Women in Native American Music: Can Egalitarian Tradition Translate Into the Music Culture?

Who knew that a simple word search of “women” could bring me to thinking about feminism in the United States in relation to Native American women and their influence? In my search for primary sources, I wanted to dive deeper on my understanding of the Native American culture pertaining to women. But the obvious question reveals itself: what about women in Native American music? This question was secondary to my research- I found it necessary to get a really solid foundation on Native American women traditions. But regardless, there is something to say about the history and traditions of Native American women and how they were viewed and how they viewed themselves within the environments they lived in. This search process started when I came across various newspaper articles and book sections that discussed Native American women- in tradition and in practice.

Akwesasne Notes, Vol. 13, No. 5, Dec 1981, © The Newberry Library

This first primary source I came across was written by Katsi Cook, a young Mohawk woman, “lay midwife and organizer around women’s health care issues” who played a vital role in Native American women’s advocacy and health. She is the found of the Women’s Dance Health Program in Minneapolis, MN- “translating traditional concepts into a practical tool” for women’s health. Cook goes in great depth about the “origin” of the woman and how various cosmologies have shaped the way that women are viewed in the Native American culture and how they’ve viewed themselves. Cook’s descriptions of the traditional view and journey to womanhood in the Native American culture leads to the emphasis on the dire need for women, the “center of the Circle of Life”, in their culture.

“Women are the base of the generations. They are the carriers of the culture.” -Katsi Cook

I found a newspaper article that supports the theme of the importance of women and the strong role that they have in the Native American culture. This article advertising the Native American Women’s Action Council stood out to me in just how much importance this seemed to hold, even in the 1970s, when the US at the time was ramping up its second wave of feminism pushing for equality. But that’s the thing. Native American women are viewed as equals in their societies. In an article written by Sally Roesch Wagner, the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquis) Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes) women have lived with “rights, sovereignty, and integrity” a lot longer than the European settlers that came after them. The suffrage leaders Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Fletcher, etc. learned a great deal from the Native American women in the late 19th century. There were stark differences in the way women were treated, viewed, and valued.

“Fletcher explained to the International Council, ‘As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: ‘As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.’” -Wagner

In reading about all the ways Native American women were able to participate and have authority over so many aspects of their culture, it made me ask about how that translated to the music. Did this egalitarian culture of the Native Americans have any influence on how women were involved in the music scene? I couldn’t help but think that it did. It honestly makes me sad that I do not know more about this type of representation. And I feel as if I have barely scratched off the very top layer on this topic. In our Western education, we put a lot of emphasis on mis- and underrepresentation of white, Euro-American women composers and performers, but there is so much more music that has yet to be emphasized and women to be recognized.

A Christian Hymn in an Endangered Language

This week, I came three Christian hymns translated into some indigenous languages of the Northwest coast. One of these, a Chinookan language, is spoken by the Chinook people whose native lands are in what is now called Washington and Oregon (Britannica). The Chinook people have their own spiritual practices that emphasize the powers of nature, but many of them were forced or coerced into Christianity by white missionaries (The American History). This forced Christianization often took place at residential schools where children were forced to abandon their Native culture and assimilate to European cultural norms. Besides the trauma of being separated from their culture, these children were often subject to other kinds of horrific abuse (Hanson).

The hymn pictured below was translated into Chinook in 1892 by Charles Montgomery Tate, a Methodist minister who ran such a school (The Children Remembered). The hymn is a verse and chorus of “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Tate).
I think it is puzzling to find hymns that have been translated into the languages of indigenous peoples, because the ultimate goal of ministers like Charles Montgomery Tate was to assimilate Native Americans into white Christian culture, robbing them of their traditions and even their languages; the Chinookan languages are in danger of extinction, with all of the native speakers of the languages deceased, and very few speakers left at all (Vachter). But in addition to his conversion efforts, Tate also did a lot of work in translating indigenous languages, for example, the Chinookan to English dictionary pictured below (Tate).

What is sad is that some of the only written evidence of how Chinookan languages might have sounded in the past was written by the very people who sought to rob Chinook people of their language and culture. Unfortunately, it is often the case that those in power are the ones who write history; as we have discussed in class, much of the written evidence of how early African American music sounded was written by white slaveholders. As musicologists and historians, it is important to recognize that the primary sources that are left over often leave out the voices most suited to speak to musical and linguistic traditions: the practitioners of those traditions themselves.

Lily Strickland

Spirituals are a popular topic for discussion in vocal music because they bring about many questions to consider. The genre was created by black enslaved people and later notated and arranged by various composers. However, their origins make us pause to consider whether or not predominately white ensembles or vocalists should be allowed to perform these works. I think the general consensus on the subject is “yes, but…”. Conductors should be careful not to tokenize the spiritual in their repertoire for the night, perform it last as is often the case, provide informative program notes about every piece, and they should ensure the song is sung appropriately. There are many more things to say about this subject, however, you get the picture. Likewise, I would argue, and I think most would agree, that while we should perform spirituals by black composers, performing spirituals arranged by white composers is highly problematic. Lily Strickland is one such white composer from South Carolina, and the song in question today is “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”.

Strickland was born in South Carolina in 1884 and died in 1958. She wrote many songs ‘inspired by her southern upbringing and black spirituals and dialect and then her later music reflected her experiences in the continents of Asia and Africa and also wrote works imitating songs of indigenous people. She was wildly successful and her works were played by famous ensembles including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, Melissa Walker, a writer for the South Carolina encyclopedia claims that Strickland wanted to rebel against cultural norms for women in the South1. Arguably, Strickland’s work and success were highly unusual for a female composer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and so it is really hard as a feminist to face the fact that most of her music plays into harmful practices of cultural appropriation, especially pertaining to her numerous papers on Asia which perpetuate orientalism that I came across while searching through the St Olaf library. Therefore, celebrating or performing her work seems impossible and highly problematic today with our modern lens.

One of her pieces I stumbled across on the Sheet Music Consortium database is the aforementioned “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”. This song is allegedly “A Negro Sermon” about the coming of Christ. The lyrics imitate southern black dialect and contain phrases like “All who don wanter get lef’ in de lurch, Had bedder cum up now an’ jine de church…”2  From the song title, to the fact that she calls it a “Negro Spiritual”, to the imitation of black dialect, this song is already racist for so many reasons. First of all, the text was written by Teresa Strickland. Teresa Strickland was Lily Strickland’s mother, but it was also lily Strickland’s middle name. Therefore, I’m unsure as to which of the women wrote the text. Regardless, it was written by a white woman, and therefore the language is an unacceptable form of appropriation by today’s standards, and also a blatant falsehood to call it a sermon written by a black person.

Lastly, what frustrated me as I did my research was the lack of critical lens applied by scholars to Strickland’s work. I saw books and scholarly articles that all celebrated her pieces, books, and artwork, but nothing that took a deeper glance into the racism she partook in and the implication of performing her works, and especially the spiritual I discussed.



1Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/strickland-lily/.

2Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/strickland-lily/.

Frances Densmore and the “Well-Meaning” White Woman

As we enter into this section of our class and begin to grapple with the complexities of Native American song collection, I really wanted to avoid talking about and uplifting white voices. However, I woke up in a “I hate Frances Densmore” mood, and decided that a bit of nuance and background might be necessary to really understand what she was trying to accomplish with her work. Furthermore, Densmore can be compared to a broader trend, the trend of white women “fighting” for Native rights. 

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The Complicated Legacy of Music and Forced Assimilation – Stewart Indian School, Nevada

Carson City. A sleepy small town in the Eagle Valley of Nevada. Surrounded by brown hills and the mighty Sierra Nevada to the West, the town seems even smaller. In Nevada it is common to spray paint the hills with the letter of the local high schools. In Carson City there is only one public high school, Carson High, and looking to the west you can see a giant C on the hill – we call this C hill. But if you look to the east, you’ll see another letter spray painted on the hill – S hill. But S hill is not the site of high school teenagers yearly pranks and shenanigans like C hill is. It’s a remembrance. A remembrance of the residential boarding school that operated in Carson City for over 90 years.

C Hill

Stewart Indian School, also known in its history as Carson Indian School or Carson Institute, was built as part of the assimilationist era policies of the late 19th century that forcibly removed Native children from their families to be trained at residential schools. The school opened in 1890, first taking students from the local Washoe, Paiute, and Western Shoshone tribes, but later expanding to take students from all across the Western United States.

This snapshot is from the Board of Indian Commissioners Bulletin No. 34 in 1917, and is representative of the white savior complex that was common at the time and associated with Stewart

There is a lot that can be said about residential schools and about Stewart in general, such as the way white people viewed and operated the school, the drastic differences in experience of students across the school’s 90 years of operation, and the historical trauma and reclaiming of the space by the Nevada Indian Commission today. I encourage you to learn more at their website. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to focus on one element of the school – the band.

Considering Stewart’s legacy of forced assimilation and the punishment of students’ cultural heritage (like language, music, and traditions), I expected to be writing a post about how the school’s band was just another tool of assimilation and erasure. But while it was undoubtedly part of that same structure of assimilation and cultural violence, my research led me to view the Stewart band’s legacy as more complex than just that.

Since documentation was much harder to find for the earlier years of operation, I’m focusing on the last 40 or so years of operation, from the 1940s to 1980. Looking through many school yearbooks from this era, I found that the band was always featured prominently. It had at least it’s own page and often many pictures, sometimes accompanied by a description of the band’s accomplishments. The band was public facing, competing at competitions, performing at the Nevada Day Parade, and giving public concerts. I managed to find an aural resource, a description from the son of former band director Earl Laird (director from 1930-1939) which described Laird as a beloved teacher, and an interview clip of an alumnus of the band from the 1940s who described playing in the Nevada Day Parade as “the biggest highlight”.

Based on my preliminary research in the yearbook archives and the audio recording, my impression is that the band was important to the students, at least in the later years of operation. So despite being part of an institution of forced assimilation and being inextricably linked to this horrible legacy, perhaps within the context of the school itself the band offered some sort of relief. More research is necessary to fully understand the Stewart band, but one thing is certain – it has a complex legacy.



Nevada and California Indians. Board of Indian Commissioners Bulletin No. 34, 1917. American Indian Histories and Cultures. https://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Images/Ayer_MS_911_BX05_1/110
Tara Williams, and Susan M. Tracz. “Taking Back the Fire: Schooling Experiences of Central California Indian People Across Generations.” Journal of American Indian Education 55, no. 2 (2016): 75–98. https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.55.2.0075.
“Stewart Indian School ‘Home of the Braves.’” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGP2nxlgA6E&t=1255s.

“Stewart Indian School Trail Map.” Stewart Indian School, https://stewartindianschool.com/walking-trail/.


What can maps tell us about how colonialists thought?

Before this course, I had not thought in depth about how something usually perceived as “neutral” by the viewer (i.e. maps) can actually contain many clues as to the motivations and thoughts of the creator. I always saw maps as an unbiased source of information, which of course, I have come to learn is completely false. With this new found enlightenment, I decided to take a look a a map I found in the American Indian Histories and Cultures database. This map is titled “A map of the British and French settlements in North America”. It is dated to be created between the years 1745 and 1749. I could not find a single cartographer or artist name, but we can assume the creator came from a British perspective because the language of the map is English.


The first thing I noticed is that this map is extremely chaotic. Certainly not up to Maeve’s standards. The colors do not correspond to any particular legend or key and too many things are labeled so that the viewer doesn’t know what to focus on.

So besides the fact that this is just a poorly designed map, what does this tell us about the perspectives of colonialists?

The first thing that I noticed is the way the territories are color coded in completely straight lines or rarely with landmarks such as lakes or rivers. This reveals a couple of things. Firstly, this gives us insight to the way in which colonialists either negotiated with each other to create such clear and arbitrary boundaries or that the British (creating this map) are simplifying the ever changing territories with these completely perfect barriers. Nonetheless, we can recognize that these boundaries are indications that the colonialists had very little regard to the Native Americans that were living on these lands in the context of dividing up land.

Speaking of Native Americans, we can also notice from this map that although the land division among the colonialists does not regard them at all, their presence was almost certainly known among colonialists, as the rivers are labeled after them. For example, we can see, a “Chickasaw” river and a “Cherokee” river. There is even an area labeled “Chactaws” where I assume that the Choctaw people inhabited.

This dissonance between the recognition of Native American presences in labeled landmarks and the absence of them in territory borders gives us lots to grapple with. For one, we have to realize that Native Americans were obviously a notable part of life for colonialists in the 16th century. The map shows us this. However, the map also shows us how the lack of inclusion of them in drawing boundaries, at least in the perspective of the British, illustrates how colonialists saw Native Americans as “uncivilized” or “savages” not worthy of owning land.


Giddens and Powers: Reclaiming Minstrelsy

Much like the tunes from our sheet music discussion, “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” features a sweet tune with racialized lyrics, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for most twenty-first century listeners who stumble upon it. (Side note: the plethora of sheet music that fit this exact description is somewhat overwhelming, to be honest.) 

Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline

Composed in 1914 by Caro Roma, this song features the words of the poet William Henry Gardner — who she seemed to work with quite often, according to WorldCa. Like many popular minstrel songs and vaudeville pieces, W.H. Gardner writes in the dialect white people  projected onto African Americans. Although the title is heavy with this racist misrepresentation, this poem also includes phrases like the following:

 “I miss yo’ when de moonbeams out on de ribber shine,” and 

“It’s mah heart a-callin’ dine.” 

Likewise, the song follows the narrator who pines over his love Caroline, equating a lot of this emotion with natural imagery, as evidenced in the lines featured above. However, Caroline could be either oblivious to their attempts to swoon or is simply not interested. Regardless of what Caroline thinks of the narrator, I think this tune is not only relatable to most people, but speaks to a more common theme of unrequited love in art music — I digress, but Robert Schumann’s Dichterleibe comes to mind, especially considering the rich harmony combined with the expressive chromatic melody. 

While I do enjoy the tune and the story,  I chose this song because of  a secondary video recording I discovered when searching for a recording of the piece. Listen to Bill Power’s rendition of “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” below.


To quote the only YouTube comment accompanying this video, I “don’t know [of]  bill powers but this is mighty moving.” I shared a similar reaction to El Baby Snail after watching this video. Singer Bill Powers takes Roma’s prescriptive text “with expression” to heart. Each repetition of sweet Caroline’s name seems to stretch for longer and longer, articulated with a thoughtful breath or pause. Not only does the emotion of love and lack thereof come through in his voice, but his facial expressions and gestures take this performance to another level. 

from the 1st verse of “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline”

This performance actually reminds me of some of the interviews featured  in Sheryl Kaskowitz’s article “Before It Goes Away….” In this blog post, Kaskowitz presents Rhiannon Giddens’s argument to understand the many layers that minstrel songs contain, including knowing a song’s history and even “replac[ing] offensive lyrics with those that uncover, rather than denigrate, the experience of African Americans.” In this recording, I see Bill Powers engaging with some of Giddens’s ideas, long before Giddens’s birth. The singer omits some of the lyrics–  the line about the “ribber” and the entire second verse– and plays the written dialect way down. If anything, “heah” sounds reminiscent of a British accent in this recording. 

Ultimately, I think this combination of sheet music and recording shows how the steps that African American performers took were incredibly small. Bill Power’s rendition of this tune produces a dignified version of a song that could have easily gone the other way. “[M]ighty moving,” indeed.


Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “Before it Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy,” The Avid Listener Blog. https://theavidlistenerblogcom.wordpress.com/2020/07/28/before-it-goes-away-performance-and-reclamation-of-songs-from-blackface-minstrelsy/  

Merrill, Sally. “Roma, Caro.” Grove Music Online. 2 Jun. 2011; Accessed 28 Oct. 2021. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002093474.

Reynolds, Christopher. “Documenting the Zenith of Women Song Composers: A Database of Songs Published in the United States and the British Commonwealth, Ca. 1890-1930.” Notes – Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 69, no. 4 (06, 2013): 671-687. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/documenting-zenith-women-song-composers-database/docview/1370890418/se-2?accountid=351

Roma, Caro and Gardner, William Henry, “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” (1914). Historic Sheet Music Collection. 38. https://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/sheetmusic/38

Representations of Indigenous Song

In my own independent research for our culminating semester project, I’ve been exploring Indigenous song collection in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. So, with my exploration of the Sheet Music Consortium this week, I wanted to see what sheet music could tell me about this particular ethnographic practice. What is particularly challenging in my own research in Indigenous song collection is the tension between Indigenous musical practice and ethnographers like Frances Densmore who recorded songs, through both audio recordings and written scores. Though written scores, especially like those Densmore published in her bulletins (like Chippewa Music)  for the Bureau of American Ethnology, can provide insight into Densmore’s experience with Indigenous music, there are still questions as to how accurately they represent concrete, traditional musical practice.

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The Georgia Minstrels Break Tradition

We often focus importantly on the elements of minstrelsy which tie each troupe together; the costumes, dialect, racial humor, and urban audiences, however the Georgia Minstrels were breaking this tradition as early as 1876. Black people doing minstrelsy is complicated as though minstrelsy poked fun at Black people, the performing arts were one of a very limited number of spaces where Black people could occupy during the reconstruction era. 1 Although the idea of white people consuming Black performance art meant to dehumanize the performers is repulsive, the autonomy, creativity and talent of the Black performers involved should not be overlooked. The Georgia minstrels created for themselves a path to spaces where Black people could not occupy just over 10 years earlier. They were often asked to perform in vocal ensembles in churches and classical music performance venues, often part of a larger organized group’s performance.

One such performance was on March 12 1876 at the Boston Theatre where the Georgia Minstrels were invited to perform at the Grand Sacred Jubilee Concert, featuring the Grand Jubilee singers and others presenting works by Haydn, Rossini and other classical composers as well as Negro spirituals. Here is one piece which is from Peter Devonear’s Plantation Songs (1878):

“Run Home Levi” from Peter Devonear’s Plantation Songs.3


Peter Devonear was a songwriter for the Georgia Minstrels who relied heavily on the conventional minstrel or “plantation” song rather than the spirituals. This piece is similar to many minstrel songs which invent new material for verses that rely on character creation, “Run home Levi, run home for de sun’s down.” The line, “Den I dont want to stay here no longer” then draws on plantation song sentiment. Eileen Southern writes of the intricacy behind an all-Black troupe performing songs rooted in slavery, “The Georgia Minstrels undertook to produce shows which were novel and distinctly ‘genuine,’ planation Black-American, and, at the same time enough in conformity with minstrel traditions to please their interracial audiences and keep them returning for more.” 2

One of the other groups on the program for the night were the Hyers Sisters, a group of three Black female performers who toured around the U.S. during the nineteenth century, impressing audiences with their musical talent. They, like the Jubilee Singers, performed repertoire in the Western music tradition yet are also an example of the opposition of Black performers to predefined role fulfillment. Jocelyn Buckner writes, “They pushed boundaries of acceptable and expected roles for black and female performers by developing works that moved beyond stereotypical caricatures of African American life.”4

Taking a look at Black performance groups during reconstruction has dramatically challenged my knowledge of racial power dynamics. In my opinion, criticizing minstrelsy for its racism alongside acknowledging the accomplishments of Black performers is one way in which students today can seek an antiracist, critical knowledge of American history. Of course this is just an opinion, and if you as the reader think I am misguided, I would love to hear what you have to say!


[1]Lott, Eric. Love and Theft : Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Duality of Dave Reed Jr’s Compositions

There’s little information about composer Dave Reed Jr. available online. And although many records of his compositions exist in Databases, there are few recordings and even fewer quality recordings. What I’ve learned from my research is that Dave published his sheet music, for which he was the composer and lyricist, from 1894-1921. His father was Dave Reed Sr., a famous minstrel performer. That being said, I still couldn’t figure very much out about either of these men.  

In all of my research, what I was most interested in finding was the context for some of Dave Reed Jr.’s published songs. On the sheet music consortium, I found 3 pieces by Reed that piqued my interest. They were all about women, specifically women of color (two about black women and one about a native American woman). Interestingly, all of these songs describe these women as beautiful, graceful, and even aristocratic. Take a look at these lyrics from “Lady Africa”

“…She is de Queen of color’d high society

They shout Hurrah for Lady Africa

For she’s the perfect essence of propriety…”

I found myself wondering, are these songs actually celebrating black women? Spoiler alert: I don’t know. But in researching and reasoning, I ended with one final thought: Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I’ll elaborate.

First, I was curious about the race of the composer, since I figured there would be a higher chance for celebrating black women if the composer was a black man. Some of the songs are also written with a black-American dialect. Dave Reed Sr. was part of a group called Bryants Minstrels, who at first glance seem to be a white troupe since the leaders (the Bryants) were white. But with further reading, I learned that they did have at least a few black performers. Additionally, I found a picture of David Reed Sr. wearing blackface, where he looks white, but of course, I can’t say that definitively. 

Next, I examined the music in relation to the time period. These songs were all published before 1920, placing them in the minstrel time period, yet there was no evidence that they were ever performed as minstrel songs. But when comparing the music to other music at the time, it is not very different. The instrumental parts all seem similar to a ragtime style, which we know came almost directly from minstrelsy. Furthermore, the subject matter is the same as that in minstrels. The lyrics simply talk about romantic themes and black women: something that doesn’t seem out-of-place now but could’ve been satirical in that time. 

