Ruth Crawford Seeger, American composer
August 13, 2014 10:29 PM   Subscribe

In 1930, a 29-year-old composer named Ruth Crawford (wiki) became the first woman to ever receive a Guggenheim fellowship—despite the chairman of the awards wondering, of women composers, "Is there any such beast?" The next year she wrote her modernist masterpiece String Quartet.

Though Movements I and II of the quartet may remind you of other gnarly, angular, 20th-century compositions, Movement III (0:18–3:45) is something else entirely. In it, a single melodic line is gradually, engrossingly spun out across the four instruments. The movement "unfurls as a continuous wave of sound, its complexities concealed behind a softly shimmering exterior." (source) She described it as an "interlocking Oriental rug kind of pattern" (source). The quartet sounds like almost no other written before it, and it would take until after World War II for composers to (independently) find this path again. (source)

Despite the praise she received for the String Quartet, Crawford was conflicted, writing in her diary:
"I must discover for myself whether it is a 'career' or life that I want. I can have a career and life too, but even though the former will be enriched by the latter, there must be sacrifices. I am beginning to think life is what I want. That it is richer." (source)
Only a few months after the premiere of the quartet, Ruth wed her composition teacher Charles Seeger and became Ruth Crawford Seeger, trading music for motherhood. She later confided to her diary that writing a quartet was a useless occupation when compared to ironing babies' dresses. Her stepson Pete Seeger is quoted as saying, "She gave up everything in life to be a good mother." (source) (Well, she didn't exactly give up everything; though she wasn't composing, she did work gathering and transcribing American folk music and contributed to several important books on the subject.)

Some 15 years later Crawford Seeger told the composer Varese that she "felt like a ghost" when her early compositions were mentioned. But then, for the first time in years, she began to write again, completing a Suite for Wind Quintet in 1952 (Movements 1 and 2; Movement 3). Around this time she wrote: "I am still not sure whether the road I have been following the last dozen years is a main road or a detour. I have begun to feel the past year or two that it is the latter..." Though she seemed primed for a return to composition, what music she may have gone on to write remains unheard, as she was diagnosed with cancer and died the following year (source). "It isn't fair," she told her son, just before her death in 1953. "I am just getting back into composing." (source)

Though her relatively small output as a composer is disheartening (especially when considering the sparsely-populated timeline of women composers), Crawford Seeger went on to have lasting impact as a key figure in the eventual American folk-song revival.
"When our mother made this collection of 94 songs in the 1940s, 'folk' had not yet made it into the charts, discs, the concert circuits - or the national consciousness. It was still associated with the rural backwoods and at that time folks-as-the-folk-sang-it was a really new sound." –Peggy Seeger (source)
Her influence and legacy in the folk music field can also be seen living on through her children. Her stepson Pete Seeger (from her husband's previous marriage) became an American folk singer and activist in his own right, and his work was the basis for Bruce Springsteen's album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (wiki). Ruth's daughter Peggy Seeger, herself an accomplished musician, maintains a website of information, photos, and articles about her mother.
posted by Zephyrial (8 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Love that quartet. That, the piano study in mixed accents, and the chants for female chorus I never tire of.
posted by threecheesetrees at 12:51 AM on August 14, 2014

Thanks for posting this.
posted by newdaddy at 5:16 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am an elementary music teacher and her American Folk Songs for Children book is still one of my favorites. In particular I like the piano arrangements - they are simple (which is good, because I am a terrible piano player) and unlike other piano accomaniments of this sort, they are really designed with child's voices in mind. They often omit the 3rd (but sometimes have cool modal and/or crunchy harmonies), they aren't heavy, and they jump around in inventive, pleasing ways.

These days I like to use guitar to accompany child singers, especially with folk material, but when I go back to the piano I often turn to this book.
posted by rossination at 7:01 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been trying to get a group I sometimes work with, that's dedicated to the performance of work by female composers, to do a Crawford Seeger program. The stumbling block always comes from people who like her later work but not her early work, or vice versa.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:00 AM on August 14, 2014

Great post, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2014

These are delicious -- I'm so embarrassed that I didn't know about them before. Thanks!
posted by allthinky at 9:35 AM on August 14, 2014

Thanks for reading, folks! I was studying up on Crawford Seeger as part of my music PhD comps and was so struck by her music and life story.

It's difficult for me as a man in 2014 to try to put myself in her shoes back in 1930... on the one hand, I want to bemoan that she was "pushed out" of a career in composition. By some accounts her husband Charles Seeger was a difficult man with strong opinions on the role and talents of women, and it was his folk transcription projects that she committed herself to.

On the other hand, her diaries make it pretty clear that she thought hard about her options and chose to focus on her family instead of her career. So if I go around feeling sad about all the music she didn't ("couldn't"?) write, am I being ignorant or disrespectful of her agency in that decision? Is this just a "she was a product of her time" thing that I just can't understand (hell, The Feminine Mystique wasn't written until like 30 years later)? That being said, her later diaries make it pretty clear she herself had doubts about the path she had chosen.
posted by Zephyrial at 11:06 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Judith Tick's biography is well worth reading. I think you could make a case that through her teaching, she hardly gave up on being an innovative musician, even if she wasn't innovating as an ultramodernist composer.
posted by rhymes with carrots at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

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