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Music of Ethnic North America. MUSI 3721Y University of Lethbridge, Calgary Campus John Anderson. Ethnic Identity. Ethnicity represents identity (ethnic or otherwise), and sometimes it is manipulated for this purpose

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Music of Ethnic North America

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Music of Ethnic North America

MUSI 3721Y

University of Lethbridge, Calgary Campus

John Anderson

Ethnic Identity

  • Ethnicity represents identity (ethnic or otherwise), and sometimes it is manipulated for this purpose

  • History is a picture of the past recreated by people in the present for their own particular purposes, leaving ethnic music to be reinterpreted by second and third generation immigrants

Ethnic Identity


  • At one level, preservation allows the best of the past to survive, connecting generations, and isolating the differences between groups

  • On another level, it romanticizes the past

    • So pieces that do not fit the idealized model may not be preserved

Boundaries and Regionalism

  • Music is a banner of ethnicity, a marker of difference, and a way of presenting boundaries, separating the “us” from the “them” 

  • Regionalism is a product of mixture and change

    • It is the opposite of preservation and isolation

Mass-Mediated Ethnicity and the Commoditization of Musical Style

  • Polka has been a big business in the Midwest as an ethnic music for all North Americans

  • Consider the number of regional polka styles

  • It is a genre with a remarkable history of musical and social adaptability, one that juxtaposes aspects of both unity and diversity in ethnic music

Whoopee John Wilfahrt, “Aunt Ella’s Polka”

  • Whoopee John Wilfahrt was one of the greatest polka-band leaders from the first half of the twentieth century

  • Based in New Ulm, Minnesota, one of the most important musical centers along the “Polka Belt”

  • Mixed German and Bohemian (or Czech) polka sounds

  • Used records and radio to spread the music he made famous playing for dances and pubic events across the Upper Midwest

Whoopee John Wilfahrt, “Aunt Ella’s Polka”

  • The German sound is most evident in the brass instruments

    • Especially the oom-pah sound of the tuba

    • The Bohemian sound finds its expression in the woodwinds, which play a special role in the trio section

Whoopee John Wilfahrt, “Aunt Ella’s Polka”

  • Novelty techniques

    • the wood blocks at the end of the trio section

  • Standard polka style

    • AB Trio AB structure

    • Each section is played once and then repeated

Conjunto, “Flora Perdida”

  • The instrumental styles owe to the historical presence of Czech, German, and Austrian influences

    • the accordion, which owes its history to mass production and distribution in Central Europe

    • the specific use of the guitar is reflective of its Spanish and Mexican heritage

  • Dance music with strong polka influence

  • Text narrates Spanish-speaking life in America

Conjunto, “Flora Perdida”

  • A tight succession of a melodic pair

    • more similar than different

    • hence A and A1

  • The alternation is realized by another set of pairs,

    • that in which the musicians play without song and that in which they sing

  • Virtuosic performance on the instruments punctuates throughout

Amish Hymn: “Lebt Friedsam, Sprach Christus” (Christ Said, Live in Peace)

  • Reveals a style of singing that combines written and oral traditions

  • The Amish sing from the Ausbund, a collection of hymn texts that dates from the sixteenth century

  • Found its way to North America and remains in print until the present

Amish Hymn: “Lebt Friedsam, Sprach Christus” (Christ Said, Live in Peace)

  • Ausbund hymns are strophic

  • They combine sacred texts with more narrative accounts of events and individuals in the Amish past

  • Some hymns contain hundreds of verses, and because of the slow, sustained melodic style, they may last an hour or longer

Amish Hymn: “Lebt Friedsam, Sprach Christus” (Christ Said, Live in Peace)

  • Melodies do not appear in the hymnbooks

  • Necessary to rely on memory

  • The leader initiates a melodic line at the beginning of a verse and in the middle

  • Is quickly joined by the other members of the congregation

Amish Hymn: “Lebt Friedsam, Sprach Christus” (Christ Said, Live in Peace)

  • Such “lining-out” mixes textures that are unison and heterophonic

    • intentionally articulating tones slightly out of synchrony

  • Congregational singing therefore becomes a means of gathering voices for expressing communal memory

“Paddy Works on the Railroad”

  • An immigrant ballad of stereotypical Irish American railroad work

  • “Paddy” is used to signify many immigrants

    • sometimes with prejudice but in this case with sympathy

  • An anthem to protest the oppression of the working-class Irish

“Paddy Works on the Railroad”

  • The text borrows stylistic markers of broadside ballads

  • 1842-1847 the Irish immigrant traded the Old World for the New World in an attempt to stave off the starvation of the Potato Famine

  • Paddy therefore immigrates in 1842, meets his wife, Biddie McGee in 1843, works ceaselessly in 1845, and loses his wife in 1847, after she has given birth to numerous children

“Paddy Works on the Railroad”

  • Banjo sound creates drive

  • Inspires the audience to join him in brief refrain

  • Undergoes a transformation

  • Makes it a folk song whose issues of hard work and struggle reflect the conditions of the entire American working class

Charles Mingus: “Fables of Faubus”

  • The style of playing in this example is both local and eclectic

  • It is local because ensemble director, Mwata Bowden, is one of the greatest living exponents of the complex jazz style of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)

  • Took root in Chicago in the 1960s

  • Fosters an approach to composition and improvisation that allowed individual musicians their own personal freedom with an ensemble structure

Charles Mingus: “Fables of Faubus”

  • The three sections given over to soloists

    • guitar, saxophones, and percussion

  • all treat the thematic material distinctly, but they share a common approach

  • Moves between fragmenting and reassembling the themes and textures of Mingus’s compositional idea

Charles Mingus: “Fables of Faubus”

  • The ensemble as a whole concentrates on maintaining a longer and more expansive arch

  • Allows the listener to find each time when the head (tune) returns

  • Accordingly, the performance encourages the musicians to remain rooted in tradition and to push the jazz style to their individual limits

Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues

  • The migration of the blues from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago was one of the most powerful metaphors for the African American experience in the twentieth century

  • Blues is a music of resistance against racism and the degradation of poverty

  • The structure of the blues depends on aspects of both text and musical form

Blind Lemon’s Penitentiary Blues

  • The text consists usually of three lines in an AAB structure

  • The first and second lines generally create a sort of question

  • The third line then resolves

  • 12 bars

  • I IV V

Discussion Questions

  • What is ethnicity?

  • How can ethnic music be used as a means of representing identity?

  • How is ethnic music accepted by second and third generation immigrants in or society?

  • In what ways may an ethnic group’s musical boundaries be maintained?

  • Why was polka the model with which many ethnic music cultures blended?

Discussion Questions

  • Why do traditional musics blend with American popular music?

  • How may we observe that many North American musical instruments are no longer used as much?

  • How is North American musical culture changing in the technological age, and how much regard is there for the traditional forms as there once was?

  • Has music always changed in American culture, and how so? Canadian culture?

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