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American Music Month 2018

Beautiful Music Around Us:  Exploring America’s Evolving Artistic Dialogues of Race and Identity
October 18 – November 30, 2018
School of Music, University Library, and Sousa Archives and Center for American Music
University of Illinois
Urbana, Illinois
Events Calendar

In Stephen Wade’s 2012 book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, he lyrically describes his early memories of Chicago street performer Casey Jones’ “ceaseless stream of colloquial speech and squeezebox melodies.”  His reminiscences remind us that “reservoirs of culture thrive” all around us if we keep our minds and ears open to them.  He tells us how he listened to Muddy Waters’ Chicago bar room performances as a boy standing at the doorway, too young to enter, and observed the great blues musician summon “conjure-man charms” to entice his audiences’ acceptance of his songs’ messages through their shared experiences about life.  Later as a banjo student of Fleming Brown, Wade was told the social and cultural locales where musicians live and thrive always become elements of their performances. According to Brown, not hearing these performances “in their natural environment amounted to the difference between seeing a polar bear in the Arctic and one confined to the Brookfield Zoo.”

America’s early banjo heritage is firmly rooted in the rich music traditions of the people who were brought forcefully to this country from West Africa during the eighteenth century.  However, this fact and the evolution of banjo performance practice in late nineteenth century America becomes lost among the countless images of minstrel banjoists crudely portraying slap-stick characters using stylized dialects while wearing oversize shoes and exaggerated clothing.  Over the past century the grinning black-faced banjo player has been embedded deeply into America’s consciousness, and this racially charged imagery and its associated music continues to reflect the social and cultural tensions that exist in America today.

The failures of America’s Reconstruction era and later decades of Jim Crow segregation only reinforced the cultural isolation and social injustices experienced between black and white America.  Since the late 1960s progress has been glacially slow to bridge these political and economic divisions, and the pervasive social injustices experienced by people of color continue to bleed across our communities.  The politics of respectability and questions of colorism that permeate today’s racial dialogues only rehash the never-ending cycles of hope and denial for the country’s disenfranchised.  With little or no substantive reward for those individuals who genuinely wish a better and more just life for themselves and others unlike them, the outcome frequently turns to anger, disbelief, and unspoken silences between our communities that we allow to define us over time and mute our desire to learn from one another.

America’s rich musical heritage has been and will continue to be a product of the many impulsive fusions of diverse social and cultural traditions that have come to this country over time.  One example is early jazz which grew from roots, blues and ragtime traditions.  Its diverse performers’ music styles evolved over time and their new melodies had the power to bridge the cultural and social margins that often segregated the country’s diverse urban and rural communities throughout the 20th century.  These musical poets’ performances frequently deepened the contours and expressions of their unspoken artistic dialogues with their audiences, and through their art brought people from different walks of life together.

Through exhibits, concerts, lecture, and moderated discussion this year’s American Music Month celebration explores the unspoken silences associated with race and identity that often define us as a nation. The Center’s new exhibitions include: Samuel S. Stewart and America’s Banjo, Banjos, Mandolins, and John Philip Sousa — America’s Musical Paradox, and Scrapbook Gems: Harry Partch Inside Out.  Stephen Wade, one of the country’s leading scholars of American folklife and culture, will provide special lectures, performances, and workshops on America’s banjo legacy as part of this year’s Folk and Roots Festival in October.  Finally Renée Baker, an accomplished Chicago composer and founding director of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, will provide a lecture and open discussion about issues of race and identity using her original music scores set to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Oscar Micheaux’ The Symbol of the Unconquered to begin a discussion about the unspoken silences of race and identity that were portrayed in early twentieth-century silent movies.

Sponsors:

School of Music
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music

University Bands

University of Illinois Press

Partners:

Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music

Spurlock Museum
University of Illinois Library

We invite you to join our musical dialogues of America’s banjo legacy and the use of the performing arts to explore issues some of race and identity that continue perplex our country today.  For further information about this year’s programming and exhibits please email sousa@illinois.edu.

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