This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, we feature COPA member Rachael Woody’s conversation with Cece Otto and her experiences using historical materials to create her concert programs featuring vintage music.
Cecelia “Cece” Otto is a classically trained singer, composer, international best-selling author and historian who has performed in venues all over the world both as a soloist and in ensemble. In 2013, she completed her cross-country musical journey An American Songline, performing 30 concerts of historic vintage music on venues along the Lincoln Highway. Cece then went on to create other historical programs such as The Songs of World War I, and is currently touring with a program about the women’s suffrage movement and developing a concert program about Prohibition. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has written books and recorded albums based on her research.
RW: First, tell us a little more about American Songline. What led you to create it and what is its purpose?
CO: An American Songline® is an ongoing project dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of America through unique, experiential musical performances — some have called it “Hamilton in reverse.” I combine music and history to talk about important points in American history in a concert program, and people of all ages not only enjoy the music, but are also educated as well.
As a classically trained singer and composer, I was doing auditions for opera companies all over the US. But when the economic crisis of 2008 arrived, many artists like myself found funding was cut, ensembles greatly reduced in size. I thought about what I really wanted to do (sing, write music, travel), and the words “singing travelogue” popped into my head. I then thought about all of the amazing roads that network this country and the history that lies underneath them. Many of our roads and highways from the early 20th century had been in use long before that, and there was so much history there. I then saw that one of the earliest cross-country highways, the Lincoln Highway, was turning 100 years old. With the heydays of the highway being from the 1910s-1930s, I knew there were many great songs about the road that told stories, and also that there was more there that I could find with more research.
RW: What inspired you to use historical materials to create your programs?
CO: When I was in the preliminary stages of doing research for my inaugural Lincoln Highway program, I was living in Chicago. I first looked at used bookstores and sheet music stores in the Fine Arts Building where I often met with my voice coach. One afternoon I went through stacks of sheet music looking through all of the songs, and I have this vivid memory of touching this music and wondering how many times people had gathered around the piano to sing this song together before it showed up in this store.
There’s such a wealth of music from the Tin Pan Alley era (c. 1880-1940), and it’s often overlooked. Even when I was teaching music history to undergraduate students, we didn’t touch much on American popular music from this period. We don’t have accurate sales counts, but we know billions of pieces of sheet music were sold in the 1910s. Radio didn’t exist yet at this time, and recordings, vaudeville, and silent films could be expensive, so the main form of entertainment for many people was to sing and play music themselves.
For the Lincoln Highway program, I was able to work with archives in several states to obtain copies of concert programs from venues along the original 1913 route. It was fascinating to see what they were programming at this time. We tend to think of classical music as a static genre, but different songs were performed in recitals than are heard now. I researched some of these songs and found even more history that brought out local communities along the way, and I knew I could give a fun and meaningful concert for people as I traveled along the route.
RW: You’ve created and performed several musical programs based on historical materials. Can you tell us more about your process and what goes into creating these programs?
CO: After a performance in a library, I was talking with their head programmer and she noted this big centennial that had just occurred in their community. I then started to think about big events that would be happening nationally in the next few years, and the next step in the timeline was to then create a World War I program. Suggestions from other venues came in, and it was easy to create custom programs to fit important themes as well as what was in a place’s collection.
Creating these programs is a combination of research and audience feedback. Once people heard what I was doing, they would reach out to me with song ideas and suggestions. People were even sending me sing-along booklets and sheet music! They knew that even if I didn’t perform the music, I’d give it a good home and/or get it to a place where it would be preserved.
RW: How do you choose which songs to form your program?
CO: It can be tough to choose songs sometimes depending on the theme of the program. Suffrage music is documented in writing – we have the lyric books they would sing from at meetings and protests, but sheet music for songs (both traditional and popular) has been a little more elusive. Meanwhile, there were over 14,000 songs written about World War I alone!
There are few things I think about when creating a program: 1) Vocal range and meter – Is this something I can physically sing, and is it the same tempo as all of the other songs I’ve chosen so far? If the songs sound too much like each other (i.e., all slow or fast songs), it sounds the “same” to most people’s ears and the audience will lose interest quickly. 2) Relatability – Will modern audiences be able to relate to this song? Before each song is sung I usually do a brief explanation and share some history about the song so listeners can hear it as it was intended all of those years ago, but if it requires too much explanation and/or talks about things people won’t understand, I’m not likely to perform it live. 3) A story arc – Songs that tell a good story and/or offer a different perspective on the topic of the show are crucial. While each song tells its own story, I look at the bigger picture to see how the song will fit in an entire program. I find there’s a flow that appears with these songs that makes sense, and it’s like putting a puzzle together.
