Thursday, June 25, 2015

You're Fired!

The old blog receives an average of six or seven visitors a day, on a good day, so I don't expect this story to get far. The point of writing it is to express my ire, though, so that's fine. It's like writing a scathing letter and throwing it away. Catharsis.

Here's the deal. In a round-about way, I was invited to play in a band assembled to commemorate McKinley's inauguration in 1897. The person who put this together—we'll call him Joe—has done a great deal of research, has photos of the event, a copy of the original program of music performed and replica uniforms for this special band to wear in performance. And he has managed to dig up copies of music for songs that haven't been played in years. In some cases, he's reviving songs that haven't been played, or at least recorded, in 100 years. Interesting, right? I think so, so I was intrigued enough to agree to participate.

But then I got the music. It's mostly marches, because that's what bands played in the late 1800s, what with no John Williams themes to thrill a movie-going audience. I'm OK with marches and wouldn't normally be choosy. I'm usually just happy to participate. As I turned the pages, though, I came across a tune called "Passing the Cotton Fields," subtitled "Negro Characteristics." I was bothered by the title, because what thinking person wouldn't be, and when I heard the band play it during the first rehearsal, I was bothered even further. It has the feel of the worst of Stephen Foster, who had slaves mourning "Massa" buried in the "cold cold ground." Though the piece doesn't have lyrics, it made me think of this stanza:

Massa made de darkeys love him,
Cayse he was so kind,
Now dey sadly weep above him,
Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow,
Cayse de tear drops flow,
I try to drive away my sorrow
Pickin on de old banjo.

You can overlook almost anything if you're willing to just do your job and play the notes on the page, but I have been affected by several things of late. First, I re-watched Ken Burns' "Civil War" series. Then husband and I watched "Selma." Then the young man murdered nine people in their church in South Carolina, claiming racial superiority as his justification, posing with a Confederate flag in several pictures portraying his twisted views.

And now, at this very moment, southern states steeped in their tradition of glorifying their Lost Cause are discussing removing the Confederate flag in its various forms from public land. Even Alabama. I mean Freaking Alabama just went ahead and pulled it down.

So, in light of this heightened sensitivity, coupled with my normal level of sensitivity, I emailed Joe with my case for being bothered by the Cotton Field song, and I suggested maybe this is one song he could skip over, leaving it in the vault along with black-face vaudeville and Stepen Fetchit stereotypes.

I was respectful and reasonable in my tone, I believe, making sure to include the fact I was pleased to participate in this event and impressed with the guy's efforts for historical purity. And then I waited for his response. I imagined he might reply with something equally reasonable, maybe a note saying he appreciates my thoughtfulness but has decided to keep the song for the sake of history, or some such. Maybe something like "I see your point, and thanks, but let's go ahead with the program as planned. See you at rehearsal."

But I got none of that. What I got was a terse reply saying there was nothing wrong with the song, and given our "artistic differences," I should not play the concert at all. I should, instead, recycle my music. This man fired me for having the audacity to approach him with an idea that wasn't his own, is what it boils down to.

So, I chucked my music in the recycling bin and washed my hands of the whole business, except for sitting here seething over this man's inability to communicate rationally and thoughtfully. I don't see this as an artistic issue. I see it as a moral issue, a situation of being culturally aware and recognizing that not all elements of history are worthy of being revived and featured in a performance people pay money to attend.

For the same reason, I don't believe the Confederate flag should be displayed on public land (I don't believe it should be displayed at all, but that's another issue). I don't believe every act in history deserves a re-enactment. And I don't believe a music ensemble should go out of its way to perform a piece of music that romanticized a grossly immoral cultural system, accept applause and move on to the next song.

Well, it's done, and I am slightly wounded. At the same time, however, I hold my head high knowing I acted according to my conscience.  What do you think about music like this? Should we play it like it doesn't mean anything?


savannah said...

You did the right thing! "Joe" and attitudes like his are what's wrong with our country now! I'm tired of the false equivalency arguments being displayed as if the "apples/oranges" idiocy being spouted is right, just because proponents of the confederate mythology believe it. I, too, had to write today just to get it all out of my system. I'm happy you just binned the music, it doesn't deserve being heard again, and I'm even happier that I know you, sweetpea! xoxoxo

Susan Martins Miller said...

You were right and he was wrong.

Barbara Singhaus said...

I am so grateful that there are writers like you that can document the feelings so many of us are experiencing. While "Joe's" response was sadly and completely inappropriate, it would be nice to think it gave him at least a small pause to consider....

Thank you for both taking action and inspiring us to do the same with our own convictions!

Anonymous said...

Whoa, that conductor was way out of line in his reaction to you. Probably touched a nerve and if you continued to sit in the ensemble, he would have to look at you and think about what you wrote some more and that was more than he could take.

Katherine Thayer said...

Amazing post