A professor of Musicology in the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, Dale Cockrell has done all the proper things in his day-job capacity. Earning honors, awards, high office, prestigious appointments, etc., he has published widely in the fields of American music studies.
His books include Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World, which was the recipient of the C. Hugh Holman Award presented by The Society for the Study of Southern Literature, and Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers, 1842-1846, which won the Irving Lowens Award. He is a former president of the Society for American Music and a member of the American Antiquarian Society.
The academic life has provided Cockrell with opportunities to live in interesting, beautiful, and, gripping places. His first position was at the University of Natal (Durban) in apartheid-era South Africa. There he found his American-style social activism challenged by South African friends whose commitments against gross injustice extended to a willingness to place their very lives and careers on the line. Cockrell now says that the people, the music, the cause, the depth of involvement manifest from those years were utterly transformative. He has since held positions at Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, and The College of William and Mary, all before coming to Vanderbilt.
While enjoying bedtime reading with his son some years ago, Cockrell became interested in the rich American musical legacy embedded in the classic Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which references 126 great songs. That simple act of reading to a child has since led to a years-long scholarly project entitled The Ingalls-Wilder Family Songbook, a volume published as a number in the Music of the United States of America series. Fifty million copies of these books have been sold and hundreds of thousands more sell every year.
Beyond the notes on the page though, Cockrell was interested in human ears experiencing this music again. In 2004, Cockrell became the first musicologist to establish a record label to produce the music he studies. Pa's Fiddle Recordings, LLC has since released Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and on the heels of the success of that recording, The Arkansas Traveler: Music from Little House on the Prairie was released in 2007.
Cockrell's overarching philosophy is summarized in a reminder he shares often with his students: the reason we study music, make music, enjoy music, write about music, and teach music is that music appears to afford special insight into the capacity that humankind possesses for living life in a yet fuller, richer, and more meaningful way.
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