiny speck of a spacecraft cast into the endless sea of outer space, each Voyager craft was designed to drift forever with no set point of arrival. Likewise, the Golden Record was designed to be playable for up to a billion years, despite the long odds that anyone or anything would ever discover and “listen” to it. Much like the Voyager spacecraft themselves, the journey itself was in large part the point—except that instead of capturing scientific data along the way, the Golden Record instead revealed a great deal about its makers and their historico-cultural context.

In The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record (2019), a book published by Bloomsbury’s Sigma science imprint, author Jonathan Scott captures both the monumental scope of the Voyager mission, relentless as space itself, and the very human dimensions of the Gold Record discs: “When we are all dust, when the Sun dies, these two golden analogue discs, with their handy accompanying stylus and instructions, will still be speeding off further into the cosmos. And alongside their music, photographs and data, the discs will still have etched into their fabric the sound of one woman’s brainwaves—a recording made on 3 June 1977, just weeks before launch. The sound of a human being in love with another human being.” 

From sci-fi literature to outer-space superhero fantasies, from Afrofuturism to cosmic jazz to space rock, space-themed artistic expressions often focus on deeply human narratives such as love stories or stories of war. There seems to be something about traveling into outer space, or merely imagining doing so, that bring out many people’s otherwise-obscured humanity–which may help explain all the deadly serious discussions over the most fantastical elements of Star Trek and Star Wars, or Sun Ra and Lady Gaga. In the musical realm, space-based music frequently aims for the most extreme states of human emotion whether body-based or mind-expanding, euphoric or despairing. In other words, these cosmic art forms are pretty much expected to test boundaries and cross thresholds, or at least to make the attempt. The Voyager Golden Record was no exception.

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The “executive producer” behind the Golden Record was the world-famous astrophysicist, humanist, and champion of science for the everyman, Carl Sagan (1934–1996). Equally a pragmatist and a populist, he was the perfect individual to oversee the Golden Record with its dual utilitarian and utopian aims. In his 1973 book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Sagan writes that humans have long “wondered whether they are in some sense connected with the awesome and immense cosmos in which the Earth is imbedded,” touching again on the meeting point between everyday mundane realities and “escapist” fantasies, a collision that animates a great deal of science fiction and cosmic-based music. In his personal notes from the time of The Cosmic Connection, Sagan makes reference to music as “a means of interstellar communication.” So how would he utilize music to create these moments of connection and convergence?

It’s little wonder that Sagan endorsed the inclusion of a record on spaceships, with music specially selected to call out to the outer reaches of space. Music was a “universal language” in his telling due to its “mathematical” form, decipherable to any species with a capacity for advanced memory retention and pattern recognition. But this universal quality didn’t stop it from expressing crucial aspects of what earthlings were and what makes us tick, or the many different types of individuals and cultures at work on the planet Earth. Moving beyond the strict utility of mathematics, he also believed that music could communicate the uniquely emotional dimensions of human existence. Whereas previous visual-based messages shot into space “might have encapsulated how we think, this would be the first to communicate something of how we feel.” (Scott 2019)

Further refining this idea, Jon Lomberg, a Golden Record team member who illustrated a number of Carl Sagan’s books, argued for an emphasis on “ideal” types of music for the interstellar disc: “The [Golden] Record should be more than a random sampling of Earth’s Greatest Hits…We should choose those forms which are to some degree self-explanatory forms whose rules of structure are evident from even a single example of the form (like fugues and canons, rondos and rounds).”

Ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and Robert E. Brown were brought in as collaborators, offering their expertise in the world’s music and knowledge of potential recordings to be used. The latter’s first musical recommendation to Sagan hewed to the stated ideal of music which establishes its own structural rules from the get-go—and by association, how these rules may be broken—all overlaid by the yearning of the singer’s voice and the longing expressed in the lyrics. As he described it in his program notes written for Sagan: ‘“Indian vocal music’ by Kesarbai Kerkar…three minutes and 25 seconds long…a solo voice with a seven-tone modal melody with auxiliary pitches [and] a cyclic meter of 14 beats, alongside drone, ‘ornamentation’ and drum accompaniment and some improvisation.” He also gives a partial translation to the words of the music: “Where are you going? Don’t go alone…”

Taken as a whole, the Voyager Golden Record is reminiscent of a mixtape made by an eccentric friend with an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s music—leaping from track-to-track, across continents and historical periods, crossing heedlessly over the dividing lines drawn between art, folk, and popular musics, but with each track a work of self-contained precision and concision. The disc plays out as a precariously balanced suite of global musical miniatures, a mix where it’s perfectly plausible for Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” to end up sandwiched between a mariachi band and a field recording of Papua New Guinean music recorded by a medical doctor from Australia. Human diversity is the byword, diversity as a trait of humanity itself. The more the individual tracks stand in relief to one another the better.

