American Soundings

THE PUBLICATION, in 1980, of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians at last provided Englishspeaking readers with a reference tool comparable (and in some ways superior) to the German Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1949—1968). Sir George Grove’s original dictionary (1878-1890) had been updated four times prior to 1980: in 1904-1910, 1927, 1940, and 1954. But the last of these editions, in nine volumes, still contained much material taken from earlier editions and was, like its predecessors, aimed mainly at the musical amateur. The New Grove, in twenty volumes, was an altogether different production: a thoroughgoing revision that, like its German counterpart, met the needs of the most specialized scholar as well as those of the casual listener. Now Stanley Sadie, the editor of the New Grove, and H. Wiley Hitchcock, one of the leading authorities on American music, have collaborated in producing The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. In four volumes, this new New Grove contains 5,000 entries and runs to just over 2,700 large, doublecolumn pages of small but comfortably readable print. At $495 it is by no means cheap; but in an age when the average scholarly book in the humanities, containing 200 (or fewer) small pages of large print, sells for between $20 and $40, the New Grove American is an excellent value. Even those who have already spent more than $2,000 for the 1980 set may want to buy this one, since of the 5,000 entries 3,000 are completely new, 500 hate been newly commissioned, and the remainder have been expanded and updated from their 1980 versions.

It is of course impossible in a short space to do justice to the comprehensiveness of this admirable work. But perhaps the New Grove American, like the 1980 New Grove, is most obviously distinguished by its many long and helpful articles on individual composers, to each of which are appended a complete list of works and an extensive bibliography of secondary literature. (Several of the biographies from the 1980 New Grove have already been republished in paperback form, and one hopes that this will also be true of those in the New Grove American.) More generally, but still mostly within the sphere of art music, there are illuminating historical accounts of the musical traditions and organizations of about sixty American cities, and of the parts played in American musical life by such genres as chamber music, choral music, opera, and orchestral music. When I spoke recently to Sadie and Hitchcock, they told me that these two groups of articles, which present information never before gathered in one place, had been among the most difficult to assemble, and in their view constituted one of the dictionary’s most original and valuable contributions. Also of great interest are the articles on such fields as publishing and printing, broadcasting, and sound recording, and the scholarly aids offered by the entries under “Bibliographies,”“Dictionaries,”"Discographies,”"Libraries and collections,”and “Periodicals.”In the wide area that falls between art music and vernacular music there are the expected entries under “Musical,”“Musical film,”“Musical theater,”"Popular music,”and the like, and also some surprises: articles on the music of the various American religious denominations. for example; the entries under “Hymnody,” “Psalmody,”"Psalms, metrical,”and “Shape-note hymnody"; and those under “College songs,”"Patriotic music,”and “Political music.”

But I was most interested in the articles dealing directly with indigenous vernacular music—both in themselves and also because of what they tell us about the cultural situation in which the New Grove American was compiled. For what makes America unique among the major music-producing nations of the world is the fact that its musical influence on other nations has been mainly through its informal vernacular music rather than its formal art music. Jazz, of course, offers the prime example, but one thinks also of blues, gospel, country music, and rock. American music thus raises special problems for the historian. When one is dealing with music that has grown out of folk sources and has not been electronically recorded or even competently transcribed until quite recently, there is not only the problem of ferreting out reliable documents and oral testimony concerning persons and events that are necessarily somewhat obscure; there is also the problem of know - ing how far to extrapolate from them— the problem of not going beyond what the evidence warrants. In its handling of these problems the New Grove American has not been altogether successful.

IN THE CASE OF jazz, the main inducement to go beyond the evidence has been the temptation to create cultural or racial myths. Because the earliest black jazz was almost entirely improvised, jazz history was dogged for decades by the vision of blacks as happy, childlike, spontaneous creatures whose music had little or nothing in common with European notated music. Today we recognize this as a myth and quite rightly find it offensive. Yet it lives on, in a more intellectually respectable and hence more plausible form, in the widely held notion that jazz stems directly from the music of West Africa, homeland of most of the black slaves.

