For Music, Worship, the Arts -- and Pizza

by David Stowe

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument atop East Rock now has company: cell towers.  Speed bumps and bike lanes are everywhere.  Romeo & Joe’s market is now Romeo & Cesare’s.  These are a few of the changes that greeted my return to New Haven nearly twenty years after getting my PhD and rolling west. 

I arrived last Wednesday night.  The big news next morning was that President Richard Levin was stepping down at the end of the academic year.  He’s already being touted as arguably Yale’s “greatest president ever.”  News stories refer to the late Eighties and Nineties, just before Levin took office, as the Dark Ages of urban blight, street crime and decaying infrastructure that the new president heroically managed to turn around.  Those were the exact years I was here getting an American studies degree, and I remember thinking at the time that, apart from some crack cocaine activity on the streets, New Haven seemed to be doing a whole lot better than in the Seventies.

Plenty of new shops and restaurants have sprouted up, of course, but the most conspicuous change is in the downtown Broadway hub, which has received a substantial makeover (think Harvard Square in New Haven) and the biggest Apple store I’ve ever seen.  Biking around the first night I thought how tranquil it was, the quiet before the storm of students arriving after Labor Day.  The undergrads were all there, it turned out, classes having started that very day. They just keep a lower profile than in East Lansing, where thousands of roistering students would be out on front lawns in the student precincts, drinking, blasting music, and playing games of dubious skill.

I’m here until May as a research fellow in Music, Worship and the Arts, a program in its third year.  A collaboration between the Divinity School, School of Music, and various other units at Yale that dates back to 1973, the Institute of Sacred Music hosts graduate students, post-docs and research fellows in fields of  like choral conducting organ, voice (early music, oratorio, chamber ensemble), liturgical studies, and religion and the arts.  I met its director, an affable organ professor named Martin Jean, on Thursday morning.  The offices, seminar rooms and corridors have fresh paint, new carpets, and attractive framed posters everywhere you look, a patina of newness that we don’t find much in the strapped state  universities like Michigan State, at least around the humanities.  And compared to the other professional schools at Yale, the Div School is run on a shoestring.

My own project will be to expand and deepen work I’ve begun on the musical history of Psalm 137 in the Americas (“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”).  An article-length version came out this spring in Black Music Research Journal.  The poignant psalm has been on the musical minds of Americans since the Bay Psalm Book, with important contributions made by Boston’s homegrown genius William Billings, Frederick Douglass, Sterling Brown, C. L. Franklin, the Melodians (from Jamaica), Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, Don McLean (whose song turns up in an interesting scene in Mad Men), and others.  One of my first jobs is to refresh my memory of Sacvan Berkovitch’s work on the American jeremiad, and there’s a lot of scholarship on the historical Babylonian captivity I should know something about.  In the realm of popular history, Bruce Feiler has made a compelling argument for the centrality of Moses in U.S. political culture.  What would be different if we complicated that familiar archetype with the Babylonian Exile?

Yesterday the fellows and postdocs met for an orientation and discovered we’re an extremely diverse lot with enough common threads of interest to make for some interesting conversations over the year.  Our projects range from the material culture of medieval liturgical books and 16th-century French organ building to the musical interplay of Pentecostalism and vodou in Haiti and Islamic influences on the traditional puppetry, music and dance of West Java.  One of the fellows, a young professor of liturgy from Bavaria, knows a lot about the musical performance of Psalms in medieval Europe, something it will be useful to hear about although my own work centers on the Americas. 

All of us will be meeting twice a week: a fellows lunch discussion on Wednesdays, and more formal colloquia open to all ISM students, faculty and other invited guests on Thursdays. The Institute has housed me in a nicely furnished compact apartment a few blocks from the Div School, not far from the house on Whitney Avenue where I spent most of my grad school years.  If you’re passing through New Haven for any reason drop me a line and I’ll shepherd you to a memorable pizza joint.  We can always sit down by the waters of the Quinnipiac, where I almost sank in my kayak the other evening.