American culture is defined by storytelling and the music that dominates our radios, fills our Spotify playlists — ultimately bringing us together, tells a long story rooted in diversity and is culturally blending. On Sept. 20, the American Music Listening Sessions premiered in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts to both Fairfield students and the surrounding community.
Hosted by music professor Brian Torff, the listening session revolved around a list of 25 important songs that define the American experience. The songs were selected by Torff and they represent a diverse mix of musicians ranging from 1895 to 1968.
The event began with a brief reception with wine and other various snacks, until everyone took their seats and Torff made his entrance. In front of the rows of seats there was a small stage equipped with a chair, microphone and a laptop with a playlist aiming to encapsulate American music. Torff walked out and gave a brief introduction regarding his inspiration for the event.
According to Torff, the idea came to him after a visit to a tiny town in Virginia, where he noticed a little theater hosting an Elvis Presley tribute. He was struck by the realization that even after 60 years, people can still relate to Elvis.
“I thought, would it be interesting to frame something in terms of what is American music? Who are we in our music? And why do we create it … that’s how the whole series got started,” said Torff.
The playlist began in 1895 with musician Ernest Hogan, whose song “All Coons Look the Same to Me” provided the audience with an uncomfortable look into the realities of the Jim Crow era. According to Torff, Hogan was actually a black songwriter, even though it contains blatantly racist material. The song was also written at the precipice of more modern recording techniques.
After the first track came a series of songs by more notable black musicians like the early 1900s piano player, Scott Joplin, and the Empress of Blues herself, Bessie Smith. After listening to the first few tracks on the playlist, the theme of the event became clear.
The American music tradition is rooted in black culture, and for decades, black musicians would suffer either anonymity or scrutiny after introducing different styles and genres to the American public. However, after a considerable passage of time, these controversial styles would be considered instrumental in the development of American music.
Torff gave in-depth analysis with each track, providing the context of the song’s creation as well as insight into the effect the songwriter would have on American music.
Another theme that permeated the playlist was the idea that American musicians write songs that reflect their reality. Whether it be from Robert Johnson, a tragic black guitar player trapped in the terrifying racism of the south, or a young Woody Guthrie telling tales of societal problems, American music remains relevant.
By the middle of playlist, the songs were delving into jazz and the earliest forms of rock ‘n’ roll, which came from a perfect blend of blues, country and even gospel. The concept of different styles ultimately blending together in order to create an entirely new genre is something that was also a staple of American music over the years.
“The great thing about American music is that for whatever genre is popular at the time, there is always a fringe,” said Torff.
According to Torff, for every popular genre that tops the charts, there is always another style of music gaining traction in the minority. Whether it be in the time of disco and punk, or folk music and jazz, the tug-of-war between the fringe and mainstream has allowed for the continuous evolution of American music over the years.
By the end of the playlist, the songs had arrived in the Swinging Sixties with household names like The Beatles and Elvis taking the spotlight. The end of the playlist reflected a sense of progression in American society, as the final song was a James Brown track titled, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Such a title showcases the important role music has had in American society and it also provided a sobering realization with the thought that such music is still relevant — maybe even needed — today.
A never-ending story, the development of American music has played an integral role in defining the American experience. Following Torff’s guidance, the American Music Listening Sessions were an insightful look into the progression of American music, which simultaneously exemplified the cultural mixing that breeds unique and iconic elements of pop culture.