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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America
Richard Taruskin

When the Soviet leadership liquidated both the RAPM and its modernist rival, the Association for Contemporary Music, and replaced them with the Union of Soviet Composers in 1932 (a story that will be more fully told in chapter 13), it prescribed a compromise between their positions: a professional contemporary art music that would remain accessible to workers and peasants because it would draw on familiar folk and popular idioms. Stalin himself summed up the new ideal in a phrase, “an art national in form and socialist in content.”74 Seeger paraphrased it slightly in the Daily Worker when he called for a music that was “national in form, proletarian in content.”75

This line was exported to Communist parties throughout the world as part of an overall policy known as the Popular Front, announced by Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian-born General Secretary of the Comintern, at its Seventh Congress held in Moscow in August 1935. In an effort to unite the left against the rise of fascism in Germany, and thereby promote the security of the Soviet Union, Communist parties were instructed to form alliances and coalitions with more moderate, nonrevolutionary progressive or liberal groups, and to shift their tactics from an appeal to international working-class solidarity to one that invoked national or patriotic resistance against the foreign fascist threat.

To achieve these aims, Communist parties would have to look less “foreign” themselves. They would need to soft-pedal their international ties (in the first place to Moscow) and emphasize their indigenous roots. They would have to stop using the international jargon of political radicalism and start couching their doctrines in terms familiar to those they sought to persuade. That is exactly what Mike Gold was calling for when he rejected the musical radicalism of Siegmeister’s Strange Funeral in Braddock and asserted the need for a popular musical idiom to clothe revolutionary messages.

On the face of it, the American Communist Party had an easier task than most in implementing Popular Front directives, since it could draw directly on the revolutionary founding myth of the United States. At its nominating convention in June 1936, the Party adopted the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” A pamphlet with that title by Earl Browder, the Party’s general secretary and candidate for president, supported the motto with adroitly culled “revolutionary” quotations from the founding fathers (especially Jefferson) and above all from Abraham Lincoln, whose mythic status as the Great Emancipator fit in with the Communist stake in the struggle for racial as well as social justice.

One such quote, from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, became the basis for an immensely popular “ballad” by Earl Robinson (1910–91), the youngest member of the Composers Collective, one of the few who favored a folkloristic idiom even before the Popular Front directives came down. A classically trained pianist and violinist who studied composition with Eisler and Copland, Robinson taught himself guitar in 1934 and began performing as a “troubadour” at political meetings, providing a model for Charles Seeger’s son Peter (or Pete, b. 1919) a Harvard dropout whose distinguished career as a folksinger and political songwriter began around 1941.

Robinson’s Abe Lincoln was a remarkable stylistic synthesis: its verse alluded to the style and structure of a folk or country (i.e., pre-“jazz”) blues, an African-American genre, while its refrain embodied the march cadence of an Eisler Kampflied or socialist “fight song” (see chapter 9), all tinged with catchy American colloquialisms in the rhythm of its text-setting to imprint Lincoln’s “revolutionary” message in the singers’ memories. One of the earliest musical by-products of the Popular Front, Robinson’s song was a masterpiece of agitational propaganda.

Abe Lincoln settled the stylistic matter as far as the Communist Party was concerned, and put the Composers Collective out of business. The former members, to a greater or lesser extent, all began to incorporate American rural folklore into their creative work, whether through actual quotation or in the guise of “neonationalism,” the abstraction of its stylistic features into a personal expressive idiom. In a pamphlet, Music and Society, published in 1938, a chastened Elie Siegmeister wrote that the task of the contemporary composer must be that of “breaking down the age-old division between learned or art music on the one hand, and folk or popular music on the other,” for “in doing this he will be helping to break down the class division which these musical divisions have symbolized and helped to perpetuate.”76

No other composer on the left, however, equaled Robinson’s feat of actually composing a folk song—that is, writing a song that became accepted into the American oral tradition and sung by multitudes who did not know its origin. Robinson’s Joe Hill, set to a poem by a Communist journalist named Alfred Hayes (who also wrote the words to Copland’s Into the Streets, May First!) and first published in the Daily Worker in 1936, passed from mouth to mouth at union meetings and on picket lines, went overseas with the American volunteers who fought under the banner of the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” in the Spanish Civil War, and even turned up, sung by Joan Baez (b. 1941), a latter-day political troubadour, at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, an enormous outdoor festival of folk and popular music, in August 1969, whence it experienced a new round of “folk” currency.