Given all of this, one could make a plausible case that the Voyager Golden Record helped “invent” a new approach of world music, one where musical crosstalk isn’t subtle or peripheral, but where it’s more like the center pole of musical creation itself. While it’s hardly clear if Sagan or most of his other collaborators had this goal in mind, creative director Ann Druyan certainly did. Or at least she did when it came to her insistence on including Chuck Berry on the Golden Record. As she puts it in a 60 Minutes interview from 2018, “Johnny B. Goode, rock and roll, was the music of motion, of moving, getting to someplace you’ve never been before, and the odds are against you, but you want to go. That was Voyager.” And so rock ‘n’ roll is turned into true “world music.”

Whether by chance or by design, the Voyager Golden Record anticipated the shifting cultural and aesthetic contexts through which many listeners heard and understood “world music,” a shift that would become blatantly obvious in the decades to come. More than a culturally-sensitive replacement for labels like “exotic music” and “primitive music,” more than a grab bag of unclaimed non-Western musics and vernacular musics, the Golden Record anticipated a sensibility in which the “world” in world music was made more literal—both by fusion-minded musicians, and by music retailers who placed these fusions in newly-designated “world music” sections. (but one must acknowledge that these musical fusions were sometimes problematic in their own right, too often relying on power differentials between borrower and borrowed-from music and musicians)

In this respect, and in other respects beyond our scope here, “world music” embodied many of the contradictions inherent to the rise of globalization, postmodernism, hyperreality, neoliberalism, etc.—coinciding with the crossing of a threshold sometime in the 1970s or ‘80s according to most accounts—with the outcome being a world that’s ever more integrated (the global economy, the global media, global climate change) but also ever more polarized, each dynamic inextricably linked to its polar opposite—a sort of interstellar zone where the normal laws of physics no longer seem to apply.

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By taking diversity and juxtaposition as aesthetic ideals rather than drawbacks, the creators of the Voyager Golden Record sketched a sonic portrait of the planet Earth and, at the same time, anticipating the art of the mixtape, yet another trend that would come to fruition in the 1980s. Not unlike a mixtape made for a new friend or a prospective love interest, the Golden Record was designed both to impress—an invitation for aliens to travel across the universe just to meet us—and to express who we are as a people and as a planet. 

With the Golden Record as a mixtape-anticipating bid for cosmic connection, it’s fitting that its creative spark was lit in large part by the love affair that developed between Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in the summer of 1977. To the self-professed surprise of both, they became engaged in the middle of an impulsive phone call and conversation, before they had even officially moved beyond friendship. They remained happily married until Carl Sagan passed away in 1996. On a National Public Radio segment broadcast in 2010, Ann Druyan described the moments leading up to that pivotal phone call and its lifelong aftermath—a relationship made official across space and over a wire—“It was this great eureka moment. It was like scientific discovery.” Several days later, Druyan’s brainwaves were recorded to be included on the Golden Record—her own idea—while she thought about their eternal love.

Given the sudden and unexpected manner in which they fell in love and into sync, it maybe didn’t seem too crazy to believe that infatuation could beset some lonely extraterrestrial who discovered their Golden Record too, especially if this unknown entity plugged into Druyan’s love waves. After all, the Voyager mission itself was planned around a cosmic convergence that only takes place once in the span of several lifetimes. Much like the star-crossed lovers, the stars had to literally align for the mission to be possible at all. The Voyager mission took advantage of a rare formation of the solar system’s most distant four planets that made the trip vastly faster and more feasible, using the gravitational pull of one planet as an “onboard propulsion system” to hurl itself toward the next destination. With all the jigsaw puzzle pieces so perfectly aligned for the first part of the mission, it would be a shame if some mixtape-loving alien never came for a visit. The main question being if anyone will be here to meet them by the time they get here. As Jimmy Carter put it in his written message attached to the Golden Record:

This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.

Podcast: Dallas Taylor, host of independent podcast Twenty Herz, explores the Voyager album track-by-track in episode 65: “Voyager Golden Record”

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

DiGenti, Brian. “Voyager interstellar record: 60 trillion feet high and rising”, Wax poetics 55 (summer 2013) 96. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-40100]

In the summer of 1977, just after Kraftwerk dropped Trans-Europe express, Giorgio Moroder offered the world the perfect marriage of German techno with American disco in Donna Summer’s “I feel love,” the first dance hit produced wholly by synthesizer and the precursor to the underground dance movement. Meanwhile, there was another gold record in the works. The Voyager Interstellar Message project, a NASA initiative led by astronomer Carl Sagan and creative director Ann Druyan, was a chance at communicating with any intelligent life in outer space. In an unintended centennial celebration of the phonograph, the team created a gold-plated record that would be attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 probes—the Voyager Golden Record—a time capsule to express the wonders of planet Earth in sound and vision. As they were tasked with choosing images and music for this 16-2/3 RPM “cultural Noah’s Ark”—a little Mozart, some Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, and Blind Willie Johnson—the pair of geniuses fell madly for each other, vowing to marry within their first moments together. Their final touch was to embed Ann’s EEG patterns into the record as an example of human brain waves on this thing called love. (author)

