Minstrelsy and Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”

This week I found some painfully real minstrel primary source material and just want to warn readers that I deal with some racist material in this blog post. I came across a minstrel song entitled “Isn’t it a Wonder?” which isn’t at all as innocent as the title sounds. Written in 1861 by Henry Wood, “Isn’t it a Wonder?” would have been performed at a minstrel show by Wood’s group, “Wood’s Minstrels.” It is written in a thick dialect, and is full of stereotypes. Blacks are compared to a variety of animals, and are portrayed as confused and unintelligent.

“Isn’t it a Wonder?”

The message of the song is made explicit in the last stanza. Wood encourages white audiences to adjust to the changing society and to stop trying to “kill the colored race.” It is important to note that this song was written in 1861 – marking the year Lincoln was inaugurated and the start of the Civil War. One possible interpretation of this song is that it highlights the fear and uncertainty that many whites felt about slavery coming to an end. Another interpretation is that it expresses the sick and twisted appreciation whites had for black culture, as it was useful for mockery, entertainment/minstrel shows, and to escape social norms.

Fast-forward 156 years. Jay-Z releases the music video for “The Story of O.J.” which uses many of the inaccurate techniques that minstrelsy did to portray black people. It is drawn in a black and white cartoon style, and presents the viewer with a flood of stereotypical images of black people — they are monkeys, slaves, jazz players, and football players just to name a few. The characters resemble old Disney cartoons, such as Steamboat Willie, which most likely had ties to minstrelsy. We understand this due to the white gloves, over exaggerated animalistic facial features, and caveman portrayal of a child playing the bones. So, why does Jay-Z use these stereotypes? And why now?

I believe Jay-Z’s use of these racist stereotypes found in minstrelsy highlights his message about race in America – we’re dealing with the same issues now. He also addresses the racism within the black community, and the struggle for financial freedom and responsibility. In this music video Jay-Z responds to one of the problems that minstrelsy and songs like “Isn’t it a Wonder?” pose– the comedic relief that blacks provide to white audiences. Jay-Z expresses that no matter what black people do they are still exploited for profit and treated as second class citizens.


Wood, Henry. Isn’t it a Wonder. 1961. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=F59V55CJMTUxMDgwMTg5MC44MDEyOTQ6MToxMzoxMzAuNzEuMjI4Ljgy&p_action=doc&p_docnum=2000&p_queryname=2&p_docref=v2:10D2F64C960591AE@EAIX-10F453B3EBFA3590@925-@1

Copland and Bernstein: two friends with diverging viewpoints on ‘American music’


Copland and Bernstein working together

It is no secret that Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland were great friends. Even though I had heard this going into my research, I had no idea to what extent the level of mutual investment and encouragement was! I was astounded and quite honestly touched to find the amount of loving correspondence that I did between the two composers. While there are extensive works devoted to both of their respective correspondences, I was particularly interested in a letter written by Copland to Bernstein that addresses their different viewpoints on American music.

In this letter, written December 7, 1938, Copland writes Bernstein with advice on Bernstein’s senior thesis at Harvard, which explores nationalism in American composition. His thesis, completed in 1939, is entitled “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music,” in which he proposes a new American nationalism — one that is defined by the way in which the composer blends their own heritage with “Negro” and “New England” musical traditions, as these form the “sociological backbone of the country.”1

1938 correspondence from Copland to Bernstein

In all of the correspondence I’ve read between the two, Copland shows his affection for Bernstein while also giving “grandfatherly advice,” as he calls it in this particular letter. His advice regarding Bernstein’s thesis in the letter at hand is as follows:

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because a Gilbert used Negro material, there was therefore nothing American about it. There’s always a chance it might have an ‘American’ quality despite its material.

This comment made me curious — what was Bernstein’s assertion about Gilbert, and who was this Gilbert anyway?