After researching, it seems as though Dave Reed Jr. was not intending to celebrate black women. But without context, it might not matter. These songs talk about black women in high standing, from beautiful lands, who are desirable in many ways. I think it’s possible that these songs could be reclaimed today, given that the lyrics could be seen in a positive light.


Music Division, The New York Public Library. “My Hannah lady, whose black baby is you” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 25, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-f04d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Books and Media, Duke University Library. “Lady Africa” Duke University Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 25, 2021. https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE005411564

Arizona State University. “My Kickapoo Queen” Arizona State University Sheet Music Collection. Accessed October 25, 2021.https://hdl.handle.net/2286/R.A.127822

Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. “Reed, David,” accessed October 25, 2021, https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/names/107887.b0807

Joe Davis’ Minstrel Folio… boy oh boy

This week, we continued our discussion on minstrelsy, so I looked up some primary sources by searching up minstrel shows and performances. There was one source that was quite interesting and concerning at the same time. It is a book of songs and jokes performed at minstrel shows with a frankly horrible sense of humor, and I want to present to you a few pages in this book. 

This source is a book titled Joe Davis Entertainment and Minstrel Folio, and it was published in 1931 in New York, and was compiled by Joe Davis. This book also included works by some other musicians and composers, which are all credited on both the cover page and individual scores. Honestly, it was hard to determine who this source is for, but Joe Davis himself seems very proud of this work. In his foreword he said, “Never before has such a wealth of material suitable for Radio, Home entertainment, professional or amateur show been assembled in a single folio.” I can’t imagine playing minstrel songs with racist undertones and bad jokes that are mostly unfunny and unbearable… Yeah I roasted him. I tried to do a deepdive on Davis, but when I typed his name into google, this same book showed up and it is quite easily accessible still, and it is sold on amazon for the sweet price of 26 dollars. It is quite concerning to me that this part of the history is not dead, but pretty much still alive. 

There are two specific things in this book I want to talk about. First, there are a lot of short early stages dad jokes (which I may or may not be stealing), but there are also some pretty racist jokes. On page 14, which is a section of jokes titled “Da*ky-ology,” and the one at the bottom of the page does not involve any slurs but makes jokes at black people’s death. It goes like:

Sam: Where were you the other morning at nine o’clock.

Ruf: I went Black Berrying.

Sam: Black Berrying? What do you mean by that?

Ruf: Well, I went to a colored funeral.

So… I don’t see how this is funny, and it was quite uncomfortable when I first read it.

Another page I want to talk about is page 51, which is a music score of a song titled Dixie Jamboree. Similar to the joke, this song takes black experience and makes entertainment and mockery out of it. The lyrics suggests the theme of  slavery and plantation life, hence “Way down South there in the land of cotton.” A theme I have noticed in minstrelsy (and white scholars’ study of African American music) is that they try to skew the realities of slavery and try to make it seem like the enslaved black people were enjoying their lives, when in reality they are far from that. One of the arguments they would use is that enslaved people would not be singing if they were not having a good time, but we have discussed that although sometimes music was used in celebratory scenes, a lot of times it was a way of mourning and praying. The lyrics delivered the same ideology, such as, “They have some times, wonderful times, known as Dixie Jamborees, Such good fun one seldom sees.”

This source connects with course material quite closely, and I really hope what happened a century ago will not happen again today, where white people and society as a whole finds interest in black art, but separates it from black emotions, faiths and experiences. I know it is still happening today. We NEED to be better. 


Works Cited


Cohen Quest III: The Red Herring

Welcome again, travelers, to yet another installment of my award winning blog series Cohen Quest. Today, hear the whistle of the archival train as we pull into our next stop, the Sheet Music Consortium. An initial search of “Cecil Cohen” proves fruitless; confining the search to “Names” seems to break the database even further (but maybe the website is just bad). A search of “Charles Cohen,” however, pulls up an interesting piece of music entitled “Baby Lou,” held in the Duke University Digital Collections. Let’s follow it down the proverbial rabbit hole, shall we?

I have many questions to answer regarding this particular entry, such as: when was this piece composed and/or published? who is Vandersloot Music Pu. Co? who is Kenneth Lacey? is this our same Mr. Cohen? And this is where Sheet Music Consortium, or the archivist who entered this data, has failed us. There is no outside link to the material, and when I searched “Charles Cohen,” “Baby Lou,” and “Vandersloot” in the Duke University Digital Collections, it came up empty. After some deeply frustrating searches through WorldCat and the UMKC audio archives, it seemed as though, yes, this “Baby Lou”, which really is the B-side to a record called “My song of the Nile”, was in fact composed by our same 1894-1967 Cecil Cohen. Great, now we have another piece of his to add to the collection!

Sheet music for "Carnival Bingo" by Charles (Chas.) Cohen.

“Carnival Bingo” by Chas (Charles) Cohen, held at the Mississippi State University Library.

The next two search results under “Baby Lou” are a pair of entries for a song called “Carnival Bingo”. The first doesn’t give us much besides that its also held at Duke University (no results when searched in the Duke digital collections) and the publisher being Vandersloot. The second gives us a bit more: actual images for sheet music to “Carnival Bingo,” this time held at the Mississippi State University Library. Excellent! Sheet music! I never thought I would get this excited over sheet music. Let’s look at the entry in the MSU database and… oh. The composer is listed as “Cohen, Charles, 1907-“. No matter, maybe they just credited his dates wrong? Let’s click the name to pull up the other entries to see if the pieces we recognize are there, and…

Now I’m confused. The other two pieces listed, “River Side Rag” and “Fashion Rag”, both include a portion on the front page listing “Chas Cohen” as composer of “Carnival Bingo,” “I love you still,” and “Baby Lou”. A search in WorldCat for “I love you still” brings up yet another piece found in the Duke University Collection, but this time with a link to a piece by “Cohen, Charles, 1878-1931”. Clicking this name, I find an entry for “Baby Lou,” and putting “Carnival Bingo” in WorldCat brings me to the same guy.

Y’all, it was a red herring. There are two Charles Cohen’s: both mixed-race composers and pianists, born late 1800s, and died early/mid 1900s. The major points of differentiation are that this Chas Cohen composed primarily rags and stayed around the East Coast (New York and Pennsylvania), whereas the guy I’m looking for wrote mostly art song, was born in Chicago, and worked at Howard University in DC until his death. There is a very real possibility that our Cohen started going by his middle name of Cecil so as not to be confused by the other Charles Cohen.

There is a real issue going on: it seems as though these two black composers are being conflated by various databases simply because no one has done the necessary work to separate them. Composers of color are not given the same care and attention to identify them as distinct, with rich inner lives; this is a tragedy that needs remedying. The best way to do this, of course, is to encourage archivists and librarians to focus more on composers from marginalized backgrounds and identities; unfortunately this is a lot more difficult than it sounds because the powers that be make more money by upholding white supremacy in Western music.

See you next time on Cohen Quest, dearest reader.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Five Fairy Ballads”

In many African American music traditions that we have studied thus far, we have seen music as a tool of expression of joy, sorrow, or hope, to name a few. While this class has mainly focused on spirituals, popular music, and sacred music, I was interested in looking at African American expression in classical music. This brought me on a search for sheet music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, an English composer, conductor, and professor of music during the late 18th century and early 19th century. My question was, “how might Coleridge-Taylor choose to express the topic of race in a musical tradition in which white people have held the power?”.

After Coleridge-Taylor met the African American poet P.L. Dunbar in 1897, his music began to focus more on his heritage and his desire to “establish the dignity of African Americans” (Banfield), leading to works such as African Romances (1897) or African Suite for Pianoforte (1898), among others. The work of Coleridge-Taylor that I’m focusing on in this blog post, Five Fairy Ballads, was written in 1909 to poems by Kathleen Easmon, a friend of Coleridge-Taylor and the first West African to earn a diploma from the Royal College of Arts.

I thought that this work was interesting to investigate because of the clear way that Coleridge-Taylor is choosing to use the text of another artist with African heritage. Due to racism, classical music repertoire has been overwhelmingly white for most of its history, despite the fact that many black composers have created masterpieces. The classical music world still has a lot of work to do in terms of representation and inclusivity, but Coleridge-Taylor’s music, along with other BIPOC composers of his time, established that it should be a place for everyone. Five Fairy Ballads makes a space for African voices in a world that has silenced them, and invites others to join in.


Works Cited

Banfield, S., Dibble, J., & Laurence, A.  Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002248993.


Blame It On The Blues

Blame It On The Blues is a 1914 jazz/blues/stomp song by Chas. L Cooke. It is written in the key of G in simple duple time. The beginning of the piece starts off with a sequence that repeats three times, each time down an octave. The right hand retains the melody throughout the entire piece and the left hand plays an eighth note pattern that alternates from being on the beat to being syncopated. The right hand is mainly syncopated. Like many blues pieces, there are many accidentals scattered throughout the whole song. The song itself is only about three pages long, but with its many repeats, it becomes around six pages. Just by looking at it and doing a quick musical analysis of the piece, you can tell it’s jazz/blues. When you listen to it, you can feel its syncopation and it definitely sounds very repetitive, almost cyclical. When I had this thought about the piece being “cyclical” I hadn’t even realized what the image on the title page was. It is a man and woman, drawn in black and white, sitting in a coil which looks like circles going up and up. Listening to the piece also makes me feel cartoonishly upbeat and active, like I want to complete a task. I think this is because jazzy, old-timey music such as this piece is used in soundtracks for silent films. In those films, the characters/people are moving around very quickly (due to the way it was animated) doing mundane or silly activities. Still, I couldn’t help but listen to it multiple times. I started this post in a very serious and focused mood but I couldn’t help but go down a rabbit hole of popular jazz/blues tunes of the early twentieth century. I guess you might say I could “blame it on the blues”.  


What’s White Christmas without Minstrelsy?

White Americans have always love nostalgia and cozy feelings of their past. What could be more nostalgic than a white family curled up on a couch watching Irving Berlin’s White Christmas? If you noticed something wrong about that sentence, good. The movie is all about nostalgia with the actors “dreaming of a white Christmas” or singing tunes such as “Gee, I wish I was back in the army.” In the film White Christmas there is an iconic scene called the Minstrel Number.

This was a song that was a medley written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. The song “Id Rather See a Minstrel Show” opens the medley when sequels into “Mr. Bones.” “Mr. Bones” has Clooney singing of “minstrel men we miss” and “when Georgie Primrose used to sing and dance to a song like this.” Now Primrose was a white vaudeville song-and-dance man who wore blackface in the late 19th century. However, to really feel the effects of these lyrics popping up in one of America’s favorite nostalgic movies we have to go back to another movie of Irving Berlin with the infamous Bing Crosby; Holiday Inn; in which “White Christmas” was first sang.

While Holiday Inn was released in 1942, by 1954 when White Christmas was released it was already considered ill of someone to black up their faces. In Holiday Inn there is one song in particular that stands out and is often CUT out of the movie during showings. This is “Abraham” performed by Bing Crosby in full black face on Abraham’s birthday.

All the musicians and dancers around him are also in full black face. Only 12 years before White Christmas and 12 years before performing in black face was looked down upon, black face performances amongst major mainstream stars at the time was very acceptable. This brings me to the sheet music of both “Abraham” and “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show.” Upon researching minstrel music in pop culture I came across the beloved Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby; both loved by generations of Americans. I saw that Irving Berlin had had both “Mandy” and “Id Rather See a Minstrel Show” published in Ziegfield Follies of 1919. While “Mandy” was of easy access, the Minstrel Show number was almost impossible to come by. I spent quite some time following every bunny trail I could to get to the sheet music of the Minstrel Show number but to no avail. Recalling Holiday Inn and Minstrel themes in that movie I tried to find sheet music to “Abraham.” This piece was also surprisingly hard to find on Sheet Music Consortium and I was eventually redirected to Baylor University’s Digital Libraries before I found it.

These two pieces are important as they bind exemplify some of America’s most beloved actors and song/screenwriters. They humble us as they remind us that none of us were too good for blackface and the enjoyment America wrongfully sought in it. It also reminds us of how minstrelsy and still be in pop culture of today and the elements of life that are important to our cultures.

Abraham : From the Paramount picture, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Abraham : from the Paramount picture, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – Quartex site. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/abraham-from-the-paramount-picture-irving-berlins-holiday-inn/1129932?item=1142940.

Library Of Congress. (n.d.). I’d rather see a minstrel show – library of congress public domain search. Library Of Congress. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://loc.getarchive.net/media/id-rather-see-a-minstrel-show-2.

A Little More “Fascination” Talk…

I was quite “successful” in finding sources for this blog post, and please take the air quotes with a lot more weight than a grain of salt. Let’s just say I wasn’t super thrilled with the plethora of findings I had in searching this topic. This post “piggybacks” off of my last post talking about fascination. Let the conversation continue!

It should be no surprise that Asian Americans have constantly dealt with harsh racism throughout American history. Although, the proof of this racism can be found in the musical scene of the first few decades of the 20th century in particular. From derogatory slang to severe stereotypes, this music is not lacking in either. The interesting content I found can seamlessly tie to Eric Lott’s thoughts, despite his focus on specifically blackface minstrelsy, points to the dichotomy regarding “love and theft” and “envy as well as repulsion” (page 8) in regards to how white people have gone about these traditions.

I found numerous pieces of sheet music alluding to this dichotomy of this expropriation yet strange eroticization towards Asian people. For example, in From Here to Shanghai, a song written in 1917 by Irving Berlin, it explicitly brings up various aspects that Americans tended to deeply stereotype the Chinese. It references sitting in “bamboo chairs”, “sipping Oolong tea”, pairs of “wooden sticks”, “Chinaman that speaks away up high”, and the list goes on. This song alludes to a sense of fantasization of the Chinese- “I’ll soon be there”- referring to almost an urge to want to see this culture that differs from America.  

From Here to Shanghai (1917) – Irving Berlin

Another source I found points to the side of the dichotomy revealing themes of “envy” and eroticism. Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows talks about the narrator wanting to find a “sweet little China pearl” with “dreamy almond eyes.” It goes on in this “search for love”: “I’ll fix my lips for some Chinese kisses” and “I’m going to find what Chinese bliss is.”

Where the Yang-Tze (1917)- pg. 4

This overtly reminds me of the quote in Lott’s book:

“…because they were so attracted to the culture they plundered” (page 8).


Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows (1917) – Cover Page

It is painfully clear that there was an immense, oddly obvious attraction to the Chinese. This seems contradictory to other lines in the song that again refers to stereotypes and terrible generalizations. I couldn’t help but make the ties between this type of music with the practice of blackface minstrelsy. These songs written about the Chinese people can define the whiteness and white perspective of most likely a large chunk of the American society, especially considering the political climate emerging from the Chinese Exclusion Act published in 1882.  

The underlying themes that we’ve talked about in class have been perspective-altering, to say the least. The fact of how much they tie together astounds me, as well. It will be hard to look at any music from now on in a non-critical manner, which I think only benefits us as musicians in the long run.


From Here to Shanghai:


Where the Yang-Tse Ki-Ang Flows:


An analysis of works published by T.B. Harms & Co.

Last week we analyzed some shocking images in the form of sheet music. Printed, sold, and studied sheet music. I was not only floored by the experience of handling such egregious materials containing such ugly content. I was further surprised by the knowledge that “Hello my Baby”, a song sung to me as a child by my mother and the television alike, a song that just earlier that week I referenced in jest, was a minstrel song. The knowledge that minstrelsy is ever present in our present lives is equal parts haunting and infuriating, as with that knowledge comes the inevitable inward analysis required to recognize my place in perpetuating it. This week I decided to the sheet music that spoke to me the most, and go further and analyze those who created this work. Who would make this? Who would sell this? What other egregious and ugly content have they gotten away with making and selling? In doing so, I found the name. T.B Harms & Co. Publishing House.

B. Harms & Co were one of the most notable music distributors in the early 20th century. Founded in 1875 by Alex and Thomas Harms, the distribution company worked to produce music for many notable artists at the time, namely George Gershwin and Cole Porter, among others. In using the Sheet music Consortium to find scores released at the time, I found more striking pieces using racist imagery, writing and art.

Take this for example. This piece, titled “I Want Yer Ma Honey”, is another example of a popular song, similar to “Hello Ma Baby”. The singer sings about waiting an unnamed figure badly, being passionately in love with them, though the text reads as follows: 

“When de banjo’s a-strummin’

And de darkies’ a-hummin’

Den I want yer, ma honey

Yes I do”

Another example shows that the racism and fetishization present in work from T.B. Harms was not exclusive to the black community. An example found from the SMC, titled “Poor Butterfly”, depicts a pulp story of an American soldier sailing to show a waiting Japanese Damsel how to “live and love the American way”, only to leave her stranded where she was found, waiting for her American hero to return. 

These images can be painful to sift through and analyze, but the study of these images and scores not only clues us in to how large this issue was at the time, but also how ingrained this music and its ideals is in our everyday lives. These publishing dates are not that far from our present date, and these musicians weren’t necessarily nobodies. Their tunes remain, their influence lingers, and most importantly, the scars they’ve inflicted aren’t yet healed.

SMC Portal to T.B. Harms’ works: https://repository.duke.edu/dc/hasm?f%5Bpublisher_facet_sim%5D%5B%5D=T.B.+Harms%2C+New+York+%28N.Y.%29

Info on T.B. Harms & Co. : https://biblio.uottawa.ca/omeka1/silentfilmmusiccanada/exhibits/show/warner-chappell-music/t–b–harms—francis–day—hsheet musi

Can a Font be Racist?

Content Warning: Anti-Asian Racism

“Oyster pail takeout box.” Image is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oyster_pail_takeout_box_(2558467231).jpg

If you take a look at this photo of a takeout box, you probably don’t have to even think to know what kind of restaurant it came from; the font is clearly “Chinese.”

However, the reality is that there is nothing truly Chinese about this font at all. “Chop Suey Font” is so named because like the American food “Chop Suey,” the font has come to be associated with Chinese culture despite being an entirely American creation (Quito). The first version of this stereotyped font was patented in the United States in 1883 (United States Trademark Office) and has been frequently used in anti-Asian propaganda for the United States government (Quito).

Anti-Japanese propaganda printed by the United States government in 1943. Image is in the Public Domain in the United States. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntiJapanesePropagandaTakeDayOff.png

Chop Suey Font is also everywhere in early 20th century American music, where sentimentalization and satirization of people of color was a common feature of music enjoyed by white audiences. Here are four examples that I found in the Sheet Music Consortium database (My Chinese Butterfly, My Oriental Girl, Chinese Blues, Oh that Oriental Rag).

While “Oh That Oriental Rag” is not written specifically in Chop Suey font, the lettering resembling bamboo is also an example of an ethnic font, or a font associated with an ethnic identity.

The lyrics and music songs of these songs reflect American attitudes of Orientalism, which defined “Eastern” culture as different and inferior to “Western” culture. Specifically, the East was seen as untamed, seductive, and emotional, while the West was civilized, rational and logical (Grove Music Online). The songs include sensual melodies full of accidentals, sexualized Asian women as love interests, and open fifths, which are frequently used in stereotyped representations of Eastern music, perhaps because of their bare and “primitive” sound.

With Chop Suey font so often being used in disparaging contexts, it is worth wondering if the font should be used at all, especially by white people. However, the font is also frequently used by Asian American business owners, which reminds me of our discussion of how early 20th century Americans of marginalized ethnicities often satirized their own identity in order to sell music to white audiences. Like many facets of American culture, Chop Suey Font is a remnant of America’s past that reminds us to consider the less obvious ways in which our country’s history of racism continues to pervade our society.

Performer, Performance, and Class in Minstrelsy

CW: Images of blackface

Prior to the 1840s, performers of minstrelsy were depicted on sheet music and other performance advertisements in costume, with props, and simulating stereotypical aspects of African American life. The images featured white performers in blackface, and often in “dance-like” positions, emulating a dancing enslaved person.

In this representation, the performers are not depicted as someone giving a performance, but rather a “character”, which gives the impression that the performance is realistic and representative of the lives of enslaved people. This can be seen in an advertisement for a performance by Mr. T.D. Rice, a.k.a “The Original Jim Crow”. It can also be seen on the sheet music cover for “At a Georgia Campmeeting”. Continue reading

What’s a Cakewalk?

Last class period, we briefly talked about cakewalk dances and songs, and I decided to do some digging. I was very intrigued in the origin and history of cakewalks, as well as what type of music makes it a cakewalk.

According to Grove Music, a cakewalk is a “social and theatrical dance of African American origin, developed from a competitive “prize walk” done by slaves on antebellum plantations in southern states.1

There are musical similarities between the cakewalk and ragtime, and I noticed this while I was perusing the Sheet Music Consortium database. Of the numerous results for “cakewalk”, most of the sources are also listed as “two-step”, and some are categorized as a ragtime also. See for example this image below the entry2 for “Raz ma taz” by William H. Smith.

The source fits into quite a few categories, and I also think it’s interesting that ragtime and the cakewalk are so similar, yet I had never known the cakewalk to be anything but an elementary school carnival game.

Admittedly, my source-searching-and-locating process felt a little random this time. Eventually, I found a source titled “Raz-Ma-Taz”, which is shown below. This piece was composed in 1901 by William H. Smith, and was intended to accompany a two-step dance. 

