A brief meditation on Ching-a-ring Chaw

I was inspired to write this by Doug Yeo’s fascinating and disturbing essay on a trombone classic. While I never played Lassus Trombone, I have listened to many recordings by artists I admire greatly. To briefly summarize: Mr. Yeo makes a clear and convincing case that Lassus Trombone has no place in the modern trombone repertoire. Lassus Trombone was not merely written by a bigot, but was composed and marketed by the composer to re-enforce racist stereotypes. No matter how fun a piece is or how well it shows off most trombonists’ favorite technique, we should not play it.

The uncomfortable truth is that if we stopped playing music by every racist, misogynist or anti-semite, there would be little music left to perform. Music is a mirror of its time and place. Music is written by humans to express their highest ideals or give their inner demons form. Indeed the world would be poorer without the music of Wagner with its dramatic sweeping saga of the foibles of humanity. Besides, how many of us secretly enjoy singing “kill the waabit,” at full volume? Smile. Even as an ardent feminist, I can still enjoy the music of Carlo Gesualdo despite knowing he killed his first wife. After singing the soprano chorus parts of The Messiah, I can well believe the, perhaps apocryphal, tale that Handel once settled a dispute with a soprano by dangling her out a fourth floor window. Much as I think The Messiah is overdone, I cannot imagine life without the music of Handel.

What then do we with a piece composed by a progressive who was trying to preserve America’s unique musical legacy? I am speaking of Ching-a-ring Chaw by Aaron Copland. I’ve long had a soft spot for Copland. As a young musician, hearing a recording “Fanfare for the Common Man” moved me tremendously. Singing his arrangements of Shaker Hymns as a young musician gave me confidence and helped me grow. The songs are simple enough to flatter a young voice, but still enjoyable to sing as a more developed musician. Ching-a-ring Chaw was originally a minstrel song and quite racist. Copland included the song in his Old American Songs set. Copland changed the lyrics so they were not racist. But can a song with racist origins be rehabilitated? For me, the answer is a solid maybe, in certain contexts. Nevertheless, I have to wonder why is it so important to perform this composition when Copland left so much work that does not have such a problematic origin story.

I had to confront this question when my chorus chose to do Ching-a-ring Chaw. While I think there are appropriate performance contexts for Copland’s arrangement, there is not context in which I can imagine the original version being acceptable. If a chorus is doing Copland’s American Songbook, then perhaps It is appropriate to include this sanitized version as part of the larger whole. Unfortunately, many choruses, including my own, perform it alone because it is a cute song and audiences seem to like it. Fortunately, the chorus ultimately did not perform the piece. Had they gone through with it, I’m not sure I could have participated in that concert.

I have sung in serious classical choruses in four states throughout the mid-west. I can count the number of African-American choristers I know on both hands and still have fingers left over. If we want to create an environment that is welcoming for all musicians, I think we need to do some real soul searching. Is it more important that we continue to perform one “cute” song or is it more important that we make classical music welcoming to all by eliminating racist repertoire? For me, the answer is clear. Copland left a rich legacy of moving and beautiful choral music. We can sacrifice one small part of it in the name of inclusion and anti-racism.