Mile-High Musicology

Silas Soule Historic Marker, Downtown Denver. Photo: David Yearsley.

Go West, middle-aged man!

Horace Greeley took one of the first stagecoaches into Denver in the 1850s when the place was just a mining camp born of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. From New York State (where Greeley ended his days), I also headed to Denver yesterday, not in a stagecoach but an un-American Airbus 319. (A plane to the plain: in school, I always thought that the hours spent on spelling and homonyms were a huge waste of time. How about let’s do something interesting, kiddies? Spell the words how you want to since that approach worked just fine for Shakespeare and Defoe and lots of others!)

East, west, north, south: the cardinal direction is irrelevant since my destination was the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society. This AMS is not to be confused with another AMS—the American Meteorological Society, whose annual conference has about three times as many attendees and which also met in Denver earlier this year.

Whatever the society, it is bound to gather annually in one American downtown or another—interchangeable, dispiriting zones.

Empty skyscrapers cast their shadows on parking lots and the unhoused. A Chipotle next to an H&M cut their storefronts into one of the few brick facades remaining from the old city. An arena looms. There is a hotdog stand in front of the courthouse. An empty bus shudders by.

Any learned society worth its Himalayan salt will, in its PR campaign to members, tout the cultural attractions of the conference host city, wherever it be, along with the area’s natural beauty.

These advertising efforts don’t seem to be delivering the intended results. Attendance at the meetings appears to be flagging, and, after AMS conferences in Chicago next year and Minneapolis the year after, the 2026 event will be conducted online. Even members of the established professoriate seem increasingly reluctant to fork over plump tranches of their ample research accounts to fund these junkets.

The costs have inflated significantly—though not significantly enough—for flights, hotels, and cocktails. Conference culture seems destined to be an early victim of environmental collapse, though these conventions are unlikely to disappear as soon as Tuvalu will. If and when Sheratons and Hiltons start sprouting up on the moon, the AMS (both of them) will be there, Astro-Musicology and Off-World Ethnography by then trending sub- and super-disciplines of the post-carbon Apocalypse. There’s still plenty of space on the Great Plains, but even more in the heavens. As Prince put it back in the last year of the reign of George Bush Senior:

Oh, call it what you like
I’m gonna call it how it be, fact
This is just another one of God’s gifts

A train line cut deep into the prairie runs the fifteen miles from the airport to downtown Denver. A stand of wind turbines and a couple of acres of solar panels gesture, along with the train itself, towards sustainability. Out the window, heavy midmorning traffic on a nearby Interstate moves more slowly than the slow train.

Along the dozen blocks from Union Station to the Sheraton, the unhoused outnumber the few pedestrians. Downtown Denver is bleak. The avenues are wide and empty of cars around noon. Work is proceeding on 16th Street, which ends at the station. The street will become a “Mall”—a pedestrian district that hopes to reinvigorate the city center. So far it looks to me like the centre cannot hold. At dismal present, the Mall is a succession of chains, neo-diners, a cannabis outlet, a Walgreens and Ross Dress for Less, and a Colorado grill serving up grass-fed beef and micro-brews. Macro-brews too: this is Coors country. Coors Field, home of the Rockies, is a couple of blocks from the station.

With my travel bag slung over my shoulder, it’s clear that I’ve just flown in from out of town. A man in dirty, tattered clothes asks me for my train ticket, a three-hour pass. I hand it over. I guess it’s more comfortable for him on a train or out at the airport than on the streets of downtown. Especially in comparison to the eerily empty city center, the airport is teeming. Some of these travelers are surely charitable types …

Near the corner of 15th and Arapahoe, I look for a plaque that marks the spot where Silas Soule was gunned down by two assassins on April 23, 1865, two weeks after the surrender at Appomattox.

Soule was a friend and supporter of John Brown and I had thought of him last summer when surveying the Brown Farm from the Adirondacks High Peaks. Soule had fought in Bleeding Kansas, been a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and visited Brown in his prison cell in Harper’s Ferry and offered to spring him in a jailbreak. Soule had broken another radical Abolitionist out of a Missouri jail earlier that same year of 1859. Brown refused Soule’s offer because he hoped his martyrdom would hasten the onset of a war to free the slaves.

Soule fought in that war in Colorado and was a hero at the decisive Battle of Glorieta Pass in March of 1862, still not a year out from the attack on Fort Sumter. He fought in that battle under Colonel John Chivington, who two years later led the massacre of unarmed Cheyenne and Arapahoe people, mostly women and children, at Sand Creek in what is now eastern Colorado. When Soule protested before the onslaught, Chivington threatened to hang him. Soule remained steadfast and ordered the soldiers under him to disobey the command to attack. At a federal investigation after the massacre, Soule testified against Chivington, but the colonel was never brought to justice for the atrocities he committed. Many believed, and still believe, that Chivington sent the assassins to kill Soule.

It took me a while to locate the plaque in the disorienting blight of downtown, but I at last found it set into a square column in what looked like a nearly vacant office building. Down the steps to a lower level with an overhang that could provide some shelter in inclement weather, another sign warned off the unhoused.

The alley from which the assassins surprised Silas was gone. Black granite and plate glass glinted indifferently in the Denver sun.

I resumed my walk and after a few blocks, I encountered some pedestrians whose red lanyards announced that I was nearing the convention hotel. After checking in, then gripping and grinning for a few minutes, I headed down the staircase to a warren of meeting rooms done up in a crazy carpet and worse wallpaper. Conferees scuttled to various sessions, about twelve in all. Among the papers to be delivered were “Culturally Situating Trans-Femininity through Hyperpop’s Technologically-Processed Vocals” and “Disciplining the Professional Music Lover: On Minor Feelings in Music Theory.”

There wasn’t just talk, but music too. A wonderful Haitian-American singer and scholar Jean Bernard Cerin (full disclosure: also my new Cornell colleague) was presenting a ninety-minute program that visited various incarnations and echoes in song of the first Creole Haitian text, “Lisette quitté la plaine.” The poem tells the story of an enslaved man’s distress that his beloved has been sold from the sugar plantation where he is forced to cut cane. It’s a haunting song that would have moved Soule to fight as fiercely as did the fiery Abolitionist hymns he sang.

The oldest of the Lisette settings comes from the 1750s and delivers its distraught message with a plaintive minor melody, devastating in its ardent simplicity. Through the subsequent songs and settings ranging from Haiti, to France, to the United States, Cerin sang with vibrant presence, expressive subtlety, seductive humor, and when, called on by the current of moral outrage, hair-raising power.

Cerin’s delivery of the music and his framing comments show that, in their evolving beauty, these songs weave a complex tapestry of love and liberty, revolution and reaction, cultural pride and appropriation. None of these ideas or actions is easy. Many of the composers and performers were themselves compromised and complicated.

Yet the assuredness of Cerin’s singing should not be mistaken for ease. I don’t want to make an invidious, facile comparison, but listening to Cerin sing of loss and liberty in the stifling Sheraton lair is a testament to the power of the voice to transcend its circumstances, from cane field to conference hotel.

This moving opening session’s Lisette had left her plain. I still had three days of musicology on mine.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at