“Which Side Are You On?”Folk Tune Quotation and Protest in Western Art Music
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Folk songs have long served as a persuasive vehicle for political activism and social change, especially when used to protest war, poverty, racism, or labor conditions. This paper addresses the contemporary expression, through music, of resistance and solidarity among the struggling working class. It emphasizes issues related to poverty, corruption, and class conflict within the Appalachian coal mines of the 1930s, and the ways in which these concerns have been reinterpreted through the lens of contemporary art music. It examines the significance of introducing traditional US American protest tunes into contemporary art music compositions, inviting a short discussion of protest songs, the representation of social issues in art music, and the compositional technique of melodic quotation. The piano music of Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) serves as a strong example of protest expressed through abstract instrumental art music. To demonstrate Rzewski’s style, this paper explores the composer’s political beliefs as well as his general views on the politics of music itself. An analysis of the piece “Which Side Are You On?” from his North American Ballads(1979) for solo piano focuses the discussion of revolution and empowerment among the working class.
Folk songs, when used to protest war, poverty, racism, or poor working conditions, have long been a persuasive vehicle for political activism and social change. This paper addresses the contemporary expression, through music, of resistance and solidarity among the struggling working class. It emphasizes issues related to poverty, corruption, and class conflict within the Appalachian coal mines of the 1930s, and the ways in which these concerns have been reinterpreted through the lens of contemporary art music. The folk music of this region often married old ballad melodies with new lyrics that “not only expressed frustration or despair, but hopes for decent wages and working conditions, articulating an emerging proletarian class consciousness.” This paper specifically examines the significance of introducing traditional US American protest tunes into contemporary art music compositions, inviting a short discussion of protest songs, the representation of social issues in art music, and the compositional technique of melodic quotation.
The piano music of US American composer Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) serves as a strong example of protest expressed through abstract instrumental art music. To demonstrate Rzewski’s style, this paper explores the composer’s political beliefs as well as his general views on the politics of music itself. An analysis of the piece “Which Side Are You On?” from his North American Ballads(1979) for solo piano focuses the discussion of revolution and empowerment among the working class. Through the skillful use of melodic quotation, Rzewski successfully challenges both the performer and the listener to engage with the message of the music by answering the question demanded by its title—which side are you on? This philosophical approach maintains contemporary relevance in an increasingly polarized society, where the idea of taking “sides” has experienced a sort of cultural renaissance. Just as a good protest song can effectively engage and challenge the listener to take action to reclaim personal freedom and empowerment, so too can certain pieces of Western art music.
Politics and the Composer
The political and philosophical beliefs of a composer can not only determine the trajectory of his creative output, but it also can affect how he interacts with the musical world itself. Rzewski is a compelling example, because in addition to communicating his beliefs through composition, he has been an outspoken critic of the music business. For Rzewski, the politics of the music profession mirror larger social issues. In his words:
In the last twenty-five years, the music industry has turned into one of the most concentrated, monopolistic industries in the world. You have basically three or four record companies who dominate the entire market. The industry made forty billion dollars and it’s moving quickly to areas that have nothing to do with music like digital television and things like that. Music companies are in a very strategic position to dominate these new sectors, so this has inevitable consequences, not only for the consumers but also for the producers of music and the musicians.
Music publishing companies, Rzewski believes, frustrate the dissemination of new music by making publishing a difficult obstacle for composers to overcome. To counteract this, he embraces a philosophy of music distribution and licensing referred to as “copyleft,” a term he first came across in the French publication Le Monde Diplomatique. He wrote, “Anyone can copy my music (those pieces that are not already published, that is) as long as they identify the composer, don’t claim authorship themselves, and allow others freely to make copies of their copies. I think that this is the best way for the music to get around. I don’t think publishers are very useful in this, and may even make it more difficult; and I don’t particularly want to be a publisher myself.” Rzewski’s manager has been known, upon request, to photocopy and distribute scores of his music for the cost of postage.
Rzewski’s political beliefs extend beyond the economics of music distribution and consumption. For him, certain genres of art music are inherently aligned with unhealthy class divisions. Unlike small chamber music groups such as the string quartet, where every musician often has an equal voice in the decision making, symphony orchestras may well represent a single ruling elite (the conductor) controlling the artistic will and working conditions of the laborers (the orchestral musicians) by dictating all issues of performance, interpretation, even the occupational climate of a rehearsal. Rzewski stated, “I’ve always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. I don’t like the orchestra’s social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority.” He later explained, “The social structure of the orchestra is really something inherited from eighteenth-century feudal society where the musician is not an artist but some kind of servant. Of course, this is something that shouldn’t exist. It shouldn’t be allowed! . . . I don’t see any reason orchestras should continue. They don’t do anything useful.” While Rzewski’s output does include six orchestral pieces (including Long Time Man, the folk music-inspired concerto for piano and orchestra), he is quick to point out that the majority of these were written on commission. “Usually,” he said, “it wasn’t my idea.”
