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Oxford University Press, USA
Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music / Edition 1

Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer's Search for American Music / Edition 1

by Judith Tick
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Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) is frequently considered the most significant American female composer in the twentieth century. With Aaron Copland and Henry Cowell she was a key member of the 1920s musical avant-garde, and she was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in music composition. But her legacy extends far beyond the cutting edge of modern music. Collaborating with poet Carl Sandburg on fork song arrangements in the twenties, and with the famous folk-song collectors John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s, she emerged as a central figure in the American fork music revival. In addition, she became an energetic proponent of social change and devoted much of her last decades to progressive causes. This engrossing new biography emphasizes the choices Crawford Seeger made in her roles as composer, activist, teacher, wife and mother.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195137927
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 01/01/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 488
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)
Lexile: 1370L (what's this?)

About the Author

Judith Tick is Professor of Music at Northeastern University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

a minister's

Some time around 1927 or 1928—it was hard for Martha Beck to remember just exactly when—Ruth Crawford stood in the doorway of Beck's studio at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and wondered, "How does one ever write work without a reminiscence of something that has been written before!" That modernist fantasy merged patriotic pride with personal ambition. Ruth Crawford's "before" encompassed the past of European tradition. Her present glowed with the promise of her own youth. Born in 1901, she believed that the late 1920s were a time when American music sounded richer and more compelling than ever before. Even if she had discovered her musical calling as a composer just a few years earlier, she placed herself among a small band of "moderns" whom the critic Paul Rosenfeld praised as pioneer voices of national autonomy, starting "to represent the forces of American life, to interpret them in a large way."

    By 1927 Ruth Crawford had publicly joined them. As one of six "members of the young generation," she—along with Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein—had been featured in a concert on February 26, sponsored by the League of Composers in New York, where her Sonata for Violin and Piano, written in 1926, received its world premiere. Musical America touted the event as "American Youth to Have Its Fling," printing photographs of the two women included on the program. Crawford's showed a handsome serious woman, whose dark bob framed a round face, the pensive tilt of her head contradicting the resolute set of her mouth. Reviews conceded her a future by granting dispensation from the weaknesses of sentimentality and conservatism historically stigmatizing the "woman composer"; they implied she composed like a man. One critic praised the sonata as the "most masculine in quality the afternoon brought forth with the exception of the Copland"; another wrote how the sonata was "boldly energetic and virile."

    About a year later the violin sonata received its local premiere in Chicago, Crawford's musical home town, at a gala concert inaugurating the second American chapter of the International Society of Contemporary Music. The hall at the Cliff Dwellers Club included several local critics, who turned Miss Crawford into a musical athlete. One said she could "sling dissonances as mean as any of them," while another made her into an "intrepid, fearless swimmer in a sea of notes."

    If others made her work into a representation of gender and modernity, Ruth Crawford resisted such confinements by finding more spacious images of identity, which she expressed in a poem from 1925: "Spirit of me, dear rollicking far-gazing straddler of two worlds, message carrier from real to unreal. Vagrant wanderer thro cycles and universes, Biding a while to travel my small ways." The incongruous juxtaposition of "universes" with "small ways" hints at the vulnerability of the young woman, who sat among Chicago's musical elite, eating her two-dollar banquet dinner, waiting for music by Milhaud and Stravinsky to pass by. Finally, she heard her own piece receive enthusiastic applause. Should she stand and take a bow?

    Watching her hesitate, Frederick Stock, the ISCM chapter president and the esteemed conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, took action. Crawford wrote how he "came to my seat, led me to the front, gripped my hand several times, saying 'very beautiful.'" She inked the date in her diary in dark bold letters while understating the moment as an occurrence to be "set down for memory's sake.' Even though there would be other triumphs, she never forgot this one, which made the violin sonata an emblem of ambition and success for the rest of her life.

    Clara Crawford, Ruth's mother, sat next to her daughter in the Cliff Dwellers Club audience, for it was "ladies night," permitting women as guests for this special event. She knew what the performance meant for her daughter's career, and wrote her son a few days later acknowledging the double context of the achievement: "Four new compositions by well-known men and Ruth's. The sonata was beautifully played by two Chicago artists with critics' comments in several morning papers. Very thrilling."