It turns out Henry F. Gilbert (1868-1928) was a composition student of Mcdowell’s, and was particularly interested in African-American music. Bernstein cites Gilbert’s Comedy Overture on Negro Themes and The Dance in the Place Congo in his thesis to make claims about American music. He asserts that these pieces contribute to the nationalistic process beginning in 1900, a process inspired by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, by engaging in artificial representation where “new indigenous materials were merely imposed upon an otherwise neutral kind of musical scheme.” Bernstein writes that despite Gilbert being a “sensitive and sound musician,” the way in which he incorporates ‘Negro’ material in his works is not American. 1
Here is a recording of Gilbert’s Comedy Overture on Negro Themes:

He complicates the definition of American music further when he categorizes the slow and lyrical sections of  the Comedy Overture on Negro Themes as European. He even writes that “There is no consequential development emerging inevitably from the thematic ideas themselves; there is no basic American “feeling.””1
So he is in fact defining American music by its
sound, which leaves me rather confused. Copland rather encourages him to look beyond the material, demonstrating that Copland has a much broader view of American music. He remarks that:

Composing in this country is still pretty young no matter how you look at it.

Copland has open arms when it comes to American compositions — an attitude which Bernstein does not share at this point in his life.

Note: The two were 18 years apart but died just 2 months apart — Bernstein at 72 and Copland at 90.


  1. Bernstein, Findings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
  2. Copland, Aaron. Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, December 7, 1938. In The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, edited by Elizabeth B Crist and Wayne Shirley. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.

The 20s and 30s: Dance bands not welcome at St. Olaf

Vinyls: “Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 20s and 30s”

As I sifted through the LPs in the Music Library’s vinyl collection, I was particularly drawn to a section on big bands. The two LPs that piqued my interest the most did not catch my eye because of their cover art, but rather their titles; “SWEET AND LOW BLUES: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 20s,” and “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s.” My first thoughts upon seeing these records were: 1. I know a little about big bands, right? and 2. What is a territory band?

“Jammin’ for the Jackpot”

These two vinyls are collections of popular territory band recordings from the 20s and 30, and inside each of them are extensive and informative essays on the history of territory/big bands. Today we are more familiar with the term big bands, but at the time these ensembles were called territory bands. Territory bands were regional dance bands in the Midwest, south, and southwestern states. Their principal function was to provide music for ballroom dancing, which was becoming increasingly popular in the 20s and 30s. From roughly the end of World War I until the Great Depression, dance orchestras in the United States grew in number, size, and popularity in response to this call for dance music. However, in the forward to “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s,”J.R. Taylor writes that, during this period,

“Jazz musicians were in frequent creative tension with the dance band industry – exploiting and expanding its musical resources, learning its professional lessons, earning its wages, and chafing under its difficult working conditions and many artistic restrictions.

This complicated relationship existed vice versa as well, because jazz soloists served as a creative source for dance band – the innovative phrasing, rhythms, and “the adaptations and assimilations from classical music,” (Taylor). However, it is important to note that not all territory bands or big bands were strongly jazz oriented – a detail that gets overlooked now as we tend to blend the genres of jazz, big band, and swing (I myself am guilty of making that generalization without thinking.)

Here is a digitized recording of “Madhouse” performed by Earl Hines and His Orchestra —  one of the tracks found on “JAMMIN’ FOR THE JACKPOT: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s,” so you can hear the style of music I am referencing.

Earl Hines and His Orchestra

By the time the Great Depression hit in the 30s the territory bands were failing to survive, as live music was replaced with the radio, and having a disposable income was no longer an option. While all of this was going on, back at St. Olaf a mysterious “L” was expressing their own opinion on jazz music and dancing in the Manitou Messenger. “L” calls the jazz band “contemptible,” “obnoxious,” and “profanity in music.” The author argues that the jazz band and jazz music do not correspond with the (Christian) spirit of St. Olaf College, and should thus be driven off the hill.

