Not too long ago I read a book called “The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age.” The book was not actually about only the guitar in America, but about the banjo, mandolin and guitar societies that seemed to be a large part of the culture of music making from around 1880 to 1930. The book is rather dry, and actually seems to be a commercially published version of someone’s doctoral dissertation. The title seems to be an acknowledgement that banjo, mandolin and guitar are not hot topics in the bookseller’s world.
The two big takeaways I got from the book were first to explain something I had always wondered about – my mother played in a mandolin orchestra. I had always thought this was something weird that she and her friends had gotten into as part of the social scene in the 1930’s. It turns out that this was something that existed all across America and which attracted many people. Perhaps this was the previous iteration of the classical guitar societies that are here in Lancaster, and in Philadelphia, Baltimore and elsewhere.
The other was to introduce the name William Foden as a guitarist and composer. Foden was acclaimed as one of the best guitarists in America at the turn of the century. At the time he was working much of what we now consider the classical repertoire was being created in Europe by folks like Albeniz and Tarrega.
Foden could (and did) play those standard “Spanish” pieces, but he also created a number of uniquely American pieces for guitar. These are not widely played or known. Finding anything about Foden is a bit of a struggle. There are some performances on YouTube, but not nearly the volume you get for anyone else.
If you are interested there are some pieces by Foden on an old (1994) album called “American Pioneers of the Classical Guitar.” Not to worry – finding this will not take you hunting through the racks of old record stores. The album is available on Spotify.
There are also some links out on the web. Our friends at the St. Louis Classical Guitar society sponsor a radio program. Since I believe Foden was active in St. Louis they are very tuned into his work.
I also found a program on YouTube that features two pieces by Foden. Take a look for yourself.
I think the interesting thing is that these are so…American. I cannot say why, but whatever it is, it is unique. You could not mistake this for the music of any other country. That makes them very special in the guitar repertoire.
I am working on a Foden duet with another member of the society. With any luck it will be ready for our June members concert.