Music and Pleasure

If you have gone hunting for early American music, you probably came across warhorses like 17th-century psalms, “Yankee Doodle” and other Revolutionary songs, maybe William Billings’s extremely popular “Chester” (don’t know this last one? Watch a very earnest John Adams sing it here). All of these can make for excellent musical examples to enliven a class or conference presentation (and I’ll write about music for both those scenarios in the future). However, sometimes listening to recordings of psalms or military marches feels too much like eating a virtuous salad, and not enough like eating ice cream. My survey of recordings is completely unscientific—happily, there is far too much diversity in early American music to provide anything like comprehensive coverage in a blog post—but it seems to me that there is a dearth of albums that are meant for pleasure rather than instruction.

With that in mind, recently I’ve been taken by the 2011 album by Apollo’s Fire titled “Come to the River: An Early American Gathering.”  This is a thoughtfully conceived album, a sonic journey through an imagined 19th-c. Appalachia. The album is divided into three sections, each with an evocative title: “Appalachian Wagon Train,” “Love & Death,” and “Revival Meeting.” The music is drawn from three repertories—early 17th-c. Elizabethan songs, mid 19th-c. shape note hymns, and traditional regional ballads—and conjures images of square dances, romantic trysts, feuds, jokes, children’s stories, untimely deaths, and religious worship. The idea is that Appalachia was a miniature melting pot with multiple strands of musical traditions (traditions that stem mostly from the British Isles–this is not a terribly diverse melting pot).

One of the reasons I’m excited about this album is because of the stellar performances on each track. Apollo’s Fire is a Baroque orchestra known for their first-rate historically informed performances on period instruments, but this album is a far cry from Monteverdi, Bach, and Handel. “Come to the River” is clearly influenced by old-time music, and the songs are arranged for combinations of cello, harpsichord, fiddle, hammered dulcimer, banjo, penny whistle, and singers—a somewhat unorthodox ensemble for early America, but one that allows for a lot of variety and flexibility across the album. Highlights from the album include a haunting version of “The Three Ravens,” a song by English composer Thomas Ravenscroft from 1610, and hearing the solfège syllables that precede shape note hymns. Also noteworthy is their a capella version of “Nobody but the Baby“, which is as wholesome as the rendition in “O Brother, Where Thou?” was sensual. The group excels at mournful and rhapsodic interpretations, delivering mesmerizing performances of “Wayfaring Stranger” and “What Wondrous Love is This.”

This album delivers a totally pleasurable listening experience, but as a musicologist I am troubled by the way “Come to the River” resists being located geographically or temporally. It gestures toward a timeless Appalachian folk tradition, but dehistoricized “folk” music tends to obscure sticky realities like intercultural conflicts, minority identities, disputed borders, etc. That said, Jeannette Sorrell, the member of Apollo’s Fire who conceived and arranged the album, is quite clear about her intention: to present “a kaleidoscope of the styles one might find on a journey through early 19th-century rural America.” She makes no claims to being totally representative or objective. Instead, Sorrell frames this as a roots project, returning to the music she loved as a teenager in Shenandoah Valley, VA. This is the kind of slipperiness you can’t get away with as a musicologist, but we overlook it when the aim is entertainment rather than education. And, to the group’s credit, the CD liner notes include a list of musical sources (which makes it useful for teaching) and short essay that explains their interpretive choices and details the history of the songs.

For this post I went searching for an enjoyable album of early American music, but I’m ending on a more circumspect note. Writing this review of “Come to the River” reminds me of recurring dilemmas in my musicological career: is it trivializing to present music as a “fun” part of early American studies? How can I foster serious and responsible discussions about music, while also leaving room for people to have emotional and non-scholarly musical experiences? I’m curious to know whether scholars in other fields grapple with these questions, and if so, how you resolve them.

4 responses

  1. I’m not a musicologist, but I’ve been thinking about how I would like to incorporate music into teaching American history. This morning I was reading a chapter from David Hempton’s book, Methodism. He writes about how hymns played an important role in spreading the “message” of Methodism–that people were more likely to remember what they heard in song than what they read in the Bible. I wonder whether songs couldn’t function similarly in a history class–songs that capture the ideas/themes we want to convey about a particular issue might help students to connect more so than the texts they read? In that sense, the emotional connection would work in concert with the intellectual connection? I can understand your concern about presenting a “timeless” place, but maybe you, as the instructor, could put the song in context? I’d like to think that somehow teaching history can evoke a variety of emotional responses and yet be instructive at the same time. What do you think?

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful questions. Songs can absolutely function as emotional touchstones in the classroom, and as intellectual mnemonics as well. If the instructor sets up the piece well, students can be captivated by even just an excerpt from a song. I do this regularly in my music history classes, and I’ve seen it done very effectively in history courses. For instance, Billie Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” arrested a full lecture hall in a class on the Civil Rights Movement.

    Of course, calibrating the emotional impact of music is very difficult, and something we expect will elicit an emotional response might fall flat. After all, the Methodists in Hempton’s book (great example, by the way!), already had an emotional investment in their religious experience, which bled into their musical experiences. Would that students were also so dedicated to their classes!

    In my experience teaching, sometimes the strangeness of a song in an antiquated style is incredibly off-putting for students, whose responses often fall into two categories: “I don’t like this” and “I like this.” Thus, it’s incumbent on the instructor to both introduce and contextualize the musical example *and* provide the students with some guidelines for how to listen. I will definitely be writing more about music in the classroom in future posts!

  3. Thanks for your insight. We can’t necessarily anticipate or control for students’ responses to music. Any suggestions for where to find resources on this? I look forward to hearing more from you on music in the classroom. Thanks!

  4. I’m writing a post on music in the classroom for next week that includes some resources–hopefully that will give you some ideas about where to start!


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