Essays
  • Song In American History And Culture

    By Deane L. Root

    Song in Walt Whitman’s America was an everyday affair, and it remains so today. His praise is not of humming, nor of half-remembered ballads, but of full-throated songs. The rhythm of work, or nurturing care, of playtime throbbed to the sound of song throughout life and across society’s many constituent parts.

A century and a half later, music is even more omnipresent, but not so often as “blithe and strong” singing from our own “open mouths.” The sound of background music has cheapened the art for us: its ubiquity as a commodity commanded by the mere press of a button, not only in public halls but in our offices, cars, parlors and bedrooms, numbs us to the communicative power of singing. Take a moment to listen as Walt Whitman might have done, and to think about song in American life.

Music, as one of the performing arts, must be heard through time to be comprehended and appreciated. Song, however, has been disseminated in more ways than oral performance; mass media and graphic publication have not only provided processes of transmission, they have helped define styles of music.

Oral transmission is a determining element of folksong, words and music passed along and modified by sound and memory, usually face to face, without the intermediary of a physical transcription. Popular song, in contrast, has relied on mechanical and electric technologies for reaching the largest possible public – whether through the theater, sheet music, phonograph, radio, television, computer, or their various offspring. And art song has dwelt in the realm of performers – and often audiences – educated in reading music notation.

Anthropologists value each of these three categories of communicative process equally, but adherents often become advocates for one over the others. Increasingly in 19th century America, songs represented social classes. Reliance on dissemination through music literacy gives art song a sense of being “elite” and restricted, in contrast to plebeian and unrestrained popular song, or the idiosyncrasies of folksong representing the culture of small, intimate, or informal groups within the larger American populace.

Each person identifies with individual songs and with one or more song styles, for a number of reasons. Familiarity with stylistic elements, identification of the song or its style with past events or with a group to which we belong, empathy with the thoughts or feelings expressed in the words, and aesthetic pleasure in the skilled application of the stylistic elements by the songwriter or performer, all influence our selection and appreciation of song.

More than any other musical genre, song expresses national, ethnic/racial, and gender identity. For this reason, as Whitman put it, certain songs “belong” to each of us. Vocal music has always been a hallmark of retained culture among immigrant groups to this continent. Within ethnic enclaves new songs have been generated that follow and adapt the stylistic elements of retained culture, mediating both the continuity and the acculturation of ethnic groups. Music – especially folk and popular song – has helped disperse minorities to bridge the continent and forge identities of a national scope. And the “voice” of a song text, coupled with performance style and – in folksong – any associated work roles, have strong gender connotations.

Song is poetry and music wedded together, lyrics and melody either unaccompanied or in an instrumental frame. The compact structure of song makes it a challenging medium for composers. In strophic songs, the musical setting must accommodate the subtleties of more than one verse of text. Through-composed songs must maintain a sense of organic unity. The mid 19th century songwriter, singing teacher and publisher George L. Root (1820-1895) avowed:

It is easy to write correctly a simple song, but so to use the material of which such a song must be made that it will be received and live in the hearts of the people is quite another matter …. It was much easier to write there the resources were greater; where I did not have to stop and say, That interval is too difficult’ or That chord won’t do.’

Like so many other songwriters, Root usually conceived a melody to fit a pre-existent text. But some melodists have served as their own poets. Stephen Foster (1826-1864) first drafted his poems, sometimes taking months to craft the words – to a single song, then took equal pains with the melody and a rudimentary harmony, – before sketching in the piano accompaniment and writing out the finished song for the publisher. Charles Ives (1874-1954) selected lyrics from the New England Transcendentalist poets, but "The Circus Band" is his own evocation of a childhood fantasy. (His music also sampled from his favorite popular songs and church hymns.) Songwriting was first of all and remains primarily an avocation. Throughout much of America’s history, most songwriters have beautiful earned their livelihoods by teaching music or performing it. Rare are the successful composers of song who have tended other occupations, as Charles Ives did in insurance.

For art-music composers, song has often been a pleasurable reprieve from wrestling with large symphonic forms, chamber-music pieces, and choral works, an opportunity to create exquisite miniatures. For some, however, songwriting has been a livelihood, their central engagement in an artistic profession. So few have devoted themselves exclusively to songwriting because it has been relatively unremunerative as a career. Through much of the 19th century, even when they could find a publisher for their work, writers have struggled between having to sell their compositions outright to the publisher, or accept the royalties on the public sale of individual copies of the sheet music. Songs, however, were easily copied down and rearranged from public performances, and their issuance from pirate publishers earned not a penny for their authors. The Foster Collection at the University of Pittsburgh has editions of "Oh! Susanna" issued by twenty-eight different publishers during its composer’s lifetime, only one of which had paid him for it.

Performing rights became a source of income for songwriters or lyricists with the founding of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1914. Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and other agencies have since arisen to collect fees from public, recorded, and electronic performances for redistribution to the writers of the words and music. Today, thousands of songwriters, mostly for the popular market, thrive under the protection of their “intellectual property” through “fair use” legislation restricting the ability of others to copy without first receiving permission and paying for the privilege.

Whether songs spring from communal memory, the marketing mechanism of mass media, or the art-song composer, they voice our national identity as well as our individual affinities. Immigration has brought both intense waves and long-term trickles of new cultures, establishing ethnic characteristics within their repertoires. Stephen Foster was recognized as the first songwriter to extend beyond the more narrow traits of individual national groups and create a body of song recognized as being distinctly American, song that had not existed in any other country. That he needed to reach the widest possible audience to survive as a professional songwriter may have been his motivation. But he succeeded in distilling the most familiar shared elements from each of the national types of song, both in their textual themes and their melodic and harmonic materials. The result, as musicologist Charles Hamm has put it, is that never before, and rarely since, did any music come so close to being a shared experience for so many Americans.

Foster’s songs were written for the market, but they entered both oral tradition and the literate repertoire. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported:

The air is full of his melodies. They are whistled, and sung, and played on all interments every where. Their simple pathos touches every heart. They are our national music.

Walt Whitman heard Americans singing as they made their lives in the new continent. Stephen Foster and his successor songwriters down to the present have created the songs for our strong melodious voices.

Deane L. Root – published in the program to A Gala Concert of American Song presented by Thirteen/WNET and Great Performances. Deane L. Root is Curator of the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh and co-editor/author of the New Critical Edition of the Music of Stephen Foster (University of Pittsburgh, 1990).