On the role of art in politics, Rzewski seems to be divided. At times, he has stated that he has no influence as a composer, or that there is little if any power in music composition. At one point, he stated, “The politics of the art world tends to be fairly irrelevant to politics in general. Whereas the kind of art which satisfies the political world is often pretty feeble as art.” Yet the composer’s other statements regarding music and politics, his firmly expressed beliefs, and the number of his compositions which are politically charged all reveal an optimism in the power of music to effect change or, at least, raise consciousness. For Rzewski, the power of music rests not in the service of politics itself, perhaps, but as a process in social collaboration and awareness. In answer to the question “How is it possible to relate music and politics?” he replied:
How can the two things be combined, especially in the case of, say, purely instrumental music in which you do not have any text? How can you have an instrumental music that expresses political ideas? . . . I think that perhaps, in order to answer a question like that one has to examine not only the imminent characteristics of a piece of music, one has to imagine the piece of music as consisting not only of notes or sounds, but as a process of communication involving groups of human beings on a very basic level of course involving the collaborative activity of composers, performers, and audience, but also as a larger process of communication which involves a much larger and more general context.
Rzewski once mentioned the use of folk tunes as a way of expressing a political belief without using text. The example he used was the socialist tune “The Internationale.”
It is and has been an extremely well-known song that has expressed a symbolic function within a political context. Most people do not know the words to this song, but there are probably three or four times as many people who do know, who recognize the tune, the chorus singing. This tune is the carrier of a symbolic message. When you hear this tune, you think of a whole context, a whole social and historical context that that tune has meaning. It doesn’t matter so much that you don’t know the words. It’s the music itself in this case is the vehicle for the meaning.
In Rzewski’s politically oriented compositions, music frequently serves as the vehicle for expressing sociological themes. Sometimes the composer uses a specific body of text to be spoken or sung during performance, and at other times he relies only on the use of a familiar melody. The communicative intent of any musical work containing text, political or otherwise, is generally less ambiguous than abstract works of instrumental art music.
Rzewski’s Political Music
Many of Rzewski’s compositions serve to comment on general sociopolitical issues, respond to specific historical events, or urge more vigorously for social change. His celebrated work, De Profundis: For Speaking Pianist(1992), is an example of the composer’s critique of an outmoded and corrupt system of government. In this piece, the performer recites passages from Oscar Wilde’s iconic letter written while he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol for engaging in homosexual behavior. These phrases include, “There is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All forms of government are failures.” Another work, Antigone-Legend(1982) for voice and piano, is based on a poem by Bertolt Brecht, who originally intended to expand his paraphrase of Sophocles into a poetic version of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. While the political subtext is perhaps less straightforward in this work, Rzewski said that he wrote Antigone-Legend“at a time when on the world stage another tragic story was played out, of a country that had forgotten the wisdom that could have been learned from earlier tragedies. As I worked every day on my piece, I often had the uncanny feeling that I was not dealing with material from the past, but on the contrary with a continuing story that from day to day approached its fateful end.” The composer is careful not to cite specific world events, focusing instead on the idea of history repeating itself through violent means. A more recent work, Hard Cuts(2011) for piano and ensemble, is a relatively abstract example of Rzewski’s social commentary in that it does not rely on the use of text. The musical scoring is bare, almost stripped-down, and the lack of specified instrumentation has been interpreted to represent the recent severe budget cuts in the arts world. These examples are powerful in their subject matter, yet they engage the listener at an almost safe distance. They communicate and inform the audience but do not quite incite action.
