The Harmonious Episode transcript


The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Harmonious Episode
Series 2 (Michaelmas term 2020)
Published 23 October 2020

NB the text below was transcribed automatically by

Adam Smith  00:04
Hello and welcome to The Last Best Hope, a podcast from the RAI – Oxford University's Research Institute for the Study of the United States and its place in the world. I'm Adam Smith. Listen to the soundtrack of American politics. [Kennedy campaign song, 1960 election; Bill Clinton campaign rally 1992; "I like Ike" campaign song from the Eisenhower campaign, 1952; Jimmy Carter campaign song, 1976; "Crush on Obama" Youtube hit, 2008 campaign] In 1800, the first hotly contested presidential election, both sides sang, as well as drank, chanted and fought. In the 1820s, the supporters of Andrew Jackson whose celebrity rested in his military prowess, sang The Hunters of Kentucky, putting new words to an old North Country tune, The Unfortunate Miss Bailey, to celebrate Jackson's victory in the war of 1812 of the Battle of New Orleans. In this episode, I'm going to be exploring the intimate relationship between politics and music. Music, as we all know, can motivate, soothe, inspire, it can convey a sense of belonging. The soundtrack of American politics includes the seemingly inane, the majestic, and the mediocre. There are tunes that stick in your head and won't go away. Try this one, for example. [Nixon Now campaign song, 1972 election campaign] Music has been the medium of protest and reform. [John Brown's Body] and also of patriotism. [National Anthem sung by an online choir at the Democratic National Convention, 2020]. If that's true today, when we're surrounded by music wherever we go, on whatever device we're connected to, how much more true it must have been when if you heard music, it had to be live. Historians have always noticed the role of music in American politics, but few have really probed what motivated people to use music or how it was understood. One person who has is Billy Coleman, a fellow at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, who's just published a fantastic book about the role of music in American politics between the Revolution and the Civil War, called Harnessing Harmony. In fact, Billy's not only done that, he's also recorded an album, reimagining 19th century songs in a modern way. Here's his version of The Hunters of Kentucky. [Billy Coleman's Hunter's of Kentucky] And Billy Coleman joins me now, Billy, it's really good to see you. Thank you very much for being on The Last Best Hope podcast.

Billy Coleman  04:19
Well, thanks, Adam. It's really, really great to be here.

Adam Smith  04:22
So Billy, we'll talk a little bit later about your contemporary reimagining of 19th century songs. But first, can we trace when music first started to be used in politics? What's the big history of this?

Billy Coleman  04:38
Music and politics comes together pretty much as early as people try to express things in the context of any kind of power relations. Right? If you think about it in political terms, like one of the great political things about music, like one of its political advantages, is that it brings people together. You know, you can argue that it especially, it brings people together before recorded music as possible. But it still does that even after recorded music is, you know, a really normal part of everyday life. But you know, music, during these earlier periods in human history just necessarily only happens, you know, when people get together, right, that's when you hear music, it's, you know, you, it's possible to do it by yourself. But it's something that brings people together. And you know, that's why some of the most popular instruments when you go sort of back 200 years or so, tend to be the kind of instruments that are portable, relatively cheap, relatively portable. So if you're walking around in sort of revolutionary era America, you'll find people with, you know, violins and flutes being you know, some of the most popular instruments because you can whip it out, like whenever a song is ready to be sung, right, or vocal songs will be, you know, incredibly important to at the same time, for for similar reasons.

Adam Smith  06:07
There's something about moments of upheaval that seemed to naturally create musical moments, people seem to find music serving particular purposes at times of great change.

Billy Coleman  06:26
Yes, and that comes from, you know, multiple directions, people use music to create as much change as possible, kind of from from below, because anyone who can sing is able to, you know, get that message out there in a way that they might not be able to do so as effectively without music. But at the same time, music is also used in those examples, to shape the way that that change is going to go by people who have, you know, vested interests in getting that to not necessarily be as radical as you might hope, right. So if you think about the American Revolution, a lot of the drive for change was not necessarily all patriots, so to speak, who want to, you know, fight taxes against Great Britain, a lot of people who want to change in the American Revolutionary era, would have been enslaved people would have been tenant farmers, would have been, you know, free African Americans would have been all sorts of people who have all sorts of issues with the colonial elite, right. And so colonial elites use music to try and you know, unite the country around a more patriotic vision that suits their interests, right, that sort of brings all this sort of drive for change in a way that allows people to make sense of it, in the context of a fight against Britain and freedom, rather than a different version of it. I mean, you can't have extremely popular political song in the American Revolutionary era, or soon after it without having access to other forms of political or economic, or social or cultural power. Right? If you have all those things, then you can have

Adam Smith  08:19
So how does a song become let's I mean, maybe it's easy if we talk about this with a specific example, one example you talk about in your, in your book, perhaps the most famous example of all in the context of American history of a patriotic song, which is the Star Spangled Banner. Here's the story book, idea, Francis Scott Key penned the words to Star Spangled Banner when he saw Fort McHenry The day after a British bombardment during the war of 1812. And and the fort was still there, the flag was still flying, hence stanza. So give us some more context here. What what what do you, how do you think we should really understand the the origins and spread of of that particular song?

