Slave Songs’ Journey Through Hollywood

“Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord,

Nobody knows the trouble I see,

Nobody knows like Jesus”

Did you hear the tune in your heard as you read these lyrics? A tune that looks something like this?

This image is from the collection of songs, “Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies,” published in 1885 by H.B. Thearle. According to the introduction by Harry Hanaford, the songs in the collection “were not ‘composed’ after the manner or ordinary music, but came to life ready-made, seemingly during the working and singing on the plantation” and that they are “giving a truthful representation of the negro as he appeared in the days of slavery” 1

The image above is the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord,” the first song in the “Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies” book. Based on the introduction, this song is meant to be regarded as a slave song, a bit of history in musical form.

Although since then, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” has been taken to Hollywood, where it has been used in movies such as The Lion King. The Hollywoodization of this song, among others, has caused the songs to lose their original motivation and meaning.

For example, in this clip from The Lion King, Zazu sits in a carcass and sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” as he sits in captivity. After the first two lines, Scar throws a bone at Zazu and says, “Oh do lighten up, Zazu. Sing something with a little bounce to it,” to which Zazu humorously starts singing “It’s a Small World After All.” This scene is meant to be humorous and, although it’s an interesting parallel to slavery being that Zazu is in captivity, the fact that “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” is presented as a method for humor negates this parallel.

On the flipside, other movies such as “Twelve Years a Slave” have redefined some slaves songs back to their original meaning and motivation. For example, in “Twelve Years a Slave,” the song “Roll, Jordon, Roll” is used at what appears to be a funeral. It is often seen as the scene where the main character, Plat, gives in to his situation (being kidnapped and sold into slavery) and releases of all his emotions since his kidnapping. Unlike The Lion King, this clip uses music not for a laugh from the audiences, but to help demonstrate the situational pain.

According to Henry Krehbiel in his book “Afro-American Folksongs,” he would argue that only the movies that are reclaiming slave songs and using them to demonstrate situational pain are the appropriate space to use these songs. He writes that white, Western inhabitants lack “the emotionaol elements which existed in the slave life of the plantations in the South and which invited celebration in song—grace and gay.” 2

Although we can’t put a race on Zazu as he’s a bird, we can assume that he has not experienced the same trauma that, for example, Plat has in “Twelve Years a Slave” that would give Zazu the motivation to sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” therefore demonstrating how Hollywood has taken slave songs and shifted their motivation.


1 Thearle, H.B. Jubilee Songs and Plantation Melodies. University of Tennessee, 1885.

2 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves” in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1914), 11-28.

CornBugles. YouTube. Oct. 14, 2019.

MetaPhysicsalJesus. Youtube. Oct. 14, 2019.

Bam-a-Lam: The Confusion Behind Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”

Many people are well-aware of the classic rock one-hit wonder “Black Betty” by Ram Jam and its legacy in film, television, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture entertainment. Personally, I quite enjoy the song and I find it to have a great percussive groove and a catchy melody with some rather interesting rhythmic modulations and shifts. (Link below in case you may not be familiar with the song)

Ram Jam – Black Betty (Official Audio)

However, not many people might not be aware of its origins, especially in the context of black American music.  Ram Jam did credit the blues and folk artist Leadbelly for the origin of their cover and it was advertised as a cover, as can be seen by Richard Cromelin’s mixed review of Ram Jam’s concert at the Starwood in Los Angeles [1]:

[Here is Leadbelly’s version of Black Betty]

While Leadbelly has been typically credited as such, he cannot fully take credit for something he recorded as a folk artist, as Henry Edward Krehbiel argued that folk songs needed to be birthed originally by a group of people rather than an individual artist [2].  The source of the song is regularly contested as well as the original meaning of what a “Black Betty” could have been, whether it be an object or a person.  Some sources claim “Black Betty” could have been used as early as the beginning of the 19th century to describe a musket or a liquor bottle, and it is very plausible those could be meanings that would be applied to the Black Betty in the song.  One source I found particularly interesting was our favorite folk song collectors, John and Alan Lomax.

In their collection of songs of the Southern chain gangs, the Lomaxes documented “Black Betty” sung by “a convict on the Darrington Farm in Texas” and what they understood “Black Betty” was:

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about.  She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons… where […] whipping has been practically discontiuned…” [3]

Being that Leadbelly was also a member of Texas prison chain gangs, its very plausible that he learned the song and many others there, and there may also be a trail that could be investigated further into the musics of enslaved blacks in the US.  Therefore, this demonstrates a rather interesting transmission of music from a possible origin in slave songs to white musicians like Ram Jam.  They did manage to give credit to the artist who had a definitive recording, which I find to be at least somewhat conscious on their efforts as recording artists in the American popular music scene, but it should be worth noting the influence of black folk music that was felt as late as the 1970s and that we are likely still feeling today.


[1] Cromelin, “Ram Jam at the Starwood”

[2] Krehbiel, “Songs of the American Slaves,” 22

[3] J.A. Lomax, A. Lomax, “American Ballads & Folk Songs,” 60


Cromelin, Richard. “Ram Jam at the Starwood.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Nov 12, 1977. 1,

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves” in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1914), 11-28.

Lomax, John A., Lomax, Alan. “Songs from Southern Chain Gangs” in American Ballads & Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan Co., 1935), 57-86.

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”

What Makes Music Black?

What makes music black? Is it the performer? The composer? The performance style? While not many newspaper blurbs or display ads explicitly grapple with these questions, even seemingly innocuous clippings contribute to the conversation.

A display advertisement from a 1973 issue of the Chicago Defender proclaims a “New Black Radio Alternative,” boasting that the station includes “All That Makes Up the Black Musical Experience.”1 This type of bold statement doesn’t tell us what makes music black, but it does validate our curiosity. The ad implies that there is such a thing as a universal “black musical experience” that can be neatly boxed and encapsulated. This very assumption is what prompts us to try to define black music. Many of the scholars we have read in class touch on this idea; for example, both Amiri Baraka and Samuel Floyd might agree that some black essence underlies black music, whatever it may be.2,3

Another short newspaper article in the Chicago Defender from just a few months prior to the radio advertisement espouses a similar belief in the existence of a quintessential “black experience.” In his short article, Earl Calloway discusses the fact that Columbia Records has just begun to record not only jazz, blues, and folk music, but also classical music by black composers. Calloway lauds these composers as having “dipped their pens into the core of the black experience and brought to surface ingenious creative music unlike any that exists today.” 4

There’s a lot to unpack here. At the base level, Calloway reinforces the existence of a universal black experience that is somehow part of what defines “black music.” But he also complicates his portrayal of black music by creating a hierarchy. He implies that classical music by black composers is better than other music, especially the standard “black popular music” that has already been recorded for sixty years. Earlier in the article, he asserts that “many composers have taken ethnic ingredients and transformed their earthy rhythms and simple melodies into the more complex sonata form.”5
This almost implies that classical music by black composers transcends ordinary black music, which Calloway seems to dismiss as “simple” and “earthy.” It is unclear if Calloway would even directly consider music by Joplin, Coleridge-Taylor, or Price to be “black music,” or if he would think of it as white music composed by black artists. Such complications always lead us back to the question: What makes a music black?

