Friday, January 27, 2012

Simple Gifts

“Simple Gifts” is a dance song emanating from the religious Shaker community of Maine in the early 1800s. The first Shaker songs were composed by church leaders circa 1781 when Mother Ann Lee, her brother Father William Lee, and Father James Whittaker emigrated from England to the United States. The Shakers practiced an unusual and highly rhythmic - sometimes even ecstatic - type of dancing during their worshipping. They would often clap their hands, sing, tremble and shake their bodies, ultimately falling to the floor in exhaustion. Sometimes, men and women would form concentric rings surrounding the singers during these rituals.

Although there is no known document that states this, it is believed by some Shaker historians that an elder named Joseph Brackett composed both the melody and the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” in 1848. Generations of oral history passed down through the Shaker community substantiates that the song originated with Brackett and was taught by him to others.

Brackett was born in Cumberland, Maine in 1797 and changed his birth name (Elisha) to Joseph when his entire family converted to Shakerism. He joined the Shaker community in Gorham, Maine, and then became First Minister at the Shaker Community of New Gloucester. Like many Shaker elders, Brackett was not trained formally in music but developed his musical talents through writing music for church rituals.

The thousands of songs and hymns composed by Shaker elders have been perpetuated almost exclusively by oral sharing among Shaker villagers. It is possible that “Simple Gifts,” like other Shaker songs, was performed in public squares as Shakers often recruited new members by singing and dancing to attract attention to their religious beliefs. Recruiting new members from “outside the fold” was paramount because the Shakers practiced strict celibacy and therefore could not replenish their membership without doing so.

“Simple Gifts” (also known as “Tis a Gift to be Simple”) was originally described as a “quick dance.” Its lyrics have an inviting and universal message:

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

It is believed that the singers performed descriptive dance steps as they sang about “turning round right.”

This song could have remained relatively obscure were it not for a collaboration between American composer Aaron Copland and American choreographer Martha Graham. In a visit to a summer music festival in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, Copland acquired, at Graham’s urging, a book about the Shakers. This book, written by Edward Deming Andrews, contained Shaker songs and among them was “Tis a Gift to be Simple.” Graham, who wanted the new ballet on which she was working to reflect the heritage of her own New England pioneering ancestors, hoped that Copland would find some authentic rural or rustic materials to use as the basis and inspiration for the music she had commissioned him to compose for her project.

The result of this collaboration was the ballet, “Appalachian Spring,” which toured throughout the United States in 1944 and quickly won the hearts of Americans. Even during those first performances, the Shaker theme stood out to audiences and became a tune they could “take away” from the performance. The distinguished symphonist Aaron Copland, unlike his contemporary George Gershwin, was not known for his ability to write especially fine original melodies. He had more success orchestrating traditional folk music, often using note-for-note renditions of already established melodies. Copland’s genius included his ability to recognize great melodies wherever and whenever he heard them. In “Simple Gifts” he recognized and championed a theme that went on to become known as one of the  greatest melodies in American history and without his treatment and scoring, we would probably have never known it. Copland’s powerful orchestration of the ballet music he wrote for Martha Graham (originally scored for 13 instruments) became one of the greatest symphonic concert pieces in American music – “Appalachian Spring.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Grey Eagle

“Grey Eagle” (“Old Gray Eagle”) is a title given to several different fiddle tunes in several different keys. Some of them are musically connected to each other and some not at all. The version of “Grey Eagle” in the key of A-major that eventually became the Texas fiddle classic in the last half of the 20th century is the version featured in the Method.

A tune called “Grey Eagle” is documented as having been the most loved fiddle tune of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. A violinist from childhood and a composer of string quartets and other music, Jefferson enjoyed playing both the music of Mozart and American fiddle tunes. He even found time during his presidency to play music in the White House.

In 1839, a dozen years after Jefferson died, one of America’s most infamous horse races took place pitting Kentucky’s Gray Eagle against Louisiana’s Wagner. The Kentucky horse lost by a neck and an unprecedented 10,000 spectators demanded the race to be run again the following week. This historic rivalry is thought to have inspired fiddle tunes named “Gray Eagle” and “Wagner” or “Tennessee Wagner.”

