A Musical Education
Just Not the One I Expected
I was in my last semester at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Being a lifelong rock ‘n’ roller with essentially no exposure to any other music, I figured, “Hey, it’s time I learned something about classical music!” I took Music 130, “Introduction to Music.”
The teacher was an African-American woman, who did in fact teach us the basics of Western classical music. I don’t remember anything about that. What I do remember was that she also taught us blues and gospel, America’s real classical music. Not just that; she actually brought some of the giants in those fields into our classroom. I don’t mean movies or recordings; I mean the actual people.
I don’t remember much about that class, other than the two guests I’ll mention below, but I do remember her talking about field chants: those chants that slaves working in the fields would join in. Like this prison chant:
I talked about how I got into jazz last post, but I didn’t mention that it was while I was taking this class.
Classical vs. Pop
I don’t care to argue which is “better.” On my own, later in life, I got educated on classical music and opera, and I actually sang both — in community opera companies, I sang in the chorus for Lucia de Lammormoor, Tosca, Tales of Hoffman, La Boheme, La Traviata (twice), and Carmen. In other choruses, I’ve sung the Brahms Requiem, Carmina Burana, the Verdi Requiem, Elijah, and lots of other pieces. So I finally sought out and got what I was originally after.
However, there is a certain virtue-signaling to being “into” classical music. It seems more cultured to dress up and attend the symphony than to go to a jazz club. That’s less so now than 50 years ago. Jazz is now taught in prestigious music schools, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is as respectable as it gets.
Back then, it really was still the music of the people. The folk boom of the early 60s
which was almost all mediocre white musicians, brought back a lot of the forgotten black musicians like Furry Lewis and gave them the recognition they always deserved. So at least it had that going for it. When you watch Inside Llewyn Davis (which that clip is taken from), you realize why the British Invasion blew them away so easily.
For a lot of Americans like me, it was to our eternal shame that British rockers had to show us what we’d been ignoring.
As Keith says in there,
You had it all the time. You just didn’t listen.
He came to our class. I guess he must have played and sang in class, but I don’t remember. When you consider that Urbana is a two-hour drive even from Chicago, and much longer from Memphis, getting him to visit was quite an achievement.
Who’s Furry Lewis? Here’s an article. As that reference says:
He often told stories of playing with W. C. Handy
You’ll notice in Walking in Memphis, one of my all-time favorite songs:
W.C. Handy’s name appears in the first verse. Handy was born in the 1800’s and he predated the blues, in fact he helped create them! You can’t be much more “royalty” than W.C. Handy. And imagine, we had a visitor who played with him.
At the end of Walking in Memphis, Cohn (probably Jewish, I’d guess) sings about Muriel who plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood, and at the end she says, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?” and he says, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”
Gospel music is how many or even most black singers learned music. Say Amen, Somebody is the ultimate feel-good movie; in fact, if it doesn’t grab you, you may need to ask your doctor if you’ve got a stone there instead of a heart.
(Not “Tommy Dorsey”)
The Reverend Thomas Dorsey wrote the gospel standard, Take My Hand, Precious Lord. He came to our class, too.
Here’s the great Mahalia Jackson doing that song:
and the Queen of Soul:
What did the Reverend say in the class? I really can’t remember; I wish I could. But I do remember this basic fact: the great man actually came to a beginning music class for non-music majors. Wow.
Here he talks about how he wrote the song:
How can you follow that? I won’t.