Poppy Ott and the American Cultural Anxiety

One of the relatively gentle dissonances of growing up somewhat biculturally in the U.S. (in this case, with Jewish cultural values in an area where there were few other Jews) was the up-is-down relationship of home culture to majority culture.  At school, boys were not supposed to be smart or get good grades because these weren’t manly qualities; I would occasionally try to play the part, failing spectacularly and earning parental ire in the process, because especially boys should study, should be smart, shouldn’t waste their time with athletics, etc.  It was not traumatic (and I can’t blame my non-athleticism on my home culture, either); it was just part of the process.  My parents were both first-generation Americans.

Music presented a special problem, though.  Of course we were given piano lessons, and I—even with awful practice habits, exacerbated by parental nagging—sort of took to it.  But being good at music is a girlie pursuit, nicht wahr?  Who wins the interest of the girls, the kickball and basketball guys or the chubby kid at the piano playing, initially, slop from the John Thompson books?  (In fairness, my hardass cowboy cousin always told us to stick with the piano because later on the girls would be around us while “us studs would be by the back wall, twiddling our thumbs.”  Then again, he always wanted me to play “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” so I didn’t listen all that closely.)

But—music being magic—utter craziness could happen.  When there was a school-wide talent show in fifth grade, I played Jack Fina’s “Bumble Boogie,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only ten-year-old to go from zero to hero with that one.  Since the one thing I always had was fast fingers, I got a day of celebrity, popularity, smiles from girls (including…sixth-graders!!) and even tougher, usually contemptuous boys), before sinking back into my customary social marginalization and sub-athletic hopelessness.  Later that year, I got a similar reaction to Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca”—there’s that fast Gypsy fiddle bit in the middle.

Of course, it was all about to change—the kids who could play guitar and get in bands were about to take over the social hierarchy (not the pianists, as a rule), and even if you thought of singing high as really really girlie, then welcome to the American popular music that, influenced by the music of the Black church, that completely turned that one on its head.  Still, this is the nature of popular culture, and children’s interactions with it:  we used to like this, but now we like that, and we used to believe this but now we believe that.  Being is change, as Heraclitus would have said if he spoke English.

Much has been made of our American distrust of higher culture, the implications of class, effeteness, softness and so on associated with it.  Charles Ives’s father was a bandleader in the Civil War; to read John Philip Sousa’s autobiography is to witness strutting and braggadocio on an epic scale.  I’ve begun to suspect, though, that Americans have been less afraid of the music itself than resistant to the mediation, the finger-wagging, sit-there-and-behave-children-ness of it, the (for lack of a better way of putting it) the Music Appreciation of it, if by appreciation we mean “listen to the nice story the Sorceror’s Apprentice is recounting.  Do you hear it?  Good.  Now draw a picture about it, and you can go out to recess.”  It’s not the music, it’s the cod-liver-oil dosages of it with no option for appeal.

This came to mind recently as I recalled a passage from a book I read as a kid.  We are in Tutter, Illinois, a lovely, fictitious Hometown, U.S.A., in the late 1920s.  The drammatis personnæ of the following passage include narrator Jerry Todd, the clever and resourceful Poppy Ott, one of his best friends), Sylvester Gimp III (“Silly Gimp”—a pretentious local rich kid who ties to impress the girls with his piano-playing and cultural airs), Tessie, someone’s cousin who visited Hollywood once and lives a fantasy life based on that experience, and Marjorie, host of the party, pal of Jerry and Poppy.  Jerry had his own series (Jerry Todd and the Whispering Mummy, …and the Rose-Colored Cat, etc.), which antedated the Poppy Ott series by a few years.  My father loved these books as a boy, and saved his copies; my brother has those and I have a few of my own, for the most part the fruits of father-son forays into used bookstores in my distant youth.  It seems to me now that the general tone Edwards (real name: Edward Edson Lee, 1884–1944) was trying to achieve was that of Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer: light, with pleasantly informal and believably vernacular dialogue, with each book providing an increasingly climactic series of adventures leading to some kind of payoff or solution—the sort of thing, in other words, a red-blooded American boy might want to read a dozen or more times.  I certainly did, decades later.

By the late 1960s, though, these books were historical documents—fun on their own merits, to pre-teens with a highly developed taste for historical camp, but also wonderful windows into the popular culture of the first third of the twentieth century.  One of them persistently spelled girl “gurl,” one used “kerb” rather than “curb,” and there were other oddities.  To follow the adventures, one had to figure out what a scow was, get used to the word “flivver,” and put oneself in the idealized boy’s life of the time, where all the parents were looking out for you, all your friends were true-blue, and the bad guys were all ill-favored and squint-eyed and came from the wrong part of town.  Also there was a section called “Our Chatter-Box,” where the author answered letters from admirers, and one found, there, the casual racism and anti-Semitism of the time.  You got used to it.