Something that immediately struck me was the obvious rhythmic similarities to some of the famous ragtime pieces we have all heard before.

Looking at arguably one of the most well-known pieces in a ragtime style out there (above), we can see the rhythmic and structural similarities between these two pieces. From the left hand stride pattern prominent in both pieces to the syncopated melodic figures and flourishes, it is pretty clear that these styles are closely intertwined.


Works Cited:

[1] Conyers, Claude. “Cakewalk.” Grove Music Online. 23 Feb. 2011; Accessed 26 Oct. 2021. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092374.

[2] Smith, William H. “Raz ma taz; Cake walk & two-step; What it is?.” Duke University Libraries Repository. Last modified , 1901. Sheet Music Consortium (B-912). https://idn.duke.edu/ark:/87924/r4hh6hd6n.

Minstrel Songs, the Whitewashing of Lyrics, and Erasure of History

Oh Susanna is a song I personally remember singing in my childhood, during daycare, summer camps, and elementary school. So, when I learned in class that Oh Susanna is a song written for minstrel shows in the mid 1800s and has extremely racist origins I wanted to do a deeper dive on the history of minstrel songs that are still sung today, and learn more about why said songs have had such an effect on our culture.

The first thing that I learned when researching was that Oh Susanna was one of the first popular ‘American’ songs to be published- there were over 100,000 copies sold, where before no song had sold more than 5,000. Many articles I read stated that minstrel songs had been considered in the early 1800s to be America’s purest or singular musical contribution to the world. This is obviously not true. But, the fact that minstrel troupes and songs were published internationally and minstrel shows were extremely popular forms of entertainment led to this genre of music having a great impact on American culture. An article written by Dr. Katya Ermolaeva on the history and impact of songs such as Oh Susanna and Camptown Races states, “Minstrelsy left an indelible mark on the American music and entertainment industries”. The first ever film with sound in America, The Jazz Singer (1927), was a story of a singer who wanted to work in a minstrel troupe.

Why are these songs are still taught and sung by people often, and why were they so popular? The answer to that question is complex, but I would like to focus on a singular issue- the whitewashing of their lyrics. Oh Susanna’s original lyrics include racist slurs and is written in a stereotyped black dialect common in minstrel shows of the mid 1800s. Ermolaeva explains how, throughout the decades of the 20th century, due to the civil rights movement and growing social justice movements, minstrelsy and blackface became more and more unacceptable in society. But, instead of being removed entirely from songbooks and soundtracks, minstrel songs and stereotypes merely became more and more subtle. Ermolaeva discusses such a change in the context of the minstrel song also still popular today: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. “ The mythologizing of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as a tune celebrating American values has continued into recent decades. When Smithsonian Folkways reissued Seeger’s recording in 1990, the liner notes touted the “democratic passion” of folk revivalists to include the “music of working-class Americans” as part of the “national cultural conversation.” The Black Americans represented in “Railroad,” however, barely had any rights as laborers in railroad camps and arguably still lack basic rights as Americans today.”

The fact that minstrel songs are still sung and accepted as unproblematic additions to the  ‘American music canon’ is incredibly distressing. I would like to finish this blog post with Ermolaeva’s words, which I think speaks to our responsibility to work towards never letting these songs with their racist pasts exist unchallenged. Ermolaeva states, “Removing minstrel songs from children’s music programs will not undo the damage already done by blackface minstrelsy. Their removal, however, would serve as an acknowledgment of the damage wrought by these songs and a pledge to no longer promote that legacy. Our children won’t know the difference now, but one day they will be grateful for our efforts to rid their classrooms — and their childhoods — of racist songs…”



Ermolaeva, K. (2019, November 7). Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class. Medium. https://gen.medium.com/dinah-put-down-your-horn-154b8d8db12a

Oh! Susanna. (1848). The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/sm1848.441780.0/?sp=1

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 14). Oh! Susanna. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh!_Susanna

What do we do with minstrel show texts?

I’m sure many of us have read about the influence that minstrel shows have in our daily lives. We’ve heard about how all of our favorite Disney movies are filled with racist minstrel songs, how our favorite folk songs stem from minstrel shows, and how many of the racist stereotypes people still hold about black folks originate from minstrel shows. I personally experienced a run in with material from a minstrel song that made me think twice about the ways in which we engage with this material.

When looking for music in the Sheet Music Consortium, I looked for music by the famous American (and minstrel song) composer Stephen Foster. The first search result that came up was a piece titled “Under the Willow She’s Sleeping”.


My breath caught in my throat when I saw the title. One of my all time favorite choral songs is an arrangement of this text titled “Under the Willow” by Susan LaBarr. I was introduced to this piece as a sophomore in high school in my state choir. It’s a beautiful song, here’s a recording of the choir singing this piece:

This is a time when my mind was far detached about the realities of minstrel shows, in fact, I had never heard of them. All I knew is that the text discussed a mother burying her daughter. The conductor never acknowledged the origins of the text, which, when looking back, is troubling. Here are the lyrics:

Under the willow she’s laid with care
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Under the willow, with golden hair,
My little one’s quietly sleeping.

Fair, fair, with golden hair,
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Fair, fair, with golden hair,
Under the willow she’s sleeping.


Under the willow no songs are heard,
Near where my darling lies dreaming;
Nought but the voice of some far-off bird
Where life and its pleasures are beaming.


Under the willow by night and day
Sorrowing ever I ponder;
Free from its shadowy, gloomy ray
Ah! never again can she wander.


Under the willow I breathe a prayer
Longing to linger forever
Near to my angel with golden hair
In a land where there’s sorrowing never.

A beautiful text is it not? Not a text you would assume to be involved in a minstrel show no?

But unfortunately this text has origins as a minstrel song. Stephen Foster composed it for the Christy Minstrels. 1

So besides the shock of learning that one of my favorite choral pieces and texts has its origins in a minstrel song, there is also the responsibility of how to handle this information. Firstly, there is the fact that this text is not inherently racist. This gives a nuanced view of the minstrel show as having both racist and non racist text. This paradoxical nature of the minstrel show gives us the challenge of figuring out what to do with a beautiful text such as “Under the Willow”. Do we do away with it because of its minstrel origins? Or do we continue using this text with a disclaimer? Personally, I think it is better to grapple with the duality of these texts than to get rid of them completely.

1 https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt:31735061838995

World War I, Sheet Music Art, and Romanticization of the Military

Throughout our long and complicated militaristic history, music has both shaped and reflected the public perception of the military. In my casual browsing of the Sheet Music Consortium, I began to notice patterns within the depictions of the military in both the art provided on the cover of the sheet music and the music itself, specifically with popular music written either pre or during World War I. As I dug deeper, I realized that I had seen these patterns before in the vast majority of post 9/11 country music.

Continue reading

Radio Minstrels and Aural Blackface

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans

Illustration from the introduction of Paskman’s book.

Blackface initially used visuals to create an image of whiteness, deriving from a contrast with the Blackness portrayed on the stage. However, blackface has adapted to mass media to continue to survive through mediums like the radio. I was intrigued by a book of “new” minstrel music published in 1936 by Dailey Paskman. Paskman was a radio programmer and producer who founded the Dailey Paskman Radio Minstrels, whose popularity led them to vaudeville circuits.1 The introduction of this minstrel folio sheds light on how minstrelsy persisted through a medium without visuals.

In the introduction of his book, Paskman demonstrates his awareness that minstrelsy has changed to maintain an audience. He asserts that

“times and styles may change, but nature persists in reproducing the thoughts, the aspirations, and the accomplishments of mankind.”2

Central to this quotation is the idea that minstrelsy is part of human nature, fighting against an unnamed enemy that resists this art form. This also implies that Paskman sees minstrelsy as an accomplishment worthy of being celebrated. Continue reading

Minstrelsy and American Popular Culture

Content Warning: Offensive language, racial slurs

There’s a common and very problematic sentiment in America that racism and racial oppression are things of the past, and this sentiment certainly applies to minstrelsy as well. While I like to think the majority of Americans would be able agree that minstrelsy was a deeply racist phenomena, a much smaller percentage has a grasp on just how influential it was and still in American popular culture. It’s easy to box it off, to say it was a bad episode of our history, to confine it to the past. But this is certainly not true. The research I did for this blog post made it abundantly clear just how recently minstrelsy was big, and just how absurd it is to claim it has no influence today.

The primary source I focused on was the sheet music for a minstrel song written in 1912, “At Uncle Tom’s Cabin Door”, music by Rubey Cowan and lyrics by Chas. Bayha. The lyrics of this song are extremely racist, romanticizing plantation life and claiming that enslaved people were happier before the Civil War. This recording is from 1913, and I’ve included the lyrics below. The picture shown in the video is the cover of the sheet music.

“In Eighteen Sixty, In Eighteen Sixty,
Those happy days before Emancipation,
‘way down in Dixie, ‘way down in Dixie,
merry darkies you would see.
They had their sorrows, that’s quite true,
But there were happy hours too,
Let’s go back once more,
Back before the war,
and we’ll see some jubilee.

See them dancing around,
Watch them prance on the ground,
Uncle Tom is gay, troubles fade away,
Hear them after each encore,
Roar for more,
Banjo’s strumming a tune,
Topsy’s acting like a loon,
There’s some celebration on the old plantation
At Uncle Tom’s Cabin door.

Just hear them singing, Just hear them singing,
Those good ole darkey tunes they’re harmonizing,
Just see them swinging, just see them swinging
to the strains of “Old Black Joe.”
Here comes the Marsa from his ride,
There’s little Eva by his side,
Sime Legree’s away, bloodhounds are at play,
Those were happy, happy days.

Now, this overt racism is probably not at all surprising even if you know almost nothing about minstrelsy. But what caught my attention about this example is the composers, Cowan and Bayha. Neither of them are especially well known, but what they are known for is not minstrelsy. It’s other forms of popular culture.

We’ll start with Charles Bayha. He was a New Yorker best known for writing wartime songs during World War I, including I’d be proud to be the mother of a soldier. What little information I could find about him made no mention that he wrote minstrel songs, even though he evidently did. He died in 1957, as did Rubey Cowan, coincidentally. I bring this up because 1957 is still within living memory for some Americans.

Rubey Cowan was possibly a bit more well known, given that he had an obituary written in the New York Times. Cowan is described as a TV executive, composer, and music publisher – he worked at Hollywood. I think what is the most striking to me about this is that Cowan – and many others who worked in entertainment – had careers that spanned the time from when minstrelsy was big to when TV was big. It simply was not that long ago that big executives at Hollywood had begun their careers in the minstrelsy industry. From this research it’s not hard to imagine the strong tie between minstrelsy and many other forms of American popular culture.


Bayha, Charles Anthony, William J Halley, and Rubey Cowan. At Uncle Tom’s cabin door. 1913. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-262541/.

Cowan, Rubey and Charles Bayha. At Uncle Tom’s Cabin Door. York Music Co., New York. 1912. Mississippi State University Libraries, Digital Collections. https://cdm16631.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/SheetMusic/id/24824

“Rubey Cowan, 66, Dies”. New York Times. July 30, 1957, 23. https://nyti.ms/3jxAWQt


Minstrelsy: This is (Still) America

Content warning: offensive language and images

Childish Gambino’s, “This is America” and its accompanying video dominated conversations and social media feeds for days following its release in 2018 as well as receiving critical acclaim at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

The music video provides a commentary on gun violence and the lasting impacts of systemic racism and discrimination in America. Of these lasting impacts, one that stands out to me is the presence of minstrelsy in Gambino’s video. 

Minstrelsy is one of the earliest forms of appropriation of black culture in the United States. Eric Lott’s, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, explores the roots of minstrelsy and its lasting effects today. He argues that minstrelsy is not only an act of violence against black people, but also an act of love and fascination. When describing minstrelsy, Lott goes beyond appropriation, describing the act as “expropriation.”

“Cultural expropriation is the minstrel show’s central fact, and we must not lose sight of it… it establishes little about the cultural commerce suggested by one performer’s enthusiasm as he gathered material for his blackface act: ‘I shall be rich in black fun.’”1

White performers are exploiting black culture for (white) public entertainment and subsequently profiting off of it. 

40 seconds into the “This is America” music video as Gambino is dancing, he makes an over exaggerated smirk on his face and winks his eye, similar to the cartoonish way black people were represented in minstrel shows and drawings. Much like the “Turkey in the Straw” sheet music cover art and the Coon-Chicken Inn restaurant logo.

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Otto Bonnell, “Turkey in the Straw.” Mississippi State University, Mississippi State University Libraries (electronic version), 1921, accessed October 23 2021, https://cdm16631.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/SheetMusic/id/24823.

“Burgers in Blackface: Coon Chicken Inn,” “Coon Chicken Inn” in “Burgers in Blackface” on Manifold @uminnpress, accessed October 24, 2021, https://manifold.umn.edu/read/untitled-6b2e0c15-9dd8-4cec-a2b3-81298b9e74ec/section/f907c8e0-69d3-4a83-b630-57fcda04c072.

This subtle act is the first reference to minstrelsy in the video. 

The second reference to minstrelsy is a bit less subtle than Gambino’s facial expressions. At 51 seconds, Gambino pulls out a gun and takes a specific stance before pulling the trigger. This stance references Jim Crow sketches and is incredibly similar to the 1834 cover art for the sheet music of the minstrel song “Zip Coon.”

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1834.360780/.

Gambino’s placement of these references to minstrelsy in the middle of viral dances like the Nae Nae is especially compelling. Today, a major form of cultural appropriation is white people performing and profiting off of dances made and popularized by black artists. So, Gambino using his body to refer back to minstrel shows while performing the Nae Nae, which took America by storm in 2015, is no coincidence. 

Minstrelsy still permeates American culture today- When one looks up “Turkey in the Straw” on google, it’s described as a “folk tune” and suggests performances of the song by Bill Monroe and the Hi-Lo’s. This brings me back to my first blog post and specifically the idea of discovering the whole truth when it comes to American music. Minstrelsy is still alive and well, so what do we do with that information?

1Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 19.

“The Memphis Blues” Becomes The Memphis Joke

While I was looking through Sheet Music Consortium to determine my topic for this blog post, I decided I wanted to talk about representations of my hometown, Memphis, TN, and the perfect piece came up to do just that: “The Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy.

“The Memphis Blues” originated as an instrumental piece1. This is important. Lyrics can totally change the impact of a song, especially if the lyrics do not match the initial message, or “vibe”, if you will, that the instrumental version conveyed. To demonstrate this, I decided to do a little experiment. I passed my headphones to a friend this weekend and asked him to tell me what thoughts and images came to mind as he listened to this instrumental version of the piece2. I made sure that he had not heard it before and that he did not know the name.

Unprompted, he said, “I feel like I’m walking down the street in a city, like a southern city, maybe Tennessee vibes… Oh, now I’m in a restaurant, like a barbecue restaurant, about to devour some ribs.” WOAH!!! That’s Memphis! (Granted, I think Memphis barbecue started closer to the mid-late 20th century, but still.) I said, “Wait, I didn’t accidentally say the name of the piece, did I? It’s called ‘The Memphis Blues’.” He affirmed that I hadn’t told him the title.

I then asked him to listen to a 1915 recording3 with lyrics by George A Norton, a white, non-Memphian, although, again, I said nothing about the version before passing the headphones.

He said that this version had a very different feel, and reminded him of New York, appropriated, white ragtime. Interesting. “The Memphis Blues” no longer seemed to reflect Memphis in the way that the original instrumental version did, but the lyricised version is what became popular.

So how and why did a white, non-Memphian’s lyricised version of a Black Memphian’s instrumental song about Memphis become more popular? It all began when Handy sold the song to the music publisher Theron Bennett (Handy later said that he felt he was cheated out of the rights to his song)4. Then, Bennett hired George A Norton to write the lyrics. Why? I believe Bennett was aware of the lucrative nature of minstrelsy, and knew that adding lyrics would help turn “The Memphis Blues” into a minstrel song. If you read the lyrics, you’ll notice there is lots of dialect, as well as commentary about the accepted musical roles for white people versus black people in the lyrics. Once the lyrics were written, Bennett convinced The Honey Boy Minstrels to perform the piece.

cover for the sheet music performed by the “Honey Boy” Minstrels5

It only took a few years for the song to enter into the mainstream, but once popularized, the song was forever changed. While the song has always been upbeat, I believe the initial, un-lyricised version sounds like a simple, genuine, upbeat nod to Handy’s home. Every recording I’ve listened to with lyrics seems to be for the purpose of a laugh.

In conclusion, if a song once was instrumental but now has lyrics, we should perhaps ask ourselves the question: Are those lyrics serving the original composer’s intent and the mood of the instrumentation? Or was the purpose to make money?



1 “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy. Auburn University Digital Library, Memphis: Theron C. Bennett Co., https://content.lib.auburn.edu/digital/collection/pianobench/id/18.

2  Handy, W.C. “The Memphis Blues by William Christopher Handy (1912, Blues piano)”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6w88NLQTPS4

3 Collins, Arthur & Harlan, Byron G. “Collins and Harlan ‘Memphis Blues’ by W. C. Handy (‘Mister Crump’ early blues) 1915 Columbia A1721”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdRA8BdJQ0k

4 Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

5 “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy and George A. Norton. The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections, Theron C. Bennett Co., https://digitalcollections.libraries.ua.edu/digital/collection/p17336coll5/id/4100

The Harp: Do You See It as a White Instrument? Part II

Welcome back to Part II of my blog series “The Harp: Do You See it as a White Instrument?”. 

As we have previously discussed, if the average American were asked what they envision when they think of harp music, it is likely that their description would most closely match Western classical music. Their image of a harpist would most likely match that of a white woman, angel, or cherub. 

Conversely, if the average American were asked what instruments they think of when they think of jazz or swing music, the harp would unlikely be named at all. 

Silhouette of five players in jazz band, white background

Silhouette of five players in a jazz band, none of whom are playing the harp1

Allow me to challenge these prevailing images by introducing you to Olivette Miller, a Black swing harpist born in 1914. 

From left to right: Gene Sedric, Cliff Jackson, Olivette Miller, and Josh White2

What do we know about Olivette Miller?

It was very difficult to find scholarly secondary sources about Olivette Miller. In fact, Catalyst, the library interface for St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, shows only 15 results for “Olivette Miller”, and they are mostly references in the context of her famous father or ex-husbands (I smell academic sexism). Google results for Miller include a sparse Wikipedia page3, IMDB page4, and an African American Registry entry5, each listing very few, if any, credible secondary source references. One of the best scholarly sources I could find was The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts6, which only briefly mentions Olivette Miller under the biographical information for her father, saying she “was a renowned jazz harpist”. I searched for a recording of Miller playing the harp for a very long time, but only found a recording of her singing7:

What did a mid-twentieth century audience know about Olivette Miller? 

There are far more references to Miller in primary source newspapers, where you discover, after digging, that she was famous in her time. In a 1942 article within the Arkansas State Press8, shown below, a headline reads “Olivette Miller Featured With Noble Sissle”, a prominent jazz composer. The article informs readers that Miller studied harp at the Conservatory of Paris, which is no small feat. 

A newspaper clipping from the New York Age in 1948 announces that Olivette Miller gave a surprise appearance at Fisk University, calling her “New York’s boogie woogie harpist”9:

A clip from the Cincinnati Enquirer advertises Olivette Miller directly underneath Jackie “Moms” Mabley, calling Miller the “World’s Greatest Swing Harpist”10

I also found the advertisement for a movie called “The Joint is Jumpin’”, shown below, which stars and highlights Olivette Miller11. It appears as though the film is lost. Still, Olivette must have been featured because advertisers believed her fame would help ticket sales. 

In conclusion, we know that Olivette Miller was famous in her time, but that she has since been lost to history. What does her disappearance from modern-day discussions of jazz or harp say about race, identity, and representation in American music? Do we only preserve in our memories individuals who fit our expectations for race and genre? 


P.S. If you want to hear what jazz harp would sound like, here’s a recording from the only slightly more-discussed jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby, born 18 years after Olivette12:


1 Amon, Markus. Untitled. Getty Images. Photograph. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/03/09/519482385/sexism-from-two-leading-jazz-artists-draws-anger-and-presents-an-opportunity

2 Gottlieb, William P. Portrait of Gene Sedric, Cliff Jackson, Olivette Miller, and Josh White, Café Society Downtown, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. United States, 1947. , Monographic. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/gottlieb.15891/.

3 “Olivette Miller.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Sept. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivette_Miller.

4 “Olivette Miller.” IMDb, IMDb.com, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0589534/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.

5 “Olivette Miller, Jazz Harpist.” African American Registry, 22 Aug. 2021, https://aaregistry.org/story/olivette-miller-jazz-harpist-born/.

6 Fullwood, Steven G. “Flournoy Miller Collection.” Flournoy Miller Collection, The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts, https://archives.nypl.org/scm/20858.

Protone Records. “Olivette Miller – Look Up.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d_fFvFgECc.

“Olivette Miller Featured With Noble Sissle.” Arkansas State Press, 6 Nov. 1942, p. 7. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12F3CB549363AB38%40EANAAA-1338AA535C345258%402430670-1338A17A590FB5E0%406-1382D12EF361EDE0%40Olivette%2BMiller%2BFeatured%2BWith%2BNoble%2BSissle. Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

9 “Olivette Miller, Jazz Harpist, at Fisk University.” New York Age, 5 June 1948, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/69869071/olivette-miller-jazz-harpist-at-fisk/.

