Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Leadbelly's Life Story

Call me ignorant, but I never knew Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter's crazy life story. I just read this in Ed Cray's biography of Woody Guthrie, who often partnered up with Leadbelly for radio shows and union performances. Apparently after growing up in Texas and  learning blues from Blind Lemon Jefferson he:

fell into a series of scrapes with the law, first sentenced to thirty days on a county road gang in East Texas, escaping, and eventually acquiring a reputation as "the baddest ass nigger." He was not yet thirty when he was convicted of murdering a cousin and sentenced to a term from seven to thirty years in prison.

After five years of state prison farm labor, Texas Governor Pat Neff visited the prison in 1924, and Ledbetter got to perform for him. Wisely, he wrote a song pleading for a pardon, later saying:

I put Mary in it, Jesus's mother, you know. I took a verse from the Bible, around the twenty-second chapter of Proverbs, around the fourteenth verse; if you forgive a man his trespasses, the heavenly father will also forgive your trespasses.

Just before leaving office in 1925, Neff pardoned Ledbetter. By 1930, though, the man had landed himself back in jail after he was convicted of assault. While at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, he was visited by John and Alan Lomax, who were touring state prisons collecting folk and spiritual songs. After he was paroled, Ledbetter tracked down the Lomaxes, who he worked for several years before breaking into the New York City music scene. Here's a rather embarrassingly paternalistic 1935 recreation of the relationship between Ledbetter and John Lomax:

Ledbelly went on to pretty great musical success, including recording for the first time this tune, the melody of which Woody Guthrie borrowed and rewrote about a million times:

And of course if Leadbelly had stayed in prison we wouldn't have gotten this musical gem six decades later:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Music and Nationalism: Beethoven the German Chama Chama Chama Chameleon

Every now and then a particularly juicy example of how music tends to get all tied up in nationalism and appropriated for conflicting versions of national identity comes to light. Starting particularly in the nineteenth century, political leaders increasingly turned to cultural markers to sell and signify their national movements, politicizing artists and their art in the process. Music, as arguably the most intangible of arts, has served as a particularly flexible political signifier. The music and legacy of Beethoven is just one example.

In Beethoven in German Politics, Loyola University historian David Dennis reveals how German advocates of fundamentally competing ideologies from socialism to far right nationalism adopted the composer as a domestic prophet for their movements. Opposing groups within the nation fought over the composer's legacy in a century-long battle over the definition of the true German identity. 

Starting with the 100th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 1870, Dennis chronicles more than a century of political appropriation of Beethoven, the man and his music. Dennis shows the astoundingly diverse and blatantly conflicting interpretations of the work and life of one man throughout the Second Reich, Weimar Republic, Third Reich and postwar division of Germany. The images of Beethoven Dennis uncovers range from the conception of the composer as an unearthly intellectual, far removed from the quotidian struggles of man, to portraits of Beethoven as a proletarian revolutionary for the people and, even more commonly, the depiction of the (actually arguably apolitical) musician as a volkish and militaristic nationalist. As Dennis shows, all visions of Beethoven were used by opposing political movements to sell their particular ideals of Germany and German identity.

Leftists, such as socialist leader Kurt Einser, worked to expose the working class (which Einser believed had been hitherto denied the blessing of Beethoven by bourgeois exclusionists) to the composer's scores. Communist party leaders attempted to “control audience comprehension of Beethoven's music by supplementing performances with written or spoken commentary.” On the other side of the political spectrum, militant nationalists attempted to transform Beethoven's compositions as fuel for territorial expansion, and libertarian businessmen portrayed Beethoven as a stout individualist. 

