About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

History Repeating Itself, Musically

I have been reading John Denver's Autobiography Take Me Home. In it he mentions a phenomenon of his music as it correlates with the timing of the ending of the Vietnam War: "while the war in Vietnam was winding down . . . the song ["Sunshine on My Shoulders"] suddenly reached out to touch a deep chord of need in the country" (p. 131).

This reminded me of the phenomenon of Stephen Foster's music in the mid-1860s and how it allowed people the opportunity to "escape" the reality of the Civil War, which touched virtually every household in America, North and South. While his songs had been known and sung for years before the War, his popularity soared during the conflagration, especially towards the end when the country wearied of the seemingly endless conflict. (Read more on Foster in one of my earlier posts, 23 June 2009.) Having the opportunity to escape with "Beautiful Dreamer," the family gathered around the piano-forte to join together in song - no doubt mindful of the voices that were not included, having been silenced on the battlefields - providing people a chance to forget, even if only for a few moments, the ravages of war. Songs he had written years before the war were resurrected to be elements of escape for his many fans. Like Denver, he, too, died way before his time (he was only 38).

This comparison got me to thinking about whether or not WWI and WWII also had their entertainment escape options, providing the country with a way to leave the war behind for a short moment. During and before the Civil War, the people's entertainment (outside of the home) was the Minstrel Show (often incorporating Stephen Foster songs), but following that time period in history, the minstrel shows died out and were replaced by Vaudeville. Here, again, was a place where the atrocities of WWI could be escaped for the mere price of admission; and, with Edison's gramophone now found in most homes, people could "bring the music home" to play in their own parlors. To read more about this means of entertainment, check out the website that declares vaudeville to be "a dazzling display of heterogeneous splendor" by Rick Caston.

Also popular during WWI was a man whose music provided both patriotic songs and escape music in WWII as well: Irving Berlin. In WWI, Berlin wrote more about the war; in WWII, while contributing many songs to create a sense of American unity (e.g., "God Bless America," written in 1938), Berlin also wrote to help people forget war. The 1940s is marked, musically, by such productions as "White Christmas" and "Holiday Inn," great escapes, both. Berlin's 60-year career contributed a lasting legacy of music in America.

Musical theater also provided Americans with a means to escape war in the 1940s: Meet Me in St. Louis and Going My Way, both produced in 1944, are perfect examples.

So, whether it was gathering around the piano-forte in the parlor as a group of family members and friends, singing from the sheet music of Stephen Foster, getting out of the house to attend a vaudeville show or musical theater production of Irving Berlin's during the early- to mid-1900s, or singing along with the radio in the car "with" John Denver, Americans have found ways to musically side-step the wars of the times. In a way, since the popularity of these composers and media have been so universally accepted, they have served to unite Americans, even if their personal views on the respective wars have differed.

One is left to wonder if there is such a uniting force at work today, in the musical world, to allow us such an escape from what is currently happening overseas. Perhaps that is a personal issue, with less singing in group gatherings and more people listening privately to MP3s on personal players instead of as a group gathered around the radio or phonograph. And perhaps the escape elements are things that must be examined after the fact. Perhaps we shall see.


  1. Jean

    I think you hit the nail on the head concerning the proliferation of MP3 players and digital music. The personalization of music actually started 30 years ago with the Sony Walkman. These days it is difficult for Americans to rally around a song - my last memory of such a time was when Whitney Houston sang the Star Spangled Banner at the SuperBowl in 1991 during the Gulf War. I still think it happens but the medium is different: this past summer it was Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed A Dream and the medium was video a la You Tube.

  2. Jean we are going to find a relationship some day. I love what you wrote. It would take a book to explain that. I am to long winded. Thomas also has said some thing I have felt for some time.

    O we have moved so fast so forward what have we left behind.


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