The musical bond between mother and daughter exceeded ordinary maternal pride because it was based on reparation and unfulfilled dreams. A memoir Ruth wrote long after her mother's death begins with an account of her sixth birthday that captures Clara Crawford's intention to rear her daughter within the rules of conventional domesticity and at the same time give her opportunities she had been denied:

On my sixth birthday my mother did two things. She took me out on the front porch with great mystery, brought out her sewing basket, and gave me my first lesson in darning socks. Later she took my hand to lead me down the street to another surprise. This she did [in] a sort of mixture of solemnity and triumph, for it represented something she had wanted and been deprived of all during her childhood. She took me to my first piano lesson.

    Crawford linked the lack of music in her mother's youth to the rules for social and artistic abstinence that characterized fundamentalist Methodism in the nineteenth century, for Clara Crawford was a minister's daughter whose parents were born-again Christians. Clara's father, the Reverend William Plummer Graves, converted to Methodism in 1838, when it was the fastest growing Protestant denomination in the country. In 1847 the Reverend married Mary Fletcher, a member of a prominent New England family, who could trace her lineage back to 1630. Mary Fletcher's conversion to Methodism at fifteen and her willingness to endure the itinerancy of a Methodist minister's family capture the extraordinary appeal of this young Protestant denomination, as it grew from a small sect in 1800 to a religious body so numerous that its "web of preaching circuits crisscrossed the frontier." After several years in Vermont, Reverend Graves was rewarded by his conference (a regional district of churches) with a pastorate in Victoria, in central Illinois, where Ruth's mother Clara Graves was born in 1858, the third of six children.

    The memorabilia of Clara Graves's youth (a diary and family letters) reveal a feisty young woman who felt psychologically and physically displaced as a Methodist minister's daughter. She took no comfort in the rewards of what a southern female writer once called the "candlelit drama of salvation"—eulogizing women who helped bring the gospel to the rural poor. Suffering a nomadic existence as her father took on a new parish every two years, she dismissed one small town as "totally insipid, dead, flat, uninteresting, demoralized etc. etc."

    Clara would later complain to her daughter Ruth about the "Graves way" of ordering life. Ruth in turn condensed the reverend's mentality in one telling phrase: he "forbade superfluities." Clara told stories of a cramped childhood, where as a young girl, she had to lock herself in a closet to do the "superfluity" of woodcarving. The reverend's zeal invaded every corner of home life, controlling large and small details. No "useless" flowers cluttered the Graves kitchen garden. His granddaughter Ruth satirized such thinking by parodying his rhetoric: "Grandmother wasn't allowed to grow flowers because you couldn't eat them." Although he later paid for Clara to have a year at Northwestern University in the early 1880s, when few women attended college, the reverend disapproved of decorative accomplishments like music for the same reason he disapproved of flowers.

    He feared that Clara might become what the critic James Huneker called "a piano girl ... chained to the keyboard" to advance "social display." The stereotype of the "piano girl" epitomized the confusion between social constructions of gender and class on the one hand, and the act of performance on the other. Often trivialized as a social grace or "accomplishment," cultivated music in late nineteenth-century America served as a parlor skill for a young lady. The doctrinal Methodist point of view added further constraints, seeing social music outside of hymn singing as a secular vanity. In the Graves household Clara's piano lessons were withheld throughout Clara's youth. She began at seventeen, and even then, duty came first.

    When she was "kept away from her beloved Chickering [piano]" and forced to skip a lesson so that she could "sew a bias ruffle on Allie's dress," she rebelled: "When will we learn that the cultivation and enlightenment of the mind (ahem!) is infinitely of more importance?" Her own daughter would later adopt the mannerism of writing out little "ahems" as reminders to lighten the sermonizing that had been ingrained in them both. Clara Graves's hyperliterary sensibilities searched for alternatives to life as a "bundle of duties, great and small." Her longings to escape once turned a cow pasture into a poetic English countryside, where an impressionable young girl heard a "thousand soft voices floating in the air, bringing pleasure to my music-loving ear." From this came the subversive thought that "Nature seems to appeal to Man's soul of pleasure not duty."

