Beyond Music to Ritual: The Impact of Four Songs on America’s Psyche

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The Star-Spangled Banner Courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

When Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL football quarterback, took a knee (knelt) during The Star-Spangled Banner at the start of the games, he created quite the uproar.

I have written that I felt his using his visibility to call attention to the injustices against African-Americans and other minorities was in the best tradition of nonviolent protest. He paid a heavy price for his actions: though he reached a settlement with the National Football League and is now a free agent, to date no team has been willing to sign him.

Anna Celenza, Professor of Music at Georgetown University, discusses Kaepernick’s protest in her introduction to a One Day University lecture titled: “Four Musical Masterpieces That Changed America.”

I found her talk, which I watched on video, so enlightening that I’d like to provide you with some highlights. I’ve also added a bit of research from other sources.

Celenza first explained that Georgetown, known for politics, social justice, public policy, and law, had designed a major in American Musical Culture to explore “how music functions in culture.”

She also teaches American Studies, so it was natural for her to design and lead a freshman class on “Music and Politics.” To determine which songs to cover, she visited the Library of Congress and found a number of musical pieces that had evoked Congressional debate. The four songs highlighted in this lecture were culled from that syllabus.

 

“The Flag Was Still There”

She began with our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. In defying the customary stance when the song is played—that is, the ritual, an important aspect of music—Kaepernick, she observed, was calling attention to the fact that the song is saying we’re all unified and free.

In essence, he was asking what the ritual means—and how can we make it true? A worthy question, I believe, now being raised in many aspects of American life.

The Star-Spangled Banner, that symbol of American culture, actually got its start as something called a “parody song.” The melody originated previously in a different context: the words to that melody had described “the pleasures of women and wine.”

But writer Francis Scott Key was a more serious type. He first used the words “Star-Spangled” to refer to the American flag in 1805 when he wrote a song for his friend Stephen Decatur, Jr., which described the “olive branch of peace and the laurel wreath of honor.”

What eventually became the national anthem appeared in 1814. The War of 1812 was still raging, and the British had just bombed Washington, DC. They were on their way to Baltimore, where a defeat, many feared, would mean the end of American independence. To prevent the Brits from reaching Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Americans had sunk ships so that the masts would block access.

Enter Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and sometime poet who had, I read elsewhere, been opposed to the war from the beginning. But now he’d been asked to try to stop the onslaught and negotiate a prisoner exchange.

When he met with the British, they wouldn’t let him leave: he was coerced to stay with them to watch the bombing.

From that vantage point, however, instead of witnessing defeat, he saw “the bombs bursting in air,” and, at the end of the battle, “the flag was still there.” The rest you know, right? He originally titled the song “In Defense of Fort McHenry.”

The song’s ascent to anthem status was a bit circuitous. While it was gaining popularity, some faulted it because it just doesn’t work as a marching song. (Try it; you’ll see.)

My Country ’Tis of Thee” was considered a possible anthem, but ruled out because of its origins: this wasn’t the time for a song based on “God Save the King.” And “America the Beautiful” (O Beautiful for Spacious Skies…) didn’t make the cut because after the first stanza, it actually critiques America for not living up to its ideals. Hmmmm.

The Star-Spangled Banner finally became the National Anthem in 1931—two years after Congress proposed it as a way to bring together opposing factions who were blaming each other for the Great Depression. The feeling was that everyone singing together would be a unifying ritual.

And why the hand over heart? Initially, the song was sung accompanied by a straight-arm salute, ostensibly pointing to the American flag. But with images of Hitler and Mussolini in mind, people said, essentially, “No way!” We should, I think, be grateful for that!

 

Confronting Our National Horror

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Billie Holiday Courtesy of flickr.com

Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher-turned-poet and songwriter, and a member of the American Communist Party in the 1930s. As Celenza pointed out, in those days, the Communist Party was not viewed as it was subsequently: its supporters were idealists who were attracted by its emphasis on peace, freedom, progress, and gender and racial equality. (Meeropol subsequently quit.)

Meeropol happened to see a postcard that shocked him to his core: it was a photograph of a lynching, showing two bodies hanging from trees while a group festively gathers below. In 1937, using a pseudonym, he wrote a poem about it called “Strange Fruit,” which was printed in a teachers union publication. He set it to music, and he and his wife would perform it at Communist Party rallies.

But Meeropol wanted more people to hear it. The following year, he connected with a man named Barney Josephson, who had started the first social club whose patrons were racially integrated. The house singer there just happened to be a woman named Billie Holiday. Meeropol told her: “You should sing this.”

She agreed, but only under certain conditions: no drinks were to be served before her performance; the only light in the room would be a spotlight on her; and it had to be the final song of the night. This was not an ego trip: Holiday knew how to elicit the greatest power from a very important song.

The song, and Holiday’s rendition of it, became famous. People said they “witnessed” her singing it because they were so moved. She recorded it, though her usual record label wouldn’t touch it due to its sensitive subject, so she went to a startup label in 1939. And it awakened people’s consciences: they signed petitions to their members of Congress to make lynching a federal crime. Celenza believes it actually marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

During the McCarthy era, Meeropol was attacked, and Strange Fruit wasn’t sung for a while. Nina Simone brought it back.