Rzewski’s musical responses to specific historical events reflect a more direct reaction to violence and abuse of power and express a heightened sense of outrage. Coming Together(1971) and Attica(1972) were both written for speaker and a mixed ensemble of instruments, and composed in the wake of the 1971 prison riots at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Inmates at the prison had organized an uprising, eventually taking several guards hostage in order to protest inhumane living conditions, and the siege that ensued between the prisoners and the state police eventually resulted in forty-three deaths. The text of Coming Together is based on a letter written by radical anti-war activist Sam Melville, who was killed by police during the uprising. The text of Attica is based on a single phrase spoken by a surviving inmate who was later released from prison; when asked how it felt to have Attica behind him, Richard X. Clark replied, “Attica is in front of me.” A third example, Natural Things(2007), commemorates the Chicago Haymarket Massacre of 1886. When laborers organized a strike to demand the eight-hour workday endorsed by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, riots with police resulted in several injuries and deaths. Rzewski constructed the text from speeches made by demonstration organizers in support of workers’ rights. A line from one of these speeches reads, “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
These compositions all express a deep political conscience. In fact, the style of the music itself is often bold, raw, and confrontational, much like Rzewski’s political thinking. The ability to bring about change, according to Rzewski, comes from the people, and an individual has a moral obligation to participate in the political life of her community. In 1983, he told a group of students at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls:
Politics are a field in which great questions are decided by the concerted movements of large numbers of people. This is as true of tightly organized societies in which a large share of power is held by a small ruling elite, as it is of democracies in which a special value is put on individual freedom. In both cases, power is drawn, in the end, from the people. If people choose to ignore this fact, whether consciously and spontaneously, or because they are manipulated into doing so, if they choose to turn their minds away from politics, they give up their right to share in the political life of the community. They in fact abandon their duty to contribute to the collective organization of that community’s future.
Class conflict, collective organization, and the rights of workers to unionize are all frequent themes in Rzewski’s music, as is the need for revolution to effect change. In 2003, he said, “Personally, I think that a world revolution is inevitable and even imminent, but we cannot predict what form it would take. I think that revolution does not consist . . . in changing the world, but I think that the revolution today must be seen in a new way that leaves the world alone and lets people do what they do without trying to make them better.” This philosophy is strongly aligned with that of Karl Marx, and in fact, Rzewski has expressed a particular affinity for the work of Marx. This orientation has significantly shaped many of his compositions. Marxist philosophy is perhaps most famously expressed in the conclusion to the author’s Manifesto of the Communist Party: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”
The subject of revolution is powerfully expressed in Rzewski’s Jefferson(1970), written for voice and piano and based on text from the Declaration of Independence. The piece was composed immediately after the massacre at Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard shot into a group of students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia, killing four and injuring nine others. A portion of the text from the Declaration, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it,” especially appealed to Rzewski. He said, “it spoke of the legitimacy of revolution.” For Rzewski, a number of issues demand the necessity of revolution: poor working conditions of laborers, poor living conditions of the impoverished or imprisoned, conflict between the economic classes, and the need for people to join together for a common cause. In fact, an overarching concern of many of these pieces seems to be the needs of the common people and the importance of revolution to bring about social change. Marx himself famously said, “Revolutions are the locomotives of history.”
For Rzewski, revolution and social change can be expressed with or without the use of text. With one exception, each of the previous examples of Rzewski’s output is unified by a specific body of text which is to be spoken or sung during performance. As mentioned, the use of text generally renders the communicative intent of any musical work less ambiguous than more abstract works of art music that do not contain text. For this composer, one method of communicating intent without text is to use familiar folk melodies. Rzewski’s use of protest tunes maintains his alignment with Marx, since Marx’s philosophy is itself a philosophy of protest; specifically, of man’s ability to liberate himself and realize his full potential.
Rzewski’s monumental solo piano work of 1975, the Variations on “¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!”(“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”), is based on a protest song written during the Chilean Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. This is perhaps the composer’s most successful, and certainly most celebrated, work to express social issues through melodic quotation. As Rzewski said earlier, a folk tune “is the carrier of a symbolic message. It doesn’t matter so much that you don’t know the words . . . the music itself in this case is the vehicle for the meaning.” Even listeners who do not recognize the melody of the Chilean protest song may recognize its rhythmic structure. The familiar rhythm of the chant as it most often heard (“The people! united! will never be defeated!”) is an example of a sentence-style chant frequently repeated by crowds at protest marches and rallies. Rzewski’s variations on “The People United,” while an eminent example, is not his only work to incorporate folk tunes. His piano concerto Long Time Man(1979) incorporates the Texas prison work song “It Makes a Long-Time Man Feel Bad,” a song that had earlier been recorded by Bob Dylan. Each folk tune used by Rzewski in his four North American Ballads(1979) for solo piano is based on a historical protest song regarding work or living conditions of laborers in the American South. “Dreadful Memories,” the first ballad, exposes the horror of family poverty and starvation during the Kentucky coal mine strikes of 1931. The traditional American spiritual “Down by the Riverside” (also known as “Ain’t Gwine Study War No More”) was fitted with new words in the twentieth century, in the spirit of nuclear protest demonstrations and anti-war sentiment. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” decries the poor working conditions of laborers in a southern textile mill in the 1930s. The union song “Which Side Are You On?,” the focus of this paper, will be used to illustrate in greater detail the potential of protest through folk tune quotation.
