Maybelle Carter

Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) is one of the most influential women of country music. She was discovered along with her cousin/sister-in-law Sarah Carter and brother in law A.P. Carter at the famous Bristol Sessions by Ralph Peer (record executive who invented the term “Hillbilly” records) In 1927 the eight month pregnant Maybelle traveled with her family with the promise of $50 a song.

They ended up recording more than one song for Mr. Ralph Peer that day; in fact they recorded six songs. It was a bit perplexing how little A.P. actually did. He knew that the talent belonged to Sarah and Maybelle, whose rich harmonies carried over their autoharp and guitar while A.P. added some bass harmonies from time to time.

Hearing herself on the recording for the first time was a shocking experience for Maybelle Carter. She described it saying, “When we made the record and played it back I thought it couldn’t be, I just couldn’t believe it, this being so unreal, you standing there and singing and they’d turnaround and play it back to you.” The Carters headed home, pleased with their $300, but not thinking much else of their recording adventure. Much to their surprise, their records started to show up in stores and they began receiving modest royalty checks. They then went and recorded another album, this time featuring some of their most famous songs like “Wildwood Flower” and “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man”

Along with these songs came the famous Carter scratch from Maybelle. This is still one of the standard techniques on the guitar in which the melody is played on the lower strings while rhythm strumming is maintained on the higher strings. This technique brought the guitar into the lead instrument status. Mama Maybelle will always be remembered for this.

Maybelle earned the nickname “Mama” for a couple of reasons. First of all she was an actual mother to the Carter sisters: Helen, June (later Carter-Cash) and Anita. Eventually they expanded the group to include these girls. As well as being a literal mother, Maybelle acted as a mother to all of country music. Hank William’s was one of the first to refer to her as “Mama” because of the way she was a surrogate mother to him, and soon most of the Grand Ole Opry followed suit. Everyone made sure to watch his or her manners around Mama Maybelle.

Mama Maybelle was trailblazer. She set the standards of harmony singing and guitar playing technique. It is impossible to know just how far her influence has reached. From her immediate family like June, to her extended family like Johnny, from her Grand Ole Opry co-stars to her many, many fans who emulate her style, Mama Maybelle has forever left her mark on American music history.

If you are interested in learning more about Mama Maybelle, any of the other Carters, or the country music industry in general I recommend the book Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg.

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Amy Fay

There are a couple of reasons that I chose to write my first blog on Amy Fay. The first reason is that I just finished a paper on her for my master’s seminar in Historical Musicology, so I’m pretty brushed up on my information about her. Second of all I am intrigued by the title of her biography, Amy Fay: America’s Notable Woman of Music. I’m not sure if the problem is that I really take issue with the title, I think I am just a little uncomfortable with it. I sincerely believe that Amy Fay is a notable woman of music in America, I just don’t think she is the only one as the title somewhat insinuates. Last, Amy Fay wrote many articles in journals like Etude in around the turn of the century, one of which was titled “Women and Music” in the journal Music in October 1900. The poignancy of this article for a woman 111 years later is startling and I feel perfectly introduces why I am working on this project.

Amy Fay was born May 21, 1844 in Bayou Goula, Louisiana. One of seven children, she was taught by her mother and older sisters (after her mother’s death) music in the home. This was a standard practice for girls in America. Eventually her sister, Zina Fay Peirce, was able to use her Cambridge connections to help Amy get piano lessons with some of America’s best teachers, first composer and pianist Otto Dressel, a Prussian immigrant and then John Knowles Paine, Harvard’s first professor of music. After her piano skills surpassed her educational opportunities available in the States she did what most musicians (but few female musicians) did: went to study in Germany.

Once Fay arrived in Germany she first sought to study in the conservatory of Carl Tausig, whom Paine had described to her as playing, “like forty thousand devils”. She studied with Tausig for a year before he suddenly closed his school. Fay then moved on to study with Theodore Kullak for 3 years before moving on to her most famous teacher, Franz Liszt. She studied with Liszt for 5 months before Liszt left for Rome and she finished her time in Germany with Ludwig Deppe for a year and a half before returning home. All in all, Fay spent 6 years studying the piano in Germany.

While Fay was abroad she wrote letters constantly to her sister, Zina. Zina saw potential in these letters and eventually had them compiled and published into what would be Fay’s legacy, a book called Music-Study in Germany. In Fay’s lifetime alone the book saw 25 printings and was translated into German and French with forewords by George Grove and Vincent d’Indy.  The book was enthralling because in a colloquial style Fay proceeded to bring to life living conditions, fashion, musical culture and celebrities for the American public. Her character sketches of Franz Liszt are still an important resource for Liszt scholars today.