In 1999, Time Magazine called it “the song of the century.” It is listed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

But a law still wasn’t passed, although there were 200 separate attempts to enact such legislation over the decades. In 2005, Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and George Allen (R) apologized for the failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Finally, in December, 2018, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker asked for—and received—unanimous consent of the Senate to pass the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, which would, at long last, criminalize lynching, attempts to lynch, and conspiracy to lynch.

Booker said at the time that the legislation is intended to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and leave a legacy for future generations that Congress finally did the right thing. Senator Tim Scott was also a sponsor. The bill passed the Senate in February, 2019.

In March, 2019, the Senate bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. As far as I could tell, it’s still there.

I saw Audra McDonald portray Billie Holiday several years ago, and the last song she sang was Strange Fruit. I believe that once you hear it, you never forget it. It was/is emotionally wrenching to imagine such gross inhumanity from seemingly ordinary looking people.

Here is the opening verse:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

If you’d like to hear Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, google Billie Holiday–Strange fruit-HD-YouTube.

 

Paul Simon Defies a Boycott

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Paul Simon, Graceland Courtesy of flickr.com

When South Africa was ruled by apartheid from 1948 to 1993, the US remained neutral. The African National Congress (ANC) supported 1930s communism, and the Soviet Union was a prime supporter of the ANC. With the Cold War in effect, the US would not side with the anti-apartheid group.

Then, in the 1980s, the United Nations forced the issue by passing a resolution that called for a cultural boycott of South Africa. American performers, such as Steve Van Zandt, said they wouldn’t play in South Africa. Van Zandt wrote a protest song, Sun City, which was recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid. (Sun City was a resort where the South African government had forcibly removed black people.)

But Paul Simon disagreed. He’d been given a tape of music by black South Africans, and—ignoring the boycott—he traveled to South Africa to record an album with the musicians who lived there, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group whose harmonies among tenor, alto, and bass are so distinctive. That album became Graceland, which Rolling Stone has said “remains one of the most beloved albums in pop history.”

In 1987, Simon and his group staged a huge concert in neighboring Zimbabwe featuring the renowned singer Miriam Makeba, who had left South Africa in exile. They sang “Under African Skies.” Says Celenza: “The lyrics tell the story of how a song changes points of view.” And she quotes “the roots of rhythm remain…This is the story of how we begin to remember…”

There was a furor over Simon’s actions, and some still question his judgment—and even his motives. Simon brought all the musicians to the US; to him this issue wasn’t about politics; it was about the music.

The musicians he played with said he opened up opportunities for them that they would never otherwise have had. One year after Graceland, Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Shaka Zulu, which received a Grammy Award in 1988 for best folk recording, the first of four Grammys they’ve received.

But Dali Tambo, who founded Artists Against Apartheid, was deeply critical of Simon. “We were fighting for our land, for our identity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned…by the liberation movement.”

Yet it had such an impact that the US government stopped doing cultural boycotts. Celenza spoke of an Irish Times headline not long ago that asked: “Who wins when artists stage a cultural boycott?” And she gave her answer: “No one. Music brings us together.”

 

And Then There’s Hamilton…

In July, 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading a book he’d bought at an airport bookstore prior to a vacation in Puerto Rico. In Alexander Hamilton, the biography by Ron Chernow, Miranda has said he recognized himself and the ideals of his friends and family.

Miranda gave a surprise early introduction to one of the songs as a work-in-progress to the Obamas at a White House Poetry Jam in 2009. If you haven’t seen the tape of that performance, you can do so here, complete with subtitles beneath the rap words. The play Hamilton: An American Musical premiered in August, 2015.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

Hamilton is, of course, a huge sensation, and the touring companies seem to be everywhere. In a combination of rap, rhythm and blues, show tunes, and other styles, the music sets forth the ideas the founding fathers had that are still important, while also capturing what America looks like now, Celenza observes. (The founding fathers and other historical figures are primarily played by people of color.)

She recalls the evening when Vice President Mike Pence attended a performance. At the curtain call, the actors acknowledged him but, very politely, suggested that they hoped he wasn’t simply entertained–that he’ll remember the ideas and ideals he’d just heard.

What they did with that speech was a break in ritual, Celenza notes, “and people got upset. When you break ritual, it makes people think…about what our ideals are.”

She concluded with the hope that we all try to capture the best ideas we can from musical experiences such as the ones she’d presented.

What do you think?

UPDATE: My virtual friend and fellow blogger Joseph Urban (aka: The Old Liberal) noted in his comment the song that speaks to him personally the most strongly, and he asked me what song was mine. (You can see both our selections in his response below.)  I thought this was a terrific question, and as I always enjoy your stories, I am posing it to you: When you think of songs that have had a lasting impact on you, which one(s) come to mind–and why?

Annie

Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…

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I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.

But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately,  there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years. 

Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.

First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power,  and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.

This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.

I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.

The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.

According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above.  When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden 

“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.” 

Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”

Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt. 

The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)

As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.

I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.

But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)

I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, 

“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”

Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”

Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”

So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience. 

Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school. 

There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.

He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.

Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”

While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.

“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”

In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”

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The Beatles, holding up very well!

Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.

Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.

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Duke Ellington: Composer, musician, bandleader

“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.

For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm. 

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Ludwig van Beethoven

The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.

He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.

“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”

No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)

I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.

Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?

I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.

Annie