2001 Volume XXXI, No. 1
Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Virtual Autobiography
by Judith Tick
Ruth Crawford was born on July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio.
I was the second of two children; my brother five years older. My father was a Methodist minister, my mother the daughter of a Methodist minister. We moved much. East Liverpool, Ohio, a year; then Akron til I was 3; then St. Louis, Missouri for a year. Then five very happy years in Muncie, Indiana. We moved [to Jacksonville, Florida] in 1911, and [my father] died three years later, when I was 13. With no money, my mother rented a large house, and rented rooms to tourists until I finished high school and started teaching.
I had led what would seem to be a fairly normal childhood, at least until my father died…. I remember Sunday school picnics, which I liked more than my mother did…. I remember stopping in at Mrs. Canfield’s house on my way home from school to look in her big crockery cookie jar, and my mother wondering why I wasn’t hungry for supper. I went to Sunday school, wore pink hair ribbons and pink stockings and a white dress with black velvet running through the beading, and had to whiten my shoes in a hurry every Sunday morning. Chocolate sodas were rare and wonderful. (ca. 1947)
On my 6th 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. (ca. 1947)
Early Musical Training
Crawford grew up in several different parishes because Methodist ministers were routinely transferred every few years. She skipped over the genteel poverty of her boarding-house adolescence, a time when piano lessons were supplied free of charge and relatives or church committees sent clothes. At twenty she had heard almost no live music other than songs, salon instrumentals, and band music. While Aaron Copland was reading The Dial, Crawford read Etude as the summit of musical sophistication. She was supposed to follow the path of a typical “lady musician” and return after one year to start a piano studio.
High school was lonely…. I practiced piano one to three hours a day… Graduating at 16, I started teaching music at a small school of music in Jacksonville, Florida. When I was 20, there was a little windfall, enough to send me away to study music for one year. I chose Chicago, the American Conservatory. When the money gave out, I decided to stay on and gamble on making my way. (ca. 1947)
My theoretical work… alone [was] worth my being [there.] (1922)
I had always imagined that Mr. Weidig’s class would be full of budding composers, possessors of more technique in writing, more talent, more ability, than I; it seems not. (1923)
Sprinkling sevenths and ninths plentifully and insistently, and observing or breaking the solemn rules of harmony with equal regularity, I was guided with great understanding during the next years by Adolph Weidig, …who seems to me to have had an unusual balance between necessary discipline and necessary allowance for individuality. (1933)
Encountering Modern Music
In five years Crawford went from novice to teaching music theory at the Conservatory and at the Elmhurst College of Music. She propelled herself into the compositional race by 1925, even enjoying the success of having one of her piano preludes premiered in New York.
Contact in 1925 with Djane Lavoie Herz, with whom I studied piano, and with Dane Rudhyar, and later with Henry Cowell, established a definite turning point in my work, and enabled me to see far along the way toward which in my numerous student compositions I had been groping. I discovered Scriabine at this time; the music of Schönberg, and Hindemith I did not hear until later; Stravinsky’s “Sacre” and “l’Oiseau de Feu” came to me too about this time…. During these years I was, of course, teaching piano and harmony, and doing most of my composing at nights and on Sundays. (1933)
By fluke Crawford found a circle of musicians outside the Conservatory who welcomed her natural affinity for radical dissonance. Herz transmitted the music and incense-scented aesthetics of Scriabin as well as the cult theories of Helena Blavatksy, the theosophy queen. Dane Rudhyar spoke of Eastern mystics and utopian atonality. Henry Cowell published her music in the New Music Quarterly. Between 1924 and 1929, she composed about half of her classical-music output, including Nine Preludes for Piano, Five Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, a Suite for Piano and Strings, Music for Small Orchestra, and a Sonata for Violin and Piano.
Inside the Conservatory, where about 80% of the students were female, Crawford acquired great expectations. She expressed doubts about her gift in terms of her own individuality, not as a reflection of the limitation of being a woman in a male-dominated profession. Accordingly, Crawford never called herself a “woman composer.” She did not join the Society for American Women Composers, formed in 1924 by an older generation she considered old-fashioned. Outside the conservatory male critics frequently made gender the reference point in assessing her work, praising its “virility” or delivering compromised compliments such as “she has more originality than any other woman composer.” (But this is not a new story in women’s history in Western classical music.) Gaining recognition through performances by important new-music groups in New York and Chicago, she was singled out in 1929 as the outstanding female composer of her generation by the influential critic Paul Rosenfeld. Even the man she went to study with in New York City expressed skepticism to her about the “woman composer” as well.
