Tag Archives: Smithsonian Object of the Day

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]

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

Filed under Jazz and blues, Visual art

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 24, 2019: Grand Piano Gifted to Prince Albert from Queen Victoria, 1854

Erard grand piano

Anyone who saw the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria last year knows that Prince Albert was an avid music lover and a pretty good pianist. There are quite a few scenes in which the romantic feelings of both Albert and Victoria (not a bad pianist herself) are expressed at the piano. In this light, the gift of Victoria of a grand piano to her husband means more than just any gift of a precious object; the piano represented the emotional bond between them, which lasted until Albert’s untimely death in 1861. They often played piano duets together and, in the tradition of pre-recording times, this included four-hand arrangements of symphonies, operas, and overtures. Whenever they travelled, they brought a pile of sheet music for their own entertainment, and in each one of their palaces there was at least one piano. In addition, they frequently hosted chamber music concerts or piano recitals by all the famous artists of their time.

Victoria and Albert owned no less than three grand pianos made by the Erard firm: apart from the above instrument, Victoria commissioned an 18th-century-style gilded instrument in 1856, similar to one she had owned in the 1830s at Buckingham Palace, as well as the 1848 Erard piano, which was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1849. Reportedly, Prince Albert had designed the case: a tulip-veneer design with nine porcelain depictions of famous old paintings. 

White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace: S & P Erard grand piano, 1856 RCIN 2426
Drawing Room, Osborne House: Erard grand piano, c.1848 RCIN 41322

Why did the royal couple seem to have a preference for Erard pianos? The Erard firm was the most forward-looking piano firm of its time, in line with Prince Albert’s interest in the crossroads between art and industrial progress. The founder of the firm, Sébastian Érard (1752–1831), was born in Strasbourg and settled in Paris in 1768. In 1779 he first travelled to London with the intention of setting up a piano firm, a plan he realized in 1792, while at the same time running a flourishing piano factory in Paris where he sold hundreds of instruments each year. Most of the pianos he sold were square pianos, but he also built grand pianos from 1790 or even earlier. Initially, the piano actions Erard used were based on the so-called “English action” used by John Broadwood in London, but Erard modified it to create a lighter touch. In 1821 he revolutionized piano building with the invention of his “double-escapement action,” which allowed for a greater ease of playing and louder sound. In addition, Érard was famous for the wood artistry and decorations of the cases of his most expensive models, such as were found in palaces around Europe. There were some differences between Erard’s pianos made in London and those made in Paris: the London pianos (such as the 1854 piano) tended to be plainer and sturdier, and there were also subtle differences in stringing and hammer-covering. As one can see in the illustration, it does not yet have the full-size iron frame, but rather iron bars across the length of the instrument to help withstand the string tension.

For more on musical instruments in the collection of Victoria and Albert: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/music-in-the-royal-collection/queen-victoria-1819-1901-and-prince-albert-1819-61

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

Written and compiled by Maria Rose, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Budds, Michael Joe. Music of the court of Queen Victoria: A study of music in the life of the Queen and her participation in the musical life of her time (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1987). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1987-2692]

Victoria was a patroness and an enthusiastic consumer of music. An accomplished amateur, she was known for her appreciation of opera and opera singers. Her understanding was broadened, though not defined—as is generally thought—by Prince Albert. (author)

Clarke, Christopher. “Érard and Broadwood in the Classical era: Two schools of piano making.” Musique, images, instruments: Revue française d’organologie et d’iconographie musicale 11 (2009) 98–125. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-9536]

French pianos of the Classical period have long been considered as having been copied from English models. While it is undeniable that there was a strong English influence on the French school, the inventive genius of Sébastien Érard led him to design both grand and square pianos that were ideally suited to the requirements of French musicians. Their demands for rapid repetition and a bright, powerful tone led him not only to invent a revolutionary series of piano actions which culminated in the famous double-escapement actions of 1821 and 1822, but also to re-think the structure and the tone-producing aspects of his instruments. Érard’s work is compared with his sources of inspiration; particularly the work of John Broadwood, but also that of Robert Stodart, the firm Crang & Hancock, Schoene, and others. In particular, two grand pianos and two squares, one each from Broadwood’s and Érard’s workshops, are discussed and compared. (author)

