Jazz: the evolution or debasement of spirituals?

Jazz music emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like early African-American music, there is an emphasis on call and response patterns or aspects. Moreover, jazz music’s lack of strict structure compared to western classical music gives the musicians freedom to develop and perform in their own distinct styles. This freedom of expression is seen by many as a way of evolving old Negro Spirituals into more contemporary forms of music. However, there are also many who see jazz music as a way of debasing the music and meanings of old spirituals. 

In a Chicago Defender article entitled “Spiritualistic Start: That’s What “Jazz Music” had, Says Rosamond Johnson”, the author quotes Johnson’s perspective that jazz music will never die because it is the evolution of plantation music. Johnson, an African-American composer and singer during the Harlem Renaissance, goes on to explain how slave songs evolved into spirituals through the societal changes that African-Americans went through. He goes on to explain how unrest took hold of African-Americans, leading to syncopation and multiple rhythms being played over each other in spirituals, which he claims is the same basic principle of jazz music. Johnson also mentions western classical music, stating that syncopation and the use of many rhythms has made the great symphonies what they are today. In comparison, Johnson claims that by following these basic principles, jazz music is aiding in the appreciation of old spirituals by evolving them into a more contemporary form of music. 

H.T. Burleigh had a contrasting opinion to Johnson in that jazz music actually debases spirituals. In a letter written to the public, Burleigh urges both races to preserve spirituals by stopping the progression of spirituals into jazz music. Burleigh claims that spirituals are the prized possession of the African-American race as they were created to demonstrate and perpetuate the struggles and emotions that African-Americans had during and after slavery. He goes even further to state that spirituals are the only legacy of slavery days that African-Americans can be proud of and that they are on the same level as great fold songs from around the world. By “perverting” the melodies and rhythms of spirituals into dance and popular songs, Burleigh says that it is destructive to the meanings of the original art forms, calling jazz music a misappropriation of spirituals. 











“HARRY BURLEIGH BEWAILS MISUSE OF FOLK SONGS: SAYS JAZZ DEBASES THEM; DISLIKES SPIRITUALS USED AS FOX TROTS.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Nov 18, 1922, pp. 8. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/harry-burleigh-bewails-misuse-folk-songs/docview/491939656/se-2.

Thompson, Noah D. “SPIRITUALISTIC START: THAT’S WHAT “JAZZ MUSIC” HAD, SAYS ROSAMOND JOHNSON.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Jan 21, 1922, pp. 7. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/spiritualistic-start/docview/491909144/se-2.

Dvorak and Brahms: the relationship that helped launch Dvorak into international spotlight

Antonin Dvorak is perhaps one of the most well known composers to ever live. There are many stories about Dvorak’s time in America, but another topic worth noting is his rise to fame that would eventually lead to his time in America. Although his works themselves proved his merit as a composer, Dvorak was boosted into the spotlight with the help of Johannes Brahms. Although they never lived in the same region, their relationship was very important to both of them as composers and as friends. 

In many biographies, the relationship between Dvorak and Brahms has been minimized not only by perennial placement of the two composers in separate chapters, but also by prejudices held by the chauvinistic views of the German people. Peter Petersen, a German musicologist, highlights the prejudices held by Germans in a critique of Dvorak’s history in Germany. 

Petersen also helped to establish a more objective comparison between the two composers. The first list below shows some of the similarities between the two composers:

The next list shows some of the differences between the two composers.

Dvorak first became known to Brahms after competing and winning three awards for composition competitions. However, their relationship wouldn’t begin until after Eduard Hanslick, a music critic, encouraged Dvorak to write letters to Brahms. In an attempt to flatter Brahms, Dvorak’s first letters exaggerated his familiarity and love for the great composer’s music. Dvorak’s first letter seems to try to establish a mentorship that would let him learn from Brahms.

Brahms took an interest in Dvorak right away and connected him to Simrock, Brahms’ personal publisher. Although Brahms mentioned his dislike for letter writing, Dvorak was very persistent in building a relationship with Brahms. On one of Brahms’ concert tours, Dvorak sent multiple letters to the composer, an act that most would see as rude. 


