H. Wiley Hitchcock: Changing History

Getting Exposed to American Music

FRANK J. OTERI: To take this history back even further to your first background in music, I was curious when I learned that your early work was on 17th century Baroque music. What led you to the interest in American music?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: My father. When I was a boy growing up near Detroit, Michigan, where my father worked, my father was crazy about music of all kinds—classical music, popular music, jazz (swing, of the time), musical comedies, you name it. The young Frank Sinatra I first heard at Eastwood Gardens, just outside Detroit, singing with Tommy Dorsey‘s band. My father took me into Detroit time and time again to hear music of all kinds, and to that is what I owe my first interest in American music. I grew up with it and it was my vernacular. I even helped organize and played in a little jazz band in school. We called it the Rhythm Wreckers [laughs]. I gave up playing jazz when I went to college, but kept up my work in piano.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you were a pianist in the jazz band?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Well, no, as a matter of fact I played sax and clarinet.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow! You don’t play anymore?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: No, I don’t.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you still play the piano?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yes. I don’t practice anymore, but I noodle and improvise for my own amusement.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you came to do this book on American music, to take it back to 1969 again, what was the general reception, because there weren’t a lot of courses devoted specifically to American music at universities at that point?

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Absolutely not! The composer Ross Lee Finney came to the University of Michigan after I’d begun my graduate study there. He immediately galvanized the place. By that time I had given up the idea that I was a real composer—although I’d composed quite a bit—but I was crazy about composition, new compositions, composers, and I sat in on Ross Finney’s weekly seminar for his composition students, by his permission—never missed a one of those. Ross was very proud that he had taught a course on American music at Smith College, where he had been in the 1930s, preceding his tenure at Michigan in the 1940s. And he played guitar and he sang to the guitar, mostly folk music, and we did a lot of talking about American music and its history and so on. In fact, he published a review of that very book of mine that we’ve been talking about. So that was one precedent—Ross’s course. Also there was a professor named Raymond Kendall with whom I studied when I was an undergraduate in the early 1940s, just before I had to leave to serve in World War II, and again as a graduate student at Michigan after the war. And in a seminar of his, I remember doing a term paper on film music for The Best Years of Our Lives, a post-World War II movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that film.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I’ve seen it; it’s almost 3 hours long…

H. WILEY HITCHCOCK: Yes. In any case, Kendall interested me again in American music as an academic. So I had this encouragement. But they were very unusual, not perhaps unique, but very unusual.