Review of Ray Allen and Ellie M. Hisama Eds., Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music

By Nicholls, David | Music Theory Online, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Review of Ray Allen and Ellie M. Hisama Eds., Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music


Nicholls, David, Music Theory Online


[1] I have written elsewhere of Varèse succumbing to the musical variant of Beckett's Syndrome, that scholarly condition whose principal symptom is the disproportionate relationship between the number of words written about a subject and those written by him or her.(1) With the appearance of this volume of essays, it would seem that we have another victim: as a composer, Ruth Crawford produced a relatively small number of works, none of which is for particularly large forces or of extended length; as an anthologist of, and commentator on, folk song, she contributed to around ten published collections. Yet prior to the present publication, Crawford had already been the subject of two musical biographies (by, respectively, Matilda Gaume and Judith Tick, the latter running to over 450 densely packed pages), as well as Joseph N. Straus's The Music of Ruth Crawford Seeger, and numerous other parts of books, book chapters, journal articles, dissertations, and so on.(2)

[2] The above comments are not in any way intended to disparage either Crawford or her work (as I have, since the late 1970s, valued both extremely highly); rather, they are an indication of the dangers inherent in an academic climate that increasingly prioritizes quantity over quality, and research outputs over scholarly insights. With a compositional oeuvre as small, and as heavily based in precompositional planning, as is Crawford's, there is a finite amount that can be written about any particular piece or process. Thus, while in Ruth Crawford Seeger's Worlds there are worthy chapters contributed by Straus, Lyn Ellen Burkett, and Ellie M. Hisama on various aspects of Crawford's music, those who have studied the scores are unlikely to find much (if anything) here that is new, beyond the jargoning of an obvious point, or the diagraming of a simple process: at some stage it has surely to be acknowledged that the identification of a 6-Z43 [012568] is of somewhat limited interest. Contrarily, readers who are relatively unfamiliar with Crawford's music will inevitably need to return to earlier, more comprehensive, commentaries in order to discover (and hopefully marvel at) the broader picture.

[3] Rather more useful-even to old lags like me-are several of the chapters that follow, which variously consider such topics as Crawford's 1938 appearance at the Composers' Forum (Melissa J. de Graaf); the (dis)similarities between Crawford's The Music of American Folk Song and Charles Seeger's Tradition and Experiment in the New Music, both of which only appeared posthumously (Taylor A. Greer); Crawford's considerable achievements as an educator (Roberta Lamb); and the links between Crawford, Seeger, and Benjamin A. Botkin (Jerrold Hirsch). Despite the exploration of some of these territories in Judith Tick's book, there is a good deal here that expands our knowledge and helps to fill out the picture of the "whole Crawford." And although I feel less convinced by their presence here-would Charles Seeger's achievements ever be measured through, or against, those of his children, I wonder?-there are in addition well researched and often illuminating chapters titled "Performing Dio's Legacy: Mike Seeger and the Urban Folk Music Revival" (Ray Allen) and "Peggy Seeger: From Traditional Folksinger to Contemporary Songwriter" (Lydia Hamessley).

[4] More problematic, at least to my mind, are the two remaining chapters (if we discount Bess Lomax Hawes's tantalizingly brief "Reminiscences on Our Singing Country"). On the one hand, both Judith Tick ("Writing the Music of Ruth Crawford into Mainstream Music History") and Nancy Yunhwa Rao ("Ruth Crawford's Imprint on Contemporary Composition") carry out important work in demonstrating the degree to which Crawford's achievements sit in the broader frame of twentieth-century music and its interpretation. …

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