When real jazz first became widely available on records, in the mid-1920s, most critics, at a loss to describe this daringly original (and somewhat threatening) new music, fell back on the word syncopated—even though most of the jazz they were hearing was less highly syncopated than much of Brahms (let alone the Stravinsky of Le Sane du printemps). ft was subsequently discovered and documented, most notably by A. M. Jones in his superb Studies in African Music (1959), that the basis of West African music, which has little or no melody or harmony, is a highly complex polyrhythmic overlay of drum patterns. It was then easy enough to conclude, as did Gunther Schuller in his otherwise excellent book Early Jazz (1968), that “the syncopation of jazz is no more than an idiomatic corruption, a flattened-out mutation of what was once the true polyrhythmic character of African music.” Jones, in one of his very few references to jazz, had insisted on the absolute contrast between West African music’s “essential basis of cross-rhythms” and “the typical reiterative bass of jazz which in essence is completely Western.” Yet Schuller went so far as to speak of “the Negro’s inherent love for polyrhythmic organization,” and to ask rhetorically, of the heightened rhythmic complexity of bop: “Was this—like the emergence of some underground river—the musical reincarnation of impulses subconsciously remembered from generations earlier and produeeable only when the carrier of this memory had developed his instrumental technique sufficiently to cope with it?”

When as learned and sensitive a listener and writer as Schuller goes so far wrong, one can be sure that powerful forces are at work. In an age dominated by science and technology, humanists are all too vulnerable to sentimental appeals to the unconscious racial memory. More to the point, anyone—and especially any American—who loves jazz is likely to have a keen sense of the injustice done to black musicians by early jazz critics and historians, to see this injustice as an extension of the general racism m American culture, and to have an urge to right the balance. Hence the misguided efforts to demonstrate not only that jazz is a music created mainly by blacks, which no sensible person could quarrel with, but also that it is basically an African rather than a Western or European music—which is simply untrue.

One is therefore glad to see that James Lincoln Collier, in the New Grove American’s long entry under “Jazz,” largely avoids subscribing to the myth of jazz’s African origins. “The free, improvisatorv, and spontaneous aspects” of jazz, Collier writes, are “often seen as African or ‘black,’ and the more formal, arranged elements” are “sometimes viewed as European or ‘white.’" But Collier then goes on to contrast the improvisatory nature of jazz with the “carefully worked out” polyrhythms of African music. Rather than attempting to establish a direct link between West African music and jazz, he places his stress on “the development, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of an indigenous black folk music out of African and European-American elements”; on “the rise out of this music of subforms, notably plantation and minstrel songs, ragtime, and blues”; and finally on “the appearance of jazz itself, from an imperfectly understood merging of blues, ragtime, and mainstream popular music.” Occasionally Collier does stray into myth. Ragtime, he asserts, is “highly syncopated, undoubtedly in an effort to capture a sense of African crossrhythms.” Yet one can find in Beethoven’s early piano music (let alone the piano music of Chopin and Brahms) syncopations more complex than those in any published or recorded rag. Generally, however. Collier’s account makes good historical sense, and the welcome stress on the rise of an indigenous Afro-American music is elaborated at great length in the excellent entry under “Afro-American music,” by Eileen Southern.

IF THE MYTH OF jazz’s African origins, born of an understandable sense of racial injustice, is at last passing away, it seems that another myth, born of similar causes, is now rising to take its place. One of the first things one notices, leafing through the four volumes of the New Grove American, is the extraordinary amount of space allotted to American Indians. There are over forty entries under the names of individual tribes and tribal groups, and the entry under “Indians, American,” is about twenty pages long, complete with detailed maps, many musical examples, and several illustrations. Just as it was once felt necessary to prove that jazz is basically an African music, so it is now apparently felt necessary to prove that Indians have made an important contribution to our musical culture.

