The Avid Listener

July 31, 2017

Before It Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy

Sheryl Kaskowitz (Providence, Rhode Island)

Blackface minstrelsy was a popular and pervasive form of entertainment in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, and its legacy continues to haunt American popular culture. Whether or not songs have roots in minstrelsy can be difficult to determine; their lyrics have often been changed and their original performance contexts have become lost to history. Remnants of this slippery history can be found in well-known children’s songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and many others.

 

In a segment from Sesame Street, folk musician John McEuen plays banjo and sings “Oh! Susanna” on a farm.

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February 27, 2017

Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Sally K Sommers Smith Wells (Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Boston University)

 

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony. Smith accepted Bob Dylan’s award on his behalf.

 

The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan was one of the biggest news stories of 2016. Major news sources including the New York Times and The Guardian reacted to the announcement, and Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the award brought another wave of comment and criticism. Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from the music that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a “warm, humble” acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.

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January 31, 2017

Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist

Linda Shaver-Gleason (Lompoc, CA)

 

In a scene from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Glenn Holland tells his high school students about Beethoven’s deafness while playing the second movement of the composer’s seventh symphony (the same movement used fifteen years later during the climax of The King’s Speech). Holland has just learned that his toddler son is deaf. While Holland describes the irony of Beethoven’s situation—one of the greatest composers not being able to hear—it’s clear to the viewer that he’s connecting it to his personal irony, as his son will never be able to hear the music that has been his life’s purpose.

 

A scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Mr. Holland discusses Beethoven’s deafness with his students. 

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December 12, 2016

“Hard Times Come Again No More”: Springsteen’s Vision of Community

Joanna Smolko (Athens, GA)

 

May 23, 2009, Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen sings Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” with a spoken introduction asking for people to support local relief efforts. “We’ve gotta stand up, support our neighbors, and please support the local community food bank of New Jersey.”

 

As Bruce Springsteen’s career unfolded, he became increasingly overt about his political framework and his belief that music can be a powerful means both for illuminating issues of social injustice and for bringing people together in community.  Springsteen mined the rich lodes of traditional American music in his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). Here, he found a treasure trove: traditional songs that glimmered and shone as he gave them roots—rock inspired settings and elements that could also be forged and shaped into new works. Following this album, he continued to explore the ways that traditional songs could be melded together with rock and roll. Springsteen’s performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” was part of his 2009 Working on a Dream tour, and his subsequent reworking of the lyrics in new songs shows his process of adaptation. In particular, “Hard Times” can be read as a song of mourning in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and a call to respond with community-based activism and cooperation.  

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November 28, 2016

Stop Copying My Music!: The Emergence of Musical Copyright in England

Ann van Allen-Russell, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

 

J. C. Bach’s Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 9, no. 3. This symphony is one of the three Op. 9 symphonies that were at the heart of J. C. Bach’s second lawsuit against the London publishers Longman and Lukey, who were accused by Bach of producing and selling unauthorized copies of the symphonies.

 

Make up a tune. You can hum it, whistle it, play on an instrument—anything you like. It’s your own tune after all. Or is it? Can you own something that doesn’t physically exist? And could you stop someone from stealing it? In modern times, a whole body of law exists around musical copyright, which protects musicians from having their intellectual property used without permission. However, such protection did not always exist. In fact, the modern-day concept of musical copyright can be traced back to mid-eighteenth century England, when Johann Christian Bach—the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach—started a lawsuit to stop a minor theft. Unbeknownst to him, it would end up changing the way we think about music.

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