Category Archives: Visual art

Roy DeCarava’s photographic aesthetic

 

The legacy of Roy DeCarava, particularly his collection The sound I saw: Improvisation on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon, 2001), illuminates how his photographic method, both in individual photographs and in the way they are sequenced, absorbed jazz technique and mimicked jazz performance.

DeCarava’s aesthetic can be seen as both a distinctively black aesthetic and a profoundly inclusive one. His unflinching but caring eye is cast over the debris of the ghetto as well as the ecstasy of the jazz solo, and it observes the cramped but welcoming dark of the metonymic Harlem hallway.

This according to “‘And you slip into the breaks and look around’: Jazz and everyday life in the photographs of Roy DeCarava” by Richard Ings, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 303–31).

Today is DeCarava’s 100th birthday!

Above, Dancers (Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, 1956) by Roy DeCarava is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Below, a brief documentary.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking it: The quest for authenticity in popular music (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-4996]

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

Barnum, Phineas Taylor (P.T.). “P.T. Barnum and the Jenny Lind fever”, Music in the USA: A documentary companion, ed. by Judith Tick and Paul E. Beaudoin. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 185–189. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-36741]

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

Biddlecombe, George. “Jenny Lind, illustration, song and the relationship between prima donna and public”, The idea of art music in a commercial world, 1800–1930, ed. by Christina M. Bashford and Roberta Montemorra Marvin. Music in society and culture (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016) 86–113. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-2056]

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

Bruckmüller-Schindler, Magdalena. “The diva between admiration and contempt: The cult state of exceptional music artists in the 19th century”, Europe in the time of Franz Liszt, ed. by Valentina Bevc Varl and Oskar Habjanič. (Maribor: Pokrajinski muzej Maribor, 2016) 150–161. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-44231]

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

Caswell, Austin B. “Jenny Lind’s tour of America: A discourse of gender and class”, Festa musicologica: Essays in honor of George J. Buelow, ed. by Thomas J. Mathiesen and Benito V. Rivera. Festschrift series 14 (Stuyvesant: Pendragon Press, 1995) 319–337. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-12612]

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

Gallagher, Lowell. “Jenny Lind and the voice of America”, En travesti: Women, gender subversion, opera, ed. by Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith. Between men—between women: Lesbian and gay studies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) 190–215. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-1209]

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

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The art of P.T. Barnum (Repr. ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1981-24440]

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

Newman, Nancy. “Gender and the Germanians: ‘Art-loving ladies’ in nineteenth-century concert life”, American orchestras in the nineteenth century, ed. by John Spitzer. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012) 289–309. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-3608]

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

Oakes, Jason Lee. “Listen to me now: Social media, celebrity, and popular music”, IASPMUS (2011) http://iaspm-us.net/pop-talk-listen-to-me-now-social-media-celebrity-and-popular-music-part-i-by-jason-oakes/. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-4108]

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

Samples, Mark C. “The humbug and the nightingale: P.T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and the branding of a star singer for American reception”, The musical quarterly 99/3–4 (fall–winter 2016) 286–320. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-40602]

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

Vella, Francesca. “Jenny Lind, voice, celebrity”, Music & letters 98/2 (May 2017) 232–254. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2017-33082]

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

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Filed under Iconography, Performers, Romantic era

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

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

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

– Harriet W. Fowler, University of Kentucky Art Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

Becker, Fred. “The WPA Federal Art Project, New York City: A reminiscence”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 74–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-47387]

Briggs, Ray Anthony. Memphis jazz: African American musicians, jazz community, and the politics of race (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2003-10637]

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

Bromell, Nick. “‘The blues and the veil’: The cultural work of musical form in blues and ’60s rock”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 18/2 (summer 2000) 193–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 2000-8321]

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

Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street could talk: Music, community, culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22]

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

Chametzky, Jules. “Introduction to Fred Becker’s WPA graphics”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 69–73. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-47388]

Fowler, Harriet W., and Sophia Wallace. New Deal art: WPA works at the University of Kentucky—University of Kentucky Art Museum, August 25–October 27, 1985 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1985-28412]

Handy, William Christopher (W.C.). Father of the blues: An autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1941-249]

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

Ryan, Jennifer D. “Beale Street blues? Tourism, musical labor, and the fetishization of poverty in blues discourse”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 55/3 (fall 2011) 473–503. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2011-5464]

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

Wechsler, James. “Fred Becker and experimental printmaking”, Print quarterly 10/4 (December 1993) 373–384. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-28755]

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Visual art

Harvey Pekar and jazz

Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical comic series American splendor, was also a jazz fan, an obsessive record collector, a prolific jazz critic, and a tireless supporter of experimental music; he often worked these enthusiasms into his comic strips.

These comic-book treatments of jazz can be viewed as extensions and developments of his prose criticism in publications such as The jazz review and DownBeat. In these comic strips, Pekar was experimenting with the form of jazz criticism itself, and was developing its language and impact.

