“Sylvan Worship” is an article written by Chicago Inter-Ocean writer William Eleroy Curtis, published September 18, 1875. The article outlines a description of a trip that Curtis took to witness a ‘spiritual’ in person. Overall, the article is rich with fetishistic language and othering behaviors, describing the events Curtis witnessed as a sort of foreign and outlandish ritual. Certain possibly offensive terms will be replaced with more modern and inclusive language in direct quotes, for the purpose of this blog.
There isn’t much information on who William Eleroy Curtis really was, but we do know for whom he wrote, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, and when he lived; Curtis was born in 1850, and passed in 1911. From the way that he writes, I assume that he was a white man, given he uses language that refers to African-American peoples as something that he is not. For example, take how he opens the article: “No race is more devotional than the African, and no class of people does the camp meeting revival prove so effectual as with them.”
With this position in mind, I’d like to look at the language he uses, and what the intent of writing this article may have been. The language used in the work is fetishistic, and while it offers high praise to the traditions that it highlights, it treats them as a sort of somewhat barbaric and foreign, indirectly invalidating the authenticity of the practices. Take, for example, this description of a spiritual: “[Black] ‘Spirituals’ will forever exist among the curiosities of music, and at the camp-meeting the ‘Spiritual’ is seen in its strangest light and found in its most unadulterated flavor.” The use of terms such as “ unadulterated flavor” permeates this article in a way that doesn’t really do it any favors.
So what was it trying to do? I think that the article was written as either a curiosity piece, from the point of view of the white man, or as a sort of “they’re not all bad!” article, meant to highlight the good that black spiritual practices are doing. Like other earlier musicology works that we have covered, the frame of this article is one that does not paint black or minority musical practices in an equal and fair light. Either good natured or neutral, this work doesn’t seem to bring deliberate harm, but it also isn’t doing all that much good, the way that it is written.
“‘Sylvan Worship.’.” Weekly Louisianian, 18 Sept. 1875, p. 1. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B767D21CB17968%40EANAAA-12BEC31400554038%402406150-12BC002A0EA02018%400-12D621523A4D1068%40%2522Sylvan%2BWorship.%2522.