Sun Ra and the Origins of Afro-Futurism

Le Sony’r Ra (Professionally known as Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount) led an interesting life, to put it mildly. In addition to being one of the single most prolific recording artists of the 20th century (he recorded over 1,000 compositions on over 120 albums, according to Ra scholar John F. Szwed), he was a philosopher and mystic who worked with Amiri Baraka, in addition to many others, was possibly (probably?) the first person to integrate the concept of a “light show” into a live music performance, and was also possibly an alien abductee.

While we’ve spent quite a bit of time in class with text by Amiri Bakara, we haven’t actually touched on his role in founding the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 70s very much (if at all). To provide some quick context, the Black Arts Movement sought to create cultural institutions, such as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) that would allow black artists to express themselves and create without being overshadowed or governed by traditional Western (and white) critics and tastes. Sun Ra was an important member of this movement. Not only did he write many essays and pamphlets that helped to define his particular aesthetic that would crystallize into Afro-Futurism, he lived his aesthetic and philosophical ideals every day, according to everyone who knew him. Bakara wrote in his Autobiography,

“Sun Ra and Albert Ayler were always on the scene. For some, Sun Ra became our resident philosopher, having regular midweek performances in which he introduced the light-show concept that white rock groups later found out about and got rich from. When Ra would play his Sun-Organ, when he played low notes, deep blues and dark colors would light up on it. When he played high notes, oranges and yellows would light up, and we sat, sometimes maybe with fifteen or twenty people in the audience, and thought we were being exposed to the profundity of blackness” (Bakara 204).

The albums The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra vol. 1 and 2 (which are bundled into one album through the database) carry good examples of the developments Ra made to jazz as a genre. For example, Ra was the first person to utilize two string basses in a jazz ensemble instead of just one (according to Szwed), and this album is an example of that.

Ra’s philosophy is a little tough to grasp. Not only did his views profoundly change over time (which is to be expected with many philosophers, so that isn’t quite the point) (he initially identified with sentiments of Black Power and Black Unification, but later started to identify less and less with any race and identified more with divine beings such as angels), his philosophy has heavy esoteric influence and is written in almost a “beat prose” style. In his essay Lucifer Means Light Bearer, he argues that the Bible was not written for black people, and that african Americans allow themselves to be rendered complacent by white power structures that utilize religion as a tool for this purpose. (Ra 133-137)

Sun Ra is a fascinating figure within the context of the Black Arts Movement, and in my opinion, he has enough of his own writing as well as scholarship about him to merit a place within the MUS 345B curriculum. Hopefully a future class will have a chance to study him.

Works Cited:

Bakara, Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. Freundlich Books, New York, 1984.

Ra, Le Sony’r. The Wisdom of Sun Ra. Compiled by John Corbett. WhiteWalls, Chicago, 2006.

Sun Ra. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. Recorded November 15, 2010. ESP Disk, 2010, Streaming Audio.

Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Pantheon Books, New York, 1997.


Friendship ended with Henry Cowell, now Homophobia is my best friend

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was an American modernist composer who has achieved international renown, though not during his own lifetime. He is notable in that he was not a career composer; he was an insurance executive, and actually laid the foundation for the modern system of estate planning as we know it today. Through his compositional career, he became close friends with Henry Cowell (1897-1965), one of the most prolific and ahead-of-his-time composers and music theorists of the 20th century. Cowell and Ives, in addition to their friendship, were bound together through the New Music Society, an organization run by Cowell that was dedicated to organizing new music concerts and publishing new music.

Despite advancing his career to the international stage, dark times loomed for Cowell. In May 1936, he was arrested for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts with a 17 year old boy. He was eventually sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison. Many of his composer colleagues lent him support and publicly campaigned for his release, but Ives, one of his best friends, cut contact with him.

In a letter from Harmony Ives (Charles’ wife) to Charlotte Ruggles (the wife of Carl Ruggles, another central figure in the modernist movement Cowell participated in), she describes Charles’ reaction to hearing the news.

“… I told Charlie and he and I feel just as you do. A thing more abhorrent to Charlie’s nature couldn’t be found. We think these things are too much condoned. He will never willingly, see Henry again — he can’t— he doesn’t want to hear of the thing— the shock used him up and he hasn’t had a long breath since I told him but he will get used to it— isn’t it shocking the things we “get used to”? He said characteristically “I thought he was a man and he’s nothing but a G——— D——- sap!” (Ives 245).

