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A Conversation with Richard Crawford

The Making of American Music

HUMANITIES, November/December 1997 | Volume 18, Number 6

Music historian Richard Crawford talked recently with Humanities editor Mary Lou Beatty about America's distinctive stamp on music. A professor of music history at the University of Michigan, Crawford is the author of The American Musical Landscape and general editor of the series Music of the United States of America.

Mary Lou Beatty: In the eighteenth, nineteenth, even our own twentieth century, American music has been measured against a European model. You break with that. You argue that there's a distinct and vital character to American music.

Richard Crawford: Let's say I certainly am interested in exploring what people find to be distinctive and vital in American music as opposed to European music. On the other hand, I find that unless you have a pretty thorough knowledge of the European traditions that made their way here it's difficult to document accurately what is vital in the American. I'm certainly not an advocate of turning one's back on European music.

Q: You link our music to democracy. When you say that, you mean that we don't have dukes or kings or churches as patrons, and that's the difference?

Crawford: Musicians here have been somewhat more in charge of their destiny. It's up to them to advocate whatever music-making they do rather than to fit into a structure of patronage that already exists. Church music is a huge part of this country's background and existence, but, since we don't have any state church, things are decentralized and diversified. In that sense, our music-making is more democratic than in Europe.

Q: But performance-based, whether it is in a church or on a stage. You say the composition stems from performance.

Crawford: I take the position that, rather than starting with composition as the beginning point of American musical contributions, it makes more sense to start with performance because we have always had in this country a healthy supply of music brought over from elsewhere. Only at certain points in history has American composition been thought to be needed. If you take the long view of American music history, we're basically perpetuating traditions from overseas, from the Old World, whether we're talking about Africa or Europe. Musicians are first and foremost performers; the creation of music to fit particular American circumstances is a somewhat later development.

I guess I'm breaking with the model of American music history that sees music created in America as the only worthy thing to be talking about historically. I'm interested in performance because our music-making institutions have grown up more around performance than they have around composition. Of course, in the twentieth century, we've had a lot of frameworks created for American composition, but, before that time, that wasn't so much the case.

Q: When you say that the framework was created, are you talking about the economic framework of music -- Tin Pan Alley, musicals?

Crawford: Yes. To me, economics is a key. You need to find out at what point it has been possible for people to support themselves as musicians in this country. So, I trace economics at every point. That's where you have to start.

Q: But if, say, people are now performing, writing music, for fifty dollars a head for a rock concert, don't you risk a lowest-common-denominator kind of music? Or do you think that's freeing for the performer and the composer?

Crawford: All these things have to be set in a historical context. Rather than starting with fifty dollars a head in a contemporary rock concert, I would go back. In the book that I'm working on now, which is a general history of music in the U.S. from the 1500s up to the present time, I'm trying to set concert life in a context. Finding the right context for the kind of thing you're asking about helps us understand it better.

Q: There is an interview in the Detroit News in which you are even pretty tolerant about gangsta rap, saying that it's just the beat of a new generation of Americans reflecting struggles with the American dream. You're quoted there as saying, "Country, bluegrass, blues, and jazz all emanated from plain folks rather than the social elite. They're tied to the experiences of people who have been outside the economic reward system."

You describe three different streams that feed into music. You talk about popular, traditional, and art music.

Crawford: I talk about three "spheres" of musical activity, one of them the classical sphere that aims at what I call transcendence.

Q: That's, quote, art music, unquote.

Crawford: That's right. Another, which I call the popular sphere, aims at accessibility to the present-day audience. The third, which I call the traditional or folk music sphere, aims at continuity, at maintaining a tradition of performance and of repertory. I see each of those three approaches to music, these three spheres of musical activity, as pursuing its own ideal. I also see the three spheres interacting over time to produce all sorts of unexpected blends and approaches. For me, it's been the popular sphere and its need to appeal to a present-day audience that has defined the center of American musical life.

Q: Let me put a song to you. I'm not going to sing it and ruin both of our mornings: "This land is your land, this land is my land, / from California to the New York island, / from the redwood forest" and so on. Is that plain traditional or is that a mixed genre?

Crawford: You've got a real nice question there. It's a Woody Guthrie song. And Guthrie was an unusual person who grew up making music in the traditional sphere. He was of the folk. Pete Seeger, who became his colleague, was born to refined, educated parents and discovered the folk tradition as an outsider. But Woody Guthrie grew up in it and was marinated in that environment.