While largely relying on the written literature surrounding Beethoven's legacy, Dennis does briefly consider the particular force of the composer's music, the atypical tenor and vim which, depending on the political leanings of the listener, was equally capable of evoking hopeful images of forceful individualistic liberty or inspiring united movements of class consciousness. As he notes early in the work, classically trained conservatives originally responded negatively to Beethoven's body of work. He writes, “Like people who argued that looking out of the window of a train could have debilitating psychological effects, traditionalists resisted the 'rush' of Beethoven's compositions.” Yet Dennis does not attempt to uncover why Beethoven, seemingly above the long list of other German composers and thinkers, was exploited so frequently, vehemently, and, as Dennis illustrates, in remarkably contradictory fashions.

One possible explanation for the repeated recourse to Beethoven and his music in time of trial or instability in Germany was the period in which he lived. Beethoven saw the fall of the enlightened monarch Joseph II, the invasion of German land by Napoleon and the oppressive administration of Clemens von Metternich—watershed moments in Germany's history likely recalled in subsequent eras of uncertainty. Secondly, Beethoven's personal political ambivalence offered a biographical field ripe for selective harvesting. Socialists, for example, emphasized Beethoven's lack of deference to his aristocratic patrons, while conservatives tended to dwell on his triumph over personal adversity and his support of the German states' opposition to Napoleon's occupation. Remarkably, the composer and his music managed to emerge unscathed from multiple eras of political appropriation, including under the Third Reich.

Indeed, Beethoven's role as a mutable icon survived World War II and carried on into the Cold War. Dennis argues that  in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), “the view of Beethoven as a social revolutionary reigned,” and his music was lauded as a source of German power against foreign [Western] tyrants. In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), on the other hand, “political leaders stressed...close psychoanalysis of his character which revealed Beethoven to have deep emotional problems.” Also in the FRG, Dennis contends, “a conscious effort was made to minimize crass exploitation and commercialization of Beethoven's image and music.”

The existence of both trends beg significant questions. It seems both approaches to Beethoven mark exceptions to the general ideological rules of East and West Germany. Continued emphasis of Beethoven as a German hero in the GDR seems to undermine the broader tendency of the Soviet Union to mute regional nationalism in its governed territories. Whereas the efforts to minimize commercialization of Beethoven in the FRG, similarly, seems a unique departure to a Western Cold War ideology that idealized the sacred cow of capitalism. Did the varying treatments of Beethoven in either side of Cold War Germany therefore represent misgivings to the general ideology governing each respective territory? Was cultural reception to Beethoven a safe way to question governing political and economic philosophies without touching more tangible, and thus sensitive or politically dangerous, issues? Could the psychological dissection of Beethoven in West Germany and the subsequent display of his deep imperfections have been a form of repentance for previous evocations of the man, whose music had provided the frenzied soundtrack for wartime atrocities? I don't know. Beethoven?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Memorial de L'anse Caffard

In southern Martinique, the Memorial de l'Anse Caffard stands to commemorate the site of the 1830 wreckage of a ship carrying slaves which crashed into the rocky shore, killing those aboard. In a larger sense, the structure serves as a memorial to all the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. In Claims to Memory, a book on history and memory in the French Caribbean, Catherine Reinhardt writes of the memorial, "The communication between the fifteen, giant, white statues and the vast expanse of water below the cliff creates a reverential quality....Their imposing stature gives everything but an impression of passivity....nothing about the scene evokes the pity commonly elicited by Western representations of slavery and the slave trade."

The increasing prevalence of monuments on the Western landscape have fostered much analysis, and some disdain, among historians. French historian Pierre Nora has argued that they constitute a "tyranny of memory," preventing memories from passing down through generations organically. Certainly in some ways monuments seem not to so much augment previous traces of historical memory as to crowd them out, replacing complex narratives with obstinate visual declarations. Clear in most cases, from the ruins of Warsaw to the Memorial de L'anse Caffard, are the perpetuating and modifying effects that monuments, intended by man and often modified by nature or place, have on the memory of a historical occurrence.

