Is BIPOC Performance Always Political Resistance?

On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a crowd that filled the National Mall.


From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History YouTube Channel, on the Anacostia Community Museum website1

Some might be familiar with the history of her journey to this performance. Barred from playing Constitution Hall by the “white artists only” policy of the D.A.R., Anderson’s representatives, Howard University, and the NAACP fought for her right to perform in DC. After years of negotiations and protest, they turned to the idea of an outdoor concert, somewhat out of frustration, and the iconic performance began to take shape.2

Anderson was already world-famous by this time, but this performance secured her place in the American musical identity arguably more than any other. The construction of such an identity, and the role Black Americans should have within it, was a defining cultural characteristic of this time period. The Black artistic community was actively engaged in shaping not only their musical identity separate from the white people around them, but in fighting for their rightful place in the growing commercial and artistic worlds of American music. And the arts, accordingly, were being used (and co-opted) to make arguments about social equality. This cultural landscape resulted in some essentialism and some elitism among Black intellectuals, and Anderson’s career was certainly touched by this; her renown puts her in W.E.B. DuBois’ talented tenth, and her professional work was considered representative of the whole African-American community and used to assign greater value to those peoples in the eyes of whites. For evidence of this, one need only look at this educational poster, which leverages her talent to make an implicit argument for racial equality.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History3

Her performance of “My Country Tis of Thee” on the National Mall relates her career specifically to the musical construction of Americanness in the 20th century. And this poster is a perfect example of Black talent being leveraged in civil rights debates. Now, of course the arts can and should be a vehicle for social messaging. But how did Anderson feel about the civil rights implications of her performance and the way it was interpreted in the following decades?

This particular rhetorical question actually has a fairly straightforward answer: she never intended the concert to be a statement or a fight. Anderson wrote on page 187 of her autobiography that she “felt about the affair as about an election campaign; whatever the outcome, there is bound to be unpleasantness and embarrassment . . . [which she] could not escape,”4 and one of her most respected biographers describes the situation thus: “the symbol that she was being made to represent was not of her own choosing and this made her feel ashamed and unworthy, even defensive.”5 In short, she didn’t want to be a civil rights crusader, but being Black in America meant (means?) she couldn’t simply be an artist without being associated with that fight. Throughout her career, people persisted in this unwilling association of Anderson’s voice, her art, her blackness, with a political message. Even worse, her voice was later appropriated by the government to reach out to Black communities via an appeal to civil rights activism. Her performance is used as a call to action for Black citizens in this poster from the 1990 census:

From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History6

The patriotic effect is augmented by the use of the American flag and the phrase “Lift Every Voice” – colloquially, the black national anthem – as a focal points of the poster, correlating Anderson’s blackness specifically to a sense of “Americanness.” The appropriation of Anderson’s performance for political ends, however noble those ends might be, raises questions about artist intention. We know none of that was her intention. But since music can’t exist in a political vacuum, how can we separate Anderson’s intentions for her art from those of the people around her? Should we do so? Moreover, is it at all appropriate or ethical for Black talent to be appropriated by the government that’s done Black communities so much historical and present harm? To the last I’d simply say no, but the other two are genuinely open questions. Political music should be looked at with a critical eye, of course, but so should music that was appropriated for political purposes. There is more to the story of any artist than one particular political message they’ve been associated with.

1 “Marian Anderson.” Anacostia Community Museum. Smithsonian Institute. Accessed November 21, 2022. https://anacostia.si.edu/index.php/collection/spotlight/marian-anderson.

2 Keiler, Allan. “The Concert at the Lincoln Memorial (Easter Sunday, 1939),” in Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey, 181-217. New York, NY: Scribner, 2000.

“Black Americans; Black Americans as Good Will Ambassadors.” Hayes School Publishing Co. n.d.. Poster. https://anacostia.si.edu/index.php/
collection/object/
nmah_1923343.

Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956.

Allan Keiler, “The Concert at the Lincoln Memorial (Easter Sunday, 1939),” in Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (New York, NY: Scribner, 2000), 204.

6 “Lift Every Voice.” US Census Bureau. 1990. Poster. https://anacostia.si.edu/index.php/collection/object/nmah_1060283

Record Companies, Racism and You!