As that music moved into what I call the popular sphere, he became a very popular composer, writing music that was basically in the traditional sphere. So I say that he's a good example of a person who creates a blend by being grounded in one sphere and then writing music that is disseminated in another sphere.

Q: Could the audience change how the music is defined with the passage of time?

Crawford: Very much so. Actually, the story about that song is kind of interesting. According to Joe Klein, the biographer of Guthrie, that song was written in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which Guthrie heard many times during a long, not quite cross-country journey -- I think this was in 1940 -- hitchhiking from Oklahoma to New York City and really not liking Berlin's song at all. If you read the later stanzas of "This Land Is Your Land," it's a song about how "you and me" are not the elite people. There's a verse in there about seeing Private Property, No Trespassing signs and all that. So the song has an element of protest in it about people being excluded. We don't sing those later stanzas now . . .

Q: Interesting. My father used to tell me about when he was a young man growing up, Irish American, there were job signs saying "No Irish need apply," and it still galled him, as well it might, forty years later, fifty years later.

Crawford: The Yankee Protestant was in a position, even early in this century, to define what a real American was. Essentially, those folks tended to take themselves as the standard and think of everything else as a deviation from it. Catholicism, whatever -- there's a lot of ways you can deviate from the standard.

Q: Let's take another, a distinctly American composer - - George Gershwin. First of all, in 1924, with Rhapsody in Blue, he puts jazz into the concert hall. Then, a decade later, he does something even more radical, I would say, by creating a folk opera, Porgy and Bess.

He came in for a lot of criticism. Maybe it's criticism after the fact for taking what was an African musical tradition or an African American musical tradition and making it into his own -- sort of two white guys usurping black men's music. How do you respond to something like that? Is that just part of our grand tradition?

Crawford: Well, maybe, except that it's hard for a music historian to see this as a case of "usurping." Porgy and Bess is a really interesting work, of course. The criticisms came basically from two directions. Gershwin was criticized as an opera composer because some music critics felt that his technique as a composer was not up to writing a full-length grand opera, i.e., something that's sung from beginning to end. He was criticized as someone who was plugging the equivalent of pop tunes into an operatic framework.

From the other side, there was one black critic, Hall Johnson, who particularly criticized him for being inauthentic and missing the folk spirit that a "folk opera" should have, and for being too sophisticated with some of his material.

Because entrenched aesthetic and political positions are at stake in Porgy and Bess, this is an argument that may never end.

Just a couple of other points about Gershwin and this opera. For one thing, in 1929 Gershwin signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera to write an opera called Dybbuk. It was to be an Eastern European story, based on a Broadway play. The work was commissioned, but Gershwin never wrote it. On the other hand, writing Porgy and Bess was Gershwin's own idea, which came after he had read DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, and this was something he did sort of gratis -- I mean, he took the risk himself. Porgy and Bess was not a commissioned work. It was his attempt to come to grips with all of his own musical experience and the stuff lodged closest to the center of his consciousness. After all, he was a classically trained musician. But at the same time, he had a long-time love affair with black music. From the start of his songwriting career he was reportedly going up into Harlem to hear black pianists.

Q: He took a couple of visiting French composers there.

Crawford: Well, there were Milhaud and, later, Ravel, though I'm not sure that Gershwin actually escorted either of them. Black popular styles were a kind of vernacular tradition for him -- something that he felt very much at home with. You can quarrel and say he wasn't from that culture. But he absorbed it growing up and spent a couple of decades trying to represent that culture in music before he wrote Porgy and Bess. Plus, many black performing artists have put their stamp on this work. To me, the Gershwin work is a collaboration between his written score and black singers.

Q: They did improvisation, too, in the chorus of Porgy and Bess, just as Duke Ellington did with his band. Right?

Crawford: As I understand it, Gershwin went to one of the South Carolina churches in 1934 and heard responsorial singing. He tried to compose the effect of this improvising congregation into his opera, which shows his admiration for that kind of thing.

I don't think there's any person who's in a position to judge this work one way or another on grounds of authenticity. It's certainly true that audiences have judged it positively as an opera.

Q: As a historian of music, should the music just be heard without a face to it, period, whatever shade of skin?

Crawford: Gershwin did specify that American performances be done by black performers.

Q: I was trying to get to the larger question of the music itself. Does music get judged on its own, or do you put it in an ethnic or racial context? Does everyone bring that to music in looking at it and listening to it?

