Insights on Music Venue Research

I would like to start off today’s blog post with the poetic opening of a 1931 article, “the Mexican in Chicago”:

Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House

Through the open windows of a second-story room opposite Hull House on a midsummer Saturday evening come the jazz strains of a gospel hymn being lustily sung in Spanish. If we were to trace this music to its source it would lead us into the midst of a revival meeting of the Pentecostals. There in a crowded room we would find a Mexican evangelist, eyes shining and face flushed by his enthusiasm, leading the singing, while an orchestra made up of a cornet, two drums, three triangles, and a piano beats out the rhythm with a will. But we do not wish to loiter long within doors. There are other interesting things to be seen along South Halsted during this twilight hour. 1

This passage conjures an image of 1930s Chicago life that is not often represented in histories detailing the “Chicago Renaissance” years — the immigrant experience. This article in particular was originally published in the Comity Commission of the Chicago Church Federation that bears witness to the Protestant Mexican experience. The article, in which a few Mexican Protestants in Chicago are interviewed, makes an implicit claim about a sense of belonging. Members of these west side churches prioritized community over adherence to their Roman Catholic roots. The religiosity seemed to be a byproduct of wanting to find a community that could eat together, discuss openly together, and make music together.

As I continue to research for my final paper, I learn more and more about the overlap (and sometimes tensions) between religiosity and community. The author makes the observation that roughly 0.5% of Mexico’s population identifies as Protestant, whereas at least 3% of Mexican immigrants living in Chicago identify as such.2 These churches were not only supportive, but were also constructive in building a sense musical community. This newspaper article reminded me of an important lesson as I continue to read about venues both for my paper or in assigned readings. As researchers, we cannot project our expectations onto a historical event. If I had not read the whole article, I might have assumed that the only music was worship music. Or that most discussions happened in the context of prayer, service, or bible study. Rather, I found a  vivid account of how a space conceivably dedicated for one purpose was transformed into another. Don’t fall into the trap! When we assume, we make an … of you and me.

1 “Robert C. Jones and Louis R. Wilson: ‘The Mexican in Chicago’ (1931).” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.

2 Ibid.

In the Heights, Hamilton, and West Side Story (Oh, MY!)

Since reading Carol Oja’s article, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” I’ve wondered how the existence of movie versions affect how musicians study and perform the shows.1 Movies act as time capsules, whereas broadway shoes, even iconic ones, have opportunities to be reimagined year after year as social climates change. Does an actor’s race (or the race they are made to resemble in the case of West Side Story’s Maria) cement how that role is portrayed in high school/college level productions?

During the 2013-2014 school year, the theater department put on a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” In her article Julia Pilkington noted that “the musical was selected in part because of its significance in the context of a college campus: Students come from various corners of the country and world, live here at St. Olaf College and are contemplating where they will go with their lives.”2 It is true that this is central to the plot, but outside of the Spanish pronunciation coachings the cast received, it seems that the cultural implications of being a Latinx person in Manhattan was not central as it was in the original production.

A discussion about the stakes of movie productions is timely considering the impending release of a movie version of “In the Heights” in which one of the original cast members of “Hamilton” plays the lead role.

Just like West Side Story or the Music Man before it, this version of In the Heights will undoubtedly influence if schools like St. Olaf choose whether or not to tackle this show. When Hamilton starts reaching high school theater departments with the same consistency as West Side Story, what will the cast look like? If there is a movie version of Hamilton, will that affect how it gets performed? Although this post relies on many hypothetical questions, they are questions that theater departments internationally will inevitably face as critical conversations of race (and performing race) continue to fill musical conversations.

1 Carol Oja, “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s,” Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009): 13-30.

2 Julia Pilkington, “‘In the Heights’ Seeks to Define ‘Home’,” Manitou Messenger, November 14, 2013,

Margaret Bonds and the Importance of Musical Community

This week was the first time I was able to really sit down and skim through materials useful for my final essay. Overall, I am interested in understanding Chicago concert music life between 1915 and 1930 to show that geographically limited micro-histories help us better understand musical life (as opposed to blanketing all music making under a period marked as a precursor to the Chicago Renaissance). Two books in particular, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music1 and Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-19432 make something very clear: community and camaraderie were vastly important to American composers, especially African-American ones. During my time at St. Olaf, part of which I thought I was going to major in composition, the “composer” stereotype described a person who spent most of their time locked in a room alone, maybe with a piano, writing. However, this representation shows no grounding in the black artistic communities of Chicago.

