Music Ensemble Dynamics at St. Olaf

The Manitou Messenger is primarily a modern source, giving us access to information very close to home. Many articles focus in on issues that are affecting students on the hill. One recent such issue being the large donation that was given to the music department last year, allowing international tours to become free for all members of the St. Olaf ensembles. That being, the St. Olaf ensembles that are given the huge privilege of touring every year. Anna Moen’s article from last spring brings attention to the fact that there are many more ensembles on this campus that will not receive any benefit from this huge donation, making the members of these ensembles once again feel discounted (Moen). One could argue that the department is spreading funds to where most music majors are placed in ensembles, but on the same hand, many music majors spend at least one year, if not all four, in ensembles other than the St. Olaf Band, Choir and Orchestra.

This unsteady dynamic between the top ensembles and the others can even be seen visually in concerts like the annual Christmas Fest. The St. Olaf Choir is placed at the front of the ensembles, making sure they draw focus. Even on the Christmas Fest website, the St. Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra are listed at the top of the ensembles list, showing they take priority before any other group even though there are more participants in other ensembles within the massed choir, like Chapel Choir.

In the world of music, it is very nearly impossible to not make distinction between individuals and groups based on personal preference or reputation. I don’t believe it is any one person’s doing that some ensembles are treated more favorably than others, and no student in any ensemble should feel guilty for their placement. However, they all deserve to feel valued, and it seems the department could be doing more to make the majority of the ensembles on this campus feel that way.

Moen, Anna. “Money Donated to Music Department Should Benefit All”. Manitou Messenger. St. Olaf College, March 21, 2019.

“The St. Olaf Christmas Festival”. St. Olaf College, 2019.

“Latin American Fiesta” and the Failure to Recognize the Latin American Perspective

I found this LP in the Halvorson Music Library collection.  If you look closely, you might be surprised to see Aaron Copland listed as one of the featured composers on this album.  In class we talked about other instances of Copland drawing inspiration from the folk music of Latin America, but I didn’t expect his music to be set alongside the music of artists from Mexico, Brazil and Portugal, like it is in “Latin American Fiesta”. 

While I find essentialism problematic in its own right, I have a hard time accepting Copland’s music into the genre of Latin American music, seeing as he is not a Latin American composer. I find his inclusion on an album of Latin American music problematic due to his position as an outsider of the musical tradition he is emulating as well as his place of privilege in the world classical music.  I see this as an instance where the white perspective wasn’t necessary, but was nonetheless held to an equal, if not higher importance than the perspective of those within the musical culture the album was highlighting.

More of these instances can be found on the back of the album cover, where conductor Leonard Bernstein comments about the “Latin American spirit”.  His exoticising of the music of Latin America as a blend of Native American and African music invalidates the genre as it’s own unique musical culture:

The sweet, simple primitiveness of the Indian music mixes with the wild, syncopated, throbbing primitiveness of African music; and both of these, mixed with the fiery flash of Spanish music and the sentimental sweetness of Portuguese songs, make up the music we know as Latin American.

While the inclusion of Copland and Bernstien’s views on Latin American culture are indicative of the ways the white perspective was favored in classical music, pieces like Bachianas Brasileiras, or “Brazilian pieces in the manor of Bach”, show that composers within different musical cultures were also being held to the standard of European classical music, and were changing their sound to fit a narrow mold reinforced by the educated, white, European and masculine standards set for classical music at the time.

While it is easy to see albums like this and think about how far we’ve come in, the failure to recognize the Latin American perspective is a more current issue than many realize, especially at St. Olaf.  In the 1989 Manitou Messenger article Olaf missing Latin American view, student Julia Kirst speaks about the struggles of being the only international student from all of Latin America, as well as the positives of celebrating diverse experiences.  I believe that providing a platform for people to share diverse experiences is the first step, and while the intentions of “Latin American Fiesta” may have been to provide such a platform, such intentions were undermined by the voices and perspectives they chose to include on the album.

Works Cited:

Davrath, Netania, et al. Latin-American Fiesta. Columbia, 1963.

Kirst, Julia. “Olaf Missing Latin American View.” The Manitou Messenger, 3 Nov. 1989.

The Yellow Rose of Texas: Evoking State Unity and Geography in Song

In a past blog post I explored a small evolution of the national anthem in written and notated forms, and this post I hope to extend a bridge from that topic towards my eventual final research topic of state songs. Finding common threads in state songs can be tricky, as distinct similarities between all of these tunes is rare. However, I believe looking at states with the older official state songs- and songs written at a similar time with a similar subject or tone- can provide important clues as to what sort of formula, template, or resemblance these pieces had with one another.

It was on Columbia Records “Great Songs of America”, compiled in 1961, that I found a recording of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. While this is not the official state song of Texas (that honor goes to “Texas, Our Texas”), the piece offers an example of how a particular location is essentialized and remembered in American song. The song conjures ideas of a military march, complete with constant snare drums and occasional piccolo interludes between verses. The male chorus sings lively tune in tight harmony, with moments that sound almost like barbershop. The peppy tune uses vivid imagery of the Texas landscape, although there are varied versions to the lyrics when searching online. 

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was known before the American Civil War, but became quite popular among the soldiers of the Confederate Army, especially those from the state. The song shared among these men fighting together created a camaraderie within the piece, a connotation that goes beyond simple performance practice. In addition, the piece has been situated in its own mythology of sorts, with a popular legend that a young woman by the name of Emily West aided in helping the Texans win a decisive battle in the war for independence from Mexico.1 Scholarship has noted the inaccuracies in these mythologies2, but the fact of the matter is that the piece still gained notoriety for representing a land that many young soldiers longed for and remembered as home.

Primary Source

Great songs of America. Place of publication not identified: Columbia Records, 1961.

Secondary Sources


Phillips, M. “Emily D. West and the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ Myth.” Journal Of Southern History 81, no. 2 (May 2015): 457–458.

Blues Got You

As a relatively new country, America has had to define its own folk music rather forcefully, instead of allowing that definition to come about from hundreds and thousands of years of culture. Because of this, the line when it comes to what is considered folk music and what is not is relatively thin and grey. Folkways has been integral in this construction of a distinctly American folk music. 

Folkways was founded in 1948 by Moses (Moe) Asch and Marian Distler. Though the label also distributed “world music,” it was and is known best for its part in the 1950s American folk music revival. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label, that Folkways branched out into other genres. Now, Folkways releases  music from virtually every genre, with a Hip Hop anthology being released in 2020 (had to do my due intern diligence and plug it here).

So, why is this important? American folk music can be categorized and defined two different ways: as a genre and as a descriptor. Historically, American folk music as a genre has been very exclusive – meaning it has been dominated by white men of lower-middle and middle class backgrounds, and usually from rural/small-town America. As a descriptor, however, folk music has a much broader connotation. It is because of this that the Folkways of today looks little like the Folkways of 70 years ago. Blues, Jazz, and Hip Hop have all been recognized by Folkways as genres that fall within the definition of American folk as a descriptor. 

Volume 2 of Folkways Jazz Anthology (released in 1950, so one of the early signs of Folkways being a leading force in this new definition of folk music) is called The Blues. Both the foreword and the editor’s notes discuss the definition of the blues in a similar way to how I have discussed the definition of folk. The Blues is folk, it is defined by certain syncopations, an aural tradition, specific instruments, chords, and inflections, etc. My question is, there are so many characteristics specific to blues as a genre, but does that mean that tunes that have some of these characteristics and not others are not blues?

The blues are also defined in the liner notes as stemming from slavery and African/ African-American traditions. The content of the blues is often related to “protest, recrimination, and ridicule.” Because of the shifting and exclusive nature of these definitions, it is difficult to choose what to subscribe to. My personal favorite comes from Lead Belly, who defines the blues as a state of mind, saying, “Now I’ll tell you about the blues. All negros like blues. Why? Because they was born with the blues. And now, everybody have the blues. Sometimes they don’t know what it is. But when you lay down at night, turn from one side of the bed all night to the other and can’t sleep, what’s the matter? Blues got you.”

Christmas Music versus Sheet Music

Now that rehearsals for Christmas Fest have begun, I thought it might be time to talk about every musician’s favourite (and longest) season of the year. The amount of Christmas and Christmas-adjacent winter music that musicians of all stripes play during the end of fall and winter is staggering. This is as true for pop musicians as it is for classical musicians, and it has been since the days of Tin Pan Alley. In fact, the origins of much of the most-played Christmas music comes from the times and artists that we’ve been discussing in regards to the sheet music extravaganza that was the early 20th century.

Image result for irving berlin christmas

Think of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” or the many Christmas songs sung by old-time crooners like Bing Crosby. If you’ve been exposed to this music anywhere near as much as I have, the voices of these singers (along with a good 3 or 4 other arrangements) will pop immediately into your head. Much like the sheet music of the 1890s to 1920s, Christmas music floods the market every year in such quantity that there are many, many hits to be drawn upon. As Horacio Lopez discusses in his Manitou Messenger article, “Music on Trial,”  almost every artist that you can think of has released a Christmas album, be it Pentatonix, Nat King Cole, Kanye West, or R.Kelly (to mention a few of Lopez’ examples). Whether the majority of this massive musical output is any good is very much a matter of opinion. Lopez, calling himself Grandmaster Ho (presumably in reference to Grandmaster Flash and other hip hop icons), in fact doesn’t seem to like almost any of the songs he mentions. Instead, they are primarily sentimental to him, being from albums he was gifted or heard at Christmastime.

  On the other hand, Andrew King of Canadian Musician thinks that all the vast quantity of Christmas music has value, even if some of it the unifying force of people’s annoyance at hearing the same songs over and over again. He challenges his readers to seek out new or less-traditional Christmas songs, and to keep searching for the musical value in these pieces.

His argument reminded me of Dr. Epstein’s discussion of sheet music, in which the quantity of music makes said music simultaneously worthless and priceless. Claiming Christmas music as a unifying cultural force is certainly problematic – it comes from a Christian tradition drawing on pagan traditions, and isn’t representative of or important to a lot of people. However, here in North America Christmas, especially Christmas music, has an unquestionably lengthy reach into our collective cultural experience.

Works Cited:


  1. Lopez, Horacio. “Music on Trial: Not-so-Traditional Christmas Jingles to Jangle the Soul.” Manitou Messenger, 9 Dec. 2013,
  2. King, Andrew. “In Defense of Holiday Music.” Canadian Musician, vol. 41, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2019. Music Periodicals Database, EBSCOhost, ISSN: 0708-9635p. 9.


The Success of Jazz: Blessing or Curse?

There is no question that jazz as a genre experienced much success throughout the 20th century. Around 1960, after it had begun to be replaced in popularity by rock n’ roll and bebop, its live performance was revived in part in New Orleans’ French Quarter.[1] Preservation Hall provided a space for aging jazz musicians to return to their art. “Almost all of the musicians have given up any work other than music, and have benefited from the new respect accorded to the New Orleans musician.”[2] Several jazz bands became affiliated with the space, among them the Wendell Brunious Band and Jim Robinson’s New Orleans Band. Manitou Messenger published an article in praise of the former,[3] and Halvorson Music Library has a record including recordings by the latter. But this success carried with it the baggage of preservation.

Jazz at Preservation Hall 2

The back cover of the record suggests overtones unsettlingly similar to those of the “Vanishing Indian” phenomenon. The album–indeed, even the name  of the hall which hosts the musicians performing on it–could be seen as portraying jazz as something which might fit well in a museum. If minstrelsy is understood to be an obsessive fascination with blackness, using primitiveness and exaggerated emotions as tropes to make something unsettling or intimidating approachable, seeing jazz as part of a bygone era that ought to be preserved meant society no longer feared blackness in music and could look to it for inspiration.

It should be noted that the founders of Preservation Hall, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, were white, and so could have had analogous attitudes toward jazz as MacDowell had toward Native music. That is, as a source of inspiration for new, less “other” art, even if the dominant race of performers at the Hall was still black.

Allan and Sandra Jaffe with their child

The Jaffe family

But this is not the only presentation of these groups on the album. While it clarifies that performers at the Hall don’t typically take requests (suggesting a static, less improvisatory style), it says that they do play popular and folk music alongside the traditional pieces that are being preserved, with more “consistently better” performance than before. Many of the performers also personally played at the turn of the century, when jazz was first taking off. The Mess also calls out the mixing of disciplines to create Preservation Hall’s style, as well as the improvisation which does in fact take center stage.

St. Olaf’s interest, in a region of the country comprised mostly of white people, could be seen as merely scholarly, fascinated by something which was unique and “other,” or as genuine interest in a revived tradition with new ideas to offer. Regardless, interest in jazz from all demographics has grown; whether this is seen as a black art being taken by white artists after its “death” or new creative cooperation, the genre has carved itself a lasting place in the repertory.


[1]   “History.” Preservation Hall. Accessed:

[2]   Pierce, De De, and Billie Pierce. 1963. Jazz at Preservation Hall, II. Atlantic.

[3]   Hosch, Jennifer. 1992. “Artist Series introduces traditional style of New Orleans improvisational jazz.” Manitou Messenger. Accessed:

Stephen Foster: A History of Praise

The blog post for this week has been based on this short article[1] from St. Olaf College’s very own Manitou Messenger published on October 20th, 1925:

This touches on a couple of interesting topics. Firstly, the fact that a white American man is categorized as a composer of “negro spirituals”. Secondly, it seems to me that the fact that someone was trying to promote Afro-American music, however narrowly defined as it may be, certainly got the attention of the unnamed writer of the article, hence the choice of title. This could indicate that this was an unusual topic for the time, and this might very well be an attempt to spark a discussion in the newspaper, and to draw in the readers.

The writer does not give any details of what “the Reverend M. A. Christenson” viewed as the American folk- sound, and if he personally differentiated between American folk songs and negro spirituals as stated in the article, as if they are separate from each other and had no connections whatsoever. I admit that this is slightly speculative, but it seems to me that what in the title seems like an attempt to advocate for African American music, is actually endorsing the separatist tendency we see in the scholarly writings of the time, trying to define American music history. He wants to praise the music, but trough white man’s authority and as his creation. This is of course based on the presumption that Christenson of Portland, Oregon is not an African American, this might be the case, but then the argument he is making might seem a bit regressive.

In the Vinyl collection I found this collection of Stephen Foster Favourites, containing a 1978 recording of “My Old Kentucky Home”, the song that superseded Christenson’s address. The Robert Shaw Chorale sings “My Old Kentucky Home” with a straight rhythm, classical technique, and the song itself is harmonised in a simple SATB-chorale style “spiced up” by some counterpoint nearing the end of the piece. This seems very “on-brand” when you look at the cover art for the record. The description in the back, if not in a bit condescending and romanticising way, does not, however, deny the Afro-American influence on Foster’s compositions:

“[…] he was under the spell of the minstrel shows, the singing of the Negroes […] on the riverboats from the South, and of the Negro worshippers in a little church near his childhood home”

Bever and Robinson in their 2018 article[2] on “My Old Kentucky Home” they write about the controversy surrounding it being sung annually at the Kentucky Derby. This discussion was seemingly sparked due to to the removal of Fosters rather racially unsensitive statue, made in 1900 and situated in Pittsburgh,  a few months earlier. Bever and Robinson quote critics expressing that the statue

“glorifies white appropriation of black culture, and depicts the vacantly smiling musician in a way that is at best condescending and at worst racist,”[3].

As much can also be said about Fosters music, and the way his role in the American musical canon has been presented both in the 1924, 1978 and as well as his borrowing from African American culture shows that much is glossed over to find that holy grail of authentic music without dealing with a painful past. The same goes for using his music for the sake of tradition in our own time. Bever and Robinson also include a quote by  Forster biographer Ken Emerson, which I chose to end this post with:

“ “Ironically,” Emerson said, “here is a song that was inspired by a great abolitionist novel, and which no less a leader than Frederick Douglass himself singled out as a song that awakens the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish. So, like all of Foster’s music, it’s thick with contradictions that, to this day, I think, are part of the American experience.” “[4]


“Chapel Speaker Praises Composer of Negro Songs”. The Manitou Messenger. No. 6, Vol.039, October  20th, 1925. Page 4. Northfield, United States

Bever, Lindsey. Robinson, Lynda. “‘My Old Kentucky Home’: The Kentucky Derby’s beloved, fraught singalong about slavery”.  The Washngton Post. May 5, 2018. [Accessed October 30th, 2019


Statue of Stephen Foster×0/smart/  [Accessed 30.10.2019]


[1] The Manitou… 1925: p. 4

[2] Bever and Robinson 2018

[3] Ibid

[4] ibid

Jazz at St. Olaf – A Lost Legacy

While St. Olaf College has been well known for a strong choral program since its inception, as it turns out Jazz didn’t take long to become a part of music on campus. In fact, during the 1920’s Jazz music was regularly positioned as an opposing musical form to choral music. In a 1924 visit to St. Olaf by Princeton Professor Dr. J Duncan Spaeth, a Manitou Messenger article quotes him saying

“The production of your choir, alone would make St. Olaf a worth while institution,” said Dr. Spaeth. “To hear a choir sing classical music, and sing it well, in this age of jazz, is to me, a spiritual bath. I feel that people who have learned to appreciate the type of music sung by your choir, should also be able to discriminate between the genuine and the jazz in poetry, art, journalism, and drama.”1

St. Olaf Choir album from 1949

While Dr. Spaeth’s biases (he continues on to praise the “Nordic” appearance as “refreshing in comparison to foreign types” and makes an argument against co-ed teaching) undoubtedly reveals his racist sentiments about the value of classical music as superior to Jazz, he is not alone in this opinion. In fact, both choir and jazz come up many times in the 1920s and 1930s as moral opponents. However, students also expressed their frustration through the campus news paper. In 1933, a Campus Opinion article wrote this notable complaint

“Maybe people at large would begin to realize that actual human beings attended school at St. Olaf if our “Jazz Band” programs were broadcast. Why be afraid to admit that St. Olaf is not a monastery? Too many false presentations of Manitou life have already escaped. Surely the criticisms of a pep orchestra would be neglible in comparison to the criticism of other “evils,” if all were known.”2

A 1925 “Student Pulse” article started with the important claim that Jazz was not being played on the campus radio show despite possible students efforts to have it played.

“[Correction: An error based on misinformation as to facts inadvertently crept into the Student Pulse column of last week’s issue. Careful perusal of recent WCAL programs will disclose the fact that the station is not now, nor has it been broadcasting Saturday night “jazz” programs.]”3

While campus attitudes almost 100 years later don’t represent the same perspectives on choral superiority, the Vinyl collection is heavily skewed towards choral recordings. A quick library search yields 43 Jazz recordings, only one of which is by the award-winning St. Olaf Jazz Band whereas there are some 225 vinyl records by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles. Vinyl is particularly interesting in this context because it has been passed on as a preferred recording technique, and offers a snapshot of what the school was choosing to not only save, but to sell. The St. Olaf Jazz recording, on the other hand, is from 2017 and heralds a slightly more futuristic view of where St. Olaf Music could be going.

St. Olaf Jazz Band Album

As a choir member on campus, I sometimes find myself quick to disregard complaints that St. Olaf Music favors the choirs too heavily.  However, in that act of dismissal I am engaging in a centuries-old practice of prioritizing a specific musical form which causes true detriment to the success of other types of music at St. Olaf. How do we celebrate legacies of music that are known for excellence and tradition when that recognition was partially entrenched by creating an environment that punished other types of music?

Pushing the Limits of Band Expectations

Why is it that bands are not held to the same standards as orchestras? This is what I found myself asking when reading a Manitou Messenger article from 2007 titled, “St. Olaf band pushed limits.”

Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007,

The “limits” to which the article is largely referring struck me as notably particular to the band world:

Over the years, the St. Olaf Band has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles. Mahr is deliberately expanding the traditional band repertoire through his own compositions and daring concert programming. The band’s home concert in the Skoglund auditorium on Feb. 8 was a solid portrait of the agility of style that the band has reached.

One of several highlights of the concert was alternating tour soloist Jennifer Maki ’07 performing the jubilant Weber Clarinet Concertino. The texture of the band accompaniment playing this delicate late classical-period music with Maki exceeded my expectations.1

Why is it that having the ability to play “delicate” music well constitutes “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”? Orchestras are certainly expected to be able to play delicately. The focus of the article is not on the quality of the band intrinsically, or as an undergraduate band, but basically that it’s very good for a band. This provides some interesting insight into the hierarchy of the ensembles. This also to me does not seem to be through any fault of the instruments themselves—woodwinds, for example, are known for their delicate sound.

Woodwind delicacy is one of the features of the Weber Clarinet Concertino mentioned above. To hear what may have been so impressive about a band arrangement of this, I listened a recording of the original orchestral version.

The first thing I noticed was the very heavy beginning, with the strings’ thick, full, not very delicate chords. This style does not dominate the piece, but is very present in it. There are delicate moments in the strings, but such a description is not as all-encompassing as the article had me thinking. The most delicate part of the piece is the clarinet part—the band instrument.

So then what makes a band performance of this impressive? Is it simply that the artistic caliber expected of bands is less than that expected of orchestras? Or maybe that bands are stereotyped as not focusing as much delicate playing? The latter would make sense if it’s not seen as a band’s specialty, where its strengths lie. But this leads to the assumption that such delicate playing is the strength of the orchestra, and again we have bands not being held to the same standards as orchestras, by a margin that seems to me much bigger than the actual difference in instrumentation would suggest. To give such an assumption so much weight seems wrong to me. So are the expectations of the writer are accurately based in bands’ abilities? Maybe not. But if so, why does this performance constitute “pushing the limits of what to expect from band ensembles”?

1 Tom Niemisto, “St. Olaf Band pushes limits,” Manitou Messenger, February 16, 2007,

“C M von Weber: Concertino for clarinet and orchestra.” YouTube video, 11:19, posted by Joan Enric Lluna, April 29, 2017,

Weber, Carl Maria von. Clarinet Concerto no. 1 in F minor, op. 73; Clarinet Quintet in B flat major, op. 34; Clarinet Concertino in E flat major, op. 26. Recorded 1967. Turnabout, 1967, vinyl.

In the Heights, Hamilton, and West Side Story (Oh, MY!)

Since reading Carol Oja’s article, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” I’ve wondered how the existence of movie versions affect how musicians study and perform the shows.1 Movies act as time capsules, whereas broadway shoes, even iconic ones, have opportunities to be reimagined year after year as social climates change. Does an actor’s race (or the race they are made to resemble in the case of West Side Story’s Maria) cement how that role is portrayed in high school/college level productions?

During the 2013-2014 school year, the theater department put on a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” In her article Julia Pilkington noted that “the musical was selected in part because of its significance in the context of a college campus: Students come from various corners of the country and world, live here at St. Olaf College and are contemplating where they will go with their lives.”2 It is true that this is central to the plot, but outside of the Spanish pronunciation coachings the cast received, it seems that the cultural implications of being a Latinx person in Manhattan was not central as it was in the original production.

A discussion about the stakes of movie productions is timely considering the impending release of a movie version of “In the Heights” in which one of the original cast members of “Hamilton” plays the lead role.

Just like West Side Story or the Music Man before it, this version of In the Heights will undoubtedly influence if schools like St. Olaf choose whether or not to tackle this show. When Hamilton starts reaching high school theater departments with the same consistency as West Side Story, what will the cast look like? If there is a movie version of Hamilton, will that affect how it gets performed? Although this post relies on many hypothetical questions, they are questions that theater departments internationally will inevitably face as critical conversations of race (and performing race) continue to fill musical conversations.

1 Carol Oja, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 13-30.

2 Julia Pilkington, “‘In the Heights’ Seeks to Define ‘Home’,” Manitou Messenger, November 14, 2013,

The Folk Revival hits St. Olaf with Folk Festivals

During the 1960’s, folk music in the United States was gaining popularity. Folk songs accompanied by banjos and guitars that were a staple in the south earlier started to spread northward and found homes in college dorms across the country. One of these colleges happen to be our very own St. Olaf.

When sifting through old articles of the college newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, many stories appear of the folk music tradition on campus. Below, is a snippet from the Manitou Messenger about the traditional Folk Festival St. Olaf used to hold each spring.

During these festivals, there was a variety of banjo strumming workshops, watching videos of popular folk musicians at the time, performances by the St. Olaf Folk Dance Group and then of course the folk concert, by “some of the best folk artists of the Midwest.”1 As a musical campus, it is not surprising for the college to become a folk scene. In Pete Seeger’s words, “Whatever people are singing-that’s folk music.”2 What were the folks at St. Olaf singing? Aside from Beautiful savior, our folk scene brought “Talking St. Olaf Blues” and one “The ballad of Ytterboe” (about a dog, not the dorm), were written by a college student Paul Ingvolstaud in 1963.2 Unfortunately, in true folk song spirit, I have been unable to locate recordings of these.

In these campus folk festivals, various campus language clubs set up booths and different cultural food was presented. The St. Olaf Folk Dance Group danced different folk styles, from Scottish to Filipino.2 St. Olaf used the annual folk festival to not only embrace their folk tradition, but traditions of other cultures that made up the college’s identity. The revival of folk music and its spreading to colleges reflect its stickiness to the young generation at the time, especially on a campus that is known for their singing.

1 “Folk Festival Returns!” The Manitou Messenger. 5 April 1963. Digital.

2 “Whatever folks are singing….that’s what makes it folk music” The Manitou Messenger. 15 February 1963. Digital.

From Gershwin to Gomez

“Easy to listen to…” 

…were the words used to describe George Gershwin’s works in a 1949 piano faculty recital, according to the Manitou Messenger[1]. That evening, Prof. Joseph Running of St. Olaf College performed a piano concert consisting of all American works. He stated in his interview with The Mess that he is “desperately anxious to be a missionary for the contemporaries.” With this in mind, he programmed White Peacock and Sonata by Charles Griffes, Variations on a Bavarian Dance and The Camptown Races by Paul Nordoff, and the “easy to listen to” Three Preludes for Solo Piano by George Gershwin. (I found a recording of Gershwin, himself, playing them here!)

I took a listen to Gershwin’s Three Preludes, and what struck me is that while they may “easy to listen to” because they make us listeners want to tap our toe, they are not this way because of having a simple harmony or rhythm. In 1986, Leonard Pennario, the American pianist who performed Three Preludes on the LP recording I found in Halvorson Library’s Vinyl Collection, stated that,

“Gershwin’s music is very dear to my heart and is among the most beautiful music ever created.”[2]

People today find Gershwin’s Three Preludes just as beautiful and encapsulating of the American spirit as they did over 60 years ago. Nana Kwame, a Youtube user, commented,

“[They] just give you that ‘New York’ spirit.”[3]

Likewise, Dimitri A. commented on Youtube,

“Simply beautiful. Prelude #1 and #2 always give me the goosebumps. Gershwin was a genius.”[4]

As we’ve learned from readings and discussions in class, not all music that had its origins in Tin Pan Alley has had such long-lasting success. Each of the three movements of Gershwin’s piece are motif- or riff-driven: the first prelude is built upon a blue-note riff, the second is a blues-y lullaby, and the third combines these blues elements and sets them to a Caribbean beat. When I was listening to the LP and reading the YouTube and Mess reviews, I realized that Gershwin’s music contains a kind of “glue” that has influenced the American pop music genre: riffs. This riff-based inspiration is something that can be found in most any popular song to this day. Today’s #1 song on the USA pop charts is Selena Gomez’s Lose You to Love Me… a song that is based upon a riff that the piano opens with.

Because Gershwin’s innovations never departed from American pop music, his music has trained the American music consumer’s ear to find riff-based pieces… easy to listen to.


Primary Sources:

[1] “Running Is All-American In Last of Recital Series.” The Manitou Messenger, May 6, 1949. Accessed October 28, 2019.

[2] George Gershwins Song Book & Other Music for Piano Solo, 1986.

Secondary Sources:

[3] “George Gershwin: Three Preludes.” YouTube. YouTube, July 29, 2008. Accessed October 30, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

The Early 20th Century Othering of African-American Music

African-American composers and performers have long been disregarded and ignored in the American music industry. But visibility and exposure are the not the only problems they have faced; even when performances or recordings featured music by African-American composers, for example, they often did so in a way that presented these works as peripheral.

While searching through old articles written in The Manitou Messenger, one particular review of a vocal performance stuck out to me. The article is a review of a Canadian baritone, Cameron McLean, who performed at St. Olaf on December 6, 1923. Apart from several unintentional roasts by the author (“It was pleasing, but not especially brilliant”), one of the opening descriptions of the repertoire caught my eye. The author details the program, saying “His native Scotch songs were features of the program, although he presented several from other sources, Italian, American, Russian and German. One negro spiritual was also included.”1

Listing the spiritual song as separate from all of the other pieces featured is just one example of a way music by African-Americans was othered even when it was performed. By all rights, the spiritual should be included in the previously mentioned category of “American music,” but instead, it is viewed as something different that must be mentioned on its own. In addition to this, the actual content of the review specifically calls out the two spiritual-esque songs, “The Gospel Train” and “Goin’ Home” as weaker parts of the performance.2 It could very well be that the reviewer just thought the McLean did not connect with these pieces as well or that his performance was technically weaker, but I suspect the author had a personal and societally enforced bias against these songs.

When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records. 1976.

Though it came earlier in time, an album of “American Art Songs” found in the music library was less blatant in its othering of African-American spirituals. The album, called “When I Have Sung My Songs,” features twenty art songs by American composers, including three by H. T. Burleigh.3 While these three are not blatantly treated any differently than the rest of the songs on the record, the cover material does seem to set them apart a bit. There is a large informational timeline entitled “Highlights of German Immigrant Influence in the United States, 1859-1918” that takes up half of the back cover. Digging deeper into the other composers featured in the album, I found that the majority had connections to Germany. From Edward MacDowell, who studied in Germany, to Walter Damrosch, who was born in Germany, it seemed like German-influenced American composers were the theme of the album, with African-American composers such as H. T. Burleigh and J. Rosamond Johson once again conspicuously outsiders.

Clearly, even when African-American composers did begin to gain a little attention and exposure in the American classical music scene, the battle was not won. The early twentieth century may have allowed them to have a corner of the spotlight, but the way they were presented still made it clear that they did not fully belong.


1 “Music Review”, The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 13,  Vol. 037, December  11, 1923, page 4.

2 Ibid.

3 When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records, 1976.

Works Cited:

“Music Review”, The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014),  No. 13,  Vol. 037, December  11, 1923, page 4., Accessed October 30, 2019.

When I Have Sung My Songs: The American Art Song 1900-1940, New World Records. 1976, Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.

White Spirituals: An expression of culture or attempt at oppression?

While browsing the LPs available at the St Olaf Halvorson Music Library, I came across an interesting find:

This is an LP entitled “White Spirituals,” recorded by the Atlantic Record Label in 1959.  It comes from their Southern Folk Heritage Series, and contains 14 songs (7 per side) of various style and origin.  The timing of the album is what brought my suspicion, as 1959 seems a peculiar time to publish such a collection, and remarkably close to the Civil Rights Movement.  In fact, the 1950s saw a resurgence of racially motivated killings and beatings, as well as less violent forms of segregation.  1954 saw the passing of Brown v Board of Education, which received quite a bit of pushback in many states throughout the US.  1957 saw the passing of the civil rights act, propelled by the protests of Martin Luther King Jr in Montgomery starting in 1955-1956.  1959, the year this album was published, saw Mack Charles Parker beaten in his Jail cell by a mob while he stood awaiting trial for raping a pregnant white woman.  Parker was lynched shortly after in a park.

This brief racial history of the 1950s in the US serves to give us a backdrop for this album and its insistence on “White Spirituals.”  If George Pullen Jackson is to be believed, all spirituals have their origins in white music.  In fact, George Pullen Jackson had written most of his work between 10-20 years prior to this albums recording, so its possible that the producers were familiar with his work and seeking to support his hypotheses.  Interestingly though, it seems as not all of the recorded songs would support Jackson.

