Tag Archives: Charles Ives

American Originals

Among the composers represented at the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra “American Originals” concert I attended on May 12, two stand tall for their groundbreaking work.

Charles Ives (not Burl Ives), composer and insurance executive, was the son of Civil War bandmaster George Ives. George Ives was a musical tinkerer, who taught his son to actively listen to whatever was going on around him. Born in 1874, Charles Ives grew up in rural New England. The music of his youth—hymn tunes, parlor ballads, marches—appears as quotes throughout Ives’ compositions. The intense listening his father taught is there, too. If the choir of his home church sounded like it was singing in two keys at the same time, then Ives wrote music that incorporated two simultaneous keys.

Saturday night the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra performed Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” A string orchestra played on stage, while a woodwind quartet and solo trumpet performed from the back of the auditorium. The three groups kept their own tempo and key, the trumpet asking and the flutes responding to questions that have no answers. Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford wrote of Ives, “Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future.”

The Edgewood Symphony Orchestra presented a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” made by John Wilson for trumpeter Roger Dannenberg and the Orchestra.

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, twenty-five years after Ives. While Ellington and Ives both shared a belief in the importance of the vernacular—melodies “hummed while men are at work and at play, and that are handed down from generation to generation,” as an Ellington interview from 1930 states—it is the contrasts between these two creators that feeds my curiosity. Specifically, each composer worked in a method unique to his temperament.

Ives composed in virtual isolation. Much of his music was imagined and lived in his own fantasies before taking form on the page. In contrast, Ellington’s creative output nearly always reflected his daily work with his orchestra. Rehearsals with his players shaped his compositions. Pieces were continually tempered and amended by his musical associates.

Ives musical laboratory was the whole world around him, his experiences steeped in the cauldron of memory. He invited no one else to share his musical pondering. Ellington tried out his compositions on everyone with whom he worked. Today we would say he workshopped his music.

Though neither of these men represented mainstream ideas about how a composer works, Ives and Ellington have emerged as two of our greatest American originals.

For further reading:

The Duke Ellington Reader

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music


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Songsters, Writers, Rovers

In California last week a friend taught me a hobo song. The tune flew back to Pittsburgh with me and followed me to work at the library. I still wake in the night with the melody teasing my sleepy brain. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a beautiful song.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” was written by Goebel Reeves (born 1899). Teen-aged Reeves adored vaudeville and hobos. He traded a middle-class life for the adventure of roaming the U.S., singing, yodeling, and recording under pseudonyms, including “The Texas Drifter.” He wrote and performed autobiographical songs, and limited his chances for a lucrative career by refusing to settle in one place for more than a few months—a dedicated hobo.

Other musicians who hoboed are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Philips. Writers who hoboed include James Michener, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac (fictionalized in The Dharma Bums), and Jack London.

Hotel de Gink (hobo hotel) — preparing Muligan stew, photo Library of Congress, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915

In its depression-era heyday, hobodom implied an itinerant lifestyle, usually lived by riding the rails (no ticket required).

Hobo, tramp, and drifter, often used interchangeably, are slang terms, lacking definitive etymologies. However, hobos defined themselves like this—hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, bums did not work at all.

Jack London wrote in The Road (1907) of his adventures riding the rails.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my
food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp.
The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the
hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused
food by the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from
the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows
stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh, you
charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the
charitable. They neither give nor withhold from their excess. They have no
excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for
themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves. A
bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog
when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Also last week in California, I listened to “West London,” a song by Charles Ives, that musically illustrates and elevates a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Crouched on the pavement close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged, and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.



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