Maybe the Memorial de L'anse Caffard sidesteps this accusation through its use of surrealism, leaving room for interpretation. Reinhardt writes that the mixture of monument and landscape “allow[s] the spectator to experience the past in his/her imagination,” noting that “realms of memory” such as those created by landscapes or monuments, do “not need to refer to a specific reality," giving the viewer more control over how to understand it, how to feel, and thus giving a people a choice on how to remember their own history. All in all, it's pretty neat looking.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

World War II Golf Rules

I saw this little piece of history at the USGA museum the other day--temporary rules for playing at Richmond golf club in England in 1941. These people must have really liked their golf.(But maybe not as much as these people.)

Richmond Golf Club Temporary Rules, 1941

1. Players are asked to collect bomb and shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the mowing machines.

2. In competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take shelter without penalty for ceasing play.

3. The position of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonable, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.

4. Shrapnel and/or bomb splinters on the fairways or in bunkers, within a club's length of a ball, may be moved without penalty, and no penalty shall be incurred if a ball is thereby caused to move accidentally.

5. A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced or, if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.

6. A ball lying in a crater may be lifted and dropped not nearer the hole, preserving the line to the hole, without penalty.

7. A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball. Penalty one stroke.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A German Curmudgeon, an American Historian and the Phonograph

In Recorded Music in American Life, Kent State historian William Howland Kenney refutes the common charge that the development of mass-produced music through advances in recording technology led to an artistic product that was baser, cruder and generally inferior to the compositions previously isolated to opera halls and salons. He writes that the popular music disseminated over gramophone records in the early decades of the twentieth century “expressed a far more varied and diverse set of influences than critics like” grumpy and brilliant German polymath Theodor Adorno “have claimed.”Adorno, Kenney writes, did not actually listen to the recordings he castigated, “and instead took the easier route of overgeneralization and blanket condemnation.”

In his essays on music and technology, Adorno indeed agonized over what the commodification of music would do to the art form, deeming recorded music to be but an insufficient replication of the original creation. Adorno--writing in the time period when recorded music made its commercial debut--argued that like “a model of a cathedral in table size is something totally different from the actual cathedral,” a recording of a song is “not only quantitatively but qualitatively” different than its original, “sacrificing its third dimension: its height and its abyss.”Kenney's close examination of the growth of the record industry in the U.S., music production and marketing, and reception, however, reveals many of Adorno's criticisms to be oversimplified.

Both Adorno and Kenney recognize technology's effect on the sound of music itself. For Adorno, that effect manifests itself literally in the “slight, continuous and constant noise” of a gramophone or radio hiss which makes the listener perpetually aware he is receiving music through an inanimate medium. As a result, Adorno contends, listening to music “always sounds a bit like news... It does not sound like Beethoven's music itself, but like 'now you will hear something about Beethoven.'” Similarly, Kenney notes that early recording technology put limits on the size and length of music recorded. Wind ensembles were halved, lengthy compositions were cut to a few minutes, and opera recordings proliferated over symphonic ones for “the early acoustic machines recorded the human voice better than they did violins."

One remarkable aspect of Kenney's work is the ability with which he recreates the recording experience for musical artists in the early 1900s. Artists, he writes, struggled to serenade the “recording horn, a megaphonelike cone that protruded from the wall into the studio” and while trying to ignore the fact that the new technology would result in the “immortalization of their every imperfection.” Though Kenney clearly recognizes the limits early technology put on musical compositions, he also tracks how musicians and the music industry used the format to create new, innovative forms of music and entertainment. The technological mediums of recorded music, Kenney argues, had no inevitable or disastrous effect on the quality of the product.

Adorno also dismissed the suggestion that new recording technology could be used to educate the listening public. He rejected the argument that radios and gramophones could elevate the listening masses by exposing them to high art, contending instead that market-based production and reproduction of music merely dominated and oppressed listeners further. “[T]he less the listeners know the works in their original form,” he wrote, “the more is their total impression necessarily erroneously based” on musical works adversely altered by radio and recording. In Adorno's framework, the resulting perpetual cheapening of music shortchanges listeners rather than uplifts them.