When Fay returned to the United States she quickly immersed herself in the American music scene. She immediately played concerts in New York and Cambridge. One of the first concerts she played was with the famous orchestra conductor Theodore Thomas. This was a great opportunity for a woman like Fay, or any musician in the United States for that matter. Her biographer Margaret William McCarthy describes the opportunity saying, “Of all the opportunities an aspiring musician could hope for, none could surpass this chance presented to Amy. Theodore Thomas was, after all, one of the leading conductors in the world who had stimulated growth and development of sophisticated audiences for symphonic music in the United States.” Eventually Thomas would go on to marry Rose Fay (Amy’s sister and the topic of another blog) and would partner with Amy’s brother Norman to begin the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Among Amy’s other musical accomplishments includes the beginning of many amateur music clubs. These clubs gave the opportunity for women to hone their musical skills, playing for one another and in concert as well as act as patrons for the arts. Along with her sister Rose, Amy began The Amateur Music Club, one of Chicago’s most important music clubs, and the Artists’ Concert Club. Amy also helped her sister Zina begin the Women’s Philharmonic Society in New York City.

Fay, while a talented pianist, suffered from nerves. One way she found to help ease her nerves was to give her concerts in the form of “Piano Conversations” where she would give a brief talk before each piece she played. These conversations were wildly popular and soon many other people began to imitate what may very well of been Fay’s invention of the modern lecture recital. Between her talks and the many student’s Fay had in both Chicago and New York, Fay was responsible for much musical learning in the United States at the time.

Finally, I would like to add to Fay’s many accomplishments, how she felt about being an American woman musician. She had a great influence on music in the United States, playing, teaching and writing but also in setting the standard for music study abroad. With her wide view of music, both in the United States and in Europe, Fay developed some very important views about women in musical culture. In her article, Women and Music, she tackles the question of why, to this point, there have been so few women composers. She quotes an article from the Musical Times that reads:

“It is impossible to find a single woman’s name worthy to take rank with Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Brahms, Wagner, Schubert; we cannot even find one to place beside Balfe or Sir Arthur Sullivan. As a writer to the Musical Times remarked nearly twenty years since, “A few gifted members of the sex have even more or less fortunate in their emulation of men, and that is all. Not a single great work can be traced to a feminine pen” Nothing has been done since to lessen the truth of this remark. Year by year or great festivals produce new works; it is rare for even a minor production to be from the pen of a woman”

This obviously does not sit well with Fay and she returns with many valid points. The first of which, she cites that if the world is in fact 50,000 years old (Fay’s estimate, not my own) then why did it take from 48,000 years ago till the seventeenth century to create a great male composer. She also cites that within this time women have been dedicated to bolstering the males in their lives, supporting them in their musical endeavors without the opportunity to seek their own. She cites that women are now discovering their own musical style, “Women are beginning to realize that they, too, have brains, and even musical ones. They are, at last, studying composition seriously, and will, ere long, feel out a path for themselves, instead of being “mere imitators of men’” and she fully expects the great American woman composer to materialize quickly saying, “It has required 50,000 years to produce a male Beethoven, surely one little century ought to be vouchsafed to create a female one!”

Fay makes many critical points, citing women’s history, education history and music history, and many of her points ring true with readers of the 21st century. I have often spoken with musicians who have said, “I just prefer a male conductor, I’ve never had a female one who’s any good”. Unfortunately I doubt they realize that the first doctorate in conducting was not given to a woman until well into the second half of the twentieth century. Many people proudly proclaim “I hate listening to women composers, they only compose weird stuff!” Well hopefully I can change a few minds about women in music. I know Amy Fay did.


The American Musical Woman Project

I’m American. I’m a woman. I’m musical.

I look through the history book… and where are the others like me?

My name is Megan MacDonald and I am an aspiring musicologist. I am working on my masters degree at The Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fl, and as a matter of fact, as of today and I am half way done with said master’s degree.

As far as research interests go I am always drawn to American music, the culture, the people, the history. It is so rich and diverse, providing a wealth of research opportunities. And as we are well into 2011 thankfully women have made it into our history books and into our musical culture, but they are still severely underrepresented in comparison to their male counterparts.

I want to know about the women in our history. I want to know what they did and who they were. I want to know how they made music when they were not given the same opportunities as men. I want to know how people reacted to them. I want to know how they fostered American musical culture through patronage. I want to know the difference they made in American music culture.

And I want you to know too.

So there is a purpose for this blog: to champion the American musical woman. This will be a summer project to educate myself, and hopefully you as well. I want to find the performers, composers, clubwomen, and teachers. I am going to start with a few women I am familiar with and then they will lead me to the other women in their lives. If  you have a favorite woman please comment and I will add her to my list.

If we accept that there was ever a point in history where women were not actively a part of music culture, we are accepting a lie. As an academic I refuse to accept that. We need to look a little deeper.

I’m not exactly certain where this journey will take me, or shape it will take along the way, but I am excited to see. Please join me on this journey.