Thomas Dorsey, Gospel Music, and Black Resilience

 

A choir performs in Chicago in 1941. Credit: Russell Lee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

White supremacy holds its roots in American music, specifically through the harmful tradition of cultural appropriation and assimilation. This instance is prevalent through multiple examples, but I will be discussing the issue of the enforcement of African American people into Christianity. By glancing into the deep history of African religions, it is obvious how diversified and vast religion seemed to be. With a variety of polytheistic religions with some Islamic influence, religion was a space encompassed by the natural and spiritual worlds. Through colonization and slavery, the European mode of Christianity began to engulf African spirituality. Though the strength and resilience of these enslaved men and women led to the cultivation of “the rites, rituals, and cosmologies of Africa in America through stories, healing arts, song, and other forms of cultural expression, creating a spiritual space apart from the white European world” (Sambol-Tosco). In terms of these rituals, one of which is ever present is the tradition of Gospel music. This genre was the gateway to combine the influential protestant tradition with cultural expressions of African culture such as call and response, improvisation, expressive rhythm, chants, dance, and storytelling. Through the Chicago Defender, I found an article outlining the history of gospel music and how black culture and freedom led to the genre’s flourishing. Specifically, the photo shown below from 1941 depicts one of the many gospel choirs still represented today.

Thomas Dorsey             Thomas Andrew Dorsey's album; The Maestro Sings

The root of African American gospel music emerged alongside other 19th and 20th-century genres such as ragtime, blues, jazz, and even black spirituals from earlier centuries. The songbook, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, was the first hymnal written for African American worship. These arrangements were full of syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and shout traditions. One of the most prolific composers and performers of the said genre is the Father of Gospel Music, Thomas Andrew Dorsey. Born in 1899, Dorsey was the son of a revivalist preacher and grew up surrounded by the influence of blues pianists in Atlanta, Georgia. He is known today as the father of gospel music due to his compositions that have long become prevalent in gospel standards, such as Precious Lord, Take My Hand, Peace in the Valley, and Trouble About My Soul. 

Gospel tradition spread throughout Chicago due to the urges from the Chicago Defender during the Great Migration for African Americans to travel north. Dorsey was one of these individuals convinced to establish roots in this city and he took strides to tour with Jazz musicians such as Mahalia Jackson, Sally, Martin, and Ma Rainey. One album that was recorded by Dorsey was his vinyl entitled “Thomas Andrew Dorsey – The Maestro Sings” distributed by Sound of Gospel Records in 1980. After listening to a few of the recordings listed, the influences of jazz and blues become abundantly clear. Below is a recording of his song Precious Lord which includes a small sermon as the introduction and then the music, which consists of all of the elements previously mentioned, such as syncopated rhythms, shout, and blue notes. 

To refer back to the discussion of the assimilation of European Christianity, I present Gospel music as an example of black resilience and as a musical genre created by the combination of black culture and the Protestant faith. Gospel music has become an extraordinarily influential and essential part of African American music as it was created partly to establish a practice separate from enslavers. As the writer and producer, Stacey Robinson, of The Birth of Gospel, a Chicago Stories show, accurately states, “I hope when audiences see this, they realize that spirituality is at the base of our humanity. The Black church was so important and allowed us ways to get through slavery, Jim Crow, and help sustain us during the Civil Rights Movement and it continues to be a source today” (Sanders).

Citations
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2022). Thomas Andrew Dorsey. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Andrew-Dorsey

Gorlinski, V. (2022). Gospel music. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/gospel-music

Sambol-Tosco, K. (n.d.). Slavery and the making of america . the slave experience: Religion: PBS. Slavery and the Making of America . The Slave Experience: Religion | PBS. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/religion/history.html

Sanders , D. (2022, May 4). The “Birth of gospel” highlights Chicago’s rich history in gospel music. Chicago Defender. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://chicagodefender.com/the-birth-of-gospel-highlights-chicagos-rich-history-in-gospel-music/

Thomas A. Dorsey – The Maestro sings. Discogs. (1980, January 1). Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.discogs.com/release/9299396-Thomas-A-Dorsey-The-Maestro-Sings

Gospel Nostalgia. (2014, May 3). “precious lord” (1980) Thomas Dorsey. YouTube. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2ySfuUCbyA

Florence Price: The On-Going Debate of American Music

Florence Price

Florence Price

In 1933, Florence Price became the first ever African American woman to make her symphony debut with a US orchestra, specifically the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a family that surrounded her with music, especially her mother, Florence Smith, who was a singer and pianist. Surrounded by hate and discrimination, just after Jim Crow laws passed, Price established a foundation of musical literacy through the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. First starting her career through education, Florence soon changed paths after her troubling and abusive divorce. She traveled with her daughters to the heart of the Harlem Renaissance in Chicago, where she met influential musicians like Marian Anderson and William Dawson. Her compositional journey began with spirituals and then transformed into large-scale orchestral works. These works, like Symphony in E Minor, made her an extraordinarily influential and prominent black composer. Reflecting on the debate held in class based on readings such as Samuel Floyd, Rae Brown, or Jean Snyder, I believe the contributions that Florence Price makes to the African American community and the western classical realm are significant. Through these primary sources provided, I will explore this debate even further.

