Garrett, Struggling to Define a Nation

April 24, 2009 at 8:42 am

Congratulations are in order to Charles Hiroshi Garrett, who, with his dissertation and book (both titled Struggling to Define a Nation), has helped to establish the case study as a viable methodology for American music studies in the 21st century. As a graduate student, I can attest to the fact that his dissertation is one of the most oft-cited and discussed studies, both at Harvard and at SAM meetings, that has been written by someone who wrote their dissertation in this decade/century/millenium. 

His book was published by University of California Press last year and follows the same broad outline as his dissertation. His study seeks to apply the concept of struggle (in the Marxist historiography sense of the term) to a number of moments in American music history. As he explains in his introduction “It is this turbulent interplay between cultural contestation and musical expression — a relationship by which music can reflect, produce, and inspire debate — that forms the primary subject of Struggling to Define a Nation (4).” By writing a series of five chapters (one on Charles Ives’s Four Ragtime Dances, one on Jelly Roll Morton, on on Louis Armstrong, one on Asian American representation in Tin Pan Alley (separately published in JAMS), and one on Hawaiian music. 

I was immediately drawn to Garrett’s first chapter, since I have an abiding interest in both Ives and Ragtime. Garrett looks at how Ives incorporated ragtime, as a largely African American genre, into the Four Ragtime Dances, alongside materials from the predominantly white protestant hymn tradition. Garrett follows the lead of Lawrence Kramer, who has suggested that Ives had an ambivalent relationship with Ragtime on account of its racialized aspects, and places his study in the analytical context of Peter Burkholder’s work on Ives’s musical borrowing. “The compositional structure of the dances,” Garrett argues, “suggests that the cultural tensions that informed Ives’s writings also filtered into his music; indeed by structuring Four Ragtime Dances according to a set of power relations, Ives produced a music full of contestation that, to use his terms, better ‘represents the American nation (21).'” 

I’ll take a page from the playbook of the New York Review of Books (which I sometimes think should be retitled “New York Magazine of essays that peripherally relate to the book mentioned in the first paragraph”), and give the rest of this post over to a question I would like to bounce off Garrett’s chapter: what are the implications of analysis when musical genres function as proxies for groups of people? My question mostly stems from a very thought provoking paper given by my colleague William Bares at the recent Society for American Music meetings, where he shows how Berlin-based practitioners of jazz are challenging a lot of the norms of jazz as an African-American, masculine, hypervirtuosic idiom (this is painting with a broad brush, but that’s the big idea). Similarly, I wonder to what extent ragtime should properly be understood as an exclusively “black” phenomenon. Garrett provides a hint at the problems when he writes:

The music’s ties with African American culture served alternately as a basis for appreciative curiosity and a reason for bigoted dismissal: audiences learned to associate ragtime with black musical practices because of its originators, such as Scott Joplin and James Scott …. Even after white composers and publishers, such as Joseph Lamb and John Stark, jumped on the ragtime bandwagon at the turn of the century, rag titles and sheet music covers continued to refer to the music’s black origins…. (21)

A book that I would love to see (since most full-length studies on ragtime date from the 1970s) would be an exploration of ragtime that draws on the notions of cultural and social formation that Michael Denning applied in his book The Cultural Front. That is to say, while ragtime owes its origins to African American traditions such as the cakewalk, its dynamic appeal – and transient dominance on the American cultural stage – can not be completely described in terms of white appropriation of an African American genre. To do so leaves to the side interesting questions about the musical influences of band music (generally viewed as a northern, white phenomenon), and the impact and interactions of white performers and composers (including not only Joseph Lamb, but women such as Indianapolis resident May Aufderheide). Virginia Eskin’s recording of female ragtime composers underscores the problematic status of a view of ragtime as an African-American – and specifically male – genre. Moreover, even if portraying white performers as thieves and interlopers can capture a large amount of the “love & theft” dynamic that musical interchange between the races had during the nineteenth century in America, it does little to help explain Joplin’s preoccupation with “legitimizing” ragtime according to the terms of European concert music, first in his “school of ragtime,” conceived as etudes to help play the notated music precisely – which I’ve always thought to be a snub by Joplin towards the virtuosic improvisation that characterized ragtime practitioners such as Eubie Blake and Jelly Roll Morton – and later in the final musical project of his life, the opera Treemonisha with its pedantic and moralizing tone towards rural poor African-Americans. Moreover, Edward Berlin, writing for Grove Music Online, suggests that a strictly white-black racial dynamic may be complicated by whatever Latin-American influence existed during the development of  so-called “classic ragtime.”

None of this is to say that Garrett succumbs to mapping race directly into a genre that is as fraught as ragtime. He is primarily interested in how Ives is perceiving the genre, and is careful to write of ragtime as a “black-identified,” rather than “black” genre. But Garret’s chapter made me think about how much remains to be explored in the cultural history of ragtime, so I am guilty of writing a review that is more rumination and richocet than actual response. Nevertheless, Garrett deserves credit for providing an exemplary specimen of  an analytical study that places a piece in dialogue with the tricky questions of the genres that it incorporates.


Entry filed under: Drew Massey, Review.

Musicology Job Wiki Roundup, 2009 The rise of the shadow residency


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