That individual pieces of instrumental art music can express a specific line of political thought, such as Marxism, is open to debate. Art music that references specific protest tunes, however, is more likely to communicate political themes, such as the need for revolution to combat oppression, the rise of class consciousness, and even the role of labor unions in enacting change in a corrupt system. For some creative artists, protest songs represent the most immediate and accessible path to expressing a social or political belief.
Protest Songs in the United States
Protest songs are frequently connected to current events or associated with particular social movements, and the United States has enjoyed a colorful tradition of musical dissent aimed towards social change. In a country founded on ideals of the Enlightenment, various campaigns toward improving the quality of life for humankind have been an essential part of its societal framework. These can be seen in protest songs from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and in songs addressing specific issues such as slavery and women’s suffrage. The twentieth century was a particularly rich time for social dissent in the US, and the 1930s abounded with songs of the labor movement that expressed the right of the impoverished working class to break free from the oppression of an organized and corrupt authority. Later, other social causes were characterized by a body of topical songs addressing the civil rights movement, women’s rights, environmental issues, various anti-war movements, and other campaigns against the status quo. Scholarly interest in protest songs began to emerge in the twentieth century, with special interest given to songs of labor. As a genre, protest songs often seek to promote a specific movement or cause, attract listeners to group solidarity, offer a political message, or express individual indignation. Twentieth-century folk singers who became icons of protest include Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Lennon, and Joan Baez. Over the last eight decades, songs such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1944), Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (1955), Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962), Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984), Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” (1992), and P!nk’s “Dear Mr. President” (2006) are all examples of this genre.
Singers and songwriters of protest songs are often associated with a left-leaning counterculture, and because of their philosophies of social revolution and transformation, a large body of these songs are considered socialist or Marxist in their ideologies. Because of the international origin and development of Marxism, some of the most notable protest tunes originated outside of the United States, occasionally finding their way into the American counterculture. This rich tradition of international folk tunes with specifically Marxist themes includes “Bandiera Rossa” (Italy), “The Red Flag” (Ireland), and the previously mentioned “The Internationale” (France) and “¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” (Chile), to name a few. In the United States, socialist-identified songs include “Bread and Roses,” “Talk to Me of Freedom,” the satirical “Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” and numerous songs recorded by Pete Seeger, who was ultimately blacklisted by the American government during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
In addition to the folk music normally disseminated by oral tradition, notated works of Western art music may also seek to express a political message in a more abstract context. Christopher Norris remarks that, according to Hegelian-Marxist theory, “great works of art were those encompassing the widest range of human experience during periods of world-historical change, along with the clash between opposing ideologies or forms of residual and emergent class-consciousness.” Norris observes in the artistic output of Bertolt Brecht, for example, “what is truly dialectical is music’s resistance to forms of premature ideological closure by its emphasis on conflicts or discrepancies of style that reflect the real conditions of life in an unjust, exploitative or class-divided society.” Art music composers of the twentieth-century who have embraced a Marxist ideology include Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), Kurt Weill (1900–1950), Luigi Nono (1924–1990), Hans Werner Henze (1926–2012), Cornelius Cardew (1936–1981), Christian Wolff (b. 1934), and Frederic Rzewski, perhaps most notably in the context of the postwar avant-garde. Composers of all ideologies have, for centuries, understood the expressive power of borrowing familiar melodies. To understand the potential political influence of folk melodies without text, the “carrier of a symbolic message” that Rzewski mentions, it is important to understand the process of melodic quotation as a compositional technique.
