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.

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