George Ives was the father of Charles Ives, one of the first purely American composers of classical music, as in born, bred, and trained entirely States-side. I keep talking about classical composers that might feel off in a series devoted to American popular music, but Charles Ives’ music fits into the popular American musical tradition with only a little friction. It’s his spirit of his approach to music, more than the music itself, that makes that possible. While capable of producing delicate, harmonious compositions, he favored complexity and experimentation, aural effects like dissonance (just glance at the notes in the early parts of the first song here), and narrative interpretation.
That yen for innovation came from his father, George, an avid lover of music and musician who Richard Crawford evocatively described as a “Yankee tinker” in An Introduction to American Music. Crawford noted experiments by George Ives like suspending weights at the end of violin strings in order to stretch quarter notes out of them; a good website I found on Ives relates other experiments:
“George Ives would have his boys sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones (see?); he played his cornet over a pond so Charlie could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed.”
Another concept, and one with more direct bearing with this project, was George Ives’ sincere appreciation for people who couldn’t “sing,” or pull off anything about music, in the traditional sense. Charles Ives recalled a conversation he was had with his father about a stonemason who sang in the local choir. From Crawford:
“’You can you stand it to hear old John Bell sing?’ Father said, ‘He is a supreme musician.’ The young man (nice and educated) was horrified – ‘Why he sings off the key, the wrong notes and everything – and that horrible, raucous voice – and he bellows out and hits notes no one else does – it’s awful!’ Father said, ‘Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds – for if you do, you may miss the music.’”