Music in Times of Political Crisis: Jazz, Folk, and Classical Music in 1930s America

Solicited by the German Historical Institute and the National Museum of African American Music, Nashville

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Popular Culture; Social and Cultural; Visual and Performing Arts


In a panel jointly sponsored by the German Historical Institute Washington and the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, scholars representing three different fields consider the cultural and political role of music in times of economic and political crisis. The Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships in Europe challenged American culture and politics to regain its footing in an age defined by fear. This panel focuses on the decade that preceded the federal government’s international deployment of culture by exploring milieus and genres on the cusp of becoming part of American global engagement. As part of a “Faustian bargain” that preserved racial segregation to build a new national state (Ira Katznelson), New Deal programs such as the Federal Music Project (FMP) documented and recognized distinct American musical traditions. The FMP recorded and documented folk songs including black spirituals, hillbilly songs, and Native American music. Vaudeville and minstrel shows had given rise to jazz. The New Deal invigorated a discourse about cultural nationalism among composers of classical music and created opportunities for new roles of music in society. By contrasting three genres prominent in the 1930s (folk, jazz, and classical music), the panel addresses distinct American musical traditions just before each would move onto the larger stage provided by the music industry and radio as well as the national and international uses of music during World War II and the Cold War.

Papers Presented

Staging the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston and the History of the Female Song Collector

Zora Neale Hurston shaped her life through performance. In addition to being an anthropologist and “song collector,” she was also a producer, singer, dancer, and a choreographer; a player of her own ethnographic research in her own ethnographic drama. This paper puts Hurston’s vernacular folk song revue The Great Day, to which she dedicated herself throughout the 1930s, into conversation with field recordings she made with Alan Lomax in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, in June 1935 and with field recordings that anthropologist Herbert Halpert made of her for the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) in 1939. The paper contextualizes Hurston’s work by tracing the history of female folklorists collecting black and native peoples’ songs across the Northeast, the Midwest, and the global South from their origins in the nineteenth century to the government-funded projects of the 1930s. It argues that accessing their history is essential to understanding the Works Project Administration’s attempts to crown and conserve “indigenous” American art forms through the lens of folklore. By discussing the role of female preservationists during Reconstruction, allotment, the “New Negro” Renaissance and indigenous intellectual movements, and the FWP, this paper examines how performances of gender, race, and ethnicity constructed and dissembled each other in musical-ethnographic spaces. “Staging the Folk” explores the role of women in this sentimental, nationalistic, racializing project, focusing on Hurston as both exceptional and indicative of the 1930s embrace of “the folk.”

Presented By
Sophie Abramowitz, University of Virginia

"Jazz of the Better Sort”: Alain Locke on Jazz and the Maturation of Black Music

In The Negro and His Music (1936), Alain Locke provides an account of the origins and development of African American music, which by the 1930s had become the subject of serious critical and scholarly attention. This paper explores the place of big band jazz within Locke’s broader theory of black musical development. Even as he praised jazz artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmie Lunceford, Locke argued that “jazz classics” were at best a transitional phase on the way to a truly representative American music. I argue that Locke’s conflicted position on jazz reflects a broader ambivalence toward musical improvisation within Locke’s Eurocentric theory of black musical “progress.” Despite his belief in its “fervor and freshness,” Locke framed jazz improvisation as an undisciplined effusion that must be put under control via the rational and disciplined arts of arranging and composition. Through an analysis of Locke’s commentary on jazz in The Negro and His Music, this paper will show how Locke’s discussion of jazz fit into larger narratives of assimilation and black progress.

Presented By
Steven Lewis, National Museum of African American Music

The Ironies of Cultural Nationalism in a Transnational Age. Aaron Copland and American Music in the 1930s/40s

During the 1930s wave of cultural nationalism, composers intensified their efforts to create music that could be considered American and different from European art music, which had dominated classical music in the United States. This paper focuses on the writings of composer Aaron Copland and on his engagement in the politics of music. The political context for their work prompted composers such as Copland to reflect on their work. No generation of composers wrote as diligently as did this group during the 1920s and 1930s. Copland was a key proponent of developing a particular American music. But while he sought to establish a peculiar American music, his music contradicted such claims by endorsing ideals of universal modernism. In doing so, Copland expanded on his generation’s exposure to European music (and on his own experience in Paris), which had left him committed to the European idea of modern music. Such contradictions inherent in Copland’s writings, his music, and in his political engagement were tokens of his time. By comparing Copland to Austrian composer Ernst Krenek, this paper will show how Copland shared with exiled European composers in the United States the intellectual challenge to negotiate nationalism and universalism, and to create a national tradition from the universal language of music.

Presented By
Marcus Gräser, Johannes Kepler University Linz Institute of Modern and Contemporary History

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Sharon Ann Musher, Stockton University

Panelist: Sophie Abramowitz, University of Virginia

Panelist: Marcus Gräser, Johannes Kepler University Linz Institute of Modern and Contemporary History

Panelist: Steven Lewis, National Museum of African American Music