In February 1916, the Tuskegee singers were recorded singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in Camden, NJ. The spiritual is part of a rich history of Black musicking in America, a tradition that incorporates African folk, Christian hymnody, and Native American musics, among other influences, and has been made possible by Black resilience, ingenuity, and artistry despite the circumstances they as a people have faced in America. Uplifting this art and its creators was a primary goal of the Harlem Renaissance. Which was just beginning in 1916, when this recording was made.1

The image of an RCA Victor record presented in the catalog entry for the Tuskegee Singers’ 1916 “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” recording.1

The session was organized by Victor Talking-Machine Company (today, RCA), and their role in the musicking process here became quite interesting to me after I found the catalog entry for this recording in the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox. The intentions of Black artists in the Harlem Renaissance are clear – they are well documented in writing by the artists themselves – but what about the intentions of recording companies who facilitated recordings such as this one?

According to its Library of Congress catalog record, the recording was part of an educational effort by the record company. The label “educational” was applied to folk music from all over the world, including White musics, so at first glance it doesn’t seem to be an expression of othering. In fact, it may even speak well of the company that they went out of their way to include Black art in educational efforts. However (and this is a big however), the fact that the recording’s official subtitle is “Primitive Negro chant” paints a much more concerning picture of the company’s engagement with and recording of BIPOC art. While “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the Black spiritual tradition may have originated primarily in the fields of forced labor rather than in the concert hall, this recording definitely constitutes art music. It’s a presentation of Black folk material that is much more compliant with Western European musical traditions. Other presentations of such material – think Dvorak – were respected and embraced by white audiences at this time, certainly not called “primitive.” Now, there was definitely othering, fetishizing, and appropriative behavior that underlied those white audiences’ love for art music based in Black traditions. But the fact remains that they loved the material and loved it as art music.

The choice of language is extremely reductive, then, implying that spiritual art-songs are somehow lesser than other art music, and it indicates serious disrespect for Black creativity. Given the positive reception of Black music when it was appropriated and presented by a white composer, one can only conclude that the devaluing of the spiritual tradition evident in the “Swing Low” recording was a direct result of disrespect for the Black composers and performers involved in this performance. Considering the power record companies hold in marketing and branding the recordings they produce, prejudices like this, and subtitles like the one on this work, cannot be ignored. Companies have the power to perpetuate stereotypes and shape societal value systems, and they do it like this, through language that either explicitly or implicitly reduces BIPOC musics to “other.” In musicology and as we consume music in our daily lives, we ought to be cognizant of branding and the hidden power of the people who control recordings. Marketing matters.

1 Tuskegee Singers, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” recorded February 16, 1916, RCA Victor/B-16512, accessed November 10, 2022, https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-14854/

Origins and Ownership of Spirituals (Geepers!)

Since spirituals first gained popularity in the United States – and certainly since they became a common feature of vocal concert repertoire – many theories have been published on their origins. You think those origins are simple? Just read the 1943 George Pullen Jackson paper claiming spirituals were directly plagiarized from British folk songs,1 and you’ll realize our apparent shared understanding about the origins of this genre was once far from accepted.

One particularly interesting and egregiously racist perspective on spirituals’ origins was written by a Jeanette Robinson Murphy, in 1904.2  Murphy has abhorrent ideas about black people’s intelligence and role in society. And she in part attributes the emotional power of spirituals, as she observes it in black communities, to the ongoing influence of voodoo, which is demeaning to black people and disrespectful to the religion. There’s no small share of exoticization in her writing, either, if one examines the passages where she describes black people’s voices and lives:

But what’s fascinating is that she does acknowledge that the songs originated in black communities, though a product of acculturation and some amount of cultural syncretism, and she doesn’t claim (as some have) that black people are incapable of artistry without white influence.

Of course her language here creates an artificial distance between what she categorizes as “black” and “white” music – interesting, considering her acknowledgement of cultural syncretism. But through her racist lens, she’s somehow managed to preserve the cultural autonomy of black music in a way some of her contemporaries couldn’t. She performs some logical backflips throughout her work to preserve both her racist ideals and her genuine reverence for black music (too many to cite); maybe that logic is the only thing that actuates this dissonance.