Crawford: Well, given the subject. It doesn't take place on Broadway or the place where Thornton Wilder's Our Town takes place -- Grover's Corners. It has a very specific ethnic and geographic setting: a black ghetto in Charleston, South Carolina.

Q: Yes, but you don't talk about Carmen as being denigrating to gypsies. Or do you?

Crawford: If gypsies were writing about the subject, you probably would. We're in a period now of intense discussion of ethnic issues. Feelings run very deeply about cultural ownership.

My feeling is that, if the question of ethnicity sparks people to go and experience the work on their own, letting the work do what it tries to do to them, there in the theater, then all well and good. What I don't like is somebody judging a work strictly on ideological grounds without actually experiencing it. Maybe one of the most beautiful things ever said about Porgy and Bess was said by Gershwin to Rouben Mamoulian the night after the first rehearsal. He called Mamoulian, who was the opera's stage director, in the middle of the nightþit was about two in the morningþand Gershwin said, "You know, I can't sleep. I just found the music so beautiful. I can hardly believe I wrote it," or words to that effect. It was as if he, at that point, were able to stand outside the thing. It wasn't a matter of ownership but something closer to wonder: "Holy smoke, where did this come from?" To me, there's so much in music that's like this. It takes you to another region of your being. It's the experience. It's that transcendent experience.

When I talk about "art" music and transcendence, and popular music and accessibility, I'm saying that one of the things I find admirable in at least some art music since Beethoven is its ambition: the aspiration to transcend not only its own time but the limitations of the individual -- his or her circumstances. Another thing we've learned in the twentieth century, thanks to recordings, is that all kinds of music performed in the popular sphere has turned out to be transcendent.

Q: Such as . . .

Crawford: Such as Charlie Parker's "Embraceable You" or Frank Sinatra's "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" or Sarah Vaughan's "My Funny Valentine." The list could go on and on. Our ability to reexperience these performances and make them our own brings transcendence into the popular sphere.

Q: You wrote that we don't really have a canon of American masterworks. Are you saying we're in the midst of creating our canon?

Crawford: Yes. Canon-making, really until rather recently, had been pretty much a matter of the concert hall. Since a canon of European masterpieces already existed before American composers began exploring that vein, you get an American concert-hall canon that plays off European criteria, though with a New World spin. We're now in the process of creating other kinds of canons. For example, around 1971 the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was chosen by Martin Williams, who had recently gone to work down there. Out of thirty thousand jazz recordings, you get a selection of about five dozen by somebody who has listened to a lot of music and spent his life trying to decide what makes it so beautiful. Hey, what a great labor- saving device!

I listen to items from this collection all the time. I teach out of it too. It's a wonderful thing. The danger is that it's possible to take this selection as the final word. But, in fact, you could create other jazz canons -- several more Smithsonian Collections of Classic Jazz -- from different recordings, and there might not be that big a falloff in quality.

Q: Gerald Early suggests that America's gift to future generations is going to be three things: the idea of democracy, baseball, and jazz. But is jazz the single most distinctive feature of American music?

Crawford: You're talking to a baseball fan and a jazz fan, so what can I say? Jazz is unique. That's what gives it that particular claim.

Q: And it's essentially the most exportable thing to the rest of the world? Do musicians around the world respond? I don't mean to make it sound commercial.

Crawford: Well, rock music at this stage is a lot more exportable than jazz. The thing with jazz is that it's so big in the sense that it absorbs any degree of artistry, technique, or virtuosity that you bring to it. It's big enough to embrace that. "Rock and roll" is, to me, basically midfifties music, and "rock" came onto the scene in the midsixties and went on. The commercial construction of rock music strikes me as a limitation. I think it must be difficult to grow artistically in that genre, which seems to have a history of musicians feeling caught in the web of their success. If they attempt to go beyond it, they have trouble with their fans and the critics, who represent huge numbers of people. The genre allows for a lot of diversity, but it doesn't seem to absorb the level of traditional musical artistry that jazz does.

Q: Someone here who's much more knowledgeable than I am about music was talking about modern composers like John Adams and Steve Reich, saying that some of the music she hears coming from her kids' stereos sounds as if rock and pop have adopted some of their ideas of composition. She suggests that electronic music has gone from the serious composer to the popular. I don't know if that fits in with your earlier three-streams theory of music coming together.

