Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How Songcatchers Dashed Hopes

I have always been drawn to the vocation of people who have become known as "songcatchers."

These are people who traversed many a mile through the backwoods, mountains, and hollers of our country to collect the traditional folk songs of the United States.

They would find people in villages and towns who were the local singers then ask/beg/hound these people to sing for them.

As the people sang the songcatcher would record the performance.

Often, later, transcriptions of these recordings were made on musical staff paper.

As technology progressed (and budgets allowed) machines that recorded the singing voices on cylinders first then later on magnetic tape were brought into the hills.


As a young adult most of my knowledge of these songcatchers was from stories my grandparents and parents told me as well as movies and television programs.

As a music scholar I learned about John and Alan Lomax, John Jacob Niles, Cecil Sharp, Francis James Child, and many others.

I have sung many of their collected songs and have committed most of them to memory.

I valued what they each contributed to the preservation of the musical legacy of the United States.

As a music scholar I believed their pursuits could only have had a positive impact.

However, I've now to consider the other side of the story.  The story of the people whose songs were collected and preserved.


Recently I read the story M.C. Higgins, The Great by Virginia Hamilton (winner of the Newbery Medal). It is a story about a young boy who lives on a mountain and one of these songcatchers arrives to record his mother's voice.

This story is written from the young boy's perspective, not that of the songcatcher.

M.C. is thrilled beyond measure that this man wishes to record his mother singing.  He believes that this man has the ability to make his mother famous which would enable his whole family to leave the mountain and live in luxury.

This is not the case, as M.C. sadly realizes.  While his mother might leave the mountain to record some songs in a music studio somewhere off the mountain, she would return and life would resume its daily drudgery.


Out of the thousands of songs that have been collected over time, how many of those singers thought that by making those recordings their lives might be changed for the better?

I had not really thought of it that way.

Have you?

As a folk song researcher I can understand the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated by the song catchers as they heard a new song (or variant) or discovered a unique voice.

I can see how they might make their recordings then hurry back down the hill to transcribe/duplicate it and share it with other music lovers.

What about the singers - the people themselves - who sang the songs?

They were left on the mountain and sometimes forgotten far sooner than their songs.

They may never have known the value of the contribution they shared in their songs.

Why not?

Did they have hopes that what they had to offer - their songs, their music - might somehow change their lives?

Did anyone ever ask them?

I don't know.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Handshake

In American society the handshake is a form of greeting.

It is also a symbol of agreement.

It is also a way to seal the deal or give someone your word.


As a young child I was taught how to shake hands properly with others.

As a young adult I was taught to offer a firm handshake - not a "limp fish" sort of handshake.

As a teacher I have done my part to teach my students about the handshake with many repetitions of the rhyme "Quaker, Quaker, how art thee? Very well, I thank thee!" or Disney's "How d'you do and shake hands."

For you see, in their world it seems to be diminishing in practice.

Nowadays it is the High 5 ...

Or more recently, the fist bump.


In the musical world the handshake is most obvious at a symphony concert when the maestro ("conductor") enters the stage he/she shakes the hand of the concert master (1st violin).

Or the maestro might welcome a soloist to the stage with a handshake and then also congratulate them on a fine performance after they've played.

As a trombonist I have always sat at the back of a large ensemble.

Alas, in my years as a performing artist I have never received the welcoming or congratulatory handshake due to the location of my placement in a group.

That is until 2015!!!!


This past weekend I participated in a reunion of my home town, high school band.

The man who was my band director during my years in high school was going to be directing the ensemble.

That cinched my reason for going.

Band seating charts vary by ensemble and director.

Though on the back row (as always) I was privileged to sit on the outer front edge of the group next to an awesome line-up of trombones.

Anyway, back to why this has anything to do with the handshake.

When my band director finished directing a piece he would walk to my side of the band and raising his arm acknowledging the band's performance.

After conducting "Old Scottish Melody" (Auld Lang Syne) he walked to my side of the band like he had been.

THEN he turned towards me, put his hand out to me and said "Great job!"

I about melted on the spot!

Ever the professional (or at least trying to do what is right) I shook hands and said something.  I don't really remember what.

It was just a handshake, but you have no idea how much that handshake meant to me.

That I was the recipient of the handshake was one thing.  I was proud to be the alumni band's representative at that moment.

That it was from a director I so admire and respect was the main thing.  This was HUGE.

And, if any of my alumni reunion band mates happen to be reading this: I had an awesome time getting to connect musically once again with each of you. I'm so glad you were a part of the performance.

I sit, I play, and I realize: THIS is why I am in band!