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Composer Captures Life Of An 'Atrocious Saint'
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Composer Captures Life Of An 'Atrocious Saint'

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Andrew Jackson was a patriot and a traitor. He was the greatest of generals and wholly ignorant of the art of war. He was the most candid of men and capable of the profoundest dissimulation. He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint.


That was the description of Andrew Jackson by his first biographer, James Parton, in 1859. In his time, the seventh President of the United States and the father of the Democratic Party inspired hatred, pride and reluctant admiration from his countrymen. It's a story that also inspired composer Christopher Hedge to write the music for a public television documentary about Jackson's life.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: The music is now available on CD. It's called, "Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint." Christopher Hedge is in the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HEDGE (Composer): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: It's interesting to hear the very first cut because the very first words that you write in the liner notes - and you use Andrew Jackson's description of himself, "I was born for the storm." Is that first cut - you're setting us up to discover this man.

Mr. HEDGE: Yeah, very much. I think that there's a sense of his military foundation that was his original claim to fame. And then I think it begins to contrast sort of the panorama of characters that this guy represents and metaphors that he represents to me.

HANSEN: Can you explain why Andrew Jackson was such a divisive figure in American history?

Mr. HEDGE: This is not a time where America was sure that it was going to survive. And I think that the elite in Washington were especially afraid of a charismatic military leader forming a populist leadership.

HANSEN: And meaning, Andrew Jackson was not an elitist.

Mr. HEDGE: That's correct. He was of the people.

HANSEN: A populist, though, at the time. You know, you hear about what happened with the slaves and what happened with the Native-Americans, and all those don't sound like populist ideals to me.

Mr. HEDGE: I know. The quote from his first biographer, I think, and the reason that I titled the record "The Atrocious Saint," is because of the contrasts and the real contradictions in Jackson and in his character. And I think those are contradictions that we have ourselves. We have an ideal of what we believe that we are as a country, and then you have the reality of what we actually do as people, and that's, I think, represented by Jackson.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: There are no lyrics on the CD but there are many voices here because you're telling the story of Andrew Jackson. Not just his story but the story of the lives he affected. The music of American Indians, R. Carlos Nakai is the Native American flutist on a few tracks.

Now, just a bit of background, Andrew Jackson served in the army during the First Seminole War. Then, as president, he oversaw the westward expansion and the Indian Removal Act. How are his policies toward Native Americans reflected in your music? You do have a tune called "Trail of Tears."

Mr. HEDGE: Jackson, I think, believed that he was saving the Cherokee but they did it in such a rushed way and such an unprepared way that it was a tremendous tragedy and thousands died. When R. Carlos is playing, it's his ancestry that is playing through the flute. He, I think, is the most appropriate person to be able to translate for the rest of us how that feels.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: R. Carlos Nakai is teamed with Titos Sompa, the percussionist. He's from the Congo. Now, why pair these two?

Mr. HEDGE: The idea in this case was that the Indians were being removed and the slaves were being forced in. And there is, to this day, a huge tension between these two cultures. And to me, it seemed a worthwhile idea to put these two in the room together and it was, I think, wonderful.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: You concentrate on the voices of slaves in "Work Song." Andrew Jackson kept slaves himself. Slave labor was important to his westward expansion. What are we hearing in this song?

Mr. HEDGE: Titos is struggling through this piece, and you can hear his sort of pain as he contemplates the endless labor that people were subjected to with absolutely no potential for ever rising out of it.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: Did Titos have a difficult time performing the song?

Mr. HEDGE: I think so. This is a source of great sadness to Titos. He tells a story of Louis Armstrong coming to the Congo. He came to Titos' town when Titos was just a boy. And as soon as Louis Armstrong looked over the crowd and recognized the curvature of the face and realized that this was his ancestral - this is his people, people looked like him, he said that he broke down in tears. And the whole crowd was so affected that they put him on a - what they call a king carrier, they lifted him up and carried him across the river into Zaire. And that shows you how deep the root between those that were removed and those that are still there. And so Titos carries a lot of that with him.

HANSEN: You worked on this project for a long time, did a lot of research. Did you get any new understanding of that time?

Mr. HEDGE: I got a new understanding of our time. I found my way backwards through that time and I was completely surprised and fascinated by how little I knew about it. That taught me a lot about how we are now and I see this very narrow focus on the image of what an American is. A person looking at history has to look at all of the histories and there are so many more than the narrow focus that we normally have. And that's why you have the music from the Irish and Scottish and Native American and slave and parlor music and classical - these are all of the things that form this great collection of soul that we are.

(Soundbite of Christopher Hedge music)

HANSEN: Christopher Hedge is a composer based in San Francisco. His new CD is called "Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you.

Mr. HEDGE: Thank you, Liane.

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