10 “The Latin Quarter (Advertisement).” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 12 Oct. 1947, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/69852170/the-latin-quarter-advertisement/.

11  “The Joint Is Jumpin’ (1949).” DREAM13 Media, 10 Aug. 2021, https://media.dream13.com/the-joint-is-jumpin-1949/.

12  Regent Records. “Dorothy Ashby – Thou Swell.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 June 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYBTr6CxpU8&t=234s.

Minstrelsy and African American Folk Music

Yeah…CW: Racist language that are quite uncomfortable

For today’s blog post, I want to talk about two primary sources that I find interesting. This week, we talked about the origin of African American folk music, and I was thinking to myself, where exactly did the music go? Some of them, as we already know, were adapted by minstrel shows. I came across a short article in a hundred-year-old newspaper, which talks about minstrelsy in an interesting way. Based on that, I went in and looked for other sources related to minstrelsy and found some parallels and differences between the two. 

Here is the first article.

This article stood out to me because it seems to be critical of minstrelsy in the first half, but then it quickly shifts to glamourising this “new” form of minstrel shows, which I think is such an interestingly complicated idea. This article was published on April 12, 1902, in the newspaper Portland New Age. The author of this article is unknown so I can’t do that much of a deep dive on them. For the first half of this article, the author states that the death of past minstrel actors signifies the death of the old minstrel shows. At this point, I thought this article is serving some fresh, woke ideas. 

Then, it shifted into sort of an advertisement for this new age minstrel show, and the author said that the old minstrel shows “represent no class and their programs are a hotch potch of absurdly sentimental drivel and eccentric vaudeville specialties.” The author introduces the new minstrel shows by stating the type of dance, music and instruments that will be there, “The dances were… The instruments were the banjo, the fiddle, the bones and the tambourine. The songs were the racy plantation melodies, the jubilee, hymns, … ” all of these were elements of African American folksongs

This is not even the worst part (since they were just being mean to their predecessors), the author went on and said that the old minstrel shows “was to represent the plantation negro in his native humor and with all his racial peculiarities.” This answers the question I posed earlier: where did the African American folksongs go? The person writing this article as well as those who performed in the shows are the ones answering my question without speaking a word– obviously they appropriated it. It is just nuts to me how they think his new and improved version of minstrelsy is good and worth advertising. But oh wait, it probably has a market. 

This is a poster for a show. 

This other source is simply a poster of an “old” school minstrel show, since it was posted in 1860, and it shows some names of minstrel actors, programs, as well as the price for entering the theater. On the top of the poster, it shows a bust drawing of an African American person juggling a banjo, a fiddle and a tambourine, which happens to be the instruments mentioned in the article. The poster also referred to the minstrel actors as the “great stars,” which rubs me the wrong way. The two sources combined tell a story, a story of appropriation, a story of tears and cries viewed as mockery, and a story of the bloody past in the camouflage of music.


Works Cited

“Topics Of The Times.” Portland New Age, 12 Apr. 1902, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B7C68FA2F14448%40EANAAA-12BC5D125B711DB0%402415852-12BA072FF6189A30%401-12E65727248D96F8%40Topics%2BOf%2BThe%2BTimes. Accessed 2 Nov. 2021.


A Guide to “Negro Minstrelsy”

As the class discusses minstrelsy and the history of such a vile music genre, I decided to take it a step further and delve into the nitty gritty aspect of minstrelsy. I found a guide book to “negro minstrelsy, containing recitations, jokes, cross-fires, conundrums, riddles, stump speeches, ragtime and sentimental songs, etc., including hints on organizing and successfully presenting a performance” (Haverly, 2).

Haverly describes the art of minstrelsy as something anyone can do. It further mocks people of color saying that it is an easy feat and that the audiences are fascinated by it.

Getting into the details of minstrelsy, Haverly sets up his guide to include any bit of information that one might need when researching minstrelsy. The guide starts by laying out valuable information on how to arrange the stage, who you should use as each of your characters (i.e. middle man, and end men), even getting into the makeup. Taking note of the make up routine of blacking one’s face one can find an art behind the cruel act. Idid not realize how detailed the make up process had to be. I had always assumed that one just rubbed ash or painted their faces with some sort of paint. However, the guide included the tip to first wear cocoa butter to allow for easy removal as well as the ear-mine to replicate larger lips in people of color’s facial feature (Haverly, 6-7).


Haverly left nothing out and included how to make the most out of advertising for the public. I did note that he stated “if procurable 

from your local printer, get humorous darker cuts to insert upon it–thereby making it attractive or something that will not be immediately thrown away” (Haverly, 8)

Throughout the guide, Haverly includes dozens of pages of various jokes, riddles and songs that a minstrel could use for a show. Before he gets into all of the examples he includes an example program set up.

Just one state over, four years after the guide was written, I found an advertisement for minstrelsy. It was from the Freeman newspaper written for a primarily black audience. Two Thirds of the way down the advertisement is an inclusion of “White and Drinkeley” with blackface clowns.

These two sources tell us the prevalence of this musical genre. It can show researchers the popularity of this music from. You can gain valuable information of the details behind minstrel shows. They are excellent sources for researchers looking at the history of American music or for those looking into more of the racist ordeals of our country. The information I briefly touched on above only begins to convey the information that Haverly includes in his all-encompassing guide. I strongly recommend looking further into the guide for more information.



“Advertisement.” Freeman, vol. XIX, no. 14, 7 Apr. 1906, p. [5]. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B28495A8DAB1C8%40EANAAA-12C55E8EC9FC1378%402417308-12C55E8F07B85568%404-12C55E900B6CBA78%40Advertisement. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

Haverly, J. (1902). Negro minstrels a complete guide to negro minstrelsy. United States–Illinois–Chicago.; United States–Illinois–Chicago. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=Q58J56BLMTYzNDAxMTMwNy4yNzY1ODA6MToxMzoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjg0&p_action=doc&p_queryname=10&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-147E02C4840557B8@4658-14A4E19D75C56D38@8


Women in Minstrelsy?

Mary Barnard Horne [1845-1931] was one of the first female authors of minstrelsy scripts. She wrote various musicals, school productions, adapted others’ performances for the stage and of course, minstrel shows. Interestingly, she dealt with the social and political status of women during this time in America where voting rights for black men and white women were similar. Here is one of her shows, entitled, “Jolly Joe’s Lady Minstrels.” The text is highly racist yet also is one of the first shows in which women were cast on stage. It contains a phrase in the introduction reading,

"Until recently the field of Amateur Minstrelsy has been open solely
   to the male sex. It was, however, only necessary for the weaker sex
   to turn its attention to burnt cork, to eccentric costumes, to
   negro songs, and to fun generally, to draw upon it the attention of
   the public and the verdict that, in this field as in many others,
   it could hold its own."1

Given that Horne’s plays were often performed for the white middle class, I was curious about the reception of a play which appeased one pillar of white male power but subverts the other. A quick search on newspapers.com reveals this 1913 review from a Brooklyn newspaper.

Clipping from The Chat, Brooklyn, New York. 22 November 1913.2

The subheading reads, “Up-to-date minstrel performance with some modern improvements given by clever members of the Church of the Evangel.” The performance was apparently put on by the leader of the women’s association at the named church. I find it fascinating that ‘modern improvements’ seem to refer to women’s rights but there is no consideration of the racism which the play contains. This is, as it turns out, quite a surface level observation of the fight for civil rights at the time. For context, Black men were granted the right to vote in 1870 whereas women were not granted the right to vote until 1920. During this time period, though, feminism took on many forms. Abolition-feminism equated the bondage of slavery to the bondage of women in order to fight for civil rights, yet the way this often played out privileged white women only. Clare Midgley writes, “In the United States, the fear of anti-slavery women was that their meetings would be disrupted by racist mobs.”3 Given this intersection, we can see how white women might take on the ‘modern’ cause for women’s rights without any concern for Black rights. 

This little snippet from a seemingly niche subject, women in minstrelsy, is an example of a much broader trend in U.S. history, that is, white women weaponizing their status to further Black oppression. Zooming out now, we see the same trend continuing today, in the very same cities that minstrel shows were being performed. You may recall white woman Amy Cooper calling 911 on a Black man who asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, New York. In falsely accusing him of harassing her, she pandered to the cause of women while simultaneously posturing her white status. Can we blame her if she is just a product of our history? Yes, and we should look inward to change our own racist habits too.


Dissonant Perceptions of Black Music in the Early 1900s

There is something inherently dissonant about perceptions of blackness in the artistic community before the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In certain circles, white musicians and writers  seemed to have collective understanding and appreciation for African-American music.

In an interview published as far back as 1893, renowned European musician Antonin Dvorak openly claimed that “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” The article from the Cleveland Gazette  is boldly titled, Negro Melodies: Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition. The obvious placement of value on Black music seems at odds with the events going on in the late 1800s and early 1900s- during the time of Jim Crow and the height of the anti-lynching movement. 

It seems at once that Dvorak’s opinion was both common among Eastern Europeans in America and, as the piece describes, “radical”- however, in the context of other articles sharing the sentiment, it is rather ordinary: fellow musician Giacomo Minkowsky was interviewed for the Portland New Age in an article titled, GIACOMO MINKOWSKY: Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.

The two pieces share something in common apart from the explicit theme and school of thought: an undertone of dissonant attitudes and ideas regarding blackness. 

For instance, Minkowsky is quoted in the interview saying, “I have come to the conclusion that the cradle of American music lay below Mason and Dixon’s line, and that it is the Negro to whom we owe the series of melodies comprising our national music.” Later in the article, he claims, “It is the Negro who is the innovator in this country in “syncopated” meter.”  

Only a few paragraphs later, he goes on to berate his contemporaries, many of whom were Black, and state that the merit of “these [Black] melodies” is their originality, and “primitiveness”: “….I cannot say that our composers in their treatment of these melodies have in any way improved them. In their primitive state they had, as I said before, the merit of originality, a merit which they lost on account of unskilled treatment.” 

The article closes with Minkowsky calling ragtime music “mutilated forms of it [original negro melodies].” “If asked today whether these ‘ragtime’ songs actually represented American music, I would answer: No; they are but the mutilated forms of it; for the genuine popular music you must go back to the old Negro melodies. We have abandoned our sources merely to go back to them again.” One might take this to mean that the “Negro songs” and “melodies” mentioned throughout the article, as being the foundation of American music, are only those he deems of value and artistic merit. 

While Dvorak does not go on to rebuke his Black contemporaries, this might be only because he does not comment on Black performances, or Black music as played by Black people. He praises the importance of “Negro melodies”; “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies.” Only to later divulge, “When the Negro minstrels are here again I intend to take my young composers with me and have them comment on the melodies.” Minstrel shows were inherently racist and anti-black from their conception. The entire premise is humor in the form of ridiculing Black people, while wearing blackface. 

These two articles exhibit a classic form of American racism:  disenfranchising and expropriating the art and music of Black people, to conceptually separate Black people from Black art.



“Giacomo Minkowsky Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.” Portland New Age, 10 Nov. 1900, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B7C68FA2F14448%40EANAAA-12BC5CC0ACA9F1D8%402415334-12BA072FAAA39E70%403-12E6461F412C4718%40Giacomo%2BMinkowsky%2BSays%2Bthe%2BNegro%2BSongs%2BIs%2Bthe%2BCradle%2Bof%2BOur%2BMusic. 

“Negro Melodies. Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition To.” Cleveland Gazette, 3 June 1893, p. 1. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12C2B6D224650FF8%402412618-12C106450C0AD708%400-12DAC74DEEC5D8B0%40Negro%2BMelodies.%2BMust%2Bbe%2Bthe%2BFoundation%2Bof%2BAny%2BSerious%2Band%2BOriginal%2BSchool%2Bof%2BComposition%2BTo.

African-American Spirituals and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”

Antonín Dvořák

As we attempt to answer the question “What is American Music?” one perspective to take is that of an outsider. Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” is a work that showcases an outsider’s perspective on American music and culture — this music and culture being undoubtedly shaped at least in part by African-American spirituals. 


In speaking of this composition, Dvořák went so far as to claim that “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Obviously problematic, this statement essentially tells white Americans that it is in their best interest to continue to take advantage of the people they have violently enslaved and oppressed to further their musical mark. 

Continue reading

Laura M. Towne

While reading Dena Epstein’s book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals1, the various diary entries and letters stuck out to me, and I was curious to learn more about who was behind those entries, as well as find primary sources by and about the writers. In April 1862, a woman named Laura Towne described a shout she witnessed during her teaching in the Sea Islands (a chain of islands off the southeastern coast of the United States).

A quote from a letter written by Laura Towne, describing a shout she witnessed2.

One small detail really stayed with me throughout this reading, and it was that Towne was a teacher on the island. This is the information I used to guide my primary source searching. I found an article from a Black newspaper called the Broad Ax4. The Broad Ax was a popular African American newspaper published by Julius F. Taylor from 1895 to around 1930. As one historian noted, the newspaper was “the most controversial black newspaper in Chicago in the late nineteenth century5“.

In this edition, there was an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Penn School, which was the school Towne founded and taught at for the majority of her life, and also the oldest learning institution for people of color in the south.

In all my 15 years of education, I have never once learned or read about this school, or its female abolitionist founders. I was surprised when reading about this, and even more surprised to learn it was among the first of its kind AND founded by women.  Prior to reading Epstein’s book, I did not know about the Sea Islands, Laura Towne, or the Penn School. Finding little bits of information like this makes me wonder what else is missing from our education. How can we as scholars and students work to make history less biased and more inclusive?

Works Cited:

[1] Epstein, Dena. “Reports of Black Folk Music, 1863-67” In Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press, 1977.

[2] Towne, Laura M. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884. Edited by Rupert Sargent Holland. United States, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1912.

[3] “Penn School Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary. Occasion of Joy For All – General Robert Smalls Speaks.” Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), May 18, 1912: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers. www.infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A13364E8FB5DF2117%40EANAAA-1336BA799F666420%402419541-1336B28ED337D0A8%401-137DDDBAA98EB125.

[4] “About The broad ax. [volume] (Salt Lake City, Utah) 1895-19??.” Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed October 11, 2021. www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024055/.

[5] Ibid.

The Life of John Curtis


This week I found a newspaper article, listed as being released in 1829, advertising a concert to be performed in New York City. Not only does it advertise as was expected, it outlines the life story of the leading musician, a story that shed some light on the experience of a free Black man in the time of slavery who also happens to be a touring violinist accompanied by his adolescent children. They are also touring violinists.

Link to the original document: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&t=articletype%3A10%21News%2BArticle&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=concert&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image/v2%3A132FB88A16969E1C%40EANAAA-132FC901F5179168%402389126-132FC8170D4A6B88%402-1389CBB8E38687B3%40Original%2BCommunication&firsthit=yes

The article describes the experience of Curtis from being blinding by his wife’s slaver, to purchasing his kids from bondage with money he earned performing music, to finally teaching them how to play violin as well. At first I was surprised at the sympathetic tone this article sported while telling the story, then remembered that the article is from an African American publication, one that would likely empathize quite a bit more than their white counterparts with the plight of a struggling black man. 

There isn’t much to be said about John Curtis. A pointed google search of the violinist followed by the publication year and the publication’s location in New York showed me very little. As the article very concisely summarizes the artist’s life up to the point of the concert, it reveals the concert’s exact location. It’s then that I searched up Laurent street, the street where John Curtis and his two children played the violin, and found that it was once referred to as “Rotten Row”, by a less than scholarly blog from 2011. 

Check it out: https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&t=articletype%3A10%21News%2BArticle&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=concert&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image/v2%3A132FB88A16969E1C%40EANAAA-132FC901F5179168%402389126-132FC8170D4A6B88%402-1389CBB8E38687B3%40Original%2BCommunication&firsthit=yes

While the source had some less than charitable things to say about the Laurent street that once was, it is very clear that John Curtis’ conditions for performance were less than ideal. Not only was he, a blind, black man in the time of slavery, a working musician. He was touring with two children, both taught in the art of the violin, both taught by a father who had never laid eyes on them. The opportunities for performance were, as we’ve studied, events for slavers and for run down concert halls in poor neighborhoods. 

With all our conversations about the origins of “American Music” and defining the term for ourselves, our conversations cannot understate the importance of black music to the overall scope of American music, undefined as it may be. Performers like John Curtis, and the stories that they leave behind, will likely go unstudied and their personal stamp on the world of classical music, in particular, will likely remain undiscovered. The tragedy of music history is the lack of information available to further recognize this man’s contribution to the world of music. 

(There isn’t much to say, I just wish that there was a movie about this guy)

Necessary Beginnings: Reflecting on Blackface Minstrelsy

When working through the designated databases this week, I found many articles and scores pertaining to blackface minstrelsy, like a lot of my fellow classmates. However, I found many glowing reviews with advertisements for future performances of many different troupes. I was surprised, to say the least. The language was light, enthusiastic, and endearing to this particular group of performers — Christy’s Minstrels. 

Therefore, in today’s installment of American Music discourse, Taylor Wesseln grapples with how the perception of the morality and ethics of human creation change over time. In other words, how could someone write a warm advertisement for a group whose mission and success came from the tried and true racism of all members involved? These thoughts  could also boil down to this simple question: “why the h*ck was minstrelsy popular at all?”

“Christy’s Minstrels.” New Orleans Daily Creole (New Orleans, Louisiana), October 2, 1856: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

After days of sitting with this blurb from the New Orleans Daily Creole, I still have no answer. Here, the author describes the unique talent of the Christy Minstrels, because “[n]o minstrelsy of Nature’s choristers can give greater pleasure to the ear that is attuned to music than their artistic warbling.” This group appears to have the ability to “beautiful[ly] execut[e] the native melodies of [the] black population” in New Orleans. When looking at one of the songs they would have performed, “Julia Green,” one can see right away that the music is hokey with a simple arpeggiating accompaniment and singer’s imitative dialect of what they think African Americans sound like.  

 Basically, this advertisement ensures that attending this performance will guarantee an excellent night of entertainment, complete with “innocent recreation” and “phlegm-dispersing laugh[ter]” for about 50 to 75 cents a person. Golly.

Reading about Christy Minstrels this weekend felt like a difficult but necessary introduction to minstrelsy for me. I wanted to skip to the end and see when black performers began performing themselves, taking back their narrative one millimeter at a time. However, history does not work in this fashion. 

Christy’s Minstrels were instrumental in the spreading popularity of minstrel shows and music. Not only did they assist in solidifying the format of these shows into three acts, they also created a household name when touring around the country and even across the pond. Audiences, particularly white audiences,  near and far enjoyed their work– as evident by the above newspaper clipping.  Without creating this foundational following, who knows if African American performers would have ever been included in this crazy mix of performance art that is minstrelsy.


“Christy’s Minstrels.” New Orleans Daily Creole (New Orleans, Louisiana), October 2, 1856: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11B849020C1891B3%40EANAAA-11B95E00EDA564F0%402399225-11B86D14B34C04E0%401-11FAA6DDA80DA6D3%40Christy%2527s%2BMinstrels.

“Julia Green” sung by the Christy Minstrels ; written & composed by Frank Spencer. Date of Publication: 1848 Afro-Americana Imprints From LCP, no. S2171.

Stevenson, Robert. “Christy, Edwin Pearce.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 10 Oct. 2021. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000005717.

Lott, et al. “Blackface Minstrelsy.” Public Broadcasting Station. Accessed on 11 October 2021.  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/foster-blackface-minstrelsy/ 

The Impact of the Black Church in Civil Rights

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois’s describes the religion of the slave with the “preacher, the music, and the Frenzy”

“The Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil”


“The Music of Negro Religion… still remains the most orginal and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born American soil.”


“The frenzy or ‘Shouting’… was the last essential of Negro Religion and the one more devoutly believed in than all the rest.”1

Black Americans’ Christianity has a long and complicated history in this country. While it is a direct result of the colonization of Africans brought to the United States against their will 200 years ago, Christianity provided enslaved Africans a sense of hope and security. When asked about their seemingly joyful mood one slave responded,  “We endeavor to keep ourselves up as well as we can. What can we do unless we keep a good heart? If we were to let it weaken, we should die”2. Christianity and music allowed for this in a time it might seem impossible.

While some argue that the enslaved shouldn’t have converted to Christianity because it is the religion of their colonizer, I think there’s something to be said about the power of Black Americans using the religion of their colonizer to gain back some of their freedom.

A Milwaukee newspaper article documenting the role of the black church in civil rights

A Milwaukee newspaper article documenting the role of the black church in civil rights “Black Churches’ Role in Civil Rights Told.” Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) XI, no. 27, November 20, 1971: Page 7. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7AE31A7B3CA6B%40EANAAA-12CCE815B2DC3F98%402441276-12CCE815F11A1950%4014-12CCE816F3418178. 

Christianity gave more than just hope to blacks in early America, it also played an important role in the advancement of their civil rights. The church influenced early rebellions, helped Frederick Douglass “find his voice”, as well as giving Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King an early platform. The Black Church even had a role in getting the Civil rigths Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 singed as John Lewis, an ordained baptist minister, was present at both signings.3 

Mirroring the sentiment from the seemingly joyful slave, Rep. John Lewis remarks on the everlasting need for hope in dark times, “The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith.”

