Can you sing the blues if you were raised in the Hamptons?

It has been said that only Frank Sinatra can sing My Way. Similarly, unless you grew up in the Mississippi Delta or were born in the back of a Greyhound bus you have no right to sing the blues. And only if your name is Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland can you do justice to the Mad Scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

When an artist puts their stamp on a work it can elevate that work to a status that places it out of reach of lesser mortals. This is especially true when the artist has lived the experience the music speaks to; the reason Woody Guthrie sounds authentic when he sings of the depression is because he was authentic – born and raised in the dust bowl, he was a true “Okie” – and it paints his recordings with a sound so real you can feel the dust swirling in the air.

This phenomenon is especially challenging for young musicians. Eager to place a definitive mark on their craft, they reach into the catalogs of established artists and genres, seeking to connect themselves to events they have not truly lived – and in so doing render themselves legitimate champions of causes that are, more often than not, beyond their experience.

Perhaps in no genre is this more palpable than in songs of war and protest. Can we imagine anyone but Martin Luther King Jr. expounding the phrase “I have a dream?” And if we did not live through the dark days of Vietnam, what does it really mean if we belt out the chorus of We Shall Overcome?

On Sunday, September 22, the University of Iowa vocal studio of Katherine Eberle presented a concert of just such material. While the average age of these students is perhaps twenty one, the melodies and lyrics they sang date from the American Revolutionary War to the Vietnam era – well before these performers were born. Many of the fourteen selections are time honored classics: When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home (by Patrick Gilmore, writing under the pseudonym Louis Lambert), The White Cliffs of Dover (Walter Kent), George M. Cohan’s The Yankee Doodle Boy, Kurt Weill’s Dirge for Two Veterans, and Pete Seeger’s Where Have all the Flowers Gone. These are iconic songs, songs that defined an era and summed up the angst of a generation in a few poignant stanzas. Many of these songwriters themselves lived these experiences; Gilmore enlisted in the Union army, Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and sentenced to prison, and Weill fled Nazi Germany, a move that likely saved his life. These artists did not practice a craft – they lived one.

So what can we draw from a recital of such emblematic works? Do we require authenticity in performance? Must these performers learn to suffer themselves in order to truly express the horror of the conflicts of which they sing? And while there were some fine performances in this recital, reflecting much diligent work and training, is that enough to convince us that they, the students of the twenty-first century, are worthy to pass on the torch of the greatest of generations?

Thomas Jefferson famously said that “every generation needs a new revolution”. That is to say, every generation must fight its own Vietnam. Perhaps it is a war of words, thoughts, or ideals and not of tyrants and persecution; perhaps it is both. Thank God it is not the job of today’s youth to fight World War II over; it is, however, the responsibility of each age to learn from the past and avoid the mistakes of history.

To this end we must encourage and congratulate these young vocal students and their mentor. These are not art songs in the strict sense; nor were the performances all worthy of critical acclaim. What this effort does embody is a generation seeking its soul, searching for meaning amidst the sacrifice of those who walked and died on the road before, a generation striving to transform the tragedies of the past into the dreams of tomorrow.

Perhaps these students were not born with the right to sing the blues or to lament the heartache of war. But they must, as we all must, reconcile their conscience with both the tragedy and the success of our humanity. In lieu of fighting a war themselves, they seek this reconciliation through knowledge. In the end, they must find their own voice  – and they must do it the only way they know how – their way.

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