Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The first twelve-tone protest song

Andrew Murray, of the Stop the War Coalition, says that every week he is sent new anti-war songs, but they are mainly in a traditional folk style, and he has not yet come across a new song that has quite the anthemic, rallying resonance of Fixin'-to-Die or War. He said that the anti-war movement has had plenty of support from writers, actors and artists, but not quite as much as he would have hoped from the musical fraternity. Ms Dynamite was at the big 2003 rally, Damon Albarn (right) has also attended protests, and Nigel Kennedy and Brian Eno have been active - but Murray says there is a gaping hole for a new song - as Saturday's Guardian reports. Perhaps the Composers Collective could help?

Arriving at the apartment of Charles and his new wife Ruth Crawford Seeger, Peter found them leaving to hear Aaron Copland (below) speak at the leftwing Pierre Degreyter Club. The couple took the boy to an unheated loft in Greenwich Village. As Peter watched from the back of the room, two dozen prominent New York composers arrived, dressed in corduroys and leather jackets, carrying scores and instruments. Trained in the best music schools in the country, they were the renegades of the Philharmonic, passionately political. “The social system is going to hell,” they told each other. “Music might be able to do something about it. Let’s see if we can try. We must try.”

Charles had finally found a way to mix music and activism. He belonged to a group within the DeGeyter Club, the Composers Collective, which tried to compose songs for picket and unemployment lines. . As devotees of the new dissonance, however, the musicians sought to uplift workers’ musical tastes while stirring up revolution. The Composers Collective was probably the first group in the world to attempt to compose a twelve-tone protest song.

Peter did his best to follow Copland’s address, but neither the politics nor the music made sense to him, what with the talk of German composer
Hanns Eisler (below) and the slogan, “Music is a weapon in the class struggle.” He did sense how important the Collective’s mission was to his father; Charles now wrote music columns for the Daily Worker under a pseudonym. Peter later heard about his father’s entry in a contest for the best May Day song. When the submissions were played through, the Collective chose Copland’s “Into the Streets May 1st,” with its loud rhythmic chords on the piano. Charles agreed that musically, Copland’s song was best; but his was more singable, he insisted. These were marching songs, after all, and how were workers going to carry a piano on a march?

New York 1932 pictured in David Dunaway’s excellent biography of Pete Seeger (Da Capo ISBN 0306803992). Seeger is not just the guy that brought us ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and other inspirational songs. He was investigated for sedition by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, harassed by the FBI and CIA, blacklisted, picketed, and stoned by conservative groups, and received the support of none other than Benjamin Britten, as I described recently.


And bringing this Path full circle, in 1950 Aaron Copland was asked by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to arrange a group of American songs which they could perform in Aldeburgh. Copland responded with a set of five Old American Songs, which were first performed in October 1951 by Britten and Pears. Which links to another story about music and American politics - 'Tis the gift to be free.

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1 comment:

Garth said...

In the shadow of the Bush Administration's attempted escalation of the War in Iraq and Western Asia,
the United States's Library of Congress Music Division and American Folklife Center will be hosting, on March 15 and 16, 2007, a SEEGER FAMILY TRIBUTE with Pete, Mike, and Peggy Seeger, and Charles Seeger's grandson, ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger:

"The Library of Congress pays tribute to several generations of the Seeger family, renowned for its great achievements in American music. The Library's Music Division and American Folklife Center are the repositories of multiple collections: those of composer-musicologist Charles; his wife Ruth Crawford, a pathbreaking modernist composer; their children Mike and Peggy; and Charles's son, Mike's and Peggy's half-brother, Pete, who is arguably America's favorite folksinger. In addition to the concert, there will be film screenings and a symposium including ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger, grandson of Charles. For updated information, log into www.loc.gov/folklife/ Seegersymposium/seegertribute.html"