Billy Coleman  09:19
Well, I'll preface this just by saying that, you know, my take on this is a kind of political history of that moment that I don't think people had actually tried to tell because that patriotic story is so inviting and does so much cultural work for the American nation both then and now. Right. So there are other ways of telling the story if you wanted to, but a political history of this that I wanted to tell was to just think, okay, so sure, like, this is a extremely patriotic moment for Francis Scott Key. Let's take that is a true thing. Why do you write a song? Right? Right? Why would he write a song rather than something else? And what happens if you centre the fact that this is someone who has a political identity, right? Not who's someone that's just sort of a blank canvas, as someone who is, you know, apt to be really patriotic at a patriotic moment, but someone who is a federalist lawyer, right, who has certain political agendas, and who can, in this context dip into a tradition of other federalist lawyers and other federalist elites who had used music, it's in moments when they wanted to convince or persuade the public to essentially take on their point of view, without having to, you know, feel like it's coercive.

Adam Smith  10:50
And so Federalist in this context, these are the these are the more conservative figures in early American politics, a bit more than about what he was trying to achieve politically.

Billy Coleman  11:06
I mean, what he is trying to achieve politically, is to get people to unite around this war that he feels now as necessary, as a federalist. He didn't begin the war thinking that this was unnecessary war, however, he changes his mind and becomes sort of fervently in support of the war in a way that connects to ostensibly his sort of factional opponents, which would be the Republicans, right, and as against Federalists in the north, who tend to still be against it. So it ends up being this specific situation where he wants to convince people around his own point of view, when his own point of view is becoming more sort of widely accepted amongst who would usually be as opponents. And this is one of the reason why it ends up being successful when you know, Federalists at other times, or other people at other times, might try and do the same thing with music. And it's not necessarily as successful. It's sort of words, because of this specific moment, before too long. It gets taken up in newspapers, where they publish, not just the song, but also a little kind of preamble to the song that explains the circumstances under which it was written, right, which is what gives it a lot of this sort of wide, patriotic applicability, because everyone now knows that it's sort of the witness to this sort of grand American military victory in the context of this war against this great Imperial sort of British foe that they've finally rising up against. And, you know, this sort of can appeal to this broad range of people without it seeming to be political at the time. I mean, he didn't necessarily think of what he was doing as political. But he was at the same time trying to get up something that he called a nonpartisan newspaper that he explicitly said was going to be against the administration. Right. So this is gonna be like a nonpartisan newspaper that is explicitly for one side rather than the other,

Adam Smith  13:16
A dream of a consensus, right, in which politics was in the scrappy partisan sense was, was unnecessary, because everybody was kind of deferring to some general sense of what was in the republic's interest.

Billy Coleman  13:31
Yeah, I mean, like, for a Federalist, in general, for a federalist, like key, you know, the precondition is always unity, right? So you need unity first, then you can have liberty. And so if you have a, you know, an administration that you can perceive as being factional, or against anything, then you know, you need unity.

Adam Smith  13:54
I mean, that's a great way of putting it and so that's where music really comes into its own the vision of Francis Scott Key and people like him will be if you If only you could get as it were, the whole Republic, all of the brackets, white male, probably citizens, you know, circumscribed by race and gender necessarily, but you've got the whole Republic, circumscribed in that way all as it were singing together, literally and metaphorically from the same hymn sheet. Mm hmm. Then you have achieved your vision of unity. And from that, liberty and freedom, Republican freedom can come come.

Billy Coleman  14:28
Yeah. And I mean, it's so appealing because people tend to innately get the sense that like, when you sing music, there is a certain sense of collectivity and stuff, but you're not just sort of physically connecting with people. You're also emotionally connecting with people. And you're sort of connecting a certain to a certain sense of rightness and justice in the world. It's a sense of like, if you listen to music you like you feel like you're competing with people that get you And that's why you go away into your bedroom and listen to like your records rather than your parents when you like, have an argument with them.

