American Voices, further thoughts

The American Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center, November 22-24, 2013.
The American Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center, November 22-24, 2013.

In 1958,  Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu” (popularly known as “Volare”) won the US Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

This is the first (and only) year that a “foreign language” song won in these categories.  All subsequent winners have been in English.  By the 60s Anglo-American rock and pop in English would come to dominate this Industry award.

In a recent piece, America is the acceptable face of cultural imperialism, Simon Heffer comments that:

“Where America has started in a cultural enterprise at the same time as or just ahead of Europe – say in film, television, concrete and steel architecture or pop music – it dominates the genre. This may be a simple question of market forces – American culture has 310 million people in its home audience. If they take something up, it is likely to make an impact around the world. This is also why overseas artists must make it in America if they are to go global: what would we think of the Beatles now had America simply yawned and looked the other way in 1964?”


“When pop music took off in the 1950s, a number of acts tried to sound as American as possible – not so much to crack the American market as to convince the British they were at the cutting edge of what was, essentially, an American form.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, “I was in the middle of composing a summary of a facebook discussion about my American Voices post,” and while that post is still in draft form, I’ve written this more concise version of that one.  As I mentioned in that American Voices post, Steven Victor Tallarico (aka Steven Tyler) was suggested as an American voice that should have been included in Renée Fleming’s American Voices Festival final concert.

Ok, rather, “Steven Tyler,” was suggested, not “Steven Victor Tallarico” – son of Italian/German-American, Victor A. Tallarico, and Polish/English-American Susan Blancha (original family name was “Czarnyszewicz”).”  Tyler is the “Demon of Screamin'” of the Boston based Rock band, Aerosmith.

That facebook discussion brought up the fact that the ethnic backgrounds of popular artists (e.g. Stephen Perry/Stephen Ray Pereira – Portuguese-American; Jon Bon Jovi/John Francis Bongiovi, Jr. – Sicilian/Slovakian/Russian/German-American; Freddie Mercury/Farouk Bulsara – Persian-English; Eddie Van Halen/Edward Lodewijk van Halen – Dutch/Indonesian-American) isn’t usually highlighted.

While Modugno was never an American–most of the American crooners from that era (some of whom who sang and recorded “Volare” with English lyrics) were of Italian descent: Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert Sinatra); Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti); Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero); Perry Como (Pierino Ronald Como); Tony Bennett ( Anthony Dominick Benedetto).  These artists (as well as non-Italian-American artists from the period) did occasionally record and sing songs inspired by or from their homeland.

One thing that also came up in that facebook discussion is how a number of the bands I mentioned in the prelude to the American Voices post, are comprised of Immigrants or children of recent immigrants.  They still bear their surnames (or even personal names) of their homelands; they don’t feel as compelled to anglicized their band names either–and they sing and play music inspired by or from their homelands.  In some cases the bands are comprised of multiple ethnicities, so there’s a fusion of non-Euro-American influences in their music and lyrics.

In a sense, I think we’ve come full circle, musically, in the pop world (and as I mentioned this is also happening with “Classical Music” ensembles and Large Orchestral styled ensembles)–where we don’t have to sanitize (or as one of the posters in the facebook thread said, “Whitenize”) personal and musical identities to be an “American Voice.”  We’re in a musical age where we don’t have to change our name from “Steven Victor Tallarico” to “Steven Tyler;” sing in English; and call our band an aglicized “Aerosmith”–but for folks who think we’re on the cusp of a musical revolution, it seems ironic that a Steven Tyler would need to be included in an America Voices Festival final gala concert for the concert to be considered “more populist” (or more relevant).

What is also ironic is that, in some ways, this is the pop music industry trying to catch up to what classical music has always been doing (albeit in a relatively parochial Eurocentric way) in that we find songs (and music) in French, German, Italian, English, Spanish, and increasingly more languages (I adore listening to Szymanowski’s “Stabat Mater” in Polish!). Sadly, there is still room to grow even in this field–most Classically Trained vocalists and musicians wouldn’t have to first idea how to sing Mugham Opera and Near Eastern Choral/Orchestra repertoire much less Art music repertoire which doesn’t even use Western instruments such as Chinese Opera.  Then again, we also now have groups doing that in the US, so maybe some of these “new” American voices from both the pop and art music side will see itself in a future American Voices Festival.

For now, I’m just pleased to see so many musicians who aren’t ashamed of their ethnic heritage in the US playing out in clubs rather than just the old “ghettos” of Ethnic and World Music Festivals and events.


19 thoughts on “American Voices, further thoughts

  1. The most important thing for people nowdays to do is to be aware of this and make an active, powerful effort to hold onto what they are. Anyone who thinks, “We’re too different from the majority culture, this can never happen to us,” is in for a nasty surprise — or their kids are in a generation. The minute you think it can’t happen to rh-you, that’s the first step on the way to it happening to rh-you. People don’t often have enough of a sense of history; they don’t understand just how bizarre, alien, and frightening many people seemed to the dominant American culture, how patchy and provisional the “whitenizing” process is, nor how quickly their own “ethnicity” — and their kids’ — will start to fade the minute they marry out.

