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
research interests:
  • film music and musicals
  • the Broadway musical
  • popular music

contact info:

office hours:

  • ​by appointment

mailing address:

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

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.

Todd Decker has published four books on commercial popular music in the United States from the 1920s to the present (Broadway, Hollywood film and television, the recorded music industry, jazz before 1970).

  • Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam (University of California Press, 2017) examines how music and sound have been deployed in war films made from 1978 to the present centering on the experience of American soldiers on foreign battlefields.
  • Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?: The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press, 2015) traces the performance history of this very well-known song across eight decades and a wide array of genres—jazz to rock, opera to gospel, doo wop to reggae—with an ear to how the history of race relations in the US has played out in the realm of popular music.
  • Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (Oxford University Press, 2013) was recognized as an Honorable Mention for the Woody Guthrie Award for Outstanding Book on Popular Music by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music–US. The book uses extensive archival research to consider how performers—both black and white—shaped this landmark work in its original 1927 Broadway version and in subsequent versions produced in New York, London, and Hollywood.​
  • Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (University of California Press, 2011) received the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Music Makes Me locates Fred Astaire’s film and television career in the histories of popular song and jazz and explores Astaire’s dances accompanied by African American musicians in the segregated world of the film musical.

Decker’s current projects include a critical edition of the music in the film Shall We Dance (1937) for the George and Ira Gershwin Initiative, another book on Fred Astaire, and a single-volume history of the Broadway musical, as well as book chapters on Broadway musicals with multiracial casts, the Jeanette MacDonald / Nelson Eddy film operettas of the 1930s, and country music songs telling stories about American soldiers.

Professor Decker has given numerous scholarly presentations nationally and internationally, including at the Library of Congress, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the University of Texas at Austin, the College of William and Mary, and Northwestern University. He is an international partner with the Labex Arts-H2H project Musical MC2, based in Paris. This three-year examination of the Hollywood film musical includes six biannual symposiums in France, print publications in French and English, and a digital humanities component.

Decker’s articles, book chapters, and blog posts consider race in Hollywood and Broadway musicals, music in the films Dunkirkand La La Land,  archival research on the Broadway musical, the closeting of gay characters and films in the 1990s, Martin Scorsese’s use of popular music in the film CasinoOscar Hammerstein II’s humanitarian ideals in The King and I, and disco in the film The Martian.

Professor Decker received his Ph.D. in historical musicology at the University of Michigan in 2007 and was selected for an Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Fellowship by the American Musicological Society in 2006-07. He joined the faculty of Washington University in fall 2007—after a one-year visiting position at UCLA—and teaches courses on twentieth-century American popular music, film music, and eighteenth-century European art music.

Outside his work on American music, Prof. Decker has published articles on eighteenth-century keyboard composer Domenico Scarlatti and holds a Master of Music in harpsichord performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has many years of experience performing on harpsichord, piano, and organ, as well as conducting, directing, choreographing, and performing musical theatre. He frequently accompanies his wife, soprano Kelly Daniel-Decker, in cabaret shows of classic American popular songs.

Publications

Books: 

  • Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam (University of California Press, 2017)
  • Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?: The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press, 2015)
  • Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical (Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz (University of California Press, 2011)

Articles and Book Chapters:     