Crawford: Well, yes. I don't know if it's the chicken or the egg on minimalism, or Steve Reich and Philip Glass and so forth, but, at a time when rock music brought harmonic simplification to the popular sphere, a simplifying trend also took hold in this branch of classical music. I'm sure it had an impact on the audiences. Young Americans in 1970 were more likely to listen to minimalist classical music than the kind of classical music that had been heard before, which is tremendously complex and always changing and fairly chaotic-sounding to the untrained ear; whereas with Reich and Glass and Adams there isn't so much material. You hear a fairly short, simple figure over and over again, and you kind of go into a meditative state. It doesn't pose the same intellectual challenges as a lot of other contemporary concert music.

As far as electronics go, the simplest thing I could say is that rock and roll and rock music are basically about making records. They are studio forms that then get projected out into the culture. Electronics has been part of that particular branch of popular music ever since the start of it.

Q: How is a studio form different from members of Ellington's band taking off? Aren't they both improvisational, or am I missing something here?

Crawford: Things changed from the sixties on, but the role of phonograph records in the lives of performers, really up until the LP era, was essentially to promote the band to get better jobs, not to make money. You didn't make much money off records -- maybe Bing Crosby started to in the late thirties. It was the record companies who made money off records, not the musicians. It was essentially a promotional thing.

Whereas, from the very beginning with rock and roll, you make a record and then you go out and reproduce that record live. Remember some of these things in the last few years -- guys are lip-syncing the hits in public?

Q: Milli Vanilli.

Crawford: The Ellington band was in a performance tradition that involved improvising, and in which recordings were only spin-offs, if you'll pardon the expression. Maybe improvisation takes place in rock and roll, too, to an extent, but basically the key is to arrive at a definitive version of the piece, get it down on record, and then sell the record. The record is the document. In a jazz piece, the record never takes on that kind of importance. Miles Davis wasn't going to get up in public and reproduce anything he'd recorded in the past. He might have played the same tune, but it wouldn't have sounded the way it had ten years before.

Q: What ever happened to musical comedy? It was a personal favorite of mine.

Crawford: You're speaking of it in the past tense.

Q: That's deliberate.

Crawford: It flourished through the fifties, and the reason it flourished, in my view, is that the fantasy aspect of boy-gets-girl was present in virtually every musical that you can think of.

There's an interesting book on the subject by Lehman Engel, who conducted many musical shows and also taught workshops on writing musicals. He says what you find in every good musical is that the opening scene introduces the hero and the heroine and the conflict between them, and then, during the course of the show, finds a way to resolve the conflict. One technique is making the conflict seem insurmountable: "How could they ever . . . how could she ever love a guy like that?" Then, of course, they work it out, like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Q: The first one I ever saw was Carousel, which does not end so happily. It does end affirmatively.

Crawford: That's right. Well, yes, he's dead. They can't get together, but love still wins out. It even works for West Side Story, although there you have . . .

Q: Everybody dies. It's Romeo and Juliet.

Crawford: Yes, but it's the belief in unconditional romantic love, in magic romantic love. All the most popular musicals have that. Stephen Sondheim does not have that. He's got so much, but his shows avoid the kind of romantic fantasy that's been getting people into theaters for two centuries, because, whatever the roller coaster ride is, they want it to come out at the end. In West Side Story, even Maria and Tony have their perfect love. It doesn't last, but they have it. When you start making love conditional and contingent, you start undercutting that and you lose a lot of the magic of musicals.

Q: I wrestle with Sweeney Todd. It's not in the same genre. Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George -- may be a departure. But Sweeney Todd was jarring.

Crawford: Maybe it's worth remembering that before 1965 there was no serious criticism of the Broadway musical apart from the theater critics who were working journalists. Books on the subject had titles like "The Wonderful World of the Broadway Musical" -- this isn't an actual title. They gave you the stars, and the plots, and a rundown of the hit songs, but no serious critical treatment until much later. Now a number of such books are coming out. Oxford University Press is about to publish one by Geoffrey Block called Enchanted Evenings, which is a musicological treatment of certain musicals.

Q: What about the revivals -- Show Boat, Crazy for You. What is that phenomenon?

Crawford: Show Boat is a great show. There's still an audience for the "classic" musical. At the University of Michigan, where I teach, we have a program in the musical. Students come to learn how to be Broadway-style performers, and they're doing mostly older shows. There's still an appetite for it, but the more successful newer shows seem to emphasize spectacle.

Q: I saw Chicago some weeks ago. Great choreography, wonderful dance scenes but an unsympathetic story. It's almost as if it doesn't need a story line at all, just a setting.

