The Truth About American Music? It’s Closer To You Than You Think!

Lillian Evanti was a highly successful coloratura soprano in the 1920s-40s, performing and educating all over the country and abroad. Her success was charted in newspapers in many states, taking the form of advertisements, reviews, documentation of her appearances at dinner parties, book clubs, and other events, as well as other bits of news. One such advertisement appeared in the Plaindealer from Topeka, Kansas, on November 11, 1927.

Newspaper advertisement for her upcoming recital.
“Advertisement.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) TWENTY NINTH YEAR, no. FORTY FIVE, November 11, 1927: FOUR. Readex: African American Newspapers.

The blurb advertises a concert that evening in Kansas City, Missouri, and includes details of the time, place, and ticket pricing. Not only is this advertisement an interesting look into the culture of classical performing arts in the 1920s (imagine going to see a recital for 75 cents!), but it shows us that the history of American music is right in our communities. My hometown is only 30 minutes from Topeka, and an hour away from Kansas City. It is incredibly exciting to discover that your community plays a part in musical history, especially about an underrepresented artist that I never knew existed until we started our projects. 

Portrait of Lillian Evanti.
From this article: Forlaw, Blair. “Opera Diva Lillian Evanti.” DC History Center, March 24, 2021. https://dchistory.org/opera-diva-lillian-evanti/. Sourced from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

But this begs the question– why had I never heard about Lillian Evanti before this project? Could it be that there is simply too much history to be discovered and Evanti’s career and legacy have not risen to the top of the reading list yet? Could it be that as a Black woman she gets swept under the rug to make more space for white artists? A common term to describe artists of color is “underrepresented,” because they are precisely that. There is significantly less documentation and evidence of the careers and achievements of BIPOC artists, musicians, composers, poets, etc, which is an unfortunate effect of the legacy of racism and discrimination that was so prevalent in the past and still ingrained in the system today.

Lillian Evanti in costume for Verdi’s La Traviata.
Emilio Sommariva, Lillian Evanti wears opera costume from La Traviata, circa 1924-1935, Evans-Tibbs collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Box 1, Folder 3.

Perhaps the reason I never knew about Evanti is because we have been blatantly ignoring her and the other fantastic black women in music of the era in favor of white, European composers. We have a history of pushing away those that do not come from our communities. But the thing is– these artists are in our communities! I just proved that with a source from 30 minutes West of my hometown! Even though, sadly, there is less evidence of these amazing artists’ careers, it still exists! Especially in today’s age of online and digital databases and research possibilities, American musical history is right at our fingertips. The history of BIPOC artists is within our reach, we might just have to look a bit harder.

 

 

 

 

(Citations included in photo captions)

Lillian Evanti: We see her success but cannot hear it

Lillian Evanti was a prominent opera singer, and one of the first, if not the first African-American women to tour with a European opera company. Additionally, she was a founding member of the National Negro Opera Company, performing as Violetta in their performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. As a famous performer, Evanti gave concerts and recitals all over the United States and Western Europe. One such performance was at the Hall of Americas in the Pan-American Union, celebrating many Latin American composers.

Lillian Evanti with John Hoskins at the Pan-American Union.
Robert H. McNeil, Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins perform at the Hall of the Americas Pan American Union, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 26, Folder 54.

Evanti’s program included works from Mexican, Cuban, Argentinian, and Venzuelan composers (both women and men), an aria from Il Guarany, an opera composed by Antônio Carlos Gomes, as well as a few of her own original compositions. Her performance of a diverse range of composers shows that she uplifts silenced and underrepresented voices. Her contribution of original compositions for this occasion, “Himno Panamericano,” and “Honor a Trujillo,” not only shows musical virtuosity, but also a willing spirit to participate in diplomacy and international relations. 

Recital program, detailing the composers and pieces she performed, including her originals.
Program featuring Lillian Evanti and John Hoskins, Union of American Republics, 1946, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Box 32 Folder 29.

While researching Lillian Evanti, both for this blog post and for my group mapping project, I found myself confused and frustrated at the fact that recordings of Lillian Evanti singing either do not exist, or are extremely hard to come by. It made me wonder why such a prominent and successful singer was not documented in this way. In just a few simple google searches, I found recordings from two other female opera singers who were contemporaries of Lillian Evanti. So why are there no recordings of Evanti even though her contemporaries received this kind of documentation and legacy? Of course, I cannot say the true answer because I do not know. But I can only speculate as to why Evanti’s legacy lives on in pictures rather than audio. Even if she was a famous performer and traveled the world giving performances, the fact still remains that she was African-American. Her success was revolutionary and a great step towards diversifying the Western canon, but unfortunately her identity as a member of a marginalized community may have contributed to her lack of existent audio recordings compared to her contemporaries. While you might not immediately think about the repercussions of something that happened 80-100 years ago, this proves that the effects of racism and inequity are still felt today, as now we cannot truly discover the legacy of Lillian Evanti. We can read reviews of so many concerts, recitals, and other performances telling us how beautiful and lyrical her voice was, but as far as I know, we will never be able to hear her voice and understand part of why she was so successful.

