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Harry Partch, Hobo Composer

Harry Partch, Hobo Composer

Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 386
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  • Book Info
    Harry Partch, Hobo Composer
    Book Description:

    During the Great Depression, Harry Partch rode the railways, following the fruit harvest across the country. From his experience among hoboes he found what he called "a fountainhead of pure musical Americana." Although he later wrote immense stage works for instruments of his own creation, he is still regularly called a hobo composer for the compositions that grew out of this period of his life. Yet few have questioned the label's impact on his musical output, compositional life, and reception. Focusing on Partch the person alongside the cultural icon he represented, this study examines Partch from historical, cultural, political, and musical perspectives. It outlines the cultural history of the hobo from the mid-1800s through the 1960s, as well as those figures associated with the hobo's image. It explores how Partch's music, which chronicled a disappearing subculture, was received, and how the composer ultimately engaged and frustrated popular conceptions of the hobo. And it follows Partch's later years to question his response to the hobo label and the ways in which others used it to define and contain him for over thirty years. S. Andrew Granade is an Associate Professor of Musicology in the Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-865-7
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. PROLOGUE: To Sound American
    (pp. 1-22)

    This is the story of a man who became a hobo out of necessity and remained one for its freedoms. It is the story of a composer who rejected the tenets of music as he found them and sought to return music to its roots. It is the story of American music, and how music reflects and reacts with the culture in which it lives. It is the story of Harry Partch and his music.

    Two important questions frame this story: “Why Harry Partch?” and “Why hoboes?” Those questions entwine in all the scholarship and literature on this uniquely American...

    (pp. 23-45)

    In the second part of Jack Kerouac’s novelOn the Road(first published in 1957), narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty pile into a car with Dean’s wife Marylou and Ed Dunkel, and take off from the East Coast headed for California. Watching the miles slip away beneath them, Sal exults, “We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time,move…. [Dean] and I suddenly saw the whole country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl...

    (pp. 46-62)

    When Harry Partch began picking fruit, riding the rails, sleeping under the stars, and discovering the bounty and arduousness of hobo life in 1928, that very existence was vanishing from the American scene. Having filled the West, railroad mileage peaked during the Great War and then slowly began decreasing, restricting the hobo’s movement. Tractors, combines, chain saws, and steam shovels all came into widespread use in the years after the war as machines replaced human labor.¹ As settled towns sprang up throughout the West, timber, mining, and farming companies began to rely on a local labor force instead of a...

    (pp. 63-87)

    Harry Partch’s year in Europe could hardly have been more productive or promising. Upon arriving in London in the fall of 1934, he quickly ensconced himself in the British Museum, where he poured over ancient manuscripts on tuning and began sketching out an idiosyncratic history of the practice. He made his way to Dublin to meet with W. B. Yeats, explain how he used the intoning voice in setting speech to music, demonstrate his theories, and receive enthusiastic affirmation from the poet. He met with Arnold Dolmetsch to discuss new musical instruments and with Kathleen Schlesinger, who was then working...

    (pp. 88-109)

    Dorothea Lange’s reputation as the most astute photographic chronicler of the Great Depression provides ample reason to examine two of her photographs of hoboes and transients, both as prelude and accompaniment to Harry Partch’s musical journalBitter Music. In many ways, these three works of art achieve a certain synergy. Partch’s words reveal the minds of the men Lange’s camera captured, sharing their passions, their failures, their sense of humor, their sense of themselves and of the world around them, and all the quixotic depths of their characters. His music floats their words through time to conjure them afresh for...

    (pp. 110-128)

    As the 1940s dawned, Harry Partch was looking toward a new horizon, turning away from menial labor and its associations with the migrant and moving back into contact with musical society. Part of his new attitude toward the culture he felt had rejected him came from the increasing hardships, both physical and psychological, of his nomadic existence. The freedom he initially sought was constantly undercut by Californians’ attitudes toward migrant workers and the sheer number looking for work: near Marysville he noted that “there were at least a hundred peach pickers for every job, and the banks of the American...

    (pp. 129-143)

    In order to understand fully why Partch adopted the hobo persona, we must first explore the hobo as construed by artists, writers, filmmakers, and the news media. Decades of use by various crusaders, intellectuals, and politicians created a multilayered image of the hobo by the 1930s and 1940s, which Partch accessed as a way to define himself. Most Americans of the time fell roughly into two camps in their attitudes toward the hobo. One side viewed the hobo as a rugged American individualist, flouting the law to live as he liked and reveling in the absolute freedom to control his...

  12. CHAPTER FIVE U.S. HIGHBALL: Becoming a Musical Hobo
    (pp. 144-197)

    Barstowclearly placed Partch on a new compositional path, but two final years of homeless wandering passed before he began to travel it. When he did return to the hobo in his music, he crafted a composition that became the cornerstone of his passage from the hobo jungles to the periphery of the American musical culture that he so scorned. That piece, based likeBarstowon scribbled passages from a pocket notebook that reveled in hobo voices, was substantively different from the hitchhiker-inscribed work. These scribbled passages were words spoken by and to the composer, and the hobo voices were...

    (pp. 198-218)

    During the time that Harry Partch rode the rails and then transformed those trips into musical form, American perception of the hobo was shifting once more. Through the late 1930s and early 1940s nostalgia grew for pre-Depression hoboes in response to the situation brewing with migrants and transients on the West Coast. This transition can best be seen in the 1940New York Times Magazinearticle “That Vanishing American, the Hobo.”¹ The article opens with the stark observation that the hobo population had fallen from a high of a million and a half in the late 1920s to 25,000. Author...

    (pp. 219-251)

    Harry Partch was a hobo composer. At least, that was the impression held by most musicians living and working in New York City during World War II. It was an image that made him moderately successful at the time and inspired most of his music from the period, but it is also one that has clouded Partch’s biography. Seeking to view this pivotal time anew, this chapter picks up the threads of Partch’s life from completingBarstowand making his “transcontinental hobo trip” in September 1941 to his League of Composers’ concert in the spring of 1944 and subsequent move...

    (pp. 252-277)

    When Harry Partch set out on his journeyman’s adventure of securing a Guggenheim Fellowship, completing his proposed catalog of Depression-inspired works, and airing the results in the heady atmosphere of New York City, he carried the weight of his experiences scraping together a living through odd jobs across the western United States. His life as a hobo during the Depression consumed his plans and hopes for the future, but it also gave new direction to the thematic bases of his works and sparked a new, and even greater, period of creative success than he had enjoyed with his first Monophonic...

  16. EPILOGUE: To Be American
    (pp. 278-284)

    In many ways, Harry Partch’s hobo music could have faded away after his death in the early morning of September 3, 1974. His music was so intimately connected with his persona (and he secured most of his performances through sheer force of will) that performances could have stopped. He had turned to recordings early in his career as a workable solution for dissemination of his music, but through those albums, the One Voice most associated with the sound of his music was Partch’s own. Attempts to perform without his voice could have failed, as the recordings make it sound as...

    (pp. 285-288)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 289-326)
    (pp. 327-342)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 343-351)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 352-353)