Aye, I hae a thin’ or two for the Scots.

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Reflecting this “Day After Robert Burns Birthday,” I realize that his poetry of has always been a part of me, perhaps even before I discovered it as an adult. Some of it is likely my Scottish ancestry. I hear my Grandmother’s voice in the cadence of a Burns poem (even though she did not have the thick accent or speak in a true Scottish dialect, but the rhythm was definitely there). Her father, my Great-Grandpa Scotty, jumped ship and (ahem) immigrated to the U.S. sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. No one in the family seems quite sure if he ever formally became a U.S. citizen. But as the family branch was planted on U.S. soil, the flag with St. Andrew’s Cross was still a living memory.

Even today when I hear Burns’ poetry, I am transported back to age 8 or 9, visiting my grandparents in California. I can both hear my Grandmother’s voice and smell my Grandfather’s pipe as the words float in and out of clear understanding. Grandpa was Polish, so that is another story for another time. But he worked for Great-Grandpa Scotty and certainly picked up a lot of the feel of the people by hanging around the Leitch family much of his life. And yes, I remember my Grandmother, in true Scottish fashion, saying “Ach.” When she did, it wasn’t usually a good thing, unless you were playing opposite her in cards.

Robert Burns also represents the apex of my education in a very direct way. My doctoral research, dissertation document and lecture recital topic was on George Chadwick’s, Tam O’Shanter, an adaptation of the epic Burns’ poem. Although Chadwick was an American composer, the adaptation of Tam O’Shanter into a symphonic poem retained the flavor and feel of the original poetry. If you have a spare 20 minutes, give it a listen. It’s a remarkably good piece of music.

I’ve no idea if my magnetic pull to Burns’ poetry and to the Chadwick piece had something to do with the cadence and syntax that I heard as a boy. I’m certain my mother also picked up some of it, and there is a possibility that a skilled linguist would detect some of it remaining in my western drawl. Perhaps you cannot ever fully escape your ancestry. From bagpipes, to fiddle tunes to Star Trek’s chief engineer, I was hooked from an early age. The fact that the family also had a dog named Tam O’Shanter (Tammie) probably helped seal my attraction to all things tartan. Years later, my wife and and I named one of our dogs Tam as well, this time after the impending dissertation topic. It’s a wonder one of our children didn’t get the name, too.

So, enjoy your roots. Bask in the language, traditions, stories, and art of your ancestors. Together they make us all richer as a people. Together they make us a society capable of sharing, caring, daring, and when in a kilt, perhaps also staring!

No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare

Robert Burns (last stanza of Tam O’Shanter)

Copyright, Robert Baldwin , Before the Downbeat, 2017

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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How Tragedy Influenced a Generation of Music

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While we enjoy our Star Wars references today (yes, May the Fourth Be With You, and all that…) I am reminded of another galvanizing cultural event of May the 4th, one that changed a generation. In this case, most of America saw the violence on the small screen. And in this case, the violence was real. But included in the aftermath is a generation of art. Musical expression filtered through our anger and shame, that lifted a magnifying glass to our society.  Introspection and commentary is one of the many things the arts can do besides entertain.

May 4, 1970: the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. While a tragedy, this would also be a pivotal moment for the antiwar effort, bringing a new discernment to the arguments and actions on both sides of the issue. It also would be memorialized in song, Neil Young’s  Ohio, which also personalized the event by asking:

 “What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”

Naturally, the event would be a life-changing event for anyone at the protest or even on the campus (two of the dead were not even protesters). And for music, the campus event and Neil Young’s song Ohio would be galvanizing for future musical giants as well. This included three who were students at Kent State at the time.  One Kent State student, Chrissie Hynde, would later form the rock group, The Pretenders. Two other Kent State students, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, would later become the founders of the punk/new wave/alternative band, Devo.