    Clara's musical soul—her aural response to other aspects of daily life—appears in even humbler moments, when she analyzed a toddler's pre-verbal vocalizing as a series of "many variations on the first vowel and uttered in all the different tones from high to low A." Such primary sensory apprehension of the world through sound is a characteristic trait of the musician, and one that Ruth inherited. Yet for all of Clara's responsive nature, she remained a seventeen-year-old who advised a more daring girlfriend not to ice-skate in daylight but "to wait until dark and not make her sprawling motions quite as public." If Ruth later blamed her upbringing for her own conflicts about sexuality, she internalized her mother's codes sufficiently to call menstruation "womanly manifestations," duly passing on that verbal relic to her oldest daughter in the 1940s.

    Nevertheless, for her time and place, Clara Crawford was a feminist, as it was understood in the late nineteenth century, when the "New Woman" in all her contradictions was discovered by the American public. Determined to achieve emotional and financial independence before she married, and eager for adventure, Clara refused two offers of marriage at twenty-five and three years later left home with her brother to prove a claim in Monte Vista, Colorado, where the state was selling land to encourage the growth of timber on the western prairies. She took such pride in that act of daring that Ruth once said she "heard about Monte Vista enough so that the place seemed like an old friend," and later wrote about her mother as a frontier heroine.

    After that, Clara Graves taught school and then switched careers again in the 1890s. Ruth would later describe her mother as "one of those first female stenographers"—a pioneer once more. As a working woman in a labor force that was less than 20 percent female, Clara Crawford achieved the economic autonomy so crucial to feminist goals at the turn of the century.

    This was the period that Charlotte Perkins Gilman would later describe as "Women's Evolution from Economic Dependence: ... the increasing desire of young girls to be independent, to have a career of their own, at least for a little while." Gilman's predictions of "altered family relations" fit the Graves household. Clara told her brother how "very hard [it was] to be looked upon as a 'dependent.'" She would later try to channel Ruth's musical gifts into a practical career path, worrying about the poor prospects of composers. A list detailing the tiniest expenses on a tourist excursion testifies to Clara's respect for money, a trait that turned into frugality in her daughter. The first thing Clara bought was a Sohmer upright piano, which she paid off over three years: the certificate of purchase was saved in the family archives and passed from daughter to granddaughter.

    In accounts of her mother Ruth gave her an identity that is totally consistent with Clara's own words. Her sympathy for her mother later contributed to her own rejection of religion. It also forged a bond between them, for the daughter grew up under the shadow of contrasting privilege. Even if music entered the lives of so many American girls as a social accomplishment, for Clara and Ruth, it was a bond of reparation. Ruth practiced on the Sohmer, hardwon symbol of independence. At night her mother played Schumann's Träumerei, Mozart sonatas, and Wagner's Bridal March at Ruth's bedtime.

    After joining her parents in Pasadena, California, following their retirement, perhaps no one was more surprised than Clara when she met and fell in love with Clark Crawford in 1894; their engagement was announced within the year. "I am only today sufficiently recovered from my astonishment to attempt a letter," a relative wrote in response to the news. For in the end the rebellious Clara chose a man outwardly just like her father. "That he should be a minister seemed improbable, but that he should be a Methodist minister seemed impossible." The fact that Clark Crawford made three times the salary of her father helped his suit, as did his advanced education. Clara wrote back that he was "very much of a student—has a fine mind with a will, energy and courage that will carry through anything possibly undertaken." Even so, she confessed to her brother that "his work in life was a hard thing for me to make up my mind to be willing to share—not that I think the amount of work would be too much for me to endure—but the kind of work has always been distasteful to me.... I must think a good deal of the Minister or I wouldn't be willing to undertake it."