But clearly, recorded music not only holds the power to degrade its listening audience through artistic condescension, but to elevate them. As Kenny aptly illustrated in his reception history, thousands of U.S. listeners “learned to enjoy” arias, operas, foreign folk songs and symphonies otherwise only heard in the “Metropolitan's Diamond Horseshoe.” While historians may easily cite many examples that would prove Adorno's theory of mass-produced commodities cheapening the musical art form, the recognition that recorded sound exposed listeners to high art allows Kenney to “set aside the argument that recorded sound has spread...a deadening blanket of cheap popular noise.”

Adorno also contended that the mere act of repetition, devoid of the proper reverential musical context of actively listening, for example in a concert hall, degraded the music. “The man who in the subway triumphantly whistles loudly in the theme of the finale of Brahm's First,” Adorno said,“is already primarily involved with its debris.” Similarly, Kenney acknowledges what he calls the “phonographic paradox,” the recognition that “the power of a particular musical performance diminishes with repeated listening.” The perpetual playing of the hit record that the phonograph business sparked, Kenney concedes, could diminish the aesthetic power of the listening experience through the redundancy of the material.

But more than the disabling effects of repetition, Adorno argued that with the introduction of recording technology, the act of technological repetition had led to a horrifying cycle of artistic repetition, affecting not only existing compositions but stultifying the creation of new ones. In Adorno's world of radio, the audience adores only what they can recognize. He writes, “They pick out the melodies that they think are beautiful” and “instead of following and further developing them, call, in an infantile manner, for their stultifying repetition.”

Yet Kenney skillfully rejects the argument that recorded sound stifled novelty and innovation in music, insisting that to compensate for the numbing effect of continual play, the record industry embarked with an “increasing emphasis on novelty.” By playing with and inventing musical categories for marketing purposes, Kenney's record producers stumbled upon crossover genres and innovation based on the (admittedly condescending) presumption that public taste was endlessly malleable. Where Adorno saw children calling for infinite repetition of musical memes, Kenney describes a listening public receptive to and eager for novel brands of musical sound.

The treatment of the listener in Recorded Music in American Life and Adorno's essays varies even wider when both authors examine consumers' motivations for buying recorded sound. To Adorno, the consumer of recorded music is a narcissist engaging in a form of self-exaltation rather than reverence of the art itself. He writes that the listener “accords the record such value is because he himself could also be just as well preserved.” In this framework, records become “virtual photographs of their owners, flattering photographs.” Adorno infantilizes the consumer of records, arguing that he adores not the music itself, but his ownership of it and the money it represents, congratulating himself on his excellent taste and discernment.

Kenney's Recorded Music, on the other hand, reveals a much more nuanced relationship between listeners and the music they consume. In his analysis of several successful American musical entrepreneurs, Kenney concedes that much of the music they produced “asked little of its” audience, “challenging them neither emotionally nor musically.” Yet Kenney argues that for many listeners music functioned as one of Pierre Nora's realms of memory, “stimulating recollections that arrest the process of forgetting, that immortalize the dead.” Indeed, Kenney uses various memoirs to reconstruct a listening experience in which consumers used the music to honor, remember and even resurrect deceased loved ones or amend troubling past memories. Here too the listening experience is more about the listener than the music, as Adorno suggests, but not in nearly a so self-serving or egomaniacal fashion.

Adorno's criticisms of the record consumer's listening experience goes beyond mere narcissism, however. He also charges that the technology of recorded music breeds a musical comprehension in the listener that is both fleeting and shallow. Radio broadcasts, Adorno writes, atomizes great compositions so that “Beethoven's Fifth Symphony” becomes a mere “set of quotations from theme songs,” musical debris deprived of its comprehensive power when whole. Because of this atomization, Adorno says, the listening experience lacks any “musical thinking” by the listener, meaning “everything in musical perception that goes beyond the mere presence of the sensual stimulus.” In Adorno's representation, the listener becomes of a passive receptacle to watered down particles of sound.

