Sister Rosetta Tharpe: A Gospel Great

I have decided to dedicate my last blog post to Sister Rosetta Tharpe because she was mentioned in class the other day and she is just so very cool. She was born Rosetta Nubin and was a famous blues guitar player who would go on to become the first successful crossover acts who played both gospel and pop songs with a career spanning the 1940s and 50s.She started playing publicly in front of her church at the age of four but went on to pursue a career in the music industry, first as a gospel singer and then also as a popular singer.

She was an incredibly talented singer and guitar player. She was one of the foremost talents on guitar and used to regularly challenge and subsequently beat male guitar players. She disrupted both the expectations of the musical genre (gospel) and her gender with her skill.

If you watch the video, you notice her incredible gift of playing the guitar. She plays it like it is an extension of herself, especially at that moment when she stops playing for a few seconds to clap but then goes right back to it like nothing happened. What is of note is the fact that she was commonly referred to being able to “play the guitar like a man”. While it is good that people can recognize and celebrate her talent, it implies that she can only be skilled by taking on a male trait like proficiency at the guitar. She has somehow become an unusual point in a trend that has existed in American history that women cannot be skilled and still retain their identity as a female. Yet, she never shied away from the supposed dichotomy that others saw in her. She claimed her ability and embraced her identity as a female without issue.2

Of note, is the fact that she was so popular that she was one of two black gospel acts who cut a V-Disc for American soldiers overseas in WWII. Later she, alongside Sammy Price (a pianist), would crack the race records top ten- a rare feat for a gospel act with her song “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day”. 3

She was so widely known that (as you can see in the review below) people would call her things like “the greatest individual personality in religious singing history”. This happens to be an announcement promoting an event she is headlining in Kansas but is not an advertisement so there is a greater likelihood that the feeling is true.

Announcement of Tharpe’s performance.

What does interest me is the fact that she was able to achieve fame as a gospel singer. Is there any significance behind the fact that she is known and celebrated predominantly as a gospel singer rather than as an early rock and roll star? Can you name any early female rock and rollers? Or is it possible they are all placed in other genres (as their primary identifier? What could this mean?)

Regardless of the answer to those questions, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an incredible woman and deserves to be better known in our time in any capacity. She was both enormously talented and influential and should be better known. (#herstory)


1.Sanjek, David. “Tharpe [née Nubin], Sister Rosetta.” Grove Music Online. 1 May. 2018.

2. Wald, Gayle. Shout, Sister, Shout! : The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. African American Music Reference. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

3. “Tharpe, Sister Rosetta, 1915-1973, by Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide.” In All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music, 1. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2001. 

4. “Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Appear in KCK Monday Nite”. Plaindealer (Kansas City, KS), Aug. 16, 1946. Found in America’s Historical Newspapers.


A Black Choral Group in a White World

Today’s post is about is the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society founded in Washington D.C. in 1903.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor choral society founded by black singers in Washington DC (1906)1

This society was explicitly dedicated, as you may expect given the name, to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not the guy who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) a popular English composer. As you may notice, this choral society is made up of all African Americans (the orchestra was not a part of the society). Their express purpose was to practice and then perform the works of Coleridge-Taylor.

In November of 1906, they put on a public performance of some of the works this composer had written a few years before. Of particular note to us as individuals studying American music and race, was the piece performed called “Hiawatha’s Wedding”. As you may expect, this piece had problematic aspects to it that must be critically evaluated. Also of note however, is the fact that the concert was attended by many including a substantial white audience of which part were members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet.2 This concert had been preceded by a buzz of excitement within Washington DC because of the composer’s visit and Coleridge-Taylor would even be invited to meet the President at the White House.

This choral festival performance of his work is notable because of the notoriety it received especially when we consider the generally racist attitude of white America. Also of note is the fact that this performance was a part of a trend in America that included many white choral societies who had sung his work around the country pretty much right after its debut in London.Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was celebrated as an exceptional composer of an excellent piece of Western choral music by these choral groups. Simultaneously, he was held up as an exemplar of black excellence by leading African American intellectuals like WEB DuBois and he saw himself as a part of that movement to prove the true ability of black people. 4

Now, we return to the piece “Hiawatha’s Wedding” itself.

If you listen to it, it sounds like one would expect it to as a Western choral piece. But let us look at a sample of the lyrics:

To the sound of flutes and singing
To the sound of drums and voices
Rose the handsome Pau-Puk-Keewis
And began his mystic dances

Now, this may not seem so bad but the vernacular used is important. For instance, the name “Pau-Puk-Keewis” is something that was made up, probably because it “sounds” Native American. Also, this use of the world ‘mystic’ is a marker of this idea that is constantly maintained about Native Americans as some kind of “exotic other”. Yet this piece was accepted into the mainstream (white) culture enthusiastically.

On one hand, this work should be celebrated because it was an unprecedented in terms of reception by a still segregated country of a black composer. It caused some white Americans to re-evaluate their racist assumptions about the abilities of black people because they were so impressed with his work. It is also another example of how artistic work in the United States is more integrated than it is separate.

