National Folk Festival of 1937

In searching the Chicago defender, I was curious to find any information about Frances Densmore’s colleagues. In my previous blog post, I researched James Mooney, an ethnographer of the 19th century, but I wanted to search for other scholars who worked directly with Densmore. Additionally, I was interested in what kinds of projects Densmore was involved in other than Indigenous song collection.

I found a newspaper clipping from 1937 that gives insight into Densmore’s career while giving the names of her colleagues at the time. The clipping announced the staging of the first National Folk Festival to be held in the north for May 22nd through May 28th, 1937. The National Folk Festival is a folk festival that has been run by The National Council for the Traditional Arts since 1934, with the first performance held in St. Louis, Missouri. It celebrates multi-cultural performances, and many prominent musicians, such as W.C. Handy have performed at the festival. The newspaper clipping outlines its purpose as the following:

The objective of the festival has been summed up as: “to bring together in a colorful, joy-giving National Folk festival the native and traditional Folk arts which, for centuries, have refreshed the hearts of the American people in the various sections of our land.”

Listen to a recording of the Metropolitan Community Church Choir perform “Fare Ye Well” at the festival in 1937:

Below is a photo of an Irish group from Chicago rehearsing for the 1944 Folk Festival.

The article lists Densmore as one of the sixty members of the national committee, along with another familiar name that Music345 has engaged with, George Pullen Jackson. Jackson was an American musicologist who studied hymnody, and as the class remembers from our past discussions, had racist opinions of the origins of spirituals. Although it is unclear based on this article alone how much contact Jackson and Densmore had, they did end up on this same committee. Did they exchange ideas and influence each other? What were their motivations to be on the committee? This newspaper article reminds researchers of the importance of investigating the motivations of scholars and considering the overlap in ideas.

National Folk Festival newspaper clipping

Works Cited

“A Brief History of the National Folk Festival.” Ncta-Usa. Accessed December 14, 2021.

Ferrell, John, photographer. Washington, D.C. Irish group from Chicago rehearsing for the National Folk Festival. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1942. May. Photograph.

Metropolitan Community Church Choir, and Sidney Robertson Cowell. Fare Ye Well. Audio.

“National Folk Festival to be Staged in the North for First Time, may 22: People from all Over U. S. Will Come to Orchestra Hall with Songs of their Communities.” 1937.The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), May 22, 3.

Pegg, Carole, Philip V. Bohlman, Helen Myers, and Martin Stokes. “Ethnomusicology.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals : Their Life Span and Kinship, Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, with 116 Songs as Sung by Both Races New York: J. J. Augustin, 1944.

Jackson, Richard. “Jackson, George Pullen.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.




Ethnography in the Late 19th Century

When learning more about Indigenous music in the U.S., it is nearly impossible not to come across the work of Frances Densmore. An ethnographer from Red Wing, Minnesota, Densmore spent more than 50 years collecting Indigenous song for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnography. Students hear a lot about Densmore’s work, but what other ethnographic work was out there around the same time, and how does it compare to Densmore’s? What does their work tell us about the field as a whole, and what did they do well, or what could have been done better?

To delve into these questions, I investigated the life and work of James Mooney, an ethnographer born in 1861 known as “The Indian Man”. Although he didn’t collect songs from Indigenous peoples, his work paralleled that of Densmore’s in that his writings were published by the Smithsonian Institution and he collected for the World’s Fair.

A newspaper clipping written by Lida Rose McCabe describes Mooney’s fieldwork:

In pursuing his work among the tribes Mr. Mooney wears Indian dress, and accommodates himself to the family life. In speaking of this he said to me: “Unless you live with a people you cannot know them. It is the only way to learn their ideas and study their character.

In comparison to Densmore, Mooney’s work was more more focused to a handful of groups, whereas Densmore collects from many groups across the country. Due to Mooney’s smaller group of study, he had the time to develop a deeper understanding of one’s culture and customs while forming relationships with members of the tribe.

However, this does not automatically make all of his work ethical. McCabe writes of his work:

Mr. Mooney’s special business during the last year has been to collect for the Smithsonian World’s Fair exhibit specimens of the domestic and industrial work of the Navajo and Moqui tribes. The esteem in which he is held by the Indians has enabled him to secure everything he desired.

Although Mooney likely cared for the Indigenous people he spent time with, and they likely cared for him, does this mean that he has permission to displace their cultural objects and display them for others? Additionally, we don’t know how comfortable tribes felt sharing objects with him, or to what extent sharing impacted their life:

He carries his own camera, but it has to be used cautiously. Only the stanchest friendship justifies him in asking an Indian to pose for his picture, for it is an article of the Indian’s faith that but such an act he loses part of his personality, and is therefore very likely to suffer sickness or even death.

Although someone outside of a particular tribe may see a particular object as interesting or worthy of study, the collection of an item may have caused very real consequences to those who shared that object. To combat this these injustices today, we can look towards repatriation initiatives, and be vigilant of the greater context surrounding ethnography.

