Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The AIDS Quilt Songbook Project and Its Uncollected Works

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The AIDS Quilt Songbook Project and Its Uncollected Works

Article excerpt

EMINENT LITERARY CRITIC Jane Tompkins states that musical composition can offer "powerful examples of the way culture thinks about itself, articulating and proposing solutions for the problems that shape a particular historical moment."1 The AIDS Quilt Songbook was a musical response to the confusion and shame surrounding the outbreak of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and was one of the first art song publications to deal solely with the topic of HIV and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The output of the artistic community became a catalyst for education and awareness in a time when HIV and AIDS ignorance and embarrassment consumed the nation. Members of the artistic community took the opportunity to express their frustration through passionate artistic endeavors. They seemed to understand their power to reshape the widespread misconceptions about HIV and AIDS through art. This article documents the significance and history of The AIDS Quilt Songbook and traces the progression of the project up until December 1, 2008.

In 1981, the medical and popular press reported the first cases of a quickly spreading plague among homosexual males. Informally, it was first called the "gay plague," and later formally titled GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) and ARC (AIDS-related complex). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention now states that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The CDC changed its definition of HIV and AIDS repeatedly between 1981 and 1996 as knowledge and understanding of the syndrome and virus became widely studied and medical findings became solidified.2

Between June 1981 and May 1982 the CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS and $9 million on Legionnaire's Disease. At that point more than 1,000 of the 2,000 reported AIDS cases resulted in death; there were fewer than 50 deaths from Legionnaire's Disease.3

This drastic lack of funding would continue through 1989, the year President Ronald Reagan left the White House. President Reagan exemplified the nation's confusion and shame, as he did not publicly speak about the epidemic until October of 1987. At that point, 41,027 people had died and 71,176 people had been diagnosed.4 Rock Hudson, famed actor and friend to Reagan, was among the many victims to die of AIDS in 1985. He shocked the nation with his diagnosis and death;5 Actress Morgan Fairchild said his death "gave AIDS a face."6

Keith Ward in his venerated article, "Musical Responses to HIV and AIDS," highlights the "connection between the inherent musical value of AIDS-inspired art and its social intent."7 He states that musical composition is an artistic social response to HIV and AIDS, and he accentuates artistic output as an important catalyst for education and awareness. Groundbreaking projects such as the film, Philadelphia, released in 1993 (winner of two Oscars and twelve nominations in 1994),8 and the musical, Rent, premiered in 1996 (winner of four Tony Awards and fifteen awards internationally), exemplified the artistic communities' outcry for a conclusion to the suffering and death that surrounded them.9


The NAMES project presented the AIDS Memorial Quilt on October 11, 1987 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.10 In 1985, Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist, assisted in the organization of the annual candlelight march in memory of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated in 1978. He asked the marchers to write the names of family and friends who had died of AIDS onto a placard. Jones and the other organizers collected the placards and taped them on to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The concept of the AIDS memorial quilt was born that evening as "the wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt."11

Later that year, Jones and other activists organized the NAMES Project Foundation in order to create a Memorial Quilt for the victims of AIDS. Jones was the first to create a panel for the quilt in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. …

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