The multi-part A-major version of “Grey Eagle” from Texas was developed from a much older two-part A-major tune. In 1927, Dennis W. Taylor’s Kentucky Boys featuring Jim Booker (who also carried his own old-time string band called the Booker Orchestra, and was one of the few African American blues fiddlers allowed to play hoedowns on commercial recordings) chose the two-part A-major tune for the Gennett label and called it “Gray Eagle.” This is one of the earliest recordings of the original A-major tune. North Georgia fiddler Robert Allen Sisson recorded a C-major tune also called “Gray Eagle” a few years earlier in 1921. Cyril Stinnett, a national champion fiddler from Missouri, also recorded the C-major tune a bit later. Both of these versions are vastly different from the A-major tune. History notes that Bob Taylor played “Grey Eagle” while stumping on the campaign trail when he ran for Governor of Tennessee in the late 1800s. It would be difficult to ascertain what version he played.

In the modern era, the great Texas fiddlers began developing the modern “Grey Eagle.” Through the variations created by the dean of the Texas fiddlers Benny Thomasson, what was once a fairly simple two-part tune became one of America’s more complicated masterpieces of folk fiddling. (Only a few of the parts to "Grey Eagle" are printed in Book III, the other parts are included in a later book). It was singled out, becoming one of the standards played by the best fiddlers in contests in every region of the country. The Texas A-major version even circled back to the bluegrass regions of the Southeast when Kentucky’s greatest modern-era fiddler Kenny Baker and mandolinist/songwriter/singer Bill Monroe chose to perform the “Texas” version rather than any of their own local versions of the tune.

As the multi-part version of “Grey Eagle” from the West became well-known, another legend arose for explaining its origin. Many fiddlers told a story about a bobcat sunning himself on top of a tin roof shed at a sheep farm only to have an eagle mistake him for a defenseless lamb. What ensued, and was witnessed by amazed onlookers, was a sensational mid-air fight between the two creatures until the “grey eagle” got the best of it and defeated the bobcat. The extra parts of the “Grey Eagle” version from Texas could have been inspired by this tale.

According to music historian Charles Wolfe and noted songwriter/banjoist/fiddler John Hartford, the most likely inspiration for the original “Grey Eagle” fiddle tune performed by most of the southeastern old-time fiddlers was the legendary Kentucky horse race in 1839. The race took place on the outskirts of Louisville and was an event of major proportions, drawing spectators from New York to New Orleans. Kentucky race fans were betting on their own Gray Eagle, a beautiful gray with a flowing mane, sixteen hands high with the “step of a gazelle.” Gray Eagle was ridden by jockey Stephen Welch, and Wagner, the rival stallion from Louisiana, was ridden by an African American jockey named Cato - a slave. The race took place about 20 years before the Civil War began. When Wagner won the race, it became one of the greatest upsets in horse racing history. The jockey Cato won his freedom that day, his owner claiming the staggering $20,000 purse. The race gained notoriety because more money, horses and slaves had been wagered and lost in that race than in any other race in the country. Kentucky fans of Gray Eagle demanded a rematch, believing their horse was still superior. A rematch was organized five days later, drawing even more spectators and creating more interest. A two-horse race this time, and Wagner proved to be the best horse again in the first two heats. On the final heat, the two horses collided near the finish, injuring one of Gray Eagle’s hind legs and ending his racing career.

The question still remains concerning just how old this fiddle tune really is - whether the same tune was in fact the one reported as Jefferson’s favorite tune long before the Kentucky race took place. A Scottish tune named “Miller of Drone,” thought to have been written by legendary fiddle tune composer Neil Gow who lived in Scotland during Jefferson’s life in America, could also play a part in this mystery. Even though Gow’s tune is a different kind of dance - a strathspey - there are similarities in the construction of its melody with the original two-part tune of “Grey Eagle” in A-major.

Modern-era Texas fiddlers completely ignored the other versions of “Grey Eagle” including the fairly popular C-major version played throughout the Southeast. Texans preferred instead the “other horse” in the key of C-major and embraced the tune “Wagner,” which became also known as “Texas Wagner.”

An interesting and highly ironic sidenote to the racehorse thread of this story is that one of the Civil War’s most recognized horses, defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Traveler, was sired by the Kentucky racehorse Gray Eagle.

