Willie’s Musical World Tour

While looking through The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper founded in 1905, I came across a series of articles written by Willie Belle Jones. Jones was an African-American woman who it seems worked as a musicologist for The Chicago Defender. Over the course of two years, Jones wrote a series of articles describing types of music from around the world. I could only find four of these articles, however it is implied in the article “Chinese Street Music” that Jones wrote one of these articles every week,1 although it is possible not all of these articles were about musical cultures. The range of the articles that have been preserved are from April 1929 through July 1930, however it is possible that this series extends beyond those boundaries.

A picture of Willie Belle Jones from 1929.

In the four articles I found, Jones shares her opinions of music from China, India, Japan, Mexico, and Peru. It is unclear whether or not Jones herself traveled to these countries, or had other methods of learning about their musical traditions. These articles show a care for musical cultures around the world, while also demonstrating that racism and xenophobia permeated nearly all corners of the United States throughout the 20th century.

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN PERU AND MEXICO.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 13, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492217804/se-2.

In this article, Jones discusses both Peruvian music and Mexican music. Jones compares these two traditions to each other, while also comparing them to “oriental” music traditions. I think these comparisons are problematic given that all of these traditions are so different and independent of one another. Also problematic are the descriptions of these two musical traditions. Jones describes Peruvian music as “Idyllic and Pastoral” while describing Mexican music as simply “barbarous.” It is already bad to assign certain qualities to an entire country’s music, and even worse to refer to an entire tradition as “barbaric pomp.”4

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: CHINESE STREET MUSIC.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jun 15, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492306389/se-2.

Jones seems to take a fancy to “Chinese Street Music,” however that doesn’t stop her from impressive feats of racist rhetoric throughout the article. Jones refers to Chinese workers as “coolies,” which is a slur so old and racist that I didn’t even know it existed until just now. Jones also makes fun of the variance within this musical tradition, and describes it as “purely racket” and “[not] very pleasant to the ear.” However, Jones seems enamored by the idea of having music in the streets throughout the day.1

“MUSIC: MUSIC IN JAPAN.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),Jul 05, 1930. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492235829/se-2.

Jones does not dedicate too much time to the music of Japan in this three sentence long column. She simply implies it’s basically the same as China, and moves on.3 This is insidious both for its lack of care and effort to understand Japanese music, as well as its essentialization of all Asian music as roughly identical.

Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN INDIA.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 30, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492230977/se-2.

In this article, Jones argues that Indian music is more pleasing than that of the other countries she has described. What is the basis for this claim? That Indian music more closely resembles European music than that of the other countries. I don’t doubt that music built on “seven tones to the octave” with characteristics similar to European music can sound more familiar to Western audiences. However, to describe this music as objectively “more pleasing” due to its proximity to western classical music is eurocentric and a problem in and of itself.2

These articles showcase that even within communities working to combat racism in the United States, racism was still internalized to the fullest extent. However, it is cool to see the interest that this community had for other musical traditions from around the world.


1 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: CHINESE STREET MUSIC.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jun 15, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492306389/se-2.

2 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN INDIA.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Mar 30, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492230977/se-2.

3 MUSIC: MUSIC IN JAPAN.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),Jul 05, 1930. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492235829/se-2.

4 Jones, Willie Belle. “MUSIC: MUSIC IN PERU AND MEXICO.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Apr 13, 1929. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/music/docview/492217804/se-2.

Violent Notation, Eh?

If you look at transcriptions of Native American music created by musicologists in the early 20th century, a common pattern emerges. Densmore’s writings are filled with transcriptions that feature several different odd time signatures back to back, hanging 32nd notes, and other abominations, all in an attempt to most accurately depict native music. Forcing Native American music to conform to western notation is an act of violent colonialism. Though not apparent, this is an act that attempts to create forced assimilation of native culture to Anglo-Saxon American culture.

While this was going on, America’s neighbors to the north were doing something similar, but in a completely different way. Emile Petitot, a French priest, was transcribing the songs of nations in the northwest of Canada. Petitot’s approach was vastly different from that of Densmore. As you’ll see below, in the seven transcriptions Petitot did, he makes no attempt at describing the music using the usual spaghetti monsters seen in Densmore’s work.1 Instead, his transcriptions are made of note values and time signatures regularly seen in western music: Common time, cut time, quarter and eighth notes with the occasional use of triplets.

Petitot, Father, Emile. 1862-1889. Chants indiens du Canada Nord-Ouest [manuscript]: recueillis, classés et notés par Emile Petitot, prêtre missionnaire au Mackenzie, de 1862-1882, 1889. [Manuscript]. At: Place: The Newberry Library. VAULT box Ayer MS 715. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, http://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/Ayer_MS_715 [Accessed October 26, 2023].