Ives is notorious within music history for his quite conservative and deeply impassioned views on masculinity and femininity (one might even call his views obsessive), but it shows how deep seated his prejudices were that he would completely cut off contact with one of his best friends for over 4 years. According to a 1994 New York Times article, “Ives apparently, in fact, suggested to mutual acquaintances that suicide would be Cowell’s only honorable option” (NYT July 10, 1994).

Ives and Cowell eventually reconnected after the latter’s pardon, but their friendship was much more restrained. Ives did not fully open himself up to Cowell until Cowell told Ives that he planned to marry Sidney Hawkins Robertson, who was an important ethnomusicologist in her own right. (Ives 286-288). It speaks to the societal and interpersonal prejudices Cowell faced that once he was exposed as a queer person, he was not able to shed off such a blow to his character until he married a woman. Though this is speculation on my part, it would make sense to think that Ives reconciled with Cowell because he felt that by marrying a woman, Cowell was somehow relinquishing his identity as a queer person. Though perhaps this idea of forfeiting or changing one’s identity out of personal necessity does not manifest in the same way it has in other areas of the class (black minstrel artists playing up stereotypes in order to make a living, for instance), Cowell had to undergo this process all the same.


Borchert, Kevin. “Gay Composers; behind Ives’ harmonic clashes.” New York Times, 10 July 1994, section 2, page 2. Web.

Hicks, Michael. “The Imprisonment of Henry Cowell.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 44, no. 1, 1991, pp. 92–119. JSTOR,

Owens, Tom C., editor. “EDITORS AND PERFORMERS (1933–1944).” Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2007, pp. 209–314. JSTOR,


A Not-So-Sympathetic Read of the National Anthem

For many Americans, The Star-Spangled Banner may be one of the most recognizable tunes. With its message of patriotism and national triumph, it has firmly rooted itself within our national canon. Many of us, however, are only familiar with the first stanza of this song.

The third stanza reads as follows: (click the link)

Star Spangled Banner stanza 3

Other than the explicit reference to runaway slaves, this stanza is somewhat difficult to pick apart without an understanding of the historical context. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, was a lawyer, and later, a U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, was a staunch anti-abolitionist who used his position as U.S. District Attorney to suppress and prosecute abolitionists for taking a public stance against slavery. Key wrote the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner while he observed the successful defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Though some scholars as well as some widely held popular opinion would assert that the Star-Spangled Banner’s 3rd stanza is a celebration of the institution of slavery, I would like to provide a reading that is not so reductive. During the War of 1812, the British army raided southern coastal areas of the United States. As part of these raids, they would offer slaves their freedom if they would fight for the Crown during the ongoing conflict. Many now-former slaves took advantage of this offer and joined a regiment of the British army that would be known as the Corps of Colonial Marines. A detachment of the Corps assisted in the burning of Washington D.C. in August of 1814 (Blackburn 288-290).

With this context in mind, Key’s bitterness over freed slaves fighting against other Americans becomes clear. In addition to celebrating American success in the Battle of Baltimore, he also uses the poem as a denouncement, or a sort of “not so hot now, are you?” of these former slaves who would dare to fight for their freedom against their former masters. All the same, the stanza is not so much a celebration of the institution as it is a denouncement of those who would try to end it.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848. London, Verso, 1988. P.p. 288-290.

Key, Francis Scott and John Stafford Smith. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sheet Music Consortium. Accessed 21 October 2019.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Payola in the 1960s

Fats Domino may have invented rock and roll, but Alan Freed made it a hit. Freed, a disk jockey, worked at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, when he realized that there was a demand for rhythm and blues music (or R&B) in the area. He would make his fame by playing and marketing R&B, blues, and country music under the name of “Rock and Roll”. He became immensely popular and built a career off of promoting black rock and roll musicians, including Paul Williams, Tiny Grimes, and the Dominoes.

 “Alan Freed, sometimes called the father of Rock N’ Roll, was charged with 26 counts in two informations. He was accused of accepting $10,000 from a recording company in 1958 and with taking bribes of $20,650 from six other companies in 1958 and 1959” (Chicago Defender, 28 May 1960).