Meredith, William. “The cavatina in space”, The Beethoven newsletter 1/2 (summer 1986) 29–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1986-3441]

When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched its spacecraft Voyager I and II in 1977, each carried a gold-plated copper record intended to serve as a communication to “possible extraterrestrial civilizations.” Each record contains photographs of earth, “the world’s greatest music,” an introductory audio essay, and greetings to extraterrestrials in 60 languages. Two of the record’s eight examples of art music are by Beethoven (the first movement of the symphony no. 5 and the cavatina of the string quartet in B-flat major, op. 130). The symphony no. 5 was selected because of its “compelling” and passionate nature, new physiognomy, innovations, symmetry, and brevity. The cavatina was chosen because of its ambiguous nature, mixing sadness, hope, and serenity. (author)

Sagan, Carl. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (New York: Random House, 1978). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1978-20425]

On 20 August and 5 September 1977, two extraordinary spacecraft called Voyager were launched to the stars (Voyager 1 and Voyager 2). After what promises to be a detailed and thoroughly dramatic exploration of the outer solar system from Jupiter to Uranus between 1979 and 1986, these space vehicles will slowly leave the solar systems—emissaries of the Earth to the realm of the stars. Affixed to each Voyager craft is a gold-coated copper phonograph record as a message to possible extra-terrestrial civilizations that might encounter the spacecraft in some distant space and time. Each record contains 118 photographs of our planet, ourselves, and our civilization; almost 90 minutes of the world’s greatest music; an evolutionary audio essay on “The Sounds of Earth”; and greetings in almost 60 human languages (and one whale language), including salutations from the President Jimmy Carter and the Secretary General of the United Nations. This book is an account, written by those chiefly responsible for the contents of the Voyager Record, of why we did it, how we selected the repertoire, and precisely what the record contains. (publisher)

Scott, Jonathan. The vinyl frontier: The story of the Voyager Golden Record (London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-6834]

In 1977, a team led by the great Carl Sagan was put together to create a record that would travel to the stars on the back of NASA’s Voyager probe. They were responsible for creating a playlist of music, sounds, and pictures that would represent not just humanity, but would also paint a picture of Earth for any future alien races that may come into contact with the probe. The vinyl frontier tells the whole story of how the record was created, from when NASA first proposed the idea to Carl to when they were finally able watch the Golden Record rocket off into space on Voyager. The final playlist contains music written and performed by well-known names such as Bach, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as music from China, India, and more remote cultures such as a community in Small Malaita in the Solomon Islands. It also contained a message of peace from US president Jimmy Carter, a variety of scientific figures and dimensions, and instructions on how to use it for a variety of alien lifeforms. Each song, sound and picture that made the final cut onto the record has a story to tell. Through interviews with all of the key players involved with the record, this book pieces together the whole story of the Golden Record. It addresses the myth that the Beatles were left off of the record because of copyright reasons and will include new information about US president Jimmy Carter’s role in the record, as well as many other fascinating insights that have never been reported before. It also tells the love story between Carl Sagan and the project’s creative director Ann Druyan that flourishes as the record is being created. The Golden Record is more than just a time capsule. It is a unique combination of science and art, and a testament to the genius of its driving force, the great polymath Carl Sagan. (publisher)

Smith, Brad. “Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the night, cold was the ground”, The bulletin of the Society for American Music 41/2 (spring 2015) [9]. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2015-14869]

Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 recording of Dark was the night, cold was the Ground was included on the copper record that accompanied Voyager I and II into space, placed just before the cavatina of Beethoven’s string quartet op. 130. The author searches for the reasons the NASA team considered it among the world’s greatest music, relating Johnson’s interpretation to the hymn text of the same title written by Thomas Haweis and published in 1792, and analyzing Johnson’s slide guitar technique and vocal melismas. Johnson’s rhythmic style, with its irregularities, is discussed with reference to Primitive Baptist singing style.

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

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

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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Filed under Animals, Curiosities

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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Filed under Asia, Curiosities

RILM’s Lockheed connection

BARRY-S.-BROOK

From the time of his earliest proposal for creating RILM, Barry S. Brook (above) had a vision that “scholars working on specific research projects will eventually be able to request a bibliographic search by the computer of its stored information and to receive an automatically printed-out reply.”

RILM was too small to implement this task alone, so in 1979—long before the Internet was commercialized in the 1990s—it made an agreement with Lockheed Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, a division of Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, for the distribution of its data through the telephone lines.

LockheedIn August 1979, the first month when RILM was available on the Lockheed platform, the database was searched 176 times by 24 users, earning $84.94 (see inset; click to enlarge).

Today, on the 40th anniversary of its Lockheed connection, RILM’s databases are searched online 16.5 million times per month.

Below, an introduction to RILM’s current offerings.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, From the archives, RILM