Thursday, October 06, 2011

Music Professor Stephen Shearson Critiques Ken Burns' Use of Music in his 2011 Prohibition Documentary

The following is an excellent letter Prof. Stephen Shearson faxed to Ken Burns' production company after viewing Burns' new Prohibition documentary. Thanks to Prof. Shearson for permission to repost this, which originally appeared on the Society for American music listserv.

Mr. Ken Burns
Florentine Films
Walpole, NH 03608
fax: (603) 756-4389

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


X-Evolutionist said...

Hello, I was recommended your site by a user on the Internet Movie Database,, I Need to Know board. I'm trying to ID on of the pieces used in "Prohibition": It was used in more than one part, I believe, but is the background for a segment about the Anti Saloon League. Here is a link to the PBS website video of that segment:

(click the play arrow after the page is fully loaded)

It is a piano piece, with a slow downward scale, sounding a little eerie. I want to buy an mp3 if it is a piece of music from the era, and available.

Do you recognize it?

Thank you!


X-Evolutionist said...

Hello, I found out what that piano piece was. A user at IMDB told me that it is:

"Gaye's Steps"
by Larry Unger and Ginny Snowe
From the Album Waltz Time II

Kevin said...

Thanks very much!