Image result for margaret bonds

One great example of such a community surrounded the composer and pianist Margaret Bonds. Bonds grew up in Chicago and learned to play piano from her musical mother, Estella Bonds, and Florence Price. She attended Northwestern University, and continued to teach and work in Chicago until age 26. In addition to her mentors Florence and Estella, her writings and letters reveal some of the most reputable names in black artistic life. For example, early in her career, Bonds worked with prominent soprano Abbie Mitchell. And early on, Bonds was introduced to Mitchell’s then husband, Will Marion Cook, marking the beginning of a life-long working relationship.”3

Or for example, the beginning of Bonds’ friendship with Langston Hughes:

“I actually met [Langston]…after I came out of the university. The first time I saw Langston was at Tony’s house in Chicago, Tony Hill, the ceramicist. Finally he came to my house. My family rolled out the red carpet. We were like brother and sister, like blood relatives.”4

My initial reaction to reading these letter excerpts was, “Wow Margaret was popular”. I’m sure that it was partly because of the political environment — because African Americans were shut out of other communities, they especially relied on one another. While this might have been true to a certain extent, why was I surprised that this musical community was so intertwined? Humans are social beings. We spend our lives building connections that produce more connections. However, maybe I was surprised because of the way we are traditionally taught history. In my experience, the names of community members, families, or others who helped the success of one person are often left out of history. This is especially when it comes to celebrities. I hope that in the future, these names will be included more and more.

1 Helen Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

2 Lawrence Schenbeck. Racial Uplift and American Music, 1878-1943. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

3 Walker-Hill. From Spirituals to Symphonies, 148.

4 Ibid., 149.

The Shallowness of the “Deep River” Market

We haven’t talked about concert spirituals very much yet, but I think that they make a claim to authenticity that fits nicely into our discussions of geography and race. Similar to how the success of country music as a genre demanded ties to poor whiteness, concert spirituals maintained ties to high-society blackness. While looking through the Sheet Music Consortium, I came across 42 arrangements of the concert spiritual Deep River. The majority were credited to H.T. Burleigh who had an arrangement published during his time at G. Ricordi publishing house. The remaining versions, however, were by composers/arrangers of different races and nationalities.

This 1916 arrangement by William Arms Fisher caught my eye. Like Burleigh, Fisher worked for a prominent publishing company, and spent most of his career as its vice-president.1 From my perspective, even though Fisher himself was white, this arrangement attaches itself to the tradition of Negro concert spirituals in two ways. First, is the inclusion of the original “American Negro melody” to which the musician(s) will refer to. Second, is the acknowledgement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s contributions to the finished product. Not only is his name listed first on the cover (not common practice), but additionally Fisher writes on the bottom of the first page, “in making this arrangement the beautiful piano transcriptions by the late Coleridge-Taylor has been closely followed.” Would it need to be followed closely if it didn’t hold merit? I wouldn’t think so, which brings me to my next point. Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer who was inspired by the influence/culture of African-Americans like H. T. Burleigh, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. du Bois.2 The only authenticity he could claim, or that others could claim for him, was his blackness.3 And he did claim it to some degree — in 1904 he published Twenty-Four Negro Melodies for piano that are still played widely to this day. But did this understanding of concert spirituals — that a tie to blackness was necessary for sales — permeate white American households?

And another question. Was there a shift in necessity for claiming black authenticity? Based on the variety of sheet music, there was, and it happened around the 1930s when the sheet music for Deep River was marketed like a popular song.

This title page looks completely different than that of versions published during the 1910s-20s. For one, the performers in the portrait must have been mainstream enough for audiences to recognize them and want to buy the music. Second, the arrangement offers versions for ukelele and guitar. Just like our favorite High School Musical hits, this transcription gives audiences the chance to bring the musical fun home! From this example, and others like it, it seems like the racialization of Deep River was less important over time. Current discussions around “who gets to perform spirituals and why” suggest that concert spirituals have been re-racialized today, but when in history did this happen?

1 Karl Kroeger, “Fisher, William Arms,” Oxford Music Online, last modified January 20, 2001,

2 Stephen Banfield, “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel” Oxford Music Online, last modified November 26, 2013,

3 This supports Amiri Baraka’s understanding of blackness as something that is essentialized, and naturally travels from black person to black person.

