The American Musical Landscape, by Richard Crawford

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American Musical LandscapeThe American Musical Landscape, by Richard Crawford. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. xi + 381 pp. ISBN 0-520-07764-4.

Richard Crawford's status as one of American musicology's finest scholars was recognized in 1985 by the University of California-Berkeley when he was asked to be the Ernest Bloch Professor of Music and to deliver the Ernest Bloch lectures. The American Musical Landscape follows from the time afforded Professor Crawford to think on and write about American music and its history. In the tradition of the Bloch lectures, Crawford has written a book that is about the broadscape: it's as if he journeyed up the coast, climbed to the top of the redwood forests, gazed toward the New York islands and the Gulf stream waters, and took in everything between. Some of what he found he brought down, took back to Berkeley and into the study, and examined in the light afforded by musicological inquiry. He sometimes discovered that venerable tradition did not adequately illuminate much of the material at hand, and the process by which he came to fashion an alternative methodology uniquely suited to the study of American music is a central theme.

This is not a catalog of new facts on American music, although it contains significant new information. Like all the finest books of history it is much more than that, for it is primarily a book of analysis and interpretation. The American Musical Landscape draws upon the explosion in American music research of the last three decades, much of the best of it by Crawford himself, and proceeds toward understanding. (As such, the book is a sign that the field itself has achieved some level of maturity.) The audience for the study is not just the specialist; those with a general interest in music will be comfortable with the topics, tone, and tenor. There is no jargon, and terms that might in any way be obscure or arcane receive full definition. Many musical examples are included. Although the technical language of Western music study is sometimes utilized, it never overwhelms the lucid narrative. Structurally, the book flows from the general to the specific. It has three parts, the first on the historiography of American music, the second on the role of the marketplace in shaping a distinct American music, and the third a series of case studies (on three musicians—William Billings, George F. Root, Duke Ellington—and one song—"I Got Rhythm") that apply some of the theories and methodologies developed in parts one and two. The topics are all worthy and original; the contributions major and based upon impressive research and deep knowledge; the work careful and devoid of errors of matter; and the writing is fresh, inventive, clear, stylish, and passionate—enough to instill a serious case of reviewer's envy. Altogether, there is much to sing praise over and nothing worthy of a lament.

Significantly Crawford begins by chronicling and analyzing the ways in which the story of American music has been told over almost a century-and-a-half, from George Hood (1846) through Charles Hamm (1983), Gilbert Chase (1955/R1987), and H. Wiley Hitchcock (1969/R1988). I say "significantly" because Crawford's work makes it utterly clear that as a historian peers in through the window at the interior of the house of American music, that person sees too (or should see too!) the images of the person peering and, more faintly, the landscape stretching to the rear. Crawford stands to the side and draws for us a compelling picture of the relationship between facts and perspectives, between presentation and representation. Aware that he too is an agent in the "re-presenting" of music and its history, Crawford flags his presence for us throughout; phrases like "I believe . . . ," "I think . . . ," and "I feel . . ." force upon the reader an intimate discourse with Rich Crawford, not some distant authority. This might seem a small point to some, but it is emblematic of the concern for the human other found throughout, and a reason that the book comes to carry a force that is almost moral. I would suggest that Crawford's first, cornerstone essay should be required reading for all students of American music, not least of all for the powerful arguments that he constructs—that historiography is a key to what we know and why, and that the skeptical cynicism that pervades so much contemporary scholarship might more fruitfully be replaced with gracious appreciation for what is valuable in human work of whatever time and place—but also for its message of self-agency. We make it up, simply (and not so simply!), and our business is first and last to know and understand what that means.

Put much too crudely, The American Musical Landscape is a subtle discourse on the relationship between the music and the context(s) in which the music is made, performed, heard, and studied. There are startlingly insightful moments in this book when Professor Crawford shows that a fuller understanding of why a piece of music came to be composed/compiled/changed/popular/forgotten/etc. follows only from locating that piece within its own special place, in its own special time. And Crawford offers signal questions that lead to this kind of contextualization. For example, "Is this performer's music or composer's music?" Or, "Is this music made to be accessible to some audience, big or small, or to enforce some aesthetic of authenticity?" The power of these questions, and others like them that Crawford posits, is that our understanding of American music is inevitably richly complicated. Those who play Beethoven on Broadwoods in Michigan, sing Sacred Harp in Vermont, perform bawdy ballads in the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg, and George Strait in Bakersfield all seek, to a greater or lesser degree, to be sanctioned in their appeal to "authenticity," however defined. That we have no single, unitary historical explanation at hand to accommodate such a grouping is emblematic of the problem. Crawford's propositions lead the historian to adopt multiple perspectives, which are meaningful only in comparison. The resort to absolutes (values and criteria, mainly)—too often the impulse in the past—he shows to be fallacious. If absolutes exist (and they do and probably should, as articles of identity), they are the prerogatives of communities and audiences, certainly not of critics and historians.

Professor Crawford's view from his redwood is thus of a land made up of the musical many, who are enabled to find musical meaning precisely because of the rich relations that make up the social fabric of the national canvas. Great visionaries, and the example of this book confirms that Richard Crawford is one of our most farsighted, implicitly challenge the rest of us to get out the glass and see to the details, taking great care all the while not to isolate them.

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Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018

Dale Cockrell

Dale Cockrell is Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, Professor of Musicology Emeritus in the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, and a Research Associate of the University of the Free State in South Africa.  He is widely published in the field of American music studies, including Demons of Disorder:  Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (1997), which won the C. Hugh Holman Award; Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers,1842-1846 (1989), recipient of the Irving Lowens Award; The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (2011); three CDs of music from the Little House books; ten other books and editions; and more than seventy scholarly articles.  He is a former president of the Society for American Music, from which he received the Distinguished Service Award in 2010, and an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society.  Cockrell has received three National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, among other awards, prizes, and grants.  He has also held appointments to Indiana University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, The College of William and Mary (where he was the David N. and Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music and chaired the Department of Music), and the University of Alabama.  While at Vanderbilt, he chaired the Department of Musicology and was for three years the director of the American Studies Program.

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