Devo’s Jerry Casale said the following about the Kent State Massacre:

“I was a student, I was a member of SDS – an antiwar group called Students for a Democratic Society, trying to restore Democracy at a time when LBJ and Nixon were running roughshod over it. There were several antiwar groups. That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day – the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional, so we’re out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 am on May 4th to declare Martial Law, which suspends all first amendment rights of The Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you’re automatically committing a crime. These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that Martial Law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas and some of the more ballsy protesters, while they’re coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo. They just suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us, down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that 2 of the 4 students killed weren’t part of the demonstration, weren’t part of an antiwar group. They’d just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell’s going on, and they got killed. The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scatter-gun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that’s paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
I had been a member of the honors college and the only way I went to school was with a scholarship. My family was poor and I got a scholarship to go to school. What I had to do every year to earn my scholarship was work 3 months in the summer for the university admitting new students to the honors college, the incoming freshman, and helping them arrange their curriculum, taking them through the registration process. The summer before May 4th, I had befriended Jeffery Miller and Allison Krause, 2 honor students, and they turn out to be 2 of the 4 killed on May 4th. So I’d known both of them 9 months before this happened, and so when I realized that this girl on her stomach with a huge exit wound in her back with blood running down the sidewalk was Allison, I nearly passed out. I sat down on the grass and kind of swooned around and lied down. I was in shock, I couldn’t move.
The government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up and lying, it was amazing. The final chapter there was that the parents of the students who were shot and killed banded together and went on a class action suit against Governor Rhodes and the state of Ohio and the National Guard, and summarily lost across the board. These kids that were shot were 18 and 19 years old. 2 of them were 18 and 2 of them were 19. They lost because by law, no one was allowed to be having a protest once Martial Law was declared, and they threw it out of the court system. I don’t think anyone wants to know the truth. It ruins the myth of freedom in America to find out how easily it can be gone.”

(From http://calendar.songfacts.com/)

(Complete Devo Interview here on Song Facts blog: http://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/devo/)

It is little wonder these incidents influenced a fledgling band to choose the name Devo, originally from a cartoon representing the De-evolution of society. It probably also explains, to some extent, the biting satire apparent in many of their songs. Additionally, it may have been a factor in developing the tough image of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders.

But one thing is for certain, these events have regularly galvanized and changed artists into new creative energies. Indeed, as Leonard Bernstein famously said:

“This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.”

More devotedly.

Devo-tedly.

Indeed.

May the Memory of the Fourth Be With Us Always.

Cross-posted on Weird Music History blog.

Continuing the Dream with Music

I’m doing something outside of the box this weekend for an orchestra concert.  Allow me to ellaborate…

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The holiday weekend looms with tributes and speeches celebrating one of the greatest and most influential speakers of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr.  MLK weekend is a wonderful observation, one that encourages reflection on where we have been, where we are, and just how far we have yet to go as an American people.

But as we look ahead to a weekend of speeches, marches and remembrances, we should also remember that the March on Washington and other civil rights events were also filled with music: the music of hope, longing, suffering, and joy.  This music, along with the poetry and literature of African Americans may be the initial impetus for change, one that became an accessible influence for people at far greater numbers than all the speeches, laws or social theories.  Dr. King may have been at the head of this locomotive of change, but music and poetry were vital fuel for the engine.

Here is a link to a New Yorker story from last year (with videos) regarding the importance of music during the March on Washington:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/08/dream-songs-the-music-of-the-march-on-washington.html

In fact, I will posit that it was the music and poetry of African-Americans that began this train rolling along, decades before real social change occurred.  The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the music of gospel, ragtime, blues and jazz was extremely popular across racial boundaries, representing the first foray of a large number of white Americans towards diversity.  As migration moved up the Mississippi to the major urban centers, the backyard of Mark Twain’s America was populated with new voices for artistic expression.  The music and poetry spoke with universal truths to which all could relate

I, as a white American, can truly “feel” the heartache of the Blues, just as I can experience the fear of isolation expressed in a James Baldwin poem or the freedom and joy of an early jazz dance tune.  The syntax may be expressed through a culture not my own, but in the hands of a great artist, the meaning cuts through.  We can all find a deep personal meaning in an American Spiritual just as easily as from Beethoven’s 9th or the King James Bible, if we allow ourselves the permission to look.  And if we find meaning, then it also becomes ours, collectively

I was an infant when the March on Washington occurred, and although I don’t remember it, I nonetheless grew up with the legacy of the event.  Dr. King’s speech was taught in school along with the entire Civil Rights Movement.  But I also grew up with the legacy of music.  Much of the music we listened to in the 1960s and 70s was but a short putt from whence it came.  Not only R&B and Soul, but also Disco, which represented the upward mobility of a rapidly growing diverse middle class.  And while none of this excuses or ignores racism and the continuing struggle for equality, it does give hope that what is really important is much closer than we think.

So in this context, an orchestra concert may not be as out of the ordinary as it first appears.  Using poetry and music the evening will be an expression of humanity through poetry and music.  It has been an honor and joy to develop this hour-long program for the evening.

