The cases we have chosen to compare are the Polish folk music revival in the 19th Century and the Jazz Age in the USA in the 20th Century regarding the Black Nationalist movement. The cases may appear at first incompatible, but we wish to argue a connection between them in the use of folk music to reinforce a stronger sense of group identity.
The most obvious comparison to be made between the examples is that both peoples were oppressed, both politically and culturally. Both used their respective vernacular cultures to redefine their collective identities and overcome their oppressors, albeit in different ways.
There is a precedent for this connection in the work of Black Nationalist and social critic Harold Cruse who saw uses of “black folk music as reminiscent of some early [19th and] 20th Century Irish, Finnish, Polish and Czech nationalists who viewed peasant culture as the wellspring for a new national identity that might oppose imperial culture.” (Johnson, 2007: 30)
Polish Musical Nationalism: Reification of Vernacular Culture
The work of Poland’s most famous composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) is exemplary in showing how nationalist music takes elements of the vernacular culture to reify the nation’s people. Historically during Chopin’s time, Poland was politically under the control of Russia, Prussia and Austria; while Germany, Italy and France dominated European musical high culture.
Chopin’s sense of the Polish nation led him to draw on the music of the rural Poles to create a distinctly Polish music, based on folk music forms, harmonies and rhythms in a high culture setting and for an elite audience.
A famous example of Chopin’s use of elements of folk culture is in his mazurkas, of which he is known to have written at least 69 for solo piano. These are, however, distanced from their original form – a folk dance from Poland’s Mazovia region played on bagpipe and fiddle. Chopin’s mazurkas were not meant for dancing and are more technically advanced through their use of classical techniques and more advanced harmonic structures; but are based on the same rhythmic structure with a ¾ time signature.
Another example of Chopin’s nationalism is the reification of the national language, setting Polish poems to music in the form of Art Songs, sung in the same bel canto (operatic) vocal style used in the grand operas of European classical music.
(the poem, by Polish poet Stefan Witwicki, can be found here, along with a translation into English:
Who was listening to this music in the Polish population and in other countries and what effect did it have? Milewski (1999: 134) argues:
“In the end, Chopin, like so many of his musical compatriots, was not interested in recovering rural truths, but in bringing Poles of the urban upper classes a little bit closer to a highly constructed and desirable idea of themselves.”
Jazz Age Nationalism: Identity in Music
The Jazz Age in 20th century America has similar characteristics to that of the revivals of folk music in 19th century Europe. In this case, however, it is useful to note that the dichotomy exists between members of the same country, divided ethnically into the White American population and the African American population. The high and low culture differentiation persists here, but it is interesting to see how this was handled in a traditionally assimilationist country, which prides itself on the ideal of the “melting pot”.
The development of jazz in this case begins with roots in slave spirituals. It is interesting to note that in the 1920s, the heart of the Jazz Age in America, these spirituals were recorded and popularly marketed in the jazz style. For example, note Bessie Brown’s recording of “Songs from a Cotton Field”:
During this period, songs recorded by African American musicians were referred to as “race music,” and actively marketed to members of the African American community. This raises questions as to why something like a slave spiritual would be marketed in such a way decades after the abolishment of slavery, popularized and recorded in a modern 1920s jazz age style, as entertainment. Does it become a statement of national identity?
Even with marketing towards an African American market, Jazz was also popularised in the White American community during this time a popular form of music. However, this form of music was actively separated from the slave spiritual roots, with the music evolving of the music itself that was popularized in White culture. For example, Louis Armstrong was a popular artist among both African-Americans and white Americans, but his form of jazz ignores the musical elements of the slave spiritual.
How these cases correlate? Are the audiences the same for both types of music? Did these folk revivals affect the status of their associated peoples?
And for bonus discussion:
Another interesting use of Jazz in a national movement is Gershwin’s use of African American folk music. Gershwin’s motivation was to create a wholly new American music that broke from the European tradition, his work culminating in the folk-opera Porgy and Bess (1935), which is rooted in jazz but located in a historically European musical setting. In this video of the aria Summertime, this adoption and adaptation is clear:
However, what he created can be seen as limited and stereotypical in its representations of African American culture. Harold Cruse (1967) who has two main contentions regarding Gershwin’s opera:
“1) That a folk-opera of this genre should have been written by Negroes themselves and has not;
2) That such a folk-opera, even if it had been written by Negroes, would never have been supported, glorified and acclaimed, as Porgy has, by the white cultural elite of America” (p.102),
and he proposes: “No negro singer, actor, or performer should ever submit to a role in this vehicle again. If white producers want to stage this folk-opera it should be performed by white performers in blackface, because it is distorted imitation all the way through.” (p.103).
Instead, the songs from the opera have become jazz standards sung by famous African American artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, but with the European operatic style altered to one closer to the original jazz.
Which recording is more legitimate? Is national culture therefore reflexive, reactive and malleable?
Is this a matter of debate between assimilation and multi-cultural theory?
Cruse, H. (1967) The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow & Co.
Johnson, C. (2007) Revolutionaries to race leaders: Black power and the making of African American politics Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Milewski, B. (1999) “Chopin’s Mazurkas and the Myth of the Folk,” 19th Century Music, vol 23, no 2: 113-135
For more on the terminology of Race Music please see:
Ramsey Jr., Guthrie P. (2003) Race Music: Black Cultures from BeBop to Hip Hop. Los Angeles: University of California Press