Fig. 11-3 shows the song as it appears in The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, a mass-marketed anthology (ed. Margaret B. Boni) published in 1947. The music is attributed to Robinson, but the words are unattributed. The composer, in a half-proud, half-rueful memoir, recalled seeing it published in a labor songbook with the legend, “Words: Earl Robinson, Music: Traditional.”77 An anthology called Songs That Changed the World (ed. Wanda W. Whitman; New York, 1969), published in the wake of the Woodstock Festival, called it, simply, “the ‘spiritual’ of the union movement.” By then it had even found its way back into serious, scholarly, “field-collected” folklore anthologies.

In other words, it joined the contents of the sort of book that, with the Popular Front directives in mind, composers who had been writing mass songs began consulting for models and actual melodies. The earliest such popular anthology, The American Songbag, was published in 1927 by Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), a newspaperman and poet and sometime socialist politician (and the author of a monumental biography of Lincoln), who played the guitar after a fashion and liked to end his public readings with songs. During the depression years there was, predictably, an explosion of publications of this type, culminating in a vastly enlarged 1938 reissue of John A. Lomax’s classic anthology Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), revised in collaboration with the compiler’s son Alan Lomax (1915–2002), who went on to become the century’s foremost collector of American folk songs.

Even before that, the father-son team had issued a popular collection, American Ballads and Folksongs (1934) that follows the example of the original Lomax publication by furnishing piano accompaniments to the songs as an aid to popularization. Southern Baptist hymnody or “Sacred Harp” singing was popularized by the literary historian George Pullen Jackson in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, a treatise illustrated with settings drawn from early-nineteenth-century hymnbooks. Another collection based on early published sources (also by a literary historian) was S. Foster Damon’s Series of Old American Songs (1936–37), an annotated collection in facsimile of one hundred American folk and popular songs from before the Civil War.

Elie Siegmeister, formerly of the Composers Collective, came out with an anthology of his own (Treasury of American Song, edited with Olin Downes) in 1940. The book became the basis for a Broadway musical, Sing Out Sweet Land!, in 1944. By then, white rural folk song had been “mainstreamed” into American popular culture, no longer associated exclusively or automatically with protest movements or the political left. But the political origins of the folklore movement in the Popular Front are still reflected, if only vestigially, in the show’s authorship.

The same can be said about the absorption of rural folklore into the concert repertory. The earliest, somewhat isolated instance was Virgil Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928), the first American symphony to emerge from the Boulangerie. A compositional tour de force in that its four traditional movements were all based on a single melody (How Firm a Foundation, a hymn of Scottish origin with which Southern Baptists traditionally brought their convocations to a close), it eschewed the Germanic technique of motivic extraction and transformation (“developmental” writing, as it was then called) in favor of the more harmonically static or “polytonal” collage techniques that, as shown in chapter 10, were associated with French surrealism. As in Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera sampled there, Thomson laced his music with deliberate commonplaces and mock-realistic touches, like the doubling of lines in near-octaves that call to mind the sound of malfunctioning organs (Ex. 11-19).

“Twentieth-Century Americanism”

ex. 11-19 Virgil Thomson, Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Although, as Thomson told a biographer, he meant the symphony to be “an ambitious and noble work,” he encountered the same difficulty with it that Satie faced when he meant to be serious. His commonplaces were heard as parodies or arch “wrong-note” effects, which prevented the work from meeting the expectations of the traditional audience he was addressing the way Harris’s heroic symphonies eventually would. Nor could a music so deliberately refined and esoteric serve the socially utilitarian purposes promoted on the American left during the depression years.

Eventually Thomson shelved it and reused parts of it a decade later to represent the Old South in a documentary film score (The River, 1937) commissioned by the United States government through the WPA, to accompany a stern propaganda film directed by poet turned documentary film maker Pare Lorentz (1905–92) that showed the sorry aftermath of floods on the Mississippi caused by greedy exploitation of the land, and made a pitch for the Roosevelt administration’s public works programs that many were resisting as “socialistic.” All at once the seemingly trivial symphony of 1928 had “social significance,” to cite a catchphrase of the thirties. Elsewhere Thomson used southern hymns procured for him by George Pullen Jackson.

