A Eulogy for the 1963 Birmingham Bombing

September 15, 1963: A bomb goes off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young African American girls are killed during church services, 14 more are injured.

September 16, 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy speak on the tragedy, each calling it cruel and charged by racial hatred and injustice.

1965: Suspects of the bombing emerge. Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Frank Cash—four members of the Ku Klux Klan. Witnesses don’t speak up and physical evidence is determined insufficient, so no charges are filed.

1976: Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopens the case.

1977-now: Chambliss, Cherry, and Blanton are each eventually charged with the bombing. Chambliss and Cherry died in prison; Blanton was denied parole in 2016. Cash dies without being formally charged.

However, this timeline is missing an event not typically added to timelines of the Birmingham bombing.

 November 18, 1963: Jazz performer, John Coltrane, records “Alabama” which, although never verbally confirmed by Coltrane, is known as a musical eulogy for the victims of Birmingham.

The song features a melancholy melody, a much slower tempo than many of Coltrane’s songs, and a hauntingly sorrowful tone from Coltrane’s saxophone. These aspects not only capture the tragedy and sorrow of the Birmingham event, but of the human injustice that ignited the civil rights movement.

It is said that Coltrane was motivated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the girls. This video, featuring King’s eulogy, also shows clips from the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting from 2015, which has evocative parallels to the 1963 Birmingham bombing:

In his eulogy, King states, “These children, unoffending, innocent and beautiful, were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity…They did not die in vain. God still has a way of bringing good out of evil.”

Jazz can be something joyful. It can be songs like “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman, it can be music that dozens dance to at weddings and in bars. But it can also be something politically motivated and inspired. “Alabama” was a source of solace for many individuals shaken by the tragedy; the rawness of the song shows the devastating nature of the bombing, but also the tragedy behind all African American lives lost during the Civil Rights Movement. Coltrane, a black musician, used what he knew best to make an impact on the Movement – music.

“Alabama,” among other politically motivated songs, remains known as an anthem of a kind for the Civil Rights Movement. Not an anthem that was sung during protests or at speeches by Civil Rights leaders, but that was heard on the radio and sparked a remembrance for the four girls who lost their lives in Birmingham in 1963.


“1963 Birmingham Church Bombing Fast Facts.” CNN.com. https://www.cnn.com/2013/06/13/us/1963-birmingham-church-bombing-fast-facts/index.html (accessed November 8, 2019).

A John Coltrane Retrospective: The Impulse Years. Conducted by Eric Dolphy. Recorded November 10, 1998. Universal Music, 1998, Streaming Audio. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C694615. 

“Birmingham Bomb Planted.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Sep 21, 1963. https://search.proquest.com/docview/116602072?accountid=351.

“MLK’s 1963 eulogy after the Birmingham church bombing.” YouTube Video, 2:26. “CBS Evening News,” June 15, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKxb0FuFlTA

Sitton ,Claude, “Birmingham Bomb Kills Four Negro Girls” New York Times (1923-Current File), Sep 16, 1963. https://search.proquest.com/docview/116339790?accountid=351.

“The Story Behind “Alabama” by John Coltrane.” The Music Aficionado. https://musicaficionado.blog/2016/04/14/alabama-by-john-coltrane/ (accessed November 8, 2019).

Do American jazz musicians make jazz American?

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

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

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

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

“Pete Fountain: New Orleans All Stars” record cover

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

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

Townsend’s article in the Manitou Messenger

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

3 Evans, Lee. “The African Origins of Jazz.” JazzEd, http://www.jazzedmagazine.com/articles/focus-session/the-african-origins-of-jazz/ (accessed October 29, 2019).

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

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

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

Walker Evans’ photo of Allie Mae Burroughs

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

Cover of “The Tender Land”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 MET Museum. “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife.” METmuseum.org. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2001.415/. (Accessed October 19, 2019).

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

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

“‘The Promise of Living’: The Tender Land,” Youtube Video, 4:58, “Echidnamedia,” May 15, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDAbNaF6EYQ.

Slave Songs’ Journey Through Hollywood

“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord,

Nobody knows the trouble I see,

Nobody knows like Jesus”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

CornBugles. YouTube. Oct. 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vifVEg7NepI.