“L” does, however, recognize that jazz music naturally calls us to dance. They even pose the question “Why allow temptations such as this to exist?” if we know it’ll just make us want to get up and start dancing. Remember, dancing was forbidden at St. Olaf during this time. When you search the Manitou Messenger archives for “dancing” during this period it is consistently referred to as “folk-dancing” or “traditional-dancing” or “Norwegian-dancing” – safe forms of dancing that correspond with the mission of the college.

So, there’s quite a contrast between the popularity of ballroom dancing accompanied by touring territory bands in the 20s and 30s, and the nasty portrayal of jazz music and dancing by a student from St. Olaf. All I can do is wonder what “L” would think about our jazz bands and swing club.

Another example of taboo dancing in the Manitou Messenger. Taken from “Growing Pains,” published in 1935.


  1. “Territory Bands.” Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 4th ed.. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/epm/49928.
  2. Bradford Robinson. “Territory band.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J445200.
  3. Marc Rice. “Territory band.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2276655.
  4. Taylor, J.R. Jammin’ for the Jackpot: Big Bands and Territory Bands of the 30s.

William Arms Fisher’s “Goin’ home”: somehow a “Negro spiritual”

This week while browsing the Sheet Music Consortium my eye was caught by a particular title: “Goin’ home: Negro spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony, op. 95.” I was curious as to what this material could be – was the New World Symphony based on a spiritual?

William Arms Fisher

I was surprised to learn that this title was in fact invoking a song written to the music of the largo from Dvorak’s famous American symphony. The lyrics to “Goin’ home” were written and set to music by William Arms Fisher in 1922, after the premier of the “New World Symphony” in 1893. Fisher was a student of Dvorak’s at the National Conservatory, and later went on to become a music editor, historian, and songwriter. He wrote on the impact and importance of 18th and early 19th century American music, and also compiled anthologies of Irish songs and Negro spirituals. Fisher is however most well known for the setting of “Goin’ home” at hand.

In his forward to “Goin’ home,” Fisher writes about his inspiration for writing lyrics to go with the second movement of the New World Symphony:

“That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words “Goin’ home, Goin’ home” is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.”

“Goin’ home” title page

In this statement by Fisher, as in the symphony as a whole, we see a blending of genres, a crossing of Dvorak’s European symphonic traditions with pastoral and folk-y American inspiration. Fisher believed that the homesick, almost tragic qualities of the English horn melody in the largo movement embodied Negro spirituals, which thus called him to interweave the spiritual with the symphony. However, is “Goin’ home” a Negro spiritual if Fisher wrote the lyrics and Dvorak wrote the music?

This brings up the question of authorship for me, and the author’s/composer’s intentions while writing the music. First of all, Fisher chose to write the lyrics in a dialect, which was a conscious decision on his part. It seems to me like an effort to be more authentic and true to the style in which he was writing, a style rooted in a tradition and experience he did not share. Fisher’s outsider and dangerously essentialized perspective of black people is shown here in the introduction to his anthology entitled “Negro spirituals.” He writes that black people were:

“Given an ingenuous native capacity for rhythmic musical expression, the gift of improvisation, a primitive but intense emotionalism, a condition of life that ranged from the most naïve light-heartedness to tragic somberness, and an utter dependence for consolation upon faith in invisible realities, often tinged with lingering elements from a barbaric past, and you have that truly unique product – the Spiritual with its background of torch-lit groves, swaying bodies and half-closed eyes.”

Sheet music to “Goin’ home”

In this quote Fisher throws one stereotype after another at his reader, while attempting to recognizing the greatness of the genre. So since the spiritual is, as Fisher asserts, “a truly unique product” then why did Fisher not have any qualms about writing music for this genre? Lastly, as I watch videos and listen to recordings of “Goin’ home” being performed, I am reminded of the commercial purposes that this setting of text to already established music serves. The vocal version of this piece increases its accessibility, and provides many more opportunities for performance and commercial consumption. Fisher builds on the success of Dvorak, in a time where it would’ve been prudent to expand the boundaries of this symphonic work.