The mysteries of a fiddle tune named “Grey Eagle” in American history serve to make the old tune a thing of legend. In the modern era, the westerners’ re-workings of the tune, adding to the original and developing its two parts into a larger and more complex form, is a fitting journey for the great fiddle tune named for a horse.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method


Although “Daphne” was written by a Belgian gypsy musician, it found itself in the center of an amazing transcontinental multi-cultural musical cross-pollination involving its author Django Reinhardt, the legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli and African American jazz violinist par excellence Eddie South. The amazing confluence of genius inspired by this tune resulted in its becoming a pillar of American-style jazz violin.

Django Reinhardt, born in 1910, spent most of his youth in Romani (Gypsy) encampments close to Paris. His first instrument was the violin. He later transferred his music-making to banjo, then to banjo-guitar and finally to guitar developing a technique and style for which he became world famous. Reinhardt was influenced by American music very early in his life as evidenced by his first recordings on banjo in 1928.

In 1934, while freelancing in Paris with a tango group, Reinhardt met violinist Stephane Grappelli who was doubling on saxophone at the time. As a result of their historic meeting, these two musicians began to imitate the recordings of the amazing jazz violin and guitar duets being made in America by Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. In short order, they formed an all-string ensemble called “Quintette du Hot Club de France” and quickly took their place among the greatest string jazz musicians in the world.

During the 1930s in Paris, the French recording label “Swing Records” was hosting recording sessions at the Hot Club of France and inviting American jazz musicians to perform and record together with their own French jazz players. They were hoping to stimulate further interest in jazz among the French. In one particular session, jazz violinist Eddie South (who was just a couple of years older than Grappelli) recorded several tracks with the already famous French duo, including Reinhardt’s jam tune “Daphne.” The result of this session made jazz history.

Eddie South, born in 1904, was a classical violin prodigy and received formal training at the Chicago Music College. Unfortunately, like many other African American violinists in the '20s and '30s, he was forced to abandon classical violin as a career because of the lack of opportunities in the classical music industry for players of his ethnicity. However, unlike many who found themselves in similar circumstances, South did not switch to guitar or another instrument but began to develop jazz violin playing.

After beginning his career performing in vaudeville and jazz orchestras in Chicago, South started his own group called “The Alabamians.” On tour to Europe with this group in 1928, he was influenced by Hungarian folk music and the music of the Romani. Gypsy melodies he heard in Budapest were particularly attractive to South and naturally became woven into his jazz improvisations. The Alabamians did record a couple of tracks on their initial visit to Paris, however it was on their return visit in 1937 that South recorded with the new jazz sensations of Europe – Django Reinhardt and the equally dazzling-swinging-technical master-of-the-violin, and therefore kindred spirit, Stephane Grappelli.

The orphan Frenchman Grappelli was enamored with American jazz. The prodigy South was fascinated by the sound of gypsy violin music. Their musical collaborations together with Django Reinhardt’s authentic gypsy-style guitar playing combined for a history-making, cross-pollinated, interracial-transcontinental musical stew. The importance of their recording of “Daphne” inspired the inclusion of this tune in the Method and their actual playing of it inspired the “hot” solo. Eddie South’s hot jazz violin solos earned him the sobriquet “The Black Angel of the Violin.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

Old Folks at Home

Stephen Foster, the composer of “Old Folks at Home,” was America’s first songwriting professional. This song was written in 1851 and is also well known by its first line, “Way down upon the Swanee River.” “Old Folks at Home,” like many of Foster’s successful songs of the same period, raised political consciousness through endearing melodies and sympathetic lyrics depicting African American slaves as having “real lives” and “real feelings.” “Old Folks” went further than any song before to “humanize” southern slaves in the minds of northern audiences who were attending minstrel shows principally in the Bowery District of New York City beginning in the 1830s.