In 1959, Freed and other disk jockeys were investigated by the House Committee on Legislative Oversight for their involvement with a system called payola. Payola is, essentially, when a radio station or disk jockey takes money or other illegal bribes in exchange for playing certain music over the radio without publicly stating that it is sponsored airtime. Through various loopholes and lack of oversight, Freed and other disk jockeys made a fortune through the exploitation of black musicians. In addition to cash bribes, Freed also committed payola in the form of being listed as a co-composer of certain songs so he could receive royalties checks from them.

“Payola was how you got your records played,” stated Marshall Chess, President of Chess Records. “It was how you did business… back then it was totally open. ‘You help me, and I’ll help you,’” (Alan Freed and Payola).

It’s the same issue we’ve run across with minstrelsy. What do we make of a system that simultaneously builds careers for black musicians, and grossly exploits them? On one hand, it is far more progressive than the system of minstrelsy in the sense that it gave black musicians a career that was not so much about the color of their skin than their music, but Freed and others still left them only scraps of their surplus value. Even though record companies cannot use payola anymore, there still exist schemes that exploit musicians (pay-to-play, for example),  so we need to keep asking these questions into the present day.


“Alan Freed and Payola” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Adam Matthew Digital. 2011. Web. Accessed 10 October 2019.

United Press International, “Arrest 5 Disk Jockeys Over Payola,” Chicago Defender. 28 May, 1960. Accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender. Accessed on 10 October 2019.

The Day of Jubilee

In his essay-review The day of jubilee, published February 27, 1959 in the Los Angeles Tribune , Chestyn Everett confronts issues concerning the commercialization, dilution, and decontextualization of black spirituals. Everett, who was a scholar, civil rights activist, and later, a professor at Cornell University, starts his essay with a more general condemnation of black and white artists alike for corrupting their renditions of spirituals and remaining less and less faithful to the genre and the historical background. He goes on to make generalized characters and condemning them for each way they have warped the genre.

“We must admit, however, that the average white artist approaches the Negro spiritual as if the Negro slaves who had created these songs, had studied “lieder” composition and voice at some classic conservatory in which they attended evening classes after a day’s session in the cotton fields. On the other extreme, the white popular “singers” approach the negro spiritual as if, instead of the conservatory in the cotton fields, the negro slaves had a “rock and roll” band by which they rhythmically picked cotton and did little chores around the house for the “missus”, and that the “kind ole massah” had put up a “dark town strutters bistro”– and that each night this “tired-happy, free loving, fun loving, maddening throng of dark humanity” converged upon the DTSB singing “When the saints go marchin’ in” to the insane-frentic backing of “Old Black Joe and his Cotton Picking Ramblers”

He continues with several critiques of certain black musicians. First, he critiques black musicians who “clean up the language,” that is, editing the southern slave dialect into more modern english. He argues that this is the same as saying that the slaves who created the spirituals lacked “the finer points of musical intelligence,” (Everett 9). His next critique is of incompetent black musicians who rationalize the validity of their performances by recalling that slaves would have had no formal training. “[this singer] labors under the unfortunate assumption that being a Negro establishes the assumption that he can sing Negro spirituals, and further that any vocal ability he is conspicuously lacking is inconsequential to the fact that he “feels” what he is (not) doing,” (Everett 21).

His main issue with many modern practices of spirituals is with the recontextualization of this music. Similar to what we have learned in class, the way that music, and more specifically, information, is portrayed in the present paints firmly guides how many view the past. While he characterizes and exaggerates these examples, his worry holds true.

Works Cited:
Everett, Chestyn. “The day of jubilee: an essay-review.” The Los Angeles Tribune, February 27, 1959, pp. 9, 21. African American Newspapers. Accessed on October 3, 2019.

Breaking the Mold: Subversive rhetoric in In Dahomey

For this blog assignment, I found a performance of the song, “On Emancipation Day,” from the musical In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook and lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Dahomey is a significant piece of art for several reasons.

First and foremost, it was the first full-length musical written by african americans, with an african american cast to appear in a major Broadway Theater. The musical was very successful; it ran for 53 performances, including two United States tours as well as a tour to the United Kingdom.

However, there is a deeper significance to this work than just pure success. It also pushed against social norms of the time period. In the chapter “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” by Monica White Ndounou from the Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, she argues that the musical contained some subversive ideas regarding black freedom of representation and production in theatre.

