Monday, January 23, 2017

Pop Backstory Chapter 2: The First American Music Mogul and the People's Hymns

The present-day equivalent of Lowell Mason.
I’ll be lumping a couple chapters from Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life: A History into this post. It’s a little light on the musical side of things, but, if this feels like sadism to anyone who reads it, the inverse is true for me. At any rate…

According to Crawford, Lowell Mason “seems to have been the first American musician who realized capital – profit in excess of expenditure and wages – from musical work.” A ton of that work had to do with teaching singing first in churches, then in communities, and finally, in Boston public schools - while also basing all that education on course materials he created (vertical integration, people). Mason succeeded by seizing one main chance after another. He built an empire on the tunebook that he compiled (but didn’t compose, only arranged) and sent into the world under the auspices of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. In fact, he named his book the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music and, in a twist that would utterly throw today's self-promoting culture, he didn’t make the name his name bigger than the title of the book. Remember, this came before anyone had made a living off music.

Mason’s steady, half-conscious takeover of musical education for contemporary Bostonians (and later New York) wanders a unique path. While this series is mostly about the music (honest), Mason deserves recognition as the American pioneer on the cash-money side of the industry, e.g., the side that most bedevils anyone after they've learned to play their instruments. With that, recognize him as you need to, damn or praise, but money helps where it doesn't hurt.

Back to the music, hymns make up the “church music” identified above. Back in his particular day (Mason’s published his first, great work in 1822) hymns were popular music – and because that's the music most people heard. If you did hum a tune, what seems likelier than a hymn? Crawford’s book lists four main hymns that Mason arranged and, having spent large parts of my childhood in the hippest churches (e.g., mainline Protestant), I really should know more than two of these, and at least one of those shouldn’t be the one that everyone in the world knows. You’ll recognize “Antioch” within the first bar; “Olivet” was the other one I recognized. Youtube presented the other two songs, thank god (aka, “um” and “what?”) – “The Missionary Hymn” and “Work Song” – and with cool little wrinkles, including what the song is played on, and who made the original recording.

To come clean, I'll never love hymns. I'm into more aggressively secular varieties of music generally, and, as much as moving on feels right, popular really is popular, and this corner of American music didn't just matter then, it keeps mattering today. With that, I’ll pause for an excerpt/confession, and in that order:

“The contour of ‘Idumea’s’ vocal lines fits the Southern singing style. The tenor melody, ranging through a series of arch-shaped phrases, seems written to absorb all the sound the singers can make, especially in the high G’s that climax the second and third phrases...In fact Davisson’s wish to endow all four voice parts with melody apparently outweighed his concern for standard part writing, which he violates by something allowing parallel octaves and fifths.”
Ignore Davisson, because here’s the confession: I almost chucked this whole damn project when I read that. I don't often get to a paragraph where that many words register as “what the fuck was that?” (besides subject matter, I mean), but I’m just plain ignorant when it comes to music theory. I feel like I should acknowledge that, often as I can, even as I’m on working a functioning understanding now, if on a separate, silent track. Moving on…

A phrase in that excerpt – the “Southern singing style” – makes for a good entrée for picking up and expanding on and old theme. There’s a folk music tradition called “shape note singing” that evolved in a theoretical region called “the Upland South” (according to Crawford, “the Shenandoah Valley, parts of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, but not the coastal areas”). Classicists dismissed shape notes as “dunce notes,” and that’s the mostly-settled debate in American popular music that I’d like to pick up here. I previewed the theme in the first chapter of this series with the discussion (toward the bottom) of the weird, half racist (at least), divide that occurred within in the massive revivals meetings of the 19th century’s various Awakenings. The old, familiar North/South, urban/rural divide slips in here too, with questions of whether religious music should come by way of “verses in the language of ‘the common man,’ or if the proper praise of God emanates from the intersection of science (rules) and inspiration (art). Something best (maybe only) tackled by the highly-trained and tasteful, in other words.

Shape note singing took root within groups of (say, this should sound familiar!) “evangelicals of that day, who made a point of their low social estate while disparaging formal education”, especially in the Upland South. As such, they tracked the whole “dunce note” as a challenge, and doubled-down and dragged this fairly specific tradition/genre from the early post-colonial era to the present. Two principles guided the phenomenon: 1) that the songs would be easy to learn, even if getting a bunch of people to sing the same song is/was damned complex; and 2) damn the Yankee snobs, they wouldn’t shy away from singing sacred songs over secular tunes. It’s mostly an oral tradition, and that’s where “easy to learn” shifts to to “easy to direct.” At least one essential point of this music was its portability. If you have a guy trained well enough to teach a room the parts, you’ve got a(n evangelical) party!

You've heard "shape note singing," even if you know “Idumea” by a different name. As you'll see in these clips, good voices are welcome, but not required. It’s mostly about enthusiasm, another nod to the common man. (That ’s not to say it doesn’t matter; cmpare the “Idumea” above with this version of “Sounding Joy.”) I found a couple others (“Old Hundred,” which to point it out feature this odlly fascinating chopping motion), but also “Sherburne,” and “Wondrous Love.” Those last two strike me as the prettiest of the bunch. You’ll see the phrase "Sacred Harp" in the titles on a couple of those videos. It’s not Beyonce, but it's little organizations like that the kept shape note singing.

I’m going to go back to Lowell Mason and his orbit, to wrap up this chapter. Mason had a disciple named George Frederick Root, a man who carried his work to schools in Boston and, later, New York, but who learned enough about music to hit a famous crossroads:
“Root’s failure [ed. – he published a book of snobby tunebook and it bombed] that two alternatives lay open to him as a musician. Either he could devote his career to the art of music, or he could try to serve the musical needs of his fellow citizens.”
That divide virtually defines American popular music. In Crawford’s phrasing, Root’s first tunebook failed “because he had yet to realize ‘what people in elementary musical states needed.’” Root knew his “European masterworks” cold and he placed it at the top of his personal musical hierarchy, but he also appreciated that people just wanted songs they could enjoy, aka, music that hit ‘em right. The shape note singers hit on the same idea, if from an oblique: if singing was an act of praise, why not make it as accessible (and/or repetitive) as possible, so that everyone can do it?

For all its faults, even its excesses in one very particular direction, America is an admirably democratic society. We like what’s fun; it’s part of our cultural DNA, even if we define “fun” in a…broad variety of ways. Maybe there’s no other way for American music to have evolved. Even so, there are musical movements, even sub-genres within genres, and still, even under that, how many times have you heard someone argue, “they barely know how to play their instruments”? (Or, with hip hop, “they don’t even play instruments.”) As implied above, I think this debate has mostly landed on the side of, “it’s taste, buddy, shut up.” And that's how it should be.

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