Music as Currency
I admit it, I’ve got a collection of state quarters. I started collecting them in 1999 when the US Mint stated issuing five per year as a part of its Statehood Quarter Program. That was almost ten years ago. This past weekend, while preparing to start a load of laundry, I found number 49 (Alaska) in my pile of change. Hawaii is the only one I’m still missing. I’ll move past my first realization, which was that I started dating my wife the year these quarters started being released, and towards something more musicological:
As anyone who has handled American currency over the past decade knows, each state commemorates itself in a different way. Images and slogans on these coins range from their state motto, flower, bird, etc., to something of geographical or historical significance. Mississippi has a magnolia, North Carolina has a biplane at Kitty Hawk, and South Dakota has Mount Rushmore.
Three states have music-related quarters: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana.
According to the US Mint, the Kentucky “design shows a side view of the famous Bardstown home [atop Federal Hill] where Stephen Foster wrote the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
According to the US Mint, the three stars and instruments on the Tennessee quarter represent the state’s three distinct regions: “The fiddle represents the Appalachian music of east Tennessee, the trumpet stands for the blues of west Tennessee for which Memphis is famous, and the guitar is for central Tennessee, home to Nashville, the capital of country music.”
According to the US Mint, “The trumpet on the [Louisiana] coin is a tribute to the state’s heritage of jazz music, a genre heard and played by millions of enthusiasts around the globe. Jazz was born in New Orleans over a hundred years ago, a combination of elements from blues, ragtime, and marching band music. A multitude of musicians propelled jazz from New Orleans’ French Quarter onto the world stage, making the style a dominant force in 20th Century music.”
To my knowledge these three coins represent the first and only time music has appeared on circulating currency in the United States. While I enjoy the fact that they include music, these quarters make me uneasy for two musicological reasons. The first is iconographic, the second is nationalistic.
To the best of my knowledge the tubing on both trumpets is impossible. With Louisiana, the mouth-piece tube should be tucked behind the valves. Tennessee is correct only in inversion, flipped over the horizontal axis. Additionally, I saw a lot of guitars while in Nashville a few weeks ago for AMS, some even missing a string or two, but none like this. Does that middle string really require two tuning pegs?
Turning to nationalism: When the Euro began circulating at the start of 2002, every country used the same standardized banknotes–a symbol of unity. However, each EU member country was allowed to imprint their own coinage. As Philip Bohlmen notes in the preface to his his The Music of European Nationalism, “the nationalization of Euro coins, thus, is a concession, one trumpeted by every public announcement designed to quiet public complaints about the loss of national identity” (xvii).
In a similar way, the US quarters function like the coinage of the European Union–they allow for the individual expression of the states, which, when united as a whole, present a portrait of America. While it may be a portrait of myths and symbols, these 50 coins offer a sense of what lies beyond the figure heads and monuments of our paper money. Let’s look at one music-related example:
As noted above, the state song of Kentucky, “My Old Kentucky Home,” was written by Stephen Foster. When it was officially adopted as such in 1928 they also officially cleansed: The word “darkies” was replaced by “people” in the first verse. Now when it is sung, at internationally broadcast events such as the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, we hear:
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!
Weep no more my lady.
Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home
For my old Kentucky home, far away.
I don’t want to get into a debate here about Foster, the song, or the identity politics of either, other than to highlight, as Ken Emerson did in his 1997 biography on Foster that “all the facts point to Uncle Tom’s Cabin rather than Federal Hill as the inspiration for ‘My Old Kentucky Home.'” (Doo-Dah!, 190) Though he does not refer to it, his evidence here is likely the fact that the song is titled “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night” in Foster’s sketchbook.
So, what we have here are a two quarters with unplayable instruments on them (the trumpets and guitar) and another that promotes the false origins of a state song (the Bardstown mansion atop Federal Hill) that ultimately functions as a nostalgic look at slavery.
What sort of nationalistic vision of American music is transmitted by such an assemblage? Not one that I feel particularly inspired to embrace.
However, there is hope: An additional year of commemorative quarters, incorporating The District of Columbia and the five US Territories, will offer six new designs in 2009. The first one to be issued will be Washington, D.C., featuring none other than Duke Ellington:
Ellington becomes the first actual musician to be featured on US currency (a bit of back story). It is also the metaphoric other side of the coins discussed above. While this is admitidly a rather generalized statement, I must close with another admission: I feel better about the combined image of all the coins in my collection knowing that this one will join it soon.