But what’s even more interesting to me than Murphy as an example of racist psychology is the overlap between the ideas of those such as Murphy and the ideas of their black contemporaries. Murphy emphasizes the deep emotion ingrained in spirituals, and that of the performers; this is a focus her black contemporaries also uplifted. W.E.B DuBois’ “Sorrow Songs,” for example, connects the emotional potency and universality of spirituals to the generational trauma of slavery, and his assertions about spirituals’ direct descent from African folk music are essentially aligned with Murphy’s claims.3 Mrs. Booker T. Washington also draws this connection between the emotional resonance of black music and the horrors of slavery in her 1905 address about Fisk University and the Fisk Jubilee singers, given at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition:4

There are undeniable similarities between how Murphy understands and experiences spirituals and how at least these black authors understand and experience spirituals. Whether this is the result of some strategic essentialism, an emerging pan-African concept leading black public figures to emphasize the commonalities of their experiences as black Americans, political maneuvering, or just a genuine shared opinion, I cannot say. But when we’re studying music that has associations of “ownership” by one racial group or another, and music that has conflicting origin stories, these are the socio-historical questions we’re going to have to get comfortable addressing.

1 Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship. Locust Valley, NY: JJ Augustin Publisher, 1943.

 2 Murphy, Jeanette Robinson. 1904. “African Music in America.” In Southern thoughts for Northern thinkers and African music in America. New York, NY: Bandanna Publishing Company. https://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:EAIX&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=147E02CE09E20F50&svc_dat=Evans:eaidoc&req_dat=102FE1F6CA316FA2.

3 DuBois, W.E.B. “‘The Sorrow Songs,” From the Souls of Black Folk.” Teaching American History. Teaching American History, September 10, 2021. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/the-sorrow-songs/.

4 “The Songs of Our Fathers. An Address Delivered on Fisk Day during the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) VII, no. 20, May 19, 1905: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7EF1A4AC47F2D%40EANAAA-12C8B913302F6748%402416985-12C8B9134BFB71A0%402-12C8B913A0F80C58%40The%2BSongs%2Bof%2BOur%2BFathers.%2BAn%2BAddress%2BDelivered%2Bon%2BFisk%2BDay%2Bduring%2Bthe%2BLouisiana%2BPurchase%2BExhibition.

 

Seeing Sound: What Photography Reveals About Musicking

Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, more commonly known by the moniker Machito, spent his childhood in 1910’s Havana, Cuba.1 He grew up singing and played the maracas from adolescence, and after moving to New York in the 1930’s, Machito became a revolutionary figure on the American music scene. He recorded more than 75 albums over the course of his 50 year career, with his band The Afro-Cubans (founded 1940). Together, the group made major contributions to the development of salsa and mambo and essentially originated what we think of today as Latin Jazz, also known as bebop. “Tanga,” one of the band’s most famous Latin-jazz works (and works, period) exemplifies their style; it’s characterized by “strong multi-tempo percussion [. . .] with jazz wind instruments.”

Machito and the Afro-Cubans became beloved by the American public during their career, as is well documented by historical newspapers that note their popularity when describing their performances.2 But articles don’t capture a sound, the uniqueness of each performance of a particular piece, the mood of a club when an artist is performing; for these things, we turn to recordings, videos, and, I argue, photographs. For example, look below at this photograph of Machito and his sister Graciela Perèz Gutièrrez, who also performed with The Afro-Cubans and performed as lead singer for a time in the forties when her brother was called to military service.

Machito

Machito and Graciela, Glen Island Casino, New York, NY, c.a. July 19473

The photo was taken at the Glen Island Casino, and one could probably venture a guess about what type of atmosphere the performance had based off of the venue alone. But what does a simple venue name tell us about the act of musicking itself? Not much. This photograph, by contrast, can communicate something about the actual art being created, despite the temporal difference; we can see the body mechanics involved in playing, the facial expression, the contrast between the lit stage and the dark room. Even the intimacy of the shot itself, positioned so close to Graciela, suggests a specific sort of small-venue atmosphere, a closeness between performer and audience that must have had an effect upon how the music was experienced. The position of the camera also suggests something about how Machito and the Afro-Cubans were perceived by their audience: as I said, it’s intimate, and that suggests a comfort, even an affection, on the part of the photographer. We can read in newspapers that Machito was beloved by the public, but a photograph like this lets us experience that through the eyes of someone who was there.

What I’m getting at is that a photograph can put a viewer in a temporal moment with a performer, intimately involved in their act of musicking, just as listening to a recording transports a person, so to speak. A photograph gives a musicologist a better sense of the place in which music existed, a personal in, that could be valuable when studying music as a spatial, temporal thing. And in a world where musical performances are often thoroughly documented as pictures, it’s worth asking ourselves what unique value photographs may have to us and future musicologists for deepening our immersion in the music we study.