Some aspects of the minstrelsy, including many of the lyrics, skits, humor and appearances, were racist and degrading to many groups of people and especially to African Americans. However, the instrumental music was not degrading, often drawing dedicated musicians to the troupes having learned the craft of southern music-making. One can also recognize Foster’s subtler and perhaps even subversive use of these theatrical musical shows to introduce aspects of African American music. Northerners fought in the Civil War to free the slaves in the South just ten years after Foster’s songs about African American families and their lives in the South became hugely popular in the North – songs like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) was born and raised in Pittsburgh and performed in amateur minstrelsy himself. The minstrel shows originally developed out of the “Ethiopian Delineators” of the 1820s and the burlesques and entr’actes in the 1830s. In 1842, songwriter Daniel Decatur Emmett produced programs in New York City that included singing and dancing in “blackface” with featured instruments known to be favorites of African American musicians: fiddles, banjos, bones, castanets and tambourines. Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels opened in a New York City theatre in 1843. Stephen Foster met Edwin Christy in 1847 and he began to write songs for the Christy Minstrels’ shows incorporating skits and songs performed in an imitation of “plantation dialect.” The shows typically began with a “walkaround” and a “cakewalk.” The white audiences of the northern states loved the cakewalks, probably not fully realizing that they depicted how plantation slaves would mock their masters’ stiff and pretentious formal dancing and “fancy airs.”

The minstrel show genre was clearly “racy” entertainment, but for Foster, it alternately acted as a forum to introduce African American culture - and especially its music - in a non-threatening way being surrounded by tasteless and degrading humor. Foster’s “Oh Susanna” was one of his earliest successes during this time. This song followed the same pattern of the Virginia Minstrels’ songs having a dance tune melody with African American syncopated rhythms accompanied by non-narrative, irrational lyrics: “The sun so hot, I froze to death, Susanna don’t you cry.” Through the prism of exaggerated and racist dialects and antics, the northern white audiences were subtly swept into this new syncopated and jazzy music they would have otherwise ignored.

After realizing he had access to the biggest stage in the country for his songs, and an upper-class white audience that seemed to embrace whatever he offered them, Foster began to write music that contained deeper subject matter, musically elevating African American slaves to equality as human beings with emotions common to all - love for family, pride in hard work, sorrow from hard luck and indignity at injustice. Foster’s conscience began to elevate to a broader social agenda. The success of the songs was crucial for any political movement contained within them, but the “agenda” was cleverly disguised in order to ensure the success of the music itself. Foster’s musical gift for creating melody was his greatest weapon to change hearts, and his tunes got his audiences singing and whistling, thereby easily recalling Foster’s subjects in a sympathetic light.

With “Old Folks at Home,” Foster saved perhaps his most deeply moving melody to match his great message. The music itself was ahead of its time. Its harmonic movement through “jazz” chords many years before there was “jazz music” per se foreshadows every jazz musical harmony to come for the next 100 years. With complex underpinning harmony propelling nearly every beat, the melody itself remained at once breathtakingly sophisticated and immediately accessible. In creating the lyrics to this tune, Foster leaves the “irrational racist lyric” style of the common minstrel show behind. The lyrics are both specific and universal, painting a vivid picture of life in the South and evoking the universal human emotion of yearning for home – a home of one’s own.

Exactly 30 years after Foster’s death, Antonín Dvorˇ ák came to America to head up the American Music School in New York City. With a keen ear for the musical culture of his new home, the great composer of the New World Symphony sought to guide Americans toward a musical heritage of their own. Dvorˇ ák, one of the greatest composers of his time, perhaps had the perspective to rise above all of the racial politics that plagued most Americans in post Civil War era. He described the African American “plantation songs” of the minstrel shows as the “beauties that surround us” and as material fitting for the basis of a great American classical music. He singled out “Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster and, in fact, transcribed and composed an arrangement of it premiering it, while he lived in New York City in the 1890s. He sought to elevate the music of Foster to a level worthy of serious attention by his academic colleagues at the universities he visited.

Stephen Foster died at the tragically young age of 37 in New York City on January 13, 1864, one year before the conclusion of the Civil War. He did not live to see freedom for the African American slaves - the very people to whom he had given a heart and a voice in his songs. He is said to have died penniless, but he had kept writing songs, though, through good times and bad. Today he is not only remembered as America’s first professional songwriter, but as one of the greatest ever.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method. Click here to listen to "Old Folks at Home".

We Shall Overcome

“We Shall Overcome” is a gospel hymn based on lyrics from African Methodist Episcopal Church minister Charles Albert Tindley, a composer of numerous gospel hymns in the early 1900s. In 1901, “I’ll Overcome Someday” appeared in print and was published in Philadelphia by Tindley. This hymn could have been influenced by “I’ll be All Right,” a southern spiritual pre-dating emancipation. The lyrics to Tindley’s hymn were subsequently embellished and the hymn as a whole grew to include more verses with additions by gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris (c. 1945). Twigg and Morris most likely used the melody of “I’ll Be All Right” as well.