  1. Beckerman, Michael. “The Real Value of Yellow Journalism: James Creelman and Antonín Dvorák.” Musical Quarterly 77, no. 4 (1993): 749. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/742357.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A44e9b3926e7a50b8f624e4eafb225c8b
  2. Dvorak, Antonin and New W. Symphony. 95 Adelaide: Cawthornes Ltd, 1922. (retrieved October 23, 2017). http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-166692271/view?partId=nla.obj-166692390#page/n1/mode/1up
  3. Karl Kroeger. “Fisher, William Arms.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/0974
  4. “The Looking Glass.” The Crisis, February 1927, 210-11.
  5. “[Front Matter].” In Seventy Negro Spirituals, edited by William Arms Fisher, 1-42. Oropesa, Castilla-La Mancha: Oliver Ditson &, 1926. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C3399955

Pete Seeger: American or Un-American

Seeger performing on banjo

Growing up, every first Friday of the month my mom and I would go to folk music sing-a-longs with groups of her folk music loving friends. It was always a lot of fun; we sang great tunes by Pete Seeger, Bill Staines, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and much more, accompanied by guitars, drums, and fiddles. As a kid I always thought Pete Seeger embodied what it meant to “be American.” My mom worked with the Madison Folk Music Society, and actually met Pete Seeger a couple of times. Upon finding this video entitled “Folk singers linked to alleged ‘Communist Conspiracy’” I was shocked to learn that Pete Seeger was accused of being a communist (and didn’t deny it,) mostly because I had heard such negative things about the ideology and such positive things about Pete Seeger from my mom. I was surprised that she never mentioned this to me.

Many consider Pete Seeger to be the father of the folk music revival, and it’s no wonder why. He was born into a musical and pacifist family in 1919, and spent his adolescence playing the ukulele and four-string banjo. After dropping out of Harvard at 19 to become a journalist in New York, Seeger discovered he was talented at playing the five-string banjo and knew he wanted to learn more about folk music. He then worked for Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folksong at the Library of Congress. After meeting Woodie Guthrie in 1940 and traveling the country together playing music for gas money, Seeger and other folk musicians started Almanac Singers. This group aligned with left-wing social movements, as they specialized in anti-war and pro-union songs. A representative example of their political message is evident in the song “Which Side Are You On?” While this song was originally written as a union organizing song for miners enduring a violent struggle with mine owners, its lyrics fit very well with Seeger’s questioning of politics and his advocacy for radical social change. Here is a video with the original recording of the Almanac Singers “Which Side Are You On?”

This leads me to the video that challenges Pete Seeger’s folk ideals. In 1957 Seeger was cited on ten counts of contempt of Congress after he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1955. This video shows the original proposal to HUAC that Pete Seeger and his folk music were Un-American.

Screen shot 2015-03-07 at 11.01.37 AM

An article entitled “Congress Creates a Frankenstein” published in the Chicago Defender in 1953 argues that HUAC,

“began to destroy the freedom expression, freedom of speech, freedom of action and freedom of thought when it pulled in some of the country’s greatest artists, playrights, actors and producers to question them on their loyalty to their government.”

Seeger refusing to testify before HUAC

This committee was part of the second Red Scare, which refers to the fear of communism and its destruction of true American politics, culture, and society that spread across the country in the 40s and 50s. This critical opinion of the committee identifies fundamental problems with HUAC – it its pursuit of the “anti-American” it engaged in an essentially anti-American activity. Pete Seeger would certainly agree with this perspective. He refused to testify, as he believed that the questioning of his musical and political endeavors was his own business as an American, and the government had no right interfere.

So, how has Pete Seeger remained so “American” after all this time? Can we divorce a person and their art from their politics? Why do we still view communism as so distinctly at odds with Seeger’s message of peace? We often separate his communist ideology with his message of peace, but why can we not see these political views as an integral part of his message.


  1. Folk singers linked to alleged ‘Communist Conspiracy’. Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. August 19, 1963. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/video/videodetails.aspx?documentId=664253&videoSearch=folk.
  2. “Notable & Quotable; the New York Sun Recalls Pete Seeger’s Soaring Music–and His Late-in-Life Confession about Failing to Confront Communism.” 2014.Wall Street Journal (Online), Jan 28. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1492135733?accountid=351.
  3. “Congress Creates A Frankenstein.” 1953.The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Nov 21, 2. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/docview/493013412?accountid=351.
  4. Anne Dhu McLucas . “Seeger, Pete R..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 15, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2259314.
  5. Bromberg, Minna and Gary Alan Fine. 2002. “Resurrecting the Red: Pete Seeger and the Purification of Difficult Reputations.” Social Forces 80 (4): 1135-1155. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/docview/229870616?accountid=351.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”: a brief history

While browsing the African American Newspapers database, I came across an article/add for Miller Lite entitled “Miller Lite supports Black History Month.” The article encourages readers to buy Miller Lite beer by telling them that during the month of February, a donation will be made to the Thurgood Marshall Black Education Fund for every case of beer sold. This offer is also advertised by a radio commercial featuring an upbeat version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” featuring Deniece Williams, Al Green, Melba Moore, Roberta Flack, and Patti Austin. The Miller Brewing Company produced this recording in 1986, which the article states was the first recording of the song in 25 years.

We know this song today as the Black National Anthem. Personally, every time I sing or hear this song I am struck by the power of the lyrics, and the fact that the tune is so beautiful in its simplicity. Upon seeing this strange beer ad linked with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I became curious about the history of this song, and how it became Black National Anthem.

James Weldon Johnson writing at desk

Contrary to common belief, this song was originally a poem, and was not intended to be an anthem by its composer. James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900, and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music. James Weldon Johnson was a lyricist, poet, international diplomat, civil rights activist, and an important voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In February of 1900 he was asked to speak at President Lincoln’s birthday celebration, but instead wrote this song with his brother, which was performed at the celebration by 500 school children. While the Johnson brothers forgot about the song, the public did not. Children throughout the south continued to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and eventually it was sung all across the country. By the 1920s the song was so popular that the NAACP, with James Weldon Johnson as the chief executive officer, decided to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the official song. It is important to note that James Weldon Johnson called his song the “Negro National Hymn,” as he believed that a nation could have only one anthem, and didn’t want to further divide the country by separating the races.

Bob Cole, James, and Rosamond Johnson

While the song has been performed in many different genres including classical, jazz, R&B, and rap, I was surprised to see it used for commercial purposes to ultimately sell beer. This juxtaposition of capitalism with a song that calls us to never stop fighting for justice in the face of America’s racist past and present is fascinating to me. I understand that the Miller Brewing Company probably had great intentions for this project, as they committed to donate some proceeds to the Thurgood Marshall Black Education fund, which “provided scholarship support to the nations 35 historically Black public colleges.” Despite this aim, it is troubling to me that Miller Lite chose a song whose anti-racist message is in direct opposition with capitalism, a system built on the backs of enslaved Africans – a system that profits by exploiting and oppressing African Americans. The disconnect here leaves a pit in my stomach.
Here is a link to a video of the 1984 recording session of “Light Every Voice and Sing” sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwWhu8tw4nU

I would like to leave off with some additional recordings of this song. When I searched the Jazz Music Library for recordings of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” all but one recording was instrumental, which invites us to make a comparison between renditions that include the lyrics and renditions that don’t. Here is a recording of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on saxophone and Hammond organ. To you, does the song still have the same effect without lyrics? Is it as moving or is there something lost? Personally, while the lyrics certainly indicate that the song is about an acknowledgement of the past and a confidence in the future, I am still moved by the instrumental versions. The tonal shift from major to minor is powerful in and of itself and somehow gives me a sense of determination without saying anything… is this simply because I already know the words? Here is a recording of the Manhattan Four singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for comparison.