1 Méndez-Méndez , Serafín. “Machito.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2022. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1326403.

Easily located in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News database. For example, this edition specifically notes his popularity, and this one’s praise of his musical ability is outright flattery

3 “Machito.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2022. Image. Accessed October 3, 2022. https://latinoamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2234214. The photograph is also documented by the Library of Congress, and their webpage has somewhat more information about its origins.

The Cannon: Educational Fundamentals, or Cultural Genocide?

First Cherokee Female Seminary

The original building housing the Cherokee National Female Seminary, which burned down in 1987.

In 1951, the Cherokee Nation – having recently been forcibly moved to Oklahoma and re-formed their government in Tahlequah – opened the doors of the Cherokee National Female Seminary.1 The school was run by the tribal government and was extremely well regarded, generally considered better than the public school systems of several nearby states.2 On the Kaw (or Kanza) land3 that would one day become Northeastern State University, young Native women had what essentially amounts to a liberal arts education, including the study of music.

Music curriculum at the Cherokee National Female Seminary (Ayer 1906, 24)

The school’s music curriculum, depicted here, was collected by Edward Ayer, a Field Museum of Natural History benefactor who evidently had some interest in salvage anthropology and Native cultures, and donated to Chicago’s Newberry Library in 1911.4 The text itself states that this donation was for the benefit of the Native peoples whom the school served – that is, in support of preserving their histories. Thankfully, Native communities seem to have been involved in assembling these texts, according to the collection itself, but I’m a touch skeptical of our white sponsor’s benevolence. What seems most likely to me is that this, like Frances Densmore’s work, is a product of good intentions, but would be taken less than positively if produced today. This is supported by the casual white-saviorism of the historical statement that opens the book; a statement which describes a European education as the “seed of civilization” and thereby strongly suggests that the curricula were a product of “civilizing” influence. Really the curriculum is quite similar to what a young piano student might begin with today, assuming their teacher were willing to center their education on the European canon; several technique and method books are employed, and the progression from grades I-VI moves from simple Clementi sonatinas to Chopin etudes and ballades.

Therein lies the interest of this artifact. As beloved as this school may have been to some attendees and some members of its community (according to the testimony at the beginning of the Ayer collection, that is), there seems little doubt that the Cherokee National Female Seminary was complicit in the whitewashing of Cherokee students following the Trail of Tears. If the curriculum is indisputably Eurocentric, implicitly devaluing the Native musical traditions which would have surrounded these students growing up, and taught exclusively by white teachers, how could it be anything else? It was a victory for the community, in a way, but one that was only necessitated by the awful realties of the white man’s westward expansion. The existence and community status of schools such as this adds another shade of nuance to the consideration of education as a tool for cultural erasure during this time period.

What I can say, however, is that this artifact makes a strong case for the rejection of the cannon that’s happening in music education today. If the cannon is part of what we now consider to be a heinous cultural genocide, how could we possibly justify not expanding our musical borders and changing our approaches to pedagogy from the very first days of a student’s musical life? Exclusion of a student’s cultural traditions from their music curricula, while it isn’t on the level of the violence inflicted on too many children at too many white-run boarding schools over the past several centuries, is an act of cultural violence. Music education must be rooted in a student’s internal musical self, in the music of the student’s community, to avoid the racist, classist valuation of music that’s persisted for centuries in the western world. Some pedagogical methods, like Kodaly, incorporate elements of this belief, and are gaining significance in the pedagogical world. But we have a long way to go yet toward the goal of making music education more equitable, just, and culturally inclusive.

Footnotes

1 U.S. Department of the Interior. (2019). Cherokee Female Seminary, OK (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/places/cherokee-female-seminary-ok.htm

2 Brad Agnew, “Cherokee Male and Female Seminaries,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH018.

3 I attempt to name the original tribe here out of respect for the land’s origins and to acknowledge (first steps) the settler-colonial history of the US. But a quick Google search will reveal that even the Kaw people may have immigrated to this area from the east coast in the 1600’s, and it’s difficult to trace the history any farther back than that. I include this footnote as a form of full disclosure and to encourage any interested reader to do some more digging into the topic.

4 Ayer, Edward E. 1906. An illustrated souvenir catalog of the Cherokee National Female Seminary, Tahlequah, Indian Territory, 1850-1906, Printed Book; Tribe Record. N.p.: Indian Print Shop. http://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/Ayer_F389_T128_c522_1906.