Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sweet Freedom's Song

This was originally part of the program notes to my masters recital recently, but in light of current events, I think it is apropos.


One of the most interesting facets of American music throughout the country’s history has been its passionate role in social and political activism. From the tea party protests (the original tea party, that is!) in Boston, to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, music has been the grease on the wheels of democracy.

In 1854, Joshua McCarter Simpson (a “free black” from Ohio who became one of the leading voices in the abolitionist movement) created and published an abolitionist song book. His reasoning in doing so was, he said, because “you can sing what would be death to speak.” His words have proven true over and over throughout American history.

Perhaps the very first such example was My Country ‘Tis of Thee, itself. The tune, God Save the King, was used subversively to defy England and rally the population of the new nation. The words we use now - My Country ‘Tis of Thee weren’t written until 1831; however, there were many sets of alternate lyrics used throughout the revolutionary war. One set of proposed alternate lyrics, published in 1777, in the Boston Chronicle, begins with this verse:

FAME, let they Trumpet sound,
Rouse all the World around,
  With loud alarms!
Fly hence to Britain's land,
Tell George in vain his Hand
Is raised 'gainst FREEDOM's Band,
  When called to arms.

Mild, perhaps, by today’s standards, but in an era where the concept of the Divine Right of kings was still being tossed about, this was musical fuel to the revolutionary fire. Skipping forward some years, slave songs – spirituals such as what you will hear tonight – were instance of musical rebellion.

The history of the music of our nation resounds with such examples – and despite grumbling from certain corners about kids and their music these days it still sparks the imagination and holds influence in the struggle towards freedom. For example, in the mid 90’s, American hip-hop and rap was the foundation for what would become an underground cultural revolution in Iran. Taking the spirit of the genre to heart, a new fusion of Persian poetry and American rap styles was born. It continues to grow in popularity, filling underground clubs with young Iranians – male and female using the music to escape from and oppose an oppressive regime, despite their government’s oppressive attempts to stamp it out.

While my country and its political/social decisions may irritate me quite frequently, I can truly say that I am unabashedly proud of our musical heritage. Our musical inclusiveness – representing a broad sweep of cultures and creeds – is (I believe) the essence of what the U.S. was meant to be and hopefully will someday achieve: a more perfect Union. And until that happens, our music will be there as a symbol to remind us of what being American means: an unbreakable spirit of defiance in the face of adversity – being able to sing...even when we cannot speak.

Kids These Days - Music & Social Change

I've recently been holding a discussion on the (somewhat distressing) fact that one of my students - a thirteen year old - didn't know what folk music was, or who Bob Dylan was. And it's not the fact that she's young and doesn't know that's the problem.

The issue is that by neglecting music and music history in our education system, we are denying kids (and adults) many, many more things - social context for music, social history, the role of music in the progress of civil rights, the power of art to change history... The list could go on and on. What I received from music education has informed many facets of my life. The information gained has allowed me a much higher level of sophistication in my understanding of life.

For instance...
  • Because I know who Palestrina and Martin Luther were, I know of the trends of reform in Christianity that affected and continue to affect the differentiation in religious thought and practice today.
  • Because I know who Wolfgang Mozart was, and because I know his operas, I know about the difficulties that surround patron-sponsored art, and I know of the role music and theatre can play in upsetting regimes and sparking revolution.
  • Because I know who Nannerl Mozart was, I know of the difficulties women have faced in the performing arts, and how far we've come in that direction.
  • Because I know who Gossec was, and his role in the French Revolution, I know how problematic state-sponsored, propaganda-driven music can be. Because I know who de Lisle was, I know also how even music created at the behest of the state and for specific political purpose, like La Marsailles, can rise above all that and take on meaning and life of its own.
  • Because I know who Verdi was, I know how a composer and his music can unwittingly take on a far deeper political meaning than intended, and can become thematic to an uprising.
  • Because I know who Shostakovich was, I know the problems of state-censorship, the problems caused by forcing artists to follow the desires of a political regime. I know how dangerous allowing art to be censored can be for the artist.
And more recently, in our own history...
  • Because I know who Jelly Roll Morton is, I know of the history of Storeyville, how the problems of corruption in Louisiana became so deeply ingrained that it is still affecting the state today.
  • Because I know who Billie Holiday was, I know how effective a song can be against horrors such as lynching.
  • Because I know who Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, William Warfield and Leontyne Price were, I know how a minority can take on the majority in a "non-threatening" way, and open the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
  • Because I know who Sam Cooke was, I know both how a pop song can stir a movement towards civil rights; I also know how dangerous "country justice" can be, and the problems that arise when one group of people are valued above the rest.
  • Because I know who Bob Dylan was, I know how music can slide under the radar of the authorities, and stir people to action, to continue to struggle for the rights of man.
  • Because, even, I know who Madonna is, I know how women have struggled to define themselves in the music industry, and that one woman can become an impresario.
This list could go on and on, but the point remains clear: by denying people the history and experience of all kinds of music from all eras, we are denying them tools to shape and change the future.