Correspondence from Price to Wallace Magill

This primary source shown above is a correspondence from Florence Price to Wallace Magill, the director of Bell Telephone Hour, which “showcased the best in classical and Broadway music, reaching eight to nine million listeners each week.” This letter included Price’s gratitude towards the director in response to his acceptance of her spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” to be performed by her long-time friend Marian Anderson in the program on September 14, 1942. This letter gives excellent insight into how prominent and accepted Price had done her work in society as this popular classical radio show played her pieces alongside composers such as Beethoven, Kreisler, Brams, and many other great operatic stars. Consequently, I included a second primary source located in the music library entitled Art Songs and Spirituals by African American Women Composers. This source contains the exact sheet music of the song played on Bell Telephone Hour and lists it alongside other prominent spirituals.

My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord

It is abundantly clear that Price went through extreme trials and tribulations during her time as a composer and black woman, especially as one looks at the critiques from various musicians in the industry. However, it is evident through the abundance of performances and awards that Price achieved that she indeed influenced the entirety of not only the black musical spear but also the classical music realm. Her compositions and hold on the music industry lead us in one direction of the heavily discussed debate brought up early; classical music can lead to a whitewashing of black musical culture. Although, composers such as Florence Price prove that you can utilize classical music to both spread your name through white audiences and equally spread black culture in popular spaces such as she used Bell Telephone Hour to do. One question I might pose is, would Florence Price be as influential as she is if she hadn’t been as invested in orchestral works as she was?

Citations

Knight, E. (2020, October 28). Florence Price: The story of america’s forgotten musical genius. Music | Al Jazeera. Retrieved November 15, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/28/florence-price-americas-lost-musical-genius

Magill, W. (1945). Bell telelphone hour – OTR : Free download, Borrow, and streaming. Internet Archive. Retrieved November 15, 2022, from https://archive.org/details/Bell_Telephone_Hour

Price, F. (1942). Florence Price Letter to Wallace Magill, September 3, 1942, regarding Marian Anderson’s Performance of a Work by Price. CONTENTDM. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from https://digitalcollections.uark.edu/digital/collection/p17212coll3/id/10/

Taylor, V., King, B. J., Moore, U. S. (1995). Art songs and spirituals by African-American women composers. Hildegard Publ.

Harry Burleigh: The Transformation of Spirituals into Classical Music

Many white composers compiled and arranged a multitude of African American spirituals for the western ear to consume, although more important to discuss is the influence of the first African American arranger to change the idea of what spirituals represent. Harry Burleigh was an African American vocalist, arranger, and composer who created a foundation for African American spirituals to be represented in classical music. Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the civil war, Burleigh was primarily influenced by the teachings of his grandfather, who lived in slavery as a child. Burleigh connected with original spirituals such as Deep River, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. His experience surrounded by music as a child led to his desire to become a musician, ultimately receiving a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He had a prominent career in performing and extraordinary success in putting African American spirituals in the classical realm. Below is an arrangement I discovered on the Sheet Music Consortium that is a collection of spirituals, most specifically Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, arranged by Burleigh in western classical notation.

Just as discussed throughout Southern’s book The Music of Black Americans, white Americans often have stereotyped and simplified African American music, creating a falsified notion of the deeper meaning behind spirituals. Southern points out that white observers often “misunderstood the singing and dancing of slaves, interpreting such activities as indicative that the slaves were unfeeling and uncaring.” He further shares that they saw African Americans as “a large flock of cheerful and contented slaves… ever merry and ever working with a song” (Southern, Pg. 77). This misconception seeped its way into popular culture as African Americans gained freedom and their culture was much more prominent, specifically through minstrelsy.

Minstrelsy was a meld of African American stereotypes built on the sole purpose of entertainment for a white audience, instilling a sense of shallowness in African American folk music. Burleigh used his talents to arrange fifty songs that could stand beside other classical staples to instill a feeling of respect and empathy for spirituals. For instance, he wrote that “it is a serious misconception of their meaning and value to treat them as minstrel songs or to try to make them funny by too literal attempt to imitate that manner of the Negro in singing them… their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and the brotherhood of man” (Bell). Alternatively, while western notation can take away the culture and freeness that might initially be in a song learned and sung through rote, Burleigh proves that western notation can shed light on a piece’s depth and seriousness.