It’s hard to assess these transcriptions without having a recording of the songs being transcribed, but I would assume that this notation does not accurately portray the music it describes. Subjecting native music to this western notation is still violent colonialism. However, an argument could be made that this is much better, or much worse than how Densmore transcribed. These transcriptions could be much better than Densmore’s, because they include less detail, making them less prescriptive. It’s possible these transcriptions exist to get the “general idea” of the music, and by being less prescriptive, they force the music to conform to the notation less than Densmore’s transcriptions do.

On the other hand, it’s very easy to see how this transcription is much worse. At least Densmore poured time and effort to try to accurately depict the music as it was; this transcription erases every part of the music that doesn’t conform to western music standards. I could see these transcriptions being lazy attempts without any care for the music being represented. I tend to believe that these transcriptions are even worse. Densmore’s transcriptions are “violent notation,” but at least she actually tried.

Harry Burleigh’s Foreword to Spirituals

One of the best known spirituals in the United States is Deep River. Though, like all spirituals and folk songs, its origins are unknown, it was popularized in the early 20th century by Black American composer Harry Burliegh. In Burleigh’s first published arrangement of Deep River, he provides an account of the origins of spirituals. This foreword allows us to glimpse into the mind of Black American musicians in the early 20th century and see some of their thoughts on the history of spirituals, and their intended uses within society.

Burleigh asserts that the spirituals “sprang into life…from the white heat of religious fervor…” and that they are the “ecstatic utterance of wholly untutored minds.”1 Burleigh seems invested in distancing spirituals from any sort of academic or “art song” contexts. In fact, Burleigh argues that the spirituals are “the only music in America which fits the scientific definition of Folk Song.”1 Burleigh wants to make it abundantly clear that the spirituals are a natural outgrowth of Black culture in America.

This foreword also highlights some of the struggles that Black Americans faced with regards to appropriation of spirituals. Burleigh specifically says that the spirituals are not to be used in minstrel performances.1
He asserts that these songs must be “done impressively,” otherwise their message is cheapened.1

In these ideas, we see two aspects of spirituals that Burleigh is hoping to solidify the importance of. The first is that spirituals are not art songs, or the results of academic inquiry, but rather the result of an entire culture creating music spontaneously. The second is that these songs should be treated with the respect and dignity that any art song or religious statement would be treated. Burleigh is arguing that the spirituals are derived far from the theaters and concert halls, but that they should now be performed in these venues with the same reverence that audiences apply to other beloved works of the western classical canon.

Music as a Tool for Change: Black Music Opportunities in the Early 20th Century

As I was searching for sources to write about this week, I stumbled upon “The Appeal,” which was a moderately successful African-American Newspaper for nearly four decades until 1923, based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. African-American Newspapers were newspapers published specifically for black communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. At the time “The Appeal” was founded, there were only around 1500 black people in the twin-cities area.1 Because of this, “The Appeal” was targeted to a much larger demographic than just black residents in Minnesota, and became popular throughout the country.

While I was searching for music related topics within “The Appeal,” I noticed something interesting. By 1906, the New England Conservatory had started advertising in nearly every issue of “The Appeal.”2 This suggests that by 1906 at the latest, the New England Conservatory was seeking out black students to study music on the east coast. This is particularly notable given that many colleges wouldn’t even enroll black students until much later in the 20th century. St. Olaf’s first black graduate was in 1935, Princeton’s was in 1947, and University of Alabama’s wasn’t until 1965. The New England Conservatory’s first black graduate was Rachel M. Washington, who graduated in 1872, just five years after the conservatory was founded.3 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife Coretta Scott King was also a graduate of the New England Conservatory much more recently in history.

“Popular Composers. Young Afre-Americans Who Have Attained Great Successes with Songs” – The Appeal

Another article from “The Appeal” highlights the work of Bob Cole and the Johnson Brothers.4 Rosamond Johnson also graduated from the New England Conservatory, while his brother James was a graduate of Atlanta University and a recipient of a doctorate from Colombia according to “The Appeal.” James wrote the lyrics and Rosamond composed the music of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is known today as the “Black National Anthem.”

Bob Cole partnered with the Johsnon brothers to create their own vaudeville act. Their entertaining pop music is the focus of a column in “The Appeal.” Cole and the Johsnon Brothers took advantage of a society that was obsessed with Minstrelsy and black entertainment, and produced music that fought against the pejorative and negative stereotypes usually portrayed in the genre. All three men were early civil rights activists, and they used music to express their views in a way that white audiences wanted to engage with.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were not many opportunities for black people to achieve upward social mobility in the white-supremacist framework of the United States. However, with minstrelsy and black music in such high demand, many black people were able to use music to gain an education, a livelihood, and further their political messages. In the years immediately after the reconstruction, music was a driving factor towards equality for black people in America.