There are three in particular that seem to point this album towards the path of cataloguing, rather than racial politicking.  A5-A7 are all songs in the Lining Out or Sacred Harp style, an easily identifiable style of music popular in the Appalachian and Southern Churches, although they were brought to prominence in New England before the independence of the colonies.  After seeing these three songs, I looked into the other artists and they are all quite prominent musicians of the southern Gospel tradition.  Estil C Ball is the most prominently featured musician, and he is a songwriter/singer/guitarist performing his own original music, informed by the bluegrass tradition in Appalachia.  This is to say, I don’t believe this album is a political statement towards the whiteness inherent in spirituals at all.  The title does not refer to spirituals in the “Negro Spiritual” sense, but rather songs of the south that are sacred in nature.

This is all a longwinded, and potentially completely unwanted explanation, on how my personal biases have been shown rather false.  I was struck and intrigued by an album called White Spirituals, and I hoped it would be a treasure trove of racist bile.  My confirmation bias led me to initially criticize the album for being published at such a time.  In the end, however, research won out and showed me an example of good musicological work with an unfortunate title.

Do American jazz musicians make jazz American?

In 1971, the Archive of Folk and Jazz Music released a new record: “Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars.” On the back of the record packaging, there is a Statement of Purpose saying that the Archive wishes to bring historic jazz and folk records to the general public, as the modern jazz and folk music does not represent the “sincerity and soul of the [original] artists” 1

So, the Archive has taken it upon themselves to find and clean previously released records by jazz performers they find authentic who may have been robbed of the opportunity to record in a quality studio.

They hope to recognize these artists and ensure that the public is receiving top-notch recordings from “true” jazz performers.

“Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars” was one of those records. It was originally published in 1957 and featured songs such as “Jazz me Blues” and “South Rampart Street Parade.” Fountain was introduced to music early on, as his father played with various bands around Mississippi and Fountain eventually played with prominent bands before creating his own group, “Pete Fountain and his Three Coins.” In the records, you can hear Fountain implementing staple aspects of jazz, including blues notes and polyrhythm.

“Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars” record cover

In 1956, only one year before Pete Fountain released the original record, the St. Olaf Manitou Messenger published an article titled “An Introduction to Jazz,” written by Allan Townsend. It was published in a section called “Arts and the Man” and was written in anticipation of pianist Don Shirley’s visit to campus.  Townsend writes, “At last the great white gods of the conservative circles have been forced to openly recognize Jazz as a truly creative art.”2 According to Townsend, Shirley is honored as the missing link between classical and jazz music.

However, Townsend opens the next paragraph with, “Without being burned for heresy, we can now look at Jazz for what it really is—America’s greatest cultural contribution to the creative arts of the world.”2

Townsend’s article in the Manitou Messenger

He finishes: “Jazz is American. It breathes of the very stuff that has gone into making you and me what we are, and we should make an effort to learn about our own culture.”2

Both Townsend and the Archive of Folk and Jazz Music take authority in determining what they think is authentic jazz. However, they seem to have a similar opinion that jazz is a product of American culture. 

Sure, Shirley and Fountain are a part of American culture, but does that mean that jazz comes from America?

In my opinion, the answer is “no.” We can’t say that America is the birthplace of jazz, when two fundamental aspects of jazz that Fountain featured in his record—polyrhythm and blues notes—come from African roots. We can’t say that America is the birthplace of jazz if another factor of jazz, call and response, is a pattern characterized in African music. 3

Townsend says that jazz is in American culture, and yes, jazz has become a part of American culture, but that doesn’t mean that America created jazz. 

Whether Shirley and Fountain are “authentic” jazz musicians is a different question, but it is unquestionable that they are Americans who have infused jazz into American culture, not Americans performing American music. Jazz comes from roots all around the world; while Townsend and the Archive may want to claim jazz as America’s musical genius, it is simply not the case.


1  Fountain, Pete. New Orleans all stars. Place of publication not identified: Everest Records, 1971. Print.

2 Townsend, Allan. “An Introduction to Jazz.” Manitou Messenger, February 3, 1956, Arts and the Man sec. Accessed October 29, 2019.

3 Evans, Lee. “The African Origins of Jazz.” JazzEd, (accessed October 29, 2019).

William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA

Cover of St. Olaf Orchestra’s 2005 recording of Highway One, USA by William Grant Still

In 2005 St. Olaf Orchestra recorded William Grant Still’s Highway One, USA under conductor Philip Brunelle. This recording recently made national news in the New York Times’ article “Operas by Black Composers Have Long Been Ignored. Explore 8.” Here, the St. Olaf recording is linked as the go-to alongside a shout-out for a recording from Sony’s 1970s Black Composers Series. Luckily, both of these recordings are available through the libraries, the former in an online database and the latter in the Halvorson Vinyl Record collection.


Cover of the Black Composers Series recording of Highway One, USA

The Black Composers Series is a 9-volume box set featuring works by William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Ulysses Simpson Kay, George Theophilus Walker, Roque Cordero, José Mauricio Nuñes-Garcia, and José White, among others. In addition to the arias “What Does He Know of Dreams?” and “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, Still’s Afro-American Symphony and Sahdji: Ballet for Orchestra and Chorus are featured. The inside cover notes that this 1986 reissue was a project by the Committee on the Status of Minorities of The College Music Society in consultation with the Center for Black Music Research, firmly situating the album in a socio-political agenda of representation.

Liner Notes from St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording

While the Black Composers Series is valuable in providing an anthology of recordings that have been often marginalized, St. Olaf Orchestra’s recording is arguably more in line with Still’s ambitions because it presents the opera without qualifying it based on the composer’s race. By presenting the opera as it would any other recording, the publication avoids further alienating or segregating works in the classical music genre.

Because the St. Olaf Orchestra recorded this in collaboration with the accomplished Twin Cities-based VocalEssence, I went into the Manitou Messenger archives eager to find content about the recording’s process and reception. Unfortunately, despite extensive digging I was unable to find anything about the recording. Much less notable concerts were covered, including what felt like an endless slew of post-tour home concert summaries.

Although I was unable to find anything about the recording session of Still’s opera, I was so excited to see the headline “St. Olaf Orchestra concert to feature wide variety of composers” come from a March 1996 article of the Manitou Messenger. Since we’ve been talking about racial representation in classical music, and performing works by marginalized groups is one way to reform this narrative, I was interested to see what this article had to say about the concert.

I was more than a little disappointed when the “diversity” I expected to see was no other than the white-boy trinity of Igor Stravinsky, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Samuel Barber. In addition to being Euro-centric and commonly performed as a part of the Western Classical Canon (although perhaps not household names for those unfamiliar with the genre), they are all 20th century composers. The author does not address why he considers this to be a “wide variety.”


Works Cited

DeRose, Jason. „St. Olaf Orchestra concerto to feature wide variety of composers.” The Manitou Messenger 13, vol. 109. March 15, 1996. 9.

Still, William Grant. “What Does He Know of Dreams?” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.

Still, William Grant. “You’re Wonderful, Mary” from Highway 1, USA, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Black Composers Series, CBS Records. The College Music Society, 1986. Vinyl recording.


More than Just “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

The chill in the air around campus has started to make me think of the approaching Christmas season. Every year the caf fires up its ovens to make Fest Food ™, a huge Christmas tree is put up in Buntrock, and you may find students watching a particular movie huddled up in their dorms: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Released on December 6th, 1965, “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ incorporated unexpected elements in its animation – the voices of children instead of trained adults, jazz music, a Bible passage, and no laugh track [1].” Created from the popular comic strip by Charles Shultz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had a large sponsorship when it first premiered with the coca-cola franchise (in the midst of the pepsi/ coke wars). “In 1966,  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would go on to win a Peabody and an Emmy for outstanding children’s programming, The success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” changed the network’s prime-time philosophy [1].”

I would argue that the most well-known aspect of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the music. The music from the Charlie Brown Christmas special is engrained on millions of American memories, including my own. “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Skating” were both originals created for the show and are now sung around the world during the holidays. American jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi composed most of the music himself, while including traditional Christmas hymns such as “O Tannenbaum” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” In 2012 the album was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings

While looking through St. Olaf College’s Vinyl collection, I was shocked at how many versions and remakes the college owns of the songs from the original album:

There’s something about this film that seems to hit a chord with people (pun intended). According to Conlan Campbell of the Manitou Messenger:

I’m not a particularly big fan of Christmas media or a particularly big fan of the Peanuts series, but every year I find myself drawn to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Unlike most holiday specials, this one does not feel to me like an aside or cash-in on Christmas iconography. There is some essential quality in this film that sets it apart to me, making it perfect. […] Beyond the narrative, all the compositional elements are in perfect interplay. Vince Guaraldi’s iconic low-key jazz backs up almost every scene and the environments feel authentic. The world is flat and simple, but immersively so. Nature is compact but always shifting and the indoors feel cozy and certain. The night sky is constantly changing and the scale feels like childhood. What was small in a moment becomes immensely large and the characters shrink into it [3].”

Campbell is not alone is his love for the show. Over 15 million households around America (nearly half of all American television sets) tuned into the Christmas special on the night of December 6th, 1965, and it has run at least once every year after (2019 will be its fifty-fourth year!). This sweet, unassuming children’s special has turned into a musical tradition for generations of Americans, and remains a timeless part of American popular culture.


[1 Hagen, Carrie. “The ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Special Was the Flop That Wasn’t.” Smithsonian, 9 Dec. 2015.

[2] St. Olaf College Vinyl Collection, accessed Oct. 29, 2019.

[3] Campbell, Conlan. “Charlie Brown Film Achieves Perfection.” Manitou Messenger, 11 Feb. 2018.

Copland’s Passion for American Music

In reading through the letters from The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, I was reminded of our discussions in class regarding the exerted effort to define and develop an American classical music. This proves to be a major theme in Copland’s letters, and it manifests in several ways.

One of the most explicit examples of his passion for cultivating American classical music is in a 1932 letter to the New York Times in response to his being misquoted as calling music critics a “menace” to American music. Regarding the conference during which he was misquoted, he writes:

Our purpose was the thoroughly serious one of considering the relation between the American composer and the music critic. . . . The composer needs the critic. . . . He is an absolute necessity, if only because he serves as the middle man between the public and the creative artist.

. . . The position of the American composer has changed, and . . . he is no longer satisfied with the merely tolerant and often apathetic attitude of the press toward American music in general . . . [as it is] no longer apposite to the body of vital music which is being created—and what is more, performed.1

In the postscript, Copland also writes:

In justice to myself I am forced to add that the above remarks are made distinctly in relation to new American music as a whole and not to my personal creations, which have almost always been quite sufficiently noticed, due to the particular auspices under which they were presented.1

Despite having great success as a composer himself, Copland is passionate about improving the attitude towards American music in general—a “thoroughly serious” matter regarding this “body of vital music,” in which critics are an “absolute necessity,” all very strong language, and aimed at the issue of American music more than the actual controversy of his being misquoted.

The conference at which he was misquoted provides more evidence for this passion. It was the First Festival of Contemporary American Music, in which Copland played a major administrative and musical role.2 In the letters sent around the same time as his note to the New York Times, he focuses on the success of the festival, and gives much encouragement to composers whose works were performed at the festival, an example of the encouragement he gives to other composers, students and colleagues alike, throughout his letters.

In his letter to Virgil Thomson about the festival, he writes, “I’m delighted for you because I feel it’s the first real success you’ve had in America. I’ll see to it that the League of Composers performs it in N.Y. next season.”3 This quote also brings up his involvement in the League of Composers, another organization championing American classical music.

In another letter about the success of the festival, he writes to Carlos Chávez of his fondness for the Mexican-inspired music at the festival, illustrating how Copland viewed Mexico as an appropriate and even desirable inspiration for American music.3 Incidentally, around this time Copland also traveled to Mexico, which his letters trace, and did seem to find the trip inspiring. In another letter to Carlos Chávez, he writes, “I regretted leaving Mexico with a sharp pang. It took me three years in France to get as close a feeling to the country as I was able to get in three months in Mexico.”4 The visit to Mexico inspired Copland’s piece El Salón México, which started him down the path of using Mexican and folk inspiration for his music, making it both American and accessible.5

American music was clearly a passion for Copland, and he was much more involved in developing and promoting it than he needed to be as an already successful American composer. From being active in organizations to supporting other composers to seeking out his own American inspiration, he saught to create an American music that would satisfy not only the composers but also as much of the American public as possible.

1 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, eds., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 91.

2 Ibid, 88.

3 Ibid, 92.

4 Ibid, 101.

5 Ibid, 89.

“Copland: El Salón México ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Carlos Miguel Prieto.” YouTube video, 13:36, posted by hr-Sinfonieorchester – Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Jan 22, 2013,

A European Composer with Opinions on American Music

© National Portrait Gallery, London Poldowski (Régine (née Wieniawski), Lady Dean Paul) by Bassano Ltd

The composer I’d like to center this blog around is one whose music I was introduced to last year when I was searching for female composers. Although she went by a handful of names, her pieces were published under the name of Poldowski, a nom de plume that had no signifier of her gender. She was born in Brussels in 1879, moved to England around the turn of the century, adopted British citizenship when she married in 1901, and composed art songs in french [2,3]. She isn’t an American however I found the intricacies of her background parallel to how we have been discussing identity in music. She did, however, “concertize” in the United States for two winters and a summer. Her passing in 1932 led to some striking obituaries, one in particular was in the New York Times ten years after she had visited. The obituary discussed the fame she had gained in both Paris and London and how her concerts in the United States helped to establish her as a great “writer of songs” in comparison to Debussy [2]. In that same obituary, certain musical qualities were associated to parts of her race:


“Through an Irish mother, she inherited an added gift of the fantastic and paradoxical in humor with the mixture of Polish ancestry, which gave her music the complex sadness and gaiety of harmonization….”

We don’t often discuss the essentialization of white composers since whiteness has become a term of homogeneity but it’s informative to see articles such as these that othered composers of different nationalities. 


What caught my eye, in particular, was an article she had written called, “The Influence of Jazz” in 1927. She is reflecting on the influence of Jazz on orchestrated music and her conclusion is:

“To admit the influence of jazz on music, is to admit the influence of cocktails on vineyards, or the cinema on painting! A composite American device is not a new creation, or any sort of creation, it is a stimulant, and a very good and healthy one, if kept in its own sphere.” [2] 

She compares jazz musicians to Wagner and Stravinsky and claims that the two were geniuses whereas jazz musicians are “stunt-monger[ers]”[2]. This type of critique is outdated but important to look back on, especially when choosing art-song composers to perform.  

Although she asked as she was dying, “Do look after my music!” I feel hesitant to continue to do so [1]. 

Works Cited

[1] Drucker, Ruth et al. “A Collection of art songs by women composers .” 1998: n. pag. Print.


[3] Kness, Karen. “An analytical comparison of the art song style of Poldowski with the styles of Debussy and Fauré.” (2012).

W.C. Handy & William Grant Still: A Bromance?

Samuel Floyd Jr. and Rae Linda Brown both allude to the tight community of black composers during the Harlem Renaissance, but I did not process the significance of this until I read some of W.C. Handy’s letters to William Grant Still. Even reading just a few of these letters gave me a much better idea of the relationship between Still and Handy.

Brown notes that Still worked for Pace & Handy’s publishing company first in Memphis and then in New York, acknowledging that:

“Handy’s office was to become important in Still’s career. It was here that prominent black musicians met and made personal contacts so critical to their professional survival.”(72)

Letters between Handy and Still prove an intimately personal in addition to professional relationship. This relationship is most obvious in the non-musical discourse between the two, particularly the familiarity of their greetings and discussions. Handy’s salutations most commonly read “Dear Friend Still,” and he routinely closes with a greeting from his wife or an update on the health of his two daughters, Katherine and Lucille.

My personal favorite letter dates from April 29, 1941. I am particularly drawn to it because of the synthesis of personal endearment and professional collaboration.

From the first section of the letter it is clear that Handy has sent Still a “script” for his scrapbook. Although the exact context is unclear, my interpretation is that this was a speech of Handy’s. Here, the professional is closely intertwined with the personal; the speech itself was most likely professional in its content, but the familiar tone of the letter suggests that it was sent to his friend simply for Still’s enjoyment. The paragraph closes with a promise to make a new disc so that Still’s son Duncan will have a recording of Handy’s voice.

In addition to a discussion of sponsorship, new recordings, and the recent Ziegfeld picture, it is clear that Handy’s primary reason for writing this letter was to ask for advice on what he should charge for an appearance in Birth of the Blues as well as for a book. This simple request demonstrates the familiarity with which Handy is able to ask for Still’s opinion and shows that their close relationship is still rooted in their professional lives.

W.C. Handy and William Grant Still, 1939-40.

The letters of this collection are important to see how personal relationships worked alongside the professional musical output of this period. Based on this (albeit limited) evidence, I think Brown’s statement can be amended to include the importance of personal contacts to their social as well as professional survival.






Works Cited

Brown, Rae Linda. “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem renaissance.” Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. 71-86.

Handy, W.C. and Eileen Southern. “Letters from W.C. Handy to William Grant Still.” The Black Perspective in Music , no. 2 (1979):199-234. Accessed October 26, 2019.

Margaret Bonds and the Importance of Musical Community

This week was the first time I was able to really sit down and skim through materials useful for my final essay. Overall, I am interested in understanding Chicago concert music life between 1915 and 1930 to show that geographically limited micro-histories help us better understand musical life (as opposed to blanketing all music making under a period marked as a precursor to the Chicago Renaissance). Two books in particular, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music1 and Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-19432 make something very clear: community and camaraderie were vastly important to American composers, especially African-American ones. During my time at St. Olaf, part of which I thought I was going to major in composition, the “composer” stereotype described a person who spent most of their time locked in a room alone, maybe with a piano, writing. However, this representation shows no grounding in the black artistic communities of Chicago.

Image result for margaret bonds

One great example of such a community surrounded the composer and pianist Margaret Bonds. Bonds grew up in Chicago and learned to play piano from her musical mother, Estella Bonds, and Florence Price. She attended Northwestern University, and continued to teach and work in Chicago until age 26. In addition to her mentors Florence and Estella, her writings and letters reveal some of the most reputable names in black artistic life. For example, early in her career, Bonds worked with prominent soprano Abbie Mitchell. And early on, Bonds was introduced to Mitchell’s then husband, Will Marion Cook, marking the beginning of a life-long working relationship.”3

Or for example, the beginning of Bonds’ friendship with Langston Hughes:

“I actually met [Langston]…after I came out of the university. The first time I saw Langston was at Tony’s house in Chicago, Tony Hill, the ceramicist. Finally he came to my house. My family rolled out the red carpet. We were like brother and sister, like blood relatives.”4

My initial reaction to reading these letter excerpts was, “Wow Margaret was popular”. I’m sure that it was partly because of the political environment — because African Americans were shut out of other communities, they especially relied on one another. While this might have been true to a certain extent, why was I surprised that this musical community was so intertwined? Humans are social beings. We spend our lives building connections that produce more connections. However, maybe I was surprised because of the way we are traditionally taught history. In my experience, the names of community members, families, or others who helped the success of one person are often left out of history. This is especially when it comes to celebrities. I hope that in the future, these names will be included more and more.

1 Helen Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

2 Lawrence Schenbeck. Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-1943. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

3 Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies, 148.

4 Ibid., 149.

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression Part II: Electric Boogaloo

After my previous blog post, I left feeling somewhat incomplete about Virgil Thomson’s opinion of American opera not having a distinctive voice and how Thomson ignored George Gershwin’s works entirely, especially Porgy and Bess.  I wanted to investigate further if there may be a possible reason why Thomson made such an omission.  While I could not find any readily-available correspondences of Gershwin, I did manage to discover an interesting transcription of a letter by a University of Michigan undergraduate student that was discovered in the DuBose Heyward archives held by the South Carolina Historical Society.  This letter was written “about a year and a half before Porgy and Bess‘s premiere in September of 1935″ to DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy, which was the source material for Gershwin’s opera.  After discussing his early work on the music and the script, he describes seeing 4 Saints In 3 Works, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson:

I saw “4 Saints In 3 Acts”, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, with a colored cast. The libretto was entirely in Stein’s manner, which means that it has the effect of a 5-year-old child prattling on. Musically, it sounded early 19th Century, which was a happy inspiration and made the libretto bearable – in fact, quite entertaining. There may be one or two in the cast that would be useful to you. us [handwritten]. [1]

It is as though Gershwin saw Thomson’s opera as an opportunity to say “I like what you’ve done with this, but watch me do it better.”  If so, that is one hell of a flex on Virgil Thomson.  However, after reading some of the correspondence between Thomson and Gertrude Stein, I would imagine that Thomson felt that his work had not payed off to the reception that he had anticipated:

21 April [1934]

Dear Gertude

The opera is closed now for the summer and everybody has had a lovely time about it and I must say that in every way it was very, very beautiful and of course there were some who didn’t like the music and some who didn’t like the words and even some who didn’t like the decors or the choreography but there wasn’t anybody who didn’t see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful and I wish you could have seen the faces of people as they watched and listened. [2]

The letter continues with the logistics of their arrangements of the publishing rights split 50-50 between Thomson and Stein, which seemed to be an uphill battle for Thomson to demand an equal split between the composer and the librettist, but that’s a topic for another day.

Out of these correspondences from the same time-frame, I would imagine that there might have been some animosity between Thomson and Gershwin from Porgy and Bess standing the test of time as an “innovative” opera compared to Thomson’s 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which has not received the critical success that Gershwin did.  Perhaps that might explain why Thomson chose to not discuss Gershwin in the particular section of the reading from last week.  He has every reason to take personal offense to think Gershwin stole his thunder with Porgy and Bess and it certainly speaks to the idea that Gershwin frequently rode the line when it came to writing music from inspiration and straight-up stealing.


[1] Sobolak, Frances. “Making Porgy and Bess – The Letters,” The Gershwin Letters, University of Michigan, February 26, 2016,

[2] Thomson, Virgil. “Letters to Gertrude Stein, 1926-38.” Grand Street Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1988). 50-70. DOI: 10.2307/25007076

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: West Side Story and the Broadway Group Project

The iconic West Side Story is one of my favorite pieces of art, just ask any of the people who surround me about my numerous excited rants about the show or my incessant humming of its melodies under my breath at all times. When looking at the creation story of the musical and artistic landmark, what sticks out to me is the massive team that was utilized in its birth. The history of Broadway and the American Musical Theater is littered with creative duos that write and compose blockbuster hits. Whether you think of Rodgers and Hammerstein churning out what would become the Golden Age of the art form, or more modern examples like Pasek and Paul, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, or Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. One conclusion is clear: Power couples have long ruled the scripted stage.

What was unique about West Side Story was the size of its creative team- a team in which each member contributed greatly. The production assembled names that are now known as musical theater heavyweights and masters of their craft. Compositions by Leonard Bernstein, a book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim combined in the groundbreaking piece to tell a story that continues to resonate with audiences today.

In a letter to Bernstein, a young Stephen Sondheim oozes gratitude and affection for his colleague. Throughout his writing, Sondheim emphasizes the friendship the experience has engendered, specifically referencing not only Bernstein but Laurents and Robbins as well. It should be noted that although Sondheim was very early on in his career, this letter doesn’t communicate a feeling of hierarchy. Instead of using words like “mentor” or “leader”, Sondheim opts for a connotation of “collaborating”.

Stephen Sondheim’s letter to Leonard Bernstein, September 26, 1957. Collected and edited by Simeone Nigel in “The Leonard Bernstein Letters”, published by Yale University Press, 2013.

Exploring this unique friendship and team dynamic has led some scholars to draw conclusions about the factors that led bonds among these men to be so strong. Scholar David LaFontaine asserts that all members of the creative team “were all in various stages of coming to terms with their homosexuality in the oppressive atmosphere of 1950s America.”1 Further scholarly speculation points to the themes of troubled love in the song “Somewhere” from the musical as an anthem from four men who were personally and romantically troubled in a world that didn’t allow them the expression they yearned for.2 Back in the letter to Bernstein, Sondheim’s use of the word “us” when talking about the four men working together gives us hints to the bond that solidified among the creators of the innovative story. It is important that we remember the creation of such a powerhouse group in this art form was not only due to artistic merit, but also a shared identity.

“May West Side Story mean as much to the theater and to people who see it as it has to us.”

-Stephen Sondheim in a letter to Leonard Bernstein, 26 September 1957

Primary Source

“West Side Story,: 1955–7 (Letters 359–409).” In The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by SIMEONE NIGEL, 341-90. Yale University Press, 2013.

Secondary Sources

1 LaFontaine, David. “Inside West Side Story.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, vol. 24, no. 6, 2017, p. 22+. Expanded Academic ASAP,

2 Lovensheimer, Jim. “West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 65, no. 1, 2012, p. 285+. Expanded Academic ASAP,

Copeland and the Creation of Identity

The late 1930s to the early 1940s  were a turning point for American identity as we now know it. In the midst of World War II, Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their relation to the world shifted dramatically with the rise of nationalism and a sense of a distinct American identity – one that did not revolve around the previously established identities of other nations. This creation of an American identity called for the generation of what we now consider the “American sound.”

Aaron Copeland was the pioneer of this sound. Hailing from Brooklyn, he became influenced by street jazz, as well as music from his travels to Paris, Mexico, and Cuba. He found real success beginning in 1939 with a move to Hollywood, where he composed commercial film scores, which led him to a New York premiere of a ballet – Billy the Kid. This premiere brought his name to national recognition, which led to, arguably, his greatest success and a key example of the aforementioned American sound, Appalachian Spring. 

1939-1945 was also a period of personal and musical identity exploration and definition for Copeland. In 1939, he began what would become a long-term friendship with composer Leonard Bernstein. The two wrote often, and it is speculated that the two were involved romantically from ‘39 to ‘41. When Copeland visited Havana, he wrote Bernstein about sitting in clubs for hours on end listening to music, saying “the thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me … and just to think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this.” 

I found it particularly interesting to see Copeland, who is the father of American sound, influenced by Cuban and Parisian music, especially at a time when it was so important for America to distinguish itself as a leading nation.

Works Cited:

CRIST, ELIZABETH B., and WAYNE SHIRLEY, editors. “Musical Triumphs, 1937–42.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 120–147. JSTOR,

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,


Dilution to transcendence

Blogpost #6

This is a 1945 recording of Charles Ives’ “In the Inn”. The performer in question is John Kirkpatrick[1], a pianist who championed of Ives and other composers of his scope, for instance Carl Ruggles. This is evident in his lengthy, if not a bit irregular correspondence with Ives’, from the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s until Ives death in 1954. Kirkpatrick’s approach to the works of Ives and Ruggles is nothing if not thorough; always asking for clarification of his interpretations, and expressing a profound respect for the harmonic intent of Ives.

Th correspondence shows that Kirkpatrick quite continuously throughout these decades was helping Ives develop pieces and initiating projects regarding his works, including this recording of “In the inn”. The piece’s original draft was dated around 1915 and composed about a decade earlier. As the second movement of Ives’ A Set of Pieces for Theater or Chamber Orchestra it shares the overall ragtime feel of the collection. The repurposing of the something with such close ties to Afro American culture, albeit in a new harmonic context, may indicate that Ives’ idea of creating a “new music” does in fact not completely sever ties with the American past.

In one of what Owens calls Kirkpatrick’s “semiregular progress-report letters”[2] he finishes his letter with contextualising the works of first Ruggles (“good old Carl”) and comparatively:

“Take good old Carl, for instance,— the splendid freedom of his musical inspiration, and the almost pedantic preoccupation with his non-repetition-of-note principle — the startling “modern” quality of his dissonant harmony, and the unmistakably “romantic” Wagner-Strauss derivation of his melodic contour. And of course, nobody has ever combined in their music more diverse elements than Ives!”[3]

It is evident that drawing inspiration from a wide variety of musical influences, both aesthetically and with regards to musical traditions, from different time periods and cultures is something Kirkpatrick holds in high regard. Is the synthesizing of inspirational sources an attempt of constructing a music that transcends race, identity and nationality? One could argue that if one merges enough elements one dilutes the source material to the point of transcendence.


Primary sources:

“Ives: In the Inn (John Kirkpatrick, 1945)”. [Accessed October 23th, 2019]

Owens, Tom C. (ed.). Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives (2007). University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Secondary sources:

Barron, James. “John Kirkpatrick Is Dead at 86; A Pianist Who Popularized Ives”. The New York Times. November 11th, 1991. [Accessed October 23th, 2019]



[1] Barron 1991

[2] Owens 2007: p. 305

[3] Ibid p. 304

Copland vs. Downes—The Battle Between Musicians and Their Critics in the 1930s

A week in late April 1932 stirred up unexpected controversy between American art music composers and their critics. Yaddo, a five-day conference modeled after European composition festivals, was held to “give leading American composers an opportunity to present their lesser-known works before distinguished audiences.”[1] Yet, not a single music critic came to hear the “strange tunes, in which harsh chords rasped out above brooding harmonies.”[2] And Aaron Copland, one of the leaders in American music composition in the 1930s, was not about to let this incident go unnoticed.

In a letter to The New York Times on May 8, 1932, he wrote:

Copland’s outcry to music critics to take American music seriously prompted Olin Downes to chime in on the discussion. Downes, a music critic for The New York Times, had “considerable influence on musical opinion, although many of his judgments have not stood the test of time.”[3] In an article written in response to Copland’s letter, Downes wrote:


Apart from degrading the quality of new American works, Downes throws Wagner, perhaps the “most German” of all the German composers, into the ring. His comparison of American composers’ treatment versus German composers’ treatment reminds me of discussions we’ve been having in class about the significance of European (mainly German) composers to the identity of American composers. These German “greats” were the cornerstone of the building that is American music. However, following the building analogy, Downes thought Copland and his contemporaries were not building on the grand building that he envisioned American music to be, but rather, they were building a little hut off to the side.

I find myself getting frustrated with Downes’ dismissive attitude towards the new American works of the 1930s. Yet, how easily we Americans can still fall into this trap of constructing an identity for American music in 2019. The question for us is, are we going to continue falling into that trap?


Primary Source:

Copland, Aaron. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Secondary Sources:

[1] “COMPOSERS ASSAIL CRITICS AT YADDO.” The New York Times, May 2, 1932.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Olin Downes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, February 5, 2016.

[4] Downes, Olin. “The Daily Review Versus the Weekly Essay – The Native Writer’s Opportunities and Merits.” The New York Times, May 8, 1932.


Dvořák’s Letter to a Friend

Antonín Dvořák

As we have read in the latest Shadle reading, Antonín Dvořák’s interest in involving black music into a specific American sound sparked controversy in the American classical world of music. In a letter, Anton Dvořák wrote to Oskar Nebdal, his former student and principle conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1896 to 1906. The letter comes from Otakar Dvořák’s work, Anton Dvořák, My Father. The date of the letter is unknown but I believe its reasonable to guess it came after the publication of From a New World. Dvořák writes:

“I am sending you Kretschmar’s analysis of Symphony, but omit the nonsense that I used an American and Indian motif because it is a lie. I just wrote in the spirit of American national melodies,” (Dvořák 159).

(Hermann Kretschmar: German musicologist)

After reading this passage for class, I had questions regarding the intentions and thoughts of this composer. After finding this letter, I have more questions. If Dvořák sparked so much controversy in America defending his stance of Negro music needing to make American music distinctive, then why leave out details for his friends at home. What does he mean by the spirit of American national melodies? In my last blog post, I discussed the spirituality involved in Negro Spirituals argued by H. T. Burleigh and Samuel Floyd Jr.
Perhaps Dvořák didn’t want to explain the race relations of America to his Czech friends and the controversy following him around. Another possibility could be the composer wanting credit for the music and not being told he stole from other sources.

