Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Distinctive American Voice - In Music

Last week while working on my tribute to Clarence Clemons I got to thinking about Bruce Springsteen's music and how uniquely American it is. And that got me to thinking about a unique "American voice" in the arts in general - iconoclastic, individualistic, pulling influences from everywhere and synthesizing them into a new, unique entity. So I figured I'd do a series of posts on the "American voice" in the arts, starting with this one on music and going on to literature and the graphic arts.

And of course I start with Bruce Springsteen. I identify with him the most because he's of my generation, the tail end of the Baby Boom, growing up hearing a melange of music on the radio - old Rock & Roll, R&B, Blues, the Folk revival (and in Bruce's case, especially Bob Dylan)... All of these elements are evident in Springsteen's music. You can hear the edgier rock of Jerry Lee Lewis and the Big Bopper, the early R&B of Aretha and Sam Cooke and James Brown, and the lyricism of Bob Dylan in his music. He was part of what I've always called the Second Wave of rock, growing up listening to the first wave and after gestating while the glory days of the '60s degenerated into the Disco era, erupting in the latter half of the '70s with a new, leaner and meaner version of rock firmly rooted in the first wave but influenced by other voices.

The other thing so American about Springsteen's music is his appeal to the blue-collar middle class; Bruce's music is all about the workers, their struggles, their concerns, and their activities. Springsteen is the working man's troubadour, much more so than Dylan. In many ways a lot of Springsteen's music is like Steinbeck set to a tune and backed by a band. The perfect example of that part of his repertoire is his song "Youngstown":

But the working class concerns also show up in his good-time, all out rockers as well, the perfect example of that being his biggest hit, "Born to Run"; it's all about kids living on the wrong side of the tracks looking for a way out and into a better life - pure Steinbeck as arena rock, with a strong element of R&B from Clarence Clemons. This is Springsteen at his best!

But Rock & Roll isn't the only form of music that fosters a unique American voice. So-called "classical" music (more accurately called art or concert music; "classical" is an era within that category, from back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and best exemplified by the Hayden family and Mozart, and early Beethoven) has fostered more than a few - Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Leonard Bernstein... But for me the ultimate "American" composer was Aaron Copland. His subject matter was most often the American heartland and its history and utilized American folk music elements as well as iconoclastic, individual twists on classic European compositional rules. You can listen to his "Appalachian Spring" in the sidebar of this blog. For this post I decided to include his "Fanfare for the Common Man" (a link with Springsteen and other American artists - an emphasis on the "common man", an American philosophical emphasis since the days of the Revolution):

Of course, the ultimate "American" music, considered by all the world as America's major contribution to the world's artistic culture, is Jazz; it's a unique synthesis of African, European, and American folk traditions. There are innumerable musicians in this category, but for me the Jazz ambassador to the world will always be Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington; his combination of "jungle" beat, compositional complexity, fluid melodic lines, and suave, urbane, almost European cosmopolitan sensitivity is so uniquely his that his music even transcends the "American" categorization, except for the fact that it's so American in it's blend of influences. There's a lot of Ellington music I could post here - "Take the A Train", "Things Ain't What They Used to Be", "Sophisticated Lady", "Prelude to a Kiss", etc. - but I chose this piece, "The Degas Suite", because it's so characteristic of Ellington's work: a soundtrack written in 1968 for a documentary about an exhibition of racing paintings by Impressionist painter Edgar Degas, it exemplifies all of Ellington's most characteristic compositional traits. In effect, it's all of Ellington's best music in 27 minutes. It's a bit long, but worth sticking around for. Enjoy!

Photo: View from the Oak Ridge observation tower, Gettysburg PA

Photo & text © 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. You know, it's interesting. When I think of music and definitive American voices, I often think of Stephen Foster.

    We don't hear his music like we used to because singing in the dialect of the slave isn't politically correct, but his music did a great deal to make that style of music popular, a precursor to some of the music you've described.

  2. Love him or hate him there's no arguing that he is iconoclastically American.

  3. wow great post - several installments of the series right here! and another nice tribute to clarence!

    did you know in july 2012 it will be the 100 anniversary of woody guthrie's birth - another distinctively american voice!

    rock on roy!

  4. Roy, did you move?

    Lovely photo. Great music.

    I think of Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael. I fall into the standards genre though I certainly think Copland is one of the true greats. So many fantastic composer/musicians. How about Ferde Grofe & his "Grand Cyn Suite"?

  5. Steph - Sorry, but Stephen Foster and his music will never get a boost from me. PC my ass! His stuff is saccharine crap with the sole intent of sentimentalizing the brutally inhuman institution of slavery and the parasitic antebellum "society" it supported. The man gets nothing but contempt from me.

    CG - Grofé may have composed music for American subjects but his style was still very, very European, much the same way Dvorak's American pieces were. An d yes, I had to move in with family in PA back in October.

  6. Excellent appraisal of our American composers. I like your concept of the Second Wave of Rock. (Comic books went through a similar phase in the early '70s, but I won't get into that here, obviously.)

    And I've always loved Copland, especially "Fanfare for the Common Man." In fact, I think I'll click on your sidebar playlist (yet again) for some background music while I do my chores around here.