Monday, September 19, 2022

Steve Waksman's "Live Music in America"

Steve Waksman is Elsie Irwin Sweeney Professor of Music at Smith College, Massachusetts. His publications include the books Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (1999) and This Ain't the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (2009), the latter of which was awarded the 2010 Woody Guthrie Award for best scholarly book on popular music by the U.S. chapter of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US). With Reebee Garofalo, he is the co-author of the sixth edition of the rock history textbook, Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A. (2014), and with Andy Bennett, he co-edited the SAGE Handbook of Popular Music (2015). His essays have appeared in such collections as the Cambridge Companion to the Guitar, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop, Metal Rules the Globe, and The Relentless Pursuit of Tone: Timbre and Popular Music.

Waksman applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Live Music in America: A History from Jenny Lind to Beyoncé, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Live Music in America throws the reader into the middle of an event from 1872, the World’s Peace Jubilee held in Boston during the summer of that year. A sort of analog to the giant music festivals of today, the Jubilee was the second such event produced by U.S. bandleader Patrick Gilmore, following his 1869 National Peace Jubilee. It comes up in chapter two of the book, which focuses on the performance career of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a pivotal group of African American singers who toured the U.S. and internationally in the years following the American Civil War. It was a huge milestone in the career of the Jubilee Singers to sing at Gilmore’s second Jubilee – the concurrence of the term “Jubilee” is notable and something I discuss elsewhere in the chapter. On page 99, the reader finds background history about Gilmore’s Jubilee, which went on for more than two weeks and featured music and performers from several European nations along with the U.S. The Jubilee Singers were one of only two Black attractions scheduled to appear at the Jubilee, and they scored a significant success singing the selection “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord” in conjunction with a choir of over one-hundred voices.

Does the Page 99 Test work for Live Music in America? Yes and no. Yes, because the book is full of these kinds of detail-rich accounts of specific performances from throughout the history of American music, from 1850 forward. These are moments of the book where I use historical documents to bring the past back to life and to recover episodes of live performance that have in many cases been largely forgotten. The focus on an event of such giant scale is also in keeping with the book’s interest on how live music often entails large collective gatherings that are integral to the experience. Gilmore staged the Jubilee in a specially built coliseum designed to hold some 70,000 people that was located along Boston Common. The whole event was done with scale in mind – a chorus of over 10,000, an orchestra of over 1000 – in many ways foreshadowing the enhanced size of festivals and concerts that would become more commonplace from the mid-twentieth century forward. The focus on a group of African American performers on page 99 is also a good reflection of many of the book’s themes. I consider race relations to be central to the story of American music and of live music especially, and this is the first portion of the book where that theme comes to the foreground.

Where the Page 99 Test fails, is that a reader who opened to this page without knowing anything else about the book would probably have a hard time getting oriented. The story of Gilmore’s World’s Peace Jubilee, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ appearance there, takes shape here without a lot of larger explanation regarding the book’s main themes or focus. Like much historical writing, a lot of Live Music in America concentrates on a kind of storytelling. I tell a plethora of stories throughout the book, all of which are ultimately connected, but not every page clearly indicates where the connections lie between one story and the next, or between isolated events and bigger themes. This is a page that mainly guides the reader through a lot of information necessary to understand why the events under discussion are worth knowing about. Hopefully, at least, it would pique a reader’s curiosity enough to want to know more.
Learn more about Live Music in America at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue