Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Cornett, Vanessa. “‘Which Side Are You on?’: Folk Tune Quotation and Protest in Western Art Music.” Music and Politics 15 (January 2021): 51-69.

Folk songs have long been a vehicle for political activism, and quotations of traditional American protest songs in contemporary art music can serve the same call-to-action function, as exemplified by Frederic Rzewski’s 1979 solo piano ballad Which Side Are You On?. Many of Rzewski’s compositions are explicitly political in nature, expressing outrage toward abuses of power and an affinity for Marxist ideology. Which Side Are You On? is a setting of the union song from the 1930s about the violent struggle to unionize coal mines in Harlan County, Kentucky. Rzewski’s setting opens with disjointed fragments of the tune (at least 205 in total) presented in all twelve keys. At the midpoint of the piece, the fragments begin to rhythmically (but not tonally) join in larger portions of the tune. After that, the performer is instructed to begin improvising in a “sudden radical change” for the same duration as the notated music, representing the other “side” of the struggle, the failure to collectively organize. An eight-measure statement of the entire folk tune in its original key of B minor concludes the piece, creating a clear musical symbol for the power of unionization and solidarity. Through his skillful use of folk tune quotation, Rzewski is able to communicate a political message in an accessible, distinctive way.

Works: Frederic Rzewski: Variations on “¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” (56), Long Time Man (56), Which Side Are You On? (62-66).

Sources: Traditional: El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido (56), It Makes a Long-Time Man Feel Bad (56); Florence Reece (lyricist): Which Side Are You On? (62-66).

Index Classifications: 1900s

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
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