Adam Smith  15:08
So, in the case of Francis Scott Key, he was harnessing harmony to use your phrase, the title of your book, for the purposes of papering over partisan division, even while he had his own conservative vision of what a harmonious Republic would look like. But I want to ask you now about the Hutchison family singers who were sensationally popular musical group in the late 1840s, and 50s. Because for them, I guess in contrast to Key right, music was a way of bringing about political change, the kind of change that many people thought was revolutionary. Can you talk about them?

Billy Coleman  15:54
Well, The Hutchinson Family Singers were easily one of the most popular groups, music groups in the United States.  Especially in the 1840s. This was a group that sort of at the height of their popularity could probably command about $1,000 per performance. And I won't be able to work out the historical exchange rate off the top of my head, but it worked out to a significant number, per engagement. And the remarkable thing about it is that they had this popularity at the same time, as they conspicuously outspokenly advocates for reform causes. And it's not just one reformist cause, it's temperance. It is prison reform, almost anything under the sun that you can think of, but especially its abolitionism, and antislavery. And so it is remarkable in some ways that there was this really popular musical group that was singing music that was explicitly abolitionist, right, a kind of a cause during the 1840s that is sort of often just dismissed as being radical, right? And so for a mainstream popular group, to have for a group to have mainstream popularity, whilst sort of clearly trying to, you know, put forward you know, the virtues of a, you know, in some people's view a radical cause is kind of a remarkable little instance,

Adam Smith  17:42 could take your kids and your grandmother to the Hutchinson family singers, you could go with your friends from church, whereas, minstrel shows were rowdy working class men and boys drinking, not a place where the respectable will be so likely to be seen?

Billy Coleman  18:07
That would be the the typical distinction. But the distinction also breaks down right I mean, Get Off the Track, which is the most famous the Hutchison family singers’ most famous antislavery song is based on Old Dan Tucker, which is writing this famous minstrel melodies, which they use in the service of abolition [Billy Coleman's recording of "Get off the Tracks"]. I mean, one thing that's interesting about sort of music and reform is that when it comes to genre, genre is just a little bit slippery during this period. So like someone people like the Hutchinson family singers, they didn't really like minstrel music, but they would still take minstrel melodies, every now and then. There was a sense for a lot of people that the genre of the music was less important than the sort of spirit of the person behind it. And so, in that sense, you could take any kind of music and make it really good so long as there is a certain kind of authenticity behind what's going on. And a lot of would connect that to a sense of religiosity as well, right? If you are sort of in, in incurrence, with, you know, the sort of transcendental sense of you know, God Then, you know, you can take any music and make it really amazing. And that maps on to some of these reform movements to the extent that like, especially abolitionist and antislavery activists will make claims about how, you know, music is the "handmaiden of liberty". And they'll be trying to point out the fact that, you know, there is a bunch of antislavery songs, and there's a bunch of like, abolitionist songs, but you'll never find any pro-slavery songs, because it just doesn't speak to any trueness of the heart. And they claim that you know, all the sort of resources of music’s, you know, positivity and goodness, belong to them because they have a good cause and the moral cause. They're correct to the extent that there aren’t a lot of people like wandering around singing like hand on their heart pro-slavery anthems, even though there are people who do like, obviously, someone like John C. Calhoun, is explicitly saying that pro-slavery is this great idea. So theoretically, they could have songs.

Adam Smith  21:00
And this is excluding minstrelsy which I mean is sometimes interpreted as a mechanism of perpetuating not just white supremacy, but normalising black enslavement.

Billy Coleman  21:14
Exactly, exactly. Right. So they can say, you know, like, abolitionists can sort of try and make the claim that, you know, music is The Handmaiden of liberty, because only we're the only ones that have songs. But the thing is, they're overlooking the fact that, you know, this whole sort of tradition of minstrelsy is subverting that right?

Adam Smith  21:54
I want to know a little bit more about how you, as a historian, access this issue, right? So I can see how you can go about telling your story about someone like Francis Scott Key, or the Hutchinson family singers, but how do you get at what the listeners, the viewers, the participants that these concerts, the people singing the songs in the streets? How on earth can we ever access what they thought and felt?