Frankie Manning, “Shorty George”, Savoy Ballroom: The People and Places of Early Lindy Hop


Frankie Manning in 1938, age 24 (from the Frankie Manning Foundation)


I first heard about Frankie Manning through my participation in St. Olaf Swing Club, where we learn to dance a style of swing called Lindy Hop. I watched a few videos of Manning dancing, and even learned to dance one of his signature moves, the “Frankie sixes”. However, besides Frankie Manning’s name, I never felt like I knew much about the origins of Lindy Hop. Now, as a student officer of the St. Olaf Swing Club, I feel both an obligation and a curiosity to learn more.

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953” (from Grove Music Online)

Knowing also that Lindy Hop was created by Black dancers in America, I found that the African American Newspapers database was the perfect place to start piecing together Lindy Hop’s origin story. A column from a newspaper published in Topeka, Kansas in 1931 advertised for a spring N.A.A.C.P. dance happening at the Savoy Ballroom, which would feature a “National Lindy Hopper’s Contest” at midnight. The Savoy Ballroom, located in Harlem in New York, ended up being mentioned in almost every source I found relating to Lindy Hop and the early Lindy Hop dancers.

The Savoy Ballroom can be spotted on the left edge of this 1933 map of nightclubs in Harlem (from the Library of Congress).

A different segment in the exact same publication states outright that Lindy Hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom, as opposed to Broadway revues where the dance style had been made available to wider audiences in the U.S. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop” (from Plaindealer)

At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, a $100,000 theater was built to showcase the dance styles that had developed in the Savoy Ballroom. Fairgoers could pay 25 cents admission to enter the theater, where they could view 20-minute dance performances by “the country’s greatest rhythm dancers”. 

While I could not find a list of the aforementioned rhythm dancers who performed at the 1939 World’s Fair, multiple primary and secondary sources gave me the names of some of the pioneers of Lindy Hop. Along with Frankie Manning, “Shorty George” Snowden (who was genuinely a really short guy), “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, Herbert “Whitey” White, and Norma Miller (“the Queen of Swing”) were likely to be mentioned in accounts of the history of Lindy Hop. “Shorty George” actually coined the term “Lindy Hop” in 1937 as a reference to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The Frankie Manning Foundation website is an excellent source of short biographies of Lindy Hop’s founding dancers, including historical photographs. 

The amount of primary and secondary source material available on this topic thrills me, especially compared with the lack of sources on other topics of interest to me. I can and probably will dig into the history of Lindy Hop and the Savoy Ballroom for hours on end, but for now I can only share a glimpse into where my curiosity will take me: was Ben Homer’s 1939 song, “Shoot the Sherbert to Me Herbert” referencing Herbert “Whitey” White? The song has the ideal tempo and rhythm for lindy hopping, and was written during or right after when “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” were performing at the Savoy Ballroom. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.


Campbell, E. Simms , Cartographer, and Publisher Dell Publishing Company. A night-club map of Harlem. [New York, N.Y.: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., ©, 1932] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016585261/.

Conyers, Claude. “Lindy Hop.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 6, 2012. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002219309?rskey=qigfiF&result=1. 

Conyers, Claude. “Manning, Frankie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092553?rskey=rYzt6E. 

Conyers, Claude. “Savoy Ballroom.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002092697?rskey=rYzt6E. 

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-d58879bf34d84a3885995f0814115f9c?rskey=rYzt6E. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A4AC47F2D%40EANAAA-12CCEC4829D292D0%402426400-12CCEC4830BFB0C8%400-12CCEC4856F06020%40Harlem%2BCredit%2Bfor%2Bthe%2BLindy%2BHop.

“Harlem’s Famous Savoy Ballroom Will be Represented at the New York World’s Fair by the $100,000 Savoy Ballroom Theater.” Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas) XLI, no. 13, April 7, 1939: PAGE EIGHT. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12ACD7C7734164EC%40EANAAA-12C6036D48179C08%402429361-12C6036D939D3998%407-12C6036E6416AD90%40Harlem%2527s%2BFamous%2BSavory%2BBallroom%2BWill%2Bbe%2BRepresented%2Bat%2Bthe%2BNew%2BYork%2BWorld%2527s%2BFair%2Bby%2Bthe%2B%2524100%252C000%2BSavoy%2BBallroom%2BTheater.

“N. A. A. C. P. Spring Dance Mar. 16 to Draw New York Notables.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A4AC47F2D%40EANAAA-12CCEC4829D292D0%402426400-12CCEC4830BFB0C8%400-12CCEC484AC7D788.

Pritchett, Judy, Mandi Gould, and Lindy Hop Reporter. “Biographies Archives.” Frankie Manning Foundation. Frankie Manning Foundation, July 26, 2020. https://www.frankiemanningfoundation.org/category/biography/. 

“Savoy Ballroom Exhibit – 1939 Worlds Fair – Youtube.com,” May 13, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W6H586Aj7U. 

Van Dort, Paul M. “Savoy Ballroom.” Savoy ballroom, 1996. https://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/worlds_fair/wf_tour/zone-7/Savoy_Ballroom.htm. 


Cohen Quest II: The Early Years

Welcome back to another installment of everyone’s favorite series Cohen Quest. This week, we’re diving deep into Cohen’s early years, his family, and the beginnings of his musical career. Who knows what we’ll find out about our guy!

Based on census records, a draft registration card, and various indexes, we know that Cecil Cohen was born on April 27, 1894 in Chicago, Illinois, and lived there for the first 10 years of his life with his parents John and Flora. After his father died in 1906 he and his mother moved in with his cousin Julia where he stayed until he left to attend Fisk University and Oberlin College. I know, that’s a lot of hyperlinks. What I’m most interested in, however, are the multiple announcements and advertisements for a recital given by a Miss Maude J Roberts, “Chicago’s sweetest soprano singer”.

Announcement of a recital by Ms Maude J Roberts, soprano, assisted by C. Cecil Cohen, pianist.Chicago’s soprano song bird Miss Maude J. Roberts in recital at 8:15 pm on February 4, 1915, at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago (now the Carruthers Center).

Tons of hype was generated for this particular concert that was early on in both Cohen and Roberts’ careers; of course, the hype was relegated to the local African-American newspapers The Broad Axe, The Chicago Defender, and The Indianapolis Freeman. Sylvester Russell, a music critic for The Freeman, had some harsh words for the young performers, although admittedly it’s difficult to parse out the early 1900s syntax and tone. He writes,”[Cohen] has a good technic but the warmth of his artistic temperament was distracted by nervousness”; I would be nervous too, if I was playing for a large portion of my community at a major center of social and artistic life.

It might be worthy to note that each composer represented on the recital program was white and, besides Amy Beach, a European man. At a time when blackface minstrelsy was still embarrassingly popular, black classical musicians were still performing music by white composers.1 It seems as though it wasn’t until composers like HT Burleigh and Florence Price came along that African-American Art Song started coalescing as a distinct genre of classical art music, paving the way for people like Cecil Cohen to produce their own music that stays within the style, or pushes on the boundaries.

1Minstrel Songs,” Library of Congresshttps://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/popular-songs-of-the-day/minstrel-songs/.

Who was Francis Johnson

While researching in the Afro-Americana Imprints database, I came across the cover for sheet music dedicated to musician Richard Willis, which included music written by Francis Johnson. Immediately, I was interested in the identity of these men, particularly Francis Johnson. Initially, I found that he was born in 1792 either in Philadelphia or Martinique (A Caribbean Island), and that there’s not much known about his personal life, other than that he was a free black man who lived in Philadelphia.

Upon further investigation, I found that Frank has the most impressive resume. It was rumored that he played all instruments, taught black and white students, toured the US and Europe, composed hundreds of pieces, and was gifted a silver trumpet from Queen Victoria her

self! This is especially impressive, given that during his lifetime, slavery was still thriving in the South. But this information is all from secondary sources, namely the African American Registry website, and the University of Pennsylvania archives website. I was interested in finding first-hand accounts of Francis and his music, yet it seems like there’s almost no primary source material available. 

I tried searching the Frank Johnson Musical Association, band, players, groups, etc., to no avail. Almost everything was either irrelevant or about another Francis Johnson. I was only able to find one writing that mentioned the accomplishments of Francis Johnson the musician. It’s titled “Music and Drama,” published in the People’s Advocate, published in 1880. It reads:

“[He] could play on every instrument then known, In 1839 he visited Europe with a portion of his band and was rumored to play the silver six-keyed bugle… was a tutor on the bugle of Willis…  was a composer of no mean celebrity”

Upon further examination, I found that this was a republication of an article from a newspaper called the Elevator (which took a lot of sleuthing to figure out), which was most likely written by a woman named Jennie Carter. Still, I don’t know who that is or if she is reliable.

This has all made me ask: Why is it so hard to find information about this man who seemed to be so successful? Perhaps not much was written about him, but to me, it seems more likely that not much was saved about him. Although the white newspapers and print were getting archived and filed away, did black people have these resources? Once again I’m seeing how my view of black Americans is so hugely shaped by racist history and the fact that white people have always been in control. I find myself wondering if we can ever uncover the true history of black Americans. 


“The Death of Willis.” Flot, Meigan & Co. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1837: Readex: Afro-Americana Imprintshttps://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=T5FA5DYSMTYzMzk5NjYzNy40NDg2NDE6MToxNDoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjE0OA&p_action=doc&p_queryname=16&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-154E9B11D0F03650@S2316-@1-160CC4A8734732F2&f_mode=printCitation

“Music And The Drama.” People’s Advocate (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), May 1, 1880: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A1314AA70AC23F712%40EANAAA-1318B7EB28CCA808%402407837-1317FCEBA03D18F8%400-138B6D055378A841%40Music%2BAnd%2BThe%2BDrama.

“Frank (Francis) Johnson, Musician, and Teacher Born.” African American Registry, June 16, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/frank-johnson-a-first-for-black-music/.

“Francis Johnson.” University Archives and Records Center. Accessed October 12, 2021. https://archives.upenn.edu/exhibits/penn-people/biography/francis-johnson.


“Brilliant Social Function”? : A Perspective on the Minstrel Show

“Broad Ax” Chicago, May 23, 1903

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.

As I was doing my research, I came across this column in a 1903 edition of the Broad Ax. Entitled “Montana Society Note: Characteristic Description of a Brilliant Social Function in the Cow Country.” This article provides some intriguing insight into the perception of minstrel shows throughout history. Upon an initial skim, one might think that this is a genuine recount of an evening of entertainment at a minstrel troupe performance. Language like “roaring success” and “It was one of the most brilliant heel-and-toe stampedes ever held in this settlement” initially hint towards the success and ingenuity of a performance like this. A little bit of further exploration of the paper and its author reveals a different perspective.

Continue reading

Centering Black Voices

As evident in Southern’s book, The Music of Black Americans, music-making has always been an important part of African American culture in the United States. One aspect of Southern’s writing that I found particularly interesting was her use of newspaper articles to highlight the values of a certain time, and how they related to music. During the time of slavery in the United States, most of the newspaper ads were written from a white enslaver’s perspective, however, after the Civil War and the onset of African American-based newspapers, black American perspectives began to shine through. 


I chose to investigate a music advertisement from the Cleveland Gazette, published in 1883, that highlights this change in perspective. Bold letters that capture the audience’s attention read:

Lovers of music, secure at once a copy of the new edition of “Bright Eyes”.


Written by Cleveland Gazette editor Harry C. Smith, “Be True Bright Eyes” was a song for piano (or organ) with voice, and includes a score for four-part harmony. This push to buy piano and vocal music, in conjunction with other music related ads found in the Cleveland Gazette, such as the piano ad below, demonstrate the different types of music-making that black Americans participated in during this time period.

We have seen in Southern’s reading through newspaper ads that fiddle, banjo, and horn playing were popular instruments, and now through an African American lens, we also see the importance of piano playing with a vocal melody. Although primary sources written by white people, like the ads Southern uses, can give researchers important information, African American newspapers like the Cleveland Gazette are necessary sources to include in research because they highlight the narrative of black Americans. Researchers must always look to sources like the Cleveland Gazette that center black voices and experiences. 

Works Cited

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 3. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12CC2DCC9D4D1D28%402409468-12CBE5CDD45206C0%402-12E046B1ACAC4B68

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12CC2DCC9D4D1D28%402409468-12CBE5CDD4E6F7A8%403-12E046B291DEDFF8.

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. “SMITH, HARRY CLAY,” May 11, 2018. https://case.edu/ech/articles/s/smith-harry-clay.

Smith, Harry C. Be True Bright Eyes. Smith, H. C., Cleveland, monographic, 1883. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1883.01718/


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.


Why The Fascination?: Minstrel Shows in the 19th Century

The fascination. The excitement. The muse. I have so many mixed feelings when it comes to looking into minstrel show advertisements and newspaper article sections about these apparent highly sought-after shows. I cannot help but question where this grand excitement for these shows is rooted. Was it for entertainment? The humor? The sophistication? The representation? As I looked into newspaper sections that talked specifically about the Campbell Minstrel group, I started to find some possible answers and drew some parallels between our most recent reading by Eric Lott about the concept of love and theft.

The newspaper sections that I found are from the New Orleans Daily Creole, “a Creole pro-slavery newspaper launched in 1856.” Is it also noted that scholars of the African- American press generally exclude the Daily Creole when referring to these types of newspapers. In reading this statement written about this newspaper I found on a database dedicated to African American Newspapers, I found this to be quite odd. I see a pretty distinct dichotomy between the foundational intention of this news source vs. how they portray the minstrel shows in these newspapers. This can definitely allude to Lott’s mention on how there seemed to be a general theme of “love” (eroticism, “celebration”, etc.) vs. “theft” (exploitation, insensitivity, etc.)- both terms in a great deal of contradiction. The minstrel shows seemed to be quite “sophisticated” based on the fact that they had a “change of programme nightly.” This broad repertoire most likely appealed to the general public quite extensively, almost giving them more of a reason to come back each night to hear a different show, even getting to hear “new selections” of various songs written for the shows.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 20th, 1856.


This other section of a newspaper clipping brings out more fundamental draws and attractions to the minstrel shows. The sentence where it talks about how Matt Peel, “never tires the ear or the eye” goes to show the fascination with the visual and audio aspects of the minstrel show- being drawn to the aesthetics and physicality of enslaved people. Even when referring to the jokes and how they are “excellent”- this can apply to the concept of “celebrating” or treating the experiences of black enslaved people as mere entertainment or a type of comic relief.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 24th, 1856.

These fascinations with the “grand” minstrel shows of the 1850s prove to show that there was a huge draw and attraction to the black experience- having shows go day after day. The “rage” continued for decades (as we can see in the Campbell Minstrels seeming to have toured for over 12 years). Although, it must be noted that all of these reviews and ads come from a pro-slavery newspaper- which alludes to the themes of “theft” and stealing of the black enslaved experience. It is so crucial to dive deeper into these themes that we read and really see the real-life evidence and sources that provide us with proof of these themes that we have read about.


Minstrel Concert Ad, 1856

Works Cited:

“Advertisement.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 20 Nov. 1856, p. 3. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11B849020C1891B3%40EANAAA-11B95E54DF497DB0%402399274-11B86D1545DDADB0%402-1211B25BB46A165B%40Advertisement. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

“The Campbells.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 24 Nov. 1856, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11B849020C1891B3%40EANAAA-11B95E58D0501DF0%402399278-11B86D154E124B80%401-1211B2645EE918AF%40The%2BCampbells. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.


Public Reception of the Hyers Sisters

CW: Racist representation of Black Americans

Newspapers are valuable resources for studying the public perception of musicians. (Yes, young people still know what newspapers are.) The writings of newspapers reflect their audience’s values. I found some articles mentioning singing sensations Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers: the Hyers Sisters. The duo started performing opera selections and art songs in the late 1860s, soon adding spirituals to their repertoire. However, by 1876, they ventured into musical theater, for which they are most known.1

An article reviewing a performance of the Hyers’ Sisters drama “Out of Bondage.”

These Black newspapers offered much praise but did so in ways that reflect how the authors perceive the Hyers Sisters’ careers. This 1886 article, published in the Cleveland Gazette, reviews a performance of one of their old dramas. The author wrote that their theater company has the best Black musical and dramatic talent in the country, and they deserve a packed crowd everywhere they perform.2 Such high praise comes with a qualifier of race, asserting that the Hyers Sisters are great Black musicians rather than simply great musicians. Continue reading

Howard University 1910: Students Refuse to Sing

Trigger warning: This blog post contains racist language.

Throughout history, the music of black Americans has been commodified and enjoyed as ‘other’. When slavery still existed throughout the United States, enslaved people were often made to make music for enslavers and enslaved people that could play an instrument or sing would be ‘worth more’ at an auction. Even after the abolition of slavery, the music of black Americans continued to be seen as a product for the enjoyment of others.1 A black musician could be talented and their music upheld as great, but their work would still be seen as ‘different’ or ‘weird’ as it was often called, and the performer themselves would still be treated poorly by the very folks who came to watch the performance.

For the purpose of this blog post, I decided to focus on an article from the Cleveland Gazette, published in January of 1910 entitled, “Will not Sing ‘Coon Songs’. This article is about students at the all-black college, Howard University, standing up to the president of the University, Dr. Thirkield, and refusing to sing what he called “old time plantation “coon songs” and religious rags”2

According to the journalist, the president justified his actions by saying “It was well for Negro students to keep alive the traditions of their ancestors and emulate the spirit of contentment and happiness expressed in the folklore and plaintation melodies of before the war”.2

There is a lot to unpack in this single quote. Besides the blatant racism, the president treats the antebellum period with nostalgia, disregarding intergenerational trauma. These students very well could have had enslaved relatives and even parents, given that slavery was only abolished between 23-30 years before they were born. To suggest that enslaved people were happy on the plantation and these students should look back on that period with fondness is insulting. Additionally, this comment furthers the romanticism of the antebellum period that still occurs today.

Later, we find out the President of the university wanted them to sing these songs to entertain important visitors.

“On the occasion of a vist recently by a government officer the president’s effort to start an old time “coon” song failed because nearly all the students would not sing”2

The students in this case refused to be a commodity or curiosity for visitors, much to the outrage of Thirkield. Thirkield, like people throughout America’s sordid past, wanted to present the perceived ‘otherness’ and trauma of his students as entertainment.

To conclude the article, the writer takes the side of the students and states “Howard’s students are right and should stand firm”.2


1Southern, Eileen. “Entertainment for the Masters.” Essay. In The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.

2“Will Not Sing ‘Coon’ Songs. Students of Howard University Very Properly Revolt Against the President’s.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), January 1, 1910: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12BBBFA4AF54CA70%402418673-12BA05617A2901F0%400-12D76A0895013A50.



“Our Country’s Shame”

This week I found an 1874 article from the Weekly Louisianian, a black-owned newspaper that ran from 1837-1921. The article, titled “Our Country’s Shame,” condemned the United States for the prejudice with which they treated the touring musicians of color. The first musician they described was a virtuosic Mexican musician who was pronounced “a wonder as a violinist.” According to the article, the violinist was treated so badly in the United States that he went home early without even completing his tour. The article emphasized the violinist’s high class and noted that in Europe he was “respected by the nobility, from whom he received many admirable presents.”

The second musical group they discussed was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a prestigious African-American choral group from Fisk University in Tennessee. The article laments how the choir will be treated once they return to the United States form their English Tour (“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME”).

I was unfortunately not surprised by the level of racism that these musicians had received in the United States, but I was curious as to why it was so much better in Europe. In my search, I found an article by Allison Blakely titled “The Black Presence in Pre-20th Century Europe: a History,” which explains that while racism in Europe existed, discrimination based on class was much more common, as a person’s class was more important than their race (Blakely).

In addition, a Charles Seeger article titled “Music and Class Structure in the United States” explained how 18th century United States underwent a campaign to “make America musical.” In the 1800s, the upper class began to differentiate the religious and folk music enjoyed by the lower class from the concert music of the upper classes. This concert music often satirized and sentimentalized the lowest classes, especially African Americans. According to Seeger, this served as a way for whites to “think they were socially above [African Americans], even though both were poor, downtrodden, and unschooled. It offered ready compensation to the musical and cultural superiority-inferiority complexes of the cities” (Seeger) People of color to performing  in the prestige of the concert hall would challenge these superiority-inferiority complexes, threatening the white-supremacist attitudes of the 19th-century United States.

Blakely, Allison. “THE BLACK PRESENCE IN PRE-20TH CENTURY EUROPE: A HIDDEN HISTORY.” BLACKPAST, 9 February 2008. Accessed 10 October 2021.

“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME.” Weekly Louisianian, 30 May,1874, New Orleans. African American Newspapers.

Seeger, Charles. “Music and Class Structure in the United States.” American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1957, The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971, New York.

Sylvester Russell Claps Back at a Racist White Lady.

A big question that I have been grappling with and something we have discussed in class has been the origin of American music, and more specifically, the role of slave songs in American music. We’ve touched on two opinions already in class surrounding this question at the beginning and middle of the 20th century; those of Henry Krehbiel and George Pullen Jackson. Krehbiel argues that enslaved people were the only people in America that were capable of producing true folk music because of their circumstances1 and Jackson argues that music from enslaved people in America was all taken from European music 2. After reading these opinions, I was interested in learning some other opinions surrounding this topic.

