Sunday, July 02, 2006

"Classical" American Music

Charles Ives, America's First Master? Part I
Thanks to the prodding of The Daily Growler house pianist I have obsessed lately with the music of Charles Ives, a little bright white boy born in Danbury, Connecticut, on October 20, 1874. He was blessed with a strangely marvelous father, a cornet player who loved bands and when he was 17 put together the best damn band in the Union Army during the Civil War for the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery. When Charles Edward Ives was born, George was the Danbury town band leader, directed the town choir and church choirs and singing, including the yearly campground get-togethers at Redding, Connecticut, led a choral society in Brewster, New York, and had a brace of music students in Danbury.

When George Edward Ives was 16 and working in New York City learning to be a hatter and living in the Bronx, he missed his train in Manhattan one night and had to walk home to the Bronx. That walk, later and deeper into that night, led him by a Harlem bar. As he passed the bar, he just happened to spot a human object laying dead-drunk in the gutter in front of the bar. It was a man in bad shape, disheveled, dirty, cursed, babbling, and drooling--and young George recognized the man. It was one of his heroes; it was Steve Foster the famous songwriter. And that's exactly who George had happened upon, Stephen Foster, by then a stone alcoholic. George had some bystanders help him carry Foster into a nearby house where he was attended to. George said everyone was curious as to what Foster was doing so far up-uptown he was from his own digs way downtown on the Bowery.

Foster died in Bellevue Hospital, which you can easily see from the roof of my apartment building, 3 years later; he was penniless by then, a solid alcoholic, and only 37 years old. George Edward Ives by that time was a Union Army bandmaster.

George Ives and his First Connecticut Heavy Artillery Band played for U.S. Grant and President Abe Lincoln in Richmond after the capture of that city by the Union Army. Grant is said to have said to Lincoln, "It's the best band in the Army, they tell me. But I couldn't say. I only know two tunes. One of them's Yankee Doodle and the other isn't."

In June of 1865, George Ives wrote his mother from Drury Bluff below Richmond where his band was quartered: "I've got a little Darkie working for me 'as is a Dark.' I'd like to bring him home with me if you could use him. He's a good worker and honest..."

Charles Ives wrote in 1932, "Father taught this boy how to write (both English and music), brought him home with him [in 1865]. Grandmother took him in, brought him up and sent him to school in Danbury. She and Grandfather would take anybody and everybody in, and give them their last cent and last cookie, if their sense of injustice was stirred..."

The boy's name was Henry Anderson Brooks and he lived with the Iveses until 1869 when he went back to Chesterfield, South Carolina, to live with his mother.

This kind'a hit me between the eyes. I have been discussing whether a lot of my white musical and writer heroes were racists; I was, if you remember, especially wondering if Charles Ives was a racist. I'm beginning to learn he knew a lot more about black Americans and their music than I thought he did. He was trained at a very early age by his father in the music of Bach and STEPHEN FOSTER.

In 1852, Stephen Collins Foster wrote E.P. Christy of minstrelsy fame and fortune that he had decided "to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame?" The Ethiopian business had started in 1843 with the appearance at New York City's Bowery Amphitheater of the Virginia Minstrels, billed as "the novel, grotesque, original and surpassingly melodious Ethiopian Band." Thus started the American art of mockery called the minstrels. Steve Foster's first minstrelsy composition was "Camptown Races," which became George Ives's favorite piece of music, plus you can hear "Camptown Races" going on a lot during his son's later large rushing stream of musical compositions.

Plus Charles Ives grew up hearing stories how his father found Stephen Foster in a Harlem gutter and then certainly Ives heard a lot of stories about Henry Anderson Brooks, who had only just left the Ives household 5 years before Charlie was born.

Charles Ives was born in Danbury just one month after Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna.

When Repugnican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the presidential election of 1876--he didn't win the popular vote; he was elected by the Electoral College--it put an end to the Civil War Reconstruction period and gave local control back to the Old white-sheet-wearin' South. George Ives was pissed; he called this a treasonable betrayal by this country of the freed blacks. He related his anger to his black protege, Henry Anderson Brooks, in a letter immediately after the election. Brooks replied, "laconically" that right before Christmas of that year, his mother's house in Chesterfield was burned to the ground. It was the beginning of Jim Crow and separate but equal bullshit in the old honeysuckle-smellin', pelagra-riddled Deep South, honeychile.

The author of this marvelous book from which I'm stealing all this wonderful information, From Steeples and Mountains, one David Wooldridge, wrote about this Henry Anderson Brooks incident: "A fragment of [Ives] family history and a particle of soul-food for thought--minor but essential ingredients that impart a fleeting bitterness to the flavor of Charles Ives's works."

I leave this here until next time--I promise there'll be a Part II. Because this has excited me. I had been wondering about if Ives was familiar with black music for a long time and I'm thrilled at finding that maybe he was very familiar with black music, even JAZZ!

Danbury had one of the hottest minstrel houses on the Christy circuit, Poli's Bijou Theater, which was on Church Street in Danbury, only a few blocks from the Ives family home. Poli's Bijou was in the minstrelsy business up to the beginning of the Twentieth Century, so we know Charlie must have gone to Poli's Bijou many a time...what'd'a'ya think?

for The Daily Growler

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