Burleigh, Seagle, and Deep River: Collaboration Across Racial Lines in the Early 20th Century

Burleigh, H. T, and Oscar Seagle. Deep River. 1916. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-655500/.

Henry Thacker Burleigh (often known simply as Harry or H.T. Burleigh) was an African-American composer and baritone active during the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a classical composer known best for his arrangements of spirituals, contributions to methodist hymnody, and influence on the music of Antonin Dvořák.1

Oscar Seagle was a white American baritone active during the first half of the 20th century. He was well known throughout the United States and Europe as a soloist and performer of folk music and early country music. Seagle recorded several singles with Columbia records during the 1910s and early 1920s.2

In December of 1916, Burliegh and Seagle collaborated to record a single of Burleigh’s recently published arrangement of Deep River.3 Deep River is an African-American spiritual with anonymous origins from the early 19th century. It was popularized by Burliegh during the early 20th century, and is now one of the best known spirituals in the United States.

Many people hold the view that country music has its origins in folk music created solely by white people, and that there was no African-American influence during the formation of country music. This rather popular record is evidence to the contrary. For early country performers such as Seagle, spirituals and music by black composers were seen as part of the same genre as other folk music. These white and black folk songs would often be performed together in the same concert program, as was demonstrated in Minneapolis in 1917.4

Audiences and performers from the early 20th century would have heard African-American spirituals and white folk music together in the same genre of “folk.” Given the apparent lack of barriers between white and black music in this space, it is impossible to deny the influence that these traditions had on one another. Burleigh incorporated classical western instrumentation into his arrangements, as can be heard in the aforementioned record. Likewise, many many white folk singers took narrative and from styles such as the twelve-bar blues from black folk musicians.

The myth of artistic racial segregation of folk music in the 20th century is a marketing stunt by record labels to associate certain modern day cultural elements with their music. Cross-cultural dialogue has always been and continues to be an integral part of the development of musical cultures throughout the United States and the world.

Fredrick Starr’s “Progressive” Views on Navajo Culture

Photo of Fredrick Starr circa 1909 AD.“Legends and Music of the Navajos” is an article written by Fredrick Starr and published in The Dial in 1897. Starr was an academic and anthropologist active during the late 19th century and early 20th century. As an academic from the late 19th century, Starr demonstrates the commonly held opinions and beliefs of the academic community surrounding Native American cultures. Throughout the article, Starr prides himself on his abandonment of antiquated views, such as the spelling of “Navaho,”1 which Starr cleverly corrects to the modern spelling, “Navajo.” For innovations such as these, as well as the suggestion that the Navajo people were an “advanced tribe,” Starr was likely seen as progressive for legitimizing the study of Indigenous Americans throughout the United States and Mexico. However, this “forward thinker” has become a prime example of the pervasiveness of dehumanizing and eurocentric ideas surrounding the study and treatment of Indigenous Americans in America in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Starr claims that “The Navajo are the most advanced tribe in the Athapascan family of Indians.”2 This claim is based on the fact that the creation stories within Navajo culture align more closely with the Christian creation story of Adam and Eve, where man and woman are created out of the earth. Starr also cites the true historical nature of other aspects of the Navajo creation story as merits towards their “advanced” status among the tribes. Both a conformity to Christian beliefs and a historical non-fiction account of the past are eurocentric ideas that have been imposed as a standard for “advancement” by an almost exclusively white European academic class.

Starr’s true sentiments about Navajo culture are most apparent when talking about music towards the end of his article. Starr states that Navajo music is largely emblematic of all Indigenous American music, namely, it applies “… Those peculiarly favorite devices among savage and barbarous races…”.3 

While Starr and Densmore are both examples of antiquated and exploitative anthropologists who dehumanized Indigenous Americans, this example from Starr paints Densmore’s work in a different light. When Densmore began her research, Indigenous American music was considered “savage” and “barbaric” and considered to have no value. Densmore’s work helped to legitimize the study and value of Indigenous music for white academics, despite her flawed methods and eurocentric claims as to why the music was valuable. 

1 Starr, Frederick. 1897. “LEGENDS AND MUSIC OF THE NAVAJOS.” The Dial; a Semi – Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information (1880-1929), Sep 16, 146. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/legends-music-navajos/docview/89650110/se-2.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.