Melodic Quotation in Western Art Music
Musical borrowing is so integral to the Western tradition of art music that one might argue the history of art music is in many ways a history of musical borrowing. Quotation refers to “the incorporation of a relatively brief segment of existing music in another work, in a manner akin to quotation in speech or literature, or a segment of existing music so incorporated in a later work.” While quotation may involve the use of a complete melodic phrase, it may also include very small identifiable motives from an existing melody. While nineteenth-century composers often used folk tunes as exotic or unusual additions to a work, composers of the early twentieth century used quotations of melodies to add a familiar element to modernist or avant-garde works, or to communicate a sense of comfort, nostalgia, or even alienation. The interest in folk music increased with the efforts of ethnomusicologists such as Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and was used to great effect by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Percy Grainger, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and perhaps most significantly, Charles Ives (1874–1954). Ives was a master of quotation; he incorporated hundreds of American folk tunes, patriotic songs, and Protestant hymns in his compositions. Since Ives, American composers have more frequently used quotation as a compositional method.
Musicians quote familiar folk tunes for any number of reasons. While some assert that composers such as Ives and Rzewski may have felt that the audience needed a tangible pathway to an otherwise rather inaccessible style of music, others feel that recognition of the quoted source does not make the composer’s music any more comprehensible. Christopher Ballantine observes that there exists a significant difference between using quoted material which originally involves words and that which does not. It may be true that if a well-known tune contains familiar lyrics, the connotation of the words themselves affects the listener more strongly than the melody. Ballantine notes that Bach utilized this technique when he embedded well-known Lutheran chorale melodies in his original works. “The tunes would appear without words, or with a different text, but Bach could depend on his listeners to ‘associate’ the familiar words and thus discover a deeper significance in the work. If a listener does know the absent text of a quoted hymn tune or other word-associated melody, then the significance can be very rich indeed.” Regardless of the tune quoted, whether the text is relevant to the communicative intent of the composer, the simple fact that these melodies are perceived as American gives them an expressive weight to a American audience. For as Ballantine asserts, no matter how abstract the piece,
One has to insist that if the quotations are American (as they often are) some indeterminate connotation of American experience is intended or is at any rate inescapable. In many works . . . what is being symbolized seems to have much to do with the kaleidoscopic vigor of American life; with a notion that this vigor has its roots in the values of popular life (its communality, its fervor, its lack of sophistication, its authenticity); with an intuition that this life involves contradictions which, though at times tending towards chaos, must be affirmed before they can be transcended.
The nature of folk tunes, music of the people, is frequently that of simplicity and sincerity. Of his use of the gospel hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” Charles Ives said, “It wasn’t a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music—but by a man who was but giving out an experience.” For composers such as Rzewski, this experience is characterized by the desire for social change, most often through protest and revolution, in an imperfect America. This paper focuses on a single traditional union song, and Rzewski’s solo piano work by the same name, as a detailed example of folk tune quotation and protest in instrumental art music.
“Which Side Are You On?”
The Appalachian region of the eastern United States is rich in its geological beauty and cultural heritage, although prior to the twentieth century, many parts of Appalachia were geographically isolated from the rest of the country. The mountains are abundant in minerals, and coal mining has long been an important industry for the region. As the coal industry developed at the turn of the century, however, coal company representatives successfully cajoled many Appalachian land owners into selling their mineral rights. The result was that an Appalachian worker came to be “little more than a trespasser upon the soil beneath his feet.” By the 1930s, residents had become so dependent on the economy of the coal industry that they were left completely unprepared when the Great Depression hit. At this time, much of the wealth of these mines was lifted from the region by outside corporations. The long history of violent exploitation of this region’s land and people has been well documented over the years. The United Mine Workers of America, which had been founded in 1890, sought to represent miners and protect them from corrupt business practices. Even so, wretched working and living conditions and the widespread use of child labor continued throughout the coal mines for many decades.
The folk song “Which Side Are You On?” is about the struggle of coal miners attempting to unionize in Harlan County, Kentucky, during the 1930s. Harlan County had been relatively isolated within the Southern Appalachians until the Louisville and Nashville Railroad extended into the area in 1910. Coal mining grew rapidly, and within a few years Harlan County supported 59 mines and almost 12,000 coal miners. Unfortunately, as one local developer observed, Harlan was “one of the wealthiest counties in the country, but not in terms of local capital or development. The money is not in Harlan banks, but in banks located in the eastern part of the United States.” The clash between coal company executives and striking miners became so violent in the 1930s that the region quickly became known as “Bloody Harlan.” The coal-mining strikes in this region generated some of the most powerful and enduring protest music ever sung. Most of these songs were written to expose the unhealthy divisions between classes of society, and more specifically to recruit miners to band together and unionize against the company operators. “Which Side Are You On?” is somewhat unusual in that the focus is on the division between the miners themselves; those who choose to unionize, and those who continue to work under deplorable conditions. An interesting historical account of this song is provided in the anthology Songs of Work and Protest.