Life in New York with Charles Seeger
Then [in 1929] a scholarship at the MacDowell Colony came along simultaneously with an offer of a year’s stay in the home of a New York patron of modern music [Blanche Walton]. Again I gambled, for there was no capital anywhere, and came east. (ca. 1947)
Then too to the second still more vital turning point—a year’s study with Charles Seeger in New York, who shared with me his conception of the aspects and yet untried possibilities, both in form and content, of a new music…. (1933)
Crawford both explored and transcended the parameters of Seeger’s pedagogy in music she composed through 1933, work that has secured her legacy as a visionary figure in American modernism. These include the Piano Study in Mixed Accents, Three Songs to Poems of Carl Sandburg, and Two Ricercari, “Chinaman, Laundryman” and “Sacco, Vanzetti,” and her masterpiece, the String Quartet 1931.
Would you not be intrigued by the idea of writing counterpoint, not in an idiom which you will never use, but in an idiom which seems to be your spontaneous mode of expression? (1929)
Charles Seeger’s dissonant counterpoint is interesting and arresting. He opens visions of endless new fields yet scarcely touched. (1930)
As a result of this, my work began at last to take an “handleable” shape, to present itself in some sort of intelligible continuity. (1933)
Anyone who can be as excited as Charlie was last week [winter, 1930] over a counterpoint lesson…. Anyone who can be so emotionally upset that he can’t eat and his hands are trembling and his whole evening is a flare of sparks, —all because of a so-called abstract thing as a bit of new music…they call him cold? (1930)
I feel now a confidence which I never felt before, that music could still continue in the midst of life. (1931)
Study in Berlin
The Guggenheim Fellowship came to me in the Spring of this year (1930), and I sailed for Berlin in August. (1933)
When I first came to Berlin, I decided to spend most of my time in composing rather than in making “connections,” and… kept myself purposely out of touch with musicians both here and in America, since there were certain ideas which I felt it necessary to work out at once with as little disturbance as possible. (1931)
I am sure that the work I did during this time was by far the best I had done—a fact which I attribute not so much to Europe itself (though the experience abroad was invaluable to me in a general sort of way) as to the financial freedom to work, and to the natural course of my growth. (1933)
I often feel quite pessimistic about the future of “our” modern music, though it is impossible for me to lose my feeling that surely such a dead thing as Neo-Classicism cannot permanently grip either the people or the composers. It [was] incredible to hear such a concert as that of the Novembergruppe [a German new-music organization]: representative, or supposed to be, of the modern trend. I could scarcely believe my ears. Such sickening sweet inanity. (1930)
Discovering the Folk and the Lomaxes
In 1931 Crawford came home to the Depression and the collapse of the culture of modernism as she understood it. Questions about accessibility and social responsibility challenged the relevance of “elitist” art. Passing through the crucible of poverty and political activism, the Seegers joined the Communist-driven movement for proletarian aesthetics centered in New York City. While Seeger wrote columns for the Daily Worker, Crawford set radical texts. An unexpected artistic fallow period was compounded by the responsibilities of motherhood—three children in five years. Crawford slipped into a still much-lamented silence as a composer. A few compositions kept her name alive—the song “White Moon” (1929) and mainly, the String Quartet 1931, whose slow movement Cowell had recorded in 1934. Equally unexpectedly, a new kind of music filled the vacuum.
In 1936 Seeger took a job with a WPA program in Washington D.C. The move, as well as the cultural policies of the New Deal, changed their musical lives, exposing them to the candor and beauty of traditional music on site. Espousing a progressive nationalism, Crawford composed Nineteen American Folk Tunes for Piano (1936-1938).
[I composed these arrangements] to acquaint the piano student with at least a small part of the traditional (i.e., “folk”) music of his own country….There are thousands more, just as good and just as alive. It is the belief of this composer that, just as the child becomes acquainted with his own home environment before experiencing the more varied contacts of school and community, so should the music student be given the rich musical heritage of his own country as a basis upon which to build his experience of the folk and art music of other countries. (1936-1938)
I worked as a music editor on the Lomax Our Singing Country, which involved transcription to musical notation of several hundred traditional songs, and the listening to many hundred more in [the] process of choosing these for publication. In connection with this I worked on a sixty-page treatise on the music of these songs, never quite finished or published.