The melody known today as “We Shall Overcome” could also have been arranged by Twigg and Morris. The first two melodic phrases of the song borrow from the older African American spiritual, “No More Auction Block for Me,” published in 1867 in a collection of “negro” spirituals. However, those same phrases are similar to the opening of the Latin hymn “O Sanctissima,” a traditional Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn that became popular in Baptist and Methodist churches in the South. Interestingly, the entire first half and final phrase of the melody now known as “We Shall Overcome” are nearly identical to parts of the German Christmas carol “O du Frohliche, O du Selige.” The German carol was first recorded on a cylinder recording in the Berlin Edison Studios in 1906 as performed by the Nebe-Quartett. The origin of the second half of the “We Shall Overcome” melody can only be speculated upon. It could very well be original to the gospel arrangers Atron Twigg and Kenneth Morris or, equally likely, traced to a group of white folk singers in Tennessee.

“We Shall Overcome” has become one of the most well known songs in America largely because of what happened at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a school that trained union organizers. Zilphia Horton, the school’s music director from 1935 to 1956, published a book of songs entitled “People’s Songs.” This book included a hymn titled “We Will Overcome.” Horton had first heard the song in 1945 from Lucille Simmons who led a mostly African American female workforce on a strike against the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina. Simmons ended each day of picketing during a 5-month strike with the song “We Will Overcome” changing Tindley’s “I” to “We.” Other lyrics were improvised over the melody during the strike producing phrases such as “We will organize,” “We will win our rights,” and “We will win this fight” and demonstrating the great versatility of the song.

Friend of the Highlander School, director of People’s Songs Publications and soon-to-be-famous folk musician Pete Seeger adapted and added words to this song – most notably changing “will” to “shall.” When Guy Carawan replaced Horton as song leader at Highlander, the school had become a national focus of student non-violent activism. The striking workers song that Horton had originally heard in Charleston in 1945 quickly became the Civil Rights Movement’s unofficial anthem with Carawan working to teach and promote the song wherever he could. Carawan’s friend Frank Hamilton of the folk group “The Weavers” learned the famous melody and lyrics from Seeger.

The Highlander School in Tennessee brought blacks and whites together as Civil Rights workers to share experiences and to learn from one another at a time when southern laws kept blacks and whites segregated. In July of 1955, Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School. On December 1st of that year, her arrest sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott that was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote: “Music supplied the cohesiveness to the masses of people of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Rosa Parks remarked in her 1973 honorary doctorate acceptance speech that Highlander was the first place where she had been in the company of whites who treated her as an equal human being.

On September 2, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the featured speech at the Highlander Folk School’s 25th anniversary celebration. Pete Seeger performed at that same event as Dr. King listened and joined with the Highlander students and faculty in singing the now-famous “We Shall Overcome.”

Later that day, Dr. King found himself humming the tune while riding in a car and commented to one of his companions, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.” Obviously, thousands of others agreed. Seeger himself and other famous folksingers sang this song countless times at Civil Rights rallies and folk festivals helping to bring attention to the work of Dr. King. Joan Baez led a crowd of over 300,000 people singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon on March 31st, 1968, just a few days before he was slain. The text of this oration includes references to the “haunting” song he had first heard from Pete Seeger and the Highlanders a decade before and which had become such a hallmark of his work:

And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent explosions are, I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—“No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—“Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.

The Entertainer

“The Entertainer” is a classic piano “rag” written in 1902 by African American composer Scott Joplin. Ragtime music, much like the hoedown that preceded it, is a unique blend of European styles and African American harmonies and rhythms. Joplin - The King of Ragtime - developed his “rags” while working in minstrel shows, vaudeville and dance halls in Texarkana, Sedalia and St. Louis where he lived, worked and honed his craft. He spent his final years in New York City attempting to have his music accepted by the classical music establishment.

Ragtime music developed among the slave fiddlers on the southern plantations in the mid-1800s. This new “ragged time” syncopated rhythm first manifested itself as a satirical musical expression mocking the “straight-laced” European music styles that were characterized by a heavy emphasis on down beats. The “swung” notes of the syncopated rhythm are the “and” beats of the count or the “up-bows” in the case of fiddle playing. The up-bows can be used as a means of expression when “swinging” the rhythm and the degree of how syncopated the music becomes - or how “hard” it swings - is determined by each individual player’s creativity and sense of self expression.