I find this letter fascinating. While it makes a clearer image of the life of Dvořák during this time, it brings up more and more questions about the thought process of the composer and what occurred during this time for him.



-Dvořák Otakar, and Paul J. Polansky. Antonín Dvořák, My Father. Czech Historical Research Center, 1993.

An “American Sound” — Identity or Simplification?

“The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music.” — Antonin Dvorak

“To classify music according to nationalities is to narrow its scope.” — Edward MacDowell

“To attain musical independence, more national consciousness is a present necessity for American composers.” — Henry Cowell

The more letters by composers one reads from the turn of the 20th century, the more clear it becomes that, just as much a focus as how to create an American sound, a primary issue of the time was whether to do so. Certainly many composers sought this end, including Dvorak and Cowell, as well as Gershwin, who suggested European composers like Dvorak may be more initially suited to extracting such a sound. Yet there were also voices like MacDowell’s, who resisted the others’ nationalism.

Photo of MacDowell

Edward MacDowell, image from

In a letter written in 1897, MacDowell replied to Mary M. Shaw regarding which pieces to program for an American-themed concert by saying the whole idea is unwise. Since audiences would only be able to compare between American composers, he believed they would elevate some composers to the disparagement of others. This problem does not disappear when comparing composers of all nationalities, but MacDowell did not advocate for a national sound. At the least, his approach prevents all of American music from being disparaged at once. His wishes advocate a different kind of independence: that of the composer from any restrictions on composition, rather than that of America from Europe.

This understanding of MacDowell’s argument is instructive with his second point as well, quoted briefly above. His choice of words is unfortunate, due to minstrel connotations–“In spite of Mr. Dvorak’s desire to clothe American music in Negro costume…”–but allowing composers freedom in their creativity is a worthy goal when separated from that institution, and being expected to conform to their national identity could be seen as restricting their expression.

The points MacDowell raised are not unreasonable (at least not outright, and without some problematic connotations), but they may have been futile. Virgil Thomson remarked on musical developments around the world, including American music. Young Italians, he said, would sit around late at night until world pop music came on the radio, waiting to have “the satisfaction of hearing real American music, by which they mean Duke Ellington and Bob Crosby . . . They don’t call that music jazz or swing or anything special; they call it la musica americana. And their hats are off to it.”

Art of Duke Ellington at the piano

Art of Duke Ellington by Leonid Afremov


Fisk, Josiah, and Jeff Nichols, ed. Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings, 2nd Ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Norman, Gertrude, and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, eds. Letters of Composers: an Anthology. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.

Page, Vanessa Weeks, and Tim Page, eds. Selected letters of Virgil Thomson. New York: Summit Books, 1988.

Friendship ended with Henry Cowell, now Homophobia is my best friend

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer who has achieved international renown, though not during his own lifetime. He is notable in that he was not a career composer; he was an insurance executive, and actually laid the foundation for the modern system of estate planning as we know it today. Through his compositional career, he became close friends with Henry Cowell (1897-1965), one of the most prolific and ahead-of-his-time composers and music theorists of the 20th century. Cowell and Ives, in addition to their friendship, were bound together through the New Music Society, an organization run by Cowell that was dedicated to organizing new music concerts and publishing new music.

Despite advancing his career to the international stage, dark times loomed for Cowell. In May 1936, he was arrested for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts with a 17 year old boy. He was eventually sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Many of his composer colleagues lent him support and publicly campaigned for his release, but Ives, one of his best friends, cut contact with him.

In a letter from Harmony Ives (Charles’ wife) to Charlotte Ruggles (the wife of Carl Ruggles, another central figure in the modernist movement Cowell participated in), she describes Charles’ reaction to hearing the news.

“… I told Charlie and he and I feel just as you do. A thing more abhorrent to Charlie’s nature couldn’t be found. We think these things are too much condoned. He will never willingly, see Henry again — he can’t— he doesn’t want to hear of the thing— the shock used him up and he hasn’t had a long breath since I told him but he will get used to it— isn’t it shocking the things we “get used to”? He said characteristically “I thought he was a man and he’s nothing but a G——— D——- sap!” (Ives 245).

Ives is notorious within music history for his quite conservative and deeply impassioned views on masculinity and femininity (one might even call his views obsessive), but it shows how deep seated his prejudices were that he would completely cut off contact with one of his best friends for over 4 years. According to a 1994 New York Times article, “Ives apparently, in fact, suggested to mutual acquaintances that suicide would be Cowell’s only honorable option” (NYT July 10, 1994).

Ives and Cowell eventually reconnected after the latter’s pardon, but their friendship was much more restrained. Ives did not fully open himself up to Cowell until Cowell told Ives that he planned to marry Sidney Hawkins Robertson, who was an important ethnomusicologist in her own right. (Ives 286-288). It speaks to the societal and interpersonal prejudices Cowell faced that once he was exposed as a queer person, he was not able to shed off such a blow to his character until he married a woman. Though this is speculation on my part, it would make sense to think that Ives reconciled with Cowell because he felt that by marrying a woman, Cowell was somehow relinquishing his identity as a queer person. Though perhaps this idea of forfeiting or changing one’s identity out of personal necessity does not manifest in the same way it has in other areas of the class (black minstrel artists playing up stereotypes in order to make a living, for instance), Cowell had to undergo this process all the same.


Borchert, Kevin. “Gay Composers; behind Ives’ harmonic clashes.” New York Times, 10 July 1994, section 2, page 2. Web.

Hicks, Michael. “The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 44, no. 1, 1991, pp. 92–119. JSTOR,

Owens, Tom C., editor. “EDITORS AND PERFORMERS (1933–1944).” Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2007, pp. 209–314. JSTOR,


The Complex Contradictions of William Grant Still

One particular quote from Tuesday’s reading by Samuel Floyd grabbed my attention; Floyd reveals that “William Grant Still maintained that his purpose was “to elevate Negro musical idioms to a position of dignity and effectiveness in the field of symphonic and operatic music”.1 The fact that Still seems to imply that the current state of black “musical idioms” was lacking something puzzled me. My impression had been that Still was one of the composers who most explicitly worked toward making black voices and sounds heard. Indeed, Rae Brown says that Still “was consciously writing in the Negro idiom”, and Still himself says works such as “Darker America” are meant to “represent the American Negro.”2, 3 That Still seemed to believe that black music was in need of “elevation” at first seems at odds with these other sentiments.

Digging deeper into Still’s personal correspondences with his long-distance friend and colleague, Irving Schwerke, I found myself engrossed in a web of attitudes and opinions that sometimes seem to build on each other and sometimes contradict one another. In one enclosure to Schwerke, Still analyzes his own “Afro-American Symphony” and seems to build upon his previous implication that black musical idioms were at a lower level than classical music. He says that his symphony “portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions…These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally child-like. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity.”4  Still’s blatant comparison between this “class of American Negroes” and children actually shocked me. How do we make sense of one of the most prominent and accomplished African-American composers of the 20th century seeming to buy into many of the stereotypes of black music that we condemn?

Another of Still’s earlier letters to Schwerke perhaps reveals some of the psychology behind his remarks. A distraught Still writes “It is unfortunate for a man of color who is ambitious to live in America…I have never felt this so keenly as in the past few months. Friends who would lend me a helping hand, who would make it possible for me to make a living for my family, are unable to do anything because of those who are opposed to placing a colored man in any position of prominence.”5 This letter reveals some of the strain under which Still struggled during his career. It also made me think twice about my own criticisms of Still’s words. While we certainly should analyze a composer’s opinions, I think it is also important to not let a composer’s identity alter our expectations for these opinions. Perhaps we should criticize Still’s implication that some black melodies are in need of improvement, but we should also acknowledge that he was a composer struggling to make a living; it is entirely possible he was pressured to either conform to society’s stereotypes of black music or espouse them himself. Furthermore, it is natural for any composer to believe their genre of music is superior. It is a slippery slope to write off Still’s statements as pure pride or societal pressure, but I think it is an equally slippery slope to ignore these factors.

All in all, I have no clear answers or even arguments regarding Still’s words, and that is precisely my point. Like all of the issues we discuss, the opinions and words of a composer such as Still are complex and multi-faceted, and we must always strive to avoid oversimplification.

1 Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 13.

2 Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. 75.

3 Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. 243.

4 Ibid., 245.

5 Ibid., 239.


Works Cited:

Samuel Floyd, Jr., Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. New Yor,. Greenwood Press, 1990.

Rae Linda Brown, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, Center for Black Music Research, 1992.

Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.

Thomson’s understanding of “American Music” is a little too white…

What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise. I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?”     (Thomson)

I found it strange, as did several others, that Thomson is asking this question about “american music” in the seventies, given that by this time several distinctly american operas, such as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Menotti’s “Old Maid and the Thief,” had been performed by notable ensembles and groups in America as well as Europe. 


To know of these works, and then say he can’t predict the success of american opera seems to signal that either he doesn’t believe these works to be american music, or that they are outliers, and not representative of american musical traits.

Virgil’s bias is especially obvious when he pays homage to other composers, with more obviously White-European heritage, like Ives and MacDowell, and hails them as fathers of american style. To cherry-pick certain well known composers like this and then disregard the international successes of others seems to imply some judgement by Thomson of them being less American. 

Menotti was an Italian immigrant, and Gershwin was of Ukrainian/Lithuanian Jewish decent. MacDowell and Ives were both born in america to white american parents. Without assuming too much about Thomson’s intent, it does bring into question his understanding and perspective of American music in how it relates to “whiteness” rather than “American-ness,” and how he may harbor some elitist perceptions of American music in how it relates to white European music tradition, rather than the innovation and creativity of non-white Americans of various immigrant heritages.


Gershwin, George. Porgy and Bess, New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

Menotti, Gian-Carlo. The Old Maid and The Thief, New York: G. Ricordi & Co. inc. 1939

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

Copland and his American Influence

Aaron Copland is widely known as “the dean of American music.” His music reflects Americanism and also helped in the World War II war effort. Aside from domestic efforts, his letters reveal his efforts in spreading American music and its influence to other countries and composers.

U.S. composer Aaron Copland in 1969

Based on Copland’s frequent travel, it almost seems like he did not like staying in America for too long. One country Copland’s musical travels brought him to was Mexico. The purpose of his visit was for a showcase of American composers. Prior to this musical festival, Copland writes to fellow musician Elizabeth Coolidge in 1937 speaking on what American music can do for the country.

“Having lived in Mexico before, I think I can understand what a profound influence such a series of concerts is most likely to have on the musical life of the country.” 1

His expectation of the concerts are later documented in his reply to Coolidge.

“On the whole,  from my own standpoint, the most important aspect of the Festival, was the opportunity it gave me for a cross section view of the present status of our own music. I came away feeling strongly encouraged for its future.” 2

Copland seems to view his performance’s success not only as spreading influence to Mexico, but as a validation for American music’s stronghold to itself. Later in regards to broadening his reach to other Latin American countries, Copland writes to Carlos Chavez, a growing Mexican composer.

“Any other bright ideas you may have, along the lines of furthering cultural relations between Latin American countries and the USA, via music, would be very welcome.”3

Copland and Bernstein

Aside from Copland’s American influence to Latin America via music, is to his admirers who ask for his advice on American nationalism in music. A *special friend* Lenard Bernstein known to Copland affectionately as Lenny, asked for advice while a student at Harvard for his senior thesis about nationalism in American music.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it.  There’s always the chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material.” 4

The fact that Bernstein asks for Copland’s opinions about nationalism in music secures Copland’s place as a stronghold for influence for American identity. Based on this and from his success in spreading American music to other countries show the success of spreading American music and his overwhelming influence on others.

Undine Smith Moore on Musical Value


Helen Walker-Hill’s 2002 book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music chronicles the lives of eight black female composers. This resource 1
not only provides detailed biographical research and quotes from these eight figures, but contextualizes each composer within the historical space in which they worked. Undine Smith Moore is one such composer whose career and academic legacy provides a crucial perspective about the unique challenges and strengths that accompany the way we interpret her work.

I first heard of Undine Smith Moore when I performed her choral piece We Shall Walk in the Valley of Peace at St. Olaf. That striking melody has stayed with me ever since I learned it, but I never encountered any of her work outside of performance. Moore lived from 1904-1989 and attended college at Fisk University from 1924-1926 where she received the first scholarship from Julliard for her studies. Post-graduation, Moore worked in North Carolina and Virginia before pursuing her Master’s degree at Columbia University. The artistic arc of Moore’s life was shaped around academic institutions, and the powerful mentorships that follow. However, Moore also addresses a prevailing sentiment she encountered as a composer, writing:

“There is in addition the fiction of women’s inability to deal with the abstract. Because music is an utterly non-verbal art, there is inevitability a certain quality of the abstract in the approach to the composer’s art. Women, for a long time in the past, were indoctrinated with the widely held belief that the abstract is not their sphere…Over and over, it has been held that the objective discipline which is necessary to transmute inner sources by giving them artistic form is a discipline suitable only to men”

Moore expresses a very specific frustration in this quote, arguing that the reproduction of existing music may be acceptable for women, but that the act of composition is tied to an internal understanding of something abstract. Legacy and respect, therefore are earned through creation as opposed to the borders of excellence that women were expected to stay within. Undine Smith Moore echoes this point when discussing power dynamics in black churches

“Women could and did influence the building of a school, the choice of teachers, and the order and content of the church service, but there must have been a subtle etiquette that kept them in a particular place. Further, so far as I know, the influence of women on the music and the culture in the life of the Black community, while known and applauded, was rarely, if ever, documented.”

If Undine Smith Moore is correct in her assertion that as a musical culture we value the things that we document, how can recent efforts to re-examine these “lost” histories of music makers do that in a way that doesn’t reinforce a hierarchy of “abstract” musicking as legitimate and all others as less thoughtful, less truthful, and ultimately less powerful.

1Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies : African-American Women Composers and Their Music Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Ives and Masculinity

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was known as perhaps the most influential American composers of the 20th century; “by his centenary in 1974 he was recognized worldwide as the first composer to create a distinctively American art music” [1]


Unlike the careers of many other prolific composers, he spent most of his working for insurance companies, composing only on the side. As a result, he was sometimes regarded as an amateur and did not become widely successful until late in his life. 


One hallmark ‘American’ feature of his music was his tendency to borrow Protestant hymn melodies and American popular songs, complexifying and inserting them into his pieces. He also heavily quoted European composers in his music, such as Beethoven, Bach, and Massenet [1].


However, Ives constantly went back and revised pieces he had already written, often times adding more dissonance to pieces as time went on, perhaps suggesting a level of insecurity in his composition. In 1921, Henry Bellamann, dean of Chicora College for women, wrote Ives and proposed to program his Concord piano sonata on a lecture recital. Ives’s reply “shows his reluctance to accept praise without a veil of self-deprecation” (Burkholder 215). Ives writes, “I am afraid [the Concord Sonata] will arouse little enthusiasm with most audiences…perhaps by this time you have decided that to undertake my music will be a too arduous and thankless job” (Burkholder 215). He also encourages Bellamann to feel free to make any revisions desired to the sonata. It is somewhat unclear what Ives means by the statement that his piece will be unsuccessful with “most audiences;” either he is unconfident in the sonata, or he thinks it is too good for average listeners to appreciate. I think that it is likely a combination of both sentiments. 



Ives’s father, who had taught Charles his fundamental knowledge in counterpoint and composition, died prematurely and suddenly in 1894 [1]. Ives’s health later began deteriorating, and he developed both diabetes and depression (which he refused to acknowledge and referred to as ‘n  x’). He also suffered from tremors, making it necessary for his wife and daughter to transcribe his letters for him. 


In a 1938 letter to composer and friend John Becker, Ives rants, “These Philharmonic-nice-lady-bird-afternoon-tea-parties are an insult to music and to ‘man’…any American Music (that is not American but made in America) the Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony….play has to be ‘emasculated’ to get the saps’ okay. I would get in a row with these g*dd*mn sissy conductors if I came within cussing distance” (Burkholder 237). Ives argues that ‘feminine’ music is inherently European and not truly American, regardless of where it was composed. This sentiment is interesting, considering Ives drew significant influence from European composers and often quoted them in his pieces. 


In my opinion, the sudden loss of a father figure combined with his forced reliance on the women in his life likely contributed to Ives’ anger towards women and ‘feminine’ music. His insertion of ‘masculine’ traits into his compositions reflect his own insecurities, also evident in how often he revised already composed pieces. However, I am honestly not sure where his view of Americanness and masculinity as synonymous originated from. 


  1. Burkholder, J. Peter, James B. Sinclair, and Gayle Sherwood. “Ives, Charles.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 23 Oct. 2019, <>
  2. Burkholder, J. Peter . Charles Ives and His World . Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.

The Musical Musings of HT Burleigh

Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh is often credited as one of the leading Black Art Musicians of the 20th century, if not of all time.  He is known to be the father of the concert spiritual (which could be debated, as the Fisk Jubilee Singers had been performing concert spirituals for some time by Burleigh’s birth). as well as a competent composer and performer of art music in the European style.  Burleigh is also known for his connections to several figures of the Harlem Renaissance, namely WEB Du Bois and Booker T Washington.

For this post, however, we’ll be looking at a specific part of Burleigh’s art, his “Album of Negro Spirituals.”

The collection I reference was published in 1969, 20 years after his death, however it contains Burleigh’s original markings, as well as footers with Burleigh’s own edits made during the composition and revision process. I’ll look at 3 of his most famous arrangements, looking at them through a theory lens to try and deduce influences Burleigh had.

Deep River

This piece is the undisputed champion for “most famous spiritual.”  If we look at Burleigh’s vocal line, it differs from most of the other songs in this collection, in that it does not use dialect.  Burleigh is very specific about his use of dialect in singing, as we’ll see later on with “Wade in de Water.”  While “Deep River” does not use the word “the” in it at all, which is an accomplishment in and of itself, and “the” is the most common dialectical word to change: we do still see “that” and “river,” both of which are commonly changed into “dat” and “ribber.”  The accompaniment is sparse, with mainly rolled chords, however it does make use of some melodic material, reminiscent of some Schubert accompaniments.  This can be seen most clearly in the last two measures of the first page.

Wade In De Water

This piece exhibits more of the stereotypical spiritual traits, with a fast, agitated, syncopated piano accompaniment.  This style is often likened to drums or more rhythmic performances, which is commonly associated with spirituals here.  The text is also in dialect, with words like “de,” “a-goin’,” and “dat.”  Furthermore, we see a common them of spirituals, which is a reference to Moses and the Israelites.  This make sense for a source material for spirituals, as Moses famously led the Israelites out of slavery, a plight the African slaves in the United States were all too familiar with.

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child

For our final piece, we have a bit of a hybrid in styles.  This seems most in line with what we’ve talked about for Burleigh’s views on Black music as art music.  It takes source material and performance stylings (dialect), and combines it with a European sense of harmony and texture.  The piano texture would not feel out of place in a Brahms or Wagner lied, while the melody has a certain ebb and flow more reminiscent of a work song.  The constant forward and back drives that home, while the crossing countermelodies in the piano, seen best during the refrains of “a long way from home.”

As we can see from these three examples, Burleigh wrote in a predominantly European style, using spiritual melodies as inspiration, but not attempting to stick to a folk tradition of performance.  There are times when he leans into the folk origins a little more, particularly on Wade in de Water, but this makes sense thematically.  Wade in de Water is neither hopeful nor sorrowful, but provides specific instructions for escaped slaves on making it to freedom (wading in rivers helped to mask their scent from tracking dogs).  Nevertheless, the piece is included alongside works closer in style to Burleigh’s secular art music, showing its pedigree as art music.

Defending American Identity in Aaron Copland’s Letters

I have selected the letters of Aaron Copland, particularly those during the time of McCarthyism in the US, in order to discuss the class topic of the privileging of Western music in our society. 

Copland is one of the go-to American composers for most people, and many  are unaware of the struggles he went through with the American musical audience post-World War II. These letters help historians to better understand the political atmosphere in the US as communism was on the rise, and allows them to see the effects of the Cold War on areas one might not think of right away, like the Western Classical music. In the book that the letters are compiled in, The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, the letters are a useful way to understand the changes in Copland’s composition style that occurs after Copland’s personal struggles with McCarthyism. 

Copland’s style had changed to reflect a more simple style that was easily defined as American, and his Folk song arrangements “Old American Songs” were a hit (Crist 192). This was at a time where the roots of American identity were important in order to push away any suspicion of being too left-leaning. The folk-song roots of the composition can be heard, not only through its melodies but by the lyrics, a tenor singing about being thrifty and seeing a pretty girl (Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra). However, Copland was not always seen as being as clearly American as these songs make him seem.

A series of correspondences Copland made about a conflict between Arnold Schoenberg and himself reveal the defensive nature toward communistic accusations that affected the way Copland interacted with other composers and the music he made. In a letter to Virgil Thomson, he writes “Imagine my astonishment on reading your column this morning to find Arnold Schoenberg coupling my name with that of Joseph Stalin as one of the suppressors of his art”. The letters expand to explain Copland thought the reason of Schoenberg’s attack was that Copland and Shostakovich had been photographed earlier that year, making Copland anxious that his political beliefs were being associated with Shostakovich, and in turn, Stalin. (196).  Copland’s tone of urgency in his letter reveals how important it was for him to not have any accusations against him that would lead people to believe he was betraying his Americanness. 

In more correspondences between Copland, Thomson and Schoenberg himself, it is made clear it was not the photograph that led to Schoenberg’s remarks. Instead it was composition advice of using “simple intervals” Copland had been rumored to give that led Schoenberg to group Copland and Stalin together. Copland replied to Schoenberg, stating that “It is quite untrue, for example that I have advised students to compose in a ‘certain style’ or that I have recommended ‘simple intervals’. These impressions must have been gained from isolated sentences taken out of context by persons who do not know me well”(198). The language Copland uses here is again defensive, and admits no fault, demonstrating another time that it was of utmost importance to Copland to maintain an image of freedom in not only his compositions, but additionally in the advice he provided to others. 

Early American values of freedom for all rose to become top priority for all who were avoiding accusations of conspiring with communists. Copland’s works from this era reveal this phenomenon trickled into the world of composition, and his letters show us these values were essential in maintaining tranquility between prominent composers of the time.


Works Cited

Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne, Shirley, editors. “The Post-War Decade, 1948–58.” The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Yale University Press, 2006, pp. 191–220. Print.

Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra. “Old American Songs, Set 1- Aaron Copland- LSCO & Jeffery Madison”. Youtube, Nov. 8, 2014.

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach and the Creative Process

In Source Readings in American Choral Music from 1995, a review of Amy Beach’s Mass in E-flat, a work of “mysticism” and “direct dramatic appeals,” is paired with her discussion of the mystery surrounding the compositional process, particularly when it comes to creating choral works. This idea of mysticism is a common one in perceptions of classical and art music, and can perhaps shed some light on why art music has been such a difficult realm for minority or oppressed groups to break into.

“Each form brings requisites of its own… the steps the composer follows in developing any of these types depend, naturally, upon his own inborn abilities, the force of his creative urge, the way his mind and soul ‘work’, his background, and his training.”


“The text called melodies to my mind. I went out at once … and the text took possession of me. As if from dictation, I jotted down the notes…”

Amy Beach, while one of the few known female composers of the early 20th century, seems to fit very much the mold of a composer – a different breed than the rest of humanity, to whom melodies and musical works come, almost complete, in their moments of inspiration. To those who have spent any time composing, the actual process is extremely difficult to describe, which only lends to this sense of mystery around the creation of music. This contrasts very strongly with our understanding of popular music like that of Tin Pan Alley, in which commercial music is pumped out almost mechanically fitting any formulas.

No wonder, then, that there is so much of a gulf in people’s minds between “high” art music, which comes from individual inspiration and personal expression and “lowly” pop music. And even less wonder that, given the stereotypes applied to oppressed groups such as women and black Americans in the early 20th century, that people were unlikely to accept art music composers from these groups. If there are so few true composers among the “normal” (see: white, Western European, male) folk, how many fewer are likely to come from the margins?

Image result for amy beach

On the other hand, this sense of mysticism is appropriate in one way: men have long viewed women as mystical creatures who are near-impossible to understand. Whether this conception plays a role in Philip Hale’s review when he says that “the mysticism [in the Mass in E-flat] at times approaches obscurity” is hard to say. It could, of course, be a genuine, objective critique (although musical critiques are rarely purely objective). And indeed, Hale claims Mrs. Beach as a part of the larger American musical identity, saying, “It is a pleasure to praise the sincerity of the composer’s purpose, to admit gladly the many excellences of the work, and to welcome it as an interesting contribution to the musical literature of the United States.”

Here, then, is one of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach’s many contributions to the American musical canon. Enjoy!

Works Cited:


  1. Budds, Michael J., editor. “Music from 1830-1920.” Source Readings in American Choral Music, College Music Society, 1995, pp. 74–79.
  2. “Amy Beach Kyrie from Mass in Eb Major.” Performance by Concerto Chamber Orchestra, YouTube, 8 Aug. 2018,
  3. Curtis, Liane. “Amy Beach at 150 Proclaimed.” The Boston Musical Intelligencer, 5 Sept. 2017,


American Music: Brought to You by the Bohemians

I found a book in Halvorson Music library called Dvorak in America: 1892-1895, which is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the New World Symphony or other works of Dvorak’s that were influenced by the pursuit of creating “American” music.

An image of Dvorak over a Native American rowing a boat.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I was surprised to find what I assume to be a promotional image depicting Dvorak overlooking a Native American rowing a boat down a river of music notes in this book.  In class we focused on McDowell’s attempts to tap into the music of Native Americans to find sources of inspiration for his American music and Dvorak’s attempts to do the same through spirituals.  While Dvorak did search for inspiration for the New World Symphony in African American spirituals, “accompanying the premiere, Dvorak penned an essay in the New York Herald… now suggesting as well Native American melodies for that same purpose…. Dvorak’s suggestion of Native American music were largely overshadowed at the time by his assertion of African-American musics. But not long after Dvorak’s pronouncement, a so-called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism.” [1]

Transcriptions of three Iroquois songs given to Dvorak by Henry Krehbiel.  Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

I found it incredibly interesting to see Dvorak’s interactions with many of the notable names from our course.  There’s a section on how Henry Krehbiel (questionably) transcribed some Iroquois melodies for Dvorak to take inspiration from in his New World Symphony and was clearly disappointed that he didn’t use them.  When reviewing the work as a whole and finding an insufficient amount of ‘Indian spirit’, he decided that the work was not American enough and that “Dr. Dvorak can no more divest himself of his nationality than the leopard change his spots.” [2]

Since our class discussions are ordered based on musical genre rather than chronological order, it was really interesting and informative to see the interactions between all of the people and ideas involved and how they overlap.  For those who want to learn more about the New World Symphony, Dvorak’s varying inspirations for music making and his interactions with other notable musicians and critics, Dvorak in America: 1892-1895 is a great resource and an interesting read.


  1. Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Works Cited:

Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.

Tibbetts, John C. Dvořák In America: 1892-1895. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993.

Copland’s Remarks on Race

Aaron Copland is widely regarded as one of the greatest American composers of all time. “The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit [1].” Reading through his letters, I found some interesting correspondence between Copland and his peers.

I stumbled across several letters. The first was a correspondence between Copland and Carlos Chávez. Upon further research, I figured out that Carlos Chávez was “a Mexican composer, conductor, music theorist, educator, journalist, and founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra [2],” who was greatly influenced by native Mexican cultures. The second and third letters were between Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The fourth letter was between Copland and Irving and Verna Fine, whom Copland knew from the Tanglewood festival. 

#1- to Carlos Chávez 

I was so sorry you missed the opera. […] The end has something of the same ‘Freude, Freude’ feeling, tho in completely different terms. Of course the kids had everyone completely interested. Kids are like Negroes, you can’t go wrong if they are on the stage [4].





#2- to Leonard Bernstein 

“What a music factory it is [in reference to the music of Havana, Cuba]! Thirteen black men and me— quite a piquant scene. The thing I like most is the quality of voice when the Negroes sing down here. It does things to me— it’s so sweet and moving. And just think, no serious Cuban composer is using any of this. Its awful tempting, but I’ll try to control myself [4].”

#3- to Leonard Bernstein

“You sound as if you were very much on the right track anyhow both as to ideas and composers’ names. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it. There’s always the chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material. Also, don’t try to prove too much. Composing in this country is still pretty young no matter how you look at it [4].”

#4- to Irving and Verna Fine

“The city itself is beautiful as ever. Streets are always full of people— no one ever seems to want to go home. Coffee every two hours till you are black in the face. A friendly, democratic feeling in the air that comes across because of the lack of color lines. Skins of all shades and faces of all shapes. Its endlessly amusing to sit at a sidewalk café and watch what passes [4].”



I found Copland’s remarks about race to be very interesting, especially in his correspondence from Cuba. He clearly wants to use the music he hears, but understands that he should “try to control himself.” I also found it interesting when he talks about “American Music” (those words sound familiar!). The “Gilbert” he is referencing is American composer Henry F. Gilbert, a white man who was greatly intrigued by (you could say appropriated) the music of African Americans. I think Copland is saying here that just because the source material isn’t white, does not mean that it is not American. 

In my opinion, Copland seems pretty “woke” for his time (1900-1999). He did have some questionable phrases in these letters, but overall I think It’s clear that Copland had a pretty good understanding of culture and was at least thinking about how culture was impacting the music he was composing. 


[1] Pollack, Howard (1999). Aaron Copland. NY: Henry Holt and Co.

[2] Chávez, Carlos. 1937. Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity, translated from the Spanish by Herbert Weinstock, with eight illustrations by Antonio Ruíz. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Reprinted, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

[3] Parker, Robert L. “Copland and Chávez: Brothers-in-Arms.” American Music 5, no. 4 (1987): 433-44.

[4] Copland, Aaron. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B. Crist, and Wayne Shirley, Yale University Press, 2006.

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression

In the last Virgil Thomson reading, I was rather intrigued by a particular quote of his towards the end when he closed the chapter of “American Musical Traits” with some musings about America’s role in the opera genre:

“What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise.  I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?” [1]

Being as this was written in the 1970s, I honestly was not sure if Thomson is trying to claim that American opera does not have its own identity or that American opera had not existed up until then.  Either way, it seemed interesting that he would bring up the importance of composers like Edward MacDowell or Charles Ives in their roles as composers that encapsulate the American classical tradition and disregard someone like, say, George Gershwin and his opera “Porgy and Bess.”


It seems odd that Thomson would disregard Gershwin’s contribution to the American opera genre (and I certainly argue “Porgy and Bess” to be a part of it, especially if the Met Opera is currently performing it).  Perhaps Thomson has a rather elitist perspective of American music in how it relates to European music rather than influences from African-American folk song traditions or African music.  He hardly acknowledges the role it plays in the landscape of American classical music for sure by only mentioning the use of blue notes or blues/jazz genres and their relation to Asian musics, which seems to be a strange point, but whatever floats his boat I guess.

The likely omission of African-American-inspired music by Virgil Thomson demonstrates the idea that the characteristics found in such music were not regularly accepted by music historians or musicologists as a part of American music and rather it became an other, which could be referred to as “black American music.”


[1] Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

[2] Gershwin, George. “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

A Not-So-Sympathetic Read of the National Anthem

For many Americans, The Star-Spangled Banner may be one of the most recognizable tunes. With its message of patriotism and national triumph, it has firmly rooted itself within our national canon. Many of us, however, are only familiar with the first stanza of this song.