Works Cited

Parker, Ely Samuel (1828-1895). 1828-1894. Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 11. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed November 23, 2021].

Rhodes, Willard. “Densmore, Frances.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 23 Nov. 2021.

William Grant Still “On Composing for the Harp”

In previous blogposts, classmate Abigail Davis explored the relationship between ideas of harp playing and race in her posts “The Harp: Do You See it as a White Instrument” part I and II. As I was searching for primary source materials for this blogpost, I came across an article written by William Grant Still called “On Composing for the Harp”, which expands on Abigail’s research of non-Western harp instruments.

William Grant Still, an American composer and the first black American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, turned to his roots for musical inspiration. He rejected spirituals as a source for music because of the caucasian influence that was present in the genre, and instead took blues as his inspiration, as heard in Afro-American Symphony.

Listen for the 12 bar blues in the first movement:

When writing one of his compositions for harp, an instrument that he was not very familiar with, he turned to his African roots for inspiration, in particular one of the Nilotic African tribes. For the name of the composition, he used the title “Ennanga”, which is a bow harp that resembles an Egyptian harp. It is played on the performers lap, can be carried around, and found over many parts of Africa. Grant Still did not wish to imitate the sound of the ennanga, but he did intend to identify the harp instrument as an influential source for his composition.


In Grant Still’s article, he describes the importance that the title had to an audience member from Uganda:

A young man from Uganda came backstage to say that he recognized the word “ennanga” as belonging to his people, that he felt a kinship with the music, and that it reminded him of home. For him, at least, the music had accomplished its purpose.

In accounts like this one, we can see the importance of bringing into conversation a more encompassing history of the harp. Abigail started an important discussion in her blog posts, one that led to me challenge my initial association with the harp. Along with other primary sources like Grant Still’s writing, we can continue to explore the rich history and repertoire that is often left out of the canon.

Works Cited

Davis, A. (2021, September 27). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music.

Davis, A. (2021, October 18). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Part ii. Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music.

Ennanga: Fig.1: Ennanga [arched harp or bow harp], West Nile, Uganda, c1970. Edinburgh University. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2021, from

Grant, W. (2021). On composing for the harp. The American Harp Journal, , 36-37. Retrieved from

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Five Fairy Ballads”

In many African American music traditions that we have studied thus far, we have seen music as a tool of expression of joy, sorrow, or hope, to name a few. While this class has mainly focused on spirituals, popular music, and sacred music, I was interested in looking at African American expression in classical music. This brought me on a search for sheet music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, an English composer, conductor, and professor of music during the late 18th century and early 19th century. My question was, “how might Coleridge-Taylor choose to express the topic of race in a musical tradition in which white people have held the power?”.

After Coleridge-Taylor met the African American poet P.L. Dunbar in 1897, his music began to focus more on his heritage and his desire to “establish the dignity of African Americans” (Banfield), leading to works such as African Romances (1897) or African Suite for Pianoforte (1898), among others. The work of Coleridge-Taylor that I’m focusing on in this blog post, Five Fairy Ballads, was written in 1909 to poems by Kathleen Easmon, a friend of Coleridge-Taylor and the first West African to earn a diploma from the Royal College of Arts.

I thought that this work was interesting to investigate because of the clear way that Coleridge-Taylor is choosing to use the text of another artist with African heritage. Due to racism, classical music repertoire has been overwhelmingly white for most of its history, despite the fact that many black composers have created masterpieces. The classical music world still has a lot of work to do in terms of representation and inclusivity, but Coleridge-Taylor’s music, along with other BIPOC composers of his time, established that it should be a place for everyone. Five Fairy Ballads makes a space for African voices in a world that has silenced them, and invites others to join in.

Works Cited

Banfield, S., Dibble, J., & Laurence, A.  Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2021, from


Centering Black Voices

As evident in Southern’s book, The Music of Black Americans, music-making has always been an important part of African American culture in the United States. One aspect of Southern’s writing that I found particularly interesting was her use of newspaper articles to highlight the values of a certain time, and how they related to music. During the time of slavery in the United States, most of the newspaper ads were written from a white enslaver’s perspective, however, after the Civil War and the onset of African American-based newspapers, black American perspectives began to shine through. 


I chose to investigate a music advertisement from the Cleveland Gazette, published in 1883, that highlights this change in perspective. Bold letters that capture the audience’s attention read:

Lovers of music, secure at once a copy of the new edition of “Bright Eyes”.


Written by Cleveland Gazette editor Harry C. Smith, “Be True Bright Eyes” was a song for piano (or organ) with voice, and includes a score for four-part harmony. This push to buy piano and vocal music, in conjunction with other music related ads found in the Cleveland Gazette, such as the piano ad below, demonstrate the different types of music-making that black Americans participated in during this time period.