Through their shared composition profession, Dvorak and Brahms were able to overcome national prejudices and build a professional and personal relationship. Brahms even offered Dvorak his whole estate after his death. Dvorak’s relationship with Brahms not only helped him grow as a composer, but also helped to launch his works into the international spotlight. After his works were exposed to other countries, Dvorak would soon gain popularity, earning an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Cambridge. Moreover, Dvorak would eventually accept a position as director at the National Conservatory of Music in New York which kickstarted his time in the US where he would compose his New World Symphony. 



Dvorák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman, Princeton University Press, 1993. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/stolaf-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3030296.


The use of minstrelsy to enforce racist stereotypes

The first minstrel shows performed in the 1830s by white performers donning blackface and tattered clothing imitated and mimicked enslaved African Americans in the south. These performances would characterize African Americans as lazy, ignorant, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Historians have said that the reason these racist stereotypes and caricatures became so popular was to help make poorer and working-class whites feel better about themselves by putting down African Americans.

Possibly the most popular blackface caricature, Jim Crow, was created in the 1830s by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who was known as the “Father of Minstrelsy”. The Jim Crow caricature was created to mock African slaves and to enforce the idea that they are uncultured, happy-go-lucky, and wore tattered clothing. Another popular caricature was Zip Coon, an urban African American that was frequently presented as an overdressed, slow-talking, and mischievous person. Although they lived in different environments and had different backgrounds, Jim Crow and Zip Coon were both used to depict African Americans as lazy, dim-witted people and enforce racial stereotypes.

In their performances, minstrel performers would often exaggerate these stereotypes, which were already blown out of proportion, for comedic purposes. One such performer was Billy Golden, a blackface minstrel who was very active during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Golden specialized in blackface dialect comedy with some of his most famous works being “Turkey in de straw” and “Rabbit hash”. In the recordings, it’s evident that Golden is trying to imitate and exaggerate the way that African Americans would talk to enforce the idea that African Americans were uncultured and dim-witted.

Caricatures and performances that mocked African Americans might have been popular among whites, however, it is not surprising that African Americans were not happy with how blackface minstrel performers were depicting them. Frederick Douglass wrote a response to blackface imitators in the North Star that called these performers filthy scum that stole African culture and used it to make a profit. Moreover, although blackface and minstrelsy don’t seem to be a big problem in modern society (short of a few exceptions every so often), the stereotypes that were ingrained in our society still seem to be very prevalent today.



“Blackface: The Birth of an American Stereotype.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 22 Nov. 2017, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.

Endicott & Swett, Lithographer. Zip Coon. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/00650780/>.

Golden, Billy, and Billy Golden. Rabbit Hash. 1908. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-223095/>.

Golden, Billy. Turkey in De Straw. 1903. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-243662/>.

Jim Crow. [London, new york & philadelphia: pub. by hodgson, 111 fleet street & turner & fisher ; between 1835 and 1845?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004669584/>.

The evolution of African American spirituals into western classical music

Since the beginning of African American music, the genre has evolved many times due in part to outside influences from other cultures and societal changes in America. Sorrow Songs became spirituals, which would eventually merge with western classical music. James Bland and H.T. Burleigh were some of the most influential African American composers in America during the turn of the 20th century. Due to their western education, they were able to effectively popularize and represent African American spirituals by combining the words and themes of spirituals with western classical compositions and arrangements.

James Bland was an African American minstrel performer and composer, some of his most famous compositions were “Carry me back to old Virginny” and “In the evening by the moonlight”. “Carry me back to old Virginny” is written from the perspective of a freedperson wanting to go back to the days of slavery. In this recording, the song is sung by a quartet of male singers and when reading the lyrics, the perspective of the singers seems to be that being enslaved wasn’t as bad as one might think. Although the song represents an African American point of view, the arrangement of the song is more western, with clear voicings for each member and more harmonized than previous forms of African American music which wouldn’t normally have this organized form.

The integration of western classical music into African American spirituals was even more apparent in Bland’s “In the evening by the moonlight”, a song about the experience of slaves. This recording starts with a western orchestral intro and much like the previously mentioned song, there is a lot more structure and harmonization in this piece. Interestingly, the pronunciations in the recording are also more “proper” English, rather than the English that was originally written in the lyrics.

H.T. Burleigh was surrounded by music from a young age, performing at local churches and events and later became famous for his adaptations of African American spirituals. Some of his most famous works are “Deep river” and “Go down Moses”. “Deep river” is a song of hope that expresses a desire for peace and freedom. From the sheet music, we can see that the piece begins with piano chords that this is not a traditional spiritual that might have been passed orally, rather it is a well notated piece meant to express the experiences of African Americans in a western style. 

