Music and American Culture. This article surveys recent scholarship on popular music, country music and classical music, with an interest in determining how race and ethnicity, gender, and class have influenced the performance and production of music. This interdisciplinary research has illuminated issues as diverse as ethnic and regional identity, the degree of agency among artists, and Cold War politics.
Despite some shortcomings in its application, such research continues to offer scholars much material regarding the many connections between music and American culture. Music is too important to be left to musicologists. Numerous scholars in the fields of cultural history, ethnic studies, and folklore studies have joined, and often surpassed, their colleagues in musicology to consider how music can illuminate our understanding of race and ethnicity as well as gender and class.
My purpose here is to highlight these trends by considering recent literature on popular music, country music, and classical music and their relation to American culture. My focus is on the work of scholars who write less on the music itself notes, rhythm, phrasing, etc. In this way, I think, a survey of music-related scholarship can be of most use and relevance to those engaged in interdisciplinary work. Vaudeville and Jazz Popular music has received enormous attention by scholars, primarily to engage issues of race and ethnicity.
This approach claims that black artists were far more active in the expression of black identity, and in seeking a dialogue with black and white audiences, than earlier scholarship led us to believe. Karen Sotiropoulos emphasizes this point in her work, Staging Race. Nonetheless, highly trained composers and songwriters, such as J.
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Similarly, Brenda Dixon Gottschild analyzes African American cultural invention during the swing era in which vaudeville played a major part. Music and American Culture Why swing? After all, Goodman was relying on an African American arranger, Fletcher Henderson, long before his Palomar engagement.
This point is important, for it contributes to the current debate on modernism;African American musicians have frequently been credited with, on the one hand, launching a modern cultural movement based on jazz, while on the other hand representing the essence of anti-modernity in being characterized as merely emotional or primitive in that cultural expression: a claim that would come to haunt many later black artists.
Swing reached not only across race but also across gender.
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Music has long been represented with freedom, yet freedom came with a double-edged sword for women musicians. Even if they were lesbian, coming out of the closet could damage their careers, while at the same time they enjoyed freedoms that other women in more traditional roles did not. As Tucker readily acknowledges, new trends in jazz literature have been slow to include gender analysis, and Tucker focuses on women who performed not because there were no male bands around but because they were accomplished musicians.
Two works worth noting before considering other forms of popular music further involve the intersection of gender, race, and ethnicity, albeit in different ways. He learned much on the road. Few could do that better than Jolson. By contrast, Fannie Brice learned her Jewishness from others, claiming little knowledge of Yiddish or Jewish mannerisms until imitating the likes of songwriter Irving Berlin or Jolson himself.
In other words, similar to the predicament of vaudevillians Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit among African American audiences, to what extent were Jewish performers willing to go to make it in America? Since Jews not only played a significant role on Broadway but also ruled Tin Pan Alley, their cultural contributions were manifest during an era in which the nation was struggling to define its own complex ethnic identity. Music and American Culture Penny Von Eschen takes a very different stance in her fascinating book on postwar jazz musicians.
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State Department during the Cold War era. The results were frequently mixed. The agency that Von Eschen explores is how musicians sought to circumvent the limitations of the State Department in terms of their behavior and even musical material, while the State Department looked upon askance and even at times in fury on the degree to which those musicians were subverting the very notion the government wanted to project: racial equanimity and freedom in America, or the basic message of much American culture.
The irony of this study is that at the very time that jazz was declining in popularity as American popular music, jazz musicians were in great demand in places around the world they would scarcely have considered touring on their own. From the first tour in war-driven Iraq in , to the last State Department-organized tour in , Von Eschen charts the degree to which musicians performed and U. Both musicians and officials witnessed and often sought to diffuse Cold War tensions in essentially retracing the African diaspora.
King and even soul singer James Brown. Yet one challenge that remained for all of these performers was the belief among many State Department personnel that what they did was from primitive or emotional instinct, refusing to recognize the extensive degree of professionalism and trained skill that the same officials might accord, for example, white classical musicians. The same struggle that Gottschild noted for swing era musicians thus continued to confront performers of the Cold War era.
Moreover, the contemporary emphasis on the image rather than merely the music, as seen in the explosion of MTV and related venues, has left scholars grappling with ways to understand visual as well as aural art. Scholars who tend to inhabit the realm of rock or popular music studies are often engaged with themes of postmodernism, postfeminism, cultural studies, and ethnic studies, and so themselves are often divided in terms of approaching anything that could be termed a common strategic approach.
