Todd Decker

Chair of Music; Professor of Musicology and American Culture Studies; Faculty Affiliate in Performing Arts and in Film and Media Studies
PhD, University of Michigan
MM, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
BA, Fresno Pacific College

contact info:

office hours:

  • ​by appointment

mailing address:

  • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • CB 1032
  • ONE BROOKINGS DR.
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899

Professor Decker has published four books on commercial popular music in the United States from the 1920s to the present. He teaches courses on twentieth-century American popular music, film music, and eighteenth-century European art music.

For more information, visit Todd Decker's department profile

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical tells the full story of the making and remaking of the most important musical in Broadway history. Drawing on exhaustive archival research and including much new information from early draft scripts and scores, this book reveals how Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern created Show Boat in the crucible of the Jazz Age to fit the talents of the show's original 1927 cast. After showing how major figures such as Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan defined the content of the show, the book goes on to detail how Show Boat was altered by later directors, choreographers, and performers up to the end of the twentieth century. All the major New York productions are covered, as are five important London productions and four Hollywood versions.
Again and again, the story of Show Boat circles back to the power of performers to remake the show, winning appreciative audiences for over seven decades. Unlike most Broadway musicals, Show Boat put black and white performers side by side. This book is the first to take Show Boat's innovative interracial cast as the defining feature of the show. From its beginnings, Show Boatjuxtaposed the talents of black and white performers and mixed the conventions of white-cast operetta and the black-cast musical. Bringing black and white onto the same stage--revealing the mixed-race roots of musical comedy--Show Boat stimulated creative artists and performers to renegotiate the color line as expressed in the American musical. This tremendous longevity allowed Show Boat to enter a creative dialogue with the full span of Broadway history. Show Boat's voyage through the twentieth century offers a vantage point on more than just the Broadway musical. It tells a complex tale of interracial encounter performed in popular music and dance on the national stage during a century of profound transformations.

Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam

Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam

In Hymns for the Fallen, Todd Decker listens closely to forty years of Hollywood combat films produced after Vietnam. Ever a noisy genre, post-Vietnam war films have deployed music and sound to place the audience in the midst of battle and to provoke reflection on the experience of combat. Considering landmark movies—such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and American Sniper—as well as lesser-known films, Decker shows how the domain of sound, an experientially rich and culturally resonant aspect of cinema, not only invokes the realities of war, but also shapes the American audience’s engagement with soldiers and veterans as flesh-and-blood representatives of the nation. Hymns for the Fallen explores all three elements of film sound—dialogue, sound effects, music—and considers how expressive and formal choices in the soundtrack have turned the serious war film into a patriotic ritual enacted in the commercial space of the cinema.

Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song

Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song

A Broadway classic, a call to action, and an incredibly malleable popular song, "Ol' Man River" is not your typical musical theater standard. Written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in the 1920s for Show Boat, "Ol Man River" perfectly blends two seemingly incongruous traits-the gravity of a Negro spiritual and the crowd-pleasing power of a Broadway anthem. Inspired by the voice of African American singer Paul Robeson, who adopted the tune for his own goals as an activist, "Ol' Man River" is both iconic and transformative. 

 

In Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River"? The Lives of an American Song, author Todd Decker examines how the song has shaped, and been shaped by, the African American experience. Yet "Ol' Man River" also transcends both its genre and original conception as a song written for an African American male. Beyond musical theater, this Broadway ballad has been reworked in musical genres from pop to jazz, opera to doo wop, rhythm and blues to gospel to reggae. Pop singers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland made "Ol' Man River" one of their signature songs. Jazz artists such as Bix Biederbecke, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Keith Jarrett have all played "Ol' Man River," as have stars of the rock and roll era, such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Cher, and Rod Stewart. Black or white, male or female-anyone who sings "Ol' Man River" must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history.

 

Performers and fans of musical theater as well as students of the Civil Rights movement will find Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River" an unprecedented examination of a song that's played a groundbreaking role in American history.