Epenhuysen Rose, Maria van. L’art de bien chanter: French pianos and their music before 1820 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, New York, 2006). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2006-13693]

Influenced by vocal styles, the development of French pianos and their music followed a different path from that in other regions of Europe. The Viennese-style piano, used in Paris concerts in 1784, was criticized for its lack of harmonie; the English piano for its heavy action. Sébastien Érard achieved a successful fusion of both types of piano in 1809 with the étrier-action piano. The reception of the piano in France is traced, using a variety of sources, including Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni’s 1794 list of confiscated instruments. Piano styles are analyzed in the works of Johann Schobert, Johann Gottfried Eckard, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Edelmann, Louis Adam, and others. Ca. 1790 a densely textured piano style became the norm, which relied on overlapping legato, rather than the pedal to create sustained sounds. After 1795, the focus on technique at the Conservatoire contrasted increasingly with the application of bel canto singing styles in private music making. (author)

Roudier, Alain. “Les pianos Érard en forme de clavecin (1790–1797)/The Érard grand pianos in the shape of a harpsichord/Die Érard-Flügel in Cembaloform”, Sébastien Érard: Ein europäischer Pionier des Instrumentenbaus: Internationales Érard-Symposium, Michaelstein, 13.14. November 1994, ed. by Rudolf Frick. (Blankenburg: Kultur- und Forschungsstätte Michaelstein, 1995) 12–14. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-3167]

It appears certain that the Érard firm made grand pianos before they patented them in 1794. The concept of this instrument and its English escapement mechanism reveal the influence of Broadwood, who had in fact been a source of inspiration to Sébastian Érard since 1779. The existence of an Érard grand piano from around 1790 is also confirmed by the firm’s register book, which lists numbered grand pianos, and by its sales books, which lists unnumbered instruments. Seventeen of these instruments—13 of them numbered—have been identified so far. A list of grand pianos made before April 1797 is included. (author)

1 Comment

Filed under Instruments

RILM Collaborates with The Smithsonian Institution

Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM) is excited to announce its collaboration with Smithsonian Music for its 2019 Year of Music. This initiative aims to increase public engagement, advance understanding, and connect communities by highlighting and sharing the Smithsonian’s vast musical holdings. RILM, which documents and disseminates music research worldwide, supports this by drawing on its comprehensive digital resources to create blog posts, right here on Bibliolore, on a selection of the Year of Music’s Objects of the Day. Each post is enhanced with an expertly curated bibliography. 

The bibliographic references stem from one of the richest and most exhaustive resources of global music research, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, which contains over a million bibliographic records from relevant writings on music published from the early 19th century to the present in 178 countries and in 143 languages.

Published posts include ones on Grand Wizzard Theodore’s turntables, the newly acquired Stinson banjoPatsy Cline’s performance outfit, the cover for the Voyager Golden Record, and Elaine Brown’s Seize the Time, with many more to come. 

To access all our posts in this Smithsonian collaboration series, search for “Smithsonian Object of the Day,” or click on the tag below.

Comments Off on RILM Collaborates with The Smithsonian Institution

Filed under Musicology, Publication types, RILM, RILM news

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 5, 2019: Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Time” (1969)

Album cover of Seize the Time, by Elaine Brown, Vault Records, SLP-131 (LP), 1969
Back of album cover

The First Songs of the American Revolution

On a January evening in 1969, members of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) congregated in Los Angeles to mourn comrades Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, two UCLA students who had just been shot and killed on the campus during an altercation with black nationalist group US (aka Organization Us). The gathering was an extension of the funeral service held earlier that day, the gravity of which was punctuated by Elaine Brown’s performance of Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” David Hilliard (BPP chief of staff at the time) had already heard from Ray “Masai” Hewitt (Panther leader and minister of education) that Brown wrote her own revolutionary songs and was determined to hear them before heading back to Oakland. He had a piano brought in and asked everyone to gather around. Brown sang songs dedicated to Party members, including “The Panther” (in memory of Frank “Franco” Diggs), “The Meeting” (for Eldridge Cleaver), and “Assassination” (written for Bunchy and John during her incarceration at Sybil Brand Institute). By the end of the evening, Hilliard declared “The Meeting” as the Black Panther Party’s official anthem, which was to be memorized by all members. Brown was then ordered to record an entire album of her songs. 

