The University of Mississippi

My Life in Music

David Warren Steel

I cannot speak to the relative importance of genes and environment in determining musical talent and interest. It is enough that I was brought up to believe in my own “musical family.” Early on I heard stories of family members who were avid amateurs or even professionals. My father’s paternal grandmother helped support her family through music lessons and solo recitals. Her son, my grandfather, was musically active until his early death in 1927; as a student he wrote a favorite Harvard fight song. His sister spent a long career in the concert management business in New York, and did all she could to encourage the musical development of her brother’s children and grandchildren.

After their parents’ death, my father and his brothers were taken to Chicago to be raised by their mother’s brother L. P. “Pat” Warren, an insurance underwriter. Musical training and exposure continued, as Warren was a church choir director both in Chicago and at the summer resort of Leland, Michigan, where he also led Sunday night community sings. Uncle Pat and his wife, a former concert singer, survived to influence me directly. At the age of twelve I served as his piano accompanist at the sings; I remember well the pride I felt at hearing my mother and great-aunt featured in the evening prayer duet from Hansel and Gretel. Later I sang, with parents, uncles, and other relatives, in Uncle Pat’s summer church choir, where I was exposed to the Anglican choral tradition. On Thursday nights, Uncle Pat allowed me to ring the church bell ten minutes before choir practice. If, at the appointed hour, the number of singers remained small, he would order me to ring again, more insistently, until a sufficient number had arrived for the work at hand. In this way, at an early age, I observed some of the responsibilities of ensemble leadership, the challenges of motivation, and the rewards of disciplined effort. When I went away to college in 1964, it was partly to honor Uncle Pat, and partly to escape from the nickname “Dave,” that I began to go by my middle name Warren.

My earliest musical training came from my parents. For my father, a lifelong educator, music was always something to be taught, shared, and enjoyed. Though a good sight reader, he preferred to learn by ear folk songs and children’s songs which he accompanied on the guitar; he knew songs in several languages. My mother was a trained contralto who sang solos in church choirs and choral societies. When my brother and I were small, she entertained us with “musical chairs,” playing Mozart and Schubert on the piano. My parents played and sang together in the family circle, and occasionally performed humorous hillbilly duets at beach picnics and church suppers. Both parents taught me my first instrument, the ukelele, when I was five. Each taught a distinct method and repertory. My mother kept a looseleaf manuscript book of old Tin Pan Alley hits, consisting of texts with chord symbols above each line of text. At the back of the book were several pages of chords in tablature, identified by symbol. She taught me the tunes by ear, and showed me how to interpret the symbols for the accompanying chords. My father improvised instead, and showed me, in simple terms, how the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords could be used to accompany almost any song by ear.

Near my sixth birthday, my father became a school principal near Schenectady, New York; we acquired a piano, and I was taken to Joseph Derrick, my first piano teacher, to whom I showed my first efforts at composition. Under him, and later under Erna Mees Cinque, I fitfully acquired keyboard technique, while growing increasingly bored with the standard (19th-century) piano repertory. In fifth grade, warned of imminent orthodontia, I began the baritone horn; in sixth, sousaphone and (without lasting result) violin. In tenth grade came oboe; in twelfth, organ. My parents cheerfully put up with my changing interests, and paid for lessons and instrument rentals. By sixth grade I was arranging music for an ad hoc ensemble of neighbor children, and attempting to get them to practice it. In junior high school I discovered jazz, and sought out older students who shared this interest. By ninth grade (age thirteen) I was playing piano and writing charts for a four-piece combo called The Blue Knights. Our adventures included winning a “battle of the bands” competition, playing in bars where I had to lie about my age, and one memorable weekend when I learned to play the accordion so we could perform at an Italian wedding reception in a tavern where the piano was unspeakably out of tune.

