Tag Archives: United States

Harry Smith’s grand collage

The power of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music, which turns 65 this year, lies squarely in its use of collage.

Smith’s decisions in sequencing and juxtaposing the 84 songs encouraged a play of sounds and lyrical content that calls attention to similarities and differences, opening multiple meanings and allowing for many possible interpretations.

By privileging collage over narrative, Smith created a complex and nuanced work of social commentary. Through collage, the Anthology captures the ongoing negotiation of the various voices—past and present, black and white—taking part in the reconstruction of U.S. history. These voices remain audible today.

This according to “Collage, politics, and narrative approaches to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music” by Dan Blim, an essay included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American folk music: America changed through music (Abington: Routledge, 2017, pp. 82–99).

Above, Smith ca. 1965; below, selections from volume II of the six-volume set.

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, North America

Macy’s does the parade

thanksgiving-day-parade

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

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

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

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“The star-spangled banner” turns 200

star spangled banner

Around 1775 John Stafford Smith wrote a melody for verses celebrating the Anacreontic Society, a London amateur musicians’ supper club. With its stirring tune, The Anacreontic song soon escaped the confines of club ritual, appearing in popular song collections and inspiring parodies in London’s many theaters.

By 1790 the melody had become part of the core of the active U.S. broadside tradition; by 1820 Anacreon, as the tune was then known, was the vehicle for more than 85 sets of American lyrics.

A number of these songs were nationalistic, praising early presidents and articulating partisan conflicts. The tune became widely associated with U.S. patriotism, making it a natural choice for Francis Scott Key for his commemoration of the nation’s surprise victory in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. Originally titled Defense of Fort McHenry, the song quickly became a U.S. patriotic favorite as The star-spangled banner.

This according to “A star-spangled biennial” by Jerry Blackstone, Mark Clague, and Andrew Kuster (Choral journal LIV/9 [April 2014] pp.6–17).

Today is the song’s 200th birthday! Above, the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the battle, as restored by the Smithsonian Institution; below, the original song, followed by two iconic performances of the U.S. national anthem.

Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, 1991.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969.

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Gandy dancers

gandy dancers

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

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

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

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Filed under Black studies, North America

Folk music index

folkindex

Jane Keefer’s Folk music index is a database of U.S. old-time recordings that can be searched by title, recording, keyword, or publisher.

Cross references to alternate titles, related pieces, and similar melodies constitute around 18% of the nearly 39,000 titles in the title index. The recordings indexed generally have a major emphasis on tradition-based material from both commercial and non-commercial performers, including a considerable amount of old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.

Although most of the recordings included are LPs, many have been reissued as cassettes and CDs.

Below, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers play Soldier’s joy in 1929—with a little help from some friends.

Related articles:

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Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections

Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections is a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting traditional cultures throughout Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This free online resource is part of the Library of Congress American Memory series.

Undertaken in conjunction with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, the Florida Music Project, and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Work Projects Administration, the collection features folk songs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures; and oral histories.

The website provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcriptions, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and an essay on Florida folklife by Zora Neale Hurston (inset). A new essay by Stetson Kennedy reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida, and an extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.

Above, construction workers gathered around the stove in the craftsmen’s barracks at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1940.

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Filed under North America, Resources