Luckily for me, I encountered a newspaper article that discussed this exact topic. Check out the full newspaper here. This newspaper article was written in “the Freeman”, an Indianapolis newspaper for people of color published on July 30, 1904. This article is titled “Music of the Slaves: America’s Original Music” and is written by Sylvester Russell who was a music critic of this era. In this piece, he is commenting on another article written by a woman named Emma Bell Miles in Harper Magazine. This essentially, is the 1900s equivalent of “clapping back”. Even the tone of this article left me laughing to myself. Russell is a savage and uses the most hilarious tone to trash Emma Miles. One of my favorite insults is: “Miss Miles, poor thing, like many lucky women, got a chance to write for a great magazine without knowing anything much to write about…”.

Russell states that Miles argues in her article: “It is generally believed that America has no folk music, nothing distinctly native out of which a national school of advanced composition may arise”. Russell does not like this at all, and argues that there is plenty of research being done on the folk music of American slaves, and in fact, the “advanced composition” that has come from this tradition did very much exist and that it is referred to as “ragtime”.

As much as I love this “clap back” article, I’m not exactly sure that Russell has fantastic evidence for his argument. And to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Miles had much evidence for her argument either. Russell at least gives a name to the music genre that has come from American slave songs, and that’s good evidence. However, as much as I love his condescending tone against this racist white lady, I think he might need some more concrete evidence to support his argument.

1 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs. (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.), 22.

2 Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeld Song Making and Singing among Our Country Folk. (Locust Valley, NY: J.J Augustin Publisher, 1975.), 293.

Sylvan Worship

First of all, I would like to say that this is an incredible database! I had no idea that there was a collection of these African American newspapers that spans more than a century. 

It took me a few tries to find a nice buzz word to put into the database search. I found that the word “spiritual” got me results that most relate to this course. This text “Sylvan Worship” was a bit difficult for me to read at first. This newspaper doesn’t make clear who Curtis, the narrator of the text, was. This made it hard for me to fully comprehend what they were saying without the slightest bit of background. Because all of the texts from this database are from African American newspapers (or other types of text), I first assumed that the narrator was black. However, the more I read, the more I felt that this person was from the African American community. This is not based on his knowledge or opinions on the topic of African American spirituals, but the language he used to speak on the topic was from an outsider point of view. In this sentence, “No race is more devotional than the African and to no class of people does the camp meeting revival prove so effectual as with them.” it sounds like Curtis is making statements based on his own observations of Africans and African Americans as an outsider.

Whether or not Curtis is African American, his points are huge generalizations and he doesn’t really use specific examples to illustrate these points. This definitely would not slide in a modern-day discussion (especially in our class). 

After reading the text over one more time, I have a strong feeling that Curtis is not black.

“‘Sylvan Worship.’.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans, Louisiana), September 18, 1875: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B767D21CB17968%40EANAAA-12BEC31400554038%402406150-12BC002A0EA02018%400-12D621523A4D1068%40%2522Sylvan%2BWorship.%2522.

Tracking Scott Joplin’s Career through Primary Sources

Scott Joplin, now considered the most premier composer of ragtime, led a complicated professional and personal life. He found extreme fame within his traditional ragtimes, including “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” however, was consistently on the poverty line, forced to sell his possessions and manuscripts. In examining newspaper articles, we can examine the public perception of Joplin and also review these writings with historical perspective. 

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How Should Plantation Songs Be Preserved? An Early 20th Century Dialogue

Romanticized notions about plantation life have a strong grip on the white American imagination – think Gone With The Wind, and a plethora of novels like it. This genre typically depicts enslaved people as happy and contented and focuses on the lives of the usually benevolent seeming enslavers. Overall the scene is idyllic, despite what the conditions for the enslaved people were actually like. This romanticized, exoticized view of enslaved people and their descendants is relevant to many publications from both before the Civil War and after, including one that I am going to focus on today: Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and Other Negro Lyrics & Monologues by Eli Shepperd with “Pictures from Life” by J. W. Otts, published in 1901.

First just look at the cover of this book. There’s a banjo, some upside down corn, and some sort of exotic looking squirrel. The inside is full of photographs of rural Black people and poetry/song lyrics that have no context. When I first found this source I was thinking “What on earth is this? There has to be more context.” And it turns out there is, and that the context is intimately related to the plantation romance genre. Eli Shepperd was the pen name of a well known white Alabaman author, Martha Strudwick Young. Young was wealthy and educated and specialized in writing dialect poetry and fiction – in other words, she used the language of Black people, wrote from their perspective without their consent, and made a successful career out of it (Kobzeff).

The house of JW Otts,  (Library of Congress)

I found the photographer, J.W. Otts, to be similarly wealthy and white, and this perspective definitely shows through in the photographs, which make out the lives of the Black people to be simple and happy. The picture at right is a good example of this bias. Interestingly, Young later went on to write several poems (again, from the perspective of Black people) about Black resistance to white photographers, which seems to indicate that she found the activities of photographers ethically questionable but never applied the same standards to her own work (Matthews).

Intrigued, I set about to find other perspectives that existed at the time regarding plantation songs, and began searching African American newspapers. One of the more interesting articles I found was titled “Coon Songs” and was written in 1914 for the Savannah Tribune, just a little over 10 years after the publication of Plantation Songs.

It wasn’t clear to me whether or not the author themself was Black, but the newspaper is definitely directed at a Black audience. The article actually had something in common with Young’s book – it makes a case for the preservation of plantation songs as a historical heritage. This is where the similarity ends. The author bemoans the fact that plantation songs are not being preserved by the new generation.

“The young colored people of our day cannot sing [plantation songs] and do not appreciate them. It seems to me a pity that the young colored people patronize the minstrel shows that merely burlesque sacred songs of the old days.”

The author suggests that young men form classes to learn the old plantation songs “from the old people who are passing off the stage”, concluding that “a spirit of genuine patriotism and race pride calls upon intelligent men to preserve these true songs”.

The major difference between this article and Young’s book is that the author of the article argues for the preservation of plantation songs by learning from old performers for the purpose of uplifting Black people, while Young’s book attempts to preserve Black heritage in book form, through a white lens, for urban white people’s imaginations. Both respond to what was evidently viewed as a problem in the post-Reconstruction South – the old plantation songs were disappearing. And both strive to offer a remedy. The difference is who the remedy is for.


“Coon Songs.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XXIX, no. 23, 21 Feb. 1914, p. [4]. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11CCCBEC43F62EDE%40EANAAA-11D5E09364F22910%402420185-11D5E09378D940D0%403-11D5E093CB27DD90%40Coon%2BSongs. Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The J.W. Otts House, Greensboro, Alabama. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010641120/>.

Kobzeff, Joel. “Martha Strudwick Young.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 15 Mar. 2021, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4269.

Matthews, Scott L. “Protesting the Privilege of Perception: Resistance to Documentary Work in Hale County, Alabama, 1900–2010.” Southern Cultures, vol. 22, no. 1, University of North Carolina Press, 2016, pp. 31–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26221778

Shepperd, Eli. Plantation songs for my lady’s banjo and other Negro lyrics & monologues by Eli Shepperd with pictures from life by J. W. Otts. R.H. Russell; New York, 1901. Afro Americana Imprints.  https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=A57V58PNMTYzMzgwNzQ5Ni4yNjM4NTA6MToxNDoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjE3NQ&p_action=doc&p_queryname=7&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-147E02D0C7259700@11449-15E338602ACE6790@37


Dancing Through History: A Political Presentation of Music and Dance

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.

Our last few class sessions have asked us to consider how history presents Black music and culture and the ways that we can critically evaluate those presentations. Our syllabus assigned us a series of readings about Black music, which were all categorized under the subheading “The White Hypothesis.” The authors of these articles, Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923) and George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953), each highlight a relatively convoluted set of principles that they saw to be universal truths about the origins of Black music and spirituals. Though Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s arguments are different, and even contradict each other on many points, they’re both rooted in inaccurate assumptions about Black culture, identity, and music. 

Continue reading

National Jukebox

I couldn’t help but think about how this process of selecting and digitizing records for the National Jukebox is sort of like the process of creating a digital map. Especially while looking at the fourth picture slide and reading its description, the way they had specific elements that were consistent with each record to easily identify each one is a lot like how we choose specific elements that we would want to show along with our maps. However, the rest of the process is much more tedious. I found it really cool that someone pulls every single copy of the same record, examines their physical conditions, then chooses the best one from that same set of records. This, of course, being after the records are chosen for the National Jukebox. (This process still remains unclear to me but clicking around different links on the websites helped.) It’s like an assembly line. Once a step is completed, they seamlessly move on to the next step and it is nicely shown by the slide of pictures which gives off the feeling of a fixed process with anticipated steps. 

I find this process to be very cool because as you go along, you see and read about how many different people are involved in this National Jukebox creation. This process requires many different people with knowledge in many different specialized fields to carry out each different step. It is no surprise at all that it took the better part of a year (2010) to complete this process.


“Making the National Jukebox  :  Articles and Essays  :  National Jukebox  :  Digital Collections  :  Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress. Accessed October 6, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/collections/national-jukebox/articles-and-essays/making-the-jukebox/#slide-1.

More on Henry Krehbiel

When reading selections from Henry Krehbiel’s 1914 publication of Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music,1 Music 345 was perplexed to compare his eagerness to embrace African American folksongs as American creations attributed to Black people in America to the writings of George Pullen Jackson in White and Negro Spirituals (1943). 2There was a general consensus among us that as history progresses, so do our politics. So I want to know: what was Krehbiel inspired by, and what can his background tell us about his research and publications?

I do not seek to answer this question in full with a blog post, however I do think it is worthwhile to consider where his inspirations came from. Henry Krehbiel was a first generation American growing up in a German speaking family. He started working for the New York Tribune around 1880 and soon rose to the title ‘music editor’ which gave rise to his writings on American music. His 1914 publication cited above is said to be inspired by his attendance of the World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. The World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was quite frankly a great show of American exceptionalism meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus in 1492 featuring over 200 buildings boasting neoclassical architecture as well as artists and musicians, including African American music from the Dahomean village. 3

First page of the program for the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago, 1893.4

The very music Krehbiel heard from the Dahomean village at the World Columbian Exchange inspired the musical, In Dahomey, a piano-vocal score written by Will Marion Cook and vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. According to some sources, this was the first publication of its type and was performed over 1100 times in the United States and England from 1902-1905.5,7

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010193/.6

The history behind the Dahomey village as it existed in America has somewhat of a different origin story. The kingdom of Dahomey was a West African kingdom located in present day Benin that was colonized by the French, so many of the artifacts on display at the World Columbian Exchange were actually collected by the French Colonial Office during the scramble for Africa between 1880 and 1885.7 Knowing that the Dahomey village in America was the product of colonialism and that Krehbiel was probably enthralled in an exotic fascination of their music greatly informs how we think about his research. This being said, Krehbiel’s colonial bias does not detract from the impact of  Dahomean music on American music as a genre. We must instead lend some more credence to the instrumental role African Americans played in creating the genre of American music.

Krehbiel’s interest in the music of the Dahomean village is somewhat analogous to Dvorak’s fascination with folksongs that inspired the New World Symphony which was also written in 1893. This work supposedly also contributed to his own research in gathering music from Americans and immigrants to study and write about. Knowing that Krehbiel, though not an anti-racist by any means collected his own research and information perhaps lends more credence to his work than Jackson who relies strictly on conjecture and other researchers.


“Whitewashed” and Romanticized Notion of Blackness

As I was browsing through the prints and photographs archives of the Library of Congress, I come across an interesting primary source– “The Negro Element in American Life”, a published oration by Abraham Lincoln DeMond (1867-1936).

The cover of the published oration, The Negro Element in American Life, by Rev. A. L. DeMond, Jan 1st, 1900. https://www.loc.gov/resource/lcrbmrp.t0e10/?st=gallery

Demond, a minister and advocate for African-American emancipation in the late 10th to early 20th century, published his speech at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on January 1st, 1900 and published it as “The Negro Element in American Life”. In the oration, he eloquently points out and argues for the contributions and achievements of black folks to the United States since before the country was even formed. His speech pushes back against forces and trends that challenges the validity and worthiness of black Americans as “authentic” American, urging people of his time to see the contributions and achievements of black Americans towards the founding and prosperity of the country as well as being full embodiments of American values and aspirations.

In the past week on Henry Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s readings, our class explored some of the arguments for and against whether people should consider black spirituals, folk songs and plantation music as “original” and as “American”. Krehbiel believed and tried to prove that black music is spontaneous, native and original by both locality as well as musical characteristic, although Jackson pushes back on this idea by contributing most “origins” of black music and tunes towards European roots.

“If the songs which came from the plantations of the South are to conform to the scientific definitions of folksongs as I laid it down in the preceding chapter, they must be “born, not made”; they must be spontaneous utterances of the people who originally sang them; they must also be the fruit of the creative capacity of a whole and ingenuous people, not of individual artists, and give voice to the joys, sorrows and aspirations of that people”

Henry Krehbiel, Songs of the American Slaves (1914), P.22

These discussions around identity, race and nationalism are so intertwining that we simply cannot talk about one without the other. Complementary to Krehbiel’s arguments, DeMond calls for people to consider black folks in America as Americans who belong on this land and carry this “American” identity just like all their white European counterparts in the country both by locality and by merit.

However, the positionality of DeMond narrative as a white pastor inevitably whitewashed the experience, merits and achievements of the African Americans on this land which is the foundation of his arguments. For instance, he pictured black folks as the silent, obedient and hardworking contributors of the prosperity of the United States, and that the statue of liberty was the hard labour of black Americans doing the job for the wage that white American workers declined. By doing so, he presented an almost romanticized idea of African Americans on this land as what Jackson has briefly mentioned in his writing.

The privileged subjectivity from a white man’s perspective is both a path for change and call-for-actions as well as a subject to be criticized from romanticized notion of race and identity in the United States.


Demond, A. L, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Emancipation Proclamation Association, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. The Negro element in American life. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/91898121/.

Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962).

Who’s allowed to use dialect? Not me, that’s for certain.

I know, I know, you’re disappointed this is not another installment of my world famous series Cohen Quest. Fear not, dear reader, for yet have an interesting history to uncover. After an obligatory “Cecil Cohen” and “Charles Cohen” search in the National Jukebox Collection, I found myself sorting the recordings by date; the first recording to pop up was that of a song called “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?”, composed by a Mr. Will Marion Cook, and recorded by “Sousa’s Band”, conducted by Arthur Pryor.1

At first I was more than a little disturbed by the use of dialect and automatically assumed this was a blackface minstrel song and prepared myself for the worst as I looked up the contributors. Hoo boy was I wrong!

Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was a prolific and accomplished composer and conductor; he studied at Oberlin College, the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and under Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory for Music, and because racism prevented him from having a career in classical music he switched to composer popular music and was extraordinarily successful. His musicals Clorindy (1898) and In Dahomey (1903), composed for the comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker, were the first all-black composed, produced, and performed musicals on Broadway.2

The text of Clorindy, where “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?” comes from, was written by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The use of dialect, in this case, was not in mockery; at the time Clorindy was first performed, operetta and minstrelsy were all the rage. As it was one of the only ways black musicians could be successful, Cook and Dunbar wrote their musicals in the styles of minstrel shows to appeal to white audiences, and subsequently helped usher in a new era of musical theater.3 Listen to the tenor William Brown sing the original version of the song, and perhaps follow along with the lyrics:

There was once a great assemblage of the cullud population,
all the cullud swells was there,
They had got them-selves together to discuss the situation
and rumours in the air.
There were speakers there from Georgia and some from Tennessee,
who were making feather fly,
When a roostah in the bahn-ya’d flew up what folks could see,
Then those darkies all did cry.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
Blame de lan’ let white folks rule it,
I’se a lookin fu a pullet,
Who dat say chicken is dis crowd.

A famous culled preacher told his listnin’ congregation,
all about de way to ac’,
Ef dey want to be respected and become a mighty nation
to be hones’ Fu’ a fac’.
Dey mus nebber lie, no nebber, an’ mus’ not be caught a-stealin’
any pullets fun de lin’,
But an aged deacon got up an’ his voice it shook wif feelin’,
As dese words he said to him.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
What’s de use of all dis talkin’,
Let me hyeah a hen a sqauwkin’
Who dat say chicken in dis crowd.4

There are a few things going on here: Cook and Dunbar were incredibly talented artists caught in a time in which, because of national trends and the distribution of money, they were forced to write in a style that was a bastardization and exploitation of their very recently enslaved ancestors. Perhaps this is one manifestation of DuBois’s “double-consciousness”: this second sight encourages black artists to incorporate the proclivities of white consumers to have a chance at success.5 We could easily track the long history of black artists capitulating to white sensitivities in order to survive, starting from enslaved instrumentalists performing at plantation balls as described by Eileen Southern. However, for the artists involved, this can also be a way to take back some power: their use of dialect and minstrelsy styles gave the production team a larger audience and greater notoriety in a time where all-black productions were rare.

1 Cook, Will Marion, Sousa’s Band, and Arthur Pryor. 1900. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”. Library of Congress National Jukebox. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-1762/.

2 Library of Congress. “Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)”, accessed Oct 4, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200038839/

3 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “minstrel show.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 2, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/art/minstrel-show.

4 Cook, Will Marion, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”, Library of Congress Sheet Music. 1898. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016790971/.

5 Du Bois, W.E.B.. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”. The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg. 7-14. https://libcom.org/files/DuBois.pdf.

Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare


Felix Arndt’s piece Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare, takes works by classical composers Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Sinding and rearranges them in a rag style, which was a popular musical genre in the early 1900s. Rag or ragtime is a musical genre that originated from and was created in African American communities. Rag can be identified by its syncopated rhythms and “ragged beat”. Rag was a precursor to the “swing” jazz and Blues, both musical traditions deeply rooted in Black culture, that developed throughout the 1910s and later years of the 20th century.

Scott Joplin, one of the first well-known composers of ragtime music and known as “The King of Ragtime”, stated the following in an interview for the newspaper New York Age: “that there had been “ragtime” music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago[in the 1890s].’” 

Joplin was referring in part to the white composers and bands beginning to arrange their own ragtime music in the 1910s and 20s, and also to the rising popularity of ragtime being played in minstrel shows; “entertainment” in which actors or singers performed in blackface and utilized racist stereotypes in typically comedic skits at the expense of black people. 

The increase in popularity of African American musical genres was met with opposition by many upper and middle class white people. This was especially true in the classical music sphere. A strong indication of this cultural sentiment is the presence of a counter culture to resist it, however superficial and performative some aspects of the movement might be. 

Arndt was a white, middle class, classical pianist, and, even if he obviously has an appreciation for ragtime, it is evident he had no intention of furthering recognition and appreciation for black art-forms in the mainstream.

Desecration Rag, published in 1914, contained the subtle subtitle “Introducing ragtime perversions of “Humoresque (Dvorak)…””. The syncopated, ragtime beats Arndt included in his work were labelled a “perversion” of classical music, and thus, a “classical nightmare”, by no other than himself and his production team. Even in modern times, one could easily identify it as a shock-value publicity stunt. 

To provide ragtime the same respect classical is given in the “mainstream”, is a tangentially different objective from instigating fear of the desecration of classical music.

If an artist sought to celebrate dialects, they would not call them a “Desecration of  the English Language”, as that would elicit an immediate negative response, and attract “purists”. An artist would only do this to create controversy, an endeavor most lucrative in the artistic profession. 

What Arndt’s piece elicited was the expected reaction from both conservative and more liberal white audiences, a reaction that entirely relies on anti-blackness, elitism, and young artists rebelling against the status quo. Arndt was not publishing this record in recognition of the brilliance of ragtime, or to empower those who pioneered it; he was just taking advantage of white middle class fears to evoke an emotional response from an early 20th Century audience, which now paints a staggeringly clear picture of racism in America. 


Arndt, F. & Arndt, F. (1914) Desecration rag A classic nightmare. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-134701/.

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 24). Ragtime. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragtime.

Photographing African American Affluence

I enjoy this image for many reasons: the intelligent stare from the African American man giving lessons, the graceful hands of the pianist, the cloth draping over the upright piano, the ornate room with crown molding and intricate windows. Whether it features posed subject matter or a day-to-day occurrence, this particular piece draws  me into this piano lesson. 

This image is part of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s collection of almost 400  photographs called African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition. W.E.B. Du Bois was an African American writer with a passion for social justice. These pictures, in particular, depict African American life in the regional south and take a different approach to the racist ideology circling both academic and public thought among white people. At the time of this exhibition, the world had taken to portraying African Americans (or any person of color, for that matter) as a race lacking the means to “attai[n] great material and cultural achievements”. However, W.E.B. Du Bois’s collection of photographs, like the one above, portrayed African Americans as “a proud people, dressed in splendor, as accomplished scholars and intellectuals studying the world with as much competence” as any student of the classics. Simply, Du Bois debunks many racist assumptions of African American citizens by photographing many men and women who work and live in affluent positions.