Yet the work has problems. It still had stereotypical portrayals of the Native Americans and reinforced the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” Blim articulated. 5 It falls back on the sonic indicators of Native Americans, specifically that of a beating drum, again and again. It can be understood as racist because this image has an element of nostalgia that often allows the writers to distance themselves from issues of race, or in some cases address it by not addressing it, as identified by Carol Oja.6 It has a reductionist perspective about its subjects because it describes them only in a way that was normalized at the time, as people who were prone to singing and dancing. Not to mention the fact that in order for these black people to be respected and celebrated they had to assimilate to Western culture by composing and performing in this Western choral tradition.

One last note: although this piece may have been written by an English composer, it remains well within the realm of what we are talking about in American music because it deals with the same subjects, has the same problems, and remains a part of American culture.

Works Cited

  1. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Society November 1906. Pan africanism, race and the USA. British Library.
  2. Janifer, Ellsworth. “Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in Washington.” Phylon (1960-) 28, no. 2 (1967): 185-96. doi:10.2307/273562.
  3. McGinty, Doris Evans. “”That You Came so Far to See Us”: Coleridge-Taylor in America.” Black Music Research Journal 21, no. 2 (2001): 197-234. doi:10.2307/3181603.

  4. Banfield, Stephen, Jeremy Dibble, and Anya Laurence. “Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel.” Grove Music Online. 17 Apr. 2018.
  5. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indian”. paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, Vancouver, BC, November 4, 2016.
  6.  Oja, Carol. “West Side Story and The Music Man: whiteness, immigration, and race in the US during the late 1950s”. Studies in Musical Theatre 3, no. 1 (2009).

What Makes a Spiritual?

In combing through the archives to find documents that would be valid proof for my blog post, the problem of preservation and what counts as music that should be highlighted as an authentic expression of what it means to be a black American in the late 1800s kept bothering me and continues to do so.

Epstein notes the fact that the songs that were created by black Americans in the lat 1800s were not recorded for posterity, like corn songs.1
We know that there are a number of songs that failed to be preserved and passed down that told the experience of slaves, perhaps in a way that we will never know as present day audiences, far removed from that experience ourselves. However, in thinking about all of this and in looking through the archive, a question arose: how would a song like the one below fit in?

Clime up de Ladder to de Clouds. Composed by Gussie Davis. 1891. 2

This so-called ‘Ethiopian Song’ was written as a minstrel song but it retains the same elements of a spiritual. Furthermore, it was written by a black composer Gussie Davis. It arguably is at the very least inspired by the spirituals that were an established form of music by this time. Does this mean that it can be seen as a part of that tradition?

The lyrics themselves are the puzzle. As one can probably deduce, the song is about someone climbing up to heaven. There are multiple references to biblical objects like New Jerusalem and Satan which were also common in spirituals. Would it then fit the criteria of a spiritual?

If the answer to the question of whether or not it is a spiritual is that no, because it is a constructed form of music that is not an authentic experience, then why do the songs performed by slaves for their white owners for entertainment, documented by Southern, not fall into the same category? It has the same aspects of being a learned form, of falling into the “black entertainer with a white audience” category and placed the entertainer in a hazy sphere of identity.3
Does this change the perspective we have about “Clime up de ladder to de clouds”?

What about when we learn that Gussie Davis (who composed the song) grew up in Ohio and never experienced slavery?4 No I could not find a source for this, but would things be viewed differently if we found out that his parents had been former slaves? Or that he could directly point to a spiritual that had inspired this song?

Even though we may not agree that despite all of this, this song still does not have a place in the the spiritual tradition, it is still important to think about the questions this example raises. How do we understand what makes a black spiritual? Who gets to make it up? Does direct influence of spirituals or experience have to be explicitly affirmed or can we find other ways to hint at it? What would it mean if we included minstrel songs into the spiritual repertoire?

I don’t know if there are answers to those questions but they are worth thinking about.

Works Cited

1.Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals : Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

2. Davis, Gussie L., 1863-1899. Clime up de ladder to de clouds : Ethiopean song. New York: Hitchcock and McCargo Publishing Co., L’td.1891.

3. Southern, E. (1971). “Entertainment for the Masters” inThe music of black Americans : A history. (1st ed.), 173-175. New York: W. W. Norton.

4. Saffle, Michael. “Davis, Gussie Lord.” International Dictionary of Black Composers, Vol. 1: Abrams-Jenkins. 374-78. 

Amos ‘n Andy: An American Legacy

In trying to come up with this blog post, I decided to take my inspiration for a research topic from the readings for class about the legacy of minstrel shows. The one I found the most striking and complex was a popular radio show (and short lived TV show) called Amos ‘n Andy.

Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden in blackface as “Amos” and “Andy”. Circa 1931  1

Written and performed by two white actors, Amos ‘n’ Andy started as a regional Chicago radio show named Sam ‘n’ Henry. Within a few years and a name change the show was broadcasted nationally and eventually became the most popular show of its kind. Other shows were called Burnt Cork Review, Aunt Jemima and Plantation Party. 2 which should give a hint to the idea that these shows were the offspring of the minstrel tradition. All told, the radio show ran in some form (nightly or weekly) for a total of 32 years from 1928 to 1960. There were a number of other plays and even at least one movie that I found inspired by those characters along with a number of commercial items like toys and buttons.