Our public school system supported an excellent music program, including a high school band, orchestra and a select choir that made an annual concert tour to such cities as Toronto, Montreal, and Boston. Here I learned to blend my voice, which was uneasily maturing into a choral baritone of no distinction whatever. An elective class in theory and an extracurricular madrigal group helped me to find one of my strongest lifelong interests: the performance of early music. I discovered Bach’s keyboard works, took up the recorder, began organ lessons, and fell in with a group of aggressively non-conformist students from other high schools who encouraged my developing interest in early music, 20th-century music, and the folk music revival. During my senior year I sang folksongs at civil rights meetings, played in a local production of The Play of Daniel, had my string quartet performed, and took my first church music job, at an inner city black Baptist church. This last experience was a revelation to me. I was given a free hand with anthems and voluntaries, but had the added task of accompanying the sermon, keeping pace with the preacher’s mood, and aiding him in “coming down” when his time was up. I had my first encounter with the African American oral tradition when our choir traveled to other churches where folk spirituals, call-and-response preaching, and amplified gospel music were prevalent; all fascinated me.

In 1964 I was accepted at Harvard. I never seriously considered majoring in music, although the quality of the music library helped convince me to go there. I decided on linguistics as my major, because the program had the fewest required courses, allowing me to take electives in advanced harmony and counterpoint. I also found private teachers in organ and harpsichord. Musical life at Harvard is rich, but has little to do with the Department of Music. The band, orchestra, glee club, chamber groups, and choral and opera productions are all products of student initiative, often affiliated with individual residence houses. At Harvard I participated in the marching band, an early music choir (as a countertenor soloist), two Purcell theater works (as a continuo player), two concerts with my roommate (a gambist), and a House composers’ concert. I also learned to play the mountain dulcimer and fretless banjo, and enjoyed numerous Boston area concerts by artists as diverse as Alfred Deller, Ali Akbar Khan, and The Doors.

Two summer forays expanded my musical world considerably. In 1966, after a year of language study, I went to Iceland, introducing myself as a folk music scholar. This bit of chutzpah fulfilled itself as I was introduced to the few who were doing folk song research there. I found myself invited on collecting expeditions, gained access to the National Museum collections, and was hired to record North American folk music for the state radio station. My 1967 trip was to San Francisco, then the center of the hippie counterculture. Having recently become interested in rock music, I was convinced that many creative minds were contributing to this music, especially after hearing Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead perform at a marathon outdoor concert. Even novice bands of teenage musicians seemed to be participating in the musical (not to mention social and chemical) ferment. Never did I feel any contradiction between my musical interests—I responded to the same things in, say, the Jefferson Airplane, that I found interesting in folk music, Bach, or Tudor church music.

By senior year I had to consider career choices. I rejected graduate study in linguistics, though I worked as an etymologist for The American Heritage Dictionary after graduation. The threat of military conscription was very real for college graduates, and many sought deferred occupations such as teaching. I accepted the Boston School Committee’s offer of a teaching job at $5500 a year in an all-black inner-city junior high school. For several months I taught music and English, trying to instill ethnic pride through exposure to African American music and literature, while defying the Committee’s policy against home visits and parent conferences. Frustrated, I left the school, but moved to the same neighborhood, as a social service worker with a black Episcopal church, forcing the draft board to consider my status as a conscientious objector, which they granted. This left me with a place to live and a varied and fascinating job, but with no remuneration except for occasional musical gigs. I teamed up with a Puerto Rican roommate who played conga to play in rock and soul bands, but he exposed me whenever possible to salsa, the urban music of Caribbean Hispanics. I found this style congenial, and we soon formed one of the first salsa bands in the Boston area, with me on Fender Rhodes piano.

Meanwhile I had begun part-time study at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, though with no plans for ordination. The sabbatical leave of the music director prompted the school to offer the temporary position to me and another musically-inclined seminarian. Our shared duties included playing the organ at daily services, composing and adapting music to new liturgical texts, and coaching each senior student through his first sung service. In 1971-72 I worked as a clerk for a firm of architects, and as organist-choirmaster at a suburban church. I had long been aware of southern shape-note singing, but now I discovered a group of folk revivalists who met twice a month to sing from The Sacred Harp. In the summer of 1972, with three other Bostonians, I drove to a Sacred Harp singing in an Alabama country church, where our skill at “fasola” singing and our exotic manner and appearance were accepted with good-natured amusement.