Crawford: Let me summarize what I've been talking about here in one word: character. Who are the characters in these shows? Can a general audience identify with these characters? I think what forties and fifties musicals, from Oklahoma! on through West Side Story, have is characters whom audiences find themselves pulling for.

According to Lehman Engel, the key to musicals lies in the book. There are all sorts of good songs and choreography, dance, spectacle, but the people of that period knew how to write a book with characters who were multidimensional and empathetic. We don't do that so much anymore. Maybe there's a dissonance in many newer shows between the form, which is song and dance, and the book, which is serious, making a statement.

Q: I was just thinking of Guys and Dolls, a wonderful stage show.

Crawford: That show's got tremendous appeal. Think of the characters. Sarah Brown, Sky Masterson. And there's also Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide. Those are great characters.

Engel says, by the way, that virtually every great musical is an adaptation. You start with characters, whether it's, say, Annie Oakley or the characters from Michener's South Pacific. Oklahoma! is an adaptation. Guys and Dolls is from Damon Runyon. Think of the difficulty of creating a multidimensional character from scratch when, in fact, in a musical you can show only so many facets -- which has to be very economically done -- of the character. Whereas if you have, say, Romeo and Juliet, you've got this well of richness from which you can select.

Q: You don't think Damon Runyon is as rich as Shakespeare? (Laughter.)

Crawford: Well, no, but there's plenty of local color in there. Abe Burrows had something to start with.

Q: You're doing a textbook that's a history of music in the United States?

Crawford: Yes. I don't have a title for it yet, but it begins with the coming of Europeans to this continent and it goes up to the present.

Q: Plus you're general editor of the Music of the United States of America series, which is supported by the NEH. What does that consist of?

Crawford: It's a series of editions of American music. The projected series is to be forty volumes. We've issued six so far. We call ourselves MUSA, pronounced MEWZA.

Q: How long have you been at work on this?

Crawford: We started in 1988. It took a while to get cranked up, but now we're putting out two volumes a year.

Q: What kinds of editions?

Crawford: Works that are not currently available or have never been available but that we think have high quality. It's not a canon. The canon would be Copland, Barber, Gershwin, and others, but that's already available. We're doing things that have not been done but that we think are good.

Q: If you added another volume, what would it be? What I'm really trying to get at is how historians of music will look at the last half of the twentieth century. What have we given to music?

Crawford: We're wrestling with that now. As a matter of fact, I'm just starting the last chapter of the historical survey that you referred to -- a chapter on music in the U.S. from 1965 to the present.

Q: What will be regarded as the main American contribution, or is it a number of things?

Crawford: It's hard to say.

Q: How do we rank up against Mozart?

Crawford: This is apples and pomegranates.

If Mozart had been born in 1950s America rather than 1750s Austria, whatever he would be doing, the chances of his work encompassing musical possibilities as it did in his own day would be pretty small. There's just so much now that one must embrace. The idea of a summing-up figure seems fairly improbable at this point, given the value that we now attribute to music of all kinds.

When I started teaching music history in 1960, I used a book by Donald Jay Grout called A History of Western Music. It didn't mention a single popular musician. It hardly mentioned Americans at all. It was basically a tracing of European art music. That idea of Western music seemed valid at the time. Now, forty years later, we have so many qualifications that we have to make. We have been shown the value of music from folk traditions and music from popular traditions and music from classical traditions, and our passion for preserving the past is so well developed that the biodegradability of music, taken for granted in earlier times, doesn't exist anymore. We have more and more music in the present that we have to try to come to terms with. Rather than pointing to a work or a composer or a genre, I would turn it back on the listener and say that maybe the widening of musicians' and listeners' range will be our age's legacy. It used to be that, if you like this kind of music, then you obviously don't like that kind of music. We've got more and more people coming into the field of music now who like jazz and rock and roll and are fluent in them and are classical composers and play banjo and on and on. They understand and are intimate with a wide range of different musical types. That kind of musical responsiveness may well be one of the legacies of our age.

Q: On Friday afternoon, when you put up your feet, what do you listen to?

Crawford: What do I listen to?

Often I listen to my wife, who is a classical pianist, play Schubert or Schumann or whatever she happens to be playing. I love it, and I feel grateful. That's what I'm most apt to listen to.

Q: This has been wonderful. Thank you for taking so much time. I've enjoyed it.

Crawford: My pleasure.