RW: Please share a story of one of your great archival finds or a fond memory of an archives visit.
CO: I had the opportunity to explore all of the sheet music and music concert programs in the archive of Yellowstone National Park, and it was fascinating. There was a whole subgenre of American popular music that I didn’t even know about until I was looking through their collection! The oldest park in the United States has an amazing musical heritage; so many lodges entertained people when they came to the park on vacation over the decades, it’s a revered place in our culture and I loved learning about it through those songs and stories. I could have spent days listening to the cassette tapes alone!
RW: How have archives helped to inform your work?
CO: The archives I’ve worked with have been an invaluable tool to my research and process for bringing this history back to life. Because of the sheer quantity of music that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I always keep finding “new” songs that haven’t seen the light of day in a long time and/or have no existing recordings. Recordings (when available) are also an important tool in regard to seeing lyric variations as well as hearing how a singer originally sang the song. Even if I’m not able to perform them, the poetry gives a window back in time that helps me think about how to perform and talk about these songs.
RW: Is there something you’re still searching for and haven’t found it in the archives yet? (We know people ;))
CO: Ha! I like hearing this. 🙂 When I was putting together the women’s suffrage program, I stumbled upon a poem called “One Hundred Years Hence” which was put to music and first performed in 1875. The poem speaks of what the world would look like 100 years after women got the right to vote, and after I read it I felt a mixture of emotions because so much of the poem had not come true. It made me think about what a 21st century audience would think; would they laugh, cry, or both? I tried locating the original sheet music to this song and had no luck finding it, so I actually had a female composer who was a friend of mine write new music to the poem. It gives it a new interpretation, but I’d love to find the sheet music and see what the original musicians performed.
RW: Were there any barriers to using or accessing the collections? If so, please tell us about it.
CO: Yes, I sadly have run into problems with collections before. There are of course certain issues when it comes to public domain materials and copyrights, but there’s so much music that is in the public domain from this era it can and should be accessible for everyone. I have run into incomplete digital scans and/or sheet music copies, where the front and back covers are there, but the inner pages have been omitted, flipped around, or they are sometimes in other pieces of music. I’ve also seen digital scans of songs where they only scanned the chorus of the song and not the verses (i.e. usually the catchy part that everyone remembers), which is frustrating as it’s omitting a part of the song that should be included for future records. Even if it’s culturally insensitive words, disclaimers can be included to note that the materials contain words and ideas which were appropriate for the time, but are inappropriate now.
RW: What’s one thing you wish the general public knew about archives?
CO: I wish they knew how much has been amassed and painstakingly preserved in our culture by archivists and librarians. (And lovingly preserved at that!) As Americans, we grew up learning that modern ideals are more favored in our culture, and that the past should stay hidden. That what’s in an archive are just dusty books, photographs, and some important documents to big points in history. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There so many everyday items, depending on the collection, and those letters and scrapbooks I read and looked through were more meaningful than the big stuff. It shows how much alike we all really are, no matter what century it is. This concert program in a scrapbook may look like a list of songs to most people, but to the person who saved that piece of paper it was an important event for them. It’s like us saving a ticket stub from a concert.
RW: What are some of the reactions you’ve received by performing these history-based programs?
CO: The reactions to the programs have been extremely positive nationwide — people of all ages love the songs and the stories and they love being immersed in an experience that “takes them back in time.” The programs have been an excellent vehicle for talking about more sensitive subjects like war and human rights, and after the show people have shared with me how a song in the program made them think differently about history, American culture, and their own life experiences. Older folks adore hearing these songs being sung again, as it brings back good memories, and I have even found kids and teenagers like this music. We all yearn for a good melody, and when many of the children hear these songs for the first time they are often singing along to the chorus by the end of the song.
Many people I think are also genuinely surprised at the variety of music and the sense of humor the songs have from this era. The sentimental love songs tend to get more airplay in movies and television today, while the funny songs full of jokes and innuendo might be forgotten. Audiences think that people from 100 years ago were very prim and proper, but they had all of the same thoughts about life and were just as informal as we are today. I think that’s what really bonds the audience with the material in the end: the knowledge that people in the distant past felt and thought pretty much the same as we do, and that we have a lot more in common with our forebears than we realize. There’s something about hearing that conveyed in a song that makes it so meaningful. Music brings people together, and so does their shared past, and to combine those things into one fun, memorable and educational experience is such a privilege. I look forward to continuing my work for years to come, and to uncovering more great stories to tell and more great songs to sing from our country’s history.
Cece Otto is currently touring the United States with her Centennial of Suffrage program. To view up to date program offerings please visit An American Songline®. You may also find more videos of her performances via her YouTube Channel.
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