The third stanza reads as follows: (click the link)

Star Spangled Banner stanza 3

Other than the explicit reference to runaway slaves, this stanza is somewhat difficult to pick apart without an understanding of the historical context. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, was a lawyer, and later, a U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was a staunch anti-abolitionist who used his position as U.S. District Attorney to suppress and prosecute abolitionists for taking a public stance against slavery. Key wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner while he observed the successful defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Though some scholars as well as some widely held popular opinion would assert that the Star-Spangled Banner’s 3rd stanza is a celebration of the institution of slavery, I would like to provide a reading that is not so reductive. During the War of 1812, the British army raided southern coastal areas of the United States. As part of these raids, they would offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the Crown during the ongoing conflict. Many now-former slaves took advantage of this offer and joined a regiment of the British army that would be known as the Corps of Colonial Marines. A detachment of the Corps assisted in the burning of Washington D.C. in August of 1814 (Blackburn 288-290).

With this context in mind, Key’s bitterness over freed slaves fighting against other Americans becomes clear. In addition to celebrating American success in the Battle of Baltimore, he also uses the poem as a denouncement, or a sort of “not so hot now, are you?” of these former slaves who would dare to fight for their freedom against their former masters. All the same, the stanza is not so much a celebration of the institution as it is a denouncement of those who would try to end it.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848. London, Verso, 1988. P.p. 288-290.

Key, Francis Scott and John Stafford Smith. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sheet Music Consortium. Accessed 21 October 2019.

The New World Symphony and Spirituals

As my first search in Sheet Music Consortium, I mindlessly typed in “Dvorak.” Mostly using this search as a test run to see how the database works, I expected to come up with a hundred and one variations on “The New World Symphony.” Instead, what I found was a conglomeration of pieces by Antonin Dvorak himself and American popular songs that were evidently based on these works.

William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922. Sheet Music Consortium.

In particular, the fourth result up was a song called “Goin’ Home,” billed as a “Negro Spiritual from the Largo of The New World Symphony.”1
As it turns out, the Largo of the New World Symphony doesn’t really quote any particular spiritual directly, and “Goin’ Home” is not a preexisting spiritual but a song adapted from the Largo and set to words by one of Dvorak’s white students, William Arms Fisher.2
After reading in Douglas Shadle’s Orchestrating the Nation about Dvorak’s assertion that American music should be based upon spirituals, I found it extremely ironic to find that the chain of influence for one of the most well-known “spirituals” connected to Dvorak goes the opposite direction. Rather than finding any authentic spirituals on which Dvorak based his American symphony, I stumbled upon popular songs and “spirituals” that were manufactured from the precise melodies in Dvorak’s work.

Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7. De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911. Sheet Music Consortium.

“Goin’ Home” is not the only instance of this that I found right away. Another popular song, “In your moonlit bower,” by Jas. H. Harrington, popped up as a song “adapted from Humoresque by A. Dvorak.”3
While there was no actual sheet music available for the adapted song, the Humoresque is immediately recognizable to most of us by recording. The mere fact that American popular music seemed to conjure up some sense of American-ness by reverse engineering from Dvorak’s work, which may have contained minimal direct American influence in the first place, raises many questions for me.

Is it right to claim that we are placing African-American spirituals at the center of a new American music if the piece that started this new music only vaguely references this music? Is it right to create new music based on a piece which only gives a broad sense of what a white man perceived to be the “spirit” of spirituals? And how can we make sense of the Czech composer’s contributions to creating an American music when his direct exposure to actual American music was severely limited before the composition of “The New World Symphony?” All of these questions and more are issues we must grapple with as we consider the role Dvorak played in creating an “American music.”


1 William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922.

2 The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, “Goin’ Home, with Alex Boye – Mormon Tabernacle Choir”, Jan 2010.

3 Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7, De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911.


Works Cited:

Antonin Dvorak, Humoreske; Op. 101, no. 7. De Luxe Music Co. New York, 1911. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. “Goin’ Home, with Alex Boye – Mormon Tabernacle Choir”. Filmed Jan 2010. Youtube video, 5:49. Posted Jan 2014.

William Arms Fisher, “Goin’ Home”, Melbourne: Allan & Co., c1922. Sheet Music Consortium., accessed October 20, 2019.

“The Tender Land”: A Wrong Place, Wrong Time Situation

In 1936, photographer Walker Evans released a photograph of a woman named Allie Mae Burroughs. She lived in Hale County, Alabama, with her husband Floyd and their four children, where they owned nothing: not even their home, land, mule or farm tools. The family of six leased these items (and more) from their landlord. Floyd was a cotton “sharecropper,” so at harvest time, he had to give his landlord half his cotton and corn crop, as well as pay off any other debts from the year, such as food, seed, fertilizer, and medicine.1

Allie Mae’s pursed lips, wrinkled brow, and tired eyes in the photo below record the hardships the family faced as a farm family during the Great Depression.

Walker Evans’ photo of Allie Mae Burroughs

The Burroughs’ story was not an uncommon one for farm families living during the Great Depression, which also coincided with the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. This photo, among other Depression-era photos by Walker Evans, are what prompted Aaron Copland to write the music for the opera, The Tender Land.  

Cover of “The Tender Land”

The Tender Land is set in the 1930s in the general Midwest and premiered at the New York City Opera on April 1, 1954. It takes place at the time of spring harvest and a high school graduation, and features a Midwest family experiencing challenges such as family expectations and unapproved love.

The opera was not received well by critics at the time of its premiere. According to Copland in a letter to Carlos Chavez on April 5, 1954 (only 4 days after the premiere of The Tender Land), the negative comments regarding the opera were “criticisms about the libretto, and the usual complaint about a few melodies” 2

However, Christopher W. Patton explains in his article, “Discovering ‘The Tender Land’: A New Look at Aaron Copland’s Opera” that The Tender Land first premiered in between the New York City Opera’s productions of Don Giovanni and Figaro. He writes, “The Tender Land’s small, intimate scale, meditative, introspective libretto and strong but finely wrought emotional content were lost somewhere in the vast reaches of City Center” 3

Between the humor and grandiosity of Don Giovanni and Figaro, the subdued The Tender Land was lost.

Additionally, there is also something to be said at the timing of the premiere of The Tender Lands; music and theater are often used as an escape from reality. In 1954, the memories of the Great Depression, as well as World War II and the Dust Bowl, were still fresh in the minds of many Americans. While the music of The Tender Land was lovely, the plot and themes brought Americans right back into the realities of the past 15-20 years, rather than allow them to escape. Therefore, if attending an opera, Don Giovanni or Figaro may have been more attractive.

Copland blamed the negative response to The Tender Land on complaints of just some melodies and plot issues.  But, based on his letters featured in “The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland”, it doesn’t appear that he considered that the melancholy themes of The Tender Land brought Americans too close to the reality of, specifically, the Depression that still haunted their minds.

Now, audiences have a more positive response to The Tender Lands. In fact, now, opera companies add The Tender Land to their season, such as the Berkeley Opera in April 2010.

After the trauma of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans may have not wanted to see such relatable, recent hardships depicted in art. In today’s opera scene, without the Depression looming over our generation as it did in the 1950’s, The Tender Land may succeed and receive high remarks, even between Don Giovanni and Figaro, as it was in its premiere.


1 MET Museum. “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife.” (Accessed October 19, 2019).

2 Crist, Elizabeth B., and Wayne Shirley, ed., The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. Yale University, 2006.

3 Patton, Christopher W. “Discovering “The Tender Land”: A New Look at Aaron Copland’s Opera.” American Music 20, no. 3 (2002): 317-40. doi:10.2307/1350129.

“‘The Promise of Living’: The Tender Land,” Youtube Video, 4:58, “Echidnamedia,” May 15, 2010,

American Patriotic Songs from 1916-1918

Virgil Thomson spent a considerable amount of effort trying to define traits of American music after 1910. I wanted to test his theories by comparing them to patriotic marches because they can be considered unambiguously American. The keyword “America” brought a number of such pieces to my attention, of which I picked three to study. I was interested in these particular pieces because of a number of similarities that immediately caught my eye, so they should not be considered a random selection.

First, some brief introductions: “Come On, America” was published in 1918 with words by Vance Cooke and music by Kenneth Murchison. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! Tis the Land We Love!”  was published in 1916 lyrics by J. Will Callahan and music by Eddie Gray. Ironically, although published in Chicago this piece was distributed by an Australian company. “America My America“was published in 1917 with words by Ray B Powers and music by Edith Powers. An inscription reads “Dedicated to Elk’s Regiment Portland Oregon Lodge.” Elk’s Lodges are patriotic fraternal organizations, and I foundit timely to come across this note as I have just recently driven past many an Elk’s Lodge in my most recent journey through the Midwest.

Thomson covers such a wide range of genres that it seems laughable to apply common traits that are specific to American music. He particularly focuses on rhythm, noting that “a very large part of what has been composed in the last forty years assumes the existence… of a steady continuity of eighth-notes, on top of which other metrical patterns, regular and irregular, lead an independent life.” (American Musical Traits 19) All three of these pieces certainly fit this trend as they are in 2/4 with the eighth note driving the piano accompaniment. However, none of the pieces have more than a few instances of syncopation, let alone a “large amount” (19).

Another trait Thomson presents as “American” is the “non-accelerating crescendo and… the non-retarding diminuendo” (19). After the initial tempo markings of con brio, allegretto con spirito, and marcia respectively there are no subsequent marked tempo changes with the exception of a ritardando before the chorus of “Come on America.” In this instance there is indeed no dynamic change marked. Dynamic markings as a whole appear secondary to the marching drive of the eighth note. Crescendos and diminuendos appear only in “America First,” and “America My America” has only four dynamic markings with the final already appearing in the third line. Although all this may support Thomson’s assertion that “the American… inclines by instinct to keep his rhythm patterns independent of volume patterns” (19), these trends are perhaps due in larger part to the patriotic march sub-genre than their American origins.

The final trait was harder for me to understand, let alone identify in practice. Thomson speaks to a “phonetic distortion without loss of clarity.” I took this to mean that text setting often prioritizes music over the natural rhythm of speech patterns. One example of this in “Come On America” is the quarter-eighth-eighth-half rhythm of the syllables of “A-mer-i-ca” which causes the “a” and “ca” syllables to be emphasized whereas a native English speaker would accent “mer”. Besides this, however, there was little unusual text setting and based on my understanding of the term I do not believe any of the three pieces utilize “phonetic distortion” to a large extent.

Obviously, these three pieces are too small of a data sample to make any definite conclusions about the accuracy of Thomson’s generalizations of American music, but I did find it to be a useful exercise in thinking through the theories he presented. I chose to undergo this (admittedly arbitrary) project in order to better understand the arguments Thomson lay out, and to that end I achieved my goal.

(Unfortunately, I failed in my noble quest to dig up recordings of these pieces… I guess we will just have to use our imaginations?)


Works Cited

Gray, Eddie and J. Will Callahan. “America First (Is Our Battle Cry! ‘Tis the Land We Love).” Chicago: Frank K. Root & Co, 1916.

Murchison, Kenneth and Edmund Vance Cooke. “Come On, America!” Red, White and Blue Series: New Patriotic and War Songs. Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1918.

Powers, Edith and Ray Powers. “America My America.” Oregon: Oregon Eiler’s Music House, 1917.,1957.

Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits.” American Music Since 1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

J.P. Webster’s “In the Sweet By and By”


It’s very likely that you know this famous American hymn – it’s been performed most famously by both Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and seems to be well known today as a traditional Southern gospel tune. However, this piece was in fact composed by one of my ancestors: Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875), who was born in Massachusetts and lived much of his adult life in Wisconsin. Originally a touring singer, JP Webster suffered from a bout of bronchitis that robbed him of his voice. From there, he became the composer of over 1,000 hymns, ballads, and patriotic songs, including “Lorena” and “In the Sweet By and By.”

JP Webster’s House in Elkhorn, WI

The publications of this song on the Sheet Music Consortium are from several different arrangers. The one I looked at was published and arranged during JP Webster’s lifetime, and is seen below. However, there are also several other interesting versions, including an arrangement in four parts as performed by the Kelly and Leon Troupe – upon a little digging, this turns out to have been a highly successful blackface minstrel troupe. Perhaps when minstrelsy became more of a Southern phenomenon, this song went with it, or perhaps it followed the pattern of musical traditions which migrated from the Puritan northeast after Lowell Mason’s hymn reforms (Mason was, in fact, one of Webster’s main music teachers).

My interest in this topic and song stem mostly from my family’s personal connection; however, it amazes me how well it ties into our course topics so far. Aside from the connection to minstrelsy, this song has clear connections to the complex history of Southern gospel and country music, having migrated South from traditional musical origins in the northeastern US.  JP Webster is also one example of a composer who may have been revived in the search for an American musical sound in the 1900s, since many of his songs (“Lorena” in particular) were written during and for the Civil War, and this was one of the musical periods mentioned by Annegret Fauser as a source for tracking American music. This is yet another possibility in explaining the revival of his music, so that it is well-known even today.

This song is merely one personal example of the relevance and complexity of what we have discussed in this course to our musical lives today. Few traditional songs have a clear path through history from their composition to how they exist in the public mind today, and while this is one example in which the composer is very clear, even it has its mysteries and complexities. Knowing the history is not merely interesting on a personal or intellectual level, it lends a great deal to our understanding (or recognition that really we know very little) of American musical history.

Works Cited:

  1. Webster, Joseph Philbrick & Bennett, Fillmore. (1870). Sweet by and by Retrieved October 18, 2019, from
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Joseph Philbrick Webster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 17, 2019).
  3. Tubb, Benjamin Robert. “The Music Of Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875).” The Music of Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875), Benjamin Robert Tubb, 9 Apr. 1999,
  4. Wisconsin Historical Society, Unknown, Joseph Philbrick Webster House, IM30910. Viewed online at

Commodification of “Authentic Blackness”

The 1890s were a turning point for black composers. For the most part, they were not able to rise to the level of white composers, except in the case of music written for minstrel shows. Performing in / composing for minstrel shows provided “chance for advancement and financial security” in a time of “shrinking possibilities” for black composers.

In my search on Sheet Music Consortium, I came across Gussie Davis (1853-1899), a composer from Ohio, who was a well known ballad writer. What I found particularly interesting about Davis is his involvement in northern minstrel shows. He wrote for minstrel shows, toured with minstrel groups, and even had his own minstrel troupe. What’s even more interesting? He was black. 

Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie is a piece written by Davis from the perspective of a former (freed) slave. The lyrics use racial slurs, telling the story of a freed slave meeting their former master again and longing for plantation life, saying “and the old plantation, how I long to see dat home once mo’.” Taking this piece out of context and just examining it as a black person being nostalgic for slavery, the piece is very peculiar. However, it is likely that this piece was performed as a part of one of Davis’ minstrel shows. In this context, it makes sense that Davis would write as such, because black minstrel performers needed to commodify their “authentic blackness.” This provided a sense of comfort for audiences, who had never experienced the horrors of slavery, and allowed them to look past those atrocities. 

“Black minstrels felt the added responsibility to counter the stereotypes of black identity…on stage that balanced racist stereotypes and political commentary.” – Was Davis doing this? It seems, judging based on this piece, that he was not. He did not do enough (if anything) to counter racist stereotypes. Instead, Davis just plays into these stereotypes, but understandably so, because his livelihood depended on it.

Works Cited:

 “Blacks in Blackface.” Google Books, Google,

“Won’t You Take Me Back to Dixie.” Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music,

“The History of Minstrelsy : African American Minstrel Performers · USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits.” Omeka RSS,


‘Music for the Masses’

In 1897, the Chicago Book and News Company published a volume of the National Home and Music Journal, a periodical that published music that was thought to embody elements of the national identity so well that they deemed it to be ‘Music for the Masses.’ From taking a look at the types of music they chose to include in these journals, we get an insider scoop into what was found to be “Americanness” in music.

The journal starts off exactly as we might expect, with The Yankee Tourist by H.S. Line and F.S Colburn. There aren’t any recordings available for this song, but one can imagine how it goes from the title. It follows a quarter note-eighth note pattern in 6/8 time, giving the piece a natural lilt.

The publisher then throws something interesting into this collection of ‘Music for the Masses’… a Beethoven piano piece. I hate to point out the obvious here, but Beethoven was not American. He was German. This inclusion shows that in 1897, a German piece of music was considered to be just as American as a piece like The Yankee Tourist.

Then, we are given a piece for mandolin and guitar—seemingly the “folk” piece of the collection. Also included are The Elk’s Two-Step, Treasure of My Heart, and Come Back to Your Mother, Madge (none of which have been recorded). Each piece selected by the editors was meant to highlight a specific aspect of “Americanness” as it stood in 1897. When I look at this collection, I see a journal that only equates the white, European-descendant’s experience with being “American.”

The question of what constitutes as “Americanness” has never gone away. The Washington Post recently published an article discussing what “real Americanness” looks like today. Their conclusion from analyzing a modern study is similar to my conclusion from analyzing a 200 year old publication:

[‘Americanness’] is interwoven through our history and runs deep in our culture. Our hope is that these findings help us understand the particular ways these tensions are manifesting today, and thus the issues we need to confront to address our differences and remember the core values that can bind us together as Americans.”[1]


Primary Source: Colburn, Frank S, R J Hamilton, and Samuel I Osmund. National Home and Music Journal 5, no. 1, 1897. pplcat/b10121535.pdf.

[1] Caleb Elfenbein, Peter Hanson. “Perspective | What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Real’ American?” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 3, 2019.


Let Freedom Ring: Tracking Variations in Notation of The Star Spangled Banner

Many of us are familiar with the national anthem of the United States of America: It’s presence at countless sporting events and televised competitions offers a display of patriotism and a national musicality. Recently, the reaction to players in the NFL kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality in the country has sparked conversation and controversy. But long before players took a knee during the national anthem, there were other controversies surrounding the performance practice of a song meant to unify and represent an entire nation. 

Throughout history, there have been widespread reactions in the American public backlashing against performances of the anthem deemed incorrect, inappropriate, or inconsistent with a sort of ideal performance. Recent examples include comedian Roseanne Barr’s controversial performance of the anthem at a Major League Baseball game in 1990 which drew rebuttal from the public as well as the US President at the time. More recently, American pop singer Fergie performed an allegedly jazzed-up version of the anthem, but her unique rendition drew criticism and laughter from players and fans, and went viral.

But where do these different versions of the anthem come from? Shouldn’t a national anthem be consistent, unchanging, and notated in stone? Why has our national anthem changed so much? The answer seems to be found in the earliest times of musical notation of the anthem. Drawing on sheet music found in the UCLA Sheet Music Consortium, we see a handful of different arrangements and publishers trying their hand at notating the national anthem. In scans of arrangements spanning roughly 1840-1970, there are already plenty of different notations and variations within the anthem and its arranged accompaniment.

While some arrangements are clearly named and marketed as a sort of theme and variations of the national anthem, others are simply entitled “The Star Spangled Banner” and fail to list an arranger (and sometimes a composer). Although some of the arrangements give compositional credit to Francis Scott Key, it is unclear who had written the embellishments and variations in some of these arrangements. However, what is clear from these pieces is that from very early on in the American musical life of The Star Spangled Banner, there were liberties taken with arranging and performing the piece- a rather American mindset. 

Screenshots from a government issues pamphlet with choral harmonizations to the Star Spangled Banner.

Some things have remained consistent, which should be noted. For example, many of the arrangements have marked con spirito, a rather unique and distinct marking that is found in many of the arrangements of this time period. While I could not find any sources that dove into arrangements of the anthem specific to this time period to further discuss marking such as the con spirito found in so many, I speculate that even though arrangers felt at liberty to try new things, they felt a sort of obligation to maintain specific aspects of the piece’s identity. This is also reflected in other similarities between the arrangements: most are in the same key, have the same exact notated melody, and include similar harmonization. Although The Star Spangled Banner would not officially be adopted until 1931, the artistic license to embellish, recreate, and change the piece had been established long before. Since then, American performers had the autonomy to take risks and try new ideas with our national anthem with and without public support.

Primary Sources

A Whig Of Providence. TheWhigs of Columbia shall surely prevail. Oliver Shaw, Providence, monographic, 1840. Notated Music.

Rziha, Francis. Star Spangled Banner. W. C. Peters, Baltimore, monographic, 1850. Notated Music.

Bias and Sexism in the Search for the Great American Symphony

When I was working on the readings for our upcoming class, I was perplexed by the choices made in order to procure the definition of ‘American’ music.  It just sounded to me like no one knew what they wanted, criticizing composers for sounding too European while accepting music from foreign enemies into the American cannon over those from marginalized groups of Americans.  Fauser’s and Shadel’s articles do an especially good job in complicating the relationship between American music and European opinion, as the idea that American music must be differentiated in some way came from the Europeans and was put into practice first by Dvorak in his New World Symphony.  This  was so well received that it established the bohemian composer as an authority on African American spirituals, and many adaptations were made from his symphony to be marketed as authentic spirituals.

Goin’ Home: Negro Spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Fisher

Down De Road: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, lyrics by Kagles

A Song of Home: From the Largo of the New World Symphony by Dvorak, Lyrics by Lorenz

I was interested in the portion of Shadel’s article on Amy Beach’s response to Dvorak’s symphony and how she created her own interpretation.  Having been born and raised in America, one would think that Beach would have a leg up on Dvorak in composing American symphonies.  Her Gaelic Symphony, being the first symphony composed by an American woman, fits much of the criteria proposed of the idealized ‘great American symphony’. Meanwhile, Beach’s symphony was not taken seriously by critics due to her gender.  Compared to Dvorak and Chadwick, Beach’s music was described by critics as “delicate”, “beautiful” and “tender”, while “other early reviewers… did not comment at any length on the expression of a national identity given the works clear dialogue with Dvorak” [1].  It was striking that many of the quotes, whether positive or negative, couldn’t help but mention Beach’s gender in relation to the music, while “the most negative critics displayed heightened anxiety over the emergence of a truly valid American symphonic voice capable of speaking to international audiences” [2].  This is what people had been hoping for in the ‘great American symphony’; however, for some, the fact that this voice was coming from a woman was the sole thing rendering the attempt invalid.

Beach Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32 ‘Gaelic’

Follow these links to listen for yourself:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”, I. Allegro con fuoco

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”, I. Adagio- Allegro molto

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major, I. Allegro sostenuto

Chadwick purportedly told Beach after her symphony’s debut, “I always feel a thrill of pride myself whenever I hear a fine new work by any one of us, and as such you will have to be counted in, whether you will or not—one of the boys” [3].

American music has a long history of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.  When we think about American music, we must also stop to think about who’s experiences we are validating and invalidating.  Who are we letting participate and why?  We cannot tout the idea of an American “melting pot” of musical culture if different groups are not all respected equally.


  1. Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  2. ibid
  3. Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Works Cited:

Beach, Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, “Gaelic Symphony”

Block, Adrienne Fried E. Douglas Bomberger. “Beach [née Cheney], Amy Marcy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Chadwick, Symphony No. 3 in F Major

Dvorak, Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op. 95, B. 178, “From the New World”

Dvorak, Antonin and Fisher, William Arms. Goin’ home Negro spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony, op. 95 Adelaide: Cawthornes Ltd, 1922. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Dvorak, Anton and Klages, Raymond, “Down De Road : From The Largo Of The New World Symphony” (1925). Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection. Score 4824.

Dvorak, Antonin, Lorenz, E.J and Gray, Geofrey. A song of home from the Largo of New world symphony : two-part song Melbourne: Allan & Co, 1940. Web. 16 Oct. 2019 <>

Fauser, Annegret. Sounds of War : Music in the United States During World War II New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Shadle, Douglas W. Orchestrating the Nation : the Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

“Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors.” Naxos Music Library – Invaluable Resource for Music Enthusiasts and Collectors,


Floyd and Burleigh’s Spiritual Requirements

As a class, we have encountered H. T. Burleigh many times already. As an African American composer, he adapted many pieces of Negro Spirituals into concert spirituals. Burleigh has been criticized for not presenting these songs in their original style but also praised for preserving them. In the Sheet Music Consortium, I found a H. T. Burleigh piece, “Tis me, o Lord; Standin’ in de need of Pray’r” with a preface saying, “Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit;”. Burleigh takes part in the spiritual belief one must have when performing these songs. There are only a few other authors throughout this semester who argue this. One could say he’s trying to keep this works genuine because he goes on to warn against performing these songs by “treat them as ‘minstrel songs’”. Yet, he still relies on a spiritual aspect of performance.

H. T. Burleigh; Arranger of “Tis me, o Lord; Standin’ in de need of pray’r”


I found this text fascinating because I immediately thought of one of our dear friends Samuel A. Floyd Jr. and the notion of “cultural memory” he constantly brings up throughout the reading. He defines it as, “Cultural memory, obviously a subjective concept, seems to be connected with cultural forms-in the present case, music, where the ‘memory’ drives the music and the music drives the memory,” (Floyd 8). Both accounts suggest the almost metaphysical aspect to performing this music. They both stress the importance of the person’s spirit becoming involved in the music.

We’ve encountered these two accounts by black men telling us how spirituals must be performed. Both musicians have studied and lived with this music for their lives. As members of the black community with a long history with this music, do we take their notions of “cultural memory” and “spiritual feeling”. On top of all this, Burleigh wrote in classical European style, so how on earth does a white person approach this work keeping all these ideas in mind?

Samuel Floyd Jr.




-“Samuel A. Floyd, Jr. (1937-2016).” UC Press Blog, 25 Aug. 2017,


-“H. T.  Burleigh (1866-1949).” The Library of Congress, www.loc,gov/item/ihas.200035730


-Floyd, Samuel A. “Introduction.” The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States, Oxford University Press, 1997.

-Burleigh, et al. “Tis Me, o Lord; Standin’ in De Need of Pray’r; Negro Spiritual.” Duke Digital Collections, G. Ricordi, 1 Jan.1970,

Lowell Mason and the End of Shape Note

Shape-note singing has roots which may stretch as far back as 11th century Italy[1]. Solmization has been used ever since to teach new singers to sight-read melodies, and in the distinctly American case of the Sacred Harp, written by Benjamin Franklin White, congregations have used the familiar intervals and rhythms to sing loudly and emphatically. The presence of a ubiquitous hymn book further reinforces the traditionalism of the genre, which is often praised as one which invites everyone to participate democratically, rather than creating an audience/performer dichotomy. The anthems are always in four parts, with uncomplicated rhythms and melodies to facilitate singing unrehearsed.

I include one of the hymns from the Sacred Harp below; a contemporary rendition of the tune can be found on YouTube.

Shape Note sheet music, included for comparison.

A digitized copy of Windham, from the Sacred Harp, published 1844.

Perhaps in stark contrast, Lowell Mason is credited with popularizing European Classical music in the United states[2]. Mason is known to have derided shape-note singing as being a barrier to scientific musical study; he and his brother published a book called The Sacred Harp in 1835, but this was done to supplant the shape-note tradition which existed, replacing rural American tunes with European part-writing. The authors preface the work as “the introduction of an elevated style of Sacred Music arranged on the immovable basis of science and correct taste.”[3]

Mason later went on to write some 1600 hymns in his lifetime, some of which are incredibly popular today, such as Bethany, the tune of “Nearer My God To Thee.” I include here one of the more dramatic of his works I could find, with dotted rhythms, dynamics, and an instrumental part setting it apart from the above hymn. There is call and response among singers, and ornamented instrumental interludes. Sadly, I could find no existing rendition of this piece–it has since become a popular Lutheran hymn, with a changed musical setting.

An example of Lowell Mason's hymn-writing

Excerpt from Watchman, Tell Us of the Night, written 1830.

However, another piece of Mason’s, a setting of the Lord’s Prayer, has an existing rendition available here. This composition complicates the distinctness between all the examples I’ve used. The sheet music is written in a completely different style, with vocal and instrumental parts combined, but it doesn’t seem to require an instrument. The part-writing may be European, but the rhythms look more alike to “Windham” than “Watchmen.” This is not a purely performer-audience example. There are leaders, but all congregants sing. The shift toward a plainer “Watchmen” is telling–Mason may have diminished the popularity of shape-note singing, but the style his music ended up in was not as much a copy of European music as he intended.

Four-part setting of the Lord's Prayer

A composition of Mason’s from 1879.

[1]  David Warren Steel. 2010. “Shape Note Singing.”  Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed

[2]  “Lowell Mason.” Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

[3]  Nathan Rees. 2017. “From the Collection: An Earlier Sacred Harp.” Original Sacred Harp. Accessed

H. T. Burleigh on the Performance of Black Spirituals

In searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, I came across several spirituals arranged by H. T. Burleigh. These publications, such as Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells, include a note written by Burleigh about spirituals, in which he describes them as “never ‘composed,’” but “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor.” He touches on other topics we have discussed in class as well, writing that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song,” and warning that they should not be treated as “‘minstrel’ songs.”1

Following his statement on folk music, he writes:

“Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then the rhythm, for the Negro’s soul is linked with rhythm, and it is an essential characteristic of most all the Folk Songs.”1

Here Burleigh seems to be arguing for an authenticity in both the feeling behind a performance and the presentation of the performance as rooted in the history of spirituals as black music.

On the other hand, he elaborates on his warning not to treat spirituals as minstrel songs with the following:

“It is a serous misconception to . . . try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the particular inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively . . .”1

Obviously trying to make a serious song comical undermines it, but I was struck by the extent to which Burleigh connects an unworthy and unimpressive presentation directly with how literally black performance practice is imitated. “Swaying the body,” “clapping the hands,” and singing in dialect are all things that St. Olaf’s choirs, for example, do in an effort to present the music with “deep spiritual feeling,” as Burleigh encourages earlier. He also writes, “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit,” yet he implies that the very things here connected to the spirit take away from the spirituals’ worth. Though he is discussing making a song comical, he strongly suggests that imitation of black performance practice itself is antithetical to an impressive performance.

H. T. Burleigh’s note in Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells1

Maybe this is simply because black performance practice at the time could not be separated from minstrel comedy. This could allow for the St. Olaf choirs’ use of elements of black performance practice in a time when it is no longer so directly connected to minstrelsy in audiences’ ears. However, Burleigh was also a major part of the movement to “legitimize” black spirituals by arranging them in a Western classical style. Given this, he could have indeed viewed the “spirit” he talks of as needing to be presented through a white musical context in order to give it legitimacy. On the other hand, if he was writing for a white audience, his message may have been at least partly motivated by his not wanting imitation of black performance practice by non-black performers. Whatever the reasons for the specific performance considerations he discusses, though, this short statement on black spirituals shows some of the many complexities that accompany their performance.

1 Burleigh, H. T. Negro Spirituals: Oh Peter Go Ring Dem Bells. Sheet music. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.

“Oh, Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells.” YouTube video, 1:20, posted by Marian Anderson – Topic, Nov 8, 2014,

All in Good Spirit

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a Canadian-born poet, essayist, choir conductor and composer born in Drummondsville, a town founded by escaped slaves from the south of the United States. Being classically trained, he studied at both Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and Harvard University, finally getting his Master of Music from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was also the first African American that obtained an honorary doctorate from the Oberlin Conservatory.

His main body of work consists of “early English music, works from the Russian liturgy, Christmas carols, and arrangements of spirituals”[1], but he also wrote essays on “Negro Music”, warning about the dangers of commercializing it an consequently having it lose its meaning. Library of Congress’ biography on Dett refers to how his biographer Anne Key Simpson remarks his

“lifelong dedication to finding a musical form to bridge the gap between the music’s simple origins and its concert performance.”[2]

When listening to this performance as an example of his works I have selected his arrangement for solo voice and piano of “Follow Me”, categorized as a “Negro Spiritual” as collected by Mrs. Catherine Fields-Gay, about whom I found very little information. The piano accompainment provides a light harmonic texture in a style that in my opinion lends itself to the “Spiritual” genre. The  accompainment occationaly doubles or ecoes the rhythmic structure and/or the melody in the voice. This might be a slight nod to call-and-response. Examples of this are in meaures 16 , 20 and 24. He also also highlights the syncopation in the voice with a straight rhythm in the piano and vice versa, for instance in measures 19 and 27.