Citations included in photo captions.

White Men Writing and Performing Minstrel Songs? What Could Go Wrong?

TW: blackface, racist language, minstrelsy, violence, misogyny

To any sane, sensible, and empathetic person alive today, minstrelsy is one of the great failures and shames of American history. The degrading songs and performances are deeply uncomfortable and disturbing to listen to, watch, or relive, and the lasting impacts (known, unknown, or purposefully ignored) continue to cause harm today.1 But we still study this phenomenon, whether in caution of reliving the past or perhaps to work toward bringing power back to those robbed of it.

Sheet music cover for “I’ll Make Dat Black Gal Mine,” featuring a portrait of George H. Primrose in blackface.
Charles B. Ward, I’ll make dat black gal mine. (New York, New York: T.B. Harms & Co., 78 East 22nd St., 1896). https://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/performance/72601

In its heyday, the worst of minstrel songs actively contributed to the formation of racist and sexist ideals of white Americans toward Black Americans. “I’ll make dat black gal mine,” written by Charles B. Ward and recorded in 1921 by Harry C. Browne2, is an example of the worst. With incredibly racist, sexist, and generally problematic lyrics by David Reed, and an almost satirical melody and accompaniment, this song perpetuates harmful stereotypes and shows blatant disrespect for black people. The song’s main theme features a wildly ambitious speaker who will do everything in his power to “win dat gal,” despite the protests of her father. Not only is the gal in question, Caroline, treated as property and some kind of prize to win, but the speaker will even resort to violent, racially-charged murder in order to “steal away” Caroline. The casual threats of murder and violence, the constant use of slurs, and the disregard for female autonomy (not to mention a white performer in blackface) all characterize black people as sub-human and undeserving of respect, contributing to the harmful racist rhetoric ever-prevalent in minstrelsy.

The music itself supports the mockery and comedic ridicule by providing a cartoonish, threatening and creeping accompaniment in a sort of “oom-pah” style. The recording provided by the Library of Congress3 (originally published by Columbia records) features a vocalist with banjo (both performed by Harry C. Browne) accompanied by an orchestra. Browne sings with a heavy baritone sound, prominent vibrato, and tall vowels, plucking his banjo with an almost comedic twang and liveliness. 

The first page of music, showcasing its accompaniment style and disrespectful lyrics.
Charles B. Ward, I’ll make dat black gal mine. (New York, New York: T.B. Harms & Co., 78 East 22nd St., 1896). https://levysheetmusic.mse.jhu.edu/performance/72601

White men like Charles B. Ward, David Reed, and Harry C. Browne writing and performing this awful song is not only harmful to the black people it mocks, threatens, and disrespects, but also to its white audiences, because it condones the same attitude and behavior from them. It is bad enough that a song this horrible was theorized, composed, and recorded, but then perhaps it became popular, which is even worse. Once it is popular, white listeners are subject to the song’s message, which tells them it is okay to treat black people as objects. Presenting these harmful images creates a never ending cycle of internalized and institutionalized racism and misogyny, which unfortunately has not left our culture yet. One can only hope that education has brought more awareness to the disgrace that was/is minstrelsy, and that folks today recognize how cruel and inhumane this genre continues to be to Black Americans.

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In! They Carried Toys and Propaganda!

In 1914, during World War I, an appeal was published in the Chicago Herald, asking American children to donate toys, sweets, and money to suffering children in Europe whose Christmases that year surely would not be as joyful. These donations traveled to Europe on the U.S.S. Jason, a Navy fuel/cargo ship, branded for this special journey as “The Christmas Ship,” or, “The Santa Claus Ship.” This appeal soon became a national movement, gathering involvement from the Red Cross and other organizations, and meriting a song to be widely performed (often by the children themselves!) to persuade children to donate gifts. This song was called “Hurrah! Hurrah for the Christmas Ship!”1 and it was written by Henry S. Sawyer, who was a composer of popular piano and vocal music at the time (see on IMSLP, his incredibly problematic “Os-Ka-Loo-Sa-Loo,” among others). The song features a cheerful melody and inspiring words. It appeals to a child’s sense of wonder at the wideness of the world and the magic of Christmas, but the lyrics also raise some issues in terms of perpetuating propaganda. 