    An active, celebratory, happy effort must be made to hold onto your heritage, not in a persecuted or defensive way but in a way that ensures that you can add the best of it to the country around you and share a beautiful thing with others who will share themselves with you.

    It’s an active effort — don’t ever assume that your differences from the dominant culture are so great that you won’t need to make it.


    1. I’m going to have to do a follow up to this post and talk about ethnic Americans from the South. One other interesting and otherizing effect of pop music culture, as it reflects a dominant American culture, is how despite the fact that Country Music has almost consistently been one of the biggest money making pop music genres, it almost invariably gets the short end of the stick to the Northern (or “Yank”) pop music genres. We don’t often include zydeco, bluegrass, Country-Western swing artists in the pantheon of Pop Music Superstars (despite there being some) and some of that has to do with the identity formation that favors genres that reinforce the culturally dominant majority.

      Terrance MacMullan talks about how this hegemonic “White identity” tends to displace local identities of even White Americans in his bok “Habits of Whiteness”–and really it’s just the same set of forces that also displace the ethnic American identities! Note that Alison Kraus became the default representative for “Country” music. Even if we debate whether the Nashville and pop-country music sound is representative of Country, there’s still a whole mess load of other country artists which might be better representatives of this American art form.


      1. There’s an interesting story in a book of klezmer music that I bought written by Hank Sapoznik where he describes having klezmer musicians playing at his bar mitzvah as a kid and feeling embarrassed about it. Later on he — and an entire generation of Jewish kids from New York — grew up to become fascinated by American Old Time music. He tells a story about how Tommy Jarrell was always a bit puzzled by these Jewish dudes from up north who fell in love with OT music and could play it very, very well. Jarrell apparently asked him in all honesty, “Hank, don’t you people got none of your own music?”

        Sapoznik later rediscovered klezmer in much the same way that he initially discovered OT — on scratchy recordings from the turn of the century. It was a really fascinating description of how one group of marginalized people discovered the music of another group of marginalized people and used it to work their way back to the treasure in their own backyards.

        And prior to the Italian “takeover” of pop, the Jewish influence on pop and swing was also enormous, from Irving Berlin to the big bands and their flavor of klezmer-influenced jazz, to show tunes and how many Broadway musicals were written by Jewish composers …

        The whitewashing of American popular music in the 20th century is fertile, fertile ground for understanding the whitenizing process …


      2. Yes, yes YES!! Everytime I play with my Klezmer band, I am just awestruck by how much many of those tunes sound like Broadway and I’m reminded by how many of those New York composers of musicals and early jazz/big band tunes were Jewish and were simply bringing their own musical influences into the mix!!


  2. BTW, I remember when Eddie named his kid “Wolfgang” and everyone laughed at it, but his own parents were musicians, and his father named him “Lodevijk” after Beethoven. Family tradition. 🙂


  3. I’m finding ones I didn’t even know about — Bobby Darin. Born Robert Cassotto.

    Another piece of advice for recent immigrants and their kids: Never ever, under any circumstances, change your name. People can damned well learn to pronounce it. If they learned how to pronounce Schwarzenegger, they can learn to pronounce your names as well.


    1. I think there was a time when immigrants would change their names regularly–it became a mark of integration into their newly adopted home. Of course that came with this idea that “being American” had a certain specific “identity” which we no longer share in favor of a more pluralistic set of identities.


      1. A lot of us did … but a lot of us didn’t, either. And the only entertainers I know of who kept their names were also condemned to play hoods and mob wives for their entire careers. Were there any actual anglo performers in pop at the time who weren’t from the south?


      2. The end result is if we made our culture look good, we had to change our names. If we followed the stereotypes or flew under the radar, we got to keep them. Play a doctor on TV (or in real life), you’d better have a consonant at the end of your name. Play a mobster or be a working-class stiff, you got to keep the vowel. 😛


      3. That’s an interesting question–if the American cum immigrants were the northern pop, and most of the southern Americans and their music became marginalized, what did this say about how we appropriated the exotic while demonizing our homegrowns?


      4. It makes me wonder how many homegrowns-made-good from the rural areas and the south worked hard to lose their accents and revamp their childhoods to remove any taint of dirt floors and feedsack dresses.


      5. Maybe Elvis was the first sign of this direction from southerners? I know I’ve seen descriptions of Dixieland being a bunch of Whites playing what is otherwise New Orleans styled Jazz–and that exodus to the north by all the black jazz musicians didn’t pan out as well until more whites started playing it.

        Hell, this new pop-country is kind of a “modernized” and sanitized version of what most folks from the south say is “true country music.” This is really interesting!


    1. That’s one of the reasons why people have such fierce love for the Four Seasons back home: they did keep theirs with the exception of Frankie Valli, who changed his to something shorter, but still made sure to make it seem Italian.


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