Music-Historical Expertise and PBS

October 5, 2011

The following important letter was made public via the Society for American Music list. One wishes more people would engage mass media in this fashion.

5 October 2011

Mr. Ken Burns
Florentine Films
Walpole, NH 03608

Dear Mr. Burns,
Last night I (along with many others, I’m sure) finished watching your documentary Prohibition. It’s another very fine and informative production. As a music historian, however, I’d like to provide some feedback about the music used.

You should know first that, when I heard you had used Wynton Marsalis for much of the music, my heart sank. Mr. Marsalis is a brilliant musician, but he’s not a brilliant historian, and when you ask him (or Dan Morgenstern, for that matter) a musical question, his answer is likely to be, “Jazz.” Thus we had in Prohibition the use of jazz idioms covering almost everything like a smothering blanket. Last night, for example, I kept hearing what sounded like a recording by Sidney Bechet associated with various figures (Al Smith being one) who probably never listened to or, if he did, probably didn’t care about Bechet. The musical message of the documentary was that just about everyone of that time listened to and associated themselves with jazz. Not so. Although Fitzgerald labeled the 1920s “The Jazz Age,” I think we need to recognize that he was referring primarily to the part of society and the generation that he knew best and that was a very limited group.

I also noticed the absence of any recognizable Temperance songs–in a documentary about Prohibition. Perhaps you know that American publishers, especially sacred-music publishers, issued numerous collections of Temperance songs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But we heard none of them (that I could tell). Nor did I hear any recognizable gospel songs–and by “gospel” here I refer to the songs published primarily between the 1870s and 1920s by northern and midwestern publishers and written by the likes of Fanny Crosby, Sankey, Doane, Root, etc. These songs were immensely popular and influential in American society, especially among those who supported the Temperance movement. Just hearing a group singing one or two Temperance songs and gospel songs would have added much to our understanding of those who promoted Prohibition. I’m almost certain there are contemporaneous recordings of both.

As someone who self-identifies as a white southerner, I was also sensitive to the music associated with southerners (white and otherwise) and also westerners or midwesterners, such as Willebrandt. All I recall hearing were unimaginative uses of solo banjo and slide guitar or dobro. I recall, at one point, looking at images of Willebrandt while hearing a barely recognizable tune being plunked on a solo banjo and thinking, “This woman probably never listened to banjo music and would have wondered why anyone would have associated her with such.” Others you represented in Prohibition would have listened to early country or Old Time recordings; it’s very likely that recordings exist in that idiom celebrating both drink and Temperance, but we heard none of those. And you could have represented Teetotaling southern African Americans by some of the highly entertaining recordings of sermons by the likes of the Rev. J. M. Gates.

I could go on in this vein, but here’s the bottom line: I think you’re an excellent documentarian, and I very much enjoy watching your productions, but you’re overlooking a strong resource when it comes to the use of music on American topics. The Society for American Music (SAM) is a thriving professional society of music historians specializing in American music, and I can think of a number of persons you could contact who are very familiar with the music of the nineteenth and early twentieth century–individuals who could help you provide a much-more-nuanced and historically, socially, and culturally accurate set of musical associations. Many of those same people are involved in other professional societies as well, but SAM is probably where I’d start. They, furthermore, have access to or control archives (a la Morgenstern) that can provide recordings of the era.

Please consider these constructive comments as you continue your work in the future.

Most sincerely,

Stephen Shearon
Professor of Music

One Response to “Music-Historical Expertise and PBS”

  1. Great letter. I watched Episode One last night and thought along these lines. Was there really no other American music that might have been successfully incorporated? Thanks, Roger, for bringing this to our attention.

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