Mary Goshtigian with oud. Part of a group of field materials documenting Mary and Hartop Goshtigian performing Armenian and Armeno-Turkish songs and music on April 17, 1939, collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Fresno, California.
A few Armenians came to Virginia with the early settlers in the 1600s. However, the first major wave of Armenian immigrants arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century when American missionaries, who had gone to Turkey to establish churches, schools, hospitals and missions, encouraged Armenian students to travel to the United States to get a better education.
It was the devastating massacre of Armenians by the Turks in the 1890s and the continued political and economic repression of the Armenian population by the Turks in the ensuing years, as well as another series of forced deportations and massacres that took place under the cover of World War I that caused Armenians to flee to other countries, including the United States, in great numbers. Over 50,000 Armenians had made their way into the country by 1914.
Around 4,500 Armenians, many from the Soviet Union, arrived as refugees after the Second World War. An additional 8,500 resettled in the United States following displacement from Palestine by the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the 1950s. An estimated 2,000 people of Armenian heritage currently continue to enter the United States every year.
The first Armenian American communities grew up in the major urban centers of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic States. Today, most of the 500,000-strong Armenian population is divided between New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, the Midwestern States and California. Los Angeles boasts the largest Armenian American community in the country.
Because Armenians came to the United States from all over the diaspora, Armenian American song boasts Turkish, Russian, Arab, Persian and Eastern European influences. Many musicians can perform the music of a mixture of these traditions and sing in multiple languages.
Music from the Caucasus and the more rural areas surrounding Mount Ararat merged with Turkish folk and classical music. Songs are often accompanied by a variety of traditional instruments such as the clarinet, oud (12-stringed, pear-shaped lute) kanoun (zither with a narrow trapezoidal soundboard)violin and dumbeg (vase-shaped metal drum). After World War Two, the instruments, styles and techniques of American popular music and big band jazz began to permeate the authentic Old World sounds.
Politics often dictates musical repertoire and style in the Armenian American community: While older generations of Armenian Americans grew up singing songs in Turkish, younger generations tend to boycott Turkish culture, as a result of a renewed awareness of the Turkish massacres of their ancestors.
The Library of Congress houses many recordings of songs sung by Armenian immigrants in the United States, including songs about the persecution and exile of the Armenian people from Turkey during World War I. Several were recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in Fowler, California on October 30, 1939, as part of a WPA initiative to record ethnic folksong in Northern California. One example, performed a cappella by Vartan S. Shapazian, "Derzor Chollerenda" ("The Desert of Deir ez-Zor"), tells of the massacre of Armenians, masked as "deportation" from Turkey, as they were marched or taken by train and left to die in the Syrian desert. Cowell recorded a powerful performance of "Andouni," by Ruben J. Baboyan. This folksong was arranged by the Armenian composer and folksong collector Komitas Vardapet, and is usually translated "The Homeless." It became a song symbolic of the loss of homeland caused by the events of World War I. "De le Yaman," also sung by Baboyan, was once simply a known as folksong of yearning for a lover, but, after World War I, its meaning changed to symbolize the yearning for the lost homeland.
Sidney Robertson Cowell's documentation also includes folksongs from a more peaceful time, such as "Godou Ges Goreg"("Bird's Song"), sung by Ruben J. Baboyan, "Heline," performed on the Oud and sung by Mary Goshtigian, and "Mangig ev Turtchnig," ("The Child and the Bird") a children's song performed by Siranoosh Shapazian, as well as Armenian and Armeno-Turkish instrumental music.
The main setting for music in the Armenian American community was originally the hantes, a day-long indoor picnic in a church hall where between one and three bands would provide the entertainment. In the 1960s and 70s, Armenian Americans held weekend-long music parties known as kef-time all over the United States.
Since the early twentieth century, Armenian immigrants have also enjoyed singing in organizes choirs. The repertoire mostly consists of SATB a cappella arrangements of Armenian music. The traditional singing style is straight-forward and lacking in vibrato.
The Armenian American community has fostered several notable names in the American vocal music world including the operatic soprano Cathy Berberian (1925-1983); the pop singer Cher, whose father was Armenian (she was born Cheryl Sarkisian); the theatre director Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987) who introduced the modern musical to Broadway with Oklahoma! in 1943, and the Los Angeles-based heavy metal band System of a Down, whose four members are all of Armenian ancestry and which devotes some of its songs to Armenian historical and political subjects.
- For more information on Armeinan American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Armenian Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties. Recordings collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939. Armenians in Fresno and Fowler, singing and performing dance music, immigrant songs, love songs, ballads, children's songs in the Armenian language, and Armeno-Turkish music on the daph, dumbelek, saz, clarinet, blul, qanun, zurna, oud, kamanche, and violin. Includes photographs and drawings.
- "Middle Eastern Music" by Anne K. Rasmussen in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 1029-1035.
- Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p136-149. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981).
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.