These were the events surrounding the genesis of Elaine Brown’s first album, Seize the Time. Through its images, lyrics, and music, it negotiates relationships between masculine and feminine strength, violent and non-violent resistance, personal and collective action, and past and future challenges. Even more, its reception provides an opportunity to evaluate the racial assumptions that mediate how we listen to the album that The Black Panther newspaper called “the first songs of the American revolution.” 

Listen to the album Seize the Time, issued by the Rhino Entertainment Company on Spotify

Illustrated by BPP minister of culture Emory Douglas, the album’s striking front cover conveys the Party’s embrace of militaristic methods, investment in black youth, and status of the composer herself, who would go on to chair the Party from 1974 to 1977. A black figure, dressed in a purple jacket and holding a Soviet-made AK-47 (possibly a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese), dominates the space. The fingers that grip the assault rifle’s lower handguard are painted purple, projecting a tone of feminine strength, and Brown’s authorial role is made explicit on the bottom left where a supporter carries a flag with the word “Elaine” running below her portrait.  

Cut-out images of fist-clenched children take various positions on the cover, collage-like, as they play-salute the cause. They reinforce the point that more than the Party’s bellicose ideology, which remains at the forefront of the popular imagination today, the cornerstone of its initiatives was community outreach programs like early morning breakfasts for underprivileged youths. The presence of the children should also bring to mind the work of Huggins’s widow Ericka, who was the editor of the Panthers’ newspaper and educational director of the Intercommunal Youth Institute, an elementary school run by the Party in East Oakland. 

While the album’s front cover emphasizes the Party, the “back cover” of the album is all Brown. Rather than song titles or lyrics, the only writing presented is Vault’s identification information, the composer’s name, the album title, and “Black Panther Party.” Brown’s face, eyes toward the ground, lies in the shadows; a more introspective side that reflects the personal nature of the songs’ contents.

The recording itself was the result of a collaboration with jazz musician and arranger Horace Tapscott who, as Brown writes in her book, A Taste of Power, “could sit down and orchestrate a song just as you sang it.” Brown’s connections to Vault Records allowed the album to come to fruition. To be sure, this was not the first time the Panthers had issued albums, which typically contained speeches, interviews, and court transcripts of Party leaders. Seize the Time was, however, unique among BPP-endorsed recordings at that point in that it contained only music. 

If the lyrical content of Seize the Time often made the Party’s violent defiance explicit (for example, “We’ll just have to get guns and be men” from “The End of Silence”), to some listeners it was sonically incommensurate with the immediacy, volume, ugliness, distortion, and disturbances—the grit and the funk—of an American revolution. The message may have been clear, but Brown’s interests in Bob Dylan and Western art music surfaced where many may have preferred something more along the lines of Betty Davis (which could have had something to do with the album’s failure to attain any kind of commercial success). 

To some, the issue was that Brown just didn’t sound black enough. As she explained in Ptolemaic Terrascope:

I think Huey Newton liked my music because its classical quality gave dignity to our movement, it wasn’t just dancing in the street, not that there is anything wrong with Martha and the Vandellas because we loved that…Someone accused me of not having a black sound and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I just wanted to make the most beautiful sound I could make and do the most beautiful thing I could do to honor our people.

The notion of Brown not having a “black sound” places her in a long history of criticism, directed towards singers from Ethel Waters to Ella Fitzgerald and countless others, that measures complex and multifaceted stylistic vocal traits against an imagined, static category that confirms socially constructed ideas of race. As Nina Sun Eidsheim writes in her listener-centered book, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music:

[“B]lack voice” is an observation born from an encultured notion of sound that expects fidelity to a referent and listens for difference. When voices are reduced to fixed sounds and undergo assessment, they cannot help but be heard within binaries or scale degrees of fidelity and difference. Moreover, due to the ways vocal timbre has historically been aligned with and metaphorized as interiority and truth, the stakes and ramifications of such assessment involve more than just sounds. What is measured is a person’s degree of fidelity to and difference from a dominant category. 