I think this photo of an African American man giving piano lessons serves as a wonderful example of Du Bois’s goal with the collection. To this day, playing the piano maintains a certain level of social sophistication– a skill that could be a party trick, the main entertainment, or a sign of affluence in one’s community (pianos are #expensive). Playing the instrument well requires diligent practice and lots of hours dedicated to improvement. Furthermore, African American pianists are not restricted to music that originates from their experience (i.e. spirituals, folk songs, psalmody…). Learning any instrument provides exposure to composers that wrote music particularly for that music-making machine. Even though it is difficult to see in this image, these African American pianists could be playing the same music as white pianists. 

At this moment, I recall our Eileen Southern reading: The Music of Black Americans. Southern  includes African Americans in the same musical and social practices as early white colonists, something scholarship was lacking  prior to her work. She uses language like the following phrases throughout these initial pages : “a variety of informal social activities were available to colonial villagers, participated in by white and black alike…” and “white or black, servant or master, religious instruction was not only an essential prerequisite for membership in the church, but was also a basic part of daily life.” Similar to how Southern takes back the narrative of African American life in the early settlements of America, Du Bois’s collection reclaims that African Americans are not only capable of producing intelligent cultural products, but also have always succeeded in doing so. 


Du Bois, W.E.B (William Edward Burghardt),  collector. [African American man giving piano lesson to young African American woman]. Published 1899 or 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Photograph. Accessed on 1 October 2021. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99472455/ 

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Provenzo, Eugene F.. Illustrated Souls of Black Folk. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

The W.E.B Du Bois Center. W. E. B. du Bois’s Data Portraits : Visualizing Black America. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

Black American Musicians Through the White Lens

From the many sources we’ve read in class, we know that black American instrumentalists existed, playing many instruments that could be classified in the  “folk” or “blue-grass” genre today. In Eileen Southern’s book, we learn about the runaway slaves who were fiddlers, singers, and guitar players. We also know the banjo originated from a West African stringed instrument made out of a gourd.  (https://music.si.edu/spotlight/banjos-smithsonian). And from Rhiannon Gidden’s speech, we learned that bluegrass has always been a black genre. So I wanted to know: What stories do the pictures tell?

Factually, the same thing. These instruments have always been a part of black history. But of course, with almost anything from these time periods, the narrative is always in the hands of white people. And that’s especially true with the photographic sources that are available today.

This first photo is taken from a popular (in the 1800s) cartoon by Currier and Ives called Blacktown, a satire aimed at making fun of black people. Its one of the first images that results from the search of the word “banjo,” yet we know that banjo was a popular instrument in black communities. Its a useful source to pair with Southern and Gidden’s points, because it places the banjo in the black musical canon, yet it’s entirely controlled by the white people who made it.

Gassman PickaninniesThis picture, from 1901, is of a “picaninny” performing child, a popular vaudville act, in which children performed for white spectators, often for humor, under the hand of a white adult female. The children often travel with the troupe without their families. Again, the mandolin places the instrument into the black music narrative, but the picture is likely taken by a white person for other white people. I find this picture especially disturbing, as the child is nameless, naked, and smiling (is she happy?). She is viewed as an object for entertainment; property to the act. This is another example of white people in control: not only of the picture and narrative, but of the life of this child.

"Retrospection". Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo

Although pehaps not as sinister, this 1902 image isn’t light-hearted either. Once again, we see the banjo and the player, yet he looks somber– Is it because a white man is taking his photo?

When looking at these pictures I keep asking: where is the joy? For me (and for most of us, I think) music is about expression, joy, happiness, and freedom. I want to see pictures of black people playing their instruments joyfully, like we know they must have; like Southern and Giddens both provide proof for; like we might’ve gotten if black people were allowed to control their own narrative.



Retrospection, Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo. United States, 1902. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006687460/

“Banjos.” Smithsonian Music. Accessed October 5, 2021. https://music.si.edu/spotlight/banjos-smithsonian.

Currier & Ives, creators. Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!. United States, 1886. Cartoon. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91724110/

Gassman Pickaninnies. United States, 1901. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003665236/

Giddens, Rhiannon. “Community and Connection.” IBMA, April 26, 2021. https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/.

“The Picaninny Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. Accessed October 5, 2021. https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/antiblack/picaninny/homepage.htm.

biased and bright, ‘ppropriated and proud

It is so interesting (and frankly funny) to look back at history and see what embarrassing things people have said and done, it’s like that feeling when you log onto your old social media account and see that cringey selfie with the horrible fashion choice. Thankfully, even though we did not live to see the past, we have databases to help us dig up some dirt on those arrogant scholars. What I want to highlight is the hypocrisy when it comes to the origins of certain music and how the mainstream (which is the white community at the time) perceived them completely differently.

In this week’s reading and discussion, we focused on some articles that had a lot of racist opinions and language. In his book , Jackson cited some different views on the origin of African American spiritual singing. Wallaschek argued in his Primitive Music (yikes) that the black community simply imitated white music, which is similar to what Jackson ends up arguing. In White and Negro Spirituals, Jackson pulled up a map and a statistic table in and tried to prove a point that the white hymnals is the direct causation of black spirituals’ existence.

For this blog, I searched up some open ended keywords, and in my research I found out something interesting.

This is a collection of notated music for banjo. It was published in Philadelphia in 1885 by S. S. Steward(/t), and the file is titled “Plantation Jig.” This source is quite trustworthy because S. S. Steward is a big name in the banjo world, and is often being brought up when talking about banjos and their history. This collection is quite similar to what a modern music book looks like, it has some music scores and the first four pages consist of information about what to look out for when purchasing an instrument, prices of sheet music and performance notices. It even has advertisements. This collection is clearly marketed towards those who want to know more about the banjo. It is interesting that on page 5, the drawing of a white man shows up. His name was J. E. Henning, and he was a banjo teacher. I did a tiny deep dive on him, and it turns out that he is still a name that pops up in the banjo making industry.

The actual musical content is also very interesting and… eurocentric. It is written similarly to an instrumental method book, with explanations of how to do certain things on the instrument as well as basic technique training. What stood out to me is that the music selected in this collection are all very European. On page 9 of the digitized file, the two titles are Waltz and Schottische, which is a slow polka dance of European roots. Basically, in this book, Steward planted the European music traditions onto a non-European instrument. It is nuts to me that the banjo, an instrument that is 100% African in its DNA, was whitewashed since 1830 and still is being whitewashed (Winans, 174). 

Both the spirituals and the banjo are parts of American music history that involve African American and the white Americans. However, the way the white scholars/musicians went about this is very problematic and telling of societal issues. When there’s similarities in white and black practices, the white scholars are quick to claim that the black community assimilated the white practices; but when the white community picked up on banjo, they did not credit the black community, but instead whitewashed the instrument and the repertoire.


Works Cited

Holmes, Michael I. “Identifying S. S. Stewart Banjos.” Identifying SS Stewart Banjos, 1997, http://www.mugwumps.com/sss_date.html.

Jackson, George P. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship. New York, J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1943. 

Jackson, George P. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. New York, Dover Publications, 1932.

“John E. Henning.” Henning # – Vintage Banjo Makers, http://www.vintagebanjomaker.com/henning/4594323455. 

Stewart, S. S. Plantation Jig. Steward, S. S., Philadelphia, monographic, 1885. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/sm1885.06817/>.

Winans, Robert B., and Charles Reagan Wilson. “Banjo.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music, edited by BILL C. MALONE, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, pp. 174–75, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469616667_malone.49.

Who is she? History blanks on Elsie Blank

The summary of this 1929 photo from the Library of Congress reads, “Mrs. Elsie Blank holding a huge tuba and her son Jack holding the music for her at the Orchestra Hall, Chicago.”

The combination of this image and these words immediately sparked an avalanche of questions in my mind. Who was Elsie Blank? Why was this photograph taken, and why was her son there? How “huge” was the tuba? Was it 5/4 size, or does it just look “huge” to the summary writer in the arms of a woman? Did Mrs. Blank even play the tuba? If so, did she play in the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra as suggested by the caption of the photograph (“Features of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra”)? 

Advanced searches for any kind of answer in every plausible database available left me with next to nothing. Interestingly, the most consistent results were offers to purchase the photograph as a poster (by which I am strongly tempted).



Lost in a sea of browser tabs, search boxes, and quotation marks, I started to get the feeling that I was the only person in the world who wanted to know who Elsie Blank was. But then there was Linda Dempf.

Dr. Dempf, a professional French horn player, author, and librarian with an interest in the history of all-women orchestras in the United States, had written an article on the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. I learned that the orchestra had existed in two versions, the “Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra” (1924-1928) and the longer-lasting “Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago” (1925-1947). Thus the plot thickens: if Elsie Blank was indeed a member of such an orchestra, which group was she part of? These groups and other similar all-female orchestras were started in the 1920s for a reason that one might predict: lack of opportunities to take part in professional music-making controlled by men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity continues today as the lack of written records renders me unable to learn much at all about the all-female orchestras, especially about Mrs. Elsie Blank. 

I am currently hoping for a response to an email that I sent to Dr. Linda Dempf, asking if she has any more information on the personnel of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra and specifically any information on Elsie Blank. As I wait, I must turn to my imagination to reflect on my questions about this photograph. Mrs. Blank’s correct positioning of the tuba (see a counterexample) makes me believe that she did indeed play the tuba. Perhaps her son was in the photo to show a glance at the home lives of the women in the orchestra, who ranged from high school girls to grandmothers. I have hope that some real answers to my questions are out there somewhere, and that I’m not truly the only one who cares who Elsie Blank was.



Dempf, Linda. “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” Notes 62, no. 4 (2006): 857–903. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4487666.

Features of the Chicago Womans Symphony Orchestra. , 1929. Nov. 7. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712973/.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Women With Tuba. United States, 1928. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016889006/.

The Genesis of the Blues Is Earlier than You Think

I’m sure many of us associate the blues with the early 20th-century; the 19-teens being the “Blues Era” in American society, but what if I told you the blues was at least 45 years old at that point? The blues is a great deal older than what tends to be portrayed in music circles and wider society; the practice actually goes all the way back to Emancipation, if not further.

https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-11226/ (“Memphis Blues” recorded in 1914, considered one of the marquis blues songs of the 19-teens.)

W. C. Handy was the composer of “Memphis Blues” and is considered “Father of the Blues.”

The blues emerged around the time of Emancipation, coming from the traditions of the shout and the spiritual. It was an expression of the newly available social and cultural structures that were previously unavailable, but it was also an expression of the new experiences regarding self-reliance and freedom. The way the blues evolved into a more standardized practice was through the migratory patterns of formerly enslaved people; whether that was from having to work as migrant farmers or moving to new areas due to the formerly unavailable ability to migrate as they pleased. Different regional forms of the blues would be exchanged as people moved around the South and later also moved to the North during the Great Migration. Regardless of the standardization, the blues began as a deeply personal form of expression and remained a personal form of expression for many Black artists. It was a way to express their reactions to their new found freedom, but it was another form of oral history and storytelling. Early blues songs were used to tell the stories of great Black heroes and what they accomplished, in spite of everything American society told them they weren’t.

https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-3235/?&embed=resources (“Ain’t That a Shame” the oldest blues recording I could find in the National Jukebox archives, recorded in 1901.)

 The early form of the blues does not take the form we would anticipate it to take. The blues is associated with a 12-bar, 3 line, AAB structure, but the most that could be found to be similar with the blues just after Emancipation would be the 3 line structure that came from the shout. One of the ways the early blues were able to be separated from spirituals and shouts is the usage of instruments within the music. Spirituals and shouts were primarily a capella due to restricted access to many instruments on plantations, but after Emancipation a wide variety of instruments were now available be used within their musical traditions. The guitar was an instrument that became quite popular among blues players for 2 main reasons: it was similar to the banjo(which many formerly enslaved people were familiar with) and it was an instrument that could be played and still retain the ability to sing. This usage of guitars(and other instruments) resulted in a further standardization of the blues because now vocalist had to be cognizant of the tonality of the instruments they were singing with.

https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-17557/? (“Homesickness Blues” recorded in 1916, as the genre was beginning to take off within wider society.)

Nora Bayes, the performer of “Homesickness Blues”, showcasing the acceptance of blues music into white audiences and homes, but only through the rendition of white artists themselves.


The reason we are mistaken as to the general era of the blues is because the genre didn’t become popular with white audiences until the 20th-century. The reason recognition was even taking place was because the blues lyrics were shifting from AAVE(African-American Vernacular English) to the typical American English standard. It was at that point white record labels began to seek out blues musicians to potentially teach their white performers, but seeing an opportunity, many blues composers began to seek out white performers in order to further spread their music. This is when the blues was brought into the mainstream music scene of early 20th-century America. The blues is a musical tradition far older than we(as a broader society) give it credit for, and it greatly helped to develop the popular music styles of the 20th-century. The blues could exist without jazz, but jazz could not exist without the blues.



Handy, W. C, Morton Harvey, and W. C Handy. The Memphis blues. 1914. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-11226/.

Hess, Cliff, Nora Bayes, Cliff Hess, and Walter B Rogers. Homesickness Blues. 1916. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-17557/.

Queen, John, Silas F Leachman, and Walter Wilson. Ain’t That a Shame. 1901. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-3235/.


Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021. W. C. Handy. [image] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/W-C-Handy> [Accessed 4 October 2021]. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nora Bayes.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 15, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nora-Bayes.


Baraka, Amiri. “Primitive Blues and Primitive Jazz.” In Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed from It., 72-92. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1963. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C452382Hall, Stephanie. The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz. Library of Congress, February 24, 2017. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/02/birth-of-blues-and-jazz/.

Louis Armstrong and the Traces of Minstrelsy

Louis Armstrong is perhaps one of the most well known and respected jazz musicians of all time. As a trumpet player and vocalist, he played a large role in the development of jazz, and his music had a lasting impact on the genre. He used his trumpet as an extension of his voice, popularized scatting after forgetting the words to “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926, and developed the individual solo aspect of jazz playing.1 With his soulful playing and cheerful stage presence, he captivated audiences around the globe.His contemporaries looked up to him for his artistry, although his music-making did not go without criticism from others. Known for his wide grin and cheerful, silly stage persona, as can be seen in this caricature drawn by Makoto Wada3, this aspect of Armstrong’s playing was controversial because it evoked traces of minstrelsy in his performance.



The 1932 short film, Rhapsody in Black and Blue, displays these traces well. Armstrong plays jazz in a dreamland called “jazz mania” while depicting African Americans as “savage” along with other stereotypes. As a response to Armstrong’s stage presence, Miles Davis said of him, “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.”, while others accused him of being an “Uncle Tom”.2


Although Armstrong may have depicted stereotypes while catering to a white audience, through his music, he was able to celebrate his black individuality. He used the roles as opportunities to advance his career, and as he gained popularity, he used his music as a form of protest. In 1931 after being arrested, put in jail, and then bailed out so he could perform, Armstrong dedicated the song “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You” to the Memphis Police Force.2 He later spoke out against segregation in the audience, losing many of the audience members who came to see him.2 Although Armstrong sought to entertain, above all he was proud of his heritage, outspoken in his individuality, and paved way for many other African Americans.





W. C. Handy and the Blues

H.E. Krehbiel (right), 1917

In 1914, Henry Edward Krehbiel published Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. Although white, he was critical of the research that had come before him in relation to black music. In his book, he notes that the “overwhelming majority of the travellers who have written about primitive peoples have been destitute of even the most elemental knowledge of… music.” (13). This was in response to the gross misclassification of African instruments by people such as Dr. Richard Wallaschek. It was also a widely known fact in musicology back in the day that black folk music came as a result of white spirituals. While Krehbiel admits later on that “[s]imilarities exist between the folksongs of all peoples.” (14), he ultimately concludes that “the songs of the black slaves of the South are original and native products.” (22).

W. C. Handy

It was from this environment that William Christopher Handy was born. Those of you know know jazz history may know W. C. Handy for his influence in blues, pre-jazz, and in early jazz. While scouring the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, I looked up blues songs by date and saw “The Memphis Blues” early on. The earliest recording in the National Jukebox is, coincidentally, also from 1914, although the sheet music is from 1913.


Songs like this and “St. Louis Blues” helped shape the face of popular black music and eventually popular music as a whole through what’s known as the 12 Bar Blues. This song form repeats a particular 12-bar harmonic structure throughout most of the song, only varying it slightly between different songs. This was not only popular throughout the early 1910s and 20s, but can also be seen throughout much of popular music in the 50s and 60s, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

It’s all a bit ironic in hindsight to see the original claims of white music influencing black music end up being quite the opposite today. While it’s not fair to say that it was a one way influence, it’s impossible to go through the journey of American music through W. C. Handy to Chuck Berry to Beyoncé and not recognize the huge influence of black musicians and black music in general on what American music is today.


A Closer Look

Upon approaching research for this week’s blog post, I stumbled across this image in the Library of Congress’ digital archive of images. In the name of the thirst for knowledge, I looked for further images; maybe one that was a more readily used piece of music, or maybe a log of a certain event that might point me towards the cultural events of a given time period. Though educational and truly interesting, I kept remembering the painting of the happy black fiddler and the happy white family and the happy children dancing happily. 

image link: https://www.loc.gov/item/98516820/

The picture’s description as it states in the Library of Congress’ web archive is as follows:

Print shows an African American man playing fiddle and family dancing. It resembles, but is an Americanized variation of, Auguste Dircks (1806-1881) “Dancing to the fiddle” now in the Josef Mensing Gallery, Hamm-Rhynern, Germany. 

The reading of Eileen Southern jumped to the front of my mind. Her reading explores the means of musical practices in the the South during the years of slavery, and the ways that black musicians were often times used as entertainment for white slave owners. With that knowledge, I began to consider the circumstances of this image’s creation, as I was very taken aback by the painting’s lighthearted nature. Certainly a painting depicting a slave and white family happily coexisting to the credit of some fire fiddle music should have been painted by a white person, someone with a stake to try and “paint” the history of black Americans playing music in servitude in a far more positive light. 

Not much is known about August Dircks other than the information that he was German-born and lived from 1806-1871. With the knowledge that this painting was not American born, my viewing of it was altered slightly. Though it is important to mention the African diaspora was not exclusive to the United States, knowing this painting came from a mind outside of the Antebellum South shifted my focus. My attention went toward the black fiddler in the center of the painting, the only character painted who does not have attention paid to his expression. Rather his face is obscured by the fiddle he is being forced to play, looking downward as a slave player like him would likely be privy to not making mistakes when performing for his oppressors. Obscured, ignored, relegated to the painting’s source of joy without the slightest mention of his experience or attitude, this man fades into ambiguity. 

I think that this painting is actually quite interesting, as the experience that I had dissecting its contents is likely the desired experience for Dircks. As a white person in America, the circumstances of my upbringing have predisposed me to ignore the experiences of minority individuals. My white eye went directly to the white family having a good bit of Southern fun, and not the enslaved black man, quite literally playing for his life. This realization is the painting’s purpose, a mirror image towards the viewer’s worldview. 

I don’t know if I did this assignment entirely correctly, but I just had an interesting experience researching this image and was reminded that music research can be flawed as well.

Duval & Hunter, and James Fuller Queen. Power of music / chromo. of Duval & Hunter, Philadelphia ; Jas. F. Queen after A. Dircks. New York: published by A. & C. Kaufmann. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/98516820/>.

The Crucial “Contradictions” in Black American Church Music History

When you think of a hymn, what sound, mood, and/or style pop into your head? In a typical Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. worship setting, I think that we can all agree that we would expect to hear something similar to the sheet music below written by Philip Bliss: 4 system, 4 verse, chordal song, verse-refrain format, etc.

“Hold the Fort” (1876) Written by Philip Bliss

Although, when looking into various Gospel hymns of the 20th century, I noticed something different about these hymns, particularly when performed or recorded. Listen to this version of “Hold the Fort” that was recorded in 1899.


As you can hear, it is not sung as “straight” as some scholars would maybe expect this song to be sung in a typical church setting. There are rhythmic and slight melodic liberties taken- from rubato to sliding up to certain notes and cadence points. In another example that I looked into, this song “Leave it There (Tkae Your Burdens to the Lord)” written by Charles Tindely- a widely renown black gospel hymn composer- was notated in the same format as seen before in 1916. 

“Leave it There (Take Your Burdens to the Lord)” (1916) Written by Charles Tindley

Continue reading

Sometimes, Maps Don’t Tell All

The Context

As I was (somewhat blindly) perusing the Library of Congress prints and photographs database, I came across a collection1 of maps showing various demographic data about African Americans living in Georgia around the year 1900. The first map I came across (Figure 1) initially caught my attention because of a striking similarity to a source we looked at in class. Have you guessed what yet?

Figure 1. The very first map I came across. Look familiar?

Yeah. It’s George Pullen Jackson’s book titled “White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship2.” More on that later. I decided to look at this collection of maps and the more I read about them, the more interested I became. Continue reading

Higinio Ruvalcaba

I knew Mexico was home to classical composers and had its own history in classical music, however, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea about the extent of its history. Mexico was creating music in the classical style at least as early as the seventeenth century during the baroque period. Unfortunately, many of these great composers have been forgotten or been written about so little. For that reason, this week I would like to discuss Higinio Ruvalcaba, a Mexican composer, and violinist who lived from 1905 to 1976.