We come full circle with another advertisement in a 1970 issue of Village Voice at Bowling Green State University. The ad is for a talk described as “A fine survey of black music in America,” given by Arnold Shaw, the author of a book called The World of Soul.6 This again hearkens back to Samuel Floyd’s argument that black music has some cultural memory, or soulfulness, at its heart.7 So is it this characteristic that defines black music? I don’t think this question, or any other concerned with defining black music, is one that can or should be answered definitively; however, it is certainly fascinating to see that even the most commonplace advertisements and articles contribute to both the asking and answering of these questions.

1 Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, page 19.

2 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

3 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

4 Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, page 10.

5 Ibid.

6 Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, page 6.

7 Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, page 10.

Works Cited

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Cowles Book Company, “The World of Soul,” Village Voice, June 25, 1970, Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Earl Calloway, “Columbia to issue classic black music,” Chicago Defender, July 23, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Samuel Floyd, The Power of Black Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sonderling Broadcasting Corporation, “New Black Radio Alternative,” Chicago Defender, November 17, 1973, Proquest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender, (accessed October 10, 2019).

Hazel Scott: Swinging the Classics

Current music platforms such as Spotify certainly have their ups and downs, but rarely enough troubling side effects for most people to be deterred from utilizing their systems. One sweet serendipity of these platforms and their algorithms are the occasional chances in which they play something new and exciting that gets the listener interested and wanting to learn more. I found myself in a similar situation. After weeks of listening to stations devoted to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Etta James, I was introduced to Hazel Scott. 

When looking for more information about Scott, I came across countless advertisements and articles detailing various endeavors she made in a storied career. It is a shame I have not heard of her until now, and I ask the question: Why isn’t Hazel Scott consistently included with the names of influential African-American jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday? How does a woman buried near Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong get a smaller narrative in a music she helped create and popularize?

The answer appears to lie in the latter parts of her career. From sources gathered, we can see that Hazel Scott was a groundbreaking and often controversial artist. 

Newspaper article describing the resistance to Scott performing at Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital. One of the many instances that contributed to resistance to Scott’s success from white audiences and public figures.

Not only did Hazel Scott push racial boundaries in a racist country (requiring many spaces to integrate their stages for her and her popularity despite historical precedence of white-only performers), but later in her career Hazel Scott was vocal against the Cold War and much of the harmful anti-Communist sentiment prevalent in the country. Scott was even called upon to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee along with several other performers and artists who spoke out.1

I will always remember the very first piece I heard Hazel Scott play: her Two Part Invention in A Minor. The piece begins with the opening strains of Bach’s own Invention in A Minor, but she quickly takes off into a jazzed up version which was a typical style of Hazel Scott’s. Her performance practice is often referred to as “swinging the classics”.

Take a look at the opening melodic material of Bach’s invention (just the first 20 seconds or so are important).

Now listen to what Hazel Scott has done with Bach’s melody. At about 0:56, she finishes the invention and takes off. You can hear the addition of a drum set in the background as well.

Hazel Scott took classical music that many educated audiences were familiar with and gave it an American spin. By infusing jazz, a relatively young creation of the American musical mind, Hazel Scott excited and entertained audiences in a country yearning for a unified identity in a time of unrest and worldwide war. Unfortunately, her activism and commitment to her values cost her career opportunities, and has since affected her memory and legacy in American jazz and popular culture.

Want to learn more? You can enjoy this mini-documentary about Hazel! I strongly encourage you to learn more about this performer (some tidbits: she was the first black American to host a national television show and first to get leading roles in Hollywood films). Also, you can reach out to me and I will point you in the direction of countless Youtube videos, albums, and Spotify playlists!

Primary Source

Defender, Washington Bureau. “Report Truman to Probe Ban Against Hazel Scott.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 13, 1945.

Secondary Source

Mack, Dwayne. “HAZEL SCOTT: A CAREER CURTAILED.” The Journal of African American History 91, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 153-170.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Payola in the 1960s

Fats Domino may have invented rock and roll, but Alan Freed made it a hit. Freed, a disk jockey, worked at WAKR in Akron, Ohio, when he realized that there was a demand for rhythm and blues music (or R&B) in the area. He would make his fame by playing and marketing R&B, blues, and country music under the name of “Rock and Roll”. He became immensely popular and built a career off of promoting black rock and roll musicians, including Paul Williams, Tiny Grimes, and the Dominoes.

 “Alan Freed, sometimes called the father of Rock N’ Roll, was charged with 26 counts in two informations. He was accused of accepting $10,000 from a recording company in 1958 and with taking bribes of $20,650 from six other companies in 1958 and 1959” (Chicago Defender, 28 May 1960).

In 1959, Freed and other disk jockeys were investigated by the House Committee on Legislative Oversight for their involvement with a system called payola. Payola is, essentially, when a radio station or disk jockey takes money or other illegal bribes in exchange for playing certain music over the radio without publicly stating that it is sponsored airtime. Through various loopholes and lack of oversight, Freed and other disk jockeys made a fortune through the exploitation of black musicians. In addition to cash bribes, Freed also committed payola in the form of being listed as a co-composer of certain songs so he could receive royalties checks from them.

“Payola was how you got your records played,” stated Marshall Chess, President of Chess Records. “It was how you did business… back then it was totally open. ‘You help me, and I’ll help you,’” (Alan Freed and Payola).

It’s the same issue we’ve run across with minstrelsy. What do we make of a system that simultaneously builds careers for black musicians, and grossly exploits them? On one hand, it is far more progressive than the system of minstrelsy in the sense that it gave black musicians a career that was not so much about the color of their skin than their music, but Freed and others still left them only scraps of their surplus value. Even though record companies cannot use payola anymore, there still exist schemes that exploit musicians (pay-to-play, for example),  so we need to keep asking these questions into the present day.


“Alan Freed and Payola” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Adam Matthew Digital. 2011. Web. Accessed 10 October 2019.

United Press International, “Arrest 5 Disk Jockeys Over Payola,” Chicago Defender. 28 May, 1960. Accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender. Accessed on 10 October 2019.

Does Music With Problematic Origins Deserve the Right to be Performed?

I would like to take a quick step back from minstrelsy to discuss a comment I made in our last class about cultural sharing. This past Tuesday, in conversation with the idea of people of European descent making up 1/3 of those who perform Taiko in the United States, I suggested that this type of cultural sharing would not be problematic if there were not a history of colonization in this country. This is an idealized notion that I recognize to be a trying if not nearly impossible task, that is, undoing those parts of colonization which have made people unequal. The reality, however, is that colonization is far more widespread in its aftermath than I could personally be able to explain and begin to combat individually.

Take this video my father sent me called, “White people Pow-Wow song “Going To A Pow-Wow” and really focus on the way it evokes particular emotions.

It’s pretty blatantly… cringey. It also makes me laugh due to the sheer lack of knowledge of Native Americans, well, anything. 

My point is, the people in this video are not engaged in cultural sharing because they have fetishized and created their own ideal version of what Native American culture and music should be. On the contrary, I would like to still believe that cultural sharing can be possible but it is the adoption of marginalized identities by a white-majority that remains the issue. 

