Trax on the Trail: Ready to Run in 2024

Greetings fellow Trailheads!

Midterm Election Day has finally arrived, and we are excited to roll out Trax on the Trail 2024! 

Trax on the Trail is a website and research project devoted to the study of American presidential campaign music. Our project launched on November 2015 with the goal of promoting a more critical evaluation of how music and sound shape the public’s perceptions of presidential candidates. Our interdisciplinary team includes students and scholars from across the US and Canada who regularly contribute essays, podcasts, resources for educators, and research materials for those who wish to learn more about the role of music in electioneering. Over the past seven years, Trax on the Trail has grown into a project of international significance, standing on the vanguard of research exploring the intersection of music and politics in American culture. The Trax on the Trail project has been cited by various media outlets, including the BBCThe GuardianSlateThe Boston HeraldPacific Standard, and Inverse, and our work has been published in the Journal of Popular Music StudiesAmerican Music, and Music & Politics.

We are truly grateful to all the individuals, organizations, institutions, donors, and contributors and staff (past and present) who have made our project a success, especially Georgia College for its continuing support of our academic and musical endeavors. We have been welcomed into colleges, community spaces, and libraries across the country, and in each we have received valuable feedback that has shaped our project into what it has become today. Thank you all for your support!

We are excited to roll out the 2024 website and will continue to commit ourselves to providing scholars, educators, journalists, and the public resources that allow them to think critically about sound on the campaign trail. We would like to take this opportunity to share with you what we have been up to over the past two years, and our plans for the next two years.

Trax on the Trail co-editor Dr. Naomi Graber (Associate Professor of Musicology, University of Georgia) released her book, Kurt Weill’s America, in April 2021. Drawing on German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill’s personal papers and sketches, her book offers a thoughtful and nuanced reading of the composer’s engagement with American culture. She provides the following description:

Throughout his life, German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill was fascinated by the idea of America. His European works depict America as a Capitalist dystopia. But in 1935, it became clear that Europe was no longer safe for Weill, and he set sail for New World, and his engagement with American culture shifted. From that point forward, most of his works concerned the idea of “America,” whether celebrating her successes, or critiquing her shortcomings. As an outsider-turned-insider, Weill’s insights into American culture were unique. He was keenly attuned to the difficult relationship America had with her immigrants, but was slower to grasp the subtleties of others, particularly those surrounding race relations, even though his works reveal that he was devoted to the idea of racial equality. 

The book treats Weill as a node in a transnational network of musicians, writers, artists, and other stage professionals, all of whom influenced each other. Weill sought out partners from a range of different sectors, including the Popular Front, spoken drama, and the commercial Broadway stage. His personal papers reveal his attempts to navigate not only the shifting tides of American culture, but the specific demands of his institutional and individual collaborators. In reframing Weill’s relationship with immigration and nationality, she adds nuance to contemporary ideas about the relationships of immigrants to their new homes, moving beyond ideas that such figures must either assimilate and abandon their previous identities, or resist the pull of their new home and stay true to their original culture.

Cover image, Kurt Weill’s America

Over the past two years, I (Dana Gorzelany-Mostak) have continued work on several non-Trax-related projects. The first is an essay, co-authored with Dr. Remi Chiu (Associate Professor of Music, Loyola University), on Millie and Christine McCoy (1851–1912), conjoined twins born into slavery that made their living as performers in “freak” shows, under the moniker “The Two-Headed Nightingale.” Using the polysemic image of the “nightingale” as a touchstone, our essay compares the rhetorical strategies deployed for famed singer Jenny Lind and the McCoy sisters to reveal the interchanges between the ideas of virtue and virtuosity, and exceptional ability and disability in the 19th-century musical marketplace (The Oxford Handbook of Music and Advertising). At present we are making final revisions on a second article which examines medical-entertainment discourses attached to the sisters during their Paris exhibition (1873–4). Our work on Millie-Christine McCoy has led to further exploration into the convergence of medicine and entertainment at the turn of the century, and this interest forms the basis of a new project which I will embark upon during my proposed sabbatical in Fall 2023. For this project, tentatively titled “Women, Music, and Drug Advertising, 1906–1918,” I will investigate patent medicines that were marketed to the female consumer and their accompanying musical ephemera, uncovering the role that music and sound played in pharmaceutical advertising in the early 20th century. And (after much procrastination) my book on the topic of campaign music will be released by the University of Michigan Press in November 2023. Tracks on the Trail: Popular Music, Race, and the US Presidency analyzes the official and unofficial musical activity surrounding 21st-century presidential campaigns, shedding light on how the racialization of sound intersects with other markers of difference and ultimately shapes the public discourse surrounding candidates, popular music, and the meanings attached to race in the 21st century.