MetaPhysicsalJesus. Youtube. Oct. 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0mZgvLVwbI.

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

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

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

The first sentence of the article reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(1) Potter, Dave. “‘We Shall Overcome’ New Negro ‘Anthem’.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Sep 17, 1963. https://search.proquest.com/docview/493990555?accountid=351.

(2) “Record, Songbook Available from SNCC.” Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (1961-1972), Feb 11, 1964. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=776614&searchmode=true&hit=first&pi=1&themeF=Civil+Rights+And+Race+Relations&vpath=searchresults&prevPos=704212.

(3) Hare, Breeanna. “This is what protest looks like.” CNN.com. https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/20/us/soundtracks-protest-music-evolution/index.html (Oct 8, 2019).

(4) Jackson, George Pullen. “White and Negro Spirituals.” JJ. Augustin Publisher, New York. 1943. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxQzWOgr8AurNWx1elpSb1dZcjdIY2JOMm9fRm5tVWpUQnBJ/view.

(5) KendrickLamarVEVO.”Alright.” Youtube, Oct. 8, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-48u_uWMHY.

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

So, you want to put on a comedy? Then put on a minstrel show!

Or at least that’s what Harold Rossiter encourages in his book How to Put on a Minstrel Show, published in 1921.  According to Rossiter, the objection of giving a minstrel show is that it “is the one form of entertainment of which the public never seems to tire and a show can be safely produced at least every two years and in the larger towns or cities a show every year is not too often” (1).  After this assurance that the readers’ minstrel show will be popular simply based on the fact that the public desires such a show, Rossiter goes on to discuss how to successfully put on a minstrel show, through musical examples, joke suggestions, instructions on how to put on and take off blackface makeup, and a sample program.

Rossiter’s sample program

One chapter in his book is titled “Jokes for Minstrel Show.”  In this section, before providing some example jokes, he advices:

“Don’t let the end-men use too much negro dialect in telling their jokes. The average amateur negro dialect is almost pitiful, and they nearly always overdo it with the result that the audience fails to understand a word they say, and the joke goes flat. Have them use good, plain English” (1).  

Good, plain English. This makes the assumption that African American individuals, whom Rossiter is encouraging his performers to stereotypically over-emulate, use a different form of the English language that is so opposing than his own that if his performers attempted to recreate it, the joke will fail.  He exoticizes the African American population, establishing them as an “other” group.

In this quote, Rossiter also mentions the “end-men.” In minstrelsy, these were the performers in blackface who were the brunt of the jokes. Rossiter gives examples of jokes between end-men named Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, and an Interlocutor who, according to Rossiter, “is not blacked up; he always performs his part white-face” (1). Here’s an example of one of these jokes:

Example of Rossiter’s end-men jokes

Each of Rossiter’s jokes in How to Put on a Minstrel Show portrays the Interlocutor, who is white in the production, as the wise, intelligent individual always correcting and ridiculing Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, who are both in blackface.

These jokes send the overt, racist message that white individuals are, in addition to more eloquent in speech, smarter and must correct the foolish mistakes of the “black” characters.

 Just six years before Rossiter published his book, in 1915, the Chicago Weekly Review published an article that highlights the craving that audiences demonstrated for minstrel shows, emphasizing their popularity in white society in the early 1900s and exemplifying the humor white audiences found in ridiculing the blackface performers and therefore the African American race. The author, Sylvester Russell, writes that this specific minstrel show, containing blackface, was a “musical comedy” introducing “Billy King, one of the greatest and funniest blackface comedians of minstrel reputation” (2)

Chicago Weekly Review article of a minstrel show

Audiences enjoyed minstrel shows, audiences found blackface hilarious, audiences were obsessed with ridiculing the African American population.  Eric Lott writes in his introduction to Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Although it [minstrelsy] rose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon” (3).

As Lott explains, as well as how these primary sources exemplify, the racists beliefs of white Americans in the early 20th century led to the popularity of the minstrel show. While minstrelsy doesn’t carry the comedic weight it once did, it is important to recognize what this history means in terms of racism in America today – how it formed, what actions led to  the current attitudes of some individuals, and how we use these horrible historical references to make changes in how race is perceived now.