In Seize the Time, Brown’s voice dominates, with five of the album’s ten songs arranged for voice and piano alone. Her voice is always front and center in the mix, allowing its poignant, crisp, articulate, vibrato-infused delivery to shine, particularly in songs like “One Time.” Brown’s detractors heard the Elaine Brown of the back cover—a sonic expression of interiority—more than the Elaine Brown that appears on the flag below the gun on the front cover. The false dichotomy, the reduction of timbral complexity to an unfaithfulness to culturally engrained notions of a “black female experience,” all in the context of what a black revolution “should” sound like—it says much about the preconceptions of listening communities and little about Brown as a musician and revolutionary.  

Tapscott’s contribution as arranger deserves much more attention than space permits here. But as an exercise for exploring the meanings that emerge in orchestration—and this collects issues surrounding vocal quality, orchestration, visual (re)presentation, and race construction—it is instructive to compare two live performances of “Seize the Time,” one performed by Brown (likely in Los Angeles around 1969 or 1970) and another covered in 1970 by Finnish singer Carola Standertskjöld for Scandinavian television. The video of Standertskjöld’s performance features the album artwork as well photos of Huey Newton. 

Elaine Brown (Los Angeles, circa 1969-70) performs “Seize the Time, “Very Black Man,” “Poppa’s Come Home,” and “The Meeting” (cut off)
Carola Standertskjöld’s performance of “Seize the Time” (1970)

Brown’s album revealed the potential of music to further a political ideology, and so The Lumpen (a BPP outfit of four rank-and-file members who sang while performing various Party tasks) was formed. They recorded an album of the same name, which featured two songs released by the Party itself, “No More” and “Bobby Must be Set Free.” Short for Lumpenproletariat—a class theorized by Karl Marx as too culturally marginalized to be effective in the struggle for class revolution—the group performed at BPP functions, often covering popular songs by Sly and the Family StoneJames Brown, and others. Elaine Brown provided not only a soundtrack for the revolution, but also offered a template for music’s role as a mobilizer of political action in the context of the Black Panther Party’s aims. 

On the cover of the album Huey Newton Speaks resides Newton’s quote, “In the new world the most important thing will not be a social status or a material possession, it will be love and harmony between men.” Elaine Brown’s Seize the Time, in the end, situates revolution in the context of love: love for her friends, Party members, and community. One is reminded of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. As it unpacks issues of violent and non-violent resistance, drawing on the music of Louis Armstrong, a scene from an imagined past materializes. A slave mother, an “old singer of spirituals,” mourns the death of her master (and father to her children), who she poisoned for her family’s freedom. The poison, she explains, spared him the pain of the lethal stabbing that her sons would have delivered. The protagonist proposes to her, “Maybe freedom lies in hating.” She responds, “Naw, son, it’s in loving.”

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

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

Bibliography

Brown, Elaine. A taste of power: A black woman’s story (New York: Pantheon, 1992). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1992-33690]

“I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, comrades?” With these words, Elaine Brown proclaimed to the assembled leadership of the Black Panther Party that she was now in charge. It was August 1974. The Panthers had grown from a small Oakland-based cell to a national organization that had mobilized black communities throughout the country. The party’s achievements had won the support of millions of white liberals, but the violent assaults on the party by the police had brought death or imprisonment to many of its prominent members. Now its charismatic leader, Huey P. Newton, heading for refuge in Cuba, asked Elaine Brown to hold together a party threatened by internal conflict and the FBI. How she came to that position of power over a paramilitary, male-dominated organization and what she did with that power is an unsparing story of self-discovery. Growing up in a black Philadelphia ghetto and attending a predominantly white school, Elaine Brown learned firsthand the pain and powerlessness of being black and female. The Panthers held the promise of redemption. Elaine’s account of her life at the highest levels of the Panthers’ hierarchy illuminates more than the pain of sexism and the struggle against racism: The male power rituals she recounts carried the seeds of the Black Panther Party’s destruction. Nowhere was this undertow more evident than in the complex character of Huey P. Newton, who became Elaine’s lover and ultimately her nemesis. More than a journey through a turbulent time in American history, this is the story of a black woman’s battle to define herself. Freedom, Elaine Brown discovered, may be more than a political question. (publisher)

Eidsheim, Nina Sun. The race of sound: Listening, timbre, and vocality in African American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-7187]

Traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. The author illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. The author examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, the author untangled the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an under-theorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.