I am including the lyrics to “Lift every voice and Sing” here, as I find it crucial to read and internalize the mobilizing message of the lyrics themselves, rather than learn about the history as a separate entity. These lyrics urge us to come together to strive for a better tomorrow, while always remembering the pain and struggle of the past. What would James Weldon Johnson say to us if he knew that the message of this song is still just as relevant and important 107 years later?


  1. Bond, Wilson, Bond, Julian, and Wilson, Sondra K. Lift Every Voice and Sing : A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2000.
  2. “Miller Lite supports Black History Month.” Chicago Metro News, February 25, 1989. Accessed October 6, 2017. http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=H56G59ROMTUwNzM0OTExNC4yMTA3OTk6MToxNDoxMzAuNzEuMjI4LjIyMQ&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=2&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=2&p_docnum=7&p_docref=v2:12912DF42BF1884F@EANX-12A25FAB38AEF4B0@2447583-12A25FABD35A4110@10-12A25FB12096C218@Miller%20Lite%20Supports%20Black%20History%20Month3
  3. “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1137484
  4. Edward A. Berlin. “Johnson, James Weldon.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 7, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2083946.
  5. The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff. Recorded January 1, 2001. Milestone, 2001, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 7, 2017. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C532408
  6. The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 5 (1911-1926). Recorded January 1, 2000. Document Records, 2000, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 7, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C74556

Booker T. Sapps, Roger Matthews, and Willie Flowers

As I was browsing the Lomax Collection on the Library of Congress a picture of people playing music together popped out at me. The caption identified the three musicians as Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews on harmonica, and Willie Flowers on guitar. While there is very little information out there on these musicians, I was able to find information on the use of the harmonica in American music that helps contextualize, as well as a recording of Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews that helps bring their memory to life.

Roger Matthews (harmonica), Willie Flowers (guitar), Booker T. Sapps (harmonica), Belle Glade, Florida

The history of the harmonica begins with the introduction of the Chinese sheng in Europe in 1777, which consequently led Europeans to expand on this free reed design in the 1800s. These first harmonicas were wooden with reeds made from brass wire. The defining addition to the harmonica, a second reed-plate, allowed a sound to be made when the player sucked in, creating the harmonica that we think of today. This design became popular quickly, and spread across Europe and beyond. This of course includes the U.S., where the harmonica was used in a variety of popular genres, most notably blues music.

The harmonica gaining popularity as an instrument in general and particularly with black folk music in the U.S. isn’t without explanation. It is small, portable, relatively inexpensive, easy to play due to its fixed notes, and does not require tuning. In short, it was accessible to black musicians that had a hard time getting their hands on instruments at the time. For the blues it was especially important as it provided an extra layer of emotion to the music, almost imitating a human voice crying or sighing in my opinion. In addition to this emotive quality the harmonica can replicate the sound of a train with chugging and whopping sounds, which we can hear on Booker T. Sapps and Roger Matthews recording entitled “The Train.”

Although we don’t know enough about the musicians themselves, there is information on Lomax’s collection and recording of the musicians. Lomax, along with his companion Hurston, traveled to the Everglades with the aim of recording black ballads. Two recording sessions took place: one in Belle Glade, and the other in Chosen. These pictures were taken at a crop-picking labor camp in Belle Glade, Florida in 1935, where Booker T. Sapps, Roger Matthews, and Willie Flowers played for Lomax and Hurston. That music, which you can listen to on the album I’ve linked above, presents us with a mesmerizing and harmonica-driven blues sound. In a letter to the Library of Congress sent that same year, “Lomax referred to the expedition as the “most exciting field trip” he had ever made.” (Bastin, 60.)

Roger Matthews and Booker T. Sapps

Roger Matthews, Booker T. Sapps and their girlfriends



On a concluding note, I think it is important to recognize that Lomax traveled to Florida with a goal – to record black ballads. This goal, in turn, may have influenced what Sapps, Matthews, and Flowers performed for Lomax. While there is much to be learned from the recording itself, I still wish there were a way to learn more about the stories of these musicians.