Amos ‘n’ Andy relied on the humor and formula that had worked in the not-so-distant past in minstrel shows. It was a direct legacy of minstrel shows in more ways than one. It was an immensely popular show that ran for years, even through the Great Depression. In fact, the two actors on the show were two of the highest people paid in the years of the Depression. The clearest example of the legacy of minstrelsy in the show was the way humor was manufactured: the actors used dialect and slapstick comedy for laughs, the two main characters were two forms of the stereotypical characters that had appeared on so many minstrel shows. They were both naive bumpkins who were prone to mishaps and general buffoonery.

Amos ’n’ Andy

Cast of Amos ’n’ Andy. Alvin Childress as Amos Jones (left), Tim Moore as George “Kingfish” Stevens (center), and Spencer Williams as Andrew Hogg Brown (right)

The TV show that was on air from 1951-1953 featured an African American cast who, although they may not have been using actual blackface but were instructed to keep to the dialect and voices of the original actors thus creating a form of virtual blackface. The show was short lived because of a formal protest by the NAACP who felt the show was a series of racist portrayals that were contributing to a negative opinion of African Americans. This is direct evidence of the changing role and acceptance outlined in our readings and seen in the culture as mentioned by Stephen Johnson when he talks about the blackface appearance of Pat Paulsen that never aired.3

Amos ‘n Andy was a good example of the legacy minstrelsy has left behind in this country. It also reflected the shifting dynamics of the country because of the way the NAACP was able to successfully protest against the TV show and get the network to cancel it. Yet, while the TV show was protested against and cancelled, the radio show continued to play in the background. The ambiguity of the minstrel show is left behind too because like you can see in the picture at the top, the actors would appear in blackface as their characters like the minstrel shows but would later go on to comment that they felt their show did not a negative depictions of African Americans. Not to mention the fact that the show was an extremely popular American phenomenon demonstrating the enduring appeal of the minstrel shows even though the format of the it changed.

1 Unidentified Artist. Amos ‘n’ Andy. c. 1935. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, (Accessed March 8, 2018.)

Dobson, Frank E. “Amos ’n’ Andy.” In Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present. : Oxford University Press, 2009.

3 Johnson, Stephen, ed. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Young, William H. “Amos ‘N’ Andy (Radio and Tv, 1928).” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 8, 2018.

But it Was Only a Dream: the White Myth of “Southern” Music

Sunny Side Boys, two youngsters, one of whom is on his back playing the fiddle, with an older man playing guitar. Bascom Lamar Lunsford is probably the man to the right of the picture holding a microphone above the fiddler. 1

This picture attempts to capture part of a tradition of country music that sums up the myth of the exclusively white origins of said genre. There is an exclusively white (male) band and given that one member can be seen playing on the floor; one that is good at what they do. Such a conception, as we have discussed in our class, seems to be largely due to the efforts of those folk song collectors and the record companies who wanted to commercialize the genre. In so doing, those scholars and companies attempted to eliminate the role of African Americans and their contributions to that style of music. So, one could say, it is not that others cannot recognize the contributions of African Americans towards the culture, it is the fact that record companies would make things “more white” to make more money that was the foundation for this erasure. This process was explicitly outlined in the writings of Erich Nunn we did for class. 2
BITHCERSHowever, what I found out while doing my research for this post is that the roots of this musical tradition can be traced back to the the US Civil War and the songs of the Confederate South. The two themes are prominent within it: a denial of black experience in the American South and this rural lifestyle as an idyllic lifestyle that is lost anywhere else.

War Songs of the South Edited by “Bohemian” 3










This song is only one example of many in a book of war songs but each follows this theme of a lost ideal society that was being faced with tyranny from the North. This song explicitly mentions slavery but alongside the beautiful natural conception of the South, ignoring the lives of a majority of people in that society! That idealization of the South implicitly glosses over major problems in that society.

If we understand the war songs of the Confederate South as such, It makes sense that they were the foundation for a future of denying African Americans a role in the creation of country music. The song above is one example of a history of erasing black contributions to the society they find themselves in.

Such an understanding of the pre-war South set the stage for the future conception of a rural lifestyle idealized even today in country music.Songs today in the genre revolve around the same ideas like trucks and tractors and lost love. Although in our time not explicitly negating the experience of African Americans in that rural lifestyle, it is built on a tradition in the genre of idealizing a lifestyle while simultaneously ignoring different lifestyles of many people within it.

1 Lomax, Alan. Sunny Side Boys, two youngsters, one of whom is on his back playing the fiddle, with an older man playing guitar. Bascom Lamar Lunsford is probably the man to the right of the picture holding a microphone above the fiddler. Between 1938 and 1950. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

 Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (2009): 623-49.

. “Lines to the Tyrant”. Page 30-34. In War Songs of the South. Edited by “Bohemian,” Correspondent Richmond Dispatch. Richmond:West & Johnston, 145 Main Street.1862.

3154 Conf. (Rare Book Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)