The lyrics in “Go down Moses” don’t specifically relate to African Americans or even America, however, it was still meant to express many of the feelings of enslaved African Americans. When listening to this recording and looking at the sheet music, the accompanying parts are very intricate and western compared to what traditional spirituals might have done. Moreover, this song seems to have a structure where rather than having a call and response with other singers, the accompaniment has short interjections that just continue the melody.


I think that another important note that all of these recordings have in common is that the vocalists all seem to be classically trained compared to previous African American music where the performers weren’t necessarily trained. The main causes of this seem to be the notation of the music as well as more western influence. In my opinion, the notation of spirituals has prevented them from being lost to time or lack of representation, however, bias can also affect which spirituals get notated and which will be forgotten. The integration of western styles and instrumentation with spirituals seems to be a good idea in terms of increasing popularity and representation among other works in the US, but I wonder whether or not the songs still hold the same weight now that they have been combined with western music.



Bland, James A, Columbia Stellar Quartette, and James A Bland. Carry me back to old Virginia. 1919. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-651610/>.

Bland, James A, et al. In the Evening by the Moonlight. 1908. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-121558/>.

Burleigh, H. T, and Oscar Seagle. Deep River. 1916. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-655500/>.

Burleigh, H. T. Deep river song: old Negro melody. G. Ricordi, New York, monographic, 1916. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2011562023/>.

“Go down, Moses; Let My People Go! / Historic American Sheet Music / Duke Digital Repository.” Duke Digital Collections, https://repository.duke.edu/dc/hasm/n0708.

“In Harmony: Sheet Music from Indiana.” IN Harmony: Sheet Music from Indiana – Item Details, https://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/inharmony/detail.do?action=detail&fullItemID=%2Flilly%2Fdevincent%2FLL-SDV-232069.

“In the Evening by the Moonlight.” High Brown Songs, 28 Apr. 2022, https://sheetmusicsinger.com/highbrownsongs/in-the-evening-by-the-moonlight/.

Lapitino, Francis J, et al. Go down Moses. 1924. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-69931/>.


African American Sorrow Songs and Spirituals

The term “sorrow songs” was coined by W.E.B. DuBois and represented songs that expressed the suffering and unjust treatment of enslaved African Americans throughout the period of slavery in the US. Sorrow songs conveyed sadness and the lyrics and melodies were often very direct about the experiences that African Americans had while enslaved. DuBois commented that although the songs were unknown to him, he knew the songs as a part of himself. 

Many of the Sorrow Songs and Negro folk songs had lots of spiritual references because the only book that was read to slaves was the bible. Although Sorrow Songs implies hardships and literal sadness, there were still many songs that represented hopes and aspirations for a better future. The lyrics of these more hopeful songs would start with the hardships of slavery and gravitate towards a lighter topic of being enlightened by Christianity and the hope and faith that God will look over the slaves.

Due to the deep and meaningful lyrics in Sorrow Songs, many leaders and teachers recognized the significance of these songs for African American culture. They would often teach the importance of the melodies and lyrics of the songs and stress the respect that younger African Americans should have for their music. In a news article from the Chicago Defender in 1922, “A History of Music That Moved World: Story of Songs of Hope That Came From the Hearts of Slaves”, the author argues that these songs were so important for African Americans was because they were created by African Americans to express the African American experience through slavery. Moreover, the author states that certain other Negro folk songs don’t hold as much weight because although they reflected the African American experience, they were written by white men.

Although the term Sorrow Songs has become less prevalent and spirituals are more commonly known, the experiences represented through Sorrow Songs have not been lost to time. Spirituals have since evolved from the slave songs and Sorrow songs to become more polished forms of music that still maintain their characteristic moods that were created under intense hardships and deep sorrows.



“A History of Music that Moved World: Story of Songs of Hope that Came from the Hearts of Slaves.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Dec 30, 1922, pp. 13. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/history-music-that-moved-world/docview/491968896/se-2.

