One Letter’s Scope

Florence Price ((1887–1953) was an accomplished American composer, writing four symphonies and concertos, organ, chamber, and voice music. Her music and life tell a story of success but also hardship. One letter she wrote in particular speaks to the difficulties Price faced as a Black woman composing and publishing classical music. Price wrote to the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, to ask him to look over one of her symphonies and consider it for performance. This letter begins as follows,


“My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps— those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content;—until you shall have examined some of my work? As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”


What can we learn about Price and her music from this letter that we cannot get from other sources? This letter clearly delineates, in her own words, how racism and sexism affected Price. In an article on Price, which begins by analyzing this very letter, Samantha Ege states that “Price’s letter exemplifies the ways in which her desire to elevate her work on a prestigious platform, access this traditionally white male territory, and invest greater time in cultivating her craft was also controlled by what these ideas meant for a woman composer of African descent in early mid-twentieth-century America.” 


To fully understand the influence and life of Price, this blog post would have to be a lot longer (probably book length). However, this short excerpt from one of her letters gives us a glimpse into the past, and enables us to better understand the present. I had never heard of Price until I got to college. In fact, as Ege also comments, there seems to be an assumption that women didn’t really compose before the 21st century, an assumption that is now slowly shifting due to cultural movements to diversify our understanding of musical history. In our discussions of what is “American music” it is always necessary to analyze the fact that our histories have purposefully written out those deemed to be “other”. This “othering” must continue to be challenged. As Ege writes,


“A commitment towards more diversified narratives can ensure that our present era affords women composers of the past—albeit posthumously—a much-deserved platform for their musical output and access, mobility, and agency in spheres that once excluded them from opportunity. Steps in this direction cannot change the circumstances experienced by such women, but recognize, at the very least, that for those who lived unapologetically and composed passionately, now is surely their time.”


To end this blog post I would like to suggest you go read Ege’s short article on Florence Price. She elegantly and much more comprehensively analyzes how Price’s music fits within the American musical canon, interwoven with a short biographical description of her life and works. The article will be linked below!



Ege, S. (2018). Florence Price and the Politics of Her Existence. The Kapralova Society Journal.


Peebles, S. L. (2008). The use of the spiritual in the piano works of two african american women composers—Florence B. price and margaret bonds (Order No. 3361197). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304528797). Retrieved from

Minstrel Songs, the Whitewashing of Lyrics, and Erasure of History

Oh Susanna is a song I personally remember singing in my childhood, during daycare, summer camps, and elementary school. So, when I learned in class that Oh Susanna is a song written for minstrel shows in the mid 1800s and has extremely racist origins I wanted to do a deeper dive on the history of minstrel songs that are still sung today, and learn more about why said songs have had such an effect on our culture.

The first thing that I learned when researching was that Oh Susanna was one of the first popular ‘American’ songs to be published- there were over 100,000 copies sold, where before no song had sold more than 5,000. Many articles I read stated that minstrel songs had been considered in the early 1800s to be America’s purest or singular musical contribution to the world. This is obviously not true. But, the fact that minstrel troupes and songs were published internationally and minstrel shows were extremely popular forms of entertainment led to this genre of music having a great impact on American culture. An article written by Dr. Katya Ermolaeva on the history and impact of songs such as Oh Susanna and Camptown Races states, “Minstrelsy left an indelible mark on the American music and entertainment industries”. The first ever film with sound in America, The Jazz Singer (1927), was a story of a singer who wanted to work in a minstrel troupe.

Why are these songs are still taught and sung by people often, and why were they so popular? The answer to that question is complex, but I would like to focus on a singular issue- the whitewashing of their lyrics. Oh Susanna’s original lyrics include racist slurs and is written in a stereotyped black dialect common in minstrel shows of the mid 1800s. Ermolaeva explains how, throughout the decades of the 20th century, due to the civil rights movement and growing social justice movements, minstrelsy and blackface became more and more unacceptable in society. But, instead of being removed entirely from songbooks and soundtracks, minstrel songs and stereotypes merely became more and more subtle. Ermolaeva discusses such a change in the context of the minstrel song also still popular today: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. “ The mythologizing of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as a tune celebrating American values has continued into recent decades. When Smithsonian Folkways reissued Seeger’s recording in 1990, the liner notes touted the “democratic passion” of folk revivalists to include the “music of working-class Americans” as part of the “national cultural conversation.” The Black Americans represented in “Railroad,” however, barely had any rights as laborers in railroad camps and arguably still lack basic rights as Americans today.”