Black Shape Note Singers in a Baptist Church

The Puritan tradition of Sacred Harp singing has stayed in the back of my mind over the past few days. Particularly, the way it moved to Appalachia after avoiding reform in Plymouth Colony. But I wondered if any black musicians or congregations ever picked up on the shape note tradition.

After searching “Sacred Harp” in the Defender database, I was met with a 1973 advertisement for a performance produced by the Smithsonian’s Division of Performing Arts. The concert, presented in Chicago’s celebrated Auditorium Theatre, showcased folk artists from around the country including big names like Pete Seeger. Also featured on the line-up was “the Sacred Harp Singing Group”, a black shape note ensemble that called Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church its home.1

This summer, I spent a good amount of time reading through Defender articles that recounted some aspect of Chicago musical life from 1900-1930. One of the biggest takeaways was that churches in predominantly black communities became musical epicenters for a variety of genres. It was not uncommon for touring black musicians to make their Chicago debut in a church, or for sizable black music societies to hold their weekly meetings in one. Based on the reporting of Nora Douglas Holt2, Shiloh Baptist Church was one of these musical epicenters. The 1973 ad says that the tradition “thrives in the South in hundreds of churches and at informal get-togethers.”3

click the picture to hear “Recording of shape note singing convention at Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Churchon

Listen to this 1977 recording starting at about a minute in. This shape note recording has many similar elements to that of the Irish group we heard. Though, what’s especially interesting is the tone production. While the timbre is forward sounding in both, the tone in the Baptist Church recording sounds like it has been influenced by other styles. I wonder where the lineage of shape note singing fits into that of other religiously inspired music in black churches. Where were the first black shape note singers singing? And what can we learn from the history of Sacred Harp music in non-Puritan worship?

1 “Smithsonian Stages Folk Concert at Auditorium,” Chicago Defender, August 13, 1973, 11.

2 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 308.

3 “Smithsonian Stages Folk Concert at Auditorium”

The “High Order of Talent”

I would like to begin by directing your attention to the highlighted excerpts from the following newspaper article:1





All of the writers mentioned, Jack Haverly, Billy West, Billy Rice, Billy Emerson, and Neil Bryant, were white. Somewhat surprisingly, this article was published in Oregon’s first black newspaper, the Portland New Age, in 1902. As we can see, this article mourns the deaths of five blackface minstrelsy writers of legendary status. Let’s take a closer look at the first mentioned, Jack Haverly. In 1902, the same year of the article’s publication, Haverly published a book called Negro Minstrels: A Complete Guide to Negro Minstrelsy, Containing Recitations, Jokes, Crossfires, Conundrums, Riddles, Stump Speeches, Ragtime and Sentimental Songs, etc., Including Hints on Organizing and Successfully Presenting a Performance.2 Whew! The name leaves nothing to the imagination, but in short, this book provides a template for how to create a successful minstrel show. Successful even in the minds of black audiences. So let’s take a look at what Haverly might have recommended:

As researchers who are far(ish) removed from these circumstances, it is easy to be shocked that this material was endorsed by black writers to black audiences. Or, we can understand it as “love and theft.”3

When read together, these primary sources contribute to the complex tensions that lie in Eric Lott’s understanding of minstrelsy. As baffling racist as the caricatures and narratives were, the form was so popular that African-Americans had a stake in aspects of its production. Unfortunately, this seemed to be as respectable as it got when it came to minstrelsy tropes. And black and white audiences alike got on board in the names of entertainment and artistry.

Is There Such a Thing as Geographic Authenticity?

Last class period concluded with a short discussion of the ability to “buy into” the commercial market of country or hillbilly music. Based on Harry Jackson’s album “the Cowboy” and others like it, commercial country music claimed (and still claims) geographic authenticity even though relatively little exists. This album, produced by Smithsonian Folkways, didn’t care that Harry Jackson grew up in Chicago and later adopted the cowboy lifestyle. But his music was recorded to make money, so it’s a fair guess that only so much geographic authenticity was needed.