For example, this department had an open dialogue last year sparked by the presence of Marti 

Newland on the topic of white students singing spirituals. With her guidance, we ultimately came to the conclusion that it was okay for white people to sing spirituals and specifically in dialect however the composition of spirituals by white composers was to be abandoned. This brings up the issue of authenticity and what race of composers are allowed to compose what and profit off of a marginalized culture. Tying this back into minstrelsy, I feel the need to point out that the ambiguity in whether or not we should give attention to songs that were created for racist purposes is an act of liberal violence. There is an essay by Gareth Griffiths titled, “The Myth of Authenticity” from the collection of essays he Post-Colonial Studies Reader, I have felt helpful in the discussion of what this blog is titled. Although Griffith is not speaking to an American experience, the fetishization and mystification of marginalized groups are applicable, in part, to the discussion on marginalized identities in the United States. The claim he makes is that even though an entity may be claiming to be “even-handed” in discussing two sides of a story between an oppressed group and their oppressors, the act of giving each truth equal weight is an act of “liberal violence” [1]. This mode of thought does not give proper weight to the constant fetishization, institutional racism, or a number of other societal factors that negatively impact a marginalized group yet we give outsider voices equal weight. Take from this what you will. 


Sources Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader London : Routledge, 1995.

Psychedelic Citizenship: From Hendrix to Kaepernick

Since studying it in AmCon, then again in AMST 301, I have been fascinated with Jimi Hendrix’ version of the Star Spangled Banner that he performed at Woodstock in 1969. This version of the national anthem is warped and distorted, a reflection of the political climate in America at the time. Coming out of the ‘50s, Americans in the early ‘60s believed they were in somewhat of a golden age. With the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and the struggle for Civil Rights, it became clear that the 1960s were not to be a golden age, after all. Hendrix’ version of this patriotic anthem is representative of a shifting idea of what it means to be an American and a patriot at a time in which our nation is fraught with so much disaster.

This New Yorker article claims that “Jimi Hendrix’s Rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ is more relevant than ever”, by linking Hendrix’ performance to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protests. This comparison is particularly important because of the nature of the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick protests the anthem, not in spite of his country, but in spite of an administration that he believes threatens the country that he loves. In this article, Hendrix’s political statement is deemed a “psychedelic citizenship,” meaning that Hendrix does not reject his country by performing such a warped version of the anthem, but rather that his performance emphasizes his American identity in his call for recognition of horrendous acts by Americans and American administration. By performing the anthem in such a way, in such a public place as well, Hendrix acknowledges himself as a patriot in his own right, one that acknowledges the down-fallings of his country while still “[acknowledging] the promise and potential of the nation.” This same statement applies to Kaepernick.

Though we can retrospectively view Hendrix’ Woodstock performance as a performance of “psychedelic citizenship,” like Kaepernick, this act did not go without criticism. In this article from the Berkeley Tribe in 1969, the same year of Hendrix’ performance, the author writes of the Anti-Riot act as an attempt by the government to silence backlash against atrocities committed by the administration.

In a similar vein to Kaepernick today, artists at this time were punished for using their platforms to critique the American government. While Hendrix was calling attention to the Vietnam war, Kaepernick brings to light the issue of police violence that plagues our nation. These protests are not against America as a nation, but rather the perversion of American and human values.


If you’re interested – for my final project for AMST 301, I made a found footage music video to Hendrix’ Woodstock rendition of the national anthem (which is too big to include here but I’d be happy to send it as a google drive link).



In class discussions, the topics of advertising someone based on their race has popped up in conversations multiple times. In our context, we’ve only mentioned this in design of literal records. This article shows the same affect taking place or at least reinforcing that idea with a Teen Life magazine article written by Elvis Presley where he talks about his music. The preface to the article states, “A young lad born in Mississippi and whose singular style of singing has skyrocketed him to fame in his own words tells the simple truths about how a star is born.”

The entire article from here on, tries to defend the “original style” that Elvis has made for himself.
Elvis has become controversial in the past few years for his appropriation of music by black artists such as hound dog (originally recorded by Big Mama Thorton. He states in the article, “A lot of people ask me where I got my singing style. Well, I didn’t copy my style from anybody. I got nothing in common with Johnny Ray, except we both sing-if you want to call it singing” (citation). As a modern audience, we can all agree this is not true at all.
Through a simple search on YouTube, we can confirm that Elvis took music and musical styles from black artists such as Big Mama Thorton’s original performance of the song “Hound Dog”.

Teen Life Article

I doubt Elvis read the George Pullen Jackson we had to read for class and thought “Oh! Some of African American music comes from white countries, so it’s okay that I do this”. I can

Johnny Ray

only think of two answers to Elvis’ intentions when writing these words that contradict his actions. Either, he is a big fan of the works of George Pullen Jackson and believed the work to be his or due to multiple factors in the past decades, it was completely acceptable to just take work from black artists if you needed to support yourself and your family. In the article he focuses on how his success has helped him and his poor Mississippi family. Johnny Ray, a white singer who also borrowed from a lot of black artists, is the only one Elvis acknowledges might have a similar style.


-Presley, Elvis. “Elvis Tells You His Own Story in His Own Words.” Teen Life, Apri. 1959, pp. 15-15

-Yiannis/John. “Johnnie Ray.” Johnnie Ray, 1 Jan. 1970,

What It Means to Be Black: A People and Their Music

“Beyond the obvious fact that you are black, is your music black music?”



“To answer that, I’m going to give you a brief musical background of myself.”1

Excerpt of Isaac Hayes’ interview in The Los Angeles Free Press1

So begins an excerpt from an interview of the “black superstar” Isaac Hayes from a 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, in which Hayes discusses the blackness of not only his music, but himself. He recounts hearing a “hillbilly sort of country & western” music in his early childhood before hearing any swing or other black music. In addition to this, he went through many other phases, including multiple classical music phases, and only after that started learning jazz, while also singing gospel in church. He concludes:

“So I wouldn’t say I’m black. Sure I’m a member of the black race, and I can relate to black experiences. But musically, you have a fusion of cultures. You’ve got Africa in it, you’ve got Europe in it, you’ve got Latin America, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got pop, you’ve got country & western, you’ve got it all.” 1

This could be seen as a quite liberating view of a black musician’s music—almost transcending race, identifying aspects of his music that are grounded in many traditions. However, Hayes also takes the interesting step of applying this back to his race: “I wouldn’t say I’m black.” Being racially black and having black experiences isn’t enough to be black in the larger sense, which in Hayes’ view seems to include something more. When asked what he would “classify as pure black music,” he points to “songs expressing the black experience in the ghetto . . . that’s black music.”1 So if he made that kind of music, would he be more black? This, to me, is a surprisingly narrow view of what it means to be black.

Beginning of letter in The Chicago Defender2

A letter in a 1965 issue of the Chicago Defender reflects a related view: “Attending a recital of a Negro singer in Orchestra Hall, recently, I was amazed, disappointed and hurt, to note, that she did not include in her program, any Negro spirituals.” The letter then gives examples of musicians who “wrote many manuscripts telling of our 300 years of sorrow,” but argues that now “integration and acceptance of a few, on their way to the heights, is making them forget the ‘depths from which we have come.’”2

This is not arguing that one must perform a certain music to be fully black, but rather that being black necessitates the performance of a certain music. It makes a compelling argument for black musicians to remember their history, but how much must the music one performs be rooted in their history? If black people must absolutely perform “black” music, this forges a link between the musician and their music that leads back in the direction of Hayes’ idea of black music and its connection to black identity. There can be clear benefits to connecting identity with music, but to connect them in such a way that one cannot exist without the other risks whittling them both down to an essence that fails to adequately represent either.

