Anti-racism

Semiotic Theory and the Futility of Bowdlerising Lyrics

A decade ago I was alert enough to the portrayal of race in music to be squeamish about a quartet of white women taking on the character of a mixed-race prostitute in song. Looking back, I take my past self’s points about the mitigating European context of both the version of the song the quartet were responding to and their audience’s frame of reference. But I also note it’s been a good long time since I withdrew that particular chart from circulation.

Bowdlerising the lyrics was not enough to ‘rescue’ that song, and today’s task is to articulate why that is so often the case. Much of the theoretical groundwork for this has appeared in past blog posts, but sometimes it’s useful to draw ideas together to shed light on continuing debates about how to handle songs which encode values we may no longer wish to align ourselves with.

More on the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thOr at least, on the name that chord has gone by hitherto. My previous blog post on this got quite a bit of discussion going amongst barbershop arrangers. Not over the new name – most people were as happy to recognise Karri’s suggestion as very fit for purpose as I was – but about the necessity to replace the old one.

There were two types of responses overall. There were the ‘thank goodness, this has been bugging me too,’ type – which I’m not going to dwell on except to acknowledge their existence, as I’ve already written quite a lot to meet those needs. And there were the, ‘this has never struck me as racist so I don’t see the need to change’ ones. These ones need a more detailed response.

On the Icicle 7th

Chinese 7thRecently Sofia Layarda started off an interesting conversation on Facebook about the chord that barbershoppers have traditionally called the ‘Chinese 7th’. For those not familiar with it, it’s a particular voicing of the dominant-type 7th, with the root and 7th close together at the top, with 3rd dangling a tritone below and the 5th a 6th below that.

It’s a dramatic sonority when sung well, though it takes a bit of nous to balance correctly. Arrangers use it as a kind of ‘statement chord’, placing it strategically to attract attention at moments of heightened expression in a song’s narrative.

Inclusiveness at HU 2018: Next Thoughts

Halo on the Saturday Night showHalo on the Saturday Night showI told you that this theme would recur in my reflections on Harmony University. Not sure as I start to write this one whether I’ve got one or two more posts-worth of notes, but we’ll find out as we go.

One major event that you can’t write about Inclusivity at HU2018 without discussing was the Monday evening elective convened by Chris Rimple. The combined training material he has developed to help barbershop chapters become more inclusive with a panel discussion (and, ultimately, a whole-room discussion) on the kinds of behaviour people have experienced in both their barbershop careers and outside lives that have left them feeling excluded (and/or enraged – some examples were shocking).

The Deke Sharon Keynote: A Masterclass in 'Yes, But'

Continuing my reflections on Harmony University, Deke Sharon’s keynote address is going to take a post of its own, and probably quite a long one at that. Which is entirely how it should be – his job as keynote speaker is to get people thinking, and he succeeded in starting conversations that went on all week.

His theme was ‘Divergent paths’: reflecting on the way that organised barbershop separated off from the Black vocal harmony traditions the genre had once been part of, and using examples from continuing African American traditions to imagine how barbershop might have turned out if it had not spent so much of the past 80 years as a segregated genre. This is a fabulous thought experiment through which to consider the history of vocal harmony genres, though on reflection I am starting to suspect it was also the root of many of the ‘yes, buts…’ that emerged in response.

The Barbershop Harmony Society and Culture Change: Impressions from HU 2018

Harmony University 2018 facultyHarmony University 2018 faculty

I am just back from a week teaching at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Harmony University, and I am sure nobody will be surprised to know I come home with a full notebook. Indeed, I had collected a goodly collection of notes before the event had even started, as they had me travel out early to take advantage of cheaper airfares, and so I arrived as the previous event on the campus, a leadership summit, was finishing. I thus had the chance to chat with the organisation’s staff and administrative leaders to get a picture of how life is on the ground at the moment in the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Soapbox: On 'The Golliwog’s Cakewalk'

soapboxEver since I started writing about race and repertoire a couple of years ago, I have been quietly fretting about a particular piece of piano music that I, like many piano students, learned in my teens for one of my grade exams. It is still appearing on exam syllabuses today. Earlier this spring, these private misgivings became public when I found myself involved in an online conversation about its problematics with a group of pianists and piano teachers, many of whom also teach and perform it.

The piece in question is ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The conversation has stayed with me since, forcing me to clarify my own feelings about the piece. I’m reflecting on those feelings here to try and bring some coherence to them in the aftermath of the difficult experience of finding myself at odds with people I’d usually identify with quite strongly. I keep telling myself it’s the uncomfortable experiences that lead to growth.

Reinventing Dixie: Book Review, Part 2

My last post gave an overview of some of the ways that John Bush Jones’s book Reinventing Dixie: Tin Pan Alley’s Songs and the Creation of the Mythic South is both useful and problematic. Today’s will consider his central thesis, that the mythic South constructed within Tin Pan Alley songs is a vision of a south contemporaneous with the songs’ own times, not nostalgia for a South of the past.

One of the strengths of this book, as I mentioned before, is that it provides plenty of specific detail with which to test the author’s analysis, and the evidence to support this thesis is mixed at best.

There are some specifically contemporary references in the war songs – those songs about Dixie boys, or indeed Alexander with his band, going over to France are clearly topical for the years of World War I. And one could make a case for the promulgation of contemporary styles of popular music such as ragtime to support the contemporary thesis, though Jones mostly confines himself to discussion of lyrics, with only passing mention of musical content.

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