    Born in 1854 in Cabin Creek, West Virginia, Clark Crawford felt the call into service when he was eighteen and became licensed to preach a year later. With their quotations from Pascal and Milton, Crawford's sermons show a literary cast of mind. A graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University in 1883, the reverend did not conform to the stereotype of the fire-and-brimstone Methodist exhorter, treating such themes as "The Value of Man" and "Social Christianity" through philosophical abstractions in a literary style more suited to urban Methodist churches than the frontier circuit-rider pastorates where he had begun his career. In 1885 Crawford was appointed pastor of the First Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, where at forty-one he met Clara Graves (then thirty-five) and quickly fell in love. During their first year of marriage, Clara gave birth to their first child, a son they named Carl Fletcher Crawford. In a move that cannot have been easy for Clara Crawford, the family was asked to leave sunny southern California in 1898 to relocate in East Liverpool, Ohio, a bleak mill town of about 17,000, just west of Pittsburgh. (Bordered by the foothills and ridges of the Appalachians on one side and the Ohio River on the other, East Liverpool was known nationally for its production of art pottery and dishware since the mid-1800s.) Two years later, on July 3, 1901, the Crawfords' second child was born—a daughter named Ruth Porter Crawford.

    The names the Crawfords chose for their children allow us to glimpse the balance of power in their marriage. Carl was an anagram of their own shared letters; his middle name came from Clara's mother's family. Ruth received the middle name of Clark's mother's family, and a first name with import for both parents. The biblical heroine Ruth was a convert (as was Clark) whose familial line eventually led to Christ, and therefore demonstrated the possibility of salvation through choice so basic to evangelical work. Ruth also represented the power of an exceptional version of a mother-daughter bond, again forged through choice. The story of a young widow and Jewish convert, who, when entreated by her mother-in-law to return to her own kind, pleads for the right to embrace a new way of life, was told repeatedly to Ruth Crawford. She remembered how "father used to stop in front of me as I sat playing and let off a long nonsense jargon, including some Bible history linking me with Ruth the Moabite."

    Ruth the Moabite's pledge—"Whither thou goest, I shall go"—was the reality of a Methodist minister's family life. In 1902 the Crawfords moved to Akron, about seventy miles away; in 1904 to St. Louis, Missouri; and in 1906 to Muncie, Indiana, where they lived from 1906 through 1910. Although she would later move twice more with her father and spend all her adolescent years in Jacksonville, Florida, Ruth clung to the memories of her four or five "very happy" years in Muncie as the locus of her childhood and her sense of home for the rest of her life. The move to Muncie (later studied as the sociological model for "Middletown") was a promotion for the Reverend Crawford. In a town of 35,000 that supported thirty Protestant churches, his High Street Church was the fourth largest Methodist congregration in the United States.

    Religious observance governed the general tempo of Ruth's childhood, with religious school and two services on Sunday (mid-morning and evening) and family prayer hour at home. She memorized portions of the Bible each week and sang hymns. Associated with an affluent church, the Crawfords lived well, and even late in life, when she was known for her indifference to her appearance, Ruth still relished the memory of the "pink hair ribbons and pink stockings and a white dress with black velvet running through the beading" that she wore to Sunday church services. A photograph of the family in their Sunday best in front of the parsonage in Muncie places the Reverend Crawford standing behind his wife and daughter. Their six-year-old daughter sports an oversized bow in her hair.

    When Ruth wrote about her childhood in Muncie, she offered snapshots of past times in the style of a vernacular idyll—Sunday school picnics and "playing games ... around the church and schoolyard in summer twilight.' Although such nostalgic scenes breathe an American innocence and wholesomeness that characterized a part of Ruth's personality throughout her life, they imply a small-town history that does not quite fit the case. The Crawfords did not stay in one place long enough to accumulate the generational past that is the hallmark of small-town life; nobody knew her family beyond its most immediate nuclear self. And that family was on public display. Ruth accepted how "the pastor's family [was] an example for the whole church," and she endured the prohibitions against secular pleasures such as theater and dancing. At eighteen, she wrote down the date in her diary when "I danced a little for the first time." In her early childhood, even the circus was beyond reach.


Excerpted from ruth crawford seeger by JUDITH TICK. Copyright © 1997 by Judith Tick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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