Baritone Richard Hodges performance of the piece:

In this performance Hodges skips the appoggiatura assigned, possibly an interpretation of the portamento-like slide into the note, so often associated with the African American singing style as either transcribed by Dett or Fields-Gay. Hodge’s style of singing is essentially classical. The span between the “authentic” performance practice of spirituals and a traditional, euro-centric practice might seem too far, and Dett’s mission impossible.

Whenever an oppressive culture interprets the oppressed’s, there is always the asymmetrical power relation to consider, but what happens when an African American composer and performer respectively arranges and performs but within that “oppressive” stylistic framework? Is this reclaiming the material? Or is it as Dett wished to unify the two musical traditions in a “best of both worlds”-like scenario? Or is this just an aspect of the gentrification of the spiritual, seen throughout the 19th century?

Primary sources

Dett, R. Nathaniel. “Follow Me” (1919). The John Church Company, Cincinati. [Accessed October 16th,2019]

“Richard Hodges- Follow Me by R. Nathaniel Dett”. November 18th, 2015. [Accessed October 16th,2019]

Secondary sources

Library of Congress. “R. Nathaniel Dett”. [Accessed October 16th,2019]


[1] Library of Congress

[2] Ibid

Never Forget Your Dear Mother: Tin Pan Alley’s Creation of Genre

While scrolling through the Sheet Music Consortium database I started by searching by certain keywords which grew increasingly absurd, although I started with reasonable concepts I quickly found myself only looking at sheet music only written about frog romances. It seemed that if you found the right topic, there could be 50-60 pieces on something as specific as songs about owls that were symbols for men who liked to stay out late at night.

One such treasure trove is songs about mothers including amazing titles such as “That Wonderful Mother of Mine,” “Every Day is Mother’s Day to a Mother,” “Dreaming of Mother and my Sweet Home,” “Cheer up, Mother,” “There’s No One who Loves you Like Mother,” and my personal favorite, “The Little Grey Mother who Waits All Alone.” I told my own mother about what I found which garnered this guilt-inducing response.
So where do all of these songs about mothers’ come from? They are all mostly published between 1911-1920 and follow similar trends about a child leaving home to the dismay of the Long Suffering Mother. The sheer volume of such similar songs is not a coincidence, this extremely specific genre of sheet music comes from the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting which Robert W. Randall1 explains as  “Music publishers and composers alike operated in a world where success, measured by profit, hinged on their ability to understand through emotional cognition the yearnings of their audiences.”

The marketplace of music for these creators was not purely about creating music for an existing audience, but creating an audience out of music that they could create. Randall continues “But more than merely promoting songs, music publishers produced them on a factory scale, generating vast quantities of theme-driven songs that would enable them to both test and shape markets for tunes that would become “hits.” 

The historical era for the rise of songs about not forgetting mothers would make more sense within the context of WW1, but a fair number of these pieces were published far before any military involvement. The significance of this music appears to be more closely tied with national allegiance and loyalty, and undoubtedly a little bit of guilt.

In “Never Forget Your Dear Mother and Her Prayer”2 the lyrics echo this sentiment.

“Never forget your mother tho far away you may roam, Always remember she’s praying, For you to come back home, Temptations round you will gather, Face them with courage and care, Never forget your dear mother and her prayer”

The creation of Mother’s Day in 19143 by Woodrow Wilson is likely closely tied to this era of music, establishing a commercial holiday that has since been tied to lavish displays of wealth and public adoration. While music written specifically about missing your mom is a fun example of how Tin Pan Alley created concepts of identity based around  profits, it is crucial to examine how thin the lines are between commodity and sentiment if that line exists at all.

Black Representation in Country Music

Country music is often seen as one of the most segregated, and “whitest” of music genres. In 2014, when hosting the Country Music Awards, country star Brad Paisley said, “If any of you tuned into ABC tonight expecting to see the new show Black-ish, yeah, this ain’t it. In the meantime, I hope you all are enjoying White-ish.”1 While it was intended to be a joke, many viewers took to Twitter addressing their concerns about the intentions and racism behind the joke. However, Paisley’s joke only highlights the truth behind the white dominated field of country music, with only a few black musicians.

Most notable for his success in country music despite his race is Charley Pride. Pride released his first single “Snakes crawl at Night” in January, 1966. The top executives of the label RCA agreed to sign him after listening to his demos before they knew his race. Fearing his success would be hindered from his race, the label producers shielded his race for the release of his first three singles by not putting his face on the album. Compared to Jackie Robinson, he endured any discrimination in silence, determined that his talent would earn his success. It showed because in his career he had 29 #1 Country Hits that no other black country singer has come close to matching.2

Currently on the rise in country music is Darius Rucker. Rucker has been the only black artist to top the Country chart since Charley Pride with his most known single, Wagon Wheel. In an interview, Rucker says he frequently has African-American fans approaching him at concerts or tweeting that don’t feel ashamed to like country music now if their friends give them a hard time. Rucker downplays his legacy as a pioneer saying “music is just music.” “People don’t want me singing country music. But I’ve never wanted to let anybody tell me what I can do.”3

When searching through the Sheet Music Consortium, it is nearly impossible to find songs about black cowboys, much less black country singers. I did however find a song published nearly a decade before Charley Pride was writing his songs. The song “My Dear Old Southern Home” touches on the same themes that country music embodies, such as home, and having a warm southern home away from the “harsh winters” Rucker sings about in the north in the song above. Based on the dialect in this song,4 it is through the lens of a black man returning to his southern home. Today, there is a universal dialect for country singers and it is not separated by race, but by being from the south.

“My Dear Old Southern Home” by Charles H. Yale. 1876.

So, the next time someone cracks a joke about the predominately whiteness that dominates country music, they are not wrong. However, there are black musicians in the genre that have been very successful and also reach a diverse audience. It is the universal messages of country music, like homecoming that transcends time and race.

The First Publications of the Spiritual

While the spiritual tradition has a long history in the United States, dating back undoubtedly to the first slaves taken from Africa and brought to the colonies, it can be difficult to trace a lineage of sorts.  This can be due to a number of factors, but the most prevailing is the fact that slaves were not seen as people, and thus could not have a culture worth documenting.  Thus it fell on free African-Americans to document this culture, a task that was blocked at every turn by the segregation and racism present through the 20th century.  Then take into account how many freed slaves had enough musical training to create a published representation of their music, training that was denied to them by conservatories on the basis of their race, and you can start to see the problem.

While the first published book of spirituals was “Slave Songs of the United States,” it was written by three white authors who sought to collect the music of slaves shortly after the dismantling of the institution of slavery.

Image result for first published book of spirituals

This collection was published in 1867, and while interesting and insightful, is still a representation of Black music, specifically slave music, by white authors.  This brings to mind a common saying in modern choirs, especially those that are predominantly white, “we can’t sing this spiritual because we don’t know what it was like to be a slave.”  A common counterargument is that nobody knows what it was like to be a slave, since it has been so long since the institution of slavery was abolished.  With this book, however, the compilers didn’t know what it was like to be a slave, while the people they collected from TOTALLY DID.  Like they were actual slaves, who had just been set free 2 years earlier.  Does this mean that the white authors misrepresented the sentiments of their queries?  Probably if we’re being honest, but we’d have to look to the former slaves for that insight, and many of them were illiterate (both musically and linguistically) due to those same racist institutions.

Enter Fisk University, one of the first educational institutions founded by and for formerly enslaved persons.  This university was founded in 1866, shortly after emancipation, with the goal of providing the education so long denied to African Americans.  You can probably see where I’m going with this, being a musician who just brought up Fisk University, but it’s Fisk Jubilee Singers time.  The Jubilee Singers introduced the Spiritual to the world in 1871, and published this folio of sheet music in 1881 (that’s when the stamp of copyright for the library of congress is dated).  Fisk Jubilee Singers sheet music folio

This folio contains seven works arranged by the Jubilee Singers, all but two of whom were former slaves.  These publications, made famous by the tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, are directly responsible for the popularity of the concert spiritual.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers proved that their folk tradition made for just as high quality art music as any other, and brought the idea of Black excellence to the stage as early as 1871.  We’ve talked in class about recognizing what is representative of a style and what is an appropriation or perversion.  This publication by the Fisk Jubilee Singers is perhaps the most definitive way to see how former slaves viewed their music, and the continued performances of the group give us that direct lineage to the source that we so long for.

Goin’ Home

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was a Czech composer who simultaneously exerted substantial influence over the development of American music. 


After extensive persuasion from the National Conservatory of Music, Dvorak travelled to the U.S. in 1892 to direct the school. The president of the conservatory, Jeanette Thurber, wanted Dvorak to found a nationalist, uniquely American style of music (which is ironic because he wasn’t American and hadn’t spent time in America prior to this visit). He remarked, “The Americans expect great things of me. I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short a national style of music!” (1).


Dvorak turned to black spirituals and folk music as inspiration for American musical sounds:

I am of the opinion that African American songs can provide a secure foundation for a new national school of music and I have arrived at the conviction that the young musicians here merely require prudent direction, earnest application, encouragement and the support of the public in order to co-create a new music school” (2)


Dvorak therefore turned to black student H.T. Burleigh, requesting that he educate him regarding African-American spirituals and plantation songs (1). The New York Philharmonic premiered Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” soon after in 1893, and while Dvorak stated that he did not directly quote any Negro spirituals, he extensively studied the songs and attempted to reflect their characteristics in his work (2).


Years later in 1922, William Fisher, a former student of Dvorak’s, set to words the quintessential Largo melody from the New World Symphony’s second movement. I had actually heard the song, “Goin’ Home” (or Going Home), years ago sung by the British boy choir “Libera.” At the time, I had no knowledge of the song’s history, or of its original inspiration.



Fisher describes the song as follows:

“The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his “spirituals.” Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony” (3).



Fisher’s description of the melody differs from Dvorak’s, making it difficult to discern the intention behind the work. Dvorak initially stated that the symphony was inspired by black folk music, but he never directly quoted its tunes, and rather composed the melody to be universally applicable to all Americans. However, William Fisher, whose history included arranging countless negro spirituals, printed “Goin’ Home” in stereotypically black dialect (“I’m jes’ goin’ home). While Fisher was clearly appropriating black spirituals, he wasn’t technically using a black melody. Since Dvorak did not use an original spiritual melody, he was not profiting off of black culture in the same way that Fisher was by arranging other spirituals, even though Dvorak’s intentions were nonetheless problematic.


The message and connotations of “Goin’ Home” would have been different had Dvorak pulled the Largo’s melody directly from a black folk tune. It still would have constituted appropriation, but it also would have highlighted authentic folk music from a marginalized community on an international platform. By coming up with his own melody, Dvorak was not truly authentic and American; this would have been essentially impossible given that he was not innately familiar with black folk traditions. My main argument is that neither option would have been a great choice for Dvorak and Fisher, but the fact that the New World Symphony and Goin’ Home’s melody isn’t a literal negro spiritual changes its connotations.


  1. Döge, K.  (2001). Dvořák, Antonín. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from
  2. (2005). Dvorak and New York. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from
  3. Dvorak, Anton, Fisher, William A. Goin’ home- medium voice in D flat. Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1922 

Racism in American Sheet Music

Sheet music tells us many stories. It brings us on a musical journey, and can provide entertainment for many through the accessibility of the copies throughout the world. The shortcomings and racism of the classical music world is evident through many cultural primary sources, some of the best of them being sheet music.

“Ma little lump ob Sweetness” is an American folksong is described on the cover as “A Darkey Serenade”, using blatant racism as a way to attract more people to buy it; a selling point to appeal to the racist masses. The imagery on the cover suggests simplicity is an inherent trait of African Americans, depicting the man as playing the banjo, which has historically been stereotyped as a black folk-song instrument.

When one opens the cover, they would see the lyrics to the piece, which match the same level of racism as the cover. It reads, “Honey youse ma little lump ob sweetness, ‘deed you sets ma heart on fire” (Wilmarth). The piece is clearly being written in a dialect that African Americans spoke with, and exaggerates it in order to make fun of them and their romanticism.

The lyricist and composer of the piece, W. G. Wilmarth was also a white man, making it clear the piece is just an offensive caricature of the racist way in which Wilmarth perceived African Americans to be.

The racist imagery and lyrics in this piece of sheet music is not unique to “Ma little lump ob Sweetness”, and unfortunately many of the familiar and catchy tunes from our childhood belong to songs that are just as offensive.


Works Cited

Wilmarth, W.G. Ma Little Lump ob Sweetness. 1899. Washington, D.C. Henry White, 1899, print.

The Shallowness of the “Deep River” Market

We haven’t talked about concert spirituals very much yet, but I think that they make a claim to authenticity that fits nicely into our discussions of geography and race. Similar to how the success of country music as a genre demanded ties to poor whiteness, concert spirituals maintained ties to high-society blackness. While looking through the Sheet Music Consortium, I came across 42 arrangements of the concert spiritual Deep River. The majority were credited to H.T. Burleigh who had an arrangement published during his time at G. Ricordi publishing house. The remaining versions, however, were by composers/arrangers of different races and nationalities.

This 1916 arrangement by William Arms Fisher caught my eye. Like Burleigh, Fisher worked for a prominent publishing company, and spent most of his career as its vice-president.1 From my perspective, even though Fisher himself was white, this arrangement attaches itself to the tradition of Negro concert spirituals in two ways. First, is the inclusion of the original “American Negro melody” to which the musician(s) will refer to. Second, is the acknowledgement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s contributions to the finished product. Not only is his name listed first on the cover (not common practice), but additionally Fisher writes on the bottom of the first page, “in making this arrangement the beautiful piano transcriptions by the late Coleridge-Taylor has been closely followed.” Would it need to be followed closely if it didn’t hold merit? I wouldn’t think so, which brings me to my next point. Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer who was inspired by the influence/culture of African-Americans like H. T. Burleigh, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. du Bois.2 The only authenticity he could claim, or that others could claim for him, was his blackness.3 And he did claim it to some degree — in 1904 he published Twenty-Four Negro Melodies for piano that are still played widely to this day. But did this understanding of concert spirituals — that a tie to blackness was necessary for sales — permeate white American households?

And another question. Was there a shift in necessity for claiming black authenticity? Based on the variety of sheet music, there was, and it happened around the 1930s when the sheet music for Deep River was marketed like a popular song.

This title page looks completely different than that of versions published during the 1910s-20s. For one, the performers in the portrait must have been mainstream enough for audiences to recognize them and want to buy the music. Second, the arrangement offers versions for ukelele and guitar. Just like our favorite High School Musical hits, this transcription gives audiences the chance to bring the musical fun home! From this example, and others like it, it seems like the racialization of Deep River was less important over time. Current discussions around “who gets to perform spirituals and why” suggest that concert spirituals have been re-racialized today, but when in history did this happen?

1 Karl Kroeger, “Fisher, William Arms,” Oxford Music Online, last modified January 20, 2001,

2 Stephen Banfield, “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel” Oxford Music Online, last modified November 26, 2013,

3 This supports Amiri Baraka’s understanding of blackness as something that is essentialized, and naturally travels from black person to black person.

Minstrelsy and Sheet Music

After the American Civil War, over 25,000 new pianos a year were sold in America and by 1887, over 500,000 people were now studying piano. As a result, the demand for sheet music grew rapidly and more and more publishers began to enter the market [1]. Though it may be more pleasant to believe that these publishers printed music simply to share the beauty of music with the world, this was not usually the case. Publisher’s main purpose was to make money, and they did this by printing music that would sell. Minstrelsy was music that would sell, and a large way publishers caught the consumers eye was through cover art and using blackface to promote these minstrel tunes. 

Daniel Foster, of Duke University, believes that “because blackface relied increasingly on the publishing industry and the visual medium of sheet music, it also began to depend more on the eye, and because sheet music assumes a certain level of literacy and luxury, this reliance on the eye encouraged blackface’s growth as a middle-class phenomenon [2].” Foster believes minstrelsy was standardized and ritualized through the publishing industry. Publishing houses began making minstrelsy more accessible, and “some publishing houses even began to carry scripts that amateurs could order for putting on their own minstrel shows [2].”

A large amount of minstrel art was required to adorn these pieces of music. Below is just a sample of the large amount of blackface music I found [3][4]. The music is from multiple sources, including the Sheet Music Consortium and Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum. I also found a surprising number of this music up for auction on 

There are several similarities I noticed between the artwork. Most of the covers have a man on the front, either with only the face or with the man dancing in a top hat. The poses that the people are in are not flattering, and look unnatural or unpleasant (especially the ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No-Mo.’ piece). The titles use dialect, and mention stereotypical things such as “mammies,” the blues, and rag. I included “Big Chief Wally Ho Woo: he’d wiggle his way to her wigwam,” because I think it is important to note that these publishers were not only marginalizing/exoticising black people, but also Native Americans.

In my research I found it surprising that so many minstrel pieces were for sale on eBay- some songs sell for as much as $75.00. Clearly people are currently interested in buying and selling this music. Despite the changing views on racism and the fact that publishers do not print blackface anymore, consumer culture continues to live on.


[1] Reublin, Rick. “In Search of Tin Pan Alley.” The Parlor Songs Association, May 2009.

[2] Foster, Daniel. “Sheet Music Iconography and Music in the History of Transatlantic Minstrelsy.” Duke Press, Mar. 2009.

[3] Courtesy of the Sheet Music Consortium. University of California, Los Angeles.

[4] Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum. Ferris State University.



Slave Songs’ Journey Through Hollywood

“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord,

Nobody knows the trouble I see,

Nobody knows like Jesus”

Did you hear the tune in your heard as you read these lyrics? A tune that looks something like this?

This image is from the collection of songs, “Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies,” published in 1885 by H.B. Thearle. According to the introduction by Harry Hanaford, the songs in the collection “were not ‘composed’ after the manner or ordinary music, but came to life ready-made, seemingly during the working and singing on the plantation” and that they are “giving a truthful representation of the negro as he appeared in the days of slavery” 1

The image above is the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord,” the first song in the “Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies” book. Based on the introduction, this song is meant to be regarded as a slave song, a bit of history in musical form.

Although since then, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” has been taken to Hollywood, where it has been used in movies such as The Lion King. The Hollywoodization of this song, among others, has caused the songs to lose their original motivation and meaning.

For example, in this clip from The Lion King, Zazu sits in a carcass and sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” as he sits in captivity. After the first two lines, Scar throws a bone at Zazu and says, “Oh do lighten up, Zazu. Sing something with a little bounce to it,” to which Zazu humorously starts singing “It’s a Small World After All.” This scene is meant to be humorous and, although it’s an interesting parallel to slavery being that Zazu is in captivity, the fact that “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” is presented as a method for humor negates this parallel.

On the flipside, other movies such as “Twelve Years a Slave” have redefined some slaves songs back to their original meaning and motivation. For example, in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the song “Roll, Jordon, Roll” is used at what appears to be a funeral. It is often seen as the scene where the main character, Plat, gives in to his situation (being kidnapped and sold into slavery) and releases of all his emotions since his kidnapping. Unlike The Lion King, this clip uses music not for a laugh from the audiences, but to help demonstrate the situational pain.

According to Henry Krehbiel in his book “Afro-American Folksongs,” he would argue that only the movies that are reclaiming slave songs and using them to demonstrate situational pain are the appropriate space to use these songs. He writes that white, Western inhabitants lack “the emotionaol elements which existed in the slave life of the plantations in the South and which invited celebration in song—grace and gay.” 2

Although we can’t put a race on Zazu as he’s a bird, we can assume that he has not experienced the same trauma that, for example, Plat has in “Twelve Years a Slave” that would give Zazu the motivation to sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” therefore demonstrating how Hollywood has taken slave songs and shifted their motivation.


1 Thearle, H.B. Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies. University of Tennessee, 1885.

2 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves” in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1914), 11-28.

CornBugles. YouTube. Oct. 14, 2019.

MetaPhysicsalJesus. Youtube. Oct. 14, 2019.

Bam-a-Lam: The Confusion Behind Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”

Many people are well-aware of the classic rock one-hit wonder “Black Betty” by Ram Jam and its legacy in film, television, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture entertainment. Personally, I quite enjoy the song and I find it to have a great percussive groove and a catchy melody with some rather interesting rhythmic modulations and shifts. (Link below in case you may not be familiar with the song)

Ram Jam – Black Betty (Official Audio)

However, not many people might not be aware of its origins, especially in the context of black American music.  Ram Jam did credit the blues and folk artist Leadbelly for the origin of their cover and it was advertised as a cover, as can be seen by Richard Cromelin’s mixed review of Ram Jam’s concert at the Starwood in Los Angeles [1]:

[Here is Leadbelly’s version of Black Betty]

While Leadbelly has been typically credited as such, he cannot fully take credit for something he recorded as a folk artist, as Henry Edward Krehbiel argued that folk songs needed to be birthed originally by a group of people rather than an individual artist [2].  The source of the song is regularly contested as well as the original meaning of what a “Black Betty” could have been, whether it be an object or a person.  Some sources claim “Black Betty” could have been used as early as the beginning of the 19th century to describe a musket or a liquor bottle, and it is very plausible those could be meanings that would be applied to the Black Betty in the song.  One source I found particularly interesting was our favorite folk song collectors, John and Alan Lomax.

In their collection of songs of the Southern chain gangs, the Lomaxes documented “Black Betty” sung by “a convict on the Darrington Farm in Texas” and what they understood “Black Betty” was:

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about.  She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons… where […] whipping has been practically discontiuned…” [3]

Being that Leadbelly was also a member of Texas prison chain gangs, its very plausible that he learned the song and many others there, and there may also be a trail that could be investigated further into the musics of enslaved blacks in the US.  Therefore, this demonstrates a rather interesting transmission of music from a possible origin in slave songs to white musicians like Ram Jam.  They did manage to give credit to the artist who had a definitive recording, which I find to be at least somewhat conscious on their efforts as recording artists in the American popular music scene, but it should be worth noting the influence of black folk music that was felt as late as the 1970s and that we are likely still feeling today.


[1] Cromelin, “Ram Jam at the Starwood”

[2] Krehbiel, “Songs of the American Slaves,” 22

[3] J.A. Lomax, A. Lomax, “American Ballads & Folk Songs,” 60


Cromelin, Richard. “Ram Jam at the Starwood.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Nov 12, 1977. 1,

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves” in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1914), 11-28.

Lomax, John A., Lomax, Alan. “Songs from Southern Chain Gangs” in American Ballads & Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan Co., 1935), 57-86.

Black Shape Note Singers in a Baptist Church

The Puritan tradition of Sacred Harp singing has stayed in the back of my mind over the past few days. Particularly, the way it moved to Appalachia after avoiding reform in Plymouth Colony. But I wondered if any black musicians or congregations ever picked up on the shape note tradition.

After searching “Sacred Harp” in the Defender database, I was met with a 1973 advertisement for a performance produced by the Smithsonian’s Division of Performing Arts. The concert, presented in Chicago’s celebrated Auditorium Theatre, showcased folk artists from around the country including big names like Pete Seeger. Also featured on the line-up was “the Sacred Harp Singing Group”, a black shape note ensemble that called Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church its home.1

This summer, I spent a good amount of time reading through Defender articles that recounted some aspect of Chicago musical life from 1900-1930. One of the biggest takeaways was that churches in predominantly black communities became musical epicenters for a variety of genres. It was not uncommon for touring black musicians to make their Chicago debut in a church, or for sizable black music societies to hold their weekly meetings in one. Based on the reporting of Nora Douglas Holt2, Shiloh Baptist Church was one of these musical epicenters. The 1973 ad says that the tradition “thrives in the South in hundreds of churches and at informal get-togethers.”3

click the picture to hear “Recording of shape note singing convention at Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Churchon

Listen to this 1977 recording starting at about a minute in. This shape note recording has many similar elements to that of the Irish group we heard. Though, what’s especially interesting is the tone production. While the timbre is forward sounding in both, the tone in the Baptist Church recording sounds like it has been influenced by other styles. I wonder where the lineage of shape note singing fits into that of other religiously inspired music in black churches. Where were the first black shape note singers singing? And what can we learn from the history of Sacred Harp music in non-Puritan worship?

1 “Smithsonian Stages Folk Concert at Auditorium,” Chicago Defender, August 13, 1973, 11.

2 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 308.

3 “Smithsonian Stages Folk Concert at Auditorium”

What Makes Music Black?

What makes music black? Is it the performer? The composer? The performance style? While not many newspaper blurbs or display ads explicitly grapple with these questions, even seemingly innocuous clippings contribute to the conversation.

Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender.

A display advertisement from a 1973 issue of the Chicago Defender proclaims a “New Black Radio Alternative,” boasting that the station includes “All That Makes Up the Black Musical Experience.”1 This type of bold statement doesn’t tell us what makes music black, but it does validate our curiosity. The ad implies that there is such a thing as a universal “black musical experience” that can be neatly boxed and encapsulated. This very assumption is what prompts us to try to define black music. Many of the scholars we have read in class touch on this idea; for example, both Amiri Baraka and Samuel Floyd might agree that some black essence underlies black music, whatever it may be.2,3

Another short newspaper article in the Chicago Defender from just a few months prior to the radio advertisement espouses a similar belief in the existence of a quintessential “black experience.” In his short article, Earl Calloway discusses the fact that Columbia Records has just begun to record not only jazz, blues, and folk music, but also classical music by black composers. Calloway lauds these composers as having “dipped their pens into the core of the black experience and brought to surface ingenious creative music unlike any that exists today.” 4

Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender.

There’s a lot to unpack here. At the base level, Calloway reinforces the existence of a universal black experience that is somehow part of what defines “black music.” But he also complicates his portrayal of black music by creating a hierarchy. He implies that classical music by black composers is better than other music, especially the standard “black popular music” that has already been recorded for sixty years. Earlier in the article, he asserts that “many composers have taken ethnic ingredients and transformed their earthy rhythms and simple melodies into the more complex sonata form.”5
This almost implies that classical music by black composers transcends ordinary black music, which Calloway seems to dismiss as “simple” and “earthy.” It is unclear if Calloway would even directly consider music by Joplin, Coleridge-Taylor, or Price to be “black music,” or if he would think of it as white music composed by black artists. Such complications always lead us back to the question: What makes a music black?

Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.

We come full circle with another advertisement in a 1970 issue of Village Voice at Bowling Green State University. The ad is for a talk described as “A fine survey of black music in America,” given by Arnold Shaw, the author of a book called The World of Soul.6 This again hearkens back to Samuel Floyd’s argument that black music has some cultural memory, or soulfulness, at its heart.7 So is it this characteristic that defines black music? I don’t think this question, or any other concerned with defining black music, is one that can or should be answered definitively; however, it is certainly fascinating to see that even the most commonplace advertisements and articles contribute to both the asking and answering of these questions.

1 Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, page 19.

2 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

3 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

4 Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, page 10.

5 Ibid.

6 Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, page 6.

7 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, page 10.

Works Cited

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Hazel Scott: Swinging the Classics

Current music platforms such as Spotify certainly have their ups and downs, but rarely enough troubling side effects for most people to be deterred from utilizing their systems. One sweet serendipity of these platforms and their algorithms are the occasional chances in which they play something new and exciting that gets the listener interested and wanting to learn more. I found myself in a similar situation. After weeks of listening to stations devoted to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Etta James, I was introduced to Hazel Scott. 

When looking for more information about Scott, I came across countless advertisements and articles detailing various endeavors she made in a storied career. It is a shame I have not heard of her until now, and I ask the question: Why isn’t Hazel Scott consistently included with the names of influential African-American jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday? How does a woman buried near Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong get a smaller narrative in a music she helped create and popularize?

The answer appears to lie in the latter parts of her career. From sources gathered, we can see that Hazel Scott was a groundbreaking and often controversial artist. 

Newspaper article describing the resistance to Scott performing at Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital. One of the many instances that contributed to resistance to Scott’s success from white audiences and public figures.

Not only did Hazel Scott push racial boundaries in a racist country (requiring many spaces to integrate their stages for her and her popularity despite historical precedence of white-only performers), but later in her career Hazel Scott was vocal against the Cold War and much of the harmful anti-Communist sentiment prevalent in the country. Scott was even called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee along with several other performers and artists who spoke out.1

I will always remember the very first piece I heard Hazel Scott play: her Two Part Invention in A Minor. The piece begins with the opening strains of Bach’s own Invention in A Minor, but she quickly takes off into a jazzed up version which was a typical style of Hazel Scott’s. Her performance practice is often referred to as “swinging the classics”.

Take a look at the opening melodic material of Bach’s invention (just the first 20 seconds or so are important).

Now listen to what Hazel Scott has done with Bach’s melody. At about 0:56, she finishes the invention and takes off. You can hear the addition of a drum set in the background as well.

Hazel Scott took classical music that many educated audiences were familiar with and gave it an American spin. By infusing jazz, a relatively young creation of the American musical mind, Hazel Scott excited and entertained audiences in a country yearning for a unified identity in a time of unrest and worldwide war. Unfortunately, her activism and commitment to her values cost her career opportunities, and has since affected her memory and legacy in American jazz and popular culture.

Want to learn more? You can enjoy this mini-documentary about Hazel! I strongly encourage you to learn more about this performer (some tidbits: she was the first black American to host a national television show and first to get leading roles in Hollywood films). Also, you can reach out to me and I will point you in the direction of countless Youtube videos, albums, and Spotify playlists!

Primary Source

Defender, Washington Bureau. “Report Truman to Probe Ban Against Hazel Scott.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 13, 1945.

Secondary Source

Mack, Dwayne. “HAZEL SCOTT: A CAREER CURTAILED.” The Journal of African American History 91, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 153-170.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Payola in the 1960s

Fats Domino may have invented rock and roll, but Alan Freed made it a hit. Freed, a disk jockey, worked at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, when he realized that there was a demand for rhythm and blues music (or R&B) in the area. He would make his fame by playing and marketing R&B, blues, and country music under the name of “Rock and Roll”. He became immensely popular and built a career off of promoting black rock and roll musicians, including Paul Williams, Tiny Grimes, and the Dominoes.

 “Alan Freed, sometimes called the father of Rock N’ Roll, was charged with 26 counts in two informations. He was accused of accepting $10,000 from a recording company in 1958 and with taking bribes of $20,650 from six other companies in 1958 and 1959” (Chicago Defender, 28 May 1960).

In 1959, Freed and other disk jockeys were investigated by the House Committee on Legislative Oversight for their involvement with a system called payola. Payola is, essentially, when a radio station or disk jockey takes money or other illegal bribes in exchange for playing certain music over the radio without publicly stating that it is sponsored airtime. Through various loopholes and lack of oversight, Freed and other disk jockeys made a fortune through the exploitation of black musicians. In addition to cash bribes, Freed also committed payola in the form of being listed as a co-composer of certain songs so he could receive royalties checks from them.

“Payola was how you got your records played,” stated Marshall Chess, President of Chess Records. “It was how you did business… back then it was totally open. ‘You help me, and I’ll help you,’” (Alan Freed and Payola).

It’s the same issue we’ve run across with minstrelsy. What do we make of a system that simultaneously builds careers for black musicians, and grossly exploits them? On one hand, it is far more progressive than the system of minstrelsy in the sense that it gave black musicians a career that was not so much about the color of their skin than their music, but Freed and others still left them only scraps of their surplus value. Even though record companies cannot use payola anymore, there still exist schemes that exploit musicians (pay-to-play, for example),  so we need to keep asking these questions into the present day.


“Alan Freed and Payola” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Adam Matthew Digital. 2011. Web. Accessed 10 October 2019.

United Press International, “Arrest 5 Disk Jockeys Over Payola,” Chicago Defender. 28 May, 1960. Accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender. Accessed on 10 October 2019.

Does Music With Problematic Origins Deserve the Right to be Performed?

I would like to take a quick step back from minstrelsy to discuss a comment I made in our last class about cultural sharing. This past Tuesday, in conversation with the idea of people of European descent making up 1/3 of those who perform Taiko in the United States, I suggested that this type of cultural sharing would not be problematic if there were not a history of colonization in this country. This is an idealized notion that I recognize to be a trying if not nearly impossible task, that is, undoing those parts of colonization which have made people unequal. The reality, however, is that colonization is far more widespread in its aftermath than I could personally be able to explain and begin to combat individually.