This according to “Comics as criticism: Harvey Pekar, jazz writer” by Nicolas Pillai, an essay included in The Routledge companion to jazz studies (New New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 433–41).

Today would have been Harvey Pekar’s 80th birthday! Above, Robert Crumb’s depiction of Pekar and himself for an American splendor cover; below, a promo clip for Harvey Pekar’s world of jazz.

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Filed under Humor, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Norman Lewis’s “pure eye music”

The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.

Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).

While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.

This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).

Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Cymbals and symbols in ancient Greece

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses an astonishing bronze figurine, perhaps unearthed in Cyprus: a nude woman playing a pair of cymbals, standing on a frog (inv. no. 74.51.5680). It was probably the handle of a mirror, and the craftmanship is typical of ancient Laconia.

Scholars have never explained the relationships between all the represented elements, but the figurine is obviously related to ancient Spartan music, or at least to its soundscape.

We may wonder whether there is a link between the frog and the cymbals in terms of sound. Did ancient Greeks perceive the croaking as a percussive sound? In Greek antiquity, frogs seem to be associated with several types of instruments.

Since the figurine might come from Cyprus and it depicts a nude woman, it is usually interpreted as Aphrodite. However, if it is a Laconian piece of art, it seems more relevant to recognize here one of the main goddesses of Sparta, Artemis Orthia. She stands on a frog, because her sanctuary was located in the marshlands of Sparta, a place appropriate for batrachia. This place had a specific soundscape of croaking frogs and water sounds. Further, there are remains of feline paws on her shoulders; the archaic Artemis is the mistress of wild beasts.

In the sanctuary, archaeologists found cymbals and auloi dedicated to the goddess for apotropaic purposes. It may be opportune to compare this piece with Asian drums decorated with frogs, which were used to ask for rain fertility: perhaps the cymbals associated with croaking had the same function in ancient Spartan marshlands.

This according to “Croaking and clapping: A new look at an ancient Greek bronze figurine (from Sparta)” by Sylvain Perrot (Music in art XLIII/1–2 [2018] pp. 175–83)

Below, an illicit visit to the sanctuary.

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Filed under Animals, Antiquity, Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments, Nature

Iconography in early ethnomusicology

 

Visual depictions of music and music making outside of Europe can be found in abundance in 17th- and 18th- century travel accounts, missionaries’ reports, and books predicated on the idea of the universality of music.

Illustrations of non-European music from this period reflect the early stages in Europe of an ethnomusicological conception of the world, and their pictorial rhetoric often encompassed areas of study that continue to interest scholars in the 20th century. The close connection between image and concept in musicological thinking suggests that the history of the field may perhaps reach further back and may have developed more cohesively than is currently assumed.

This according to “Missionaries, magical muses, and magnificent menageries: Image and imagination in the early history of ethnomusicology” by Philip V. Bohlman (The world of music XXX/3 [1988] pp. 5–27).

Above, in his Moeurs des sauvages amériquains, comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps, Joseph-François Lafitau depicted the imaginary world of Native American myths as well as the empirical world of his observations.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Iconography

Carmontelle and Mozart

 

A resurgence of scholarly interest in Louis Carogis de Carmontelle has drawn attention to the diverse accomplishments of a neglected playwright, critic, inventor, and artist.

While serving as lecteur to Louis-Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, Carmontelle was responsible for the education of the Duke’s son; organized performances and other entertainments at the Duke’s château; wrote over 100 plays; designed landscape gardens; and created, among other drawings and watercolors, over 700 portraits of musicians.

These portraits offer a unique historical and cultural record of French society, musical practice, and taste in the 1760s and 1770s—including a portrait of the young Mozart performing at the harpsichord with his father and sister during their visit to Paris and Versailles from late 1763 to early 1764 (above; click to enlarge).

This according to “Carmontelle’s portraits of 18th-century musicians” by Mary Cyr (The musical times CLVIII/1941 [winter 2017] pp. 39–54).

Today is Carmontelle’s 301st birthday! Below, a silent film of his rouleau transparent depicting figures walking in a park, one of the many diversions he created for Louis-Philippe’s court.

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Filed under Iconography, Performers

Poster stamps

Poster stamps, or Reklamemarken, were advertising labels or seals printed like postage stamps on perforated sheets of adhesive paper.

Widely used and extremely popular before World War I in Europe, especially in Germany, these little collectibles almost disappeared after World War II.

As music iconography, they are exemplified in a collection of recorder-themed poster stamps recently donated to the American Recorder Society by Ewald Henseler, the author of “Not postage stamps—but recorder poster stamps” (American recorder LIX/1 [spring 2018] pp. 32–39).

Above, recorder poster stamps advertising Tobler chocolate; below, a chocolate recorder. Don’t miss the climactic ending!

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Filed under Curiosities, Iconography, Instruments

Angelic bird musicians

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Animals, Iconography, Middle Ages