(1) Rossiter, Harold. How to Put on a Minstrel Show. Chicago: Max Stein Publishing House, 1921. Afro-American Imprints. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=U4EY56ALMTU3MDAzNTM1MDg1NToxOjEzOjE5OS45MS4xODAuMjE&p_action=doc&p_queryname=page7&f_qdnum=-1&f_qrnum=-1&f_qname=6&f_qnext=&f_qprev=&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-154E9B0050389E50@S1879-1606D62438F47E6D@37.

(2) “Chicago Weekly Review.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), July 31, 1915: 5. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&sort=YMD_date%3AA&page=1&f=advanced&val-base-0=minstrel%20show&fld-base-0=alltext&bln-base-1=and&val-base-1=blackface&fld-base-1=ocrtext&docref=image/v2%3A12B28495A8DAB1C8%40EANAAA-12CBF3B4D7999C58%402420710-12CBE4FDE2B80BD8%404-12DF5C8D4F757178%40Chicago%2BWeekly%2BReview&firsthit=yes.

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

From Slaves to Mumford and Sons: The Banjo’s Association with the American Dream:

Growing up, I had a specific image of a banjo player in my mind. I imagined a white male wearing overalls sitting on the front porch of a white house with a white picket fence surrounded by farmland.

Now, I recognize how close this picture is to an idea of the American Dream, a hope often associated with, home ownership, comfortable living, wealth, opportunity, and fame.  While the image of the “white picket fence” is more of a romanticized image often situated in Hollywood, it does represent a core tenant of the American Dream—success.

But, how come my image of a banjo growing up was so aligned with a version of the American Dream?  

            To further consider the banjo’s symbolism in the American Dream, specifically the image and idealized version of this dream, I searched simply “banjo” in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, and eight photographs appeared from the search. Each photo contained either an individual playing the banjo, or a group of musicians, one of which is playing a banjo.

Two crucial traits were consistent throughout all the images: white and male.

            One, for example, is an image from 1937 of the Bog Trotters Band, where one of the players is on the banjo (below). They are looking at sheet music in a house with lace curtains, wearing a variety of clothing from overalls to a suit, playing instruments in good condition. While subtle, the three factors of well-taken care of instruments, nice clothing, and delicate lace curtains represent, to me, success, crucial to the American Dream. It appears as though these men are living out their American dream, using the banjo as a stepping-stone to their success [1]. The Bog Trotters Band was such a staple of bluegrass that there is now a new band in the 21st century, the Galax Bogtrotters, who found their music so inspiring they decided to use their name.


            From this image, and what I found by searching “banjo,” it appears as though I’m not alone in categorizing the banjo with a romanticized ideal of the American Dream and with, to be frank, whiteness. Neil Rosenberg in his “Introduction” from Bluegrass: A History shares a common perception of the history of the banjo. While the following quote doesn’t address the banjo explicitly, it discusses the popular ideas of when bluegrass began, and the banjo is a crucial aspect of bluegrass.

It seems imbedded in the history of the bluegrass genre, and Rosenberg questions if bluegrass began in 1939 with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys or in 1945-48 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were performing with Bill Monroe. All white men [2].

            However, Rhiannon Giddens in her Keynote speech at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference would argue that bluegrass began much earlier, as she defines bluegrass as complex Creole music coming from African, European, and Native American roots. She adds that the banjo used to be a symbol of African American expression, as it started as a plantation instrument, but it has done a 180 [3]. She evaluates how the banjo and bluegrass has become known as a white art form, but it rather began with roots in slavery.

           Fast forward to the now.  There are still popular bands that feature banjo playing, such as Mumford and Sons. As you can see in the picture above, these men all still identify as white. In a way, they are continuing the same image that the Bog Trotters Band did: white men living out the American Dream of fame and success, but ignoring an entire race who contributed to the evolution of the banjo and bluegrass.


[1] Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments. 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, Washington D.C., USA.

