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, please, bear with me. If this feels like sadism to anyone who reads it, the inverse is true for me, and I’m not into that kind of thing. At any rate…

According to Crawford, a fella named 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 – and all of that based on course materials he created (good business plan, btw) - but Mason succeeded by dint of seizing one main chance after another. He built it all on a tunebook that he compiled (but didn’t compose, only arranged (distinction); again, the music was largely borrowed) and sent into the world under the auspices of the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. He titled his the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music and, in a twist that would utterly throw people today, he didn’t make the name of the author bigger than the title (he was a banker and, like all sane people at the time, he didn’t believe he could make a living through music).

The material on Mason’s steady, half-conscious takeover of musical education for contemporary Bostonians (he later conquered New York as well) is somewhat interesting, but, I can hear some unlikely reader now echoing the refrain of every man or woman who finds himself/herself hanging by a thread to his/her place in a band: “I thought it was supposed to be about the music, man.” It is, honest, but it’s worth recognizing Mason as the American pioneer on the cash-money side of the ledger, e.g., the side that bedevils anyone who tries to make it in music. And he nailed that shit, died richer the Croesus, etc.

Back to the musical side, the “church music” identified above are, of course, hymns. And, back in this particular day (Mason’s published his first, great work in 1822) hymns were popular music – not least because, where else could one hear music (bars, and thank god), and more on this later. Now, back to Mason, Crawford’s book lists four main hymns that Mason arranged and, having spent large parts of my childhood in churches where hymns were the height of hipness (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. At any rate, you’ll recognize “Antioch” within the first bar; “Olivet” was the other one I recognized. It’s with a bit of luck, then, that Youtube presented the other two songs (aka, “um” and “what?”) – “The Missionary Hymn” and “Work Song” – with cool little wrinkles, what the song is played on, and who made the original recording (and, again, on what), respectively.

I’m not going to linger on hymns too much, but that’s with no intent to denigrate the form. It’s more that, I’m mostly into pop music, and, generally, the most aggressively secular varieties thereof, so it feels good to move on, even as that segues gloriously into a through-line that runs even through popular music. First, however, I’d like to 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.”
Don’t worry about that guy, Davisson, because here’s the confession: that sentence alone almost made me chuck this whole damn project. It’s not often that all I can think when I get to a sentence is “what the fuck was that?” (partially a function of subject matter), but I’m just plain ignorant when it comes to most musical concepts. 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 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,” because fuck those guys! Sorry. Outside the parentheses is all me). 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 Volume 1 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) – e.g., something best (maybe only) tackled by the highly-trained and tasteful.

Shape note singing took firmest 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. The whole “dunce note” thing felt like a challenge to this bunch, so they doubled-down on this fairly specific genre and carried it, sometimes in extremely isolated pockets, 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. (I’d like to pause a moment to admit just how goddamn cleanly that line of thought adds up.) It’s largely an oral tradition, and that’s where it makes sense to change “easy to learn” into “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 admittedly evangelical) party!

Have you ever heard shape note singing? Yes, even if you know “Idumea” by a different name. When I listen to that, and other songs, I’m most struck by Crawford’s comment that, while good voices are welcome, they’re not required. It’s mostly about enthusiasm – which, again, nod to “the common man.” (That’s not to say it doesn’t matter (or to shit on the Chant Claire Chamber Choir), because compare that “Idumea” with this version of “Sounding Joy.”) I found a couple others (“Old Hundred” (and that chopping motion again), “Sherburne,” and “Wondrous Love,” which, for what it’s worth, tickles my ear as the prettiest of the bunch), and, if you hit the links, you’ll notice the phrase Sacred Harp coming up in a fair amount of those videos. If you want a sense of that works timeline/timelessness, Wikipedia's outline gives you something - and it hits on, like, a lot of the themes above (cultural stubbornness among them). Some or all of that goes some way to explaining why it’s so easy to find Youtube videos of this stuff. Sure, it’s not bigger than Beyonce, but shape note singing is sticking around.

I stumbled on an introductory video and have to credit them for some of the phrasing and concepts (counting…) two paragraphs above. It’s a fairly useful video (and that’s where the crack about the “chopping” comes from), but I do wish that audience member would take care of that damn cough….

I’m going to go back to Lowell Mason, or at least 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.”
This goes back to an idea that certainly defines American popular music, if only as a form and not a specific definition. 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 at the top of his personal musical hierarchy, but he also appreciated that people just wanted songs they could enjoy, music that hit ‘em right. The shape note singers hit on the same idea, if from a slight oblique: if singing was an act of praise, why not make it as accessible (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…pretty goddamn broad variety of ways. What I’m getting at here is the possibility that maybe there’s no other way for American music to have evolved. Even so, there are musical movements, even sub-genres within genres, that drop the perennial piece of fronting that has dogged every form of new music since…well, I’m getting there.

Think about it: 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.” Still, it comes up…

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