Modern American Encounters, III

Students in HIS350 Modern America are engaging with a variety of primary and secondary source materials this semester.  Recently they were given an essay assignment that asked them to consider the following:

All of us approach an historical era that is new to us with impressions: ideas, feelings, or opinions about something or someone, often formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little or disconnected evidence.  The purpose of this assignment is to reflect on how your thinking (“impression”) about the modern American experience is being reshaped by your encounters with a variety of primary and secondary source evidence.

Senior History major Dana Morrison reflects on popular music as a primary source offering unique insight to the modern American experience in her essay, “There’s A Song in the Air.” Dana has also been featured here on AC 2nd a couple of times in the “Senior Sem Journal” series, most recently her reflection on history and science.

Ever since I was a young girl, music has filled my home.  Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom’s family gets together to create music together.  The love for music comes from my mom’s parents.  I grew up in the same town they were from and the older generations still associate my grandparents with their duets at weddings and funerals.  It has been said that for many years they married and buried everyone in Pembina County.  Since I have such a passion for music, I greatly looked forward to the opportunity to listen to music through the decades of modern America.  What I initially failed to take into account is how much I could learn about the time period by engaging in the music.  Music has a way of connecting the past to the present and by intentionally listening to the music, I have found I have learned much more about the time period through the power of music.

I was familiar with some of the songs that we have listened to in class, such as “Over There”.  The song is upbeat and cheery at first listen, and upon further investigation, it becomes clear how intentional the songwriter and performers were.  In “Over There”, a rousing war tune written by George M. Cohan in 1917, the triumphant melody encourages men to enlist and fight for their country.  Had Cohan chosen a more melodic and pensive tune, it would not have the same effect.  The lyrics, too, serve as a tool to inspire men to enlist.  The words imply honor, glory, prestige, and a slew of other positive feelings not only for the soldier, but for the family as well: “Make your daddy glad, to have had such a lad, tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.”[1]

Those who supported the war were not the only ones to produce music to convey a viewpoint of the war.  Nearly three years before Cohan wrote “Over There”, Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan collaborated on a song entitled “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”.  The song takes a definite anti-war stance with lyrics including: “Ten million mother’s hearts must break, for the ones who died in vain.”[2]  The song even goes as far as to say that nations should work out their troubles without the use of weapons, displaying a passive, anti-war stance.

As evident through these two World War I era examples, music is used to be persuasive and to invoke some feeling on a certain subject.  The writers were intentional about what lyrics they wrote and wanted to make the biggest impact they could, all while utilizing the power of a popular pastime, music.

The same phenomenon happens throughout history in a wide variety of different subjects.  In 1936, Abel Meeropol (under the pen name Lewis Allan) wrote a poem concerning the lynching of two black men.  Three years later, Billie Holiday performed a rendition of the song entitled “Strange Fruit”.  Meeropol used artistic expression to inform and convince people that lynching was wrong.  His provocative language and the mournful tune pierce the soul to impart a feeling of injustice.  Some of the lyrics include: “Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”[3]  By using poetry and music, Meeropol aimed to convince people how grotesque and horrific lynching is and through these words, he tried to change the course of history by doing away with lynching.

Of course, not all music has to be persuasive to be memorable and informative of a certain era.  Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, first recorded in 1928, is not meant to be persuasive.  It does not make the listener reflect upon whether or not something is unjust, necessarily, but it does invite the listener to reflect on what paradise would look like to the less fortunate.  Although the lyrics are somewhat humorous and silly, they paint a picture of the era in which it was written.  Taken from the perspective of a hobo, some of his pictures of paradise include “cigarette trees” and where “the bulldogs all have rubber teeth”.  However, some other images McClintock used are much more down to earth like visioning paradise as a place “where the blue bird sings” and  “the brakemen have to tip their hats”.[4]  It indicates what hobos experience, chiefly that they are missing out on some of the simplest pleasures in life.  They live in a world where birds do not sing and superiors do not acknowledge them.  McClintock’s aim in this song was not to call for radical change, but he does at least make it known how hard a hobo’s life can be, whether it was intentional or not.

Upon first glance, there seems to be a stark contrast between the music I have just described in this essay to the music that is most popular today.  Although I do not listen to much music on the current top 40, the songs I have listened to are aimed more to be played in the club and not to be taken too seriously.  But after reflecting on the subject more, I realized that good music will prevail and that at the same time Billie Holiday was singing “Strange Fruit”, many other artists were likely performing cheesy, forgettable songs.  If it is well written and important enough, the songs will prevail.  This can be witnessed through all of the decades leading up to present day.  The protest music of the 1960s and 1970s, the new sounds of 1980s rock, the boy bands of the 1990s.  Although all of these genres are not as lyrically stimulating influential as each other, there is a progression and advancement that indicates and personifies the time in which it was written.  Ten years from now, we will know which music was most influential during this era due to its longevity.  The music may not have a lot offer in terms of creativity, but it will in some way reflect the time in which it came from.

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[1] George M. Cohan. “Over There.” Rec. 1917.

[2] Alfred Bryan. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” Orch. Al Piantadosi. Rec. 1914.

[3] Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit.” By Abel Meeropol. Rec. 20 April, 1939. Fine and Mellow. Commodore.

[4] Harry McClintock. “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Rec. 1928.

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