MLK Day Celebration Concert: Utah Philharmonia and Friends

Monday, January 20, 2014, 7:30 p.m.; Libby Gardner Concert Hall

Daniel Tuutau, guest speaker; Ubeeng Kueq, piano; U Ambassadors Jazz Combo

Adults $10 Students/Seniors/U Faculty & Staff $6/Arts Pass

Program:

He Had His Dream                                                    Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Three Black Kings: I. King of the Magi                     Duke Ellington

A Dream Deferred                                                     Langston Hughes

Maple Leaf Rag                                                        Scott Joplin

Three Black Kings: II. King Solomon                        Duke Ellington

Some Days                                                               James Baldwin

I Have a Dream                                                        Herbie Hancock, arr. R. Schmidt

Danzas de Panama: !V. Cumbia y Congo                William Grant Still

Equality                                                                     Maya Angelou

Three Black Kings: III. Dr. Martin Luther King          Duke Ellington

http://music.utah.edu/events/index.php?trumbaEmbed=eventid%3D108222647%26view%3Devent%26-childview%3D

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Beyond the1812 Overture

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Americans love the booming cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Many Americans can imagine a great conflict on American soil (bombs bursting in air, and all that).  Except the 1812 Overture is not about America.  Tchaikovsky was referring to another War of 1812: the one where Napoleon’s forces were knocking on the door of Russia and where the tide of the invasion was turned back.  (Yes, that’s why he employed are all those French and Russian tunes).  But despite that, it’s a great example of how Americans adopt a composer and piece to make it something truly their own. It is a deeply patriotic piece.  Just not in the way most Americans think.

Tchaikovsky used more than cannons to get the point across.  He also used tunes that everyone of the time knew, familiar national songs.  American composers in the first half of the 20th century also were quite adept at using folk material to garner a sense of music for the people.

Re-crafting something that we intimately know and identify with is a way that artists can establish and maintain a creative connection.

You may be familiar with the most famous and successful of these composers, Aaron Copland.  But there were many more.  In the spirit of July 4th and American music, I offer the following examples of music of the people, by the people and for the people.   These composers tapped into the creative energy of a diverse nation to define their music and connect with their audiences.  Check these out on YouTube, Spotify, or ITunes.

William Schuman: New England Triptych

William Schumann was a major figure in the American music scene of the mid 20th century.  New England Triptych is an interesting and thoroughly listenable re-imagining of tunes originally written in the 1700s by William Billings, New England’s first important composer.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

While Ives’ music can be challenging, this piece is a good introduction to an important American voice.  Check out both the original organ version and the orchestral or band arrangements by William Schuman (the same as above).  As a boy, I would listen to a Boston Pops recording of this work, imagining it as a tapestry of America.

Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Once considered on par with Copland in terms of importance as an American composer, Thomson’s music has fallen off the radar in recent years.  I was honored to play a PBS program in Iowa honoring his 90th birthday in 1986.  While we didn’t play this particular piece, it soon became a favorite of mine.  The hymn tune, Yes, Jesus loves Me, is presented and interwoven into a truly symphonic fabric throughout.  The work was his first symphony, written in 1928.

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 4 (Folksong Symphony).

Like Ives, Copland and Thomson, Harris was drawn to the folk music of America.  This work, for chorus and orchestra, is a wonderfully colorful presentation of American classics.  Also recommended is his Symphony No. 3. Although it is not as tuneful or based on folk music, it is an expansive concept which represents the hope and optimism of America as it sat on the brink of war in 1939 and has been called “the quintessential American symphony.”

William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony (Symphony No. 1)

This is a work that infuses the traditional symphonic form with the sounds and soul of the Blues.  It is a postcard of Still’s America in 1930.  He was W.C. Handy’s arranger and, like Gershwin, was committed to bringing popular sounds into the concert hall.  Often called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” his entire output reminds me of a sonic reflection of Langston Hughes.

Ernest Bloch: America, An Epic Rhapsody

Composed in 1926, ten years after Bloch emigrated to America, this work tries to encapsulate all of American history as Bloch imagined it, from pre-history to his present day.  The work includes American Indian melodies, Pilgrim hymns, songs from the south, and popular American patriotic and folk music.  The audience is invited to sing at the end, although most recordings add a chorus for this effect.

Happy Exploring!

Copyright, 2012  Robert Baldwin