1 Van Ness, Chris. “Isaac Hayes: Superstar behind the soundtrack for Shaft.” The Los Angeles Free Press, Jan 14, 1972.

2 Ruth, Smith McGowan. “Reader Disappointed when Singer Omits Negro Spirituals.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 06, 1965.

White Choirs Singing Spirituals

On January 28th, 1956, famous poet Langston Hughes wrote an article for the Chicago Defender titled “Concerning the Singing of Spirituals Today.” 


Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an American poet, writer, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, whose texts have been set to music in over 200 songs (1). He wrote a column every week for the Chicago Defender, a popular black newspaper, where he “chose the pen to convey the suffering and dreams of his people” (2).


In this article, Hughes argues that intent is imperative when singing negro spirituals, specifically for people whose ancestors were never slaves. He states:


“When the spirituals came into being one of the trials and tribulations, frustrations and bewilderments of slavery, they must have had an intense and immediate meaning for the people who made them up and who sang them out of their hearts in the dark hours of bondage…In the days when slaves had neither freedom nor doctors, song must have been a great factor in soothing the wounds of flesh and soul” (3).


Hughes believes that spirituals are integral to meaningful concerts; they have more power compared to other songs in captivating the audience and fostering a universal sense of love and healing. Even when singers do not understand the meaning behind them, spirituals still retain this inherent power.


However, as Hughes acknowledges, many listeners held issue with hearing white choirs sing spirituals. Hughes describes, “The spiritual may easily become the mark of the stereotype – the ever singing Negro” (3). Nonetheless, Hughes believes that once a song is sung, the “song is freed as it is sung..for friend or foe to enjoy impartially. Like all the common gifts of God or nature…the songs may then belong to anyone” (3). There will always be singers who demean and depreciate the music they sing, and who sing for reasons other than their personal joy, but those who invest time and effort in learning the history behind spirituals are fully capable of singing spirituals in a meaningful way.

Hughes advises singers who wish to perform spirituals to consult the works of black poets and scholars. Singers shouldn’t only learn the spirituals on their concert program; rather, they should learn many of the greatest spirituals, and choose which ones having meaning for them. White singers “may unintentionally make of their singing of these songs “stereotypes,” not by design, but simply through immaturity or lack of understanding…When they are sung purely for entertainment…then a little minor crime is committed” (3).

Question still remains nowadays as to whether all choirs should sing spirituals. The St. Olaf Choir, directed by Anton Armstrong, programs several spirituals on all of its concerts. 

Here is an example of them singing “Ride On King Jesus,” arranged by Moses Hogan, on their 2017 tour:

Here is another example of a predominantly white choir singing a spiritual, titled “Keep Your Lamps”:


Anton Armstrong instructs singers in the St. Olaf Choir to sing the words to “Ride On King Jesus” in the dialect slaves would’ve used at the time the song was written. The choir uses darkened vowels, says “da” instead of “the,” and “hinda” instead of “hinder,” to give a few examples. This choir’s performance differs from the Bishop Shanahan High School performance, who sings Keep Your Lamps at an upbeat and exciting tempo and makes no change in how they pronounce the words of the song. While I cannot give a definitive opinion as the rights white people have over singing traditionally black music, I think that being sensitive to pronunciations and the history of the songs is important.


  1. Brown, R.  (2001). Hughes, (James Mercer) Langston. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2019, from
  2. The Helix, Volume V , Volume 5 – Issue 9 – 12 12 1968 , 1968 – 1969 © Bowling Green State University
  3. Hughes, L. (1956, Jan 28). Concerning the singing of spirituals today. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from

Keeping it “real”: Spirituals as the authentic American music

Article from the Chicago Defender (April 22, 1933)

When German motion picture star Dorothy Welkes arrived in the US in April 1933, she was excited to hear the sonic landscape of America. Specifically, she longed to hear “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes.” Upon the fulfillment of this wish, she remarked that she believed spirituals “represent the real American music.”

This brief clipping from the Chicago Defender is only three paragraphs long, but there’s a fair amount to process. The fact that spirituals were gaining international acclaim is significant, particularly since the discussion about its origins (and thus by implied extension, legitimacy) was long from over. Furthermore, that a German celebrity would prioritize black music at the brink of racist totalitarianism under Hitler’s regime is significant and could be examined as an act of defiance. Even designating it as the “real” American music is amazing; while now we take it for granted that gospel and spirituals are a valuable part of the American sonic scene, defenses of African American music making as a legitimate field continued for decades after with writers such as Amiri Baraka.

The Southernaires (Ray Yeates, Lowell Peters, Jay Stone Toney, William Edmonson, and Spencer Odom)

Of course, the idea that any type of American music can be more “real” or “authentic” than another is questionable. Welkes’ insistence on hearing “Negro spirituals sung by American Negroes” belies a level of exoticism and desire to view and examine black bodies in a commercial environment. In this sense then, the performers (in this case the musical group the “Southernaires,” not to be confused with the “Jackson Southernaires”) were forced to perform blackness for a white witness.  Although no black-face was used, her desire for “authenticity” is reminiscent of the “fear of and fascination with the black male” Eric Lott outlines in regards to minstrelsy.[1]

Section of the Decca Numerical Catalog ca. 1950 from the Popular Culture in Britain and America Database

In his chapter “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City,” Ray Allen describes how the Southernaires emerged out of the black university tradition pioneered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group was formed in 1929 and quickly gained acclaim for their national radio show “The Little Weather-Beaten Whitewashed Church” which featured traditional spirituals, secular southern folk songs, sermons, recitations, and guest speakers. They went on to record a number of records with label Decca, although these were never as successful as their radio show. While I faced a surprising amount of trouble in procuring information about this group, Allen asserts their importance by stating:

“The Southernaires’ smooth, barbershop harmonizing and rhythmic arrangements of spirituals undoubtedly influenced many black vocal groups of the 1930s and early 1940s, and introduced white radio audiences to the magnificent black university style of quartet singing.”[2]


The context provided by Allen raises new questions about the appropriateness of Welkes’ request. Her language certainly emphasizes their otherness in the context of her own whiteness, but their agreement to perform makes sense in the context of their commercial careers. As radio performers, they already had little control over who could listen to their music, and indeed the article shares that Welkes had already heard their broadcast. The significance thus lies in the choices made by Welkes and the author of the article when speaking about the event. The act of performance was itself not problematic, but Welkes’ word choice betrays her biases, giving us key insights into the psyche of the white observers of black sound.

[1] Eric Lott, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

[2] Ray Allen, “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, 26.


Works Cited

Allen, Cleveland G. “GERMAN SCREEN STAR PREFERS ‘SPIRITUALS’.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition). Chicago. 22 April 1933.

Allen, Ray. “Community and History: The African-American Church and Sacred Quartet Singing in New York City.” Singing in the Spirit: African-American Sacred Quartets in New York City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

“Decca Numerical Catalog, circa 1950.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. From Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975. Accessed 9 October 2019.

