Category Archives: North America

Ralph Stanley and “O Death”

ralph-stanley

In a 2008 interview, Ralph Stanley recalled his participation in the soundtrack of the film O brother, where art thou?, which brought him a level of international recognition that he had never dreamed ofparticularly for his haunting rendition of the traditional Appalachian spiritual O Death.

T-Bone Burnett had several auditions for that song. He wanted it in the Dock Boggs style. So I got my banjo and learned it the way he did it…I went down with my banjo to Nashville and I said, “T-Bone, let me sing it the way I want to sing it,” and I laid my banjo down and sung it a cappella. After two or three verses, he stopped me and said, “That’s it.”

Quoted in “Old-time man” by Don Harrison (Virginia living June 2008, pp. 54–57).

Today would have been Ralph Stanley’s 90th birthday! Below, a performance from later in his career. (Can anyone tell us the place and date? We wonder if it’s his performance for the 2006 National Medal of Arts ceremony.)

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Filed under North America, Performers

Jay Ungar and “Ashokan farewell”

jay-ungar

While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.

Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as  The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.

Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.

This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).

Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.

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Filed under Curiosities, North America, Reception

Lydia Mendoza lived it

Lydia Mendoza

From the age of 12 through a career that spanned eight decades, Lydia Mendoza was a beacon to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, showing them that no matter how humble their situation was they had a culture worth celebrating.

In a 2004 interview, asked what happened to make her the first Mexican-American singing star, she replied “Whether I was singing a bolero or a waltz or a polka it didn’t matter. When I sang, I sang it so I felt like I was living that song. Every song I ever sang I did with the feeling that I was living that song.”

This according to “Lydia motion” by Garth Cartwright (fRoots XXVI/9:261 [March 2005] pp. 30–35, 41).

Today would have been Mendoza’s 100th birthday! Above, the singer in 1948; below, performing in 1975.

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Filed under North America, Performers, Popular music

Wampanoag music and dance

mashpee wampanoag powwow

On this U.S. Thanksgiving Day, let’s pay our respects to the Wampanoag people, who helped the refugees at Plymouth Colony through their first winter, taught them to fish and grow corn, and attended their celebration of thanksgiving after their first successful harvest.

Wampanoag music is wrapped up in dance. The beat of a hardwood stick, water drum, and corn rattles is the music of their lively social dances, while appreciation and gratitude are expressed in their ceremonial dances.

“It is part of our nature is to be in thanksgiving” said Ramona Peters, a Wampanoag woman. “It’s sort of our philosophy, so it gets threaded through both the social and ceremonial dances.”

This according to Music on Martha’s Vineyard: A history of harmony by Tom Dresser and Jerry Muskin (Charleston: History Press, 2014).  Above and below, the 2015 Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow.

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Alan Lomax and multiculturalism

lomax radio 1940

When Alan Lomax accepted a position as the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1936 he became a gatekeeper to the largest repository of recorded traditional music in the country.

He subsequently worked to infuse traditional music into mainstream culture and, in so doing, to publicize his interpretation of American culture and society—an interpretation that placed the American people, a category that included racial and ethnic minorities as well as the economically dispossessed and politically disenfranchised, at the center of the nation’s identity.

During the 1930s and 1940s he pursued this goal by developing radio programs that highlighted the music of American traditional communities. These included shows designed for children, including Folk Music of America, which aired weekly on CBS radio’s American School of the Air.

Lomax used this program as a forum to teach children about American cultural and political democracy by highlighting the music of socially, economically, and racially marginalized communities, often including guests from these groups to sing and explain musical traditions on the air.

An examination of the principles that motivated Folk Music of America, along with the artists, songs, and commentary that Lomax included, reveals a strong connection between the ideas of cultural pluralism that emerged during the World War I era and popular constructs of Americanism that developed during the later decades of the 20th century. Ultimately, Lomax’s radio work helped to lay the foundation for the multicultural movement that developed during the early 1970s.

This according to “Broadcasting diversity: Alan Lomax and multiculturalism” by Rachel C. Donaldson (Journal of popular culture XLVI/1 [February 2013] pp. 59–78).

Today would have been Lomax’s 100th birthday! Below, an example of his move to PBS in 1990.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Mass media, North America

Macy’s does the parade

thanksgiving-day-parade

While the public thinks of Macy’s as the main sponsor of NYC’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, not everyone realizes that the company’s own Department of Annual and Special Events is responsible for almost all aspects of the planning and execution of this annual tradition.

Employing over 50 people, this department is also charged with mounting flower shows, fireworks displays, and other events, but the parade accounts for most of its yearlong activities; these include designing, building, and organizing the handlers for the balloons and floats; managing celebrity appearances; and interviewing, reviewing, auditioning, and coordinating the high-school bands that travel to the city to participate.

This according to “In the wind…: Size matters. II” by John Bishop (The diapason XCVIII/6:1171 [June 2001] pp. 14–16). Above, Mickey and friends in 2013; below, Mickey and friends in 1935.

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Mike Seeger, according to Bob Dylan

mike seeger

Although he was only eight years younger, Bob Dylan called Mike Seeger (1933–2009) a father figure, and considered him the ultimate embodiment of a folk-star persona. Recalling him in Chronicles. I (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), Dylan wrote:

“Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula’s black heart. He was the romantic, egalitarian, and revolutionary type all at once—had chivalry in his blood…”

“He played all the instruments, whatever the song called for—the banjo, the fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, the guitar, even harmonica in the rack….He played on all the various planes, the full index of old-time styles, played in all the genres and had the idioms mastered—Delta blues, ragtime, minstrel songs, buck-and-wing, dance reels, play party, hymns and gospel—being there and seeing him up close, something hit me. It’s not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them.” (pp. 69–71)

Today would have been Mike Seeger’s 80th birthday! Below, Seeger in 1976.

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Filed under North America, World music

Bluegrass jamming etiquette

bluegrass

A number of people attend U.S. bluegrass festivals not for the stage show, but for the informal jam sessions in the campgrounds or parking lot.

The interactional etiquette that jammers follow is manifested both in the conventions that help strangers to come together and in choices made during group playing of bluegrass standards. Ethics and aesthetics are fused as jammers negotiate interactional guidelines to reach a heightened musical and social communion.

This according to “A special kind of courtesy: Action at a bluegrass festival jam session” by Michelle Kisliuk (TDR: The drama review XXXII/3 [fall 1988] pp. 141–155). Above and below, festival attendees jamming with that special courtesy.

Related articles are here.

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Filed under Curiosities, North America

Gandy dancers

gandy dancers

Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by black men.

The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.

The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994). Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.

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Filed under Black studies, North America

Flower world/Mundo florido

flowerworld

Ēkhō Verlag issued the first volume of the series Flower world: Music archaeology of the Americas/Mundo florido: Arqueomusicología de las Américas in 2012.

This bilingual series aims to raise the study of the music-related activities of the pre-Columbian Americas to a new level, with peer-reviewed studies of both past and living traditions, providing a platform for the most up-to-date information on the music archaeology of the New World.

Below, a brief film about the pre-Columbian instruments of Mexico.

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Filed under Antiquity, Instruments, North America, South America, West Indies