Kenney's historical exploration, on the other hand, finds evidence of individual and communal agency among the listening public, who “found ways of expressing important dimensions of their personal lives through their involvement with recorded sound.” This observation is particularly evident in Kenney's examination of the consumption of recorded music among immigrant groups, who used the music to preserve folk memory from their native land, as well as “create a sense of common culture” when visiting with other immigrants. In addition to using music industry journals which described consumption trends, Kenney amply uses the results of listening surveys to see how consumers used the music they bought, and why exactly they valued it. In many of these accounts, music serves for the consumer as an important form of memory.

As sentimental as the listening experience may have been for much of the listening public, the underlying genesis of the records was industrial profit hunting. It was perhaps this commodification of music in records and on radio that, for Adorno, most reduced its value as an art form. He even uses the language of the patent to denigrate businesses' appropriation of music, writing that “the triviality of symphonic detail” in recorded music “makes it so easy to remember and own as a commodity under the more general trademark of 'culture.'” Music becomes not a value in itself, but rather “an advertisement for commodities which one must acquire in order to be able to hear music.”

While Kenney may not agree that the vulgar quantification of music as a monetary value which Adorno decries was a death knell for the art form, he does not shy away from treating the history of recorded music in the U.S. as what it was, a history of business. Recorded Music includes intensive looks at musical tycoons, industry business plans, marketing angles and patent wars. Kenney recognizes moves by the recording industry to encourage consumers to think of their records as “powerful symbol[s] of wealth and social power. Industry entrepreneurs even redesigned record players to include shelves-- “customers were now to be encouraged to thinking terms of amassing 'a musical library.'” Adorno's recognition that recording technology turned the musical world into a widespread business venture is perhaps the criticism most evidently borne out by history, but still, Kenney recognizes that the relationship between listeners and the industry “evolved with such complexity” that it would be simplistic to say music executives “simply imposed its musical tastes” upon the public or that commodification fundamentally or irreversibly damaged the quality of music.

Kenney does recognize, however, the artistic deficits produced by some patterns of production in the American recorded music industry. In particular, the exception to what he calls a “give and take” between consumers and record manufacturers all but disappeared in the case of “race records.” Using industry journals and musical artists' memoirs, Kenney illustrates an industry which used white record men to gather black talent, white record men to decide what that talent would record, and white record men to tell black audiences what and who they wanted to hear. The result, in the vast majority of cases, was blues, despite the wishes of singers and musicians eager to exhibit their skills in a variety of genres. Kenney laments, “We can never know how different they might have sounded if Blacks had been able to control” their own production.

Kenney also observes that industry professionals strictly segregated southern rural black music from southern rural white music, artificially erasing much of the cross-cultural hybrids those art forms had produced. In Kenney's observation of race records, the specialism required by the new technology introduced a new layer of control in the production of music, creating a framework where business interests had unprecedented ability to affect art, and artificial marketing categories had the power to preempt and distort organic artistic trends.

Ultimately, Adorno's essays and Kenney's work show that the reaction to both technological and musical innovation is historically dependent. Adorno, writing in the 1930s, feared that fascist tendencies would find a new outlet in the commodification and manipulative marketing of music. Kenney's listening public in the U.S., on the other hand, paradoxically embraced the modern technology as a method of preserving the past as well as associated the phonograph with, in Kenney's words, “the glamour and the electrical excitement” of the future. Kenney's historical analysis of the effect of the phonograph on the production and reception of music in the early twentieth century U.S. illustrates that the advances in technology had definite and far-reaching consequences for the world of music, but not necessarily in the one-dimensional and negative way critics like Adorno had feared.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rules Are Made To Become Anachronistic

When George Washington was a wee little lad running around chopping down cherry trees, before he went river crossing and revolution winning, he copied 110 "Rules of Civility." The maxims seem to have originated among 16th century French Jesuits, although there has been some debate over that. Some of them have aged well (i.e. #73: "Think before you speak") while others are a little stranger. Here's a sample:

#3: Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.