Lott, Eric. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.”

“Southernaires ‘Nobody Knows De Trouble I’ve Seen’ Decca 2859 (1939).” Published 20 November, 2014.


Stealing our stuff!

For this week’s blog post I have chosen a spirited article, or what I personally categorize as more of an opinion piece, from the February 19, 1966 edition of The Chicago Defender. Encyclopædia Britannica describes The Chicago Defender as “the most influential African American newspaper during the early and mid-20th century”[1]. With a national target audience, it played a vital role in the migration of African Americans from the South to the northern states.

The article is written by Baptist preacher and professor emeritus at Virginia Union University, Gordon Blaine Hancock (1884–1970)[2]. The son of two African American former slaves from South Carolina, he was an avid spokesperson for the Afro American cause the generation before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, often linking activism with education[3].

The article in question is candidly titled “Whites Constantly Steal from Negro”[4]. He begins with a call to arms of sorts:

He then goes on to describe how the religious practices of the south, what he calls the “Negro style” with “Negro Patterns”, have been adapted by white people. He continues with connecting preaching to music and music culture:

In the rest of the article he gives examples of genres and styles like tap-dancing, jazz, ragtime, and crooning. White culture popularizes the negro patterns. [They are] “Stealing our stuff!” he exclaims.  You can clearly sense Handcock’s frustration, especially when it comes to the financial gain that comes with the success of these genres, albeit a polished version to fit into white, bourgeoisie aesthetics and expectations. Despite the despair he seems to emit he ends on a somewhat positive note:


Hancock’s reaction is not completely incomparable to sentiments uttered in the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation, specifically when it comes music.

Although Hancock’s tone is very direct, in a political and academic climate such as that which Hancock had experienced up until 1966, we can understand why he resorts to a strong retaliation. Faced with inadequately researched, generalizing and populist scholarship and having to confront the likes of George Pullen Jackson, one can understand Hancock’s plea. His article expresses what I interpret as both despair and fear; The fear of losing one’s culture, one’s history, one’s music – an apprehensiveness very much shared with African Americans today, as well as other marginalized groups.

Primary Sources:

Hancock, Gordon B. “Whites Constantly Steal from Negro.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 19, 1966. [Accessed October 9th, 2019]

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Their life span and kinship” (1943). J. J. Augustin Publisher, New York.

Secondary Sources:

Gavins, Raymond. “Gordon Blaine Hancock (1884–1970).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 May. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2019 [Accessed October 9th, 2019

“Chicago Defender”. Encyclopædia Britannica, July 11, 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.  [Accessed October 9th, 2019]

[1] “Chicago Defender” 2019

[2] Gavins 2014

[3] ibid

[4] Hancock 1966

Williams and Walker: From Minstrelsy and Beyond

American audiences at the turn of the twentieth century loved watching performances that had a sense of authenticity. White Americans viewed blackness as the most authentic form of cultural expression, while the nation was still whirling with the lasting effects of minstrelsy. Black performers and musicians used America’s fascination with the “other,” authenticity, and minstrelsy to their advantage. Among these black performers, are the duo of Bert Williams and George Walker that used their race and talent as a marketing tactic to increase their cultural value, further their careers, and deliver the authenticity Americans craved while paving the way for other black musicians.

When Bert Williams met George Walker in 1893, they were very amused with watching white actors in blackface try to act natural on stage and dub themselves as “coons.” Walker remarks “We thought that as there seems to be a great demand for for black faces on stage, we would do all we could do to get what we felt belonged to us by the laws of nature.” 1 Billing themselves as “the two real coons,” the duo headed to New York surrounding themselves with talented members of their race, such as H.T. Burleigh among other recognizable names. With a show behind their name, Williams and Walker were able to put a premium on cakewalk. In 1903, the duo debuted their show Dahomey, at the New York Theater and the first black, comedy musical on Broadway. Below is a poster for the show’s most famous song.

An advertisement of the song “I’m a Jonah Man” From Dahomey.

The show was widely successful, making a tour in Europe for the future King of England, Edward the VIII. William and Walker did not emphasize the ragtime rhythms and coon song stereotypes that dominated their field, nor the exaggerated, high kneed cakewalk. Instead, they demonstrated how smooth, beautiful, and sensational it could be. Additionally, jokes the pair made were not targeted at race differences as seen by the white minstrels, but by universal situations or characters like a “downtrodden” everyone could laugh at.2 They pitched their “real blackness” at audiences to draw crowds to an authentic “black style.” The duo danced a middle ground between thunderous applause and being thrown off the stage solely for being black by their audiences. Below, is a review by the New York Times after one of their shows.

New York Times, Feb 19, 1903.


Even though both actors were black, Williams wore blackface to make his skin even darker. Perhaps by putting on blackface, he was, in a way controlling minstrelsy and taking ownership of its racial representations. Through their performances, the pair crafted their own claims to racial identity and black culture while also creating quality content that would circulate Tin Pan Alley at a wide audience. Through their efforts, the pair helped audiences recognize negro talent that carved pathways with lasting effects. In 1940 for example, Duke Ellington recorded “A Portrait of Bert Williams” as a tribute. With minstrelsy’s dark beginnings, William and Walker saw an opportunity to change the way audiences thought about race and entertainment that has had lasting effects, making them a couple well deserved to have a blogpost written about.

Hymns: The Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

During the Civil Rights Movement, hymns were used by protestors, white and black alike, as a unifying, peaceful statement. Time and time again, protestors chose to arm themselves with hymns, which is evident in write-ups like the ones below from the Chicago Defender.




These peaceful protests appear to have been so prevalent in the mid-1960’s that they were given their own nickname— “hymn-singing meetings.” I found myself asking the question, “Why hymns?” How did a whole genre of music rise to unify the movement? Why not African American spirituals, or another genre?

An argument could be made that the protestors chose to sing hymns because of their religious significance. The Civil Rights movement, was, after all, based upon largely Biblical ideas (such as loving your neighbor as yourself, and suffering on earth for an eternal reward). The protestors could relate to the Jesus being sung of in the hymns, such as Jesus Paid It All. He was the minority in a violent government, and He suffered and died a criminal’s death, even though He was innocent. Jesus’ life was a parallel to what many black people were experiencing in the 1960s. They were innocent people suffering and dying in criminal ways. The following excerpt comes from an account of a white man who went into prison to stand in solidarity with innocent black men who were imprisoned.



Hymns also provided a sense hope for the protestors. Songs like Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome demonstrated that they were fighting for a cause larger than themselves, and that they can remain hopeful through the struggles of the present.

While I am sure that religious motivations and hopeful outlooks played a role in hymn-singing, I don’t believe it was the main reason these songs were the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. I believe protestors chose to sing hymns because both white and black people found a home-like comfort in singing them side-by-side with fellow protestors. Both groups of people found identity within these tunes. Hymns have roots in aspects of both “white” and “black” culture. Even though these two groups brought very different experiences to the protests, both found a feeling of familiarity from singing these tunes. Amidst the tumultuous times they were living in, hymns unified the individuals’ struggle into a powerful whole.



[1] “Protest Ariz. Bias.” 1963.Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Jul 30, 6.

[2] “N. C. Students Protest Bias on Capitol Steps.” 1960.Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Mar 15, 3.