Take this video my father sent me called, “White people Pow-Wow song “Going To A Pow-Wow” and really focus on the way it evokes particular emotions.

It’s pretty blatantly… cringey. It also makes me laugh due to the sheer lack of knowledge of Native Americans, well, anything. 

My point is, the people in this video are not engaged in cultural sharing because they have fetishized and created their own ideal version of what Native American culture and music should be. On the contrary, I would like to still believe that cultural sharing can be possible but it is the adoption of marginalized identities by a white-majority that remains the issue. 

For example, this department had an open dialogue last year sparked by the presence of Marti 

Newland on the topic of white students singing spirituals. With her guidance, we ultimately came to the conclusion that it was okay for white people to sing spirituals and specifically in dialect however the composition of spirituals by white composers was to be abandoned. This brings up the issue of authenticity and what race of composers are allowed to compose what and profit off of a marginalized culture. Tying this back into minstrelsy, I feel the need to point out that the ambiguity in whether or not we should give attention to songs that were created for racist purposes is an act of liberal violence. There is an essay by Gareth Griffiths titled, “The Myth of Authenticity” from the collection of essays he Post-Colonial Studies Reader, I have felt helpful in the discussion of what this blog is titled. Although Griffith is not speaking to an American experience, the fetishization and mystification of marginalized groups are applicable, in part, to the discussion on marginalized identities in the United States. The claim he makes is that even though an entity may be claiming to be “even-handed” in discussing two sides of a story between an oppressed group and their oppressors, the act of giving each truth equal weight is an act of “liberal violence” [1]. This mode of thought does not give proper weight to the constant fetishization, institutional racism, or a number of other societal factors that negatively impact a marginalized group yet we give outsider voices equal weight. Take from this what you will. 


Sources Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader London : Routledge, 1995.

Psychedelic Citizenship: From Hendrix to Kaepernick

Since studying it in AmCon, then again in AMST 301, I have been fascinated with Jimi Hendrix’ version of the Star Spangled Banner that he performed at Woodstock in 1969. This version of the national anthem is warped and distorted, a reflection of the political climate in America at the time. Coming out of the ‘50s, Americans in the early ‘60s believed they were in somewhat of a golden age. With the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and the struggle for Civil Rights, it became clear that the 1960s were not to be a golden age, after all. Hendrix’ version of this patriotic anthem is representative of a shifting idea of what it means to be an American and a patriot at a time in which our nation is fraught with so much disaster.

This New Yorker article claims that “Jimi Hendrix’s Rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ is more relevant than ever”, by linking Hendrix’ performance to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protests. This comparison is particularly important because of the nature of the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick protests the anthem, not in spite of his country, but in spite of an administration that he believes threatens the country that he loves. In this article, Hendrix’s political statement is deemed a “psychedelic citizenship,” meaning that Hendrix does not reject his country by performing such a warped version of the anthem, but rather that his performance emphasizes his American identity in his call for recognition of horrendous acts by Americans and American administration. By performing the anthem in such a way, in such a public place as well, Hendrix acknowledges himself as a patriot in his own right, one that acknowledges the down-fallings of his country while still “[acknowledging] the promise and potential of the nation.” This same statement applies to Kaepernick.

Though we can retrospectively view Hendrix’ Woodstock performance as a performance of “psychedelic citizenship,” like Kaepernick, this act did not go without criticism. In this article from the Berkeley Tribe in 1969, the same year of Hendrix’ performance, the author writes of the Anti-Riot act as an attempt by the government to silence backlash against atrocities committed by the administration.

In a similar vein to Kaepernick today, artists at this time were punished for using their platforms to critique the American government. While Hendrix was calling attention to the Vietnam war, Kaepernick brings to light the issue of police violence that plagues our nation. These protests are not against America as a nation, but rather the perversion of American and human values.


If you’re interested – for my final project for AMST 301, I made a found footage music video to Hendrix’ Woodstock rendition of the national anthem (which is too big to include here but I’d be happy to send it as a google drive link).



In class discussions, the topics of advertising someone based on their race has popped up in conversations multiple times. In our context, we’ve only mentioned this in design of literal records. This article shows the same affect taking place or at least reinforcing that idea with a Teen Life magazine article written by Elvis Presley where he talks about his music. The preface to the article states, “A young lad born in Mississippi and whose singular style of singing has skyrocketed him to fame in his own words tells the simple truths about how a star is born.”

The entire article from here on, tries to defend the “original style” that Elvis has made for himself. Elvis has become controversial in the past few years for his appropriation of music by black artists such as hound dog (originally recorded by Big Mama Thorton. He states in the article, “A lot of people ask me where I got my singing style. Well, I didn’t copy my style from anybody. I got nothing in common with Johnny Ray, except we both sing-if you want to call it singing” (citation). As a modern audience, we can all agree this is not true at all.
Through a simple search on YouTube, we can confirm that Elvis took music and musical styles from black artists such as Big Mama Thorton’s original performance of the song “Hound Dog”.

Teen Life Article

I doubt Elvis read the George Pullen Jackson we had to read for class and thought “Oh! Some of African American music comes from white countries, so it’s okay that I do this”.

Johnny Ray

I can only think of two answers to Elvis’ intentions when writing these words that contradict his actions. Either, he is a big fan of the works of George Pullen Jackson and believed the work to be his or due to multiple factors in the past decades, it was completely acceptable to just take work from black artists if you needed to support yourself and your family. In the article he focuses on how his success has helped him and his poor Mississippi family. Johnny Ray, a white singer who also borrowed from a lot of black artists, is the only one Elvis acknowledges might have a similar style.


-Presley, Elvis. “Elvis Tells You His Own Story in His Own Words.” Teen Life, Apri. 1959, pp. 15-15

-Yiannis/John. “Johnnie Ray.” Johnnie Ray, 1 Jan. 1970,

Popular Music and Moral Panic

I came across an article from the Chicago Defender by Oscar Saffold with a completely different topic in mind for my post.  The article describes a situation in which a white composer by the name of John Powell came up with a similar theory to George Pullen Jackson’s on the nature of spirituals. Using quotes from Krehbiel, H. T. Burleigh and other notable authors and composers, Saffold argues against these attempts to appropriate the history of the spiritual; however, I was struck by a quote at the end of the article that didn’t quite fit in.  “We only have to preserve them and discourage the tendency to set them to jazz.  They… should be spared this prostitution.” [1]  This confused me, as spirituals have a long history of being set in classical music; However, when you think about the reputation of early jazz at the time as a form of popular music, it is easier to understand why these classical critics and performers would be so adverse to it.

“Never before have such outrageous dances been permitted in private as public ballrooms, and never has there been used for the accompaniment of the dance such a strange combination of tone and rhythm as that produced by the dance orchestras of today.”[2]

Jazz wasn’t taken seriously as a form of music due to it’s function as popular dance music.  It was seen as an art which required less skill, was constantly compared to other genres and was predicted to die out relatively quickly.  Oftentimes the criticisms weren’t about the music itself but of racialized fears of a musical ‘other’.  Knowing how widespread and accepted jazz is now, some of these criticisms seem laughable.  Surely we can all appreciate the timelessness of this quote about early jazz: “Certainly if this music is in any way responsible for the condition and for the immoral acts which can be traced to the influence of these dances, then it is high time that the question should be raised: “Can music ever be an influence for evil?”[3]

Front cover featuring Elvis Presley, Teen Life, April 1957

From the days of early jazz to Elvis in the 1950’s, rock and roll in the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and even to rappers today, we can look back throughout history and see many instances of backlash against popular music for being a corrupting force of the youth.  We oftentimes look back and laugh, and ask what we were so afraid of; however, whenever anything new comes we keep on asking the question: Can music ever be an influence for evil?


  1. Saffold, Oscar E. “How American Folk Songs Started.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 25, 1933.
  2. Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History
  3. ibid

Works Cited:

Front cover featuring Elvis Presley, Teen Life, April 1957.

Saffold, Oscar E. “How American Folk Songs Started.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 25, 1933.

Walser’s Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History

What It Means to Be Black: A People and Their Music

“Beyond the obvious fact that you are black, is your music black music?”



“To answer that, I’m going to give you a brief musical background of myself.”1

Excerpt of Isaac Hayes’ interview in The Los Angeles Free Press1

So begins an excerpt from an interview of the “black superstar” Isaac Hayes from a 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, in which Hayes discusses the blackness of not only his music, but himself. He recounts hearing a “hillbilly sort of country & western” music in his early childhood before hearing any swing or other black music. In addition to this, he went through many other phases, including multiple classical music phases, and only after that started learning jazz, while also singing gospel in church. He concludes:

“So I wouldn’t say I’m black. Sure I’m a member of the black race, and I can relate to black experiences. But musically, you have a fusion of cultures. You’ve got Africa in it, you’ve got Europe in it, you’ve got Latin America, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got pop, you’ve got country & western, you’ve got it all.” 1

This could be seen as a quite liberating view of a black musician’s music—almost transcending race, identifying aspects of his music that are grounded in many traditions. However, Hayes also takes the interesting step of applying this back to his race: “I wouldn’t say I’m black.” Being racially black and having black experiences isn’t enough to be black in the larger sense, which in Hayes’ view seems to include something more. When asked what he would “classify as pure black music,” he points to “songs expressing the black experience in the ghetto . . . that’s black music.”1 So if he made that kind of music, would he be more black? This, to me, is a surprisingly narrow view of what it means to be black.

Beginning of letter in The Chicago Defender2

A letter in a 1965 issue of the Chicago Defender reflects a related view: “Attending a recital of a Negro singer in Orchestra Hall, recently, I was amazed, disappointed and hurt, to note, that she did not include in her program, any Negro spirituals.” The letter then gives examples of musicians who “wrote many manuscripts telling of our 300 years of sorrow,” but argues that now “integration and acceptance of a few, on their way to the heights, is making them forget the ‘depths from which we have come.’”2

This is not arguing that one must perform a certain music to be fully black, but rather that being black necessitates the performance of a certain music. It makes a compelling argument for black musicians to remember their history, but how much must the music one performs be rooted in their history? If black people must absolutely perform “black” music, this forges a link between the musician and their music that leads back in the direction of Hayes’ idea of black music and its connection to black identity. There can be clear benefits to connecting identity with music, but to connect them in such a way that one cannot exist without the other risks whittling them both down to an essence that fails to adequately represent either.

1 Van Ness, Chris. “Isaac Hayes: Superstar behind the soundtrack for Shaft.” The Los Angeles Free Press, Jan 14, 1972.

2 Ruth, Smith McGowan. “Reader Disappointed when Singer Omits Negro Spirituals.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 06, 1965.

“Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft (1971).” YouTube video, 4:39, posted by Alamo YTC Germany, Oct 7, 2012,

White Choirs Singing Spirituals

On January 28th, 1956, famous poet Langston Hughes wrote an article for the Chicago Defender titled “Concerning the Singing of Spirituals Today.” 


Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an American poet, writer, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, whose texts have been set to music in over 200 songs (1). He wrote a column every week for the Chicago Defender, a popular black newspaper, where he “chose the pen to convey the suffering and dreams of his people” (2).


In this article, Hughes argues that intent is imperative when singing negro spirituals, specifically for people whose ancestors were never slaves. He states:


“When the spirituals came into being one of the trials and tribulations, frustrations and bewilderments of slavery, they must have had an intense and immediate meaning for the people who made them up and who sang them out of their hearts in the dark hours of bondage…In the days when slaves had neither freedom nor doctors, song must have been a great factor in soothing the wounds of flesh and soul” (3).


Hughes believes that spirituals are integral to meaningful concerts; they have more power compared to other songs in captivating the audience and fostering a universal sense of love and healing. Even when singers do not understand the meaning behind them, spirituals still retain this inherent power.


However, as Hughes acknowledges, many listeners held issue with hearing white choirs sing spirituals. Hughes describes, “The spiritual may easily become the mark of the stereotype – the ever singing Negro” (3). Nonetheless, Hughes believes that once a song is sung, the “song is freed as it is sung..for friend or foe to enjoy impartially. Like all the common gifts of God or nature…the songs may then belong to anyone” (3). There will always be singers who demean and depreciate the music they sing, and who sing for reasons other than their personal joy, but those who invest time and effort in learning the history behind spirituals are fully capable of singing spirituals in a meaningful way.

Hughes advises singers who wish to perform spirituals to consult the works of black poets and scholars. Singers shouldn’t only learn the spirituals on their concert program; rather, they should learn many of the greatest spirituals, and choose which ones having meaning for them. White singers “may unintentionally make of their singing of these songs “stereotypes,” not by design, but simply through immaturity or lack of understanding…When they are sung purely for entertainment…then a little minor crime is committed” (3).

Question still remains nowadays as to whether all choirs should sing spirituals. The St. Olaf Choir, directed by Anton Armstrong, programs several spirituals on all of its concerts. 

Here is an example of them singing “Ride On King Jesus,” arranged by Moses Hogan, on their 2017 tour:

Here is another example of a predominantly white choir singing a spiritual, titled “Keep Your Lamps”:


Anton Armstrong instructs singers in the St. Olaf Choir to sing the words to “Ride On King Jesus” in the dialect slaves would’ve used at the time the song was written. The choir uses darkened vowels, says “da” instead of “the,” and “hinda” instead of “hinder,” to give a few examples. This choir’s performance differs from the Bishop Shanahan High School performance, who sings Keep Your Lamps at an upbeat and exciting tempo and makes no change in how they pronounce the words of the song. While I cannot give a definitive opinion as the rights white people have over singing traditionally black music, I think that being sensitive to pronunciations and the history of the songs is important.


  1. Brown, R.  (2001). Hughes, (James Mercer) Langston. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2019, from
  2. The Helix, Volume V , Volume 5 – Issue 9 – 12 12 1968 , 1968 – 1969 © Bowling Green State University
  3. Hughes, L. (1956, Jan 28). Concerning the singing of spirituals today. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from

Keeping it “real”: Spirituals as the authentic American music

Article from the Chicago Defender (April 22, 1933)

When German motion picture star Dorothy Welkes arrived in the US in April 1933, she was excited to hear the sonic landscape of America. Specifically, she longed to hear “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes.” Upon the fulfillment of this wish, she remarked that she believed spirituals “represent the real American music.”

This brief clipping from the Chicago Defender is only three paragraphs long, but there’s a fair amount to process. The fact that spirituals were gaining international acclaim is significant, particularly since the discussion about its origins (and thus by implied extension, legitimacy) was long from over. Furthermore, that a German celebrity would prioritize black music at the brink of racist totalitarianism under Hitler’s regime is significant and could be examined as an act of defiance. Even designating it as the “real” American music is amazing; while now we take it for granted that gospel and spirituals are a valuable part of the American sonic scene, defenses of African American music making as a legitimate field continued for decades after with writers such as Amiri Baraka.

The Southernaires (Ray Yeates, Lowell Peters, Jay Stone Toney, William Edmonson, and Spencer Odom)

Of course, the idea that any type of American music can be more “real” or “authentic” than another is questionable. Welkes’ insistence on hearing “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes” belies a level of exoticism and desire to view and examine black bodies in a commercial environment. In this sense then, the performers (in this case the musical group the “Southernaires,” not to be confused with the “Jackson Southernaires”) were forced to perform blackness for a white witness.  Although no black-face was used, her desire for “authenticity” is reminiscent of the “fear of and fascination with the black male” Eric Lott outlines in regards to minstrelsy.[1]

Section of the Decca Numerical Catalog ca. 1950 from the Popular Culture in Britain and America Database

In his chapter “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City,” Ray Allen describes how the Southernaires emerged out of the black university tradition pioneered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group was formed in 1929 and quickly gained acclaim for their national radio show “The Little Weather-Beaten Whitewashed Church” which featured traditional spirituals, secular southern folk songs, sermons, recitations, and guest speakers. They went on to record a number of records with label Decca, although these were never as successful as their radio show. While I faced a surprising amount of trouble in procuring information about this group, Allen asserts their importance by stating:

“The Southernaires’ smooth, barbershop harmonizing and rhythmic arrangements of spirituals undoubtedly influenced many black vocal groups of the 1930s and early 1940s, and introduced white radio audiences to the magnificent black university style of quartet singing.”[2]


The context provided by Allen raises new questions about the appropriateness of Welkes’ request. Her language certainly emphasizes their otherness in the context of her own whiteness, but their agreement to perform makes sense in the context of their commercial careers. As radio performers, they already had little control over who could listen to their music, and indeed the article shares that Welkes had already heard their broadcast. The significance thus lies in the choices made by Welkes and the author of the article when speaking about the event. The act of performance was itself not problematic, but Welkes’ word choice betrays her biases, giving us key insights into the psyche of the white observers of black sound.

[1] Eric Lott, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

[2] Ray Allen, “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, 26.


Works Cited

Allen, Cleveland G. “GERMAN SCREEN STAR PREFERS ‘SPIRITUALS’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition). Chicago. 22 April 1933.

Allen, Ray. “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

“Decca Numerical Catalog, circa 1950.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. From Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Lott, Eric. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

“Southernaires ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen’ Decca 2859 (1939).” Published 20 November, 2014.


Stealing our stuff!

For this week’s blog post I have chosen a spirited article, or what I personally categorize as more of an opinion piece, from the February 19, 1966 edition of The Chicago Defender. Encyclopædia Britannica describes The Chicago Defender as “the most influential African American newspaper during the early and mid-20th century”[1]. With a national target audience, it played a vital role in the migration of African Americans from the South to the northern states.

The article is written by Baptist preacher and professor emeritus at Virginia Union University, Gordon Blaine Hancock (1884–1970)[2]. The son of two African American former slaves from South Carolina, he was an avid spokesperson for the Afro American cause the generation before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, often linking activism with education[3].

The article in question is candidly titled “Whites Constantly Steal from Negro”[4]. He begins with a call to arms of sorts:

He then goes on to describe how the religious practices of the south, what he calls the “Negro style” with “Negro Patterns”, have been adapted by white people. He continues with connecting preaching to music and music culture:

In the rest of the article he gives examples of genres and styles like tap-dancing, jazz, ragtime, and crooning. White culture popularizes the negro patterns. [They are] “Stealing our stuff!” he exclaims.  You can clearly sense Handcock’s frustration, especially when it comes to the financial gain that comes with the success of these genres, albeit a polished version to fit into white, bourgeoisie aesthetics and expectations. Despite the despair he seems to emit he ends on a somewhat positive note:


Hancock’s reaction is not completely incomparable to sentiments uttered in the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation, specifically when it comes music.

Although Hancock’s tone is very direct, in a political and academic climate such as that which Hancock had experienced up until 1966, we can understand why he resorts to a strong retaliation. Faced with inadequately researched, generalizing and populist scholarship and having to confront the likes of George Pullen Jackson, one can understand Hancock’s plea. His article expresses what I interpret as both despair and fear; The fear of losing one’s culture, one’s history, one’s music – an apprehensiveness very much shared with African Americans today, as well as other marginalized groups.

Primary Sources:

Hancock, Gordon B. “Whites Constantly Steal from Negro.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 19, 1966. [Accessed October 9th, 2019]

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Their life span and kinship” (1943). J. J. Augustin Publisher, New York.

Secondary Sources:

Gavins, Raymond. “Gordon Blaine Hancock (1884–1970).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 May. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2019 [Accessed October 9th, 2019

“Chicago Defender”. Encyclopædia Britannica, July 11, 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.  [Accessed October 9th, 2019]

[1] “Chicago Defender” 2019

[2] Gavins 2014

[3] ibid

[4] Hancock 1966

Williams and Walker: From Minstrelsy and Beyond

American audiences at the turn of the twentieth century loved watching performances that had a sense of authenticity. White Americans viewed blackness as the most authentic form of cultural expression, while the nation was still whirling with the lasting effects of minstrelsy. Black performers and musicians used America’s fascination with the “other,” authenticity, and minstrelsy to their advantage. Among these black performers, are the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker that used their race and talent as a marketing tactic to increase their cultural value, further their careers, and deliver the authenticity Americans craved while paving the way for other black musicians.

When Bert Williams met George Walker in 1893, they were very amused with watching white actors in blackface try to act natural on stage and dub themselves as “coons.” Walker remarks “We thought that as there seems to be a great demand for for black faces on stage, we would do all we could do to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature.” 1 Billing themselves as “the two real coons,” the duo headed to New York surrounding themselves with talented members of their race, such as H.T. Burleigh among other recognizable names. With a show behind their name, Williams and Walker were able to put a premium on cakewalk. In 1903, the duo debuted their show Dahomey, at the New York Theater and the first black, comedy musical on Broadway. Below is a poster for the show’s most famous song.

An advertisement of the song “I’m a Jonah Man” From Dahomey.

The show was widely successful, making a tour in Europe for the future King of England, Edward the VIII. William and Walker did not emphasize the ragtime rhythms and coon song stereotypes that dominated their field, nor the exaggerated, high kneed cakewalk. Instead, they demonstrated how smooth, beautiful, and sensational it could be. Additionally, jokes the pair made were not targeted at race differences as seen by the white minstrels, but by universal situations or characters like a “downtrodden” everyone could laugh at.2 They pitched their “real blackness” at audiences to draw crowds to an authentic “black style.” The duo danced a middle ground between thunderous applause and being thrown off the stage solely for being black by their audiences. Below, is a review by the New York Times after one of their shows.

New York Times, Feb 19, 1903.


Even though both actors were black, Williams wore blackface to make his skin even darker. Perhaps by putting on blackface, he was, in a way controlling minstrelsy and taking ownership of its racial representations. Through their performances, the pair crafted their own claims to racial identity and black culture while also creating quality content that would circulate Tin Pan Alley at a wide audience. Through their efforts, the pair helped audiences recognize negro talent that carved pathways with lasting effects. In 1940 for example, Duke Ellington recorded “A Portrait of Bert Williams” as a tribute. With minstrelsy’s dark beginnings, William and Walker saw an opportunity to change the way audiences thought about race and entertainment that has had lasting effects, making them a couple well deserved to have a blogpost written about.

Hymns: The Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

During the Civil Rights Movement, hymns were used by protestors, white and black alike, as a unifying, peaceful statement. Time and time again, protestors chose to arm themselves with hymns, which is evident in write-ups like the ones below from the Chicago Defender.




These peaceful protests appear to have been so prevalent in the mid-1960’s that they were given their own nickname— “hymn-singing meetings.” I found myself asking the question, “Why hymns?” How did a whole genre of music rise to unify the movement? Why not African American spirituals, or another genre?

An argument could be made that the protestors chose to sing hymns because of their religious significance. The Civil Rights movement, was, after all, based upon largely Biblical ideas (such as loving your neighbor as yourself, and suffering on earth for an eternal reward). The protestors could relate to Jesus who was being sung of in the hymns, such as Jesus Paid It All. He was the minority in a violent government, and He suffered and died a criminal’s death, even though He was innocent. Jesus’ life was a parallel to what many black people were experiencing in the 1960s. They were innocent people suffering and dying in criminal ways. The following excerpt comes from an account of a white man who went into prison to stand in solidarity with innocent black men who were imprisoned.



Hymns also provided a sense of hope for the protestors. Songs like Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome demonstrated that they were fighting for a cause larger than themselves, and that they can remain hopeful through the struggles of the present.

While religious motivations and hopeful outlooks played a role in hymn-singing, I don’t believe these were the only reasons hymns became the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement. I believe protestors chose to sing hymns because both white and black people found a home-like comfort in singing them side-by-side with fellow protestors. Both groups of people found identity within these tunes. Hymns have roots in aspects of both “white” and “black” culture. Even though these two groups brought very different experiences to the protests, both found a feeling of familiarity from singing these tunes. Amidst the tumultuous times they were living in, hymns unified the individuals’ struggle into a powerful whole.



[1] “Protest Ariz. Bias.” 1963.Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Jul 30, 6.

[2] “N. C. Students Protest Bias on Capitol Steps.” 1960.Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Mar 15, 3.

[3] “Arrest 52 of 400 Hymn-Singing Sit-Ins Protesting Mich. Bias.” 1963.Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Sep 19, 8.

[4] “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) 1960-69.” Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) 1960-69, n.d.

Black Music and Religiosity: One and the Same or Just Friendly Relatives?

When asking American music students to name a distinctly Black style of music, most will jump onto the term “Spiritual,” or even “Negro Spiritual” if they feel the need to be more precise (as though we ever refer to sacred songs by White composers are “White Spirituals”).  This shows some kind of link between Black music that has been made popular in the Western Canon and the Christian faith.  Are all instances of Black music in the historical canon from the Spiritual tradition?  Or is that just our personal biases and preferences creeping in.

I’m sure you can tell by the way I phrased it that the answer is no, since of course not every instance of Black art music comes from a background of Spirituals.  Only a Sith would deal in such absolutes.  What may be more accurate to ask is why we have formed such a close tie between Black music and Black spirituality, and what makes that tie different.  Even Black newspapers seem to make this connection, with the Chicago Defender titling an article “Presents Black Music” (Oct 11, 1975) to describe a church’s choral program’s opening concert featuring exclusively spirituals and hymns written by Black composers.

There is no qualifier in the Article’s title, but it does go on to specify it is a concert of “Sacred Music.”  So why is it referred to as “Black music” and not “Sacred Music” or “Black Sacred Music.”  If it were a concert of only white sacred music, it would simply be called something vaguely inspiring with a Bible verse with no reference to race.

This must indicate some subconscious association with Blackness and Spirituality, perhaps best exemplified by a well-meaning, but woefully ignorant, lady in my church choir, saying, “Those Blacks sing so well because they put the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – oh I’m sorry I mean the Holy Ghost as they call it – in every note.”  It is certainly a pervasive concept in our collective consciousness that Black singers excel at being Spiritual, but our acknowledgement of the excellence of Black singers in other regards have nothing to do with their race.  When we talk about Lawrence Brownlee, his race and spirituality stay out of it until someone brings up his performance of Spirituals.

I’ll only posit one possible reason, since I am no expert on cultural consciousness and race, but I have seen quite a bit.  Spirituals and Slave Songs (which are almost always sacred in some regard) were among the first types of Black music to become truly popular.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers in particular helped with that becoming the first American ensemble to tour internationally, bringing an entirely sacred style of singing to the world.  I would argue that since then, our ability to separate Blackness from Spirituality has diminished greatly.  This may have nefarious purposes in stereotyping Black people as overly emotional or passionate, but could just be an honest inability to separate from our initial impression (this phenomenon is called Reference Dependence in Behavioral Economics, and plays a huge role in your willingness to pay certain prices for certain items).

Identity and Music in the 1968 Chicago Protests

In the following video from the Popular Culture in Britain and America database, several different scenes are depicted from the protests surrounding the Democratic Party Convention of 1968, when Hubert Humphrey beat out anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy for the presidential nomination (1). The protests and Convention took place in Chicago, and the protests were led almost exclusively by students. It’s kind of remarkable that, much like the history of minstrelsy, many of the events of these protests have vanished from the country’s collective memory. There were extreme shows of police brutality and repression of the free press, and yet like so much history that is distasteful, it is rarely taught or discussed.


Depicted left: a protester’s sign, which says,

“Get troops out of Chicago, Black America, Vietnam NOW! Stoners Against War and Fascism” (2)


While this video has very poor sound quality and jumps around a great deal, one of the things that I noticed was that it featured very little of the Black America mentioned in the sign, with the exception of the brief shot beginning at time 8:54 and ending at about 9:23. In this clip, although the audio does not line up with the video, you can hear someone drumming and leading a call and response and a group of “African American people dancing to music and chanting,” as the database description says. This is our only taste of one of the major features of the anti-war and countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s – protest music.

Watch the video here: http://

Black musicians and their music featured prominently in the anti-war movement – especially folk musicians, although there were many rock and roll musicians as well. Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the all-white folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary are just a few of the most famous musicians who wrote protest music during this time (3).

This struggle against widespread violence is just a continuation of the history we have been learning about in class. Like with every other genre or group of people we have discussed, music has an important role to play in both representing a movement or group to the rest of the world and in moving events forward in its own way. In protest music, this is by being a platform for viewpoints to be shared and by being a unifying force for those who hold the same (or similar) views. Protest music pushes on people’s conception of right or wrong, and thereby identity within those norms, in their society by working through stigmatized forms and symbols – in the Vietnam protests, these included connections to the Civil Rights movement and use of rock and roll and drugs (see Stoners Against War and Fascism, pictured above).

Works Cited:

  1. Editors of “Protests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”, A&E Television Networks, 21 July 2010,
  2. Huntley Film Archives. “Anti-Vietnam War Protests in Chicago during the Democrat Party Convention, August 1968.” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, Adam Matthew, 2011,
  3. Lindsay, James M. “The Twenty Best Vietnam Protest Songs.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 Mar. 2015,

George Beverly Shea: Crusader and Gospel Singer

Billy Graham was a remarkably powerful Evangelical preacher who fostered a rebirth in Christian enthusiasm post-WWII. This movement was led through effective media appearances and “crusades” in which Graham’s organization would rent out stadiums or other large spaces to host elaborate religious services for crowds in the tens-of-thousands. An important component of these services was the musical prelude to Graham’s sermon. The Chicago Defender1 reported on a 1962 Chicago Crusade in which George Beverly Shea, the famed soloist for Graham’s services is honored as a hometown hero.

Shea and Graham

George Beverly Shea was born in Canada in 1909, and after moving to the U.S. he eventually began a career which captivated radio, TV, and festival audiences. Shea’s popstar-adjacent promotional opportunities and close personal ties with Billy Graham led to consistent performances intertwined with religious power. The Evangelical church has since been known for savvy music marketing, George Beverly Shea likely being an early example.

“As an imitation of contemporary secular music and fashion, contemporary Christian music bolstered the identity of young evangelicals who feared being alienated from their peers because of their religious faith. At the same time, however, by its incessant promotion of media consumption, the contemporary gospel industry subtly affirmed American materialism..” – William Romanowski2

In a 1970 edition of the music magazine “SuperStars” on Johnny Cash3, this image of Johnny Cash and Billy Graham is captioned “Johnny and Dr. Billy Graham discuss possibility of joint appearance in Tennessee” as the two talk closely. Cash and Graham were known to be close friends throughout their lives, and Cash performed at multiple “crusade” concerts.

Cash and Graham

Music, religion, and power have always been closely intertwined in America, but the marketing of religion alongside popular music is something relatively new. George Beverly Shea, Johnny Cash, and their relationship to Billy Graham as advocates for Christianity while still being working musicians with wide audiences adds another layer of market segmentation. While Shea was firmly a gospel performer, Cash is remembered as a country singer yet they still benefitted from the same audiences. At what point did Evangelical music blend into mainstream performance and at what point did it become hard to hear the difference?

Portrayal of Women in Rock and Folk Music

For this week’s blog post I found an article from Rock magazine that was published in 1972. The article “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”, written by Toby Goldstein, depicts the music and backgrounds of artists Sandy Denny and Merry Clayton.  The characterization of these two female artists by the male author helps to expose the one-dimensional ways in which the world viewed women in music at the time of the article’s publication.

The ways that Goldstein portrays them is very much as if he is trying to make the point that women can have personalities and depth, as if the default is to think that they do not. About Denny he continuously mentions her range, “In one hour, it is not surprising for Sandy Denny to sing ballads, a Dylan tune, some old-time rock‘n’roll, and even acapella with the band” (Goldstein). Of course the variety of the artist is of interest to potential listeners, but I feel the emphasis of his writing is on how surprising it is that she does this, not commending her musicianship and versatility. The same is done for Merry Clayton, describing her work in an admirable way, but also demeaning her in the same sentence. Goldstein states that “Merry Clayton is a woman possessed to work” (Goldstein). Although this is a compliment of sorts, a man with an identical work ethic would simply be described as “dedicated”, not “possessed”, as that word implies that there is some other force propelling her success other than her own practice and talent.

