Horses, Gunshots, and Saloons: The Portrayal of the American West in Libby Larsen’s Songs from Letters (Honors)

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In current scholarship, there have been many diverse perspectives in analysis regarding Songs from Letters, including those from a strictly musical and theoretical perspective and those from disciplines outside of music, such as gender studies and history....However, these analyses have overlooked a piece of information that is vital to understanding the song cycle as a whole: the letters used as the text of the song were not written by Calamity Jane.

As we take into consideration the context of the letters used as the text for the song cycle, an entirely different analytical interpretation of the song cycle emerges. It is not one based on factual information, but rather one based on one person’s imagination of what Calamity Jane’s life was like, and what it would have been like to live in the American West. Libby Larsen’s song cycle Songs from Letters captures the life of Calamity Jane as imagined by “Janey,” and creates an imaginative and romanticized version of her life and personality. The stereotypical images of the American West presented in Songs from Letters reinforce the idea of the work being more of an imagined ideal of the American West, than a factual portrayal. Although it seems that Songs from Letters presents a stereotypical view of the American West, it also portrays the difficulties and struggles that Calamity Jane faces as a woman defying gender norms in a realm dominated by men. Through these musical images, we see how the legend of Calamity Jane and the mythology of the American West is captured within the music.



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