For all the years I was in a wind band, we never once played a march by John Philip Sousa. As far as I can tell, the reason why we this never happened was that in high school, his music was too hard, and in the University, it was too low brow.
It's really strange when you think about it, because the bands themselves pretty much owe their popular existence to Sousa...it would be like orchestras never playing Beethoven! Or movie theatres never screening Chaplin. Or televisions never showing Milton Berle, all the time.
However, one thing I can say is that I'm not sure that even if we had performed Sousa, we could have ever performed the suite from which the title of this post is derived, mainly because the piece is, um, racist.
In three movements, Red Man, White Man, and, yes, Black Man, the work explores the musical characteristics of the various races, or, more appropriately, one of the genders of the various races, or, uh, one of the genders of one of the various colours of North American peopl...yeah.
It's kind of a minefield, isn't it? He does this kind of flutey thing in the Red Man, and a cakewalk for the Black Man, and it's pretty easy to go, yeah, back in the day, this kind of music, as cultural shorthand, probably worked. As it still does, despite the fact that the "popularity" of something like the cakewalk meant "popularity in the white community", something that rather pervades to this day. (Rap, anyone?)
Which is exactly the problem with Dwellers of the Western World. The music paints in broad strokes, but I wonder, when white people listen to the White Man, do they sit there and go, yup, that chorale in the middle of the movement, that's my music, this music characterizes us.
I suspect not, and yet I suspect the outer movements would have the opposite effect, because they are there precisely to characterize.
My evidence? How about the fact that the Red Man and Black Man movements are less than half the size of White Man? And that neither movement is as musically sophisticated as the middle movement?
Let's say he'd called the work the On America Suite, and he'd named the first movement On the Plains, the Second In the Bandshell, and the Third On the Dance Floor, things might have been more ambiguous. Which is just the way we like things now, isn't it? Ambiguous enough that people might think you're doing something inappropriate, but you're really not, or vice versa?
So it's not much of a stretch to see the Dwellers of the Western World as a fairly concise overview of race perceptions and relations in America at the turn of the Century. That Sousa, ever the populist, is well known for playing straight down the middle when it came to his crowd, makes this supposition that much more plausible.
That these works were intended as entertainment brings home this point - in explicitly expressing these racial cultural stereotypes to his audience, Sousa is also reinforcing them.
But it's a nice piece - so what can one do with it? I don't know if explaining any of this in the program notes does the trick, because the music itself is coded along racial lines...or maybe I'm just too senstitive about all this stuff. Yes, maybe I just need to be less sensitive...
Beyond that, any thoughts?