Within the rhythmic structure of a swung phrase, a slave musician could manifest his concept of relationships between whites and blacks. The downbeats can be seen as representing white culture – heavy, conservative, parochial, staid and relentlessly present – whereas the upbeats represent freedom, individual expression and an improvisatory spirit with a healthy dose of sass and satire directed at Europeanism and the resulting oppression. Hence, yet another style of music that could have happened only in  America was born.

This new expressive up beat - or “up bow” - eventually led to the creation of the basic rhythmic nature of jazz, rock & roll and hip-hop music. The subtle mocking of the white masters went largely undetected at the time and the white musicians and audiences were not at all offended by this new musical style. Quite the contrary, white listeners were very attracted to the new rhythmic quality of this music. White plantation owners even started a new tradition - a friendly competition called a “Cakewalk” - that featured dancing to this new syncopated music. Freshly baked cakes from the masters’ houses were awarded to slave dancers and slave musicians in lighthearted competitions usually taking place after church on Sundays. The “blackface” minstrel troupes in New York City quickly adapted the Cakewalk into their shows and, once again, unsuspecting white audiences did not fully realize that they were witnessing very cleverly disguised satire - slaves mocking the European music and dance styles of their white owners. The Cakewalk became a favorite part of minstrelsy and ragtime music itself rapidly grew in popularity, becoming beloved by all Americans, regardless of ethnicity. Scott Joplin was born in Texas in 1868. His father, who had been a slave, played the violin and his mother played the banjo. Young Joplin’s first instrument was the banjo and he later learned to play the violin and cornet as well as the piano. After the Joplin family moved from their family farm to Texarkana, young Scott began music lessons with a German-born teacher who instilled in him a love for opera and classical music. This early influence had a major effect on the direction of Joplin’s future compositions.

In his early 20s, Joplin joined a minstrel troupe in Texarkana. Within a few years he made his home in Sedalia, Missouri. A town notorious for vices and brothels, Sedalia also had social clubs for African American men in which Joplin could work as a pianist when not touring with his band. One of those clubs was The Maple Leaf, a name immortalized in Joplin’s first hit ragtime composition. “Maple Leaf Rag,” written in 1898, sold a million copies of sheet music during his lifetime. The next stop for Joplin was St. Louis where he spent the bulk of his time pursuing his aspirations to become a recognized classical music composer. During this time, Joplin removed much of the “swing” from his compositions, even indicating specifically in his scores to “not swing” the notes. Most of his music at this point was composed for John Stark’s publishing firm, The House of Classic Rags. Over the next several years, Stark published many Joplin rags including 1902’s masterpiece, “The Entertainer.”

After writing an opera about African American leader Booker T. Washington’s dinner at President Roosevelt’s White House in 1901 (a work that was never staged and was ultimately lost), Joplin headed to New York City to find financial backing for his new opera "Treemonisha." This work had been inspired largely by Joplin’s mother and the lifestyle they had experienced together in Texarkana. Several attempts to stage the opera in New York failed and, at the same time, interest in ragtime music in general was giving way to the rising popularity of early jazz. The classical approach of Joplin’s work did not find an audience. At the time of his death in 1917, Scott Joplin was almost forgotten as a composer - the one exception being the continued popularity of his first ragtime piece “Maple Leaf Rag.”

In the 1940s, a ragtime revival led by jazz musicians eventually made inroads into the classical music world, a world that had eluded Joplin during his lifetime. Classical labels released recordings of classical musicians performing ragtime music resulting in extraordinarily successful sales. Joplin’s opera was successfully staged, finally  reaching Broadway. This renewed interest in his music presented a great opportunity for the spread of Joplin’s fame. George Roy Hill, the director of the hit movie The Sting (starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford), decided to use Joplin’s music throughout the film. Consequently, Joplin’s “The Entertainer” was introduced to the mass public 70 years after it was composed and became much more well-known than it had been even during the height of ragtime popularity many decades before. Posthumously, Scott Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for "Treemonisha", the first successful opera composed by an African American.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method

Jessie Polka

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was the historical backdrop for the composition and rising popularity of “Jessie Polka.” In 1911, the regime of Mexico’s president Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by Don Francisco I. Madero. A wealthy man with a big heart and a University of California education, Madero opposed the dictatorship because of Díaz’s harsh treatment of three-fifths of the country’s people who were poor and mostly native. Madero aligned himself with the notorious Mexican bandit, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who was inspired by Madero’s political stance and writings. Together they formed a rebel army in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua on the U.S. border.