This work [with folk music beginning in 1935 and continuing until the end of her life] really grew out of Charlie’s activities…[with the] Resettlement Administration, and our close acquaintance with the music we heard everywhere during our travels to and from the resettlement colonies. (1948)
Collaborations with John and Alan Lomax shaped Crawford Seeger’s approach to traditional music. In addition to Our Singing Country (1941), she and Charles served as music editors for the later Lomax volume, Folk Song U.S.A. (1947). She worked with field recordings at the Archive of American Folk Song, Library of Congress. Transcription loomed large in early ethnomusicology. Crawford Seeger’s work shares the intellectual intensity of such pioneers as Bartók, Herzog, and Grainger, succeeding in rendering originals “with precision and love,” to quote the composer Marc Blitzstein. The treatise, which is to be published this fall as The Music of American Folk Song, reveals the scientific meticulousness of her approach as well as her profound advocacy for a body of music we now accept as a national legacy. In the late 1930s and 1940s she and Charles helped shape the trajectory of the urban folk music revival.
Folk Song Arrangements for Children
Crawford Seeger contributed greatly to music education with three books of arrangements of American folk songs for home and nursery school published between 1948-1953—American Folk Songs for Children, Animal Folk Songs for Children, and American Folk Songs for Christmas.
When Barbara went to co-operative nursery school in 1941 I went with her, and a book, American Folk Songs for Children, grew out of the experience. (1948)
I was disturbed by the sweetness and lack of backbone in nursery songs. (1946)
Giving children the real or the authentic or the old or the original, or whatever we want to call it… but also giving them the feeling that they can use it…. Somehow let them have a taste of the thing itself…Though we have love for the folk, we also have love for the people we are giving it to, and we must make it as usable by them as possible. And it often requires the hearing of twenty versions before you find the one which fits both these ideals. (1950)
My affection for the songs themselves, plus my affection for the amateurs who can’t play fancy stuff and still enjoy the songs the way I do,—I know this shines through at least some of the accompaniments. (1950)
[Folk music] knows and tells what people have thought about the ways of living. It bears many fingermarks. It has been handled roughly and gently. It has been used…. It is not “finished” or crystalized—it invites improvisation and creative aliveness…. It invites participation. (1948)
Her method involved finding versions with quality and shaping deceptively simple accompaniments that evoke original banjo, guitar, and fiddle idioms on the piano. Her books dispensed wisdom about how to integrate singing into daily life. The repertory she championed has permeated American music textbooks and the arrangements are even today sustained by musical integrity.
To present this music in an idiom savoring as much as possible of the contemporary, preferring a bareness rather than a richness of style…. Curiously enough, there is part-singing widespread throughout the southeastern states and has been for the past hundred years, which revels in these characteristics of modern music. (1936-1938)
I think we should remember that ugliness is also a very beautiful thing, that is, things that many other people might consider ugly. I like what some people call ugliness of tone quality in some singers. (1950) [The reference to part-singing reflects the influence of George Pullen Jackson’s landmark study, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands.]
Return to Modernist Composition
Until [ca. 1947]… I had felt so at home among this (to me) new found music [American folk music] that I thought maybe this was what I wanted most. I listened to nothing else, and felt somewhat like a ghost when my compositions were spoken of. I answered no letters pertaining to them; requests for scores and biographical data were stuck in drawers…. But for years the only instrument in the house was a guitar, a modern dulcimer, and a special slow-speed phonograph for transcription of folk recordings. (1948)
[The week during which the quintet was composed was] such a precious thing. I [did] a rare thing: turned off the feeling of weight and conscience about letters and deadline, and spent two solid days, parts of others, just writing music. I don’t know whether I’m a lost soul or a found one. (1951)
It’s not the winning of the contest—or the name of the Association—that counts. It’s the fact that, by gosh, I have for the first time since 1934 finished a thing of some length. It has been a most wonderful feeling. I used the contest deadline as a dare: finished the piece in six weeks in the midst of a busy teaching season. My best critic, Charles Seeger, seems also to have respect for the work. I believe I’m going to work again—more. If I live to be 99 as my grandfather did, that gives me 48 more years. (1952)
Ruth Crawford Seeger died on November 18, 1953, about a year and half later. Her double career challenges the way we understand the relationship between vernacular music and modernism, prodding us to move beyond categories to absorb her legacy. She used the word “experimental” as a source of pride and worked through its creative implications in the small but choice oeuvre of fifteen or so classical compositions, some of which have proved both prophetic and influential among later modernist composers. If decisions made within and through her marriage let the mantle of feminist model slip from her shoulders, then her life reminds us further of how luck and ambition, pride and humility, courage and compromise are needed to sustain both love and art.