Nobody knows the trouble I see sheet music. Easy Sheet Music. (2021, April 11). Retrieved October 10, 2022, from http://easysheetmusic.altervista.org/nobody-knows-the-trouble-i-see-sheet-music-guitar-chords-lyrics/

Peyton, Dave. “THE MUSICAL BUNCH: THINGS IN GENERAL SLAVE SONGS.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Nov 17, 1928, pp. 6. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/musical-bunch/docview/492211749/se-2.

Spiritual lyrics: Oh freedom. Negro Spiritual/Slave Song Lyrics for Oh Freedom. (n.d.). Retrieved October 10, 2022, from http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/negro-spirituals/oh_freedom.htm

W.E.B. Du Bois. “”The Sorrow Songs,” from The Souls of Black Folk”. Book excerpt, 1903. From Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/the-sorrow-songs/

Wampum and its importance to Eastern Woodland Native Americans

Wampum is a traditional shell bead of the Native American tribes of the Eastern Woodlands. The beads are harvested from the shells of Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clams and are typically white and purple. Native Americans would harvest the clams in the summer and eat their contents before working on the shells. The process of creating wampum was long and hard, usually taking a full day to make just one bead. Shells would be ground or drilled down very carefully using rocks. Not only was the process difficult, but it was also somewhat dangerous, fine dust from the shaved off shells could cut up the lungs if ingested so Native Americans would often use water to limit the dust.

Wampum belt made of shell beads, buckskin, & ribbon. Anthro #A738.1

After the beads were made, they were placed on strings made of either plant fibers or animal tendons. They were often worn decoratively and sometimes even formed into belts which were used to tell stories and mark agreements between peoples. There were usually only two colors of wampum, white and purple, each having their own meanings. White wampum usually denoted purity or light while purple wampum typically represented war, grieving, and death. The two colors would often be combined to represent the duality of the world. 



Wampum strings and belts had many uses such as currency, gifts, and a means of telling stories. Tribes would often trade wampum with each other in exchange for other goods. Due to the meaning of each color of bead, wampum was also used as a gift, white wampum being given to celebrate things like births or marriages and purple wampum being used for condolences after the loss of loved ones. Moreover, mixed belts, which represented the duality of the world, were given as peace treaties and used to tell stories to others and future generations. 




The worth of wampum was also recognized by many European settlers. A letter written to Thomas Penn from James Logan in 1937 shows that the Europeans knew the significance of wampum. In a proposal to meet the chiefs of the Six Nations at Albany, Logan proposed that Governor Gooche accompany his letter with 2 to 3 fathoms of wampum as a peace offering. Wampum beads and belts even became a commodity in Europe. In a receipt written from Isaac Low in 1769, a paper bundle of wampum was sold to someone in Europe for £15 11s. 6d. 

Although the significance of wampum has dwindled for non-Native Americans, wampum and the process of making it is still unquestionably important to the culture and traditions of Native Americans. This video shows the traditional process of making wampum by hand, still followed by Native Americans today.


Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Letter to [Jelles Fonda, Caghnawaga]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b8a373ad-28d8-942d-e040-e00a18065263

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Letter to the Proprietary [Thomas Penn]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/bb4ebb8a-0e86-c85e-e040-e00a18063bc4

Scott Dressel-Martin. Wampum belt. 7/26/2010. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, https://dmns.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/DMNSDMS~4~4~11333~100798. (Accessed September 20, 2022.)

Traditional Wampum Belts. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/video/traditional-wampum-belts-gy05in/. 

Tweedy, Ann C. “From Beads to Bounty: How Wampum Became America’s First Currency-and Lost Its Power.” ICT. ICT, October 5, 2017. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/from-beads-to-bounty-how-wampum-became-americas-first-currencyand-lost-its-power. 

Tweedy, Ann C. “From Beads to Bounty: How Wampum Became America’s First Currency-and Lost Its Power.” ICT. ICT, October 5, 2017. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/from-beads-to-bounty-how-wampum-became-americas-first-currencyand-lost-its-power.

Wallace, Anthony F C. “The Iroquois Wampum Belts.” Anthropology News (Arlington, Va.) 12, 4 (1971): 7–7. https://doi.org/10.1111/an.1971.

Wampum Belt. 1682. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, https://dlgadmin.galileo.usg.edu/iiif/2/dlg%2Fguan-dpla%2Fartsus%2Fguan-dpla_artsus_in26%2Fguan-dpla_artsus_in26-00001.jp2/full/1000,/0/default.jpg. (Accessed September 20, 2022.)