Villa was victorious against Díaz’s troops, forcing the dictator to exile to France. The rebels in Chihuahua successfully defended attacks by Bernardo Reyes, a former general under Díaz, and Pascual Orozco, a former ally of Villa’s. With these sensational victories and with the backing of the Mexican population wishing for a revolution led by their new war hero, Pancho Villa’s reputation grew quickly into legend. Villa’s criminal past as a warlord, murderer, bank robber and just about any other disreputable occupation you could think of, was overlooked by some (and probably thought to enhance his stature by others) as he emerged as a successful Mexican Revolutionary General and eventually as a folk hero. Adding to Pancho’s colorful reputation was his notoriety for romantic conquests - legend has it that he had no less than 26 wives!

In 1916, about the mid-point of the revolution, Mexican composer Quirino Mendoza y Cortez wrote “Jesusita en Chihuahua.” Cortez was already a well-known composer having penned the classic Cielito Lindo several years earlier. The muse for his new “polka” was most likely a beautiful woman who fought alongside the revolutionary soldiers – a “soldadera” - and tended to their needs and treated their wounds. This “Jesusita” was also said to be a romantic, known to roam and even referred to as a “man eater.” She was quite possibly a woman who gave Pancho Villa all that he could handle! Even though stories of this sort are often exaggerated, it is clear that Jesusita was a real woman, involved with the Mexican revolution and worthy as a muse for Cortez’s music.

“Jesusita en Chihuahua” - also known as “Chihuahua Polka” - quickly became a favorite in Chihuahua and, indeed, throughout Mexico. Because the United States government backed the Mexican Revolution by sending arms to supply Villa’s army and also because the revolution lasted into the 1920s, it is not surprising that this music became known and loved across the border into Texas as well. Texan Cliff Bruner learned this tune as a child from Mexican farm laborers in the Beaumont area of Texas. At the age of 12, Bruner took up the fiddle after deciding that he no longer wanted to pick cotton. His big break came in 1935, when, at age 20, he was asked to join the Musical Brownies led by Texas great Milton Brown. After Brown died the following year in a tragic car accident, Bruner assembled his own band - The Texas Wanderers – and became one of the pioneers of western swing.

Bruner changed the name of “Jesusita en Chihuahua” he had loved hearing in the cotton fields of his boyhood. The tune, under its English translation “Jessie Polka,” was recorded in 1938 and became a sensation with Texas audiences. Bruner and his Texas Wanderers had moved to Port Arthur and their radio programs were quickly picked up and aired throughout southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Concurrently, the band worked dance halls, playing the hottest western swing music anyone had ever heard or could even imagine. One of Bruner’s 78rpm hits for Decca Records featured “Jessie Polka,” which had become his radio theme song. A distinguishing characteristic of the original Mexican version used for the recording is that some of the melody on the first part of the tune was played “pizzicato” – plucking the strings rather than bowing them.

Some years later, Dolph Hofner, a Czech-German who grew up listening to Hawaiian music, was inspired by the western swing dance band craze which was sweeping the southwest U.S. Hired by a chain of dance halls in Los Angeles, Dolph Hofner and His San Antonians began to play the Los Angeles circuit, establishing “Jessie Polka” as a big hit for his band. Under yet another name “Cactus Polka” - famous accordion players Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren recorded this tune several years later.

“Jessie Polka” - also spelled “Jesse Polka” - became a favorite among Texas style fiddlers and was often played as a “tune of choice” in fiddle contests all over the West. The once popular pizzicato in the first part of the tune was dropped by many fiddlers because plucking the strings was against the rules in fiddle competitions during the last half of the 20th century.

Occasionally, “Jesusita en Chihuahua” will be heard on an amusement park’s merrygo- round. However, this Mexican polka undoubtedly owes most of its great legacy to the Texas and western fiddlers of the U. S. who consider it one of the best polkas ever written and love to play it still.

From Book III of the O'Connor Method.