Primary source from Library of Congress, Lomax Collection[Roger Mathews harmonica, Willie Flowers guitar, and Booker T. Sapps harmonica, Belle Glade, Florida]. Belle Glade Florida United States, 1935. June. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congressfile://localhost/, https/::www.loc.gov:item:2007660120 :. (Accessed September 29, 2017.)

Field Recordings Vol. 7: Florida (1935-1936). Recorded January 1, 1998. Document Records, 1998, Streaming Audio. Accessed September 29, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C74531

Grove: Ivor Beynon, et al. “Harmonica (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 29, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12384.

Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues : The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Natalie Curtis: A dedication to preserving Native American culture

In her article entitled “The Perpetuating of Indian Art,” Natalie Curtis unveils a complicated attitude in regards to studying Native American culture. While her perspective is filled with racial biases, she does advocate for preserving Native American music in it’s most traditional and authentic form. This insistence on the importance of maintaining the original music in all its beauty is twofold: it is guided by an appreciation of the culture, but an appreciation driven by a western mindset. This mindset, shared by many scholars and white people in positions of power at the time, takes Native American culture apart in its attempts to honor and preserve what it so earnestly admires.

Natalie Curtis was an American ethnomusicologist particularly interested in preserving American Indian and African American music by transcribing songs as accurately as possible. Her work is often recognized along with the work of Alice Fletcher and Frances Densmore as an essential contribution to the preservation of a “vanishing” culture. In 1907 she published “The Indians Book,” a collection of about 200 songs transcribed principally from live performances. While that work would be thoroughly interesting to study and analyze, I have chosen to reflect on an article she wrote in 1910, which highlights a problematic approach to ethnomusicology of the time. This in no way diminishes its historical significance.

Natalie Curtis in Southwestern garb and Indian beads

“The Indians Book,” a collection of 200 Indian songs transcribed by Natalie Curtis










The abstract of her article is as follows:

“Those who have worked among the American Indians, and have learned to respect the thought, the art, and many of the religious ideas of this most interesting people, must feel a sense of almost personal gratitude to the present Secretary of the Interior for having appointed a Supervisor of Music in the department of Indian Education, whose duties shall be to “record native Indian music, and arrange it for use in the Indian schools.”1

If I could rewrite her thesis into my own words I would write that Indian art is beautiful and can be of use to white Americans, therefore we should preserve Indian culture instead of trying to stamp it out.

While Curtis recognizes that there are many American Indian tribes, she tends to cast large generalizations of American Indian culture in her descriptions and assertions. She refers to all Native Americans as an “underdeveloped race” and as “noble dogs.” These racially charged generalizations are contrasted with an intense attempt to exalt the beauty of the Indian music and art she witnesses, in order to spread her appreciation for this art to a larger white audience. Sharing this conflicting view of American Indians is Francis E. Leupp, whom Curtis cites in her article as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Francis E. Leupp, in his own work entitled The Indian and his problem, asserts that westerns can know nothing of Indian culture unless they observe communities from within, but in doing so reveals gaping holes in his understanding of Indian culture. Both Curtis and Leupp demonstrate a genuine interest in Native Americans, but struggle to view it without a western scope.

Curtis makes reference to the Carlisle Institute, the primary Indian boarding school from 1879-1918. The goal of the school was to Americanize Native Americans, and Curtis undoubtedly saw a problem with this model, shown by her critique of the governments push to destroy Indian culture. She instead believes that white teachers should encourage and inspire Indian children to learn and sing their own songs, free of western harmony and influence. Despite this honest effort to maintain American Indian culture, Curtis’ appreciation of Indian art still forces the culture to fit into her western model, as white people are the ones entrusted with preserving an art form that would disappear without the white savior.


The Carlisle Institute, an Indian boarding school.