Archibald MacLeish and the Politics of Politics

May 22, 2007 at 10:00 am

As many introductory classes in musicology and ethnomusicology explore, the humanities (and maybe the ivory tower in general) has been looking for some time now for ways to make itself more relevant to an ever-changing world. The perennial question of many disciplines – “what is it good for?” has enjoyed a history that need not be rehearsed here, except to say that a common answer from a generation ago – “utility does not determine value” – seems to have less traction as time goes on.

So scholars want to be relevant, and one way that plays out in musicology is that people write about music and politics. In my second music and politics paper of my graduate career (and my last term paper thereof), I looked at Archibald MacLeish’s popular songs. Yes, the man who seemed to be everywhere – Paris in the 1920s, alongside the Popular Front in the 1930s, and then in Washington during the Second World War – penned two songs between 1941 and 1942, one each with Roy Harris and Kurt Weill.

MacLeish’s songs are a bit of a different case from most music and politics, since he was one of the few government officials in the U.S. who was actually active as a lyricist (John Ashcroft and “Let the Eagle Soar” notwithstanding). So I thought, what better situation to contemplate the fraught relationship between cultural production and policy decisions than looking at a man who did both?

Well, the study was a bit of a surprise to me, in the sense that MacLeish didn’t actually leverage his government connections all that much in the process of writing these songs. Sure, as Assistant Director of the Office of War Information, he easily could have finagled his music into becoming the new national anthem (or something like it). Maybe (another possible interpretation is that MacLeish understood that the mass media in a democracy was too strong to have such things forced on them). On the other hand, it only confirms for me how evanescent the study of music and politics really is – what seem like good topics seem to slip away when you try to wring something out of them. My first (and only other) music and politics paper was about John Adams’s 9/11 memorial piece On The Transmigration of Souls. The most surprising thing in that situation was the critics, who, like me, wanted a political statement, and Adams’s piece shrugs off any such associations.

All of this amounts to an admiration of scholars who do thread the rhetorical needle when it comes to the issues surrounding music and politics, and a renewed puzzlement over how, exactly, scholars redress (or, alternately, deflect) issues of relevance in research.

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