Another way in which Goldstein could’ve represented the women better was the order of the features of the artists within the article. He features Denny for about 90% of the first page, only getting to Clayton right before the page break. Although this is just a layout issue, I feel that Clayton should have been highlighted first, as her name is alphabetically before Denny’s. Mainly, I find issue with this because Clayton is a black woman, and is already facing more push-back in the music industry than Denny. This issue is more excusable, as in 1972 it was very significant to have a black woman featured in a rock magazine at all, but Goldstein could’ve helped to break down barriers more quickly had he put Clayton’s section first, in order for readers to learn about her work before they lose interest in the article, as many read magazines in a style likened to channel-surfing.

These critiques are of rather small details within the article, but the truth of the matter is that is far better that this article was written than not having it at all. From a modern standpoint, it is easy to pick out flaws in the author’s writing, but the intent and outcome of the article is still overall positive.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Toby. “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”. Rock, vol. 3- issue 16, March 1972, pp. 5-6.

The Evolution of “We Shall Overcome:” from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter

On April 4th, 2011, in Madison, WI, Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at a rally honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At 0:15 in the video below, Rev. Jackson begins singing (and encouraging others to sing) the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” a song that has now become an anthem that is frequently sung at anti-racist rallies and marches, specifically those associated with Black Lives Matter.

This isn’t the first time a movement has used “We Shall Overcome” as a protest song. In September 1963, the Chicago Daily Defender published an article titled, “’We Shall Overcome’ New Negro ‘Anthem.’”

The first sentence of the article reads:

“’We Shall Overcome,’ the theme song of American’s militant Negro, is rapidly becoming the new Negro National Anthem.” 1.

The article continued explaining how this song had been used for decades, but was popularized in relation to race with the invention of the television and radio; after these inventions, the song was heard every time the Civil Rights Movement was on the air.

“We Shall Overcome” became such a staple for the Civil Rights movement that songbooks  were created using the title as their own. The following is an advertisement from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee magazine in 1964, based out of University of California, Berkeley, for a songbook called “We Shall Overcome,” which is full of various protest songs to encourage peaceful protest in the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

However, it didn’t start as a protest song. The piece was originally a gospel song, composed by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley in 1900.  Interestingly enough, the lyrics that are popular today (as well as in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement) were written by a white musician, Pete Seeger. Seeger was not only a songwriter, but an activist, and worked to popularize “We Shall Overcome” by teaching the song at rallies and protests. It could be said that Seeger is one of the main reasons “We Shall Overcome” is such an icon for anti-racism protests across the country.

In the 21stcentury, activists criticize “We Shall Overcome,” as it never specifies when this action will occur. A Black Lives Matter activist, Zellie Imani, attended a protest after the fatal shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old African American boy named Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014. He recalls Rev. Jackson, the same singer from the video I started with, tried to encourage protesters to sing “We Shall Overcome.” This time, however, he was unsuccessful.

“The song doesn’t tell us when we shall overcome. It is saying that we will overcome someday. And what we in the streets wanted, we wanted justice now,” Imani states in an article for CNN. 3

Instead of “We Shall Overcome,” people started chanting Kendrick Lamar’s “(We Gon’ Be) Alright,” reflecting a shift in the change of attitude towards the outcomes: no more is it about overcoming, but about igniting change, which this video does with it’s images of police shooting and fires, among other images.

And his concerns don’t even address the fact that we use a white musician’s words in “We Shall Overcome.” While Seeger was an activist and white ally to the Civil Rights Movement, using his words could be taking away from Rev. Tindley. In an extreme interpretation, it could even be seen as a method of taking the song and claiming as a white invention, similar to how George Pullen Jackson takes African American spirituals and folksongs in his book White and Negro Spirituals, molding the songs to attempt to persuade readers that these folksongs have white roots and are, therefore, white songs.4 Again, it is extreme, but why are we using a white songwriter’s lyrics for songs about promoting racial change?

As generations change, as do the wants and desires for equality. Maybe in the 1960’s, it was about overcoming, making “We Shall Overcome,” the appropriate song to sing. But maybe now, it’s about more than overcoming; maybe now, it’s about protesting inequality and promoting change. With that, maybe it’s time to change protest songs.


(1) Potter, Dave. “‘We Shall Overcome’ New Negro ‘Anthem’.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Sep 17, 1963.

(2) “Record, Songbook Available from SNCC.” Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (1961-1972), Feb 11, 1964.

(3) Hare, Breeanna. “This is what protest looks like.” (Oct 8, 2019).

(4) Jackson, George Pullen. “White and Negro Spirituals.” JJ. Augustin Publisher, New York. 1943.

(5) KendrickLamarVEVO.”Alright.” Youtube, Oct. 8, 2019.

(6) Tona Williams. “Rev. Jesse Jackson “We Shall Overcome” Madison, WI April 4, 2011 (union solidarity).” Youtube, Oct. 8, 2019.

Brer Rabbit and Operation Freedom

Brer Rabbit with Brer Fox

Eileen Southern, a professor at Harvard University, explains that slaves in the southern United States “engaged in ‘swapping tales’, and singing songs, particularly about Brer Rabbit and his animal friends […]. The Slaves sang about the adventures of animals and about the experiences of their Biblical heroes, but not about themselves. It may well be that the simple, unvarying routines of slave-life precluded the development of a song type dependent upon the adventures of a hero or heroine [1].” Leslie Ruth argues Brer Rabbit stories, “have communicated the values and experiences of enslaved Africans and of indigenous African American culture. Brer Rabbit stories are a projection of the slave’s personal experiences, dreams and hopes, and reveal more about slave culture than… whole books on slavery by experts […]. In these stories, Brer Rabbit, an accomplished musician, songster, and dancer, successful lady’s man, skilled farmer, and shrewd strategist, engages in struggles with adversaries, such as Brer Wolf and Brer Fox, as well as conflicts with friends, such as Brer Possum and Brer Squirrel [2].” He is a symbol of how the little one can get the best of those stronger than himself. What I would like to examine is how the Brer Rabbit stories, with their ideas of protecting the small and weak against the big and powerful, relate to Fayette County’s Operation Freedom movement in the year of 1962. 

Operation Freedom was an organization who truly embodied the idea of protecting the weak against the powerful. It was an organization which provided emergency funds to “thousands of people in the south- people both black and white who [took] a stand for justice and [found] themselves faced with starvation because those in power want[ed] to drive them out. It [was] a weapon for people in the freedom struggle; it [was] a way of helping individuals who [were] under attack so they [could] continue to fight [3].”  I discovered a pamphlet for Operation Freedom in which Fannie Lou Hamer urges people to donate money for the cause. The pamphlet includes first-hand accounts of what people were going through during the tumultuous 1960s. 

The pamphlet talks about a “tent city” that has been set up in Fayette County, Tennessee. It was a place where people lived who had forcibly been cast out by their employer- landowners. The people had no land to live on, and no place to plant crops. The few African American families who owned their own farms were also unable to plant crops because they were not allowed to borrow money to buy seed, fertilizer, and other necessities while the crops were growing. Operation Freedom provided floors for the tents, replaced broken tents, and financed a well. The organization also tried to help farmers buy land and farm equipment- donating over $42,000 to 95 people in 1960. 

Despite their efforts, Operation Freedom had many obstacles against them. Many of the evictions that led to the tent cities were directed toward black people who had registered to vote. The pamphlet claims “White citizens councils and similar groups, which last year had compiled names of registered negroes and circulated them to bankers, merchants, doctors, now developed a new strategy- that of trying to reduce the Negro population. So, eviction notices are being given to Negroes who have not registered, as well as those who have [3].” In an article by the Chicago Defender [4]:

Basic needs like medical and dental care were being denied to the black community- and people were often forced to go to Memphis (a distance of 40-50 miles with no means of transportation)- even in emergency situations.

When I discover what took place in Fayette County, I was shocked and deeply saddened. It is disheartening to think just how recently this situation occurred, and it makes sense as to why the stories of Brer Rabbit are so relevant to the African American community. Leslie Ruth believes Brer Rabbit’s tricks are basically “’survival strategies’ of an enslaved people exposed to violence, injustice, and arbitrary judgment, and tricks assault Western Christian sanctioned morals in that ‘the characteristic spirit of these tales was one not of moral judgement but of vicarious triumph’ [2].” I imagine survival was constantly on the minds of the people in these tent cities.

In the Chicago Defender, there is a message of hope- it seems as though many people thought what was happening in Fayette County was wrong. The article ends by saying “a whole community is being driven to desperation, to economic ruin and the Governor of the state does nothing about it. He is either a party to the conspiracy to drive the negro voters out of Fayette county, or his political commitments have dulled his sense of responsibility. The federal government of Fayette county should declare this troubled county of Tennessee a disaster area and institute at once the measures of relief. This, at least, would show that the boycott would have no stamp of approval in Washington [4].”

At the root of Brer Rabbit and Operation Breakthrough is a message of hope, and the Chicago Defender confirms this hope. Throughout the stories of Brer Rabbit, there is a constant theme of fighting against the big and powerful. This is mirrored in what we see with Operation Breakthrough’s efforts and the Chicago Defender’s efforts to support evicted and ballot-less African Americans. All three of these writings should encourage us to stand up for the weaker man, speak out when something is not right, and support the people around us regardless of their race.  


[1] Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

[2] Leslie, A. R. (1997). Brer rabbit, a play of the human spirit: Recreating black culture through brer rabbit stories. The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 17(6), 59-83.

[3] Operation Breakthrough. “Action for Freedom,” 1962.

[4] The Boycott in Fayette County. (1960, Jul 16). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967).

Minstrelsy in the News

The primary source that I looked into for today was a republication of an article from the Little Rock Gazette from the year 1880. It was actually printed in the Topeka Tribune which claimed to be the sole colored publication in the state of Kansas. The title read, “A Prodigy In The Pulpit. A Boy Who Creates a Sensation by Preaching Lorenzo Dow’s Sermon” and the validity of the story told is arguable. The article itself was located on the fourth/last page of the tribune along with a number of reprinted articles from various newspapers nation-wide. Rather than search key-words such as “minstrelsy” I decided to search words associated with the topic and landed on “burnt-cork”. Oliver, the white boy the article centers around, utilizes components of black-face such as blackening his skin with burnt cork and donning a minstrel wig to swindle a black congregation out of their money. It was, in a way, refreshing to see minstrelsy contextualized by people who were living during the era. The story ends with the condemnation of Oliver who is publicly lashed once discovered to be a fraud. This particular lens of condemnation and specifically retribution I found captivating in that I had yet to hear such conversations of minstrelsy. Sentiments expressed in the article are clearly aimed at a black audience as the anger which turned to violence could have been a true story however the sensationalized air of the article warrants it to be more of a cautionary tale. My reasoning in particular as to why I believe the article to be false is that I don’t find it very likely that no one in the congregation would not be able to discern that the young preacher was in fact in blackface and wearing a wig. Second, I found the use of the word “prodigy” ironic which is what I assume the author’s intention to be. 


**I will link the article below as my computer had difficulties uploading the jpeg

Works Cited
“A Prodigy In The Pulpit. A Boy Who Creates a Sensation by Preaching Lorenzo Dow’s.” Topeka Tribune (Topeka, Kansas), November 6, 1880: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Key & Peele as a Contemporary Minstrel Show


Minstrel shows are characterized by stereotypes of black people imparted by white people, often with over-the-top comedy depicting caricatures of black life in America during the plantation era. So what does it mean when contemporary black performers employ these same created identities in their own work? 

Comedy Central pair, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele became household names in 2012, with “East/West College Bowl” and “Substitute Teacher,” which now have a combined 228 million views on youtube. 

“East/West College Bowl” is a sketch which is comprised nearly entirely of black characters introducing themselves, stating their names and from which colleges they hail. The joke is simple: each of the athletes has an increasingly “funny” and ridiculous name. This joke is not one that is original to this skit, however. The notion that black people have names that are difficult/impossible to pronounce is one that has been perpetuated for years. The humor in this skit can also be traced back to minstrelsy. A distinguishing characteristic of minstrel characters was a lack of education: mispronouncing words, the perceived inability to form complete sentences, etc. 

“Substitute Teacher” challenges this idea of the uneducated black man trope found in minstrelsy, but not in the way one might assume. In this sketch, Key plays a teacher in a room full of white students. The bit here is similar to that of East/West, but different in one very important way. Instead of having the “difficult to pronounce” names being the black peoples’ names, this time it is the black teacher mispronouncing the white students’ names. In some ways, this is attempting to break the stereotype that it is black people who have difficult-to-pronounce names, but at the same time it plays into this stereotype of the uneducated black man – a common character in traditional minstrel shows. 

The idea that Key and Peele could be considered a contemporary minstrel show is particularly disturbing because they are two educated black men. According to this Smithsonian article by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 

“poor and working-class whites who felt ‘squeezed politically, economically, and socially… invented minstrelsy.’”

This continued codifying of blackness furthers some of these harmful stereotypes. At the same time, their commercial success as black comics breaks them down. 

I found similar contradiction in the articles I found on the African American Newspaper database. I focused on three reviews of local minstrel shows, from the late 1880s and early 1890s. The reviews are mixed, with the Weekly Pelican describing the performance as “a complete success without,” while the Cleveland Gazette calls a similar show a “complete failure and a disgrace to themselves as well as others.” In another review, this time of a show with actual black performers and not white people in blackface, the author says, “it is a pity that the coloured people cannot find something better in which to employ their talents… it would go a long way toward ridding us of the nuisance.”

These quotes reflect some of the same sentiments of Key and Peele’s viewers today. These concerns are a part of the reason that Key and Peele no longer have a Comedy Central show, but the permanent nature of digital content and the continued views speak for themselves; audiences still connect with these deep-rooted, harmful stereotypes – and they make money.


The Day of Jubilee

In his essay-review The day of jubilee, published February 27, 1959 in the Los Angeles Tribune , Chestyn Everett confronts issues concerning the commercialization, dilution, and decontextualization of black spirituals. Everett, who was a scholar, civil rights activist, and later, a professor at Cornell University, starts his essay with a more general condemnation of black and white artists alike for corrupting their renditions of spirituals and remaining less and less faithful to the genre and the historical background. He goes on to make generalized characters and condemning them for each way they have warped the genre.

“We must admit, however, that the average white artist approaches the Negro spiritual as if the Negro slaves who had created these songs, had studied “lieder” composition and voice at some classic conservatory in which they attended evening classes after a day’s session in the cotton fields. On the other extreme, the white popular “singers” approach the negro spiritual as if, instead of the conservatory in the cotton fields, the negro slaves had a “rock and roll” band by which they rhythmically picked cotton and did little chores around the house for the “missus”, and that the “kind ole massah” had put up a “dark town strutters bistro”– and that each night this “tired-happy, free loving, fun loving, maddening throng of dark humanity” converged upon the DTSB singing “When the saints go marchin’ in” to the insane-frentic backing of “Old Black Joe and his Cotton Picking Ramblers”

He continues with several critiques of certain black musicians. First, he critiques black musicians who “clean up the language,” that is, editing the southern slave dialect into more modern english. He argues that this is the same as saying that the slaves who created the spirituals lacked “the finer points of musical intelligence,” (Everett 9). His next critique is of incompetent black musicians who rationalize the validity of their performances by recalling that slaves would have had no formal training. “[this singer] labors under the unfortunate assumption that being a Negro establishes the assumption that he can sing Negro spirituals, and further that any vocal ability he is conspicuously lacking is inconsequential to the fact that he “feels” what he is (not) doing,” (Everett 21).

His main issue with many modern practices of spirituals is with the recontextualization of this music. Similar to what we have learned in class, the way that music, and more specifically, information, is portrayed in the present paints firmly guides how many view the past. While he characterizes and exaggerates these examples, his worry holds true.

Works Cited:
Everett, Chestyn. “The day of jubilee: an essay-review.” The Los Angeles Tribune, February 27, 1959, pp. 9, 21. African American Newspapers. Accessed on October 3, 2019.

Black Opera and Catholicism: A Case of Selective History

While the most recent course readings and discussions have focused on the (relatively little) good and (predominantly) bad effects of minstrelsy, discussion of other black performance in the 19th century has been limited or in passing. While browsing the archives of the African American Newspapers database, I came across a name that was mentioned multiple times in a few articles about black vocal performances in the Washington D.C. area in the latter half of the 19th century. A “Mrs. Smallwood” was cited multiple times for her performances at various churches. Further digging revealed Agnes Gray Smallwood to be a vocal performer, with multiple newspaper articles hailing her as an outstanding performer.

In this newspaper review, Agnes Smallwood is hailed for her solo singing after a concert given at a local church.

This announcement was found in many papers, noting Mrs. Smallwood’s achievement, yet failed to mention specifically which church she would sing at.

Mrs. Smallwood was a part of a group of singers that formed the little-known Colored American Opera Company, America’s first opera company for black singers. The group rose out of the need to raise funds for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., a catholic church that has long established itself as the “mother church of black Catholics”. The church established itself as a haven for free blacks in the final years of the Civil War, and has since been a spiritual and cultural refuge for blacks.

Although I could not find any video or other media related to the Colored Opera Company, take a moment to view a short video about St. Augustine Catholic Church and how the work of the opera company lives on today in this unique catholic church.


Although there were newspaper reviews praising the voices of colored singers with no conservatory preparation, any sort of monetary or moral support appears to have come from within the black community (despite evidence that white audiences attended the opera performances and enjoyed them). The opera company was formed in a short term effort to raise funds, so there appears to be no long term musical consequences from the formation of this opera company- it did not last beyond the short time the group performed to fundraise for the church. It appears Agnes Smallwood and her peers in America’s first black opera were victims of the selective history we’ve discussed in class. Despite creating opportunities for themselves as artists in a time when barriers hindered access to the art music of upper-class whites, Mrs. Smallwood and the legacy of the Colored American Opera Company have failed to get much recognition over time. They live in the dark shadow of minstrelsy, a legacy that imposes itself of the narrative of black musicians and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But, it is important to acknowledge their work where we can, and understand how their influence on places like St. Augustine Catholic Church live on in black music and experiences today.


Primary Sources

“That Concert.” People’s Advocate (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), March 22, 1884: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Personal.” Sentinel (Trenton, New Jersey), January 14, 1882: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Secondary Sources have been hyperlinked in the prose above.

Blackface Minstrelsy on the World Stage

Here is a picture of William “Billy” Emerson

As talked about in class, blackface minstrelsy that originates from the United States. This form of racism borrows from the Italian theatrical form of Commedia Dell’arte as well as multiple musical practices (a form I have performed and trained in). This performance practice came to feed into a culture of racism and uphold the constructs of whiteness and blackness in the United States in ways that affect our contemporary society. It’s also important to recognize how this form became seen from an international perspective.
In an 1885 article of the Huntsville Gazette, a newspaper based in Alabama, there’s an article called “Two Noted Minstrels, Who Have Won Fortunes and What They Say About Stage Life”. The article discusses the minstrel performer “Billy” Emerson who immigrated from Scotland to pursue a life on stage. Many assume that performers were only white American men but blackface became so popular during this time that shows went on international tours.
The article says:
He visited Australia in 1874 and on his return to America joined Haverly’s minstrels in San Francisco at $500 a week and expenses. With this troupe he played before her majesty, the Queen, the Princes of Wales, and royalty generally.

In class we discussed how common minstrel shows at the White House had become but rarely are the performances for European royalty recognized. This is an example of non-Americans working in an American form or being exposed to an American form. Europeans took part in blackface Minstrelsy but my question becomes “Does this form become entirely tied to an American sense of identity such as the mime for the French or Commedia Dell’arte for Italians?” This past performance practice became capitalized on and I worry blackface minstrelsy is the only American form we are known as a country for during this century. Thinking internationally, I question how this form we made affected racial constructs in other countries.


“Two Noted Minstrels, Who Have Won Fortunes and What They Say About Stage Life.” Huntsville Gazette, 6 Oct. 1885, pp. 4–4.

Yeager, Danni Bayles. “Billy Emerson.” Performing Arts Archive,

Unpacking the Link Between Nature and African-American Music

Imagine you’re sitting in studio class, getting feedback on your musical performance. Someone describes your performance as “natural-sounding”. We’ve all received notes like this before and wondered: Was that a compliment, or a criticism? Reading through our course materials and seeing a persistent, underlying description of African-American music as “natural-sounding,” I was left asking the same question. The answer, unsurprisingly, is not simple. The common association between naturalness and African-American music is simultaneously demeaning and empowering, and has been both since well before the 20th century.

In Blues People, Amiri Baraka identifies one of the leading criticisms of Blues music as the judgement that it is “raw” or “unrefined”. Baraka traces this back to a fundamental difference between Western and African conceptions of music as “art music” versus “functional music”, which results in “the principle of the beautiful thing as opposed to the natural thing”.1 It is this very principle that has often caused the association of African-American music with a natural sound to be degrading. Blues-players such as Charlie Parker often actually imitate the human voice with their instruments, but in these cases, many critics perceive this type of natural playing as uncultured, hoarse, or raucous.2

James Trotter writes a whole chapter of his 1880 book, Music and Some Highly Musical People, on the music of nature. Though generally venerative of music’s natural origins, Trotter’s content opens the door for exactly the kind of degradations of African-American music that later critics would make of Charlie Parker. Trotter says that it was from nature that “man received his first impressions, and took his first lessons in delightful symphony.”3 While this is a lovely thought, it also places music that emulates nature at the earliest, most primitive point in musical evolution, which opens the door for racist analysis of “natural-sounding” African-American music. Trotter also speaks highly of “the charming music of the birds,” placing birds just below humans in rank.4 Later perversions of this general idea would allow critics to degrade African-American music as more natural-sounding and thus more animalistic, and even savage.

So on the one hand, we have “natural-sounding” African-American music being demeaned as simple, unpolished, and crude. But on the other hand, we have authors like Baraka acknowledging these degradations and reclaiming the natural sound as an intentional and meaningful choice. It came as a surprise to me that this kind of empowerment was present even long before Baraka. A letter to Frederick Douglass published in Douglass’s paper in 1855 compares two recent concerts, one given by white singers, and one by an African-American choir:

“For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper. (Rochester, New York) VIII, no. 6, January 26, 1855: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

In this review we see the typical assessment of the music by the African-American choir as “simple”, but in this case, there is also a positive spin. The music may be simple, but it is also heartfelt. The author of the letter goes on to question his time’s assumptions concerning the value of the kind of “high character” music that the white performers sing5:

Here we finally have an author who identifies a link between African-American music and nature in a positive manner, asserting that the simplicity he perceives in the music actually enhances its beauty and grandeur.6

From both the letter-writer and Amiri Baraka, we learn that the link between nature and African-American music is fraught with complications. Historically, it has been used to degrade and demean, but even back in the 19th century, some authors acknowledged it as a choice and a strength.

1 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Perennial, 28-30.

2 Ibid., 30.

3 James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston Lee and Shepard, 12.

4 Ibid., 13.

5 For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 3.

6 Ibid., 3.


Works Cited:

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

“For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper. (Rochester, New York) VIII, no. 6, January 26, 1855: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston: Boston Lee and Shepard, 1880. Readex: Afro-Americana Imprints.


“Good” Minstrels?

Throughout our classes, the aspect of Blackface Minstrelsy (and other forms of racial exploitation) that seems to be of greatest concern, is the way in which white society comodifies and reduces various races and cultures into stereotypical caricatures for the purposes of white entertainment. In Love and Theft, by Eric Lott, however, he discusses that in the case of Blackface Minstrelsy, there is the simultaneous presence of racism, fear, and even “fascination.” It struck me as a very unique and unusual statement, the idea that Blackface Minstrelsy could come out of and be perceived by some as an expression of fascination and twisted admiration. That was until I read the article “Good Minstrels” from page 6 of a 1919 issue of The Broad Ax, a Chicago newspaper.


This reviewer from the Chicago Tribune praises this Blackface Performance for it’s “…amazing Negro feeling for rhythm and pulse and life…” and even compares their performance to that of the Fisk cantors (the Fisk Singers being a historically well known African-american music ensemble).

Throughout the article, the reviewer expresses nothing but excitement and respect for the performance, even referencing “Negro” music in the same breath as Brahms and Dvorak. It is clear that this is Blackface Minstrelsy performance at a high caliber, and in this case, it’s not outwardly comedic or meant to be degrading. It was a performance that showcased black music as something worthy of being performed in the same venues and at the same skill level as that of western classical music. This is highly remarkable given date of this review. After reading even this one review, Lott’s claim, that there is a certain fascination and admiration for “blackness” present in white performances of Blackface Minstrelsy, doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it may first appear…

-Sources Consulted-

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), February 15, 1919: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 (Introduction and Chptr. 1)

Outrage All the Way!: Jingle Bells, Racism, and Unfair Media Portrayal

After last Thursday’s session, Dr. Epstein told me about an academic journal article that proved the popular Christmas carol, “Jingle Bells,” has its origins in blackface minstrelsy.  Lo and behold, I did encounter the article written by Dr. Kyna Hamill, a theater professor at Boston University, with damning evidence about a beloved Christmas song that many of us so innocently learned as young children.  She drew evidence from various songs about sleigh-riding and how many lyrics between these songs were shared between one another [1].  One similarity she found was in its original title (“One-Horse Open Sleigh”) to a lyric in the 4th verse of Stephen C. Foster’s “Brudder Gum” (see below):


While the article makes some very interesting insights as to how the song came into being and how its racial history has been lost to the passage of time, it came with its fair share of praise and unfair share of relentless criticism.  A particular example can be found in a feature on Fox News’ daytime show “Fox & Friends,” which features Dr. Carol Swain, a former political science professor from Vanderbilt, debasing Dr. Hamill’s work as a mere ploy of the “liberal agenda” to “destroy Christmas.”

Professor claims ‘Jingle Bells’ is rooted in racism

This segment was truly meant to sensationalize a very thorough examination on America’s “swept-under-the-rug” racial history of “Jingle Bells” by attaching it to the various attacks that conservatives believed they faced (e.g. War on Christmas and liberal indoctrination.)  By vaguely pulling one quote out of Dr. Hamill’s article and framing a discussion around much larger concepts in the sociopolitical sphere of American culture, Fox News wildly misrepresented Dr. Hamill’s work as a deeper examination in popular American culture and wrote it off as simply destructive.

What also peeves me about this segment is the purpose of Dr. Swain’s role on the show.  By simply having a PhD and an academic career, this gave the impression that her take as an academic gave her credibility with her remarkably vapid arguments.  Perhaps it was simply that she wanted to shill her new book, but by mocking another academic, she allowed Fox News to portray her as a maverick professor taking on the “liberal agenda.”  It may also be worth noting that by being a black woman, Fox News may be taking advantage of Dr. Swain as a token commentator on race issues, and while she is very much entitled to her opinions, Dr. Swain cannot be the overall representation of all African-Americans in regards to this issue.

It is disappointing to see how Fox News portrayed Dr. Hamill, but it is not out of character for their role as a news outlet.  The same could probably go for many of the other major news broadcasting companies in the United States and the world, but when Dr. Hamill decided to go against the grain of popular American culture and uncover one of its many black-eyes, her image took a significant beating as the scapegoat of the “liberal agenda.”


[1] Hamill, “The story I must tell,” 376

[2] Foster, “Brudder Gum”


Foster, Stephen. “Brudder Gum,” New York, NY: Firth and Pond, 1849.

Hamill, Kyna. “’The story I must tell’: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire,” Cambridge University Press 58, no. 3 (September 2017): 375-407,

Pierpont, J. “The one horse open sleigh,” Boston, MA: Oliver Ditson, 1857.


The “High Order of Talent”

I would like to begin by directing your attention to the highlighted excerpts from the following newspaper article:1





All of the writers mentioned, Jack Haverly, Billy West, Billy Rice, Billy Emerson, and Neil Bryant, were white. Somewhat surprisingly, this article was published in Oregon’s first black newspaper, the Portland New Age, in 1902. As we can see, this article mourns the deaths of five blackface minstrelsy writers of legendary status. Let’s take a closer look at the first mentioned, Jack Haverly. In 1902, the same year of the article’s publication, Haverly published a book called Negro Minstrels: A Complete Guide to Negro Minstrelsy, Containing Recitations, Jokes, Crossfires, Conundrums, Riddles, Stump Speeches, Ragtime and Sentimental Songs, etc., Including Hints on Organizing and Successfully Presenting a Performance.2 Whew! The name leaves nothing to the imagination, but in short, this book provides a template for how to create a successful minstrel show. Successful even in the minds of black audiences. So let’s take a look at what Haverly might have recommended:

As researchers who are far(ish) removed from these circumstances, it is easy to be shocked that this material was endorsed by black writers to black audiences. Or, we can understand it as “love and theft.”3

When read together, these primary sources contribute to the complex tensions that lie in Eric Lott’s understanding of minstrelsy. As baffling racist as the caricatures and narratives were, the form was so popular that African-Americans had a stake in aspects of its production. Unfortunately, this seemed to be as respectable as it got when it came to minstrelsy tropes. And black and white audiences alike got on board in the names of entertainment and artistry.

Minstrelsy and the Audience: What we don’t know

When racial ambiguity was built into the performative framework of blackface minstrelsy, what did it mean for the audience? The racial make-up of audiences is extremely difficult to track down, particularly when it comes to performances of blackface minstrelsy in the Industrial North. One way to accomplish this is to research the race of the owner of the venue but that identity could mean nothing. Another way to learn more about audience is by reading critical reviews of blackface performance, or to examine advertisements for those performances. 

One such advertisement is an 1889 flyer for “DeVere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags and Conundrums”1 featuring an ensemble seated on stage in blackface, with white on-lookers placed above the stage in fancy clothing. This artistic framing places a white observer at the forefront of the musical space, imposing a clear hierarchy between performer and audience member.

Why does audience matter? Eric Lott writes in Love and Theft that “Regarding even the class-bound audiences of the 1840’s, there was some confusion among commentators about just who was out there in the pit and the gallery. As I will argue later, one of minstrelsy’s functions was precisely to bring various class fractions into contact with one another, to mediate their relations, and finally to aid in the construction of class identities over the bodies of black people (67).”2 Lott makes the important point that minstrelsy wasn’t exclusively white and black performers acting out racist and harmful stereotypes for exclusively white audiences, it was more complex than that. 

In a Chicago Weekly Review from 19113, The Pekin Theater put on several acts, including a white ventriloquist, two “colored musical acts” and a blackface ensemble. Slyvester Russell4 writes in his vaudeville review “The Musical Randolphs gave an act which needs encouragement and may yet develop to become quite a feature. It will be necessary for this act to plenty of ragtime music with comedy action, but what’s the use of a blackface comedian if he doesn’t do something?” This is a black critic, writing for a black newspaper and therefore a predominantly black audience, attending a theatre which was programming lots of types of performances all within the same week. 

The audience therefore appears to be a fraught racial space, where the ambiguity and complicated racial politics being played out onstage were being echoed in the audience. In order to understand the popularity of minstrelsy, particularly as it was marketed and cultivated across geographic and cultural barriers it is crucial to consider the sheer magnitude of the audiences and to consider how it permeated and part of that research begins with combing through the legacy of performance space, not exclusively programming. 

Poetry and Minstrelsy

When discussing minstrelsy in class, we continuously mentioned that minstrelsy went on much longer than most people realize or care to mention. In my research I found a theme of disturbing nostalgia surrounding the practice. One example of this nostalgia can be found in poetry.

In W.D. Nesbit’s poem published in the Chicago Tribune in 1903, “The Yesterdays of Nations”, he states, “Once the trumpet in brazen glee sang at the palace gates; Once the masters of minstrelsy babbled of loves and hates”(“The Yesterdays”). This fondness of olden days is evident through Nesbit’s language, regarding the performers of this offensive practice as “masters”, as if they are people to still be held in high esteem.