So here we are at the party; Silly Gimp is sitting down to play.

Having produced a roll of music of his own, Paderewski, II, strutted over to the piano, where Tessie had already becomingly draped herself.

“I’m going to look into your eyes all the time you are playing,” she cooed.

“My inspiration,” breathed Silly.

And did I ever feel like heaving up!

“First,” says Tutter’s musical prodigy, talking like a radio announcer, “you will hear Mozart’s Minuette from the E flat Symphony.  There is no name in the whole history of music, I might say, around which time has thrown such a glamour of romance as that of Mozart.  In the opening measure of this famous composition you will first detect the festal pomp, so characteristic of Mozart’s art.  Liveliness and coquettish sweetness ring out in the melodic steps.  It is like laughter and chat intermixed.” 


After tickling the piano keys he got up and made another announcement.

“In the following trio begins a more flowing melody which is treated in the dialogue manner and forcibly suggests a conversation still in the mood of delicate raillery and exhaustless good humor.”

Yet nobody fainted!  Which shows you what rugged constitutions the Tutter people have, even the kids.

“And now,’ the presiding genius made his final memorized announcement, ‘a slight tinge of distress and insistence calls upon the mood of the composer.  The gayety [sic], however, is quickly resumed and the badinage which, true to the nature of the composer, never degenerates below a level of intellectual refinement and charming courtesy, brings us to close.”

Which, I’ll have to admit, came to nearly to knocking us out that the most of us forgot to applaud.

“And now,” says Marjorie, turning to Poppy, “let us hear from you.”

“Haw! haw! haw!” jeered Silly, satisfied with the show that he had made of himself.  “This is going to be funny.”

What would Poppy do, I wondered, kind of anxious-like, hating to think that he would have to take a back seat.  For I happened to know that his musical education had started and stopped with that two-fingered tune called “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-Eater.”  I guess you know that one.  Practically every kid does.

There was a ripple of laughter as Poppy gravely positioned his music on the piano rack.  For it wasn’t music at all, but the cover of a mail-order catalog.

“First,” he says, in imitation of the his musical rival, now smugly taking in the performance, confident, of course, that no one could beat him, “you’ll hear the melodic strains of the Kitchenette, in three movements, that immortal composition of the famous Russian composer, Ivan Awful Itch.  As I play the first movement, imagine yourselves in a deep forest.  There, beside a purling brook, sit two lovers.  They represent youth, fire, gayety and promise.  They are tenderly soaking their feet in the water.  And the little fish, as they swim around and around the two pairs of bare feet, his pair and her pair, hole their little noses.  Why, you ask sensibly, do not the little fish, as they gasp for air, swim away?  Ah, ha!  Therein lies the secret of Ivan Awful Itch’s immortal art.  The poor little fish never had been taught to swim in a straight line.  They are doomed unless the lovers soon remove their feet from the purling brook.”

Well, say, you should have heard those kids yell!  It was a regular riot.

Then, having gravely played his one and only tune, Poppy further announced:

“In the second movement, we see the same forest.  But here is depicted, in somber tones, the serious side of life.  There is less gayety and more responsibility.  The lovers are now husband and wife.  The purling brook is frozen.  The trees are bare.  They are, in fact, entirely too bare.  And having gravely considered the situation the local committee on civic reform has decreed that each and every bare limb must have a stocking of its own.  Now as I unfold the story to you in harmony you will hear the bar limbs twittering to one another.  Great is their indignation.  They asked for pink stockings.  They ordered pink stockings.  They expected pink stockings.  But, alas, they got green stockings instead.”

Following which the musician played the second verse of his abbreviated repertoire, or whatever you call it.

“And now,” he arose the third time, “we have the concluding movement of this famous suite.  Old age and a well-spent life is our musical theme.  We see the aged husband and wife in their humble abode.  The good wife is busy in the kitchen, from which this immortal composition gets its title.  She is cooking.  What is she cooking?  Can’t you smell it?  No?  Well, then, before I tell you in terms of exquisite harmony—harmony that stands as an enduring monument to the memory of that grand artist, Ivan Awful Itch—I’ll tell you in words.  She is frying liver and onions.”

“You aren’t funny,” glared Silly, when the thundering applause died out.

“No?” Poppy grinned pleasantly.

“It was absurd,” Tessie loyally tilted her Hollywood nose.  “Positively absurd.”

