- Harry Partch: Hobo Composer by S. Andrew Granade
Harry Partch’s public image has always included the “hobo composer” label, but little attention has been paid to fully examining Partch’s relationship to the figure and reality of the hobo. Scholarly examinations of Partch routinely accepted the appellation until the 1990s, when major Partch scholars—particularly Thomas McGeary and Bob Gilmore—pushed back against what they regarded as a misleading view of the composer.1 Since then, music scholars have largely focused on Partch’s microtonal theories and idiosyncratic musical philosophy. In the current century, however, scholarship has emerged that seeks to more closely examine the “hobo composer” label and its significance. Andrew Granade’s book is the most substantial example of this trend so far.2
In Harry Partch: Hobo Composer, Granade presents a meticulously researched account of Partch’s experiences with transient peoples in his youth and his changing relationship to the hobo image, as well as insightful analyses of Partch’s hobo-centric compositions. Along the way Granade examines the shifting early twentieth-century governmental and popular culture reactions to transient subcultures, elucidates Partch’s tuning theory, and establishes foundations upon which additional studies could be built. This is a book with a great deal of merit, although it also has significant flaws, as discussed below.
Granade’s primary tools in the book are archival research and musical analysis; close readings of photographs, paintings, and literature also appear. Granade’s historical work is at its most impressive when he discusses Partch’s life and reception. Drawing from several archives, Granade builds his narrative of Partch via prodigious quantities of letters, interviews, photographs, and unpublished writings, supported by material drawn from the principal works of twentieth-century Partch scholarship. Granade’s deft treatment of these documents constitutes the bulk of the book. His broader historical sketches rely on a mixture of cultural critique and research built mostly from secondary sources. Harry Partch: Hobo Composer begins with a prologue followed by eight chapters interspersed with two historical context “interludes,” culminating in a brief epilogue. The body of the book is drawn heavily from Granade’s superb dissertation “‘I Was a Bum Once Myself’: Harry Partch, U.S. Highball, and the Dust Bowl in the American Imagination” (2005), while the interludes and epilogue contain mostly new material.
Granade’s prologue introduces Partch by way of a brief history of American composition, placing the composer astride several cultural trends. We then encounter two ideas that will recur throughout the book: “conceptual exoticism” (the use of non-Western musical traits in structural rather than superficial ways) and the “documentary imagination” (a version of conceptual exoticism that influenced much documentary art during the Great Depression). Chapter 1 narrates Partch’s early life, concluding with an overview of his nomadic years. The first interlude, “Transients and Migrants,” draws from contemporaneous governmental studies of and policies toward transient populations in order to delineate three firm categories: hoboes (men who travel continuously and revel in their lifestyle), transients (men forced to travel locally in order to find work), [End Page 401] and migrants (families and individuals who travel in search of a new home). In chapter 2, Granade introduces Bitter Music, Partch’s multimedia journal of his early travels, comparing it to “migrant” art such as Dorothea Lange’s photography, John Steinbeck’s writing, and Woody Guthrie’s songs. The third chapter examines Bitter Music more closely, identifying its themes of hardship, antiestablishmentarianism, and appropriation of Christian hymnody and imagery.
Thus far, the book has largely avoided discussion of hoboes and Partch’s relationship to them. In chapter 4, Granade introduces Partch’s early artistic explorations of hobo characters and themes. He examines Partch’s correspondence from his wandering years and argues that Partch only adopted the hobo label as a shrewd publicity tactic. The chapter concludes with a documentary imagination-centric analysis of Barstow. A second interlude follows, this one focusing on the history and popular reception of hoboes. Chapter...