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February 19, 2010


Glenda Childress

Niles is possibly alluding to the theory that once a "folksong" is fixed in some performance mode--a recording or sheet music, perhaps--the song tends to be sung or played in that familiar form and may lose the ability to evolve over time as folksongs in an oral tradition do. This theory may have some validity, as when a very popular version of a given piece is played widely, even becoming a top 40 hit, as some songs did in the folk music era.

Brendan Wolfe

Thanks, Glenda. That makes sense to me, although I'm not sure it justifies the big moral stamp of approval implied by the language "an integral living thing like a folksong." Maybe, though, Niles didn't mean to suggest that symphonies aren't integral and living, and even if he did, I suppose we can chalk it up to his revulsion at the idea that jazz needed to be hauled up out of the cellars (to paraphrase Joe Venuti) and made respectable. It's all just music -- from Handy to Bix, and from Whiteman to Dvorak -- with no genre inherently more alive or integral than any other. It's either good or bad. And about that we can argue all night!

Glenda Childress

I agree that putting folk songs--or jazz themes--into symphonic form doesn't make them more or less "living" or "integral." People are going to "borrow" good musical lines or styles (or, re our previous discussion "verbal" combinations or themes, too) if they can. We know that composers have always appropriated popular tunes or dance rhythms, and, as you say, it's what they do with them that makes them good or bad in the ear of the hearer.

Elliott S. Hurwitt

Many thanks, folks, for citing and quoting my essay on Abbe Niles, which was a labor of love. For those who haven't read the essay, I quote a number of Niles's Bookman "Ballads, Songs and Snatches" column, and I probably cite all of them at some point or other in the footnotes. I also mentioned a number of his writings in The Nation, The New Republic, and in The Independent -- I don't know if that had any connection with The Evening Independent in St. Petersburg, but I doubt it. Wonderful to see that interview with Niles, and other researchers have been sending me additional information on Niles as well. He was a prolific writer for a few years late in the 1920s. There was a good one-page article on Niles by Samuel Charters in 1959, but I think my essay is the first long study of his writings.

By the way, Niles was a very sight-reader of pop songs and light classics at the piano. He was used by Sigmund Spaeth to demonstrate music examples on his radio program. And in one of his Bookman columns he gives a recommended fingering for a current Irving Berlin song -- take that, present-day music critics!

Best to all who love hot music,

Elliott S. Hurwitt

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