Billy Coleman  22:22
That is a great question. And it's something that I worried about for a long time when I was writing this book, but thankfully, what happens is that, you know, for people who do write things down during this time period, they almost inevitably write about music. It's kind of remarkable. It's partly because music is a surprising, remarkable thing for them to experience in their day, it's not this kind of background thing, even if it's not like rare. Exactly, if they hear music, it's kind of something that they would consider something that is worth noting down as like a notable part of their day if they're sort of writing a diary entry. So, as a historian, I did quite a lot of going to archives, trying to look at catalogues and just look for anything that was like, here's a diary that talks about social and cultural life, during, you know, the 1830s to the 1840s, or something like that, because no one sort of indexes whether music is sort of part of anything. So I did a lot of going to archives and just hoping that, you know, hopefully, if they're talking about cultural life, maybe they'll talk about music. And thankfully, you know, that was the case in you know, quite a remarkable amount of of instances. Luckily, I happened to find one particular journal that turned out to sort of change a whole lot of my project because this person not only kept a journal for, gosh, between 1847 and about 1831 – and 1931 – but he ended up being an enormous music fan. And he talked about his music engagement regularly, whether it's going to concerts, whether it's playing music at home, whether it's just wanting to go to concerts, whether it's meeting some of his musical heroes, and he does it hand in hand, as someone who is in New England, sort of with Boston as a spiritual home of his becoming ever more of a sort of outspoken abolitionist. And so I was able to use that, that particular journal to trace how his political sort of development went hand in hand with his engagement with music.

Adam Smith  25:27
I'm just, I want to sort of loop this back to your own album, you have recorded this incredible album of 18th, 19th century political songs, some of them election campaign songs, some of them reform songs like those sung by the Hutchinson singers. But you've not recorded them in the style in which they originally must have been performed. You've done them in a in a modern way. What was your thinking? What were you trying to do?

Billy Coleman  26:02
I just, I just wanted this music to make sense to people. A lot of the inspiration came from in the classroom, and teaching and having enough experiences of playing music from this period for students. And it just not really working. Right. That's just it, doesn't

Adam Smith  26:23
They can't access it? It seems too alien?

Billy Coleman  26:27
Yeah, it doesn't make sense. Like why anyone would care about that song? Or think it is popular? Or like, it just doesn't make sense. And this is the case, if, you know, they're being played in the context of people trying to make it sound as it sounded at the time. And, you know, partly, that's because you actually can't do that, especially on a recording, I think,

Adam Smith  26:49
You know, I think without risk, a possible risk of being rude about, you know, eminent people who have recorded 19th century music and tried to do it in the 19th century style, I do wonder whether part of the problem is that there's such a concern with, in quotes, authenticity, that some of the heart is lost. You know, you, you were you were talking earlier about in a way for somebody, like the Hutchinson family singers is it kind of in a way, it doesn't matter where they get their genes from? They just they've got to, they just did it with such heart and such passion. And that's what spoke to people. And I guess one of the things I love about your album is that partly because you're not, you're doing it as you would record, as you would make music now, is that there's a feeling it feels to me to be much more real. It just feels like you kind of mean what you're saying. You really believe in Jefferson and love and Liberty?

Billy Coleman  27:45
Oh, gosh, well, hopefully not all of it. Yes, but no, I mean, that is that is that is totally true. And, you know, I hope that it helps people kind of engage in it in that way and understand a sense of like, how it can help can connect in those ways.

Adam Smith  28:28
So I think what that suggests, then is that barely when this pandemic over is over, and travel is possible, we obviously have to get you over to Oxford to do a proper book launch for this book. And we have to definitely include communal singing, presumably with beer and a guitar. And we can recreate the experience of what it must have been like to sing Get Off the Track, or Jefferson and Liberty.

Billy Coleman  28:57
If we if we sing Get Off the Track, we'll have to have no alcohol.

Adam Smith  29:00
Yes, of course. Have some equivalent. Yes. Cups of tea, temperance brews. Yeah, yeah. Billy, thank you so much. This has been a really interesting conversation for me. And this is such an incredibly rich theme. People who want to know more should read your book, Harnessing Harmony, which has been published by the University of North Carolina Press, and definitely go and check out your book soundtrack, which is available on Spotify. And you can probably search it up on Spotify if you just search for Harnessing Harmony, I guess. And there's a link on the University of North Carolina Press website as well as to the, to the soundtrack that accompanies the book. Billy, thank you very much indeed.

Billy Coleman  29:48
Thanks so much, Adam. Thanks for having me.

Adam Smith  29:52
Billy Coleman, and throughout this podcast, you've heard tracks from the album he's released to accompany his new book. At the beginning, you also heard snatches of songs used in the presidential campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Music is quite simply indispensable to democratic politics. To study it, is to understand politics in a way that few other things allow us to do. You've been listening to the Last Best Hope podcasts from Oxford's rather mere American Institute. I'm Adam Smith. And if you've enjoyed this, please subscribe and like us on iTunes to help others find this. Goodbye.