[3] “Arrest 52 of 400 Hymn-Singing Sit-Ins Protesting Mich. Bias.” 1963.Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Sep 19, 8.

[4] “Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) 1960-69.” Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) 1960-69, n.d.

Black Music and Religiosity: One and the Same or Just Friendly Relatives?

When asking American music students to name a distinctly Black style of music, most will jump onto the term “Spiritual,” or even “Negro Spiritual” if they feel the need to be more precise (as though we ever refer to sacred songs by White composers are “White Spirituals”).  This shows some kind of link between Black music that has been made popular in the Western Canon and the Christian faith.  Are all instances of Black music in the historical canon from the Spiritual tradition?  Or is that just our personal biases and preferences creeping in.

I’m sure you can tell by the way I phrased it that the answer is no, since of course not every instance of Black art music comes from a background of Spirituals.  Only a Sith would deal in such absolutes.  What may be more accurate to ask is why we have formed such a close tie between Black music and Black spirituality, and what makes that tie different.  Even Black newspapers seem to make this connection, with the Chicago Defender titling an article “Presents Black Music” (Oct 11, 1975) to describe a church’s choral program’s opening concert featuring exclusively spirituals and hymns written by Black composers.

There is no qualifier in the Article’s title, but it does go on to specify it is a concert of “Sacred Music.”  So why is it referred to as “Black music” and not “Sacred Music” or “Black Sacred Music.”  If it were a concert of only white sacred music, it would simply be called something vaguely inspiring with a Bible verse with no reference to race.

This must indicate some subconscious association with Blackness and Spirituality, perhaps best exemplified by a well-meaning, but woefully ignorant, lady in my church choir, saying, “Those Blacks sing so well because they put the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – oh I’m sorry I mean the Holy Ghost as they call it – in every note.”  It is certainly a pervasive concept in our collective consciousness that Black singers excel at being Spiritual, but our acknowledgement of the excellence of Black singers in other regards have nothing to do with their race.  When we talk about Lawrence Brownlee, his race and spirituality stay out of it until someone brings up his performance of Spirituals.

I’ll only posit one possible reason, since I am no expert on cultural consciousness and race, but I have seen quite a bit.  Spirituals and Slave Songs (which are almost always sacred in some regard) were among the first types of Black music to become truly popular.  The Fisk Jubilee Singers in particular helped with that becoming the first American ensemble to tour internationally, bringing an entirely sacred style of singing to the world.  I would argue that since then, our ability to separate Blackness from Spirituality has diminished greatly.  This may have nefarious purposes in stereotyping Black people as overly emotional or passionate, but could just be an honest inability to separate from our initial impression (this phenomenon is called Reference Dependence in Behavioral Economics, and plays a huge role in your willingness to pay certain prices for certain items).

Identity and Music in the 1968 Chicago Protests

In the following video from the Popular Culture in Britain and America database, several different scenes are depicted from the protests surrounding the Democratic Party Convention of 1968, when Hubert Humphrey beat out anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy for the presidential nomination (1). The protests and Convention took place in Chicago, and the protests were led almost exclusively by students. It’s kind of remarkable that, much like the history of minstrelsy, many of the events of these protests have vanished from the country’s collective memory. There were extreme shows of police brutality and repression of the free press, and yet like so much history that is distasteful, it is rarely taught or discussed.


Depicted left: a protester’s sign, which says,

“Get troops out of Chicago, Black America, Vietnam NOW! Stoners Against War and Fascism” (2)


While this video has very poor sound quality and jumps around a great deal, one of the things that I noticed was that it featured very little of the Black America mentioned in the sign, with the exception of the brief shot beginning at time 8:54 and ending at about 9:23. In this clip, although the audio does not line up with the video, you can hear someone drumming and leading a call and response and a group of “African American people dancing to music and chanting,” as the database description says. This is our only taste of one of the major features of the anti-war and countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s – protest music.

Watch the video here: http://

Black musicians and their music featured prominently in the anti-war movement – especially folk musicians, although there were many rock and roll musicians as well. Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the all-white folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary are just a few of the most famous musicians who wrote protest music during this time (3).

This struggle against widespread violence is just a continuation of the history we have been learning about in class. Like with every other genre or group of people we have discussed, music has an important role to play in both representing a movement or group to the rest of the world and in moving events forward in its own way. In protest music, this is by being a platform for viewpoints to be shared and by being a unifying force for those who hold the same (or similar) views. Protest music pushes on people’s conception of right or wrong, and thereby identity within those norms, in their society by working through stigmatized forms and symbols – in the Vietnam protests, these included connections to the Civil Rights movement and use of rock and roll and drugs (see Stoners Against War and Fascism, pictured above).

Works Cited:

  1. Editors of “Protests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”, A&E Television Networks, 21 July 2010,
  2. Huntley Film Archives. “Anti-Vietnam War Protests in Chicago during the Democrat Party Convention, August 1968.” Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, Adam Matthew, 2011,
  3. Lindsay, James M. “The Twenty Best Vietnam Protest Songs.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 Mar. 2015,

George Beverly Shea: Crusader and Gospel Singer

Billy Graham was a remarkably powerful Evangelical preacher who fostered a rebirth in Christian enthusiasm post-WWII. This movement was led through effective media appearances and “crusades” in which Graham’s organization would rent out stadiums or other large spaces to host elaborate religious services for crowds in the tens-of-thousands. An important component of these services was the musical prelude to Graham’s sermon. The Chicago Defender1 reported on a 1962 Chicago Crusade in which George Beverly Shea, the famed soloist for Graham’s services is honored as a hometown hero.

(image insert here)

George Beverly Shea was born in Canada in 1909, and after moving to the U.S. he eventually began a career which captivated radio, TV, and festival audiences. Shea’s popstar-adjacent promotional opportunities and close personal ties with Billy Graham led to consistent performances intertwined with religious power. The Evangelical church has since been known for savvy music marketing, George Beverly Shea likely being an early example.

“As an imitation of contemporary secular music and fashion, contemporary Christian music bolstered the identity of young evangelicals who feared being alienated from their peers because of their religious faith. At the same time, however, by its incessant promotion of media consumption, the contemporary gospel industry subtly affirmed American materialism..” – William Romanowski2

In a 1970 edition of the music magazine “SuperStars” on Johnny Cash3, this image of Johnny Cash and Billy Graham is captioned “Johnny and Dr. Billy Graham discuss possibility of joint appearance in Tennessee” as the two talk closely. Cash and Graham were known to be close friends throughout their lives, and Cash performed at multiple “crusade” concerts.

(image insert here)

Music, religion, and power have always been closely intertwined in America, but the marketing of religion alongside popular music is something relatively new. George Beverly Shea, Johnny Cash, and their relationship to Billy Graham as advocates for Christianity while still being working musicians with wide audiences adds another layer of market segmentation. While Shea was firmly a gospel performer, Cash is remembered as a country singer yet they still benefitted from the same audiences. At what point did Evangelical music blend into mainstream performance and at what point did it become hard to hear the difference?

Portrayal of Women in Rock and Folk Music

For this week’s blog post I found an article from Rock magazine that was published in 1972. The article “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”, written by Toby Goldstein, depicts the music and backgrounds of artists Sandy Denny and Merry Clayton.  The characterization of these two female artists by the male author helps to expose the one-dimensional ways in which the world viewed women in music at the time of the article’s publication.