We have seen in Southern’s reading through newspaper ads that fiddle, banjo, and horn playing were popular instruments, and now through an African American lens, we also see the importance of piano playing with a vocal melody. Although primary sources written by white people, like the ads Southern uses, can give researchers important information, African American newspapers like the Cleveland Gazette are necessary sources to include in research because they highlight the narrative of black Americans. Researchers must always look to sources like the Cleveland Gazette that center black voices and experiences. 

Works Cited

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 3. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. “SMITH, HARRY CLAY,” May 11, 2018.

Smith, Harry C. Be True Bright Eyes. Smith, H. C., Cleveland, monographic, 1883. Notated Music.


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.


Louis Armstrong and the Traces of Minstrelsy

Louis Armstrong is perhaps one of the most well known and respected jazz musicians of all time. As a trumpet player and vocalist, he played a large role in the development of jazz, and his music had a lasting impact on the genre. He used his trumpet as an extension of his voice, popularized scatting after forgetting the words to “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926, and developed the individual solo aspect of jazz playing.1 With his soulful playing and cheerful stage presence, he captivated audiences around the globe.His contemporaries looked up to him for his artistry, although his music-making did not go without criticism from others. Known for his wide grin and cheerful, silly stage persona, as can be seen in this caricature drawn by Makoto Wada3, this aspect of Armstrong’s playing was controversial because it evoked traces of minstrelsy in his performance.



The 1932 short film, Rhapsody in Black and Blue, displays these traces well. Armstrong plays jazz in a dreamland called “jazz mania” while depicting African Americans as “savage” along with other stereotypes. As a response to Armstrong’s stage presence, Miles Davis said of him, “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.”, while others accused him of being an “Uncle Tom”.2


Although Armstrong may have depicted stereotypes while catering to a white audience, through his music, he was able to celebrate his black individuality. He used the roles as opportunities to advance his career, and as he gained popularity, he used his music as a form of protest. In 1931 after being arrested, put in jail, and then bailed out so he could perform, Armstrong dedicated the song “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You” to the Memphis Police Force.2 He later spoke out against segregation in the audience, losing many of the audience members who came to see him.2 Although Armstrong sought to entertain, above all he was proud of his heritage, outspoken in his individuality, and paved way for many other African Americans.




Music Shaped by Oppression

As Eileen Southern points out in The Music of Black Americans, African Americans had many opportunities to make music during colonial times, whether it be psalm singing, slave songs, or fiddle playing. Additionally, many enslaved people were valued for their musical abilities (Southern 26) due to a high demand for plantation dance fiddlers. While reading Southern’s chapter, it struck me that African Americans were able to learn new instruments by teaching themselves and practicing during odd hours of the day. Learning a new instrument is difficult enough the way it is, and even more so given the constraints imposed on them through slavery.

This brings up the point that much of African Americans’ music making was shaped by oppression. A common reason for fiddle playing in the first place was to fulfill the demand for colonists, and other music making was a response to oppression. African Americans had to learn new instruments because they did not have access to the ones they were accustomed to from their homeland, and they were given no other option but to find the time to practice during odd hours of the day. Additionally, they were forced to give up their native tongue.  This does not mean, however, that all of the music of black Americans was devoid of their African roots. There were many ways of infusing music with traces of Africa, whether this be with musical tools, imagery, or language. 

An excerpt from an 1847 magazine features a conversation about a slave song that highlights how the music of African Americans can be shaped by oppression, yet carry with it its roots:

This evening the female slaves were unusually excited in singing, and I had the curiosity to ask my negro servant Said, what they were singing about. As many of them were natives of his own country, he had no difficulty in translating the Mandara or Bornou language. I had often asked the Moors to translate their songs for me, but got no satisfactory account of them. Said at first said, ‘Oh! They sing of Rubee,’ (God.) ‘What do you mean?’ I replied impatiently. ‘Oh, you don’t know,’ he continued, ‘they asked God to give them their Atka!’ (certificate of freedom.) I inquired, ‘What else?’ Said: ‘They remember their country, Bornou, and say – Bornou was a pleasant country, full of all good things; but this is a bad country, and we are miserable!’ ‘Do they say anything else?’ Said: ‘No; they repeat these words over and over again, and add-O God! Give us our Atka, and let us return again to our dear home.’


Those who sung this song did so in their Native tongue, with references to their own religion and homeland. Although we can’t know what it sounds like, these markers in their language show how music continued to carry traces of Africa in it.

However, it is important to note that at its core, this song is still shaped by oppression because it functioned to comfort those who faced the horrors of slavery, and connect them to a homeland that they were torn away from. 



Boahen, A. Adu. “JAMES RICHARDSON: THE FORGOTTEN PHILANTHROPIST AND EXPLORER.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 1 (1964): 61–71.

J, G. WHITTIERNational Era. A Song of Sorrow: Song of the Slaves in the Desert. Christian Secretary (1822-1889), Feb 05, 1847. 4, (accessed September 26, 2021).

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.