The River was Thomson’s second government commission. The first was for a score to accompany an earlier Lorentz documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains, on the effects of soil erosion. For one section, Thomson contrived a collage of three cowboy songs—“Houlihan” (a.k.a. “I Ride an Old Paint”), “Git Along Little Dogies,” “The Streets of Laredo”—from the 1934 Lomax anthology. As a movement in an orchestral suite drawn from the movie score and first performed in 1936, it marked the first use of specifically Western-American folklore by a composer in the Euro-American “art” tradition—the first of many.

The most successful and lasting ones were by Aaron Copland. The first dated from 1936, the same year as The Plow That Broke the Plains, when Copland was commissioned by the Henry Street Settlement, a New York child welfare organization that had recently sponsored a performance of Weill and Brecht’s Der Jasager (see chapter 9), to write a “school opera” in a similar didactic vein. The opera, called The Second Hurricane, concerns a group of stranded schoolchildren who learn cooperation in the face of danger. Siegmeister, in his Popular Front tract, praised it alongside works of “social music” by Shostakovich, Blitzstein, and Eisler as “a children’s opera teaching solidarity.”78 Their socialization having been accomplished, the children keep their spirits up while waiting to be rescued by joining in a singing game based on “The Capture of Burgoyne” (1777), an “excellent revolutionary song”79 (in the compiler’s words) that Copland found in Damon’s Old American Songs. It forms the musical climax of the play.

The Second Hurricane was first performed at the Settlement Music School in April 1937. Three months later, another work commissioned in 1936 was first performed, this time over the radio. Copland was one of six composers who had been invited by the CBS network to write orchestral pieces for national broadcast. His working title was Radio Serenade, but to stimulate interest in the program the network substituted the generic name Music for Radio, and announced that the piece had a secret program that listeners were invited to guess by proposing titles, the winning entry to be selected by the composer. In this way the piece became known as Saga of the Prairie, the winning listener (a housewife named Ruth Leonhardt) having been reminded of “the intense courage—the struggles and final triumphs—of the early settlers, the real pioneers.” Copland assumed she was reacting to the clarinet solo marked “simply, in the manner of a folk song” in the 1968 published score (retitled Prairie Journal: Ex. 11-20).

“Twentieth-Century Americanism”

ex. 11-20 Aaron Copland, Prairie Journal, clarinet solo

In an interview published in 1984, Copland identified the melody as “a cowboy tune,” which made “the western titles” submitted by listeners “seem most appropriate.”80 There is no evidence from the time of the work’s composition to corroborate his statement, and as a matter of fact most listeners who wrote in suggested titles having to do with the usual modernistic imagery of machinery and urban life. Howard Pollock, Copland’s biographer, has suggested that the composer’s recollection may have been misled by memories of the many cowboy songs that he and many others would be using in various pieces composed over the coming decade. But even if it is not an actual cowboy song, the clarinet tune does bear an authentic whiff of the kind of Anglo-American folklore that Popular Front artists were assiduously mining at the time.

What makes the folklike quality of the tune historically significant is the fact that, as Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress discovered, the marchlike section that both precedes and follows the clarinet solo was based on an unfinished mass song Copland had composed to Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of Ozie Powell,” a poetic tribute to one of the Scottsboro boys whose legal fate, as of 1936, was still undecided.81 Again we see the conjunction, previously exemplified by Earl Robinson, between the stylistic appropriation of American folklore and the political aims of the Popular Front. (Meanwhile, Robinson continued to expand his range with the “Ballad for Americans,” a 1938 cantata in folk style that recounted the founding myth of the United States and related its revolutionary spirit to contemporary events; first performed on the radio with the African-American basso Paul Robeson as soloist, it achieved such popularity that it was sung at the 1940 nominating convention of the Republican Party.)


(74) Joseph Stalin, Report to the XVI Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik); J. V. Stalin, Works, Vol. XII (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1952) p. 379.

(75) “Carl Sands” (Charles Seeger), “Proletarian Music Is a Historical Necessity,” Daily Worker, 6 March 1934; Zuck, A History of Musical Americanism, p. 123.

(76) Elie Siegmeister, Music and Society (New York: Critics Group Press, 1938), pp. 58–59.

(77) Earl Robinson and Eric Gordon, Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997) p. 51.

(78) Siegmeister, Music and Society, p. 59.

(79) S. Foster Damon, Series of Old American Songs (Providence: Brown University Library, 1936), no. 5.

(80) Copland and Perlis, Copland: 1900 through 1942, p. 255.

(81) Pollack, Aaron Copland, pp. 312–13.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011007.xml