Bibliography

Bell, Danna. “Link to the Library of Congress: Harry T. Burleigh—The Man Who Brought African-American Spirituals to the Classical Stage.” Music Educators Journal 104, no. 4 (2018): 9–11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26588647.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. “African American music.” Grove Music Online. 4 Oct. 2012; Accessed 20 Oct. 2022. https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002226838.

Rubenstein, David. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child / Historic American Sheet Music / Duke Digital Repository.” Duke Digital Collections. Accessed October 19, 2022. https://repository.duke.edu/dc/hasm/n0735.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans a History. New York: Norton, 1971.

White Privilege Asserting Authority Over the Narrative

African American spirituals were infused with the experiences and emotions of enslaved people in the south as they utilized these religious folk tunes for praise, worship, and community. Many of these spirituals thrive today, performed by artists such as Nat Cole King, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and many more. However, some argue about the origination of these tunes, such as the musicologists recently discussed in class, like Henry Krehbiel and George Pullman Jackson. Throughout this blog post, I will discuss how the privilege of white men allowed scholars like Jackson and Krehbiel to argue the true origin of spirituals and how the power to change the narrative has primarily laid with the European white settlers.

The Primary document below is a piece of a newspaper listing published by the Afro-American Gazette, and it lists in chronological order the history of black achievement. Listed halfway down is the 1867 published book entitled Slave Songs of the United States. This book is also seen below. Written and edited by northern abolitionists William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware, Slave Songs of the United States was published in 1867. It was prominent in introducing written notation of spirituals that were never shared before; this book was the first space where the famous folk tune Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen was published. The three authors that gathered all 136 spirituals listed spent time during the civil war with recently freed enslaved people and, in turn, learned of the songs they used for worship.

Furthermore, William Allen gives background through the writing of the introduction to the purpose of this book and the biases it might hold. Allen admits that “the difficulty experienced in obtaining absolute correctness is greater than might be supposed by those who have never tried the experiment, and we are far from claiming that we have made no mistakes” (Slave Songs, Pg. iv). His identity as a white scholar with a Harvard degree and title as an educator in the civil war gives him an abundance of authority to hold the narrative of African American Slave songs. Thankfully, the book’s authors provide some credit for the actual creators of the spirituals; however, the main argument is that the privilege the three authors hold allows them to change the narrative just as scholars like Krehbiel and Jackson have done.

The score of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, recorded by Charles Pickard, is a very prominent spiritual performed by many artists in pop culture. Consequently, the piece was recorded during a moment of grief, surrounded by when the population of Charleston. This song was specifically introduced to bring together the community in that moment of frustration. Those in the presence of the performance shared the intensity of emotions that flowed through the crowd. While the authors of this book were too in attendance, there stands to mention that the musicologists never could genuinely capture the integrity of the pieces through western, traditional transcription of music they later wrote down. Allen even remarks on this by stating that the mistakes embedded are “variations.” The issue, however, arises when these variations become the known versions of the original due to white privilege creating authority and power over all narratives.

One last primary document I came across is Frederick Louis Ritters’s book, Music in America, where he cites the Slave Songs of the United States and says it is “one of the best collections of old slave songs” (Ritter). At the time, it was the best collection of African American spirituals. Allen did indeed make recognition that these pieces were all derived from African Americans, that the notation depicted is the best that they can do and will only “convey but a faint shadow of the original” (Slave Songs, Pg. iv). Although, if we allow this narrative to represent African American culture and music, we allow authors like Henry Krehbiel and George Pullman Jackson to make claims of the white influence on black tradition.

 

Bibliography

Afro-American Gazette, vol. III, no. 2, 18 Jan. 1993, p. 12. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7AD36E8864712%40EANAAA-12C5F06DC6F7F750%402449006-12C5F06DF9520AB0%4017. Accessed 24 Nov. 2022.

Allen, W. F. W. (1867). Slave songs of the United States. Smithsonian Library. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/slavesongsofunit00alle

Wenturiano. (2007, August 24). Louis Armstrong – nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen (1962). YouTube. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from Louis Armstrong – Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (1962)

Ritter, Frédéric Louis. Music in America by Dr. Frédéric Louis Ritter. New York C. Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Readex: Readex AllSearch, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=ARDX&docref=image/v2%3A%40EAIX-147E02D592F8DF60%40-1514D940AFDB4FF0%40449. Accessed 24 Nov. 2022. 