The bloodiest battles to build a union have been in the coal fields—in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Colorado, and Kentucky. And surely the toughest and meanest of all the coal fields where men fought for a voice and a place in the sun was “Bloody Harlan” in Kentucky. . . .
In 1931, coal miners in Harlan County were on strike. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. But coal miners, brought up lean and hard in the Kentucky mountain country, knew how to fight back, and heads were bashed and bullets fired on both sides in Bloody Harlan.
It was this kind of class war—the mine owners and their hired deputies on one side, and the independent free-wheeling Kentucky coal miners on the other—that provided the climate for Florence Reece’s song “Which Side Are You On?” In it she captured the spirit of her times with blunt eloquence.
Mrs. Reece wrote from personal experience. Her husband, Sam, was one of the union leaders, and Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men came to her house in search of him when she was alone with her seven children. They ransacked the whole house and then kept watch outside, ready to shoot Sam if he returned.
One day during this tense period Mrs. Reece tore a sheet from a wall calendar and wrote the words to “Which Side Are You On?” . . . The simple form of the song made it easy to adapt for use in other strikes, and many different versions have circulated.
Mrs. Reece wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?” on the back of a calendar because the family could not afford to buy writing paper. Although the source of the melody is not entirely known, it closely resembles the old Baptist hymn “Lay the Lily Low” and the broadside ballad “Jackie Frazier.” The British “Ballad of Jack Munro” also uses the same hymn tune in its refrain. Ultimately, Reece’s song would become “one of the most poignantly familiar and lasting statements of class conflict.” The lyrics that follow are from a 1955 recording by Pete Seeger, although additional lyrics have been documented in anthologies such as Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People(1967) and The Ballad of America(1983).
Figure 1: Melody and Lyrics to the Folk Song “Which Side Are You On?”
Seeger originally recorded this song in the key of B minor, the key which Rzewski later used in his setting in the North American Ballads. Seeger was, as mentioned earlier, a one-time member of the Young Communist League who was ultimately subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Council in the 1950s. Once jailed for contempt of court after pleading the First Amendment instead of the Fifth, Seeger was a sort of cultural hero for Rzewski.
The melodic contour of this song is unusually disjunct. Because of its distinctive melodic gaps, even small fragments of the melody are easily identified in Rzewski’s solo piano setting. The pentatonic scale structure, lack of a leading tone, and implied harmonies are all reminiscent of traditional Appalachian folk music. The song has a three-phrase structure, two phrases for the verse, and a final phrase for the chorus. In the chorus, the question posed by the song’s title is repeated as a melodic palindrome, first ascending then descending, reinforcing the title of the song, and perhaps even the concept of equal “sides.”
Rzewski’s Use of Quotation in “Which Side Are You On?”
Rzewski’s setting of “Which Side Are You On?” begins with various bits and pieces of the original folk melody. The composer will generally quote four identifiable fragments of the melody, as described in Table 1.
|Motive||Lyrics from the first verse||Melodic characteristics|
|a||“Come all of you good workers”||Two pitches separated by the interval of a fourth, with the top pitch repeated|
“Good news to you I’ll tell” or
“Of how the good old union”
|Descending melodic line, with or without an ascending final pitch|
“Has come in here to dwell” or
“Which side are you on?” [descending]
|Repeated pitch then descending melodic line|
|d||“Which side are you on?” [ascending]||Repeated pitch then ascending melodic line|
In the opening of this piece, the composer immediately presents short fragments of the original folk tune, usually only four to six notes at a time, in several rhythmic variations. Within the first ten measures, portions of the folk tune are rendered in all twelve keys. Although Rzewski maintains the melodic integrity of each fragment, the fact that he layers the fragments in a variety of keys simultaneously creates an opening that is both tonally and metrically ambiguous. The listener is initially greeted by a tangle of melodic lines reminiscent of the cacophony of orchestral musicians warming up before a concert or (one might imagine) a group of coal miners whistling the same tune, but each to himself in his own key and tempo. In the chaos of this opening, there is no consensus of key, rhythmic structure, or texture. In Figure 2, the folk tune fragments at the beginning of the piece have been bracketed for ease of recognition.
