Migrations: The Making of America
By Jeff Tamarkin
We, the American people, each have our own migration story. Some of our forebears left behind all they had ever known, packing little but their hopes and aspirations to face the unknown. Others had no choice and were brought here not of their own free will, while others yet were forced to move within the borders of this country. Despite hardships, persecution, and challenges, the resilience and perseverance of all of these migrants transformed this country and what it means to be American.
One part of their former lives that they brought with them was their culture, their heritage. Their collective experiences, their rituals, their music, and their dances added a new piece to the puzzle that was this strange, ever-evolving land called the United States of America. They sang the songs of their childhood, and they learned new ones. They forged entirely new genres of music, integrating what they picked up in their interactions as migrants with their stalwart traditions: From Africa, for example, came the seeds of what would become blues, gospel, and jazz; from music of the British Isles emerged bluegrass and country. A significant number of the tunes that now comprise the Great American Songbook were composed by theater-loving Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Carnegie Hall’s festival Migrations: The Making of America is a celebration of these journeys and what it means to be American. At the Hall (March 9 through April 15) and at more than 75 other cultural and academic institutions across New York City and beyond with over 100 events, Carnegie Hall’s largest festival yet illuminates the lives and art created by people from different origins and backgrounds, people who helped to shape and influence the evolution of American culture.
“Migrations is about building bridges, connecting the dots, looking at our history, which is a cultural history unlike any other nation,” says pianist and vocalist Michael Feinstein, whose March 27 show as part of his Standard Time with Michael Feinstein series features songs from the Great American Jewish Songbook. “The only reason America exists in the way that it does is because of the contributions of every culture from around the planet: Religiously, spiritually, every color, every hue—it all creates who we are today.”
Among the Migrations events scheduled at Carnegie Hall are programs that examine the musical legacies of the crossings from Scotland and Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries, the immigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe between 1881 and the National Origins Act of 1924, and the Great Migration—the exodus of African Americans from the South to the industrialized cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1917 into the 1970s. A panoply of genres—bluegrass, old-time, klezmer, Yiddish musical theater, blues, jazz, and more—tell the story of the American musical traditions that flourished as a result of these migrations.
“We make music because we’re human beings and we’re sad and we want to be happier than we are,” says Chris Thile, the master mandolinist, singer, and host of American Public Media’s Live from Here radio program. Thile, holder of the 2018–2019 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, opens the Migrations festival at the Hall on March 9 with an evening of traditional Scots, Irish, and American folk music that will be broadcast and streamed live. For his segment, Thile emphasizes the cross-breeding of musical influences—the result of cultures bumping into one another and transformed into something new—that is at the heart of the hybrids that comprise so much contemporary music. “Is there anything more American,” he asks, “than hearing someone play a fiddle tune? And is there anything more Irish than hearing someone play a fiddle tune? I love those sorts of connections—we’re so used to them that they’ve become everyday. But increasingly in the world, those connections are being formed between ostensibly more disparate cultures and the music that’s resulting is increasingly mind blowing.”
Among the other performances set to take place at Carnegie Hall is Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration, an event on March 30 led by pianist Jason Moran and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran. “This is more an experience than it is a concert,” says Jason Moran of the couple’s upcoming show. “It looks at a catalog of music that is both personal—that we have written—and also a catalog of music that we want to share, that we hope will open up a narrative about how powerful and how important and how tragic the story is of the Great Migration, how that helped shape the way we think of America right now.”
Adds Seth Rogovoy of his April 15 show From Shtetl to Stage: A Celebration of Yiddish Music and Culture, co-created with Eleanor Reissa, “We want to explore the music and the culture that came out of the Old World—how those things evolved and mixed with other cultures in the New World.”
“We’re excited that the artists participating in this event have a relationship to this music and this culture, and have infused their own lives—their own tastes and their own art and skills—into what was,” adds Reissa, speaking of such contributors as pianist Evgeny Kissin, clarinetist David Krakauer, and actress Katrina Lenk. “The artists and the music that we will feature express a living culture—it won’t be a museum type of evening.”
In addition to the events at Carnegie Hall, performances, exhibitions, and other events will be staged by partner organizations throughout New York City. These programs highlight aspects of these and the many other migrations, including those from Italy, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, as well as the internal migration of Native Americans—all of which have contributed to American culture today.
“We hope Migrations will be an opportunity to take a fresh look at how America has been enriched by the diversity of cultures, traditions, and people that make up this great nation,” says Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, where other events showcase the klezmer music of the Andy Statman Trio, the Afro-Caribbean mix of trumpeter Nicholas Payton, the contemporary Irish/Celtic music of The Gloaming, the soul sound of Deva Mahal, and more. This being Carnegie Hall’s 11th festival, Migrations seems particularly timely in today’s political climate. “Though planning began more than three years ago, it has been wonderful to see the passionate responses from partner organizations and how this theme has resonated with so many.”
“We’re very different people,” says Thile, elaborating on the concept driving Migrations. “You have all of these things swirling around you. You care about good music, and you’ve found this truth. I’ve found this truth. Your truth speaks to me. My truth speaks to you. Let’s make some music together. We might actually be able to get somewhere as human beings, and understand each other more and respect each other more and appreciate what we don’t instantly see as truth about another person if we can celebrate and work with those truths that we do see. Music is as reliable a way to that kind of understanding as anything.”