Ethicality of Researching Native American Tribes

Along the border of New Mexico and Arizona one can find the Zuni people, a North American Indian tribe. Believed to be the descendants of the prehistoric Ancestral Pueblo, they have a long history of connection to the Pueblo tribe, including the involvement in the Pueblo Rebellion against the spanish. Their culture is deeply rooted in religion, spirituality, and the earth, specifically being known as the “Sun Worshippers”. Additionally the Zuni people, much like many other native tribes, utilize music in order to create a community space while completing activities like fire starting or welcoming the sunrise. The main primary source that I would like to share is a journal written by Castañeda de Nájera as he described his journey to Cibola, New Mexico. The book begins with his departure from Compostela on February 23, 1540 to Cibola. This happened to be the “poor pueblo village of the Zuni Indians”. There are also accounts of discovering as they travel America, but I will primarily focus on the Zuni tribe. Additionally, the later section of this book described the native american tribes including the making of their houses, customs, religion, agriculture, and dress. The book then ends with their unsuccessful expedition back to Mexico.

The infamous 16th century Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an important expedition in 1540 to New Spain in search of gold. Much like many other explorers of the time forced his way into many tribes including the Zuni tribe of Hawikuh, where modern New Mexico remains. This was the first discovery of native tribes for Coronado and it ultimately ended in violence as he attempted to take the town, which caused the tribe to flee their homes. This failure led to further exploration and several more battles with various tribes. As Coronado inserted himself into tribes such as the Tusayan, Triguez, and Acoma, he accounted for more and more traditions that the Native American tribes took part in, leading to the manuscript shown above.

Alongside the score that I have described, attached is a book written by Carlos Troyer entitled Indian Music Lecture published in 1913. This book encapsulates Troyer’s life and experiences as he traveled various spaces in order to discover and share various tribes’ religion, government, and lifestyle. Troyer is yet another example very similar to the primary source journal shown earlier in which an outsider takes initiative to research and implement their presence on a Native Tribe; interestingly enough both Coronado and Troyer both research the Zuni Tribe.

Carlos himself is a musician born in Frankfurt in 1837 who then traveled to America at a young age and began teaching music, composing, and traveling to a variety of countries to learn and share native culture. His contact with the Zuni people occurred when he was entrusted to interpret their songs through his work in California. Instead, Troyer visited the tribe and learned of their sacred dances, ceremonies, and “traditional lore”. His goal of the trip, just like his work with other tribes like the Incas, was to give insight to mainly American and European people about indigenous culture.

While it can be said that he achieved his goal and spread awareness on the tribe’s way of life, the way in which Troyer went about entering the tribe is questionable in terms of ethics. It appears that he gained permission and was well received, but one wording in a letter at the beginning of the book by Charles Cadman claimed that he “conquered ” other tribes. Whether liked or not, it comes to reason that his privilege of power as a white man allowed him privileges to expect acceptance for researching the tribe. Lastly, there is the occasional phrasing that invokes a sense of superiority such as the title of the book which is “an address designed for reading at musical gatherings, describing the lives, customs, religions, occult practices, and the surprising musical development of the cliff dwellers of the south west”. Wording like “surprising” gives indication that little was expected of the tribe and it places indigenous culture in an othering position.

2019 Buffalo dance/Pueblo of Zuni,NM @ Sañto Ñino

Bibliography

Castañeda de Nájera, Pedro de. “Narrative of the Expedition to Cibola Undertaken in 1540
[Manuscript]: Translated into English by Brantz Mayer.” American Indian Histories and Cultures – Adam Matthew Digital. The Newberry Library, 1851. https://www.aihc.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Images/Ayer_MS_1058/4.

History.com Editors. “Francisco Vázquez De Coronado.” History.com. A&E Television
Networks, November 9, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/francisco-vazquez-de-coronado.

Mateya. “2019 Buffalo Dance/Pueblo of Zuni,NM @ Sañto Ñino.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=o74Z0ZZOTEI.

Robert Stevenson. “Troyer, Carlos.” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Oxford
University Press, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.28481.

Stevenson, Robert. “Troyer, Carlos.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Date of
access 22 Sep. 2022,
https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001
.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000028481

Troyer, Carlos, and Charles Wakefield Cadman. Indian Music Lecture: The zuñi Indians and
Their Music: An Address Designed for Reading at Musical Gatherings, Describing the
Lives, Customs, Religions, Occult Practices, and the Surprising Musical Development of
the Cliff Dwellers of the South West. Theo. Presser Co., 1913.