“I thought it was won-nderful,” Marjorie chimed in spitefully.  “Simply mar-rvelous.”*

The point is not that it’s funny, because if asked I would have to say “Not so’s you’d notice,” and I didn’t find it funny when I was young either.  The object of the satire isn’t the music, though; it’s the über-civilized cultural trappings.  Contrast this with, say, George Antheil’s account of his early childhood in Bad Boy of Music.  He played one of his first “sonatas,” “The Sinking of the Titannic,” and his friends loved it.  So it was probably a semi-improvised Storm piece, itself an offshoot of the battle genre (think The Battle of Prague), but the point is that these guys in Trenton, NJ thought is was fun.  And, probably, loud.

We have far less trouble with the actual music and culture than we do with cultural spoon-feeding and implications that X is higher or better than Y—the originally well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach.  It is that custodians-of-culture posture that makes “cultural elites” (always unidentified, always a clear and present danger) so easy to satirize and vilify, so easy to make you not want to be a part of.  Unfortunately, the schoolmarmish history of American cultural dissemination has left us vulnerable and self-conscious.

What are we really like?  Look at any group of guys in a college dorm room, exultantly playing stuff for each other, comparing fine points, and air-guitaring their ya-yas out.  Remember Bob Edwards on NPR who got to interview Chuck Leavell, he of the classic “Jessica” (Allman Brothers) piano solo, who simply became a gibbering idiot—to Leavell’s gentle amusement—as those listening experiences came flooding back to him.  And think of the colonial-era psalm-singer William Billings’ description of a fuging tune:

Each part striving for mastery and victory.  The audience entertained and delighted, their minds surprisingly agitated and extremely fluctuated, sometimes declaring for one part and sometimes for another.  Now the solemn bass demands their attention; next the manly tenor; now the lofty counter; now the volatile treble!  Now here, now there, now here again!  O inchanting!  O ecstatic!  Rush on, you sons of harmony!

Plug something in, put something on, turn something the hell UP.  And, my countrymen and –women, have a wonderful Fourth!


* Leo Edwards, Poppy Ott and the Prancing Pancake (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1930), 261–66.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Poppy Ott and the American Cultural Anxiety

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    Antheil’s “Sinking of the Titanic” could have been an actual composition. There were dozens of those written—all featuring, natch, “Nearer by God to Thee” at the climactic moment—several of them with that title. I know this because Robert Green, a fellow musicologist at Indiana, once did a paper on music about the Titanic, and the musicologists even gave a solemn performance of one of those at an April Fools Concert one year. (I did the “narration.”) Somewhere I still have copies of a couple of the pieces.

  2. It could have been, sure, but Antheil was a kid. Those programmatic piano fantasies to which you refer are also a Current Project, believe it or not…

    • Peter Alexander says:

      I would see Antheil as a kid MORE likely to play something that was recently off the presses than to venture an improvisation, just like grabbing some fresh ragtime in order to shock the respectable parents. What better way to “epater les bourgeois?” But it could have gone either way. In any case, I will be delighted to learn what you turn up about the Titanic pieces.

  3. Maybe I wasn’t clear. My point was that Antheil had written that Titannic piece. And many parents have been happier with light classics and open “entertainment” than “Classics,” which often bore them and make them uncomfortable. My brother was given “On the Trail,” for example. When she took Piano Pedagogy at the University of Illinois, Debbie would rage about a piece called the “Champagne Toccata,” a something for two pianos/eight hands by William Gillock, of which the teacher said, “Oh, the parents just *love* this one!”

    You be the judge. I lasted about thirty seconds:

    In any case, I suspect Antheil’s parents would have been happier with the Titannic piece than with Bach’s *Art of Fugue* or even Grieg character pieces.

    • Peter Alexander says:

      I made it almost a minute, if you count the introductory titles 🙂
      I get your point now. Sorry to have been a bit thick. I’ve been jumping back between this and reviewing Central City’s “Barber of Seville.”

    • dellantonio says:

      But it’s such fabulous, social-music-making, marvelously vapid musical schlock! Almost like a piano-guitar-hero! I certainly wouldn’t want to to listen to anyone I didn’t know play it — though just to say I did, I watched the whole thing — but if it were my kid playing, I’d sure have the video recorder going. It reminds me of the way I feel about most English madrigals (especially the Morley balletts) and many Italian madrigals pre-Monteverdi Book 5 and Parisian chansons — I think it’s pretty tedious to listen to them, and would stay away from a concert of same, but they’re fun to sing. As social activity, this Champagne Toccata is nifty in my view; on a CD, it would be totally worthless to me.

      Thanks for another awesome chapter in the saga that is Dial M – your storytelling and wit has been missed.

  4. Pingback: I’m better than you | Dial M for Musicology

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