  • “Fred Astaire, Captain America, and the Cyborg: The Technological Body of a Musical Star” In Stars of Hollywood Musicals (French and English editions), Marguerite Chabrol and Pierre--Olivier Toulza, eds., Presses du reel, Grande Collection du Labex Arts-H2H (Paris)
  • “‘Big, as in Large, as in Huge’: Dreamgirls and Difference in the Performance of Gender, Blackness, and Popular Music History” In Twenty-First Century Musicals: From Stage to Screen, George Rodosthenous, ed., Routledge: 94-109.
  • “Racing in the Beat: Music in The Fast and the Furious Franchise” In Contemporary Musicals, K.J. Donnelly and Beth Carroll, eds., Edinburgh University Press: 157-173.
  • “Domenico Scarlatti.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Music. Bruce Gustafson, ed., Oxford University Press
  • “Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s ‘Simple Idea’: Girls and Music in Tastefully Extravagant Settings.” and “Garth Drabinsky’s ‘Grand Moves’: Artistic Ambition and Commercial Illusions in the 1990s.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Musical Theater Producers, eds. William Everett and Laura MacDonald, Palgrave Macmillan (2016).
  •  “‘We’re the Real Countries’: Songs as Private Musical Territories in the Epic Romances CasablancaDoctor Zhivago, and The English Patient.” In Music in Epic Films: Listening to Spectacle, Stephen C. Meyer, ed., Routledge Music and Screen Media Series (2016).
  • “The Filmmaker as DJ: Martin Scorsese’s Compiled Score for Casino (1995)” in Journal of Musicology 34/2 (2017)
  • “A Waltz with and for the Greatest Generation: Music in Band of Brothers (2001)” in Living-Room Wars: American Militarism on the Small Screen, edited by Stacy Takacs and Anna Froula (Routledge, 2016)
  • “On the ‘I’ in The King and I” in Lincoln Center Theatre Review 65, Spring 2015.
  • “Fancy Meeting You Here: Pioneers of the Concept Album.” Daedalus 142/4, Fall 2013.
  • Entries in The Grove Dictionary of American Music 2nd edition (Charles Hiroshi Garrett, ed., Oxford University Press, 2013): “Fred Astaire,” “Josephine Baker,” “Jack Benny,” “Bing Crosby,” “Todd Duncan,” “Judy Garland,” “Jackie Gleason,” “Gene Kelly,” “Lonette McKee,” “Helen Morgan,” “Musical Theater, 1918-1930,” “Bill (Bojangles) Robinson,” “Ginger Rogers,” “Saint Louis, Missouri,” “Shirley Temple (Black),” “Ethel Waters”
  • “The Musical Mr. Ripley: Closeting a Character in the 1950s and a Film in the 1990s” in Music, Sound and the Moving Image 6/2, Fall 2012.
  • "On the Scenic Route to Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn (1942)" in Journal of Musicology 28/4, Fall 2011
  • "Race, Ethnicity, Performance" in The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, edited by Raymond Knapp, Mitchell Morris and Stacy Wolf (Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • “‘Do You Want to Hear a Mammy Song?’: A Historiography of Show Boat” in Contemporary Theatre Review 19/1, February 2009.
  • “The Essercizi and the Editors: Visual Virtuosity, Large-Scale Form and Editorial Reception” in Domenico Scarlatti Adventures: Essays to Commemorate the 250th Anniversary of his Death (Ad Parnassum Studies 3), edited by W. Dean Sutcliffe and Massimiliano Sala (Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 2008).
  • “‘Scarlattino, the wonder of his time’: Domenico Scarlatti’s Absent Presence in Eighteenth-Century England” in Eighteenth-Century Music 2/2, September 2005.

Reviews in:

  • American Music
  • American Studies Journal
  • The Common Reader (online)
  • The Figure in the Carpet (Center for the Humanities, WUSTL)
  • The Kurt Weill Foundation Newsletter
  • Journal of Popular Music Studies
  • Journal of the Society for American Music
  • Theatre Journal

Awards

  • Honorable Mention, Woody Guthrie Award for Outstanding Book on Popular Music for Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, International Association for the Study of Popular Music – United States
  • Best First Book Award for Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, Society for Cinema and Media Studies. 2012
  • Faculty Fellowship, Spring 2011, Center for the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Fellow, 2006-07, American Musicological Society

Courses

Undergraduate

Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam

Bruce Springsteen's USA

Popular Music in American Culture

History of the Film Score

The American Musical Film

Graduate

Introduction to Musicological Research

Introduction to Popular Music Studies

American Musical Biography

Music in the Eighteenth Century

Soundtrack Studies: Music, Noise, Voices

From Vitaphone to YouTube: Popular Music and the Moving Image

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 NowSaving Private RyanThe Thin Red LineBlack Hawk DownThe 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.

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. This book is the first to take Show Boat's innovative interracial cast as the defining feature of the show. 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.

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.

Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz

Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz

Fred Astaire: one of the great jazz artists of the twentieth century? Astaire is best known for his brilliant dancing in the movie musicals of the 1930s, but in Music Makes Me, Todd Decker argues that Astaire’s work as a dancer and choreographer —particularly in the realm of tap dancing—made a significant contribution to the art of jazz. Decker examines the full range of Astaire’s work in filmed and recorded media, from a 1926 recording with George Gershwin to his 1970 blues stylings on television, and analyzes Astaire’s creative relationships with the greats, including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. He also highlights Astaire’s collaborations with African American musicians and his work with lesser known professionals—arrangers, musicians, dance directors, and performers.