Cover image, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Advertising
(Trax on the Trail co-editor James Deaville and Trax on the Trail contributors Joanna Love (University of Richmond), Reba Wissner (Columbus State University), Justin Patch (Vassar College), and Paul Christiansen (Seton Hall University) also contributed essays to this edited collection.)

Naomi and I were grateful to accept an invitation to present our work with Trax on the Trail at the New England Political Science Association Conference in Bretton Woods, NH last April, and we look forward to collaborations with members of this association in the future.

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (L) and Naomi Graber (R) Bretton Woods, NH

In Spring 2022, I established a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Team at Georgia College to assist with building Trail Trax, the database on our website that allows us to track and catalogue music heard on the campaign trail. Across Georgia College and other US universities, Vertically Integrated Projects engage undergraduate and graduate students in ambitious, long-term, large-scale, multidisciplinary research projects that are supervised by faculty. The students involved in the Trax VIP Team will earn academic credit for their work and will have the opportunity to develop their own research projects adjacent to Trax on the Trail. The Trax VIP Team at Georgia College includes sophomores Caroline Cole, a history major with minors in museum studies and English, Riley Greer, a music major, and Victoriyah Friend, a psychology major. Victoriyah and Riley already have a presentation under their belts, as they introduced the Trax on the Trail project at the Mentored Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors (MURACE) Symposium this past October, with Caroline serving as moderator.

Riley Greer, Caroline Cole, and Victoriyah Friend, The Trax VIP Team

Each year since 2016, the Georgia College Trax on the Trail staff has organized campaign music concerts as a part of Constitution Week. Recently, Dr. Jennifer Flory (Professor of Music) and I received an Academic Affairs Small Grant from Georgia College. This grant will allow us to embark on a close study of campaign music published between 1840 and 1918. Although campaign songsters were widely circulated and the songs therein were popular during a given campaign, the music faded into obscurity shortly after. Our project, “Songs of Political Persuasion: Hearing Music on the US Presidential Campaign Trail, 1840–1918,” combines archival research methods, music analyses and arranging, and music technology to shed light on the 19th-century campaign soundscape. The academic work on this topic indeed speaks to scholars with an interest in electioneering, but we believe a historically informed recording will stimulate broader interest in the topic and afford educators across the country the opportunity to educate their students on how sound can be used as a tool of persuasion. In addition to creating a recording of 12–15 songs published in songsters, with the assistance of the Trax VIP Team, we will create accompanying lesson plans, program notes, and digital lectures which will be made available via Trax on the Trail.

Sixth Annual Constitution Week Concert, September 19, 2022
featuring Riley Greer, Anna Ogletree, Aidan Fortenberry, and Tyler Harris
Constitution Week Concert Poster

With the goal of expanding our reach beyond both the college and classroom, we are planning several new collaborations in 2024. I am pleased to announce that Trax on the Trail will be working with Dr. Reba Wissner (Assistant Professor of Musicology) and her students at Columbus State University to develop new essays and podcasts for the website. In 2022, Dr. Wissner developed the first undergraduate certificate in Public Musicology at her university—no small feat! The Public Musicology certificate provides students with real-world skills, including digital humanities training, and includes four courses that prepare students to engage broad audiences through public-facing music history work. We look forward to working the with students in this program as they continue to hone their skills under Dr. Wissner’s tutelage. You can follow Dr. Wissner’s students on Facebook

Although we are still a few months away from the tracking process, we have started to update the content on the website, which as of yesterday includes a comprehensive bibliography and revised FAQ. And last, the Trax VIP Team has decided to sidestep the hopeless boomer at the helm of this project and broaden our reach by establishing a Trax on the Trail TikTok account. Check out our most recent video.

Thank you for your continuing support of the Trax on the Trail. If you haven’t already done so, please follow us on social media and check our website for future updates!

Here’s to 2024!

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, Founder/Co-editor, Trax on the Trail

Twitter: @traxonthetrail Facebook: TikTok: @Trax on the Trail

Email: Phone: 478-445-8630

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