“The song “Broadway in the Jungle” incorporates African iconography in its vision of the Great White Way, but in a more subversive way than Williams and Walker may have been credited with in their lifetime. They speak not of bringing Dahomians to Broadway but instead building a Broadway for colored people in Dahomey. They sing: “If we went to Dahomey. Suppose the king would say, we want a Broadway built for us, we want it right away.” They call for a space in which blacks control production and performance. Stereotypical references throughout, however, detract from the revolutionary idea (for instance, using a crocodile, or a “Crock-o-Dial” on the face of the Broadway clock, getting gorillas to use as the police, and a hippopotamus for Justice of the Peace, etc). They fail to improve African representation, but succeed in the use of dialect and other devices,” (Ndounou 67-68).

Even though they challenged the status quo in this way, it fell into line with others. The play was not exempt from the influence of minstrelsy, which permeated all black theatre of the time. Ndounou also comments on this:

“In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy draws character names from minstrelsy, while combining low comedy, ethnic jokes, and references to current social and political events within its three-act structure. Whereas white comics were able to access a range of ethnic stereotypes (i.e. Irish, Hebrew, and Dutch), black performers could only play variations of the “Darky” and the Chinese. In Dahomey features these constrained representations of ethnic identity, while building on models established in previous shows,” (Ndounou 66).

To tie this back into class, even though In Dahomey followed the familiar narrative of Black Theater being a successful, though problematic form of entrepreneurship, it should also be recognized for how it pushed against the expectations of the time.

Works Cited:
Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.

Ndounou, Monica White. “Early black Americans on Broadway.” The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, edited by Harvey Young, Cambridge UP, pp. 59-70.

Spencer, Len, baritone. On Emancipation Day, by Will Marion Cook. Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 25 October, 1902.

Double standards? In MY America? It might be more common than you think.

In Dan Blim’s paper, “McDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” he exposes a contrast between how post-emancipation white Americans viewed Native Americans and African Americans. He argues that the view that Native Americans were “vanishing” as part of a natural process allowed them to be parodied in their portrayals in a way that Black Americans could not, as many Americans were deeply uncomfortable with America’s slaveowning past.

The document I chose juxtaposes two hymns with each other; one from a “converted indian” and the other from “a little slave boy. The two have a stark contrast in the language they use. The “indian hymn” uses an extremely vernacular dialect of english, whereas the “slave boy’s hymn” is rather eloquent. To illustrate further, I will show the first stanza of each.

“ In de dark wood no indian nigh, den me look heaben and send up cry, upon my knees so low. Dat God on high, in shinee place see me in night wid teary face: de priest he tells me so.”

“There is a book, I’ve heard them say, which says ‘thou shalt not work or play on God Almighty’s holy day.’ On Sundays then, O let me look, in God Almighty’s holy book” (Christian Advocate).

Regardless of whether either text’s authorship is genuine as the publishers describe it (I’m not sure that it is. I couldn’t find another publication of the “slave boy’s hymn”, but the “Indian Hymn” has been included in numerous publications, including several that assert origins for the hymn, all of which conflict with each other. One such origin is even verifiably false. Friends’ Review published a version asserting that it was written down by Reverend William Apess in 1798. Rev. Apess was a renowned public speaker and activist for Native American rights in his day, not to mention that he was himself from the Pequot tribe, but he was born in 1798, so whatever plausibility the publishers of the Review sought to gain by using his name is lost when the facts are checked. While the exact history of the hymn is unknown, it is certainly sketchy.) , we can see even from their choice to include these contrasting texts that some dynamic akin to what Blim describes is at play. Even though the readers of the Advocate might not have assumed that either party would be educated, the slave boy is shown to have some eloquence, while the Indian is portrayed as a caricature that would be familiar to their audience.

The column concludes with a paragraph that echoes McDowell’s own comments on slavery. “Thank God that the old days of slavery, with all the enforced ignorance, the bitterness of bondage, and the cruel seperation of families, are gone forever, and that so much now is being done to give the freedmen both the ability and the opportunity to read in ‘God Almighty’s holy book,’” (Christian Advocate). This supports the narrative that Blim illuminates, where White Americans seek to uplift Black Americans in order to forget the horrors of slavery, but feel comfortable enough to portray the “vanishing indian” as a caricature.

Works Cited:

“Two Quaint Old Hymns.” Christian Advocate, 18 May 1893. American Periodicals,, Accessed 19 September 2019.