Saturday, April 04, 2020

Dale Cockrell on the habit of middle and upper class whites to impute their own racism to the working class while advocating for a German Idealist informed bourgeois transcendentalist approach to music, excerpts from his books Demons of Disorder and Everybody's Doing' It
That this world of sex, dance and music was interracial is crucial to Mr. Cockrell’s book “Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917.” It makes the connection to his scholarly specialty and passion: American popular music and its black vernacular roots. In an earlier, essential study, “Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World” (1997), he brilliantly elaborates an unpopular truth—that, early on, blackface music-making was not necessarily racist. Rather, it could be about class: a means of empowering the little guy in a world of capitalist snobs and prudes. And Mr. Cockrell, accordingly, is an eloquent advocate for the most gifted, most popular pertinent composer: Stephen Foster, in whose songs of loneliness and hardship (though sung in exaggerated black make-up by white performers) he finds an empathetic voice arising from Foster’s own marginality. 
In “Everybody’s Doin’ It,” this theme returns newly embroidered and contextualized. Assessing the white minstrel singer whose signature blackface song was “Zip Coon,” Mr. Cockrell calls George Washington Dixon (1802-61) “surely one of the most complex, enigmatic, and colorful figures in American history.” He continues: “There is no question that the skeleton around which [the blackface minstrel show] was built was the denigration of black people. . . . And—too often forgotten—there is no question that its enormous, century-long appeal was because of the music and dance that gave it flesh. That music and dance . . . was an expression of urban, lower-class, dance-hall and brothel culture. To the throngs on the stage of the Bowery Theatre, ‘Jim Crow’ belonged to them. Who would have thought that lower-class music and dance deserved a place on the legitimate stage? . . . ‘Zip Coon’ belonged to them as well. The song was of them, and once Dixon sang their song . . . their point was made: our music; we made it; we belong here.” 

It would have been nice had Horowitz quoted more of Cockrell's work but so it goes.  Between Douglas Shadle's research in Orchestrating the Nation on the tacit or explicit suppression of bids at creating an American symphonic tradition and Dale Cockrell's books on the emergence of American vernacular styles from the still troubling idioms of minstrelsy and blackface throughout the American street theater traditions that became a foundation for vaudeville and other forms of lowbrow arts, there's a larger case to be made that is part of the more recent battles in music history, historiography and in musicology over just how beholden American conceptions of music education and culture need to be to the cumulative legacies of German Idealism and the Romantic era canons of western Europe.

Dale Cockrell
Cambridge University Press
Copyright (c) Cambridge University Press 1997
ISBN 0-521-56074 2 hardback
ISBN 0-521-56828 5 paperback

page 85

... Any reading of the daily newspapers of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, especially the "Police Court" column, will reveal a common world in which blacks and whites lived by, worked with, drank among, fought with (to be sure and not to be understated), and loved each other.  Miscegnation was deeply distressing to middle and elite classes in part because it was so common among the lower. In Massachusetts in the 1830s the only legal distinciton between blacks and whites was that they could not marry with each other; yet apparently many did so, for the court reports are filled with mixed-race couples being brought into the halls of justice for the "unnatural" sin of amalgamation (the period's term for miscegnation). Of course the reporter, an agent of the paper's clientele, was always incredulous that a white man or a white woman could ever be attracted to someone of the other race.  

To read between the lines is to discover a world in which comradeship and love often had no eyes for color of skin, a world in which white women shrieked out in emotional pain because the courts condemned their black husbands to penitentiary for breaking the amalgamation laws.  

page 142

The powerful have a formulaic response to the ear culture of the weak: Dismisss it all as noise first, then associate it with antisocial behavior. 

pages 148-149

... Those working-class audiences of the 1830s who believed that theatre was participatory, as it had been to their ancestors for centuries  and centuries, were replaced in the 1840s by audiences who believed theater was better purchased than produced, as it had been by those in the first tier for a century. Management enforced a new code of behavior, one that led to the theatre becoming much quieter, more and more a private space  for reflection, in effect a temple of culture whose sacralization was complete by late century.  ... 

page 169
... It was to the advantage of the white middle class to scapegoat white, common Americans by painting them the racists, in the bargain cleansing their own respectably reformed consciences and driving a wedge in the real and reasonable alliance between white and black common Jacksonians. The means was simple: Reason would have it that laughing with the blackface must mean laughing at the black. Tragically, the flanking powers of reason and media convinced even working-class folk. By the last third of the [nineteenth] century blackface minstrelsy had become what the Virginia Minstrels had forecast: a weapon by which one group of Americans defined, marginalized and contained another--racism, sexism, money, power and (capital M) Music.  

For those who have not read either of Cockrell's books the sharp edge of his polemic is that middle and upper class whites, particularly those who regarded themselves as civilized, read their own racism and racist dispositions on to street theater, and that as minstrelsy became more mainstream and moved from the level of street theater and underground or folk activity the stereotypologies that were used to satirize "respectable" culture by way of black stereotypes shifted from satirizing the well-heeled through broadbrush send-up into satirizing blacks.  Cockrell's assertion is not necessarily going to convince everyone and this will partly be because mounting a qualified defense of minstrelsy as it evolved in the Jacksonian era is going to do nothing to explain to or for people the blackface tropes that permeated Hollywood a century later.  

