Revelations in Letters to Leonard Bernstein

With the premiere of the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story coming closer, I decided to look into the correspondence of Leonard Bernstein during the initial conversations with Arthur Laurents and others as they discussed the project. A well-loved and seemingly timeless production, West Side Story also puts the subjects of race and ethnicity on center stage, so to speak, and is well worth being discussed in context with the social issues at play during the time of its production.

In the first noted correspondence to Bernstein in 1955, Laurents nods to the recent “juvenile gang war news” and its impact on not only the papers, but also on a film in the works by Arther Miller. Intended to tell a sideways story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story was originally supposed to feature the star-crossed love story of a Jewish boy and an Irish-Catholic girl. However, creators instead chose to capitalize on the uptick in gang violence in New York and change the identities of the lovers to be a white American boy and a Puerto Rican girl.

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Jazz Developments in…Rhode Island?

When people think of jazz, places like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City come to mind — not a small city of 25,000 in Rhode Island. 

The Newport Jazz Festival, with its inception in 1954 has been credited as a crucial component in the development of jazz culture in the Chicago Defender, by none other than Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes

A participant of a sort of jazz himself, being the creator of “jazz poetry” (for an example, see this link!), Hughes’ take on the Newport Jazz Festival impact on jazz is compelling. In his June 1963 article, “Jazz and Newport Festival”, Hughes comments on the festival’s role and ability in cultivating a culture of large group fun while listening to jazz.

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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

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. 

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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

Credit where Credit is Undue

While reading Eileen Southen’s passage about psalmody and hymnody practices in New England meetinghouses in the 1600s, I was interested to learn more about the separated and unseparated musical practices in the church based on skin color. Specifically, I was interested to learn more about when the separation of parish choir members shifted to include members of the black community — and why.

This curiosity led me to learn about H.T. Burleigh, dubbed “The First of His Race to Sing Among Vested Vocalists in a White Parish” by the New York Herald in 1894. The article highlights Burleighs trailblazing position as baritone soloist at St. George’s Church in New York City. The author, though unnamed, outlines Burleigh’s musical achievements, and throughout the article, praises all of the people that helped him along the way — people who are most likely white. 

While I’m sure it is true that Burleigh received much help along the way, this help is what the article focuses on. In doing so, the author seemingly takes much of the focus away from Burleigh and instead focuses on the people who made his success possible for him. With the likelihood that the author of this article is also white, it is impossible to ignore how their own musical experiences and perspective influence the means in which Burleigh’s story is presented.


This writing and tone of this article is therefore like many others of its time when the subject is the accomplishments of African Americans and Black people in the United States in that it either highlights or focuses on the role that white people played in such accomplishments. The tone of these writings intend to take some or all of the credit for the success of Black people in America and instead contribute it to the resources and doings of white Americans. 


A common theme in African-American and Black music-making, this portrayal of Burleigh’s success points to the overwhelming role that oppression played and has continued to play in American history. With this in mind, it is important to compare and contrast this primary source with other written histories in order to find the “truth”.

One way to do this is to read and learn about these histories in sources written by people with differing musical experiences, similarly to how we learned contrasting histories surrounding the origins and highlights of American bluegrass music. Though it is not a primary source, G. Yvonne Kendall’s recount of Burleigh’s career successes and highlights in The American Mosaic: The African American Experience paints a very different picture as to how Burleigh came to be the first Black chorister in a white parish, attributing it to his success at the Chicago World’s Fair.

This history considered, it is also hard for me to ignore the very title of this article, “No Color Line in this Choir”. The title attempts to diminish and ignore the role that race and ethnicity play in the lives and successes of African Americans and Black people. This title is nearly equivalent to the phrase “I don’t see color” and ignores the history and sacrifices that needed to be made in favor of continuing the oppression of African American and Black success.]



Kendall, G. Yvonne. “Concert Music: 1861-1919.” The American Mosaic: The African 

American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“No Color Line in This Choir.” New York Herald, 1894.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.