#7: Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.

#9: Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.

#11 Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.

#12 Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.

#38 In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.

#54 Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck't, if your Shoes fit well if your Stokings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.

#88 Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressigns, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.

#91 Make no Shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table neither find fault with what you Eat.

And the grandiose finale:

#110 Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Til All Them Witches Crawl

After a century or two of torturing "witches" into confession, those confessions started to look alike as ideas about what a witch was, and the evil things she did, spread throughout Europe. (Historian Courtney Raia explains the phenomena of witchcraft standardization well here). As a result, by the late 15th century a German inquisitor by the name of Heinrich Kramer was able to put together the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of the Witches, a no doubt well fact-checked treatise on witches and all that they do.

You can find the entire translation here. A little taste:

On how witches are transported from place to place:

Now the following is their method of being transported. They take the unguent which, as we have said, they make at the devil's instruction from the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism, and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; for the devil can conceal a body by the interposition of some other substance, as was shown in the First Part of the treatise where we spoke of the glamours and illusions caused by the devil. And although the devil for the most part performs this by means of this unguent, to the end that children should be deprived of the grace of baptism and of salvation, yet he often seems to affect the same transvection without its use. For at times he transports the witches on animals, which are not true animals but devils in that form; and sometimes even without any exterior help they are visibly carried solely by the operation of the devil's power.

How witches hate on a pimp:

And there was in the town of Mersburg in the diocese of Constance a certain young man who was bewitched in such a way that he could never perform the carnal act with any woman except one. And many have heard him tell that he had often wished to refuse that woman, and take flight to other lands; but that hitherto he had been compelled to rise up in the night and to come very quickly back, sometimes over land, and sometimes through the air as if he were flying.

How witches, in the words of Courtney Raia, "make it disappear.":

In the town of Ratisbon a certain young man who had an intrigue with a girl, wishing to leave her, lost his member; that is to say, some glamour was cast over it so that he could see or touch nothing but his smooth body. In his worry over this he went to a tavern to drink wine; and after he had sat there for a while he got into conversation with another woman who was there, and told her the cause of his sadness, explaining everything, and demonstrating in his body that it was so. The woman was astute, and asked whether he suspected anyone; and when he named such a one, unfolding the whole matter, she said: “If persuasion is not enough, you must use some violence, to induce her to restore to you your health.” So in the evening the young man watched the way by which the witch was in the habit of going, and finding her, prayed her to restore to him the health of his body. And when she maintained that she was innocent and knew nothing about it, he fell upon her, and winding a towel tightly about her neck, choked her, saying: “Unless you give me back my health, you shall die at my hands.” Then she, being unable to cry out, and growing black, said: “Let me go, and I will heal you.” The young man then relaxed the pressure of the towel, and the witch touched him with her hand between the thighs, saying: “Now you have what you desire.” And the young man, as he afterwards said, plainly felt, before he had verified it by looking or touching, that his member had been restored to him by the mere touch of the witch.

And lastly, on the ubiquitous dilemma of urine storms:

In the town of Waldshut on the Rhine, in the diocese of Constance, there was a certain witch who was so detested by the townsfolk that she was not invited to the celebration of a wedding which, however, nearly all the other townsfolk were present. Being indignant because of this, and wishing to be revenged, she summoned a devil and, telling him the cause of her vexation, asked him to raise a hailstorm and drive all the wedding guests from their dancing; and the devil agreed, and raising her up, carried her through the air to a hill near the town, in the sight of some shepherds. And since, as she afterwards confessed, she had no water to pour into the trench (for this, as we shall show, is the method they use to raise hailstorms), she made a small trench and filled it with her urine instead of water, and stirred it with her finger, after their custom, with the devil standing by. Then the devil suddenly raised that liquid up and sent a violent storm of hailstones which fell only on the dancers and townsfolk.

Happy Halloween!