Book Spotlight: Beth Levy’s Frontier Figures

Special note: Please join author Beth Levy at the UC Davis Bookstore Lounge on Friday, May 25 from 12:00-1:00pm for a talk about this acclaimed new book. For more information, see


The UC Press touts Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West, a new book by Associate Professor of Music Beth Levy, as a “tour-de-force exploration of how the American West, both as physical space and inspiration, animated American music.” Examining the work of such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Arthur Farwell, Levy addresses questions of regionalism, race, and representation as well as changing relationships to the natural world to highlight the intersections between classical music and the diverse worlds of Indians, pioneers, and cowboys. Levy draws from an array of genres to show how different brands of western Americana were absorbed into American culture by way of sheet music, radio, lecture recitals, the concert hall, and film. Frontier Figures is a detailed illumination of what the West meant and still means to composers living and writing long after the close of the frontier.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Levy was steeped the history and mythology of the American west from an early age. Her father is an American historian, and the Cowboy Hall of Fame was one of the most popular elementary school field trips. Levy became interested in musicology as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio, where it became clear to her that a great deal of interesting work remained to be done on American classical music. Recently, Levy spoke with Davis Humanities Institute reporter Erin Hendel regarding her new book:

How does this book contribute to major conversations in your field? What gaps does it fill?

American music has almost always been discussed in comparison with European classical music, but that comparison obscures major regional and ethnic differences within American music. It makes every kind of Americana seem the same and may overemphasize a singular idea of what it means to be American. For me, the concept of regionalism is very important as a corrective.

I think the study of American music needs more books that include a constellation of musical figures, instead of focusing on an individual biography. Examining several different composers who took different approaches to the music of the American West allowed me to delve more deeply into regional and ethnic differences.

I chose to organize the book around key figures in western American music as a way to make biographical comparisons between pairs of figures who are not often considered together, such as the pioneering Arthur Farwell and the popular songwriter Charles Wakefield Cadman. In addition, this approach allows for interesting observations about musical technique. For example, Farwell’s reverent attitude toward Native American music seems to match Harris’s later treatments of cowboy song, while Cadman and Copland tended instead to treat their folklore material much more freely, blurring the boundaries between the borrowed material and original composition.

What conversations might this book join beyond your home discipline?

If it weren’t for the fact that music has its own language and notation, this book might be classified as American History or American Studies. In many ways, each figure I study was deeply affected by changes in technology, the economy, and ways of thinking about race in America. In particular, I focus on changing attitudes toward Native Americans and toward the cowboy as a cultural hero.

Broadly speaking, the book engages in conversations about how cultural expressions connect to particular times and places, asking the same kinds of questions about musical works that other scholars ask about American literature or film. The book also engages in a conversation about media, dealing with Farwell (who set up his own printing press), Thomson (who wrote soundtracks for important documentary films, including The Plow that Broke the Plains), and Copland (who embraced both radio and Hollywood film as ways of reaching a new public.

Another major section of the book takes up the theme of Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, and treats the pastoral as a middle landscape from a musical perspective. I ask what it means to bring an American pioneer into the pastoral setting. Pioneers interact with and change landscapes in ways that many pastoral figures do not, and this can be heard in pastoral scores that seek to combine mechanical motives with music that suggests a more placid natural world.

Who is the audience that you imagine for this book? How do you envision it appealing to readers outside of your discipline?

This is always a hard question for music scholars. Musical notation is often very important to our understanding of a work, but it can be inaccessible to many readers. Of course, I am addressing colleagues in my field, but I also imagine that the book would be interesting to scholars in literature, film, history, dance, and media. I tried to circumvent this problem by explaining in words (as clearly as I can) whatever is shown in musical notation. My hope is that audience members who cannot read musical notation will get the same story as those who can. I hope the book will also appeal to non-scholars who are interested in the American West because it touches on many resonant issues including Native American removal, the image of the family farm, Depression-era populism, and the ever-popular cowboy. Though I conceived of the book in five large parts, it is divided into thirteen smaller chapters that can be easily assigned to classes for reading.

What might this book have to say about the impact of the humanities, broadly speaking?

In addition to being a musician, I see myself as a historian and storyteller. Carrying stories is one thing that humanists do particularly well. This book is full of stories, and of stories about stories. As a public, we have absorbed ideas of the West in story form: cowboys and Indians, Western movies, John Wayne, and the supposed “advance” of American civilization. One of ways in which the humanities have impact on our lives is that humanists tell stories about these stories and help us to understand where they come from and how they affect us.

The main value of such work is to give us perspective. It can give us a sense of how an individual or variety of individuals brought their own perspectives to bear on an issue or an experience. One of the fascinating things about the mythology of the American West is that it has been able to sustain so many different stories about our nation, history, music, and our lives. That’s what links much of the work that the humanities does: humanists deal with stories that are so rich we need to come back to them over and over again.