That being said, several scholars have effectively and creatively made the bridge between rock music and its role in American culture, yielding often powerful results. Ward calls it as he sees it, not averse to criticism of black artists, in direct contrast to much work by white and black scholars on black musicians that can border almost on hagiography. The theme of the book, that music had a vital role to play in a critical era in American society and culture, is patently proved, and the work is an indication of what music scholars can do not only with the study of rock but with the study of music in general.
Similar crossover links to other musical fields have proven to be particularly effective. The point is clear: there is no discounting the phenomenal importance of the electric guitar in the development of rock and its related genres. One of the most striking developments in rock scholarship is the study of women in rock.
As both Gayle Wald and Tony Grajeda argue in their respective essays on feminism and rock musicians in the collection Rock Over the Edge, the growth of independent or indie rock and the Riot Grrrl movement in the early s remains a phenomenal force today. Founders of Riot Grrrl made a stake in the rock and roll rebellion by claiming territory in which males were neither musicians, singers, songwriters, or even necessarily producers.
In contrast with rock scholarship, rap and hip-hop studies are flourishing, in part due to the excitement of a relatively new genre and the direct link that such music has with socioeconomic conditions in America. In part it succeeded as an attack on commercialized music, much the way punk did during the same era. To write on such opinions, historians need to listen not only to the music but engage in oral history with the musicians as well as to master the written sources that have covered the genre since the s.
To gauge the importance of rap in these sources, Vibe soared to a fan audience of , by , second only to venerable Rolling Stone itself founded in by Jan Wenner , with 1. Music and American Culture culture. In an effort to claim a space for themselves, Black women involved with Hip-Hop culture must continuously bring wreck, by which she means that in order to achieve functional change, women must engage in acts of resistance by directly confronting the patriarchal structure inherent in the genre. Such an approach complements other recent work in the field that focuses on black masculinity vs.
Dre Andre Young. Such rappers see themselves primarily as religious educators in addition to being entertainers, something quite different from most other rappers, and have scored numerous successes in getting black men and women to convert to the Nation of Islam or at least be receptive to its beliefs, as Felicia M. Miyakawa has made clear in her book on the subject. I close this section on popular music with a book by Josh Kun, Audiotopia. Unlike all of the different forms of popular music discussed in this article, country music rarely attracts scholars in ethnic studies, cultural studies, or even musicology.
Rather, it is southern historians and folklorists who seem to prowl the halls of archival collections related to country music or to interview the many denizens, musicians and fans alike, of the genre.
Why this is so is difficult to explain, although one can imagine that since country musicians and their fan base are overwhelmingly white, and often conservative in their political tastes, they pose less immediate interest for scholars interested in issues of race and ethnicity, especially those who tend to focus on nonwhite musicians. Yet the now longstanding interest since the s in whiteness studies would suggest that there is an open field here for cultural historians and ethnic studies scholars to plow: the ways in which country musicians offer differing portrayals of whiteness.
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One dominant theme in much recent work on country music concerns the search for identity, both regional and national. The doyen of country music studies, Bill Malone, has explored this theme in depth in several books. These qualities alone, however, still do not explain how a music that thrived mainly in the South achieved a national audience.
Music and American Culture be in the very texture of the music itself.
This is a point that Richard Peterson had made in his insightful work on authenticity and country music. What did Southern California have? Yet what made a critical difference in the development of country music out West was not so much film but the Dust Bowl, when tens of thousands of farm workers provided the bulwark of most bands and fans of hillbilly music during the s and 40s. This is a point that Anthony Harkins echoes in his fine study on the image of the hillbilly in American culture. As with jazz studies, the analysis of gender has opened a new door in country music studies.
As Keel argues, artists such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Gretchen Wilson have sought to surmount traditional barriers to female artists, claiming the benefits of feminism while refusing to be labeled as feminist. There have been several recent studies on the performance and patronage of classical music in urban centers and their role in the twentieth-century transformation of American culture.
Carol J. Thus such names as Leo Ornstein, Dan Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson alternately delighted and shocked audiences and in the process became cultural icons among those who claimed the country could indeed rival Europe in artistic prominence. Nor were prominent composers all male, as Oja points out; Ruth Crawford and Marion Bauer, to name two, found a following in joining the modernist circle.
Moreover, as these composers fanned out across the country — Crawford and Rudhyar to Los Angeles, Cowell to San Francisco — New York was no longer the only dominant force in classical music as such artists spread their gifts to other audiences.