The ways that Goldstein portrays them is very much as if he is trying to make the point that women can have personalities and depth, as if the default is to think that they do not. About Denny he continuously mentions her range, “In one hour, it is not surprising for Sandy Denny to sing ballads, a Dylan tune, some old-time rock‘n’roll, and even acapella with the band” (Goldstein). Of course the variety of the artist is of interest to potential listeners, but I feel the emphasis of his writing is on how surprising it is that she does this, not commending her musicianship and versatility. The same is done for Merry Clayton, describing her work in an admirable way, but also demeaning her in the same sentence. Goldstein states that “Merry Clayton is a woman possessed to work” (Goldstein). Although this is a compliment of sorts, a man with an identical work ethic would simply be described as “dedicated”, not “possessed”, as that word implies that there is some other force propelling her success other than her own practice and talent.

Another way in which Goldstein could’ve represented the women better was the order of the features of the artists within the article. He features Denny for about 90% of the first page, only getting to Clayton right before the page break. Although this is just a layout issue, I feel that Clayton should have been highlighted first, as her name is alphabetically before Denny’s. Mainly, I find issue with this because Clayton is a black woman, and is already facing more push-back in the music industry than Denny. This issue is more excusable, as in 1972 it was very significant to have a black woman featured in a rock magazine at all, but Goldstein could’ve helped to break down barriers more quickly had he put Clayton’s section first, in order for readers to learn about her work before they lose interest in the article, as many read magazines in a style likened to channel-surfing.

These critiques are of rather small details within the article, but the truth of the matter is that is far better that this article was written than not having it at all. From a modern standpoint, it is easy to pick out flaws in the author’s writing, but the intent and outcome of the article is still overall positive.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Toby. “Portrait of Two (Funky) Ladies”. Rock, vol. 3- issue 16, March 1972, pp. 5-6.

The Evolution of “We Shall Overcome:” from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter

On April 4th, 2011, in Madison, WI, Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at a rally honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At 0:15 in the video below, Rev. Jackson begins singing (and encouraging others to sing) the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” a song that has now become an anthem that is frequently sung at anti-racist rallies and marches, specifically those associated with Black Lives Matter.

This isn’t the first time a movement has used “We Shall Overcome” as a protest song. In September 1963, the Chicago Daily Defender published an article titled, “’We Shall Overcome’ New Negro ‘Anthem.’”

The first sentence of the article reads:

“’We Shall Overcome,’ the theme song of American’s militant Negro, is rapidly becoming the new Negro National Anthem.” 1.

The article continued explaining how this song had been used for decades, but was popularized in relation to race with the invention of the television and radio; after these inventions, the song was heard every time the Civil Rights Movement was on the air.

“We Shall Overcome” became such a staple for the Civil Rights movement that songbooks  were created using the title as their own. The following is an advertisement from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee magazine in 1964, based out of University of California, Berkeley, for a songbook called “We Shall Overcome,” which is full of various protest songs to encourage peaceful protest in the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

However, it didn’t start as a protest song. The piece was originally a gospel song, composed by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley in 1900.  Interestingly enough, the lyrics that are popular today (as well as in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement) were written by a white musician, Pete Seeger. Seeger was not only a songwriter, but an activist, and worked to popularize “We Shall Overcome” by teaching the song at rallies and protests. It could be said that Seeger is one of the main reasons “We Shall Overcome” is such an icon for anti-racism protests across the country.

In the 21stcentury, activists criticize “We Shall Overcome,” as it never specifies when this action will occur. A Black Lives Matter activist, Zellie Imani, attended a protest after the fatal shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old African American boy named Michael Brown by a white police officer in 2014. He recalls Rev. Jackson, the same singer from the video I started with, tried to encourage protesters to sing “We Shall Overcome.” This time, however, he was unsuccessful.

“The song doesn’t tell us when we shall overcome. It is saying that we will overcome someday. And what we in the streets wanted, we wanted justice now,” Imani states in an article for CNN. 3

Instead of “We Shall Overcome,” people started chanting Kendrick Lamar’s “(We Gon’ Be) Alright,” reflecting a shift in the change of attitude towards the outcomes: no more is it about overcoming, but about igniting change, which this video does with it’s images of police shooting and fires, among other images.

And his concerns don’t even address the fact that we use a white musician’s words in “We Shall Overcome.” While Seeger was an activist and white ally to the Civil Rights Movement, using his words could be taking away from Rev. Tindley. In an extreme interpretation, it could even be seen as a method of taking the song and claiming as a white invention, similar to how George Pullen Jackson takes African American spirituals and folksongs in his book White and Negro Spirituals, molding the songs to attempt to persuade readers that these folksongs have white roots and are, therefore, white songs.4 Again, it is extreme, but why are we using a white songwriter’s lyrics for songs about promoting racial change?

As generations change, as do the wants and desires for equality. Maybe in the 1960’s, it was about overcoming, making “We Shall Overcome,” the appropriate song to sing. But maybe now, it’s about more than overcoming; maybe now, it’s about protesting inequality and promoting change. With that, maybe it’s time to change protest songs.


(1) Potter, Dave. “‘We Shall Overcome’ New Negro ‘Anthem’.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Sep 17, 1963.

(2) “Record, Songbook Available from SNCC.” Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (1961-1972), Feb 11, 1964.

(3) Hare, Breeanna. “This is what protest looks like.” (Oct 8, 2019).

(4) Jackson, George Pullen. “White and Negro Spirituals.” JJ. Augustin Publisher, New York. 1943.

(5) KendrickLamarVEVO.”Alright.” Youtube, Oct. 8, 2019.

(6) Tona Williams. “Rev. Jesse Jackson “We Shall Overcome” Madison, WI April 4, 2011 (union solidarity).” Youtube, Oct. 8, 2019.

Brer Rabbit and Operation Freedom

Brer Rabbit with Brer Fox

Eileen Southern, a professor at Harvard University, explains that slaves in the southern United States “engaged in ‘swapping tales’, and singing songs, particularly about Brer Rabbit and his animal friends […]. The Slaves sang about the adventures of animals and about the experiences of their Biblical heroes, but not about themselves. It may well be that the simple, unvarying routines of slave-life precluded the development of a song type dependent upon the adventures of a hero or heroine [1].” Leslie Ruth argues Brer Rabbit stories, “have communicated the values and experiences of enslaved Africans and of indigenous African American culture. Brer Rabbit stories are a projection of the slave’s personal experiences, dreams and hopes, and reveal more about slave culture than… whole books on slavery by experts […]. In these stories, Brer Rabbit, an accomplished musician, songster, and dancer, successful lady’s man, skilled farmer, and shrewd strategist, engages in struggles with adversaries, such as Brer Wolf and Brer Fox, as well as conflicts with friends, such as Brer Possum and Brer Squirrel [2].” He is a symbol of how the little one can get the best of those stronger than himself. What I would like to examine is how the Brer Rabbit stories, with their ideas of protecting the small and weak against the big and powerful, relate to Fayette County’s Operation Freedom movement in the year of 1962. 

