Common Ground

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Shakespeare’s plays have never gone out of fashion.   Handel’s Messiah is still performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times every year in the U.S.  Irish bands and Scottish pipe groups still thrive in their niche market.  The Mini Cooper design with the Union Jack on the roof…well…Yeah, Baby!

You may have noticed how much from a relatively small part of the world (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales) is still influential in America.  Despite all that strife with the Revolution and War of 1812, we seem to get along quite well with the Brits.  It’s not just a matter of language, although that undoubtedly helps.  Undeniably, we have a shared cultural history, too.  And what we can learn from each other is still exciting and filled with possibility.  We feel our cultural roots tugging us back across the Atlantic, while at the same time our relatively youthful energy and optimism attracts attention from the other side of the pond.

Almost all of our American music has strong ties to the Isles.  Yes, the Beatles invaded, but only after Elvis and Rock ‘n Roll hit their shores first.  The early European settlers in this country also brought their music along with them.  The English, Welsh, Scottish, and later Irish, immigrants brought their distinct music to the New World.  Settling often in remote areas, this music developed of it’s own accord, blending with influences from the music of African slaves or French Quebecois/Cajun to become our American folk music traditions.  Country music, Rock n’ Roll, and even some jazz traditions can be traced to this region (Appalachia and the South in the U.S.). Even in the classical realm, Copland’s “very American” Hoedown from Rodeo is easily traced through Appalachia back to Celtic areas of Britain and Ireland (as the fiddle tune, Bonaparte’s Retreat).  I’ll even go so far to posit that J.P. Sousa may not have had nearly the impact on our Independence Day celebrations without the British band tradition that inspired his music.

Early American history is rife with stories of settlements of Puritans, Quakers and aristocratic land-owners, along with their transplanted Anglo culture. But we also see important settlements of Moravians in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and Germans in South Carolina and Ohio.  These settlements valued music of the German/Czech tradition and imported professional ensembles and composers to our shores long before we tried to do it as an American public.  In fact, I consider American transplants John Antes and Johann Peter to be equals to any of the “lesser” composers of the Classical era in Europe.  But their music stayed somewhat isolated.  The Anglo roots propagated.

We remain fascinated by the music, stories, novels, and history set in the British Isles.  King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth (I and II) make for great reading and films.  I find it interesting that we are connected with eras and personalities that we never experienced.  Downton Abbey is a current hit in North America, a region of the world that never really lived through life in Edwardian England.  In music, I find that when one really delves into Elgar’s Enigma Variations, it is as if you were in a parlor in 1899 along with Sir Edward and his friends.  We have nostalgia for something we’ve lost, or never had to begin with.

Perhaps it is language, roots, or constant media bombardment.  But whatever the reason, we are truly connected across the pond.  Count me in as an Anglophile!

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

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