Rzewski uses no fewer than 205 quotations of the original folk tune in this ballad, a practice that has been referred to as the composer’s “motivic obsession.” Even though many of these quotations are very short fragments of the original tune, the melody is always recognizable. Rzewski acknowledged the effectiveness of this extreme fragmentation of melody:
The basic improvisational technique is one that Ives seems to have worked a great deal with, which is to take well-known traditional songs, chop them up into little pieces and to let bits of them be heard in various tonalities. . . . It’s a technique which I don’t completely understand, but I’m interested in it. Even if you don’t know the tune, if it comes from a traditional context, it’s like an old friend, a familiar face, it has a kind of timeless quality. You can hear a little bit of it, the beginning or the end, and you recognize it. It has strong identity which a 12-tone row does not have. Bergson, the French philosopher, pointed out that melodies are like faces. You can hear just a bit of them, and if you know the tune you recognize it, just as you recognize a face. And therefore, he says melodies exist outside of time. This timeless quality makes it possible to subject the melody to a variety of operations, sometimes some extremely distorting operations, still maintaining the identity of the original melody.
As the piece progresses, the fragments of this folk tune begin to integrate. In this passage, approximately halfway through the piece, the listener hears portions of the tune for the first time in uniform rhythm. So, although the tonality is still somewhat ambiguous, there is a new solidarity of rhythm. One might imagine that the miners are beginning to sing together, albeit out of tune, as an ensemble.
Immediately following this example, Rzewski offers an optional improvisation to the performer. The composer’s indications are as follows:
- Improvisation should begin as a sudden radical change, with no “transition.” That is, there should be no ambiguity about where the written music ends and where the improvisation begins. The manner in which this sense of a leap to a different kind of order is evoked is left to the interpreter. A few simple limitations, however, apply:
- Begin by alluding in some way to the tonality of B minor. This may be brief. End with a rather long section in C Mixolydian (scale: C–D–E–F–G–A–B-flat–C).
- Improvisation may use techniques employed in written music (polytonal transpositions of the theme, etc.) or not; but in any case should represent a different “side” of the same form (many different tonalities in the first part, one tonality in the second).
- Improvisation, if played, should last at least as long as the preceding written music.
- If no improvisation is played, pass immediately to the finale.
Rzewski’s use of language in these performance guidelines is worth noting. Phrases such as “sudden radical change” and “leap to a different kind of order” mirror the philosophy of the original protest song. The fourth performance note is particularly significant, because when a pianist follows this guideline, the length of the piece is doubled from ten to twenty minutes. The formal structure of the piece is altered as well, because it becomes divided into two equal parts. One “side” is the music that Rzewski notated, and the other “side” is a free improvisation created spontaneously by the performer. Not only does this parallel structure reflect the duality of the song’s title, but the power of artistic creation and expression is then handed from composer to performer. Using the rules of composition to bend the rules, Rzewski relinquishes control, thereby liberating the performer. When the lyrics and meaning of the folk tune are understood by the audience, the listener is empowered as well.
After the improvisation, the composer presents a Finale, an eight-measure coda of the folk tune in its entirety, and in the original key of B minor. What began as a collection of scattered fragments of the melody, at first jumbled and confused, becomes a powerful extended quotation of the protest song at the end.
This dramatic and unified quotation features double octaves and extreme dynamic indications, as if all voices are finally joined together to chant the tune with great force. At the end of the piece, the question posed by the title, “Which Side Are You On?” is insistent and uncompromising, challenging the listener to answer.
Power in Communication and Collaboration
Folk tune quotation as a compositional process can inspire both the performer and the listener to understand the music on a much deeper level. In addressing the power of music to effect change, Rzewski said that “one has to imagine the piece of music as consisting not only of notes or sounds, but as a process of communication involving groups of human beings on a very basic level of course involving the collaborative activity of composers, performers, and audience, but also as a larger process of communication which involves a much larger and more general context.” In the example discussed in this paper, he uses improvisation to facilitate a collaboration between composer and performer, and melodic quotation to further involve audience members who recognize the tune. Rzewski reminds us, “If people choose to turn their minds away from politics, they give up their right to share in the political life of the community. They in fact abandon their duty to contribute to the collective organization of that community’s future.” In this piece of music, power is expressed as a group phenomenon. The composition is mutually engaging when the interplay of composer, performer, and listener is established and in balance. The message of the original folk tune is practically lost in the opening of Rzewski’s piece, where the lack of tonal or rhythmic solidarity creates a sense of chaos and, perhaps, powerlessness through discord. Only when portions of the melody begin to come together in a cohesive fashion at the end does the message of the protest song become clear.
