A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

Frank J. Oteri: Did you have any idea when you first wrote Music in the New World that it would have such an important educational role and such a long shelf-life?

Charles Hamm: It’s very hard to predict those things. I did have a sense that this book did things that no other book on American music had done. And in that sense—when I wrote it—it was unique, but I had no way of knowing if it would remain unique or not.

FJO: What’s still so unique about the book is how it treats all musical genres with equal consideration and respect.

CH: Some earlier books had dealt with jazz and even certain types of popular music, such as the songs of Stephen Foster, but my book was certainly the first one to deal with commercialized pop music and contemporary pop music in the context of things that had come before.

FJO: Before you wrote this book you already had a deep interest in and knowledge of popular music.

CH: When I had written this book I had already written Yesterdays: Popular Song in America.

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Charles Hamm’s 1979 book, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (Norton).

FJO: But this book is equally expansive about many other genres as well. How did you come to have such a wide range of expertise?

CH: Actually, in some cases, it was from my own musical experiences. I grew up singing in a church choir and playing in the town band, a dance band, in a region where folk music was pretty widely disseminated—Virginia. So I was surrounded by a range of music when I grew up and I think that carried over into the book.

FJO: So did that background form the basis of your reasoning that all music should be grouped together in this way?

CH: Yes. I was involved in various types of music equally, there was no hierarchy. So it made sense to me that a book on American music should be written this way.

FJO: And I’ve read that you’re also a composer.

CH: Well, I was a composer. I haven’t written anything for a long time. But I did major in composition, and I taught for a number of years at the Cincinnati Conservatory; that was my first full-time teaching job. And I did a great deal of composing there.

FJO: Was your music as poly-stylistic as this book is?

CH: No, I’m afraid not. The music I was writing was pretty much on the model that other contemporary composers were writing. What happened is that my musical judgment outstripped my ability as a composer and I began seeing my own music as not very good.

FJO: Is there any way to hear any of your music at this point?

CH: Not really. And I think you’d be disappointed.

FJO: I doubt that’s true, but let’s get back to the book and the zeitgeist in which it was first written. There were other books written around that time which aspired to the full range of music being considered equally—I’m thinking of New York Times critic John Rockwell’s biographical survey of living composers, All American Music, and ethnomusicologist John Blacking’s more philosophical A Commonsense View of All Music, which is a book that is still extremely meaningful to me. But because Music in the New World is designed as a music history, it feels even more all-encompassing than either of those books.

CH: John Rockwell’s book, of course, drew on the experience of the music he heard as a music critic and that range was not as wide as what I dealt with in my book.

FJO: But he caused a similar stir. I think people were really surprised to see chapters on Neil Young and Milton Babbitt in the same book.

CH: I agree with you about that book. But you know, my book was written on commission to accompany the original Rockefeller Foundation supported set of one hundred representative recordings of American music issued on New World Records for the bicentennial. So I was actually commissioned to write a book that would reflect the range of New World Records, except that there were no records for much of the music that I wrote about. And I did write that book rather rapidly. But I was given funds to hire a research assistant which was a great help—the only time in my life I had that luxury. New World had the idea that interest in these records might increase if there were a text to accompany them.

FJO: Well, I do think that the book was written in such a way that even someone who does not have a formal background in music can readily understand everything you write about. Someone with an interest in American history, for example, would really get quite a lot from this book.

CH: That’s what I tried to do.

FJO: Having appeal to a broad audience is something that comes up again and again in discussions about how people should present information about “classical music,” for lack of a better term.

CH: I don’t know what else to call it, either.

FJO: I was particularly drawn to the chapter in Music in the New World where you analyze the impact mid-20th century European immigrant composers had on American classical music culture, particularly on composers born here such as Roger Sessions who were influenced by them. I wanted to talk about your assessment in the book that this music never quite got an audience.

CH: I felt very strongly at that time that something had gone awry. Contemporary American classical music really had almost no audience, which is something that had never happened before.

FJO: In the years since this book was first published, do you feel there has been positive change?

CH: I think so.

FJO: I would think you’ve been thrilled to see many of the walls breaking down between various musical genres?

CH: There’s no question about that. I taught at Dartmouth College before I retired. And Dartmouth College sponsored a series of classical music, as do most academic institutions. When I first came, these were all “classical” in the old sense of the word. But over the years, they began bringing in people like Laurie Anderson and popular composers. I think the same thing has happened in concert series throughout the country; there’s a much wider range in subscription series concerts.

FJO: Do you think those audiences cross over?

CH: I think so.

FJO: So, if you were to rewrite the book today, what would be different?

CH: The book was published in 1983 and a great deal of music has been written and performed since that time that my book doesn’t deal with. For example, there’s nothing in my book about rap or more recent trends in so-called classical music, so if I did rewrite the book I would have to add a great deal of material. Rap would be its own separate chapter. But I have no intention of doing that! This question has come up repeatedly with Yesterdays because Norton has considered a revised version and several other publishers thought of having it too. But I resisted doing that because I think the book is what it is. I don’t think I would change the basic assumptions of that book. And I don’t think I would change the basic assumptions of Music in the New World, either.

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A collection of Hamm’s essays, Putting Popular Music In Its Place (Cambridge, 2003)

FJO: Do you feel that the rise of personal computers and the internet has had an impact on music that could possibly change some of these assumptions at some point?

CH: It certainly has changed the way that music is disseminated and listened to and the way that music is written, too. Anyone with a computer now can not only compose music but arrange it as well. There’s an incredible increase in diversity in the kind of things that can be done with computers and music. But I can’t even imagine writing about that.

FJO: Might the internet also be starting to seriously break down national boundaries and identities perhaps to the point where one day it might seem odd to think of music that is specific to a geopolitical entity such as the United States? In the first years of the 21st century, it already feels like the direction things are going in.

CH: That’s a very complicated question. Boundaries have been broken geographically of course by technology, particularly computers, but I think there still is some specifically American music and the rest of the world recognizes that.

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