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Frontier Figures American Music and the Mythology of the American West

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The Wa-Wan and the West

The Ragged Edge of History

If on the afternoon of 27 April 1919, you found yourself seated at the Greek Theatre on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, you would have witnessed and most likely been asked to participate in California: A Masque of Music. With musical numbers and libretto crafted by Arthur Farwell and personnel recruited from the ranks of the Berkeley Music Department, the masque places a toga-clad personification of California in the company of the muses: "California! {apos}tis a name Worthy of Apollo's nine; {apos}tis music's self/Soft syllabled upon the silent air." Only six of the nine muses grace the stage, but California seems destined to join their number if she can pass the musical "tests" set forth by Apollo and the Spirit of Ancient Greece. Having produced the requisite instrumentalists from isolated corners of the outdoor amphitheater, California musters her forces for the final test: choral song. "From hill, from canyon, shore and fragrant grove,/From city, vineyard, white Sierras' snows,/With summons far I call you to this shrine/... O noble children of our Western world."

Springing as it does from the mouth of California, "our Western world" is a deliberately ambiguous phrase, and this ambiguity lies at the heart of Farwell's West. If early twentieth-century California represented the endpoint of westward expansion in the United States, the golden reward of America's Manifest Destiny, it also occupied a special spot on the continuum of "Western civilization." Though mythological, the masque is set explicitly in "the present," and it privileges symbolic meanings over strict adherence to chronology. In the first scene, for example, three groups are conjured up in turn to sing Farwell's own arrangements. Each chorus features a tune transcribed by an ethnologist, and each setting reflects the tension that would forever mark Farwell's approach to the West: on the one hand, a scientific emphasis on anthropological fact; on the other, a subjective identification bordering on rapture:

"First let the red race speak, whose plaintive strain/Charms the divinities of wood and plain." (The division of the chorus on one side, accompanied by the orchestra, sings the "Bird Dance of the Cahuillas")

"The black race now, redeemed from slavery's smart,/Pathetic-humorous in its artless art." (The division of the chorus on the other side sings the "Moanin' Dove")

"Last the bold race who bore across the main/To California's shores, romantic Spain."

(Both divisions of the chorus together sing "Chata cara de bule.")

This gradual introduction of ethnic groups reflects something other than actual demographic data. While it might make historical sense to give Indians pride of place, the Spanish settled California long before there was a substantial black population-let alone an English-speaking, spiritual-singing black population. Instead, it is tempting to see in this ethnic procession Farwell's implicit judgment about the relative usefulness of each group's music to the task at hand: ensuring that the western United States could take up the artistic mantle of ancient Greece.

For Farwell, Indian song represented a uniquely valuable resource and a necessary starting point in the creation of "a new art-life" for America-a project in which black music occupied an explicit but historically uncomfortable middle ground. While Farwell recognized the spiritual as a resource for the community singing movement, he preferred to speak of "Spanish folksongs" whose value was in his eyes "beyond all power to estimate or predict." Therefore, in the masque, it is "romantic Spain" who eventually ascends to stand beside California and the muses.

But this is not where Farwell's California masque ends. After the choral groups unite and ascend the stage, they perform music that emphasizes the union of diverse populations and draws the largely Anglo audience into Farwell's vision: a medley of university fight songs, followed by "Hail California." The Spirit of Ancient Greece reminds California that song holds the key to national cohesion. The chorus responds with Farwell's wartime anthem "Our Country's Prayer," sparking an on-stage discussion of religion. The Spirit of Ancient Greece invokes Almighty Zeus, but her plea goes unanswered. Instead, the aud