The times that Nesbit’s poem reflects so fondly upon can be seen in a second poem. This poem by James Gnocott is “Resignation.- A poem”. This poem so casually mentions minstrelsy that it truly reflects the ordinariness of minstrelsy in entertainment and life, stating “Oh! Trust in patience- hoping, trust the Lord, Although unstrung thy harp of joy may be; Yet may it give a most harmonious chord, to bless the minstrel in the minstrelsy”(“Resignation”).  The fact that this music is being described in a godly way and played by minstrel players is disturbing. The poem is meant to be agreeable in tone yet it’s encouraging God to “Bless the minstrel”. Followers of the Christian faith are meant to act like God, sending the message that the Christian faith itself condones and promotes these crude caricatures of African Americans.

The sentimental value that is placed on minstrel performances is shocking, and yet believable. I think the reason the poems are so nostalgic in tone is because they reflect a time of music and minstrel performances being one of the only times people were brought together in a light-hearted setting. People were willing to look past the innate wrongness of the way African Americans were portrayed easily because it could be written off as just a song or a joke. This mindset persists in our modern world, as jokes and racial microaggressions are brushed off in the same way. Clearly the effects of minstrelsy are even more long-lasting than we realized.

Works Cited

“Resignation.” Freedom’s Journal, 31 Aug. 1827, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 1 Oct. 2019.

“The Yesterday’s of Nations.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XVIII, no. 39, 4 July 1903, p. [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.

The Far Reach of Minstrelsy

Program for the Amateur Minstrel Show and Dance

Program for a later performance of the same event, found at Heritage Auctions site.

The legacies of minstrelsy touch many corners of popular culture today (for examples of these legacies, scroll through other blog posts on this page), but even when it was the country’s primary means of entertainment, its reach stretched further than one would reasonably expect. The sobering reality is that it was enjoyed by members of all demographics of American culture–including African Americans.

In 1924, near the end of minstrelsy’s reign as a cultural juggernaut, The Broad Ax published an article glowing with praise for the “Amateur Minstrel Club” of Chicago. Known for its founder and editor, Julius Taylor, the paper advocated tolerance and equality and occasionally featured inflammatory language.1 Most relevant to my argument, it was catered to black readers. The writer extended praise toward every component of a performance by the aforementioned club, from its “soul-inspiring” music to its “peppy” jokes and “real fun makers [sic].”2

Description of the event, praising colored attendance and the performance itself.

Clipping from the Broad Ax, 26 April, 1924.

It is hard enough to swallow the reality of minstrelsy with regard to white audiences. That a black newspaper could describe minstrel acts as “twenty times better than . . . regular traveling old time minstrel shows,” with an audience comprising “the best class and the leading colored people residing in all parts of the city” which were led to “forget their aches, pains, troubles, sorrows and suffering in this world,” is a sobering reality. But this last quote should not be too quickly cast aside; while sorrows exist for everyone, it could easily be that the paper intended to affirm the struggles African Americans were facing to change institutions and bring about the equality Julius Taylor sought. If true, this lends the reader a glimpse into a complex reality of racial politics of the time.

Assuming African American participation in the club, it seems to me that this particular group was making a bid to control black identity through commercialization. Given the support of this paper, it is unlikely it perpetuated as many harmful stereotypes as other minstrel acts. Significantly, the benefits from the performance–some $3000 dollars, worth well over ten times that much in today’s money3–were donated to a place called the Old Folks Home. This commercial success, coupled with generosity, would neatly fit into a story which shifted societal ideas about African Americans away from poverty toward ability. Even if this was a case of ceding one’s dignity in the name of making a living, their philanthropic act, coupled with the Broad Ax’s praise of the artistic skill of the performers, does foster respect for the troupe–and African Americans by extension.

Advertisement to recruit minstrels

Advertisement found in a Freeman paper in June 1916.

While the popularity of blackface minstrelsy was and is a disturbing reality, African Americans have found ways to claim this popularity to succeed financially. More than that, and on a much more optimistic note, the stories constructed about minstrelsy by African Americans can re-frame otherwise disturbing performance to also include ability, rather than mere comedy.

1 “About The broad ax.” Library of Congress.

2 1924. “Easter Monday Evening the Amateur Minstrel Club Gave Its Twenty-Eighth Annual Minstrel and Dance.” Broad Ax.

3 “Consumer Price Index.” Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Blackface at Mardi Gras: Paint and Mask

Mardi Gras – It was a beautiful day yesterday, even though the heat was somewhat oppressive. The joyful children of the chaos celebrated Mardi-Gras with dignity. The balls/dances were not empty of beautiful or ugly masks. Some people failed to keep their masks on, while others maintained them. And so went the world, beautiful alongside ugly; light, then shadow. If there was anything that would have struck strangers who had never seen a Mardi-Gras masquerade in New Orleans, it would be the large quantity of people who had masks depicting a “negro” character. Our caucasians have the gift of imitation, to a high degree/standard, because the greater part among them imitate the “negro,” and above all the traditional “negro” which is represented to us by the Olympic Theatre minstrels, with a perfection that denotes to our cousins’ home (as belonging to our cousins, either referring back to the Theatre minstrels or to caucasians) a grand superiority. (1)

The last short segments of the article go on to describe one or two other events which occurred at the Mardi Gras parade, including a mysterious musical group. However, this is the most striking segment. Rarely, aside from a description of coming musical acts, is blackface or minstrelsy so directly addressed in the newspaper articles of this particular decade (at least of those I encountered). It’s an interesting peek into history to see celebrations such as Mardi Gras occurring during a time that we usually only study to discuss the violence that was committed.

This article is from 1869, only about 30 years after the first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans in 1837 and 4 years after the end of the Civil War. The tradition was brought to the area by French colonisers when Louisiana and the surrounding area were still under French control.  It has many ties to the Brazilian celebration of Carnival (2).

The attitudes portrayed here are unclear. The New Orleans Tribune, which published this article, was an African-American publication, and yet it seems to paint quite a complimentary picture of white folks in blackface. I believe, however, that the over-the-top, complimentary wording is likely ironic – it certainly came across that way on my first reading, although it may not be as clear in my rough translation, given above. Minstrelsy was still quite in its height in the South, where it became more popular after the Civil War by leaning into the derogatory, rather than abolitionist, ties. It may very well have been unwise for a black paper to be publicly decrying minstrelsy and white participants in Mardi-Gras, hence the use of irony.

This time is also the origin of another very complicated Mardi Gras tradition. Benevolent Aid Societies came into being after the Civil War as a form of community insurance among black members of these societies – they could provide financial and other support for those who fell ill or lost family members. From these Aid Societies eventually came a group known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which formed under that name in 1909 and still exists today (3).

As part of the Mardi Gras parade, this social and activist club has traditionally dressed in costumes representing Zulu warrior garb, including face painting. Now a multi-racial organisation, all members of the club, regardless of race, dress this way. However, while native Zulu face painting usually involves the bright colours seen in the costumes, the Zulu club relies on black (and some white) face paint. This has caused controversy several times in the club’s history, most notably in the 1960s, when it was condemned by several members of the Civil Rights movement as promoting negative stereotypes. Membership of the club dwindled to only about a dozen members that decade, and they switched to wearing masks instead of paint (3, 4). Since then, the Zulus’ numbers have increased again and transitioned back to face paint, causing yet another controversy in 2018. Whether they are drawing on the tradition of blackface, and whether it matters, is very much up for debate. Zulus claim that they are making no effort to conceal their race or pretend to be what they are not, that they are showing a positive portrayal, that it is a long standing tradition, and that it is not based in blackface. The last claim in particular is difficult to prove, although certainly their intention is important. The controversy in ongoing, but the overall consensus seems to be that the Black leaders of the club have the right to decide whether it is appropriate for their members to dress up the way they do. As long as they are deciding that it is, many other prominent figures have refrained from condemning the practice (4).

We must consider and decide, at least for ourselves, whether it makes a difference who is portraying a negative stereotype or drawing on a painful history, as well as their intention. Can blackface, in any form, be reclaimed?

  1. “Chronique Locale.” New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 10, 1869: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Mardi Gras,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 3, 2019).
  3. Becknell, Clarence A, et al. “History Of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Zulu Social & Pleasure Club,
  4. Krupa, Michelle. “The Black Leaders of an Iconic Mardi Gras Parade Want You to Know Their ‘Black Makeup Is NOT Blackface’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Mar. 2019,


Whiten’ up

While we have now become more familiar with blackface, white people are not the only ones to change the color of their skin and take on a new persona. Blackface minstrelsy might have been all the rage by gathering popularity and attention in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but behind closed doors, whiteface was growing among slaves through illegal late night cabals. Just as blackface was for white people, whiteface allows black people to assume a new identity comically, one that comes with privilege, power, and what it means to be white.

In a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 1984, Eddie Murphy becomes a “white man.”1
The lightening of his skin, mustache, and change in hair shows the physical changes he undertook to become white. To prepare for his disguise, Murphy is shown watching TV to analyze how white men walk and act, to the audiences amusement. He practiced his “white man” voice that sounded more like a bark and authoritative. It is comedic to watch his experience of privilege, such as getting a newspaper for free from a fellow white man instead of having to pay for it. While applying for a loan at a bank with nothing to his name, he is turned down by a black man, but when the banker is replaced by a white man, stacks of money get shoved into his hands with jolly words of “pay us back-or don’t!” The skit puts a comic spin on the underlying issue of privilege and trustworthiness.

When Murphy was on the bus, as soon as the last black person got off, it became a  party with wine, cheese and jazz music complete with clapping by a white guy who had no sense of rhythm. It depicts that life as a white person is a constant party. It is comparable to the modern day slogan of “white people be like.” In social media, a platform where people try to be the best versions of themselves, girls are lightening their skin, straightening their hair, and becoming blonde; an unmistakable trait for people of European descent. It is problematic that, what some deem as the best version of themselves, is stripping their blackness. Even our Beloved Beyoncé is known to almost always have dyed blonde hair to look more European instead of embracing her natural curls. Video tutorials flood Youtube with “natural whiteface.”2

Image result for beyonce blonde

Beyoncé with straightened, then curled, blonde hair.

For as long as their has been differences in race, there has been others trying to copy and make fun of the “other”. Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live is a classic example of a race poking fun of the traits that come along with the other race. Fortunately for the actor, is was done in 1984, after the civil rights movement, so the fear of being criticized or physically hurt was lessened than predecessors. Still, it goes to show that just like blackface, with a little makeup, anyone can be anything.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”


In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Cover of How to Put On a Minstrel Show3

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

Simple Poster, Complicated Play

CW: Racial slurs, suicide 

I stumbled upon this advertisement in the Afro-Americana Imprints database and immediately had about a thousand questions. Why have I never heard of this play before? What is it about? How was this show cast? What does the title even mean? Scanning the list of characters and their descriptions set off more alarm bells as characters include “Wahnotee, an Indian,” “Pete, a Slave, an Old House Servant,” a number of judges, and more slaves. Given this list and the fact that the advertisement was published during the American civil war in 1864, I was fairly certain that if I dug in deeper I would find no end to the amount of problematic material it contained. Unfortunately, I was right.

What is The Octoroon? The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, opened in 1859 at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. The play itself was adapted from the novel The Quadroon by Thomas Reid (1856). Set in Louisiana, the conflict revolves around Zoe who is the “Octoroon,” a word that was used to describe someone who was 1/8 African, 7/8 Caucasian. (Note: Although I had never heard these terms before and they are fairly outdated,”octoroon”  and “quadroon” are listed in the Racial Slur Database). 

Although technically Zoe is a free woman, she is barred from marrying her (white) lover George and is pursued by the evil M’Closky. In the British conclusion the lovers are successful, but in the American version Zoe drinks poison and dies in George’s arms to prevent portraying an interracial marriage in American theaters. The play has been credited for its sympathetic view of slaves and their humanity, but Boucicault claimed that he promoted neither a specifically abolitionist or proslavery view.[1]

Was blackface used in this production? It was never explicitly stated in anything I read, but red-face was certainly used, so it can be assumed blackface was as well.

Is Octoroon still performed? The play does appear in and I was able to find evidence a performance in March 2013 and a movie in 1913. However, there is little else to suggest it is regularly performed although there is substantial literature in theater magazines as it relates to the changing portrayal of race on stage. The play seems to find its most relevance in an adaptation called An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Soho Rep, 2014), a play within a play which examines the writing of the original Octoroon.

Although most people may not know the show now, this newspaper excerpt from an 1884 New York Globe publication states that The Octoroon is a “play very familiar with most theatre-goers.”[5]

Furthermore, it demonstrates in pervasiveness in American society since it was performed by amateurs as well as professional companies.

How does this finding connect with readings that we’ve done? I’m not going to lie, I got a little distracted from my original investigation into the use of blackface. There is so much to unpack in the play itself, and a lot of fascinating literature about it, particularly Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s 2012 book Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction. Paulin sets out the argument that Zoe’s body acts “as a surrogate for other characters’ desires and for the intersecting racial, gender, and (trans)national ideologies informing the play.”[2] Because she is this surrogate, she can “perform dramatic and complex significations throughout the play, disrupting racial, gender, and sexual codes that govern those around her.”[3] I saw a parallel to this in Lott’s argument that blackface is tied to an obsession with black bodies. If we assume Zoe was portrayed in blackface, or at least extend this to encompass the performance of black-ness onstage, her relationship with George demonstrates a desire to control black sexuality as well as a fear of female power and autonomy.[4] Although not classified in the genre of “minstrelsy,” The Octoroon navigates similar themes as the examples outlined in Lott’s chapter.

Now what? In the end, I (understandably) left my research with infinitely more questions than I had begun. I felt like the more scholarly articles I read the less I understood. The play itself is dense and confusing to read, packed as it is with 1860s language and politics. I wasn’t even able to begin an investigation into the portrayal of Native Americans, gender, or power, and I obviously barely even touched the surface of race. Had I known that I would be leaving with more questions than answers, I might have picked a different artifact. However, even though I strayed away from music, this play and its multitude of complexities is certainly something I am interested in researching more in the future.


[1] Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire, ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

[2] Paulin, 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture,” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

[5] “Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884.


Works Cited

“[Playbill. 1864-04-22].” Afro-Americana Imprints. 

Lott, Eric. Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

Paulin, Diana Rebekkah. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire. ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

“Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884. African American Newspapers. 

Behind the Mask: Minstrelsy Today

**Trigger Warning- the following post contains images of blackface

Last week, a video of Justin Trudeau (Canada’s prime minister) was released. In the video, the camera slowly pans downwards and we see Trudeau wearing an afro and his entire body is covered in dark paint. Several other images from separate occasions also emerged. The prime minister (who is up for re-election) confessed to a “massive blind spot” in his thinking, saying he was “deeply sorry.” When I saw this story, I honestly wasn’t that shocked. It seems as though “blackface shaming” has become the ultimate way to control powerful, important people. People are digging through their yearbooks and old photographs (physical not digital!) from years ago in order to shed light on the racist actions of people they knew back in the day. 


Photo courtesy of Afro-Americana Imprints, LCP, no. S351.

Blackface is definitely not anything new. Eric Lott explains “blackface minstrelsy was an established nineteenth-century theatrical practice, principally of the urban north, in which white men caricatured black men for profit [1].” Lott believes “the black mask offered a way to play with collective fears of a degraded and threatening-and male-Other while at the same time some symbolic control over them [1].” As we have discussed in American Music, stock characters such as Jim Crow, Zip Coon, Mammy, and Jezebel would be played by all-white male casts. African Americans in these shows were shown as barbaric, simple, passionate, hyper-sexual, and faux-suave. The cast would then come out at the end of the show as their normal white selves, dressed in elegant attire to prove they were truly “civilized white men.” As we can see in this “Eleventh St. Opera House” advertisement, minstrel shows were catered to families- they even had a discounted price for children (only 15 cents!). Names such as “The Sure Cure” and “Magic Pearl” further enticed audiences to come experience this strange “other” culture.

You may ask yourself, how does this relate to the present day? Sure, minstrel shows were incredibly racist and oppressed an entire culture of people (to put it lightly), but minstrel shows don’t happen anymore, right? However, there have been many recent cases of popular and respected figures being outed as having donned blackface besides Justin Trudeau:

While blackface is nothing new, shaming it is. The mindset on blackface and cultural appropriation has done a huge turnaround and “calling-out” culture has taken its place. In my opinion I think this is generally a really great thing. Powerful people should not be able to dehumanize others. However, I do not think people always leak blackface photos to promote the injustice of racism, but rather for their own personal or political motivations. In our current cultural climate, blackface accusations have the power to prevent reelections, cause people to be fired from their jobs, and cause public shame and humiliation. I do not think it is a coincidence that Trudeau’s blackface photos were released in the midst of his reelection campaign. 

On a positive note, there have been steps to change the legacy of minstrelsy. I came across an article written for Black News, a digital newspaper, that explains how a company called EdAnime Productions has produced an animated children’s series called Meltrek. The show follows a group of students and their teacher, and its main goals are “preserving African American history, fostering self-awareness, self-esteem and solidarity, and to project positive images of African Americans into the national consciousness [2]”. While change won’t be easy or happen quickly, it’s very positive to see that companies are moving in a more diverse direction. 



[1] Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 1993.

[2] Lee, Dante. “Black Media Company Releases First Animated Series That Teaches Children Authentic African American History.” BlackNews.Com, 11 Jan. 2016.

The Pervasiveness of Blackface Minstrelsy

While to our modern sensibilities, Blackface Minstrelsy is a abhorrent sight worthy of outcry (and rightly so, with its racist background, undertone, and purpose), however it is important to understand the reception of Blackface to understand just how ingrained it is in our society’s pop culture.  While it isn’t pretty, it is undeniably there, and what better way to see this than one of the most famous classic movies of the 20th century: Holiday Inn.

Image result for holiday inn movie

For those who haven’t seen it: go watch it then come back and keep reading, it’s an American classic that should be seen to understand the culture of America in the 1940s and 50s, plus it has some of Fred Astaire’s finest dancing in the 4th of July scene (complete with actual firecrackers he threw at his feet).

Image result for holiday inn movie 4th of july

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, into the meat of why this movie is relevant in a discussion about blackface.  Spoiler alert: they use blackface in this film.

Image result for holiday inn movie blackfaceImage result for holiday inn movie blackface

They don’t use it because it’s funny or to incite racist hatred of the only black character in the movie (named Mamie and well loved by all the characters for her stern discipline and folksy wisdom, which is a problematic stereotype present in many blackface troupes but we can talk about that later).  They use blackface as a plot device to conceal the identity of Linda Mason (played by Marjorie Reynolds) who is the leading lady to Jim Hardy (played by Bing Crosby).  It plays well in the film for one key reason: blackface was everywhere.  It isn’t suspicious that a performing group uses blackface, even though they have never used blackface until that point, because it was so pervasive in American culture that they were seen as merely experimenting with a different form of comedy and performance.  To the audience in the movie, they were essentially trying an improv show.  Maybe a little out of character for suave and smooth Bing Crosby, but not out of the realm of possibility.

This highlights the problem I’m discussing here: blackface is everywhere during this time.  Even in 1942, when blackface is past its prime of popularity, a new blockbuster movie can feature a blackface scene with confidence that it won’t be criticized until at least 1970.  In fact it wasn’t until the 1980’s that showings began to omit the blackface scene (a practice continued on AMC to the current day, so if you haven’t seen it yet you’ll have to go to Turner Classic Movies to see the unedited version).  This practice is problematic in its own way as it pretends that such actions did not exist, and were not common.  The film uses blackface in this way for a reason, and can provide important context (intentionally or unintentionally) on the pervasiveness of blackface in performance.

This is how I talk: Comedy and language – a minstrel legacy

The writers for Saturday Night Live are not the first people to use African American English (AAE) and its mannerisms as comedic subject matter. AAE is defined by Mufwene in Encyclopædia Britannica as:

“a language variety that has also been identified at different times in dialectology and literary studies as Black English, black dialect, and Negro (nonstandard) English”[1]

He then goes on to explain that there is no clear consensus of how this language variety emerged. Some connect it to influences by African language, for instance as a descendant from 17th-century West African Pidgin English or, while others argue that it is an English dialect with its roots in colonial English or creole language.

Pullum stresses in his chapter in The Workings of Language[2], that what is known as the “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), often used synonymous with Ebonics and AAE, is in fact not just standard English spoken inadequately, but is its own legitimate version. The starting point for his discussion he writes about the “media frenzy”[3]  that occurred in 1996 when an Oakland School Board recognised AAVE as a language in their district due to a large Afro American Population. The critics viewed AAVE as “black slang” and not appropriate in a formal setting. Pullum argues due to the use of “a different grammar, clearly and sharply distinguished from Standard English”[4], through his linguistic analysis, this argument does not hold up.

Eric Lott in his book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class references the song “Jim Crow”[5]. The lyrics clearly reflecting, or at least trying to reflect, a specific way of speaking. What the text does not reflect, is the tone, body language and gestures that comes with any living language.

I am no linguist, but it seems to me that the major differences between Standard English are really in the spelling (or pronunciation) of a handful of words, for example “Ob de real ole stock”, not in the actual grammar. Having in mind that this text and Pullums analysis is separated by almost 170 years, which leaves room for considerable development of any language, I would be inclined to suggest that the lyrics are based of the idea, still present in 1996, that AAE/AAVE is just an inferior shadow of “proper” English.

Based on the sheet music presented  in How to put on a minstrel show from 1921[6], I would seem like in 100 years the language in lyrics have moved more towards Standard English. This is also present in the jokes, dialogues and monologues in the book. The author Geoffrey K. Pullum states in the beginning that his book is based of more than 30 years of experience of staging amateur minstrel shows. I will not try to pass this off as representative of the actual practice, this might just be the procedure when notating minstrel songs, leaving the interpretation to the performers. Considering this, the book is intended for amateur performers with limited experience.

Excample from How to put on a minstrel show(1921):

Saturday Night Live’s sketch reflects the portrayal of African American English previously presented in the early minstrel shows. The language and cultural non-verbal mannerisms have been made fun of, on basis of its perceived inadequacies, which in later years, have been argued are actually structural idiosyncrasies of a legitimate variety of the English language.

Primary Sources

“This is how I talk – SNL” (May 17,2015). Saturday Night Live (YouTube) [Accessed October 2nd, 2019]

Rossiter, Harold. How to put on a minstrel show. (1921) [Accessed October 2nd , 2019]

Secondary sources

Pullum, Geoffrey K. “African American Vernacular is Not Standard English with Mistakes”, The Workings of Language. (1999). Westport CT: Praeger. [Accessed October 2nd, 2019]

Mufwene, Salikoko Sangol. Encyclopædia Britannica. “African American English” (January 29th 2016). [accessed October 1st 2019]

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (1993). Oxford University Press, New York


[1] Mufwene 2016

[2] Pullum 1999

[3] Ibid p. 39

[4] Ibid p. 57

[5] Lott 1993:  p. 23

[6] Rossiter 1921: p. 54

Minstrel Shows at School?

Carl Cass was a professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Drama, and wrote a newspaper article titled “Racial and Conventional Types of Make-up” in 1949. 


He begins the article by dividing all races and ethnicities into the following categories: The Yellow Race, The Negro, The American Indian, The Brown Race, The Clown, and The Minstrel.


He describes the physical characteristics and facial features that he believes accompany each race, and offers instructions on how to apply makeup to most resemble this race.

Cass distinguishes between “The Negro” and “The Minstrel,” stating,”Many amateurs tend to confuse the coloring of a negro with that of a minstrel that is really a clown-caricature of a negro” (1). According to Cass, manufacturers sold shades of makeup labeled “light negro” and “mulatto,” which are much lighter in color compared to “minstrel black.”


In addition, he includes a blurb for each race describing their typical facial features. For the minstrel, Cass articulates,

“The lips tend to be thick and protruding. They may be painted as wide as desired, and, occasionally, they may be made to protrude by inserting soft rubber or chewing gum under them…Color a wide strip around the mouth for the lips with either white or very pale flesh-colored grease paint – red is a very inferior color because it lacks contrast with black” (1)


It is interesting how blackface performers placed such an emphasis on the white strip around their lips; perhaps they wanted to ensure that the audience knew they were actually white.


As one of the article’s ‘lessons,’ Cass instructs readers to “Select from papers and magazines pictures of both men and women of all races and nationalities…Classify these pictures and study them” (1)


The author of this article was a professor of drama at the University of Oklahoma, which indicates that minstrel shows were popular with both the general public and college students, and colleges were instructing students in the ‘art’ of minstrelsy.


This advertisement for the National Thespians lists its 1934-5 season “Banner Plays,” described as including “hits for schools, colleges, universities…and all other drama groups.” Enrollment in The National Thespians was open to students with extensive theater experience. Several of these shows include minstrel acts.

The fact that minstrel shows were performed in schools raises the question of intent, and how these shows infiltrated academia. 

Stephen Johnson also poses this question of intent in his book Burnt Cork; he states:

There are questions of intent: whether blackface performance was integrationist, working class, and populist, parodying and complaining about those in power…or whether it was segregationist and derogatory, reinforcing a white status quo of superiority…or both” (3). 

In the case of minstrel performance in schools, the intent was seemingly the latter. Drama teachers taught minstrel makeup application alongside instruction in how to dress like a clown, or how to tailor choice in makeup for the stage. From my interpretation, minstrel shows in schools were simply a part of the standard curriculum, enforcing white supremacy whether the students and professors necessarily realized it or not.

  1. Cass, C. B. (1949, 05). Racial and conventional types of make-up. Dramatics, 20, 6-8. Retrieved from
  2. Advertisement: BANNER PLAY BUREAU, INC. (1934, Oct 01). The High School Thespian, 6, 0-0_2. Retrieved from
  3. JOHNSON, S. (Ed.). (2012). Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. University of Massachusetts Press. Retrieved from

Blackface Minstrelsy Through a Renewed Perspective

Note from the author: Originally when I found this primary source, I made connections to a phenomenon I had been observing around me in the music industry—“blackfishing.” I went on to research more about what could be called modern-day blackface performing. I referenced Instagram posts and Ariana Grande’s style evolution. This research, while enlightening, drew little from what the primary source had to offer to me.

Now that the course is wrapping up, I realize that the way I approached this primary source was much how I approached this course. When we discussed difficult topics such as blackface minstrelsy, I tried to understand them based off of my own experiences. I can now see that this method is not conducive to gleaning the most knowledge. Thanks to the experiences of this course, when I now approach a new topic or a new primary source, I aspire to draw directly from what it presents to me, instead of forcing it into my perspective. Now, I allow the primary source itself to teach me about the topic.


With this growing perspective, I present renewed thoughts on this primary source…

DeVere’s Negro Sketches[1] was published in 1989 with this cover illustration demonstrating a stereotypical blackface minstrelsy scene. It shows performers with faces unnaturally darkened arranged in a semi-circle, men dressed in dapper outfits while positioning their bodies in angular stances, and of course, an all-white audience in attendance. From analyzing this illustration, we can learn more about common opinions and views of minstrel shows.

The first thing I noticed is that the audience is positioned above the performers… literally. This signaled to me a direct symbolism of the common view that black people were inferior to white people. Did white people attend minstrel shows to confirm their status as higher than black people?

The second thing that caught my attention was the illustration’s word choice when referring to the performance. It calls these performances “gags” and “conundrums.” When I think of a “gag,” I think of a silly joke that one tells knowing of its ridiculousness. A conundrum, on the other hand, has a double meaning. The first is a confusing question. The second is “a riddle, the answer to which involves a pun or play on words.”[2] provides an example of a conundrum: What’s black and white and read all over? A newspaper. This gives modern observers of the illustration an idea of the type of comedy that the music from DeVere’s shows flaunted at the black experience’s expense.

Nearly 40 years later, this stereotypical humor persisted in the music performance sphere. In The Plaindealer, a columnist writes:

You know there hasn’t been a successful colored music comedy yet that didn’t have liberal sprinklings of what whites are pleased to call “typical Negro humor.”[3]




[1] De Vere, William. “De Vere’s Negro Sketches, Endmen’s Gags and Conundrums Adapted to the Use of Amateurs or Professionals.” De Vere’s Negro Sketches, Endmen’s Gags and Conundrums Adapted to the Use of Amateurs or Professionals. New York, NY: Excelsior publishing house, McKeon & Scofield, proprietors, 1889.


[3] “Things Theatrical.” Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas) XXXIX, no. 17, April 23, 1937: PAGE [THREE]. Readex: African American Newspapers.



So, you want to put on a comedy? Then put on a minstrel show!

Or at least that’s what Harold Rossiter encourages in his book How to Put on a Minstrel Show, published in 1921.  According to Rossiter, the objection of giving a minstrel show is that it “is the one form of entertainment of which the public never seems to tire and a show can be safely produced at least every two years and in the larger towns or cities a show every year is not too often” (1).  After this assurance that the readers’ minstrel show will be popular simply based on the fact that the public desires such a show, Rossiter goes on to discuss how to successfully put on a minstrel show, through musical examples, joke suggestions, instructions on how to put on and take off blackface makeup, and a sample program.

Rossiter’s sample program

One chapter in his book is titled “Jokes for Minstrel Show.”  In this section, before providing some example jokes, he advices:

“Don’t let the end-men use too much negro dialect in telling their jokes. The average amateur negro dialect is almost pitiful, and they nearly always overdo it with the result that the audience fails to understand a word they say, and the joke goes flat. Have them use good, plain English” (1).  

Good, plain English. This makes the assumption that African American individuals, whom Rossiter is encouraging his performers to stereotypically over-emulate, use a different form of the English language that is so opposing than his own that if his performers attempted to recreate it, the joke will fail.  He exoticizes the African American population, establishing them as an “other” group.

In this quote, Rossiter also mentions the “end-men.” In minstrelsy, these were the performers in blackface who were the brunt of the jokes. Rossiter gives examples of jokes between end-men named Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, and an Interlocutor who, according to Rossiter, “is not blacked up; he always performs his part white-face” (1). Here’s an example of one of these jokes:

Example of Rossiter’s end-men jokes

Each of Rossiter’s jokes in How to Put on a Minstrel Show portrays the Interlocutor, who is white in the production, as the wise, intelligent individual always correcting and ridiculing Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, who are both in blackface.

These jokes send the overt, racist message that white individuals are, in addition to more eloquent in speech, smarter and must correct the foolish mistakes of the “black” characters.

 Just six years before Rossiter published his book, in 1915, the Chicago Weekly Review published an article that highlights the craving that audiences demonstrated for minstrel shows, emphasizing their popularity in white society in the early 1900s and exemplifying the humor white audiences found in ridiculing the blackface performers and therefore the African American race. The author, Sylvester Russell, writes that this specific minstrel show, containing blackface, was a “musical comedy” introducing “Billy King, one of the greatest and funniest blackface comedians of minstrel reputation” (2)

Chicago Weekly Review article of a minstrel show

Audiences enjoyed minstrel shows, audiences found blackface hilarious, audiences were obsessed with ridiculing the African American population.  Eric Lott writes in his introduction to Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Although it [minstrelsy] rose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon” (3).

As Lott explains, as well as how these primary sources exemplify, the racists beliefs of white Americans in the early 20th century led to the popularity of the minstrel show. While minstrelsy doesn’t carry the comedic weight it once did, it is important to recognize what this history means in terms of racism in America today – how it formed, what actions led to  the current attitudes of some individuals, and how we use these horrible historical references to make changes in how race is perceived now.


(1) Rossiter, Harold. How to Put on a Minstrel Show. Chicago: Max Stein Publishing House, 1921. Afro-American Imprints.

(2) “Chicago Weekly Review.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), July 31, 1915: 5. Readex: African American Newspapers.

(3) Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.