The front cover to Hurrah! Hurrah for the Christmas Ship. Notice the whimsical sailboat with Santa himself at its helm.
Henry S. Sawyer, Hurrah! Hurrah for the Christmas Ship. (Chicago, Illinois: McKinley Music Company, 1914).

The European children are referred to as “poor,” and “suffering,” implying not only their financial hardship but also poverty of spirit. The lyrics reference the “terrors” these children endure, including “fire, gun, and sword,” and homelessness. A written message on the back cover also contributes to harmful and sexist gender norms, asking girls to sew things then sell them, and asking boys to do chores and run errands for money. 

The actual “Christmas Ship,” A.K.A. The U.S.S. Jason, in November 1914. Not very whimsical, and presumably no Santa to be found.
Green, Mike. USS Jason (Fuel Ship #12) underway. Photograph. Nov 14, 1914. Library of Congress, LC-B2- 3291-3. http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/02/09021220.jpg (Accessed October 19, 2022).

However sweet the gesture and movement is, these descriptions contribute to the propaganda of wartime morale songs. While the lyrics do not directly insult enemies, the propaganda comes in the form of asking for money and instilling nationalism. If nothing else, this song trains American children that giving money during wartime is an important thing you must do for your country. Especially considering that 30 years later, many of these children will grow up to be adults during World War II, where money-pandering was a huge part of American propaganda. By asking American children to effectively be Santa Clause, this song could contribute to a superiority or savior complex that could result in nationalist ideals.  

People packing boxes of gifts for the Christmas Ship ahead of its departure.
Bain News Service, Publisher. Packing for Christmas Ship. 1914. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014697999/.

Despite the propaganda, this effort was received very well by Europe. In an article published in November 1914 in the New York Times2
, the author reports that “the citizens of Greater Plymouth [England] manifested in every possible manner the heartfelt appreciation of the 6,000,000 Christmas gifts sent by the people of the United States to the unfortunate children in the war zone.” The receiving countries hosted banquets in honor of the ship’s arrival, and telegrams were exchanged on both sides. The ship’s arrival was met with excitement and gratitude, so clearly the propaganda worked. While this movement was a sweet idea, the execution perpetuates the nationalist propaganda that runs rampant during the wartime era, indoctrinating children into the compulsion to give money and ultimately fund the war effort.

“…subordinate to a central spirit”: An 1854 Concert Review Rooted in Christian Communism

An article published in the June 17, 1854 edition of The Circular reviews a recent choral and orchestral performance at New York City’s Crystal Palace 1, an exhibition venue built to rival London’s own Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace opened in 1853, but was soon closed in 1854 due to financial constraints. Just four years later in 1854, the building and all its contents burned down.2

John Bachman, Birds Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs, 1853. Hand-colored lithograph. The Museum of the City of New York, 29. 100.2387. Image and caption from the Bard Graduate Center’s Exhibition: “New York Crystal Palace 1853.”

The Circular, a community-written and edited newspaper, makes sure to emphasize its values to its readers. The front page of this edition features the newspaper’s “fundamental principles,” “leading topics,” and “general platform,” all emphasizing a devotion to the Christian faith and the institution of Communism and Socialism.

An excerpt from this edition of The Circular‘s front page, detailing their mission and values. “Music in the Crystal Palace.” Circular (1851-1870), Jun 17, 1854. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/music-crystal-palace/docview/137665576/se-2.

Later on, the publication features a positive review of a concert performed by the “Musical Congress,” under the direction of Louis-Antoine Jullien. The review details the pieces performed, such as Handel’s Messiah, and, in an interesting bit of foreshadowing, an original composition by M. Jullien entitled, The Fireman’s Quadrille. According to the review, Jullien’s piece tells a story of a fire and the firefighters’ heroism, “expressing in music the silence of the night, the alarm, the rush of engines, the crackling of the fire, crash and falling of buildings, the final victory of the firemen.” The author seems entranced by M. Jullien, even calling his baton a “wand,” implying a sense of magic to his conducting. Read the sheet music for The Fireman’s Quadrille here.3

A colored lithograph of Monsieur Louis-Antoine Jullien by Edward Morton, after Alfred Edward Chalon. Edward Morton, “Louis Antoine Jullien,” digital image, National Portrait Gallery, 1840s, accessed October 3, 2022, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image/?mkey=mw195155.