[2] Rosenberg, Neil. Bluegrass: A History. PDF file. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxQzWOgr8AureDRQbF9UMGwyU2VCNzRXTWI4SFduMFFPMUo4/view

[3] Giddens, Rhiannon. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 2017.

Pocahontas: a History Vanished into the World of Disney

In 1995, a new Disney princess was introduced: one that did not follow the typical “damsel in distress.” This princess may have not been a damsel in distress, but she certainly sparked new conversations regarding a people overlooked and often forgotten, considered vanished, even.

This princess is Pocahontas, and the people are Native Americans.

The Disney producers’ goal in creating Pocahontas was to “address the rise in public criticism from various ethnic groups over racial stereotyping in their most recent productions” (1). In order to prevent another cultural appropriation outbreak in Pocahontas, the producers hired Native American advisors to join their team and cast Native American performers to provide the voices for the main Native American roles.

(Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.”)

However, by creating a story about Pocahontas (while attempting to incorporate love, drama, and music), they risked continuing the stereotype of the “Hollywood Indian,” as outlined in Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.” This stereotype is an image focused on representative types and traits that are typically used to depict Native Americans in films, such as dress and spirituality (1). Beyond the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, the producers of Pocahontas also allowed the “Vanishing Indian” theory to strengthen.

It all began in their marketing campaign, specifically their partnership with McDonald’s.  A 20 second McDonald’s commercial from 1995 opens with a flute-like instrument playing, accompanied by a rhythmic drum sequence. The camera zooms in on two children, wearing what looks like modern-day Native American Halloween costumes and feathers in their hair, playing with the Pocahontas toys from the McDonald’s Happy Meals. Next, an older man beckons the children into a teepee, where they start watching the Disney movie Pocahontas. The commercial concludes with two individual dressed in what looks like wooden masks and armor playing with the Happy Meal toys. This commercial exudes stereotypes from the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, such as the dress, non-historical teepee, and the men in wood, which seems to inaccurately symbolize spirituality and tradition.

(The 1995 McDonald’s commercial advertising Pocahontas)

This ties into the liberties that Disney took throughout the movie, such as distinguishing the violent and traumatic experiences that the real Pocahontas endured, such as her kidnapping, isolation from her people for a year, marriage, and eventual death at age 21 from tuberculosis. By leaving them out, they strengthen the “Vanishing Indian” theory, as discussed in Dan Blim’s paper, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, with Pocahontas a specific example of an Indian vanished into history, ignoring her true fate and primarily remembered by her Disney-depicted fate (2).

However, Disney is not entirely to blame for the diminishing of Pocahontas’ true story.  A May 1907 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal published an article titled “The Love Story of the First American Girl”, written by Laura Spencer Portor. This article begins, “Few of us know the entire story of Pocahontas. Yet it is a delightful story so full of romance that it might fitly begin in the old romantic way, ‘Long, long ago,’ or ‘Once upon a time’.” (4)  It continues talking about a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, portraying her history as one like a fairytale. As shown by this article, the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” in terms of Pocahontas was a concept that was initiated very early on, much before Disney; people didn’t want to acknowledge the dark, violent aspects of her life brought on by their ancestors. Rather, they wanted to think about a Native American princess falling in love with an Englishman, saving the colonies from disaster from the “savages.” Disney, however, only further prompted these stereotypes and false account of Pocahontas’ life.

As summed up by Edgerton and Jackson:

“The film’s scriptwriters chose certain episodes from her life, invented others, and in the process shaped a narrative that highlights some events, ideas, and values, while suppressing others…Disney’s Pocahontas is, once again, a parable of assimilation.” (1)



[1] Edgerton, Gary and Kathy Merlock Jackson. “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the “White Man’s Indian,” and the Marketing of Dreams.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1996). 90.

[2] Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

[3] OnTheTelly. YouTube. YouTube, September 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybOxxshm7YA.

[4] By Laura Spencer Portor Author of “A Gentleman of the Blue Grass,” “‘The Light of,Other Days. “The Love Story of the First American Girl.” The Ladies’ Home Journal (1889-1907), 05, 1907, 10, https://search.proquest.com/docview/137050608?accountid=351.