Oregon boasts an all-star chorus of musical talent, which cuts through the cacophony of bad news and discordant voices from the apartment next door. Johnnie Ray speaks for many of us these days when he croons, “When waking from a bad dream, don’t you sometimes think it’s real?” Yes, Johnnie, we really do.
It is no use here narrating the history of music in the place we now call Oregon — it is an artform that has run parallel to human habitation in the region for over 9,000 years, and we will fall short. The Oregon Encyclopedia, nevertheless, makes an attempt, so far publishing entries on over 80 musicians and musical groups.
Before Woody Guthrie made Oregon famous by writing songs about the virtues of dams and power grids (“Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, Roll on, Columbia, roll on”), people were grabbing their instruments and meeting up in empty rooms at previously determined times. Someone came up with a clever name, and bands such as the Sagebrush Symphony and the DeMoss Family Bards were born. The Finck family was filling the Willamette Valley with music with its Aurora Band as early as the 1860s. They wore matching suits.
Most states have a musical claim to fame, and Oregon’s is having the first youth orchestra in the country — the Portland Youth Philharmonic, formed in 1924. The great composer Jacob Avshalomov led the group for over 40 years. Oregon has attracted many greats, including Tomas Svoboda, Ernest Bloch, Boris Sirpo, Gilbert Seeley, Helmuth Rilling, and James DePreist. Some had left a troubled and war-torn Europe before settling in Oregon's well-developed musical community. Others might have come for the excellent weather.
For certain, rain and wind are ideal backdrops to warm and darkened theaters full of singing, especially by the Portland Symphonic Choir, Oregon Repertory Singers, Portland Gay Men's Chorus, and the Capella Romana. In 2016, the Bach Cantata Choir performed “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding”—“It’s a defiant and despondent thing” — proving that the Baroque style is always relevant and cathartic, especially in times of trouble.
And I don't mean FBI-trouble, like the kind the Kingsmen got into with their song “Louie Louie.” Read all about it. G-men perhaps prefer Doc Severinsen and his “Tempestuous Trumpet.” We can only imagine what they thought about Oregon's later rock scene, most notoriously on display during Vortex I (there were naked people there). They might have been fans of Everclear, however. “I’m embarrassed by the plaid you wear,” Art Alexakis sings, right before he reminds us that, “Now I’ve got no place to go, I’ve got no place to go.”
If jazz is what moves you, Portland's place in the West Coast jazz circuit is legendary. William McClendon, Dick Bogle, Cleve Williams, Eddie Wied, Glen Moore, Nancy King, Janice Scroggins, Jim Pepper, Marianne Mayfield, Sweet Baby James Benton, Mel Brown, Darrell Grant, Leroy Vinnegar, and Esperanza Spalding. They made — and make — music to dance to, weep to, and tap your toes to as you wait for the music clubs and theaters and halls and churches to open their doors and beckon you back in. What a day that will be.
But we can wait, because Oregon’s music is stay-at-home portable. As Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding sings in her “Radio Song”:
“This song will keep you grooving
(Keep that traffic moving)
Play it to lift your spirits
(Soon as you hear it).”
Amy E. Platt’s Other Posts
The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.