But perhaps the most interesting part is the author’s thoughts on Christian Communism as it relates to the performance. They speak of the performance as a “splendid exhibition of unity, and of difference in unity.” Their remarks center around one specific idea, that each musician is bound to a sense of togetherness, in that each part of the music is essential to creating the whole sound. The author remarks on hearing the orchestra producing one whole sound, as if it was coming only from one instrument, which they relate to Christian Communisim by saying, “In all this was represented the harmonizing of different gifts in the church.” The author remarks that thousands of people attended this concert, each presumably leaving the venue with different thoughts on the concert they just heard. Who knows how many of them would have left making connections to Christian Communism, and how many would have heard the same unity and, well, communism in the harmonies of the music that this author did?

1“Music in the Crystal Palace.” Circular (1851-1870), Jun 17, 1854. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/music-crystal-palace/docview/137665576/se-2.

2 Henry Raine, “What was the New York Crystal Palace, and where was it located?,” New York Historical Society Museum and Library, January 12, 2012, video, 1:00, https://www.nyhistory.org/community/new-yorks-crystal-palace

3 Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The fireman’s quadrille” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-cf65-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

An Exploitative Explorer: Émile Petitot’s Legacy

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, pedophilia, sexual trauma

I found this manuscript 1 by Émile Petitot, a French missionary who conducted research among the Indigenous peoples of Northern Canada. His work looks much like that of Frances Densmore, with transcriptions of musics that he observed within the tribes. Accompanying each transcription is the tribe it comes from, a note about what kind of song/dance/game it is, and occasional extra notes. For example, in the screenshot provided, Petitot provides the tribe, “Tchippewayans,” (or Chippewa/Ojibwa), the type of song, “jeu de mains” (hand game- perhaps hand clapping?), and notes below explaining how they whistle the melody through their teeth, and that this example is possibly of Cree origin, though I could be translating the French incorrectly (Petitot, 3). 

A sample of Petitot’s manuscript, Chants Indiens Du Canada Nord-Ouest, from 1862-1892, 1899. 

Petitot completed significant research on the native languages of Northern tribes, and according to Savoie in 19822, it “remains the best in the field” (Savoie, 446). But however groundbreaking or useful Petitot’s research was, his treatment of the Indigenous people was less than stellar. His notes seem to be overtly subjective and somewhat condescending, and according to Lévy,3 he also showed concerning sexual desires. He was rumored to engage in sexual relations with “young indigenous people,” as well as a woman who became so uncomfortable she attempted “self-circumcision as a way of suppressing his sexual desires” (Lévy, 2014). Clearly his methods were exploitative and harmful to those around him. Lévy also mentions that these acts eventually caught his missionary order’s attention in France, so he was exiled back home to write his “ethnographic and geographical” work (Lévy, 2014).

Petitot, wearing a priest’s collar 4

His research, controversy, and legacy is still discussed. In 2001, Struzik wrote an article 5 in the Edmonton Journal (Alberta, Canada) about the returning controversy surrounding Petitot. Buildings and parks named after him were quickly being renamed at the request and vote of Indigenous voices. Struzik exposes both sides of the controversy surrounding his sexuality and divergent sexual habits (Struzik, 2001). There are those who still consider him a genius for his work and research, and there are many who expose him for his exploitation, abuse, and madness. Some would say that any press is good press, but with all of his controversy exposed and the reason for his exile laid out in the open, I would say the legacy Petitot leaves behind is not one to be celebrated. 

1 Petitot, Émile. Chants Indiens Du Canada Nord-Ouest. 1862-1892, 1899. Manuscript. Mackenzie: The Newberry Library, 2022. American Indian Histories and Cultures. Medium, https://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Images/Ayer_MS_715/2. (accessed September 21, 2022)

2 Savoie, Donat. “Emile Petitot (1838-1916).” Arctic 35, no. 3 (1982): 446–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40509367.

3 Lévy, Joseph. “Éros Et Tabou. Sexualité Et Genre Chez Amérindiens Et Les Inuit.” Recherches Amérindiennes Au Québec 44, no. 2 (2014): 170-174. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/éros-et-tabou-sexualité-genre-chez-amérindiens/docview/1681918022/se-2.

4 Image from ‘The Amerindians of the Canadian Northwest in the 19th Century, as seen by Emile Petitot. Volume 1: The Tchiglit Eskimos,’ found on Inuvialuit Living History (https://www.inuvialuitlivinghistory.ca/wiki_pages/Father%20%20%C3%89mile%20Petitot).

5 Struzik, Ed. A genius … and a pariah: Emile Petitot left a legacy of controversy in Canada’s Arctic. Online Archive. Edmonton: CanWest Interactive, 2001. Edmonton Journal (Alberta). Medium, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:45HN-N1D0-003N-14GF-00000-00&context=1516831.(accessed September 21, 2022).