Defacing with Blackface; or, How I Unwittingly Joined T. S. Eliot and Hardy’s Minstrels

Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage Lift Every Voice and Sing, by Augusta Savage

 

In 1991, when a Chicago Reader co-worker (she, receptionist; I, proofreader) invited me to write music for two song lyrics by T. S. Eliot, for a production she was directing of his unfinished play Sweeney Agonistes, I jumped at the offer. She asked me because she liked my band; I agreed because I was curious about the big-name poet and loved setting other people’s words to music. I’d done it for a production of Caryl Churchill’s play Vinegar Tom by Ann Arbor’s Brecht Company, for plays by my friends Mickle Maher and Robin Hartunian of Theater Oobleck, for a music composition class in college (to poems by Sam Shepard and Faye Kicknosway), and, just for me to sing, to poems by the Williams, Blake and Shakespeare. I loved – love – poetry, including some of Eliot’s – Four Quartets, some (not all) of the early lyrics, and that book he wrote for that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (though I’ve never seen the show). The Waste Land is not only a literary landmark, it’s compelling and powerful. My love for Eliot is tempered, though. His work can be problematic, to put it mildly.

And Sweeney is rife with Eliot’s big problem – his racism. I don’t remember why the director wanted to do the play, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand its problematic nature. But I didn’t.

Eliot’s anti-Semitism is more pungent in some earlier poems. There really is no way to redeem or recover lines like, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew [sic] is underneath the lot,” in “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar.” Blunt, ugly lines in blunt, ugly poems. If the Jewish characters don’t come off as badly in Sweeney Agonistes, they’re still coarse and ungentlemanly, and the Eliotic context makes the ethnic prejudice inescapable. Read more of this post

To Anacreon in Heaven

The original words to the tune that became our official national anthem. The tune was different too, in subtle and quirky ways. I got some of the differences right, but not all of them. It dates from the 1770s, in London. I don’t know whether singing it a cappella was idiomatic to 1770s practice, but it is to our practice today. Words by Ralph Tomlinson, music by John Stafford Smith. Recorded at my December 9, 2013, reading from “This Land That I Love,” at Elliott Bay Books. Play ball!

Singing Along with Pete Seeger

The opening clip from my December 9, 2013, book reading at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, to launch my book, “This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems.” I opened the reading with the song “To Anacreon in Heaven”; this is my off-the-cuff introduction — I hadn’t planned on telling this story.