In 2010, Professor Maribeth Clark sped through the Midwestern countryside on a train destined for Cincinnati to her first conference with The Society for American Music. She began speaking with a man sitting next to her and soon realized that he was the president of the Society.
She asked what the hardest part of membership was, and the president said “serving on a committee.” With that challenge, Clark, associate professor of music at New College, joined a development committee and helped spearhead a million-dollar fundraiser — which led to her recent election as the Society’s treasurer.
The Society for American Music, known as SAM, opened its doors in 1975 and is dedicated to the study, teaching, creation and dissemination of all music in the Americas.
“It started in the 1970’s and consisted of a group of eclectic scholars with an interest in American music,” Clark said. “American music at the time didn’t get the attention it deserved, and we wanted to make this music look like the music of the world.”
The organization dedicated itself to furthering the status of American music in academia and expanded the broad definition of American music to include all genres and styles found throughout the countries of North and South America.
After serving as a chairperson on a number of financial and managerial committees, Clark helped organize the successful fundraiser.
“One of the members and I got a survey of what members care about and this became the basis of the capital campaign,” Clark said. This campaign became known as SAM/2.0 and was launched with the goal of promoting, funding and rewarding new scholarship in American music.
In order to further the music of the Americas, the society holds an annual academic conference, launches several academic publications and offers a wide variety of grants and scholarships to graduate students and professional musicologists. “I really love that it is a society that makes you feel welcome,” Clark said.
One of the most unique features of their annual conference is the wide range of celebrations of American music that conferencegoers can participate in. These activities range from contra-style line dancing to ceremonial banquets complete with a historical home-distilled cocktail called shrub – a fermented fruit juice reputed to be Benjamin Franklin’s favorite concoction.
And of course there’s great music.
“They had a caller from Nova Scotia calling folk dances and I got to dance with [renowned musicologist] Lydia Hamessley. Sometimes there is sacred harp singing, there are excursions in the location where they hold the conference,” Clark said. “And they always have a brass band.”
The Society for American Music helped shape Clark’s current research interests in addition to providing a support network for disseminating her academic work. “I’m working on researching women whistlers. I didn’t know about the topic until I went to a SAM meeting,” Clark said.
In her new position, Clark serves as chair of the Society’s development committee. She also aims to use her new position to guide the organization in progressive directions. “I want SAM to be more inclusive. It is a very white society that has a hard time making the program relevant to a large variety of interests,” Clark said. “It doesn’t always serve every population as well as it should.”
“I have this experience working toward fundraising and I don’t have a big agenda,” Clark said. “We have to make this music look like the music of the world. It’s about extending the nature of American music.”