Category: 20th-century music

  • The DNA of American Classical Music

    While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello). At first I thought it was […]

  • The DNA of American Folk Music

    Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617). In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor […]

  • We Shall Overcome

    The Library of Congress describes the famous Civil Rights Movement song, “We Shall Overcome”: It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over […]

  • Jazz 59

    In 1959, African-American composer Ed Bland made the influential short semi-documentary film The Cry of Jazz, which explains jazz for the newbie, and situates the music in the history of black life in America. Bland used the music of avant-garde Afrofuturist composer and pianist Sun Ra as the soundtrack. 1959 was also the year that […]

  • Classically Black, part IV: Postmodernism

    When we talk about postmodernism in music, we’re generally referring to the period after World War II. Some of the hallmarks of postmodernism are an experimental approach to form, structure, and instrumental/vocal techniques, a distrust of historically-informed musical styles, and an aesthetic that borrows from and refers to popular music styles. Postmodernist music has taken […]

  • Classically Black, part III: Nationalism and Internationalism in the 20th Century

    In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some African-American composers working in classical music chose to compose in the standard forms of the European classical music traditions — i.e, an international style. William Grant Still, for instance, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” could be considered an “internationalist.” Among many other works, Still wrote five […]

  • Black Opera

    Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954). Harry Lawrence Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company. His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle […]

  • Authenticity, part V: Tribute or Appropriation?

    As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in […]

  • Ragtime

    TW/CW: Racist imagery and lyrics. One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime. The cakewalk was a […]

  • An Introductory Blues Playlist

    Examples of the blues from the 1920s to the 1960s, from the Mississippi Delta to Texas to Chicago. As you listen, keep in mind the great themes of the genre: betrayal, unhappiness in love, poverty, mistreatment, hard work, crime, violence, addiction. A woman’s unique perspective on the fate of a prisoner: Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the […]