Later that summer, after eight years in Boston, I made the move to Michigan, where I had friends and a job offer as part-time music director at a black Episcopal church in suburban Detroit; I made ends meet by delivering pizza at night. I seriously considered making my career in church music, and even auditioned for Gerald Knight, director of the Royal School of Church Music, who encouraged me to go to England for further training. With free time during the day, I read musicology in the library of Wayne State University. This growing interest prompted me to apply to the graduate program at the University of Michigan. A letter from an associate dean pointed out that I had no undergraduate training in music history, but a wealth of practical experience; I was offered provisional admission.

During seven years in Ann Arbor I pursued three main musical interests. (1) Early music. As assistant organist-choirmaster at Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, I gained experience with a semi-professional choir of men and boys as a singer, organist, and conductor. Participation in the university’s Collegium Musicum and Medieval Festival, together with resumption of harpsichord study with Edward Parmentier, allowed me to apply lessons learned in course work. (2) Ethnomusicology. I joined the Javanese gamelan and helped organize a Thai music study group, again complementing course work. Closer to home, I learned of the hammered dulcimer tradition in Michigan, and became an active performer of Irish and Anglo-American dance music on this instrument. (3) American psalmody. With veterans of earlier shape-note groups I organized weekly Sacred Harp singings at the Ark coffee house. Here we attempted to go beyond a folkloristic interest in the music, and sought to reproduce as closely as possible the teaching methods and performance traditions of the South. This experience proved invaluable in my major academic studies, a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation on two New England composers represented in The Sacred Harp. A six-year assistantship at the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments intersected with many of these interests, and provided experience in organology, preservation, exhibits, tours, record-keeping and administration.

In late 1979, with my dissertation well underway, I began to seek employment. An opening in the newly-created Center for the Study of Southern Culture drew me in 1980 to the University of Mississippi, where for seven years I held a joint appointment in music and southern studies, and directed the annual Oxford Folklife Festival. Among the attractions of the University’s small-town setting is the proximity to Sacred Harp singing, old-time dance music, and a wide range of African American styles, including blues and gospel music. After completing my dissertation in 1982 I found time to resume organ and harpsichord teaching and early music performance. In 1987-88 I held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, pursuing research on American shape-note tunebooks before 1861. Since my return I have been a full-time member of the department of music. During the early 1990s, my involvement with the Internet, and with e-mail correspondents, made me feel much less isolated than before from my distant colleagues; I came to realize how much Sacred Harp singing had altered my attitude toward music, which I saw increasingly as a form of social interaction, rather than a mere sound product or marketable commodity. Professional highlights in the 1990s included the hosting of the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1993, the publication of my editions of the works of Stephen Jenks (1995) and Daniel Belknap (1999), and the establishment of the Mississippi Early Music Ensemble, with Thomas A. Gregg and later Laurdella Foulkes-Levy as co-directors.

The 2001 installation of a classic “tracker” pipe organ in the university’s new chapel revived my long-neglected interest in that instrument and its music. In addition to teaching and solo recitals, I began to explore the recently-published organ music of Louis Couperin and the surviving baroque instruments of Oaxaca, Mexico. In 2004, despite my former indifference to recorded music, I determined to produce a recording of 17th-century organ music from France and Spain; this was released in 2007 as Baroque Pearls. In 2003 I began playing with the Mockingbird Early Music Ensemble, which currently presents several concerts a year in a four-state region. In 2010, my book entitled The Makers of The Sacred Harp, based on many years of research, was released. This in turn led to invitations to present lectures and keynote addresses at the Library of Congress, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and other venues and events. On 1 July 2015 I retired from full-time teaching after thirty-five years at the University of Mississippi, but have continued to perform, write and speak.

Warren Steel,