At the same time, Cockrell's books, in their way, recount the battle between what Raymond Knapp described in his book on Haydn (reviewed over here) as a contest between advocates of German Idealism for American arts and the work of musicians and entertainers in the minstrelsy, light opera, and musical theater scenes.  Over the last century and a half a consensus has developed among scholars, historians and journalists that Americans in the nineteenth century pined for transcendent music while the musical styles that were actually taking America by storm were emerging from the brothels and saloons and red-light districts.  It is this point that Dale Cockrell makes with unusual clarity: 

Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in in New York 1840-1917
Dale Cockrell
copyright (c) 2019 by Dale Cockrell
W. W. Norton & COmpany
LCCN 2019000965
ISBN 9780393608946
ISBN 9780393608953 (ebook)

pages 60-61

The development of dance-hall and concert-saloon culture came about during a time in which many elite New Yorkers were asking probing questions about the nature of their nation's music. One such was Wall Street lawyer George Templeton Strong, a passionate amateur musician who for some years served as president of the New York Philharmonic Society. A prolific diarist, Strong left accounts of his day-to-day activities and musings that filled 2,250 pages at his death in 1875.  Many of his notations reflected his obsession with music. An entry for December 6, 186, serves as an example:

Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony [is] perfectly and transcendently beautiful. No music is beautiful in equal degree with his. Sublimity belongs to Handel. The power of Beethoven is in part due to the presence of an uncanny kind of intensity and power--a mighty spirit seeking rest and finding none. Haydn owes much to the goodness and healthiness and geniality embodied in his best works.

Strong's words idealizing European composers implied his agreement with a sentiment expressed by Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1854: "Among civilized nations there is, probably, none so little musical as the American." Strong and Putnam's were not alone. A whole school of thought found nothing of transcendent beauty in any American music and set out on a project to sacralize the classical music experience through performances of European masterpieces. 

There was, however, some resistance to this approach.  Composer and critic William Henry Fry called for a "Declaration of Independence in Art" and issued a challenge to the American musician:

[He] should not allow the name of Beethoven, or Handel or Mozart to prove an eternal bugbear to him, nor should he pay them reverence; he should only reverence his Art, and strike out manfully and independently into untrodden realms, just as his nature and inspirations my invite him.

Strong and others in the "Transcendence School" surely never set foot in Harry Hill's, or brought a supply of stamps to John Allen's place (Fry probably did not either.)  They left it rather to Asmodeans like Crapsey, Smith, Dyer, and others of the "Expose School of Reportage" to peel back the roofs of Water Street dance halls and flash concert saloons and tell about the music they heard there.  To these Asmodeans, as it would surely also have been with Strong and those of his class, the sounds made in these places were manifestly not transcendently beautiful; they were, rather--in some of their own words--out of tune, wheezing, hideous, wild, cracked, thumping, execrable, wailing, wiry, low, squalling, jangling, murdering, savage, and lunatic. Yet there were three hundred or so concert saloons in New York City, and without daily music by the house band each concert saloon would have been just a saloon.  There were at least seventy-four dance halls like John Allen's in the city, and without a dance band every night each dance hall would have just been a drinking spot.

New York's musical elite were looking in the wrong places for America's music. In the nether reaches of the city a new music was being made by hundreds and hundreds of professional New York musicians, each highly trained in their own way, each striking out "manfully and independently into untrodden realms," just as Fry had charged them.  It was music that was being enjoyed and loved by tens of thousands of New Yorkers--overwrought, often hysterical protestations by elite Asmodeans aside. It was down in the lower wards and along the Bowery and the waterfront where a wide diversity of lower-class Americans--black, white, the newly immigrant--were making and sharing inspired music.  There the transcendently pertinent question--Where is America's music?--was being answered.  

As I've noted earlier, this kind of argument (or, if you will, a counter-myth that does battle against another myth, the mythology of post-German Idealist art-as-religion) coheres with a parallel case Raymond Knapp has made regarding camp and German Idealism in his monograph on Haydn.

Making Light: Haydn, musical camp, and the long shadow of German idealism
Raymond Knapp
Copyright (c) 2018 by Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822372400 (ebook)
ISBN 9780822369356 (hardcover)
ISBN 9780822369509 (paperback)

1. US American popular music grew up primarily in theatrical contexts, including minstrelsy, variety, and operetta, all of which largely opposed the strictures of an emergent “classical music” culture that was based in German Idealism. 

2. These origins and their significance for the emergence of popular music in the twentieth century have not been joined well by popular-music scholarship; indeed, advocacy for twentieth-century popular music seems most often based on rationales borrowed from the very musical culture its forebears had rebelled against.

3. Camp—a hallmark of popular musical theater—has been particularly ill served by popular music’s advocates. While this may be due in part to camp’s association with gay subcultures, it probably stems more fundamentally from camp’s fascination with the artificial, the contrived, and the theatrical—preoccupations anathematic to the cult of authenticity that has taken over popular music studies.