But what about the traditions that are recorded outside of the commercial market? I would think that geographic authenticity is important to someone like Alan Lomax. In 1961, the folk song collector was asked to speak at an ethnomusicology conference in Detroit. Over the course of two hours, Lomax and his wife Antoinette Marchand detailed their experiences as successful ethnomusicologists, and inserted field recordings and stories from their travels. Of the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ member Bessie Jones, Lomax says:

The reason that this material about Bessie’s sexual attitudes is so crucial, she is almost a pure informant from the middle of the 19th century back, as her repe[r]toire is composed of only the oldest classic songs, and all of her attitudes about singing are the nearest thing to the African pattern that we have found in America, the shape of the songs, shape of the music, how she treats all musical situations.1

It is important to note that the Georgia Sea Island Singers were of particular interest to ethnomusicologists like Lomax. The Georgia Sea Islands held slaves and plantations during the 19th-century just like other parts of the south. Due to the relative lack of contact with outside European cultures, the dialects, songs, and other art forms originating from in the Islands are considered by historians the purest form of West African-sourced material in America. 

By 1961, Lomax had been studying the Sea Island Singers for nearly 30 years. Therefore, it was likely he knew that Jones, the most famous folk artist from the group, decided to move to the island and join the group when she was 31 years old. This begs the question, when and to what degree can we claim geographic authenticity as a marketable attribute. With regards to Bessie Jones, Lomax said:

This brings me to the real point about oral history, I think, in relationship to informants of Bessie’s level of excellence. They can give you very quickly the main emotional psychological patterns absolutely in the most complexly-stated way, and these patterns can be used for really scientific purposes, rather than sheer historical purposes, because these are the historical patterns.2

Even though Lomax’s market was much different from Jackson’s, his research (and that of other ethnomusicologists then and now) heavily relied on the authenticity of place. The degree to which audiences like us should put full faith in this authenticity is constantly in flux.

1 Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Lomax’s Experience As a Folklorist. 1961. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Image 57.

2 Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection. Image 59.

Works Consulted

Menius, Art. “Georgia Sea Island Singers, the.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, July 25, 2013.

Sheehy, Daniel. “Jones, Bessie.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, January 31, 2014.

The “Vanishing Indian” Materializes Before Audiences

The opening imagery of Daniel Blim’s conference paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” that vividly describes the setting of Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exhibition, stuck with me after class. What would it be like to walk down a corridor in the natural history museum to have real people and animals stare back at you? Historical newspapers and current scholars describe these events as half circus, half Night at the Museum.

Blim’s article introduced the idea of the “vanishing Indian,” a symbol of Native America(ns) that “could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.”1 We know that Native Americans were (literally) put on display at the 1893 World’s Fair, but in what other instances were Americans, and other nationalities in the case of the World’s Fair, witnessing and consuming Native American culture? Based on research via newspaper archives from the 19th-century, World’s Fairs, International Expos, and museums were the primary contexts in which non-Natives could interact with actual tribes. 

To further investigate the “vanishing Indian” trope, I found an article originally printed in Scientific American in 1898. The article, titled “the Omaha Exposition and the Indian Congress,” described the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898. After quickly mentioning the technological advancements of fireworks, the author lays out the newest and most attractive addition to the Expo ⎯ the Indian Congress. The Indian Bureau of Washington, D.C. allocated $40,000 to find, deliver, and enclose 35 distinct Native American tribes. Nearly 500 members of these tribes were camped out over four acres of Expo premises. For three months, anthropologists, sociologists, and the general public could observe Native American musics, rituals, and all modes of living in between as if they were zoo animals.

“Representative Indian Chiefs, Indian Congress, Omaha Exposition.” from left to right: Four Bulls, Assiniboin; Antoine Moise, Flathead; Different Cloud, Assiniboin; “Killed the Spotted Horse”, Assiniboin; Eneas Michel, Flathead

The article, read by thousands across the U.S. every year during this time, delivered the story triumphantly:

It is a curious and interesting fact that less than half a century ago the same docile Omaha Indians who peacefully doze by the camp fires within the Exposition gates were waging the war of the tomahawk and arrow on these very grounds, which is gratifying proof of the triumphal march of civilization.2 

No wonder the “vanishing Indian” trope was recognized by music consumers and the general public ⎯ the only times Native Americans were presented as apart of American society were part of a curated experience:

The agents were instructed to send old men, and, as far as possible, “head men,” who would typically represent the old-time Indian, subdued, it is true, but otherwise uninfluenced by the government system of civilization… some [tribes] have become so civilized, like the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Seminoles, that their presence would add little interest from an ethnological point of view; so the government did not assemble it most civilized proteges at Omaha, but the tribes it has conquered with the greatest bloodshed are the most important at the congress.3

Not only curated, but curated to show their defeat and vulnerability in the face of America’s power.