_____. “Voice as action: Toward a model for analyzing the dynamic construction of racialized voice”, Current musicology 93 (spring 2012) 9–33. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-21341]

Vocal timbre is commonly believed to be an unmanipulable attribute, akin to a sonic fingerprint. Because the voice arises from inside the body, quotidian discourse tends to refer to someone’s vocal sounds as inborn, natural, and true expressions of the person. What, then, are we to make of the common notion that a person’s race is audible in her voice? While it has been conclusively demonstrated that many of the physiognomic aspects historically employed as evidence of a person’s race—including skin color, hair texture, and dialect or accent —actually evidence nothing more than the construction of race according to the ideological values of beholders, vocal timbre continues to elude such deconstruction. Recent critical thought on the intermingling of the physical senses—including the so-called sensory turn in anthropology, “new materialist” philosophies, and recent advances in science, technology, sound studies, and media studies—underscores the need for scholarship that recognizes the voice and vocal categories as culturally conditioned material entities. Trends such as the metaphorical notion of “having voice” have to some degree obscured the material and multisensory aspects of voice. Conceived within the specific context of musicology and the general context of the humanities, this article seeks to demonstrate how the reframing of voice implied by sensory and material inquiries redraws the topology of voice. I believe that this exercise may offer a deepened understanding of racial dynamics as they play out in our interactions with voice. (author)

Pat, Thomas. Listen, whitey! The sights and sounds of Black power 1965–1975 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-36744]

Based on five years of research in Oakland, California and contacts made with members of the Black Panther Party, the author provides a history, and visual documentation, of rare recordings of speeches, interviews, and music by noted activists Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, The Lumpen, and many others that form the framework of this retrospective. The book also chronicles the forgotten history of Motown Records; from 1970 to 1973, Motown’s Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum, released politically charged albums by Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and many others. Also explored are the musical connections between Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Graham Nash, the Partridge Family (!?!), and the Black Power movement. Obscure recordings produced by SNCC, Ron Karenga’s US, the Tribe, and other African-American sociopolitical organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s are examined along with the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, Watts Prophets, Last Poets, Gene McDaniels, Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stanley Crouch, and others that spoke out against oppression. Other sections focus on Black Consciousness poetry (from the likes of Jayne Cortez, wife of Ornette Coleman), inspired religious recordings that infused God with Black Nationalism, and obscure regional and privately pressed Black Power 7-inch soul singles from across America. (publisher)

Vincent, Frederick Lewis. The Lumpen: Music on the front lines of the black revolution (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2008). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-47538]

Vincent, Rickey. Party music: The inside story of the Black Panthers’ band and how black power transformed soul music (Chicago: Lawrence Hill), 2013. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-19819]

Explores the culture and politics of the Black Power era of the late 1960s, when the rise of a black militant movement also gave rise to a Black Awakening in the arts—and especially in music. The relationship of soul music to the Black Power movement is examined from the vantage point of the musicians and black revolutionaries themselves. This book introduces readers to the Black Panthers’ own band, The Lumpen, a group comprised of rank-and-file members of the Oakland, California-based party. During their year-long tenure, The Lumpen produced hard-driving rhythm-and-blues that asserted the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers. Through his rediscovery of The Lumpen, and based on new interviews with Party and band members, the author provides an insider’s account of black power politics and soul music aesthetics in a narrative that reveals more detail about the Black Revolution than ever before.

Discography

Brown, Elaine. Elaine Brown. LP (Black Forum 458L-DJ, 1973). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1973-24747]

_____. Seize the time. LP (Vault Records SLP-131, 1969). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1969-16778]

Cleaver, Eldridge. Dig: Eldridge Cleaver at Syracuse. LP (More Records, Cleaver S-1, 1968). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1968-43352]

Newton, Huey, P. Huey!/Listen, whitey! LP (Smithsonian Folkways Records FD5402, 1972). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1972-13118]

_____. Huey Newton speaks. LP (Paredon 1004, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19048]

Seale, Bobby. Gagged and chained: The sentencing of Bobby Seale for contempt. 2 LPs (Certron CSS2-2001, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19049]

Comments Off on The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 5, 2019: Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Time” (1969)

Filed under Black studies, Politics

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

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

Filed under Curiosities, Science

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

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

Patsy Cline: Icon and Iconoclast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Filed under Mass media, Performers, 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)

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

Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Instruments, North America

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

Two Vestax PDX-2000 turntables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under Performers, Popular music