Can We Find Classical Music in Rural America?
photograph from Mr. Horowitz’s program, featuring Kevin Deas; Janice Houck
I am classical music. –Abner Jay
After writing recently about Mr. Jay, I’ve been listening to his music almost non-stop. In the version of “Cocaine Blues” found on The True Story of Abner Jay, he offers this prelude:
Folk music is high class music–of course a lot of low class people singin’ it. Matter of fact, most so-called folk singers don’t even look like folk. Folk songs tell true stories, but terrible stories–’cause folk are terrible. Terrible songs make big songs. Why do you think kids like rock ‘n’ roll ? Because it’s terrible. You think they’re gonna listen to the Philadelphia Symphony, 101 Strings?
From a few angles, there’s no arguing with him. If Germany has Bach and Beethoven, America has The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, and, of course, Abner Jay. But, also, many modern composers (Copland comes to mind first) have borrowed from folk music to make classical music “new.”
So where, I wonder, can we find the connections between rural America and classical music? What musicians and composers are engaging with rural issues and rural material? Where can we find healthy classical music programs and events in rural America?
We might consider the work of Joseph Horowitz as a start. Mr. Horowitz is a writer, concert producer, and a former music critic for The New York Times. He is currently working with the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony on what he calls “humanities-infused public programming.”
Mr. Horowitz also writes for the fantastic Arts Journal constellation of blogs and arts news. This February, as the discussions of the massive Congressional budget cuts began to emerge, Mr. Horowitz shared his experience with a program that might get lost in the efforts to drastically cut back arts funding. We can find here his reflections on a program considering the work of Dvorak and slave-songs he offered to elementary school students in “semi-rural” areas in eastern Pennsylvaia, but I will offer an excerpt below:
The featured soloist was Kevin Deas, an internationally prominent African-American bass-baritone who regularly appears with our major orchestras. Kevin is both an exceptional artist and an exceptional human being; he was eager to take part for a nominal fee.The program began (without a word said) with Kevin, from the back of the gym, singing “Sinner, Don’t Let This Harvest Past.” He slowly paced forward, passing alongside hundreds of transfixed children seated on the floor. Subsequently, he sang “Deep River,” “Goin’ Home,” and Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (in Dvorak’s arrangement for baritone, orchestra, and chorus) with the student musicians.The hour-long program, which I hosted, also included discussion of Dvorak and his African-American assistant Harry Burleigh. Burleigh (like Foster, a Pennsylvania native) acquired “slave songs” from his blind grandfather. He sang them frequently for Dvorak. It was partly Dvorak who inspired Burleigh to turn them into concert songs which he famously sang (becoming a model for Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson).Kevin sang “Swing Low” and “Wade in the Water” in Burleigh’s arrangements. He talked about the message of the spirituals. He shared his own experiences as a black concert artist. We also heard a recording of Burleigh himself singing “Go Down, Moses” in 1919.An epiphany of sorts (for me) was moving from Kevin’s loamy baritone in “Goin’ Home” to the 60 earnest, piping voices assigned the second verse:Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life just begun
I have included such a long excerpt because I imagine that many of us can sense how similar programs could be offered across the audiences and regions of rural America–not only to students, but to the larger community as well.
If folks have any ideas, or any leads, please send us an email. We’d like to share more classical music, and more programs like the kind Mr. Horowitz brought to these lucky students in Pennsylvania.