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Doing research on Ruvalcaba has certainly been very challenging. There are very few resources and documents about him in Spanish and even fewer in English. His son Euginio Ruvalcaba did publish a book on him in 2003, but I unfortunately did ot have access to it. For the purposes of this blog post, I will summarize the sources I could find and link the texts in the footnotes.

I could write an entire paper on his life, but I think his daughter Marcela Ruvalcaba does an excellent job of summarizing it in her article “In Memory of the Virtuoso Violinist Higinio Ruvalcaba”. I would highly reccomend checking it out. It is in Spanish and for the purposes of this post I read it in spanish, however you can hit the translate button and get the genral idea of the article. According to his daughter, Ruvalcaba was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1905 and was a child prodigy on the violin and with composition. he began composing for strings at a young age. He learned the violin at four years old by listening to a mariachi player and imitating the sounds coming from his violin on his own instrument. Throughout his life, Ruvalcaba played in many orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Mexico city Philharmonic. He also conducted and composed many works1

The first piece of of Ruvalcaba’s work I came across was his piece “Chapultepec” (listen here) in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox archive. This particular recording was performed in 1923 in New York, New York by the International Novelty Orchestra. The piece is labeled a foxtrot. A foxtrot was popular during the 1920s and is in 4/4 time with a lilting beat2
.Ruvalcaba’s foxtrot “Chapultec” has the style of a foxtrot with some added instrumentation and musical ideas that bring in Spanish culture. One example of this cultural blending is the utilization of castanets in the recording. Castanets are an instrument popularized by flamenco music and dance and they are made of wood and make a unique wooden clicking sound.

Another interesting fact about this piece is that every recording I found utilizes different instrumentation and stylistic add ons such as the addition mordents, the melody being played by a salterio instead of a wind instrument (I struggled with identifying the instrument used in the 1920’s recording). A salterio is a traditional instrument used in Spanish music dating back centuries3.

In some ways, the recorded version of the piece performed in America is definitely more Europeanized, but since I could find little evidence or notation of Ruvalcaba’s piece I am unsure as to which recordings are more true to his intentions. Given that he was classically trained in what was accepted as the western canon, but also raised around and inspired by Mariachi I could see his vision going either way. I attached some other recordings below so you may compare them yourself.

The first is at this link!

Overall, I wish I had more answers About Higinio Rulvacaba and his life, but I was and still am excited by what I did find.

1Ruvalcaba, PorMarcela Flores, Marcela Flores RuvalcabaBailarina, Bailarina, See author’s posts, and Nombre *. “A La Memoria Del Virtuoso Violinista Higinio Ruvalcaba.” Periodismo del sector cultural al estilo GRECU, April 20, 2020. https://pasolibre.grecu.mx/a-la-memoria-del-virtuoso-violinista-higinio-ruvalcaba/.

2Norton, Pauline. “Foxtrot.” Grove Music Online, January 20, 2001. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000010075.

3James W. McKinnon, Nelly van Ree Bernard, Mary Remnant and Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. “Psaltery.” Grove Music Online, July 30, 2020. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000022494?rskey=GJo2oe&result=3.


Baptist Brethren

George Pullen Jackson

In the debate over the origins of Black spirituals in the southern United States, George Pullen Jackson, makes many problematic and strong claims. A notable musicologist specializing in southern hymnody, Pullen’s tone and voice in communicating his “true” origins of Black spirituals is heard loud and clear. 

In the telling of all history, however, it is commonly acknowledged that it is told from the perspective of the “winner”. Thus in good practice, it is important to search for and listen to the perspectives of other stakeholders in said history, who may tell a very different history.

As Black southerners were Christianized in the mid-1700s, four out of five Black church members eventually flocked to Baptist churches (Jackson, 286). This proportion is astounding, and impossible to not feel the need to inquire more about. This of course led me to wanting to know more about the first and oldest Black Baptist church. Continue reading

Folk Music, “Born not Made”

The spiritual, “Oh, Freedom”, popularized during the civil war, is American folk music at its core. In his book, Afro-American Folksongs, Musicologist Henry Krehbiel cites W. E. B. Du Bois when mentioning this song and its influences. 

“The song ‘Oh, Freedom over Me,’ which Dr. Burghardt du Bois quotes in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as an expression of longing for deliverance from slavery encouraged by fugitive slaves and the agitation of free [black] leaders before the War of the Rebellion, challenges no interest for its musical contents, since it is a compound of two white men’s tunes- ‘Lily Dale,’ a sentimental ditty, and ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom,’ a patriotic song…” 1

Here are recordings of the two “white men’s tunes” Du Bois mentions, “Lily Dale” and “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” as well as “Oh Freedom”-

Lily Dale (1910)

The Battle-Cry of Freedom (1907)

Oh, Freedom (1957)

Oh, Freedom (1965)

A casual listener can hear the melodic similarities, especially between the choruses of “Lily Dale” and “Oh, Freedom”. Lyrical ideas are also shared between “Battle-Cry of Freedom” and “Oh, Freedom”.

“Oh, Freedom”

O Freedom, O Freedom,

O Freedom over me!

Before I’ll be a slave.

I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord,

And be free!


“Battle-Cry of Freedom”

We will welcome to our numbers

The loyal, true and brave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;

And although they may be poor,

Not a man shall be a slave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.2


So, is “Oh, Freedom” an appropriated song? Sure, but at the end of the day, isn’t everything?

Enslaved black people took the white man’s songs and reappropriated them. “Battle-Cry of Freedom” was a song that swept over the north and united the union after Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers for the union army. The enslaved took this power the song created and used it for their own gain in this emancipation song. 

The many influences of “Oh, Freedom” from existing songs, as well as the lived experiences of the enslaved, highlights that at its core, it is a folk song. 

1Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 17.

2 “Civil War Music: The Battle Cry of Freedom.” American Battlefield Trust. The History Channel. Accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/civil-war-music-battle-cry-freedom.

How Posters Communicate Musical Identity

Musicians’ public reception begins before they play a single note. The advertisements for their performances preview who they are and what kind of music they make. I was captivated by a poster for a Fisk Jubilee Singers concert between 1910 and 1950, designed by Winold Reiss. The artwork offers insight into who they were performing for and what themes the performance might have had.

Winold Reiss, “[Graphic Design for Fisk Jubilee Singers.] [Concert Poster with Harp and Mask Motif],” still image, last modified 1910, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/ resource/ppmsca.64409.

Before I sought recordings from the performance, I researched Winold Reiss, the poster’s creator. Reiss immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1913, three years after the earliest possible date this advertisement was published.1
While the Library of Congress lists 1910 as the earliest potential date of publication, the fact that Reiss had not yet moved to America makes this improbable. Still, he was devoted to non-white subjects, known for his portraits of the Blackfoot and Blood Indians of Canada and the northwestern United States. The Reiss Partnership summarizes the perspective he brought to his art, stating that,

“His idealism challenges the notion that as Americans we are anything less than “us,” a totality that includes rather than excludes.”2

To be clear, Reiss should not be seen as a sort of white savior just for making art that centers Black and Indigenous folks. However, his idea of creating an inclusive American identity mirrors the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ history, and later, this poster.

Continue reading

The South’s Struggle to Build Community Without Glorifying Slavery

CW: This post discusses the use of a term that many consider to be problematic.

One of the many great gifts of music is that it is a tool through which we can build community. After all, community is an innate human need. Unfortunately, however, in some of our attempts to form community, we forget or blatantly disregard the groups that we may be excluding from our community, and the harm that may be caused by our conscious or unconscious exclusion.

Below is the first verse of a 1915 song1 that clearly aims to build community:

Hello there, stranger! How do you do?

There’s something I’d like to say to you.

Don’t be surprised; you’re recognized!

I’m no detective but I’ve just surmised.

You’re from the place where I long to be.

Your smiling face seems to say to me,

You’re from my own land,

My sunny homeland,

Tell me can it be!

The first verse is innocent enough. I imagine that many would be able to relate to its sentiment. I remember hearing someone’s accent during my first year at St. Olaf and asking them if they, too, were from Memphis. We both lit up with excitement at the realization we could connect over our hometown. In the first line of the chorus, however, which also happens to be the title of the song, lies the song’s problem:

Are you from Dixie?

I said from Dixie?

Where the fields of cotton beckon to me.

I’m glad to see you.

Tell me how be you

And the friends I’m longing to see.

If you’re from Alabama, Tennessee, or Caroline,

Or any state below the Mason-Dixon line,

Then you’re from Dixie.

Hurray for Dixie!

‘Cause I’m from Dixie too!

The term “Dixie” is… complicated. Some believe that the term came from Jeremiah Dixon, after whom the Mason-Dixon line was named. Others believe it came from New Orleans, where some $10 bills were called “dixies”. Others, still, believe it came from a minstrel song that later was known as an unofficial Confederate anthem.2

The origin of the term is not as important as the harmful ways in which it was used. Whether the term originated with its links to the Confederacy or whether those ties developed later, the Confederacy and the term “Dixie” became intertwined. This led to the term being largely used by white people to refer to an image of their idealized, pre-Civil War South, a South in which white people lived on large, rich plantations built off of slave labor, and in which Black people were seen as synonymous with inferiority.

In the second verse of “Are You From Dixie”, this glorification of the Confederate South is more obvious via the positive reference to plantations:

It was a-way back in eighty-nine

I crossed the old Mason-Dixon line.

Gee! But I’ve yearned, longed to return

To all the good old pals I left behind!

My home is way down in Alabam’

On a plantation near Birmingham,

And one thing’s certain,

I’m surely flirtin’

With those southbound trains!

Then the cheery, catchy chorus5 is repeated. While the previously discussed term is still widely used in the South, and is in the names of Memphis fast food chains and famous TikTokers, it is slowly but surely being recognized as a glorification of horrific history and phased out. Dolly Parton removed the term from her Stampede dinner show3. The country music band The Chicks removed the term from their name4. Each attempt at the term’s removal seems to be shrouded in controversy, but my hope for our country is that we can prioritize the inclusion and welcome of all over our nostalgia for a past that wasn’t so nostalgic for everyone.



1 Cobb, George L, and Jack Yellen. Are you from Dixie?. M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1915. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100005133/.

2 Britannica Academic, s.v. “Dixie,” accessed October 3, 2021, https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Dixie/30701.

3 Garcia, Amanda. “Dixie Stampede Name Change Sparks Reaction From Fans.” WATE 6 On Your Side, WATE 6 On Your Side, 11 Jan. 2018, https://www.wate.com/news/local-news/dixie-stampede-name-change-sparks-reaction-from-fans/.

4 Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Dixie Chicks Change Band Name to The Chicks.” NPR, NPR, 25 June 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/25/883328370/dixie-chicks-change-band-name-to-the-chicks.

5 Cobb, George L, Ernest Errott Thompson, Ernest Errott Thompson, Jack Yellen, and Ernest Errott Thompson. Are you from Dixie?. 1924. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-673527/.

The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Music: giving us insight into the disgusting ideas held about black Americans.

As someone who is currently studying musicology, one of the main tasks required of me is to use music as a clue to make larger claims about society at that time. In other words, I sleuth around in musical documents to figure out how people thought. Just like any primary source, music leaves us a trail that can bring us to bigger discoveries about human nature. So this week, I decided to embark on the task of using musical documents to bring light popular sentiments about black Americans.

I decided to take a closer look at this document:


(It’s a little blurry here, so take a look here for a clearer picture: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b35698/)

This is a sheet music cover for a piece titled “the Contraband Schottische” written by Septimus Winner in 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). Winner dedicated this piece of music to Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was in charge of implementing the “Contraband Decision” in which escaped slaves who retreated to the North during the Civil War were considered “contraband” or illegally stolen goods. This allowed Slaves to live in a state not being owned but also not being free in the North. This was decided in retaliation to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in which slaves were to be returned to their masters if caught after escaping.1 On the cover of “the Contraband Schottische” there is a cartoon depicting a slave owner chasing his four black slaves rolling down the hill as if they are merely goods. Although the Contraband Decision ended up being a helpful decision for slaves as a side effect, we can’t sit here and celebrate Butler, he wasn’t even an abolitionist after all.

The depiction of slaves in this cartoon gives us an inside look into some of the attitudes held by society at the time. In this cartoon, slaves are illustrated to be synonymous with products or goods, as they are rolling down the hill like a sack of potatoes falling out of an 18-wheeler.

This sentiment of black Americans being treated as “property” or “goods” seems to infiltrate and inform other assumptions about their intellectual ability or identity as functioning humans. If we fast forward to 1943, this idea develops into another held by author George Pullen Jackson in his book White and Negro Spirituals. He holds the belief that black Americans are not capable of producing sophisticated spirituals, and therefore, must have developed all of their music from the influence of Europeans.

“We know that our fathers (Europeans) brought to this land a rich and hoary heritage of folk melody. We know that the negro slave entered into this heritage eventually by adopting it to the extent of his ABILITIES and desires”.2

This quote infers that black Americans would not have the ability to create music as sophisticated as Europeans. By looking at these documents surrounding music, we can see that the sick attitudes of black Americans as “goods” or “property” and the conclusion that they therefore can not produce sophisticated music are rampant for over a hundred years. That’s pretty disgusting.

Racism within the National Jukebox’s Tagging System

TW: Extensive use of slurs in both lyrics and titles of songs.

The last paragraph on the National Jukebox’s About This Collection reads as follows: 

These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the language, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users.

In early stages of research, I hoped to link musical traditions in modern musical theater to some of the early recordings within the “Humorous Songs” tag. However, as I scrolled, I began to notice how many of these songs were also tagged “Ethnic Characterizations.” We’ve begun to explore research and presentation of complicated data and information within this class, and I wondered how a database run by the Library of Congress would present difficult topics. I selected two songs tagged as “Ethnic Characterizations,” and examined what is missing and necessary for productive conversation.  Continue reading

Faces and Voices behind the Name

In class we spent a day discussing the origins of “black music” through the lens of white hypothesis. We spent time looking at the maps of slave songs through the states, a collection of southern folk music, as well as a map of the tours that the Fisk Jubilee Singers took in the late 1800s.

I had learned briefly about the Fisk Jubilee Singers back in my freshman musicology class and their story was one of the snippets of information that stuck with me after that class. I’m not entire sure why their story stuck with me. Perhaps it was the relatability to me of using music to afford college or perhaps the biblical reference to the book Leviticus with the history of the “year of Jubilee.” Whatever it might be I new I wanted to find out more.

As I researched the Jubilee singers I came to realize that all I had in mind of these strong-willed singers were a mixed gender group of people of color. For all of the time spent in class learning about them I had never stopped to imagine their faces. On top of that their voices never received the chance to be heard by the person learning about how they used their voices. I believe that an important aspect of researching is to create the setting of the topic. While backstory is a great place to begin, do you really know who you are researching. The image I chose was a print of what is believed to be the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. Their names are not encompassed by that title but also Isaac Dickerson, Ben Holmes, Greene Evans, Thomas Rutling, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Porter, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, and Eliza Walker. Upon further research into their music I had come to realize I hadn’t listen to them either.


The link directly above brings you to a recording done by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. While this isn’t the original group of singers and while there isn’t a recording of those original singers, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers continue to sing today and uphold the legacy of the Jubilee Singers.

These two different sources allow a researcher to get to know their topic. When you look at the face of a human being and hear their voices, it becomes a personal research. It forces researchers to acknowledge their research topics as real people regardless of how long ago. In our class’s ties to discussion on race and identity today it is a reminder of the importance of recognizing people of color as real human beings no matter how long ago they walked this earth. How can we easily conjure up images of George Washington and Ben Franklin but fail to have an image of Crazy Horse (beyond outfits), the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Frederick Douglas, or Robert Smalls?


American Missionary Association, photographer by Black, James Wallace. Jubilee singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. / negative by Black. [Place not identified: Publisher not identified, ?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2015650289/>.

Work, John Wesley, et al. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. 1909. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-128141/>.

Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.


The Role of Christian Music in Cultural Cleansing

In class we have been studying how missionaries and colonizers brought English music, specifically sacred music, to the “New World”. The colonizers installed missionary schools to teach Native Americans how to sing hymns and psalmody. Christian music was also taught to African slaves.

These topics and histories led me to question the role music played in colonization and slavery. What was the purpose of teaching Christian music to non-Christians? 

The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes has helped me investigate this question and opened a door to a wealth of sources that depict the various ways Christian music has been weaponized as a tool of indoctrination.  

Published in the Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register on the 20th of May, 1844, The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes gives modern scholars an insight into the purpose behind this practice, and the reason why a magazine article would deem this article relevant to its readers.  

This literature also stands as testament to the historical trend of American Christians weaponizing religious music to dominate, disenfranchise, and uproot the cultures of non-Christians of color. 

The correspondence was written by a church musician who taught African slaves Gregorian chant on a plantation in the South, claiming that learning this music will be to their benefit.

“The benefits of all this to the negroes you will appreciate without my pointing them out. To learn so much, at once of Scripture and of the Church service; to learn it in a way to imprint it indelibly on their memories, and to have it ever at hand for their instruction, warning, comfort, and devotional use…”.

Gregorian Chant, which is taught orally and sung in unison,  is said to give comfort and purpose to those who learn it, according to the people who were deeply involved in the business of slavery and proselytization. 

There is very little literature confirming this that was not written for and by slavers and clergymen at the time; and it is likely that these ‘benefits’ were greatly exaggerated, as Gregorian chant also served to familiarize “new Christians” with scripture, which they learned and potentially memorized through active participation in worship service in the form of collective singing.  What the article provides is, in fact, a ‘helpful guide’ to the Gregorian chant as a reliable method of forced assimilation: most writings about the subject focus on the practicality of teaching Gregorian chant to slaves as a gateway into re-culturing those who they deemed uncultured. 

The author cites its singular ability to be taught to those who are “unacquainted with music”, blatantly contradicting his own assessment that “the religious songs which they [enslaved Africans] are now accustomed to” were, in fact, music.

In an eerily similar fashion to the missionary schools put in place to erase Native Americans through cultural as well as ethnic cleansing; the magazine writers seem more invested in diminishing these individuals’ cultural identities, as an entire new mechanism of exerting control, than in ‘gifting them salvation’.






THE GREGORIAN CHANTS–THEIR INTRODUCTION AMONG THE NEGROES. (1844, 05). Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register (1842-1853), 21, 45. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/magazines/gregorian-chants-their-introduction-among-negroes/docview/125266391/se-2?accountid=351

The Power of Images – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

While this well known adage has probably originated in comparatively recent times, the sentiment has existed for centuries. It certainly seems to have been the guiding business strategy of Frank Leslie, founder of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, whose success was largely due to the novelty and appeal of illustrations in news reporting. The paper, founded by Leslie in 1855 and printed for another 42 years after his death in 1880, was extremely popular in its day and now regarded as an important source of primary source evidence. In this blog post, I will focus on the extent to which this newspaper is a reliable way to learn about the musical activities of enslaved peoples before the Civil War, using one particular image printed Leslie’s 1857 newspaper as a case study.

The image in question is titled “Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” and can be seen below.

The illustration provides a wealth of detail about what holiday celebration might have looked like on a Southern plantation — central to the image is two black dancers and to the right a group of black musicians, one playing the fiddle and one playing the banjo (or similar instrument). The presence of white onlookers (presumably owners), shows that the celebration was not free of supervision.

The illustration provides strong evidence that enslaved people had and used musical instruments during their time off at celebrations, The musicality of enslaved people can be corroborated with other evidence, for example from colonial newspapers and runaway slave listings, which often make mention of enslaved people’s musical abilities on the violin, french horn, and other instruments (Southern). The setting of the musicians in this illustration also gives some evidence of the type of music being performed (most likely dance music). To this extent, the illustration is helpful in knowing some basic information about the musical activities on Southern plantations.

An excerpt from Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans, demonstrates the musical abilities of runaway slaves.

The illustration, however, also has some glaring omissions and hidden biases. One glaring omission is the location that the illustration claims to depict. The only indication provided is that it is on a Southern plantation, an indication that is very vague and generalized, making it easy to assume that that the celebrations of enslaved people were the same throughout the South — a fact that is, in all probability, false. This generalization shows a lack of respect for the musicians and also shows that this image is catered to the white imagination of his audience. Additionally, if a researcher was interested in more specific regional variation of musical practices, the illustration would be of no help at all. Of course, the newspaper’s aim wasn’t to respect the traditions of enslaved peoples or aid future researchers. The aim was to make money.

Keeping this purpose in mind is especially relevant for this particular publication. From 1855 to 1857, Leslie struggled to keep the newspaper in operation (Pearson). Publications from this time needed to sell. The paper was published in New York, so the audience was probably largely white Northerners, and the image likely caters to this subgroup, attempting to satisfy their curiosity about what life on Southern plantations was like. This could very well affect the way the scene is depicted.

Consequently, the illustrations in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are useful primary sources, but only if taken in context. The white audience and need to sell are key biases that must be recognized when working with this type of material, and while perhaps each picture is worth a thousand words, another thousand words may be necessary to analyze reliability of the source.



Pearson, Andrea G. “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly: Innovation and imitation in nineteenth-century American pictorial reporting.” The Journal of Popular Culture 23.4 (1990): 81-111.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Third Edition. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1997.

“Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. V, no. 108, p. 64. New York, 1857. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646020/