4. Camp itself has not been properly understood within historical contexts, perhaps because of a widespread insistence on understanding it as essentially gay, even though that association took hold relatively late and has been steadily eroded since Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” in 1964.

pages 217-218
German Idealism’s new paradigms for Music privileged musical experiences that involved quasi-ritualistic practices of contemplation, often communal and ceremonial but in any case accompanied by attitudes of reverence (e.g., concerts in established venues such as municipal concert halls). Music thus became experientially similar to religion, most specifically like Protestant Christianity. Like religion, it imposed a purifying conformity and seriousness at the same time that it promised access to an otherwise inaccessible and mystical realm. (127)  Moreover, music conceived in these terms became a political instrument, often associated not only with aspirational cultural values but also with establishing mainstream respectability as the basis for broad communality and, often, nationalist projects in which the relevant “people” are unified by a shared history and culture. Such is not an environment that might be happily embraced by marginalized groups, be they (specifically) working class, racially or ethnically “other,” or homosexual. There was thus quite a lot at stake for such groups, both in undermining this top-down way of organizing who belonged and who didn’t, and in furthering through theatrical representation and performance a more participatory basis for community, giving literal voice to the particularities of difference—even if often disparagingly and, in the case of minstrelsy with regard to blacks, also patently disenfranchising.

There have been Americans who have, for almost two centuries now, been eager to shake off the shackles of only ever assessing American music in terms of values imported from Europe and imposed upon would-be contributions to the concert-music traditions to find them wanting.  It's not altogether surprising that the American composers, the United States composers to be more accurate, who began to make music that became part of some kind of United States canon began to explicitly and emphatically reject the rules of the game when the game was named as German Idealism. 

But there's an ambivalence and ambiguity to the American popular and vernacular styles having emerged from the brothels and red light districts and the underground sex industries that Dale Cockrell doesn't necessarily account for that we can see addressed more directly by Scott Joplin when he made his bids at opera and the long-since lost piano concerto--Joplin was concerned that though the music itself was vital and full of possibilities, ragtime and the popular sounds of his era had songs full of what he regarded as ghastly and demeaning stereotypes. 

Joplin's sense of conscience about the vulgarity and brutality of American vernacular music was more than shared by those who kept him, at an institutional level, from having opportunities white contemporaries had.  A century after the emergence of ragtime there would be debates about the musical and literary merits of rap and hip hop that would parallel debates about ragtime, though with perhaps the signal difference being that ragtime may have been one of the later styles to evolve within what Richard Taruskin has described as the western European literate musical traditions.  We know from the work of writers like Cockrell and Edward Berlin and others that the notes on the page don't convey what ragtime sounds like but ragtime as a popular style nonetheless emerged within the context of the printed page before the commercial mechanically recorded music industry as we know it took shape.  Be all that as it may, Joplin's criticism of the vulgarity of coon songs and ragtime in his day does not necessarily oblige us to presume that some variation of Romantic era and post-Romantic German Idealism, some variation of the Matthew Arnold and Richard Wagner art-religion is the only possible alternative.

Even though I love the music of Haydn I don't feel obliged to regard Haydn in Romantic terms either in the positive sense of defining him in terms of a Romantic conception of genius, or in the negative sense of viewing Haydn as the less-than-Mozart or the less-than-Beethoven because he was willing to write music to order for aristocrats.  As orthodox as it is to assume in music history and musicology that Mozart wrote better music than Haydn and that Beethoven wrote better music than Haydn I just don't hear it that way.  I like some of Beethoven's later works a great deal but overall regard Haydn as the more enjoyable composer.  I admit to having both an avant garde sympathy streak and also a populist streak.  I like to listen to Xenakis and Messiaen and microtonalist composers  but I don't feel much obligation to write like them.  I admired a variety of works by Penderecki without feeling a big impulse to emulate his earlier style.  I was drawn, far more, to Haydn, and what I have found as I have studied Haydn's work and life and considered what music historians and scholars have had to say about his work is that, for my time and interests, Haydn and not Beethoven nor Mozart, is the composer whose work has something to offer this twenty-first century guitarist composer--for that matter I have even enjoyed works by Clementi and Hummel more than works by Mozart and that, I have discovered, can inspire genuinely shocked reactions from musicians ... but that is probably the topic of some other post. 

I also think that if we guitarists steep ourselves in the early Bohemian and Austrian and Italian guitarist composers of the early 19th century (i.e. don't "cancel" it, a la Doug Shadle) that a panorama of possibilities for developing fusions of American vernacular styles with 18th century approaches to musical forms open up but that, too, is really best saved for some other writing project. 


DawnC said...

I apologize for posting this here, where it has nothing to do with your latest post, but I wanted to be sure you saw it. Foundation Church in Everett, the former Mars Hill Everett, has closed as of March 1st. I thought you'd want to know since you've been keeping tabs on the fates of the various churches that kept on after MH dissolved.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

That's fine. I was thinking of getting to a where are they now/update set of posts on the campuses for 2020 and that's important info to be kept in the loop about.

Given the paradigm MHC used to run by it is a live question which of the churches that spun off from the late MHC will be able to survive the current pandemic lockdown situation.