YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 7, 2015

The “change of heart” explanation

This blog addresses the most effective theme in American popular culture: religiously based sentimentality. For a related blog noting the meme of “one Nation” see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.)

What follows is the liner notes “About the culture” that I wrote for the Yankee Doodle Society’s first recording, “Sentimental Songs of the Mid-19th Century” (Takoma Records A-1048, 1976; songs by composers Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work and George Root).

[Liner notes:] The music of this recording is the sheet music of the mid-century parlor, songs performed by the genteel family at leisure. The self-improving impulses of these log-cabin graduates found satisfaction in decorous language freed from frontier crudity, boisterousness, and sexual innuendo. Gathered around the piano, the entire family could join in the harmonized chorus, affirming the values and sentiments suited to their new station, and experiencing the reassuring world invoked by the sentimentalists.

For the American Eden had been shaken by the tremors of industrialization. The system of laissez nous faire or unfettered economic competition in an open marketplace had promised both personal freedom and social harmony. Instead, the 19th century witnessed the growth of an alarming gap between rich and poor, with terrifying social strife: depressions, panics, riots, class, race and sex antagonisms. The Puritan’s “heavenly kingdom on earth” had frequently turned out to be “hell with the lid off” — as Dickens described Stephen Foster’s Pittsburgh.

Rather than scrap the entire economic kit and caboodle, as various utopians were urging, middle class Americans tinkered and fussed, relegating hopes and memories of personal happiness to a sacrosanct Home Sweet Home, nestled in benevolent, maternal Nature.

michelle_sentimentality

Protected from the unpleasantness of business, the genteel woman guarded the hearth: priestess to the cult of domesticity.  From her privileged position as the national repository of moral purity, she led the crusade to clean up society, the untiring foe to alcohol and prostitution: home wreckers in whatever guise.

Social evil, all of it, was viewed by the reform-minded gentility as the product of individual corrupt hearts, a coronary lapse in social empathy. Clogged by the polluting passions, the offending heart required purging through exposure to the Noble and the Pathetic, with tears and sighs conferring absolution upon the wayward self.

What constituted the Noble and the Pathetic, the preponderating subjects of sentimental song? They were teen-aged soldiers defending the Flag, “happy darkies” and steadfast maidens contented in service to their masters: doomed draftees and perfect angels consigned to the shadows of public life. Those who were about to die, or who had barely lived, were saluted by the millions…whose own capacities for action were increasingly crippled as wealth and power were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

The sentimental song, like the chaste ministrations of genteel mothers and sisters, served to reconcile ordinary Americans to loneliness and social impotence. Dreaming of curatives, their condition was eased with the catharsis of a good cry, and the glimmer of Union provided by a well-made song in the fellowship of performance. [End, liner notes by CS, emphasis and quotation marks added]

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June 24, 2015

Hate speech, revisited

John Gast: American Progress, 1872

John Gast: American Progress, 1872

I have written many times about “hate speech” tracing its origins to the liberal establishment which had several big reasons to institutionalize the demand for politeness: 1. The ideological impulse to explain the rise of Nazism/race riots to rabble-rousing new mass media (https://clarespark.com/2015/05/16/what-is-hate-speech-and-where-did-the-notion-come-from/); 2. The belief that speech creates reality (derived from Plato and the social democrats who suppressed material explanations for social conflict; 3. The notion originating with internationalists that conflicts can be resolved with better communication (and the warring parties subjected to “neutral” mediation on behalf of the ethical state/UN, of course).

It is a common error on the Right to attribute the notion of hate speech (a.k.a. political correctness) to communists hiding under every bed and in every college classroom. What most fail to do is to face squarely the history of expansion in the United States, performed at the expense of Amerindians, slaves and Mexicans. Patriotism in the interests of national unity or Manifest Destiny is the preferred alternative, even if, in some quarters, the Civil War is still raging, with some Midwestern and Southern whites holding on  to the symbols associated with the good old lost cause.

Here is the irony of attributing hate speech and PC to the Reds. It was mostly New Leftist professors who, with anti-imperialist zeal inspired by the 60s-70s antiwar movement, invented “whiteness studies,” in the process failing to follow the lead of the Old Left that made class the category that mattered most to the revolution. You would think that such careful analysts writing in the tradition of Marx would have foregrounded the objective study of class, but no, they followed Lenin and Woodrow Wilson in the spirit of internationalism, ignoring the fictional categories of “race” and “ethnicity.” (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/26/race-class-and-gender/ and https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/, but even Alexander Saxton, my dissertation director, a proudly unreconstructed Stalinist, yielded to his contemporaries in promoting “whiteness studies,” as if all white people either all had the identical economic interests, or were hopelessly and permanently racist. (Saxton was especially disappointed in the white working class, apparently.)

KKK

This has put me, the director of the Yankee Doodle Society, in a quandary. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the composer Joseph Byrd and I reconstructed antebellum American popular music in the sentimental tradition, using the original lyrics, without expunging the N word. We produced one recording for a local company (Takoma), focusing mostly on Stephen Foster, Henry Clay Work, and George Root, but then got a corporate and then several government grants to produce not only the music of these and other composers agreeable to the middle class, but also we reconstructed the cultural context of such music. We ended up with a set of six-sided LPs and a mammoth 10 and a half-hour documentary played on Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles three times, all unexpurgated, unlike recent reconstructions of Stephen Foster that simply erase the “hate speech.”

The music by itself was distributed by Musical Heritage Society for ten years, and during that time, I got an offer from a Neo-Confederate distributor who would have been willing to cut us in on the profits. I never answered his letter.

The fact is that further distribution of these materials, which are unique and brilliantly performed by top musicians and actors, could lead to abuse by racist groups. As long as I can’t control the context, I hesitate to release them, for minority groups in this country have enough to contend with, without further insults dredged up from the American past.

hate-speech2

What would you do in my place? I am sitting on several boxes of recordings that should be heard, but not by irredentists of any stripe or locale.

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