Yet most of the short entries on tribes are devoted mainly to tribal history and customs, rituals, dances, and the like. There is little about the substance and organization of actual music, and that little is mostly superficial. Even the long “Indians, American,” entry, substantially reprinted from the New Grove, in effect admits that the American Indian music of earlier periods is virtually inaccessible now, and that what remains is of slight musical interest. The principal author, Bruno Nettl, tells us that since “the Indians had no musical notation and relatively few musical instruments, archaeology has not contributed greatly to music research, and ethnomusicologists have therefore concentrated on the period in which sound recording has been possible”—a period that, however, “though well documented, has been untypical” and thus “unreliable” as a guide to earlier periods. Since “music evidently symbolized and personalized supernatural power, it was believed that spirits gave this power to human beings by teaching them songs,” and hence “music and performance were judged less by specifically musical criteria than by how well they fulfilled religious and other functions and were effective in providing food, water, healing, etc.”The musical examples are not analyzed illuminatingly but are mostly just windowdressing, and there is a great deal of prose that can best be described as “filler": “The Nootka of the Northwest use the term quoqaccupita for this change of pace. They call a steady, even stepping rhythm xaeskaanal, and a rhythm with short, fast steps tsaxailala.” “On the whole,” Nettl concludes, “North American Indian music is among the simpler musics of the world.”

Why then should so much space be devoted to it? When I put the question to Sadie and Hitchcock, they were surprised. “It may not seem of much value to our culture,” Sadie said, “but maybe it does to theirs.”Although he agreed that there was “a strong anthropological element" in the entries, he maintained that “the only reason we call it anthropological is that we take for granted the social function of music in our own society. No doubt if the Indians were researching us, they’d talk about the funny ways in which we use music.” Hitchcock took a more positive line. Of an arts-andcrafts gathering of Pueblos he had recently witnessed in New Mexico, he remarked: “I was suddenly aware of how important a part of our nation’s culture Indian music—even though we’ve pretty well stamped it out—remains, and how vital it still remains.” His and Sadie’s “stance from the very beginning in this dictionary,” he added, “was not to exclude any kind of music that’s been made in America.”

Now, of course, American Indian music should not have been excluded from consideration in the New Grove American. But it is difficult to see how a music that has been pretty well stamped out can still be vital and still be playing an important role in our musical culture. No matter what one’s cultural perspective, and no matter how important a social role music fulfills in the culture one is studying, it is surely still possible (and in this case necessary) to distinguish between anthropological commentary, which bears mainly on social customs and usages, and strictly musical commentary. The black slaves were as sorely oppressed by their white masters as were the Indians by their white conquerors, and the really interesting question is why American blacks created a culturally mixed music that has had a vast influence not only within our own culture but throughout the world, whereas American Indian music survives, diluted, only in events staged for tourists. No amount of relativistic waffling will help us answer this question and others that follow from it. Not all musical cultures are created equal, and the inequalities must be freely and frankly dealt with by the historian.

In contrast with the elaborate, largely ceremonial pseudo treatment of American Indian music, the various white vernacular musics are treated quite skimpily in the New Grove American. There are many articles on genres and performers, but some of the most important ones— on “Bluegrass music,” “Country music,” “Cowboy song,” and “Hillbilly music,” for example—are brief and uninformative. This is all the more surprising because the last three of these were written by Bill C. Malone, the author of the definitive work Country Music U.S.A. (1968) and the compiler of the Smithsonian’s recorded anthology of country music. Having read Malone and having once heard him speak fascinatingly on a highly specialized area of his subject (the transformation that cowboy music underwent at the hands of eastern mountain-country bands), I am sure that he had more depth and detail to report than is found in these entries. One can’t help feeling that the same unconscious reverse racism that produced the excessive coverage of Indian music is at work here: only when we approach formal art music, it seems, can the contribution of whites be fully acknowledged and analyzed. Even a mixed white and black music of great interest, that of the Cajuns, is relegated to a subheading under “European-American music.” And the entries on such great white early jazz musicians as Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell are also rather skimpy.

The British wit Sydney Smith once said that we should not speak disrespectfully of the Equator, and a reviewer feels somewhat that way when confronted with a work like the New Grove American. It is in any case impossible to review (in the ordinary sense of that word) a 2,700-page book. Since I have concentrated here on what may seem rather narrow issues, and since my criticisms may seem niggling, I want to reiterate my great admiration for the splendid job that Sadie and Hitchcock have done. Still, I do think that the ways in which the New Grove American goes slightly wrong reveal some of the prejudices that continue to inhibit our treatment of the vast and intriguing subject of American music. □