Operation Freedom was an organization who truly embodied the idea of protecting the weak against the powerful. It was an organization which provided emergency funds to “thousands of people in the south- people both black and white who [took] a stand for justice and [found] themselves faced with starvation because those in power want[ed] to drive them out. It [was] a weapon for people in the freedom struggle; it [was] a way of helping individuals who [were] under attack so they [could] continue to fight [3].”  I discovered a pamphlet for Operation Freedom in which Fannie Lou Hamer urges people to donate money for the cause. The pamphlet includes first-hand accounts of what people were going through during the tumultuous 1960s. 

The pamphlet talks about a “tent city” that has been set up in Fayette County, Tennessee. It was a place where people lived who had forcibly been cast out by their employer- landowners. The people had no land to live on, and no place to plant crops. The few African American families who owned their own farms were also unable to plant crops because they were not allowed to borrow money to buy seed, fertilizer, and other necessities while the crops were growing. Operation Freedom provided floors for the tents, replaced broken tents, and financed a well. The organization also tried to help farmers buy land and farm equipment- donating over $42,000 to 95 people in 1960. 

Despite their efforts, Operation Freedom had many obstacles against them. Many of the evictions that led to the tent cities were directed toward black people who had registered to vote. The pamphlet claims “White citizens councils and similar groups, which last year had compiled names of registered negroes and circulated them to bankers, merchants, doctors, now developed a new strategy- that of trying to reduce the Negro population. So, eviction notices are being given to Negroes who have not registered, as well as those who have [3].” In an article by the Chicago Defender [4]:

Basic needs like medical and dental care were being denied to the black community- and people were often forced to go to Memphis (a distance of 40-50 miles with no means of transportation)- even in emergency situations.

When I discover what took place in Fayette County, I was shocked and deeply saddened. It is disheartening to think just how recently this situation occurred, and it makes sense as to why the stories of Brer Rabbit are so relevant to the African American community. Leslie Ruth believes Brer Rabbit’s tricks are basically “’survival strategies’ of an enslaved people exposed to violence, injustice, and arbitrary judgment, and tricks assault Western Christian sanctioned morals in that ‘the characteristic spirit of these tales was one not of moral judgement but of vicarious triumph’ [2].” I imagine survival was constantly on the minds of the people in these tent cities.

In the Chicago Defender, there is a message of hope- it seems as though many people thought what was happening in Fayette County was wrong. The article ends by saying “a whole community is being driven to desperation, to economic ruin and the Governor of the state does nothing about it. He is either a party to the conspiracy to drive the negro voters out of Fayette county, or his political commitments have dulled his sense of responsibility. The federal government of Fayette county should declare this troubled county of Tennessee a disaster area and institute at once the measures of relief. This, at least, would show that the boycott would have no stamp of approval in Washington [4].”

At the root of Brer Rabbit and Operation Breakthrough is a message of hope, and the Chicago Defender confirms this hope. Throughout the stories of Brer Rabbit, there is a constant theme of fighting against the big and powerful. This is mirrored in what we see with Operation Breakthrough’s efforts and the Chicago Defender’s efforts to support evicted and ballot-less African Americans. All three of these writings should encourage us to stand up for the weaker man, speak out when something is not right, and support the people around us regardless of their race.  


[1] Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

[2] Leslie, A. R. (1997). Brer rabbit, a play of the human spirit: Recreating black culture through brer rabbit stories. The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 17(6), 59-83.

[3] Operation Breakthrough. “Action for Freedom,” 1962.

[4] The Boycott in Fayette County. (1960, Jul 16). The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967).

Minstrelsy in the News

The primary source that I looked into for today was a republication of an article from the Little Rock Gazette from the year 1880. It was actually printed in the Topeka Tribune which claimed to be the sole colored publication in the state of Kansas. The title read, “A Prodigy In The Pulpit. A Boy Who Creates a Sensation by Preaching Lorenzo Dow’s Sermon” and the validity of the story told is arguable. The article itself was located on the fourth/last page of the tribune along with a number of reprinted articles from various newspapers nation-wide. Rather than search key-words such as “minstrelsy” I decided to search words associated with the topic and landed on “burnt-cork”. Oliver, the white boy the article centers around, utilizes components of black-face such as blackening his skin with burnt cork and donning a minstrel wig to swindle a black congregation out of their money. It was, in a way, refreshing to see minstrelsy contextualized by people who were living during the era. The story ends with the condemnation of Oliver who is publicly lashed once discovered to be a fraud. This particular lens of condemnation and specifically retribution I found captivating in that I had yet to hear such conversations of minstrelsy. Sentiments expressed in the article are clearly aimed at a black audience as the anger which turned to violence could have been a true story however the sensationalized air of the article warrants it to be more of a cautionary tale. My reasoning in particular as to why I believe the article to be false is that I don’t find it very likely that no one in the congregation would not be able to discern that the young preacher was in fact in blackface and wearing a wig. Second, I found the use of the word “prodigy” ironic which is what I assume the author’s intention to be. 


**I will link the article below as my computer had difficulties uploading the jpeg

Works Cited
“A Prodigy In The Pulpit. A Boy Who Creates a Sensation by Preaching Lorenzo Dow’s.” Topeka Tribune (Topeka, Kansas), November 6, 1880: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Key & Peele as a Contemporary Minstrel Show


Minstrel shows are characterized by stereotypes of black people imparted by white people, often with over-the-top comedy depicting caricatures of black life in America during the plantation era. So what does it mean when contemporary black performers employ these same created identities in their own work? 

Comedy Central pair, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele became household names in 2012, with “East/West College Bowl” and “Substitute Teacher,” which now have a combined 228 million views on youtube. 

“East/West College Bowl” is a sketch which is comprised nearly entirely of black characters introducing themselves, stating their names and from which colleges they hail. The joke is simple: each of the athletes has an increasingly “funny” and ridiculous name. This joke is not one that is original to this skit, however. The notion that black people have names that are difficult/impossible to pronounce is one that has been perpetuated for years. The humor in this skit can also be traced back to minstrelsy. A distinguishing characteristic of minstrel characters was a lack of education: mispronouncing words, the perceived inability to form complete sentences, etc. 

“Substitute Teacher” challenges this idea of the uneducated black man trope found in minstrelsy, but not in the way one might assume. In this sketch, Key plays a teacher in a room full of white students. The bit here is similar to that of East/West, but different in one very important way. Instead of having the “difficult to pronounce” names being the black peoples’ names, this time it is the black teacher mispronouncing the white students’ names. In some ways, this is (potentially) attempting to break the stereotype that it si black people who have difficult-to-pronounce names, but at the same time it plays into this stereotype of the uneducated black man, which we also saw as a common caricature in our studies of minstrel shows.

The idea that Key and Peele are somewhat of a contemporary minstrel show is particularly disturbing because they are two educated black men. According to this Smithsonian article by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 

“poor and working-class whites who felt ‘squeezed politically, economically, and socially… invented minstrelsy.’”

This continued codifying of blackness furthers some of these harmful stereotypes, while their commercial success as black comics breaks down others. 

I found similar contradiction in the articles I found on the African American Newspaper database. I focused on three reviews of local minstrel shows, from the late 1880s and early 1890s. These reviews are mixed, with the Weekly Pelican describing the performance as “a complete