In coal mining communities, Florence Reece’s song became an anthem of sorts, representing the melding of domestic concerns with broader ideological issues. The Kentucky coal miners who originally sang this song believed in the call for solidarity expressed in its lyrics, “Us poor folks haven’t got a chance / Unless we organize.” The power of music to express the struggle of the oppressed and underrepresented has not diminished over the years. The question posed by this song’s title is a universal one; only the specifics of the “sides” themselves are changing. When handled skillfully, a folk tune quotation can bring a different sense of humanity to art music compositions by merging the past with the present. The composer George Rochberg said of melodic quotation, “All acts of renewal through uses of the past renew both that past drawn upon and that present in which the act occurs. Far from being acts of weakness or signs of the depletion of creative energy, they reveal a profound wisdom about the paradox of time, which does not consume itself and its products as if it were fire, but gathers up into itself everything which has occurred in it, preserving everything as the individual mind preserves its individual memories.” Rzewski himself acknowledged that even if the listener does not know the tune, “it’s like an old friend, a familiar face, it has a kind of timeless quality.” As his work demonstrates, the use of melodic quotation allows art music the opportunity to communicate strong philosophical and political gestures in an accessible yet distinctive voice.
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Rzewski, interview with Daniel Varela, 2003, http://www.furious.com/perfect/rzewski.html.
Rzewski, “The Copyleft Concept,” 2001, http://detritus.net/contact/rumori/200110/0131.html.
American Composers Orchestra, “About the Concert: Composer/Pianist Frederic Rzewski,” 1997, http://www.americancomposers.org/release1.htm.
Rzewski, “From the Archives: Frederic Rzewski,” lecture given at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, 1983, http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/archive_rzewski.html.
Allan Kozinn, “Creating Sounds for a Nonsensical World,” New York Times, May 3, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/03/arts/music/03maki.html.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party(London: Martin Lawrence, 1935), 34. It is worth noting that the original German, “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt Euch!” would be more accurately translated to “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
Noriko Manabe, “Chants of the Resistance: Flow, Memory, and Inclusivity,” Music and Politics 13, no. 1 (2019), https://doi.org/10.3998/mp.9460447.0013.105.
See George Korson, Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miner(New York: Grafton Press, 1927); Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest; Joyce Kornbluh, Rebel Voices(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964); and Philip S. Foner, American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975).
Christopher Norris, “Marxism,” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.42132.
Once, however, when asked if critics were right to label him as a Marxist composer, Rzewski responded, “Harpo or Groucho or what?” (quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, “Maverick with a Message of Solidarity.” New York Times, April 27, 2008), https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/27/arts/music/27gure.html.
See, for example, the recent scholarship on the relationship between politics and the postwar musical avant-garde, e.g., Robert Adlington, Composing Dissent(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199981014.001.0001, Red Strains(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), ttps://doi.org/10.5871/bacad/9780197265390.001.0001, and Sound Commitments(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195336641.001.0001; Eric Drott Music and the Elusive Revolution(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), https://doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520268968.001.0001; Lisa Jakelski, Making New Music in Cold War Poland(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520292543.001.0001, and Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
Vanessa Cornett-Murtada, “Quotation, Revolution, and American Culture: The Use of Folk Tunes and the Influence of Charles Ives in Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballads for Solo Piano,” DMA diss., (University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2004), 3.
J. Peter Burkholder, “Quotation.” Grove Music Online, 2009, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.52854.
Christopher Ballantine, “Charles Ives and the Meaning of Quotation in Music,” Musical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (1979): 171, https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/LXV.2.167.
See, for example, Stephen Fisher, Fighting Back in Appalachia(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009); Shannon Bell “‘There Ain’t No Bond in Town Like There Used to Be:’ The Destruction of Social Capital in the West Virginia Coalfields,” Sociological Forum 24, no. 3 (2009), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1573-7861.2009.01123.x; John Gaventa,Power and Powerlessness(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Gaventa, Barbara E. Smith, and Alex W. Willingham, Communities in Economic Crisis (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), https://doi.org/10.2307/25143483; and Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands(Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).
The reader may observe that in Figure 1, the melody of the chorus is not an exact palindrome because of the displacement of one melodic pitch. Melodic variance is common in folk melodies that have been passed down through the oral tradition.
Larry Bell and Andrea Olmstead, “Musica Reservata in Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballads,” The Musical Quarterly 72, no. 4 (1986), 450, https://doi.org/10.1093/mq/LXXII.4.449.