A sample program from Haverly’s guide.
Blackface minstrelsy was the pinnacle of American entertainment for decades. In the early 19th century, white audiences and performers commodified and consumed Blackness by creating stereotypical characters. However, after the Civil War, minstrelsy evolved to remain relevant to the American public. I wrote in a previous blog post about how radio was minstrelsy’s medium in the 20th century. At the turn of the century, though, white troupe owners sought to keep minstrelsy relevant by a different medium: print.
J.H. “Jack” Haverly, a white show manager, is remembered by historians as minstrelsy’s most successful promoter. In 1902, Haverly published a guide to minstrelsy for aspiring performers. He offers advice on organizing a troupe, many suggestions for jokes and songs, and of course, advertising strategies. Continue reading
Portrait of Florence Price. Obtained from: Jesse Bobick, “Florence Beatrice Price: A Closer Look with Musicologist Douglas Shadle,” Naxos of America, accessed November 14, 2021, https://naxosusa.com/florence-beatrice-price-a-closer-look-with-musicologist-douglas-shadle/.
Florence Price is one of many early 20th century Black American composers who had to navigate creating “American” music. Price had added difficulty making a career out of composing in a white male-dominated field as a Black woman. Still, Price rose to prominence after winning the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest with her Symphony No. 1 in E minor and her piano Sonata in E Minor. This Chicago Defender article was published in 1935, three years after the awards it describes. The Wanamaker Contest was a competition sponsored by northern philanthropic donors to uplift Black composers.
Like the Wanamaker Contest itself, Price sought to introduce Black music to white audiences through classical idioms. Price was more subtle with how she incorporated Black music into her compositions than some of her colleagues. This more hidden approach led to criticism from some Black music critics. Many Harlem Renaissance thinkers believed using Black music in classical settings was a form of racial progress. However, Price found a delicate balance between predominantly-white concert spaces and Black folk music to create nationalist music. Continue reading
After our last class, I have been thinking about how early scholars of Indigenous music (like Frances Densmore) often come from outside of the Indigenous community. Densmore and others often receive praise for recording Indigenous music in a white savior sort of way. I found Emile Petitot’s transcription of Indigenous chants in what is now called Mackenzie, British Columbia, Canada. I was curious about who Petitot was, his relationship with the Indigenous tribes he studied, and what he sought to accomplish.
Petitot was a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, part of the Catholic Church, who left France for a 12-year mission. He was primarily interested in geography and ethnography of the regions he studied and wrote several books on translations of tribal languages to French, his visit to the Tchiglit Inuit, and cultural traditions of a half dozen other tribes. Continue reading
Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans
Illustration from the introduction of Paskman’s book.
Blackface initially used visuals to create an image of whiteness, deriving from a contrast with the Blackness portrayed on the stage. However, blackface has adapted to mass media to continue to survive through mediums like the radio. I was intrigued by a book of “new” minstrel music published in 1936 by Dailey Paskman. Paskman was a radio programmer and producer who founded the Dailey Paskman Radio Minstrels, whose popularity led them to vaudeville circuits. The introduction of this minstrel folio sheds light on how minstrelsy persisted through a medium without visuals.
In the introduction of his book, Paskman demonstrates his awareness that minstrelsy has changed to maintain an audience. He asserts that
“times and styles may change, but nature persists in reproducing the thoughts, the aspirations, and the accomplishments of mankind.”
Central to this quotation is the idea that minstrelsy is part of human nature, fighting against an unnamed enemy that resists this art form. This also implies that Paskman sees minstrelsy as an accomplishment worthy of being celebrated. Continue reading
CW: Racist representation of Black Americans
Newspapers are valuable resources for studying the public perception of musicians. (Yes, young people still know what newspapers are.) The writings of newspapers reflect their audience’s values. I found some articles mentioning singing sensations Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers: the Hyers Sisters. The duo started performing opera selections and art songs in the late 1860s, soon adding spirituals to their repertoire. However, by 1876, they ventured into musical theater, for which they are most known.
An article reviewing a performance of the Hyers’ Sisters drama “Out of Bondage.”
These Black newspapers offered much praise but did so in ways that reflect how the authors perceive the Hyers Sisters’ careers. This 1886 article, published in the Cleveland Gazette, reviews a performance of one of their old dramas. The author wrote that their theater company has the best Black musical and dramatic talent in the country, and they deserve a packed crowd everywhere they perform. Such high praise comes with a qualifier of race, asserting that the Hyers Sisters are great Black musicians rather than simply great musicians. Continue reading
Musicians’ public reception begins before they play a single note. The advertisements for their performances preview who they are and what kind of music they make. I was captivated by a poster for a Fisk Jubilee Singers concert between 1910 and 1950, designed by Winold Reiss. The artwork offers insight into who they were performing for and what themes the performance might have had.
Before I sought recordings from the performance, I researched Winold Reiss, the poster’s creator. Reiss immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1913, three years after the earliest possible date this advertisement was published.
Winold Reiss, “[Graphic Design for Fisk Jubilee Singers.] [Concert Poster with Harp and Mask Motif],” still image, last modified 1910, accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/ resource/ppmsca.64409.
While the Library of Congress lists 1910 as the earliest potential date of publication, the fact that Reiss had not yet moved to America makes this improbable. Still, he was devoted to non-white subjects, known for his portraits of the Blackfoot and Blood Indians of Canada and the northwestern United States. The Reiss Partnership summarizes the perspective he brought to his art, stating that,
“His idealism challenges the notion that as Americans we are anything less than “us,” a totality that includes rather than excludes.”
To be clear, Reiss should not be seen as a sort of white savior just for making art that centers Black and Indigenous folks. However, his idea of creating an inclusive American identity mirrors the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ history, and later, this poster.
We understand music through the lens of our identity and lived experiences. Musical narratives differ, and the predominantly-known history of music is written by those whose identities hold power by associating their idea of musical skill with the self.
I thought of Neil Rosenberg’s book on the development of bluegrass, which focused on the impact of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Rhiannon Giddens offers a more holistic perspective and insists that bluegrass is a blend of African, European, and Native traditions.
Musical histories like these are even harder to uncover when their records are further removed from the present and written by colonizers. One of those histories is that of the pre-Columbian Incan Empire in present-day “Peru.” Continue reading