The fact that minstrel songs are still sung and accepted as unproblematic additions to the  ‘American music canon’ is incredibly distressing. I would like to finish this blog post with Ermolaeva’s words, which I think speaks to our responsibility to work towards never letting these songs with their racist pasts exist unchallenged. Ermolaeva states, “Removing minstrel songs from children’s music programs will not undo the damage already done by blackface minstrelsy. Their removal, however, would serve as an acknowledgment of the damage wrought by these songs and a pledge to no longer promote that legacy. Our children won’t know the difference now, but one day they will be grateful for our efforts to rid their classrooms — and their childhoods — of racist songs…”



Ermolaeva, K. (2019, November 7). Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class. Medium.

Oh! Susanna. (1848). The Library of Congress.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 14). Oh! Susanna. Wikipedia.!_Susanna

Dissonant Perceptions of Black Music in the Early 1900s

There is something inherently dissonant about perceptions of blackness in the artistic community before the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In certain circles, white musicians and writers  seemed to have collective understanding and appreciation for African-American music.

In an interview published as far back as 1893, renowned European musician Antonin Dvorak openly claimed that “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” The article from the Cleveland Gazette  is boldly titled, Negro Melodies: Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition. The obvious placement of value on Black music seems at odds with the events going on in the late 1800s and early 1900s- during the time of Jim Crow and the height of the anti-lynching movement. 

It seems at once that Dvorak’s opinion was both common among Eastern Europeans in America and, as the piece describes, “radical”- however, in the context of other articles sharing the sentiment, it is rather ordinary: fellow musician Giacomo Minkowsky was interviewed for the Portland New Age in an article titled, GIACOMO MINKOWSKY: Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.

The two pieces share something in common apart from the explicit theme and school of thought: an undertone of dissonant attitudes and ideas regarding blackness. 

For instance, Minkowsky is quoted in the interview saying, “I have come to the conclusion that the cradle of American music lay below Mason and Dixon’s line, and that it is the Negro to whom we owe the series of melodies comprising our national music.” Later in the article, he claims, “It is the Negro who is the innovator in this country in “syncopated” meter.”  

Only a few paragraphs later, he goes on to berate his contemporaries, many of whom were Black, and state that the merit of “these [Black] melodies” is their originality, and “primitiveness”: “….I cannot say that our composers in their treatment of these melodies have in any way improved them. In their primitive state they had, as I said before, the merit of originality, a merit which they lost on account of unskilled treatment.” 

The article closes with Minkowsky calling ragtime music “mutilated forms of it [original negro melodies].” “If asked today whether these ‘ragtime’ songs actually represented American music, I would answer: No; they are but the mutilated forms of it; for the genuine popular music you must go back to the old Negro melodies. We have abandoned our sources merely to go back to them again.” One might take this to mean that the “Negro songs” and “melodies” mentioned throughout the article, as being the foundation of American music, are only those he deems of value and artistic merit. 

While Dvorak does not go on to rebuke his Black contemporaries, this might be only because he does not comment on Black performances, or Black music as played by Black people. He praises the importance of “Negro melodies”; “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies.” Only to later divulge, “When the Negro minstrels are here again I intend to take my young composers with me and have them comment on the melodies.” Minstrel shows were inherently racist and anti-black from their conception. The entire premise is humor in the form of ridiculing Black people, while wearing blackface. 

These two articles exhibit a classic form of American racism:  disenfranchising and expropriating the art and music of Black people, to conceptually separate Black people from Black art.



“Giacomo Minkowsky Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.” Portland New Age, 10 Nov. 1900, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, 

“Negro Melodies. Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition To.” Cleveland Gazette, 3 June 1893, p. 1. Readex: African American Newspapers,

Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare

Felix Arndt’s piece Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare, takes works by classical composers Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Sinding and rearranges them in a rag style, which was a popular musical genre in the early 1900s. Rag or ragtime is a musical genre that originated from and was created in African American communities. Rag can be identified by its syncopated rhythms and “ragged beat”. Rag was a precursor to the “swing” jazz and Blues, both musical traditions deeply rooted in Black culture, that developed throughout the 1910s and later years of the 20th century.

Scott Joplin, one of the first well-known composers of ragtime music and known as “The King of Ragtime”, stated the following in an interview for the newspaper New York Age: “that there had been “ragtime” music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago[in the 1890s].’” 

Joplin was referring in part to the white composers and bands beginning to arrange their own ragtime music in the 1910s and 20s, and also to the rising popularity of ragtime being played in minstrel shows; “entertainment” in which actors or singers performed in blackface and utilized racist stereotypes in typically comedic skits at the expense of black people. 

The increase in popularity of African American musical genres was met with opposition by many upper and middle class white people. This was especially true in the classical music sphere. A strong indication of this cultural sentiment is the presence of a counter culture to resist it, however superficial and performative some aspects of the movement might be. 

Arndt was a white, middle class, classical pianist, and, even if he obviously has an appreciation for ragtime, it is evident he had no intention of furthering recognition and appreciation for black art-forms in the mainstream.

Desecration Rag, published in 1914, contained the subtle subtitle “Introducing ragtime perversions of “Humoresque (Dvorak)…””. The syncopated, ragtime beats Arndt included in his work were labelled a “perversion” of classical music, and thus, a “classical nightmare”, by no other than himself and his production team. Even in modern times, one could easily identify it as a shock-value publicity stunt. 

To provide ragtime the same respect classical is given in the “mainstream”, is a tangentially different objective from instigating fear of the desecration of classical music.

If an artist sought to celebrate dialects, they would not call them a “Desecration of  the English Language”, as that would elicit an immediate negative response, and attract “purists”. An artist would only do this to create controversy, an endeavor most lucrative in the artistic profession. 

What Arndt’s piece elicited was the expected reaction from both conservative and more liberal white audiences, a reaction that entirely relies on anti-blackness, elitism, and young artists rebelling against the status quo. Arndt was not publishing this record in recognition of the brilliance of ragtime, or to empower those who pioneered it; he was just taking advantage of white middle class fears to evoke an emotional response from an early 20th Century audience, which now paints a staggeringly clear picture of racism in America. 


Arndt, F. & Arndt, F. (1914) Desecration rag A classic nightmare. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 24). Ragtime. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from

The Role of Christian Music in Cultural Cleansing

In class we have been studying how missionaries and colonizers brought English music, specifically sacred music, to the “New World”. The colonizers installed missionary schools to teach Native Americans how to sing hymns and psalmody. Christian music was also taught to African slaves.

These topics and histories led me to question the role music played in colonization and slavery. What was the purpose of teaching Christian music to non-Christians? 

The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes has helped me investigate this question and opened a door to a wealth of sources that depict the various ways Christian music has been weaponized as a tool of indoctrination.  

Published in the Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register on the 20th of May, 1844, The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes gives modern scholars an insight into the purpose behind this practice, and the reason why a magazine article would deem this article relevant to its readers.  

This literature also stands as testament to the historical trend of American Christians weaponizing religious music to dominate, disenfranchise, and uproot the cultures of non-Christians of color. 

The correspondence was written by a church musician who taught African slaves Gregorian chant on a plantation in the South, claiming that learning this music will be to their benefit.

“The benefits of all this to the negroes you will appreciate without my pointing them out. To learn so much, at once of Scripture and of the Church service; to learn it in a way to imprint it indelibly on their memories, and to have it ever at hand for their instruction, warning, comfort, and devotional use…”.

Gregorian Chant, which is taught orally and sung in unison,  is said to give comfort and purpose to those who learn it, according to the people who were deeply involved in the business of slavery and proselytization. 

There is very little literature confirming this that was not written for and by slavers and clergymen at the time; and it is likely that these ‘benefits’ were greatly exaggerated, as Gregorian chant also served to familiarize “new Christians” with scripture, which they learned and potentially memorized through active participation in worship service in the form of collective singing.  What the article provides is, in fact, a ‘helpful guide’ to the Gregorian chant as a reliable method of forced assimilation: most writings about the subject focus on the practicality of teaching Gregorian chant to slaves as a gateway into re-culturing those who they deemed uncultured. 

The author cites its singular ability to be taught to those who are “unacquainted with music”, blatantly contradicting his own assessment that “the religious songs which they [enslaved Africans] are now accustomed to” were, in fact, music.

In an eerily similar fashion to the missionary schools put in place to erase Native Americans through cultural as well as ethnic cleansing; the magazine writers seem more invested in diminishing these individuals’ cultural identities, as an entire new mechanism of exerting control, than in ‘gifting them salvation’.






THE GREGORIAN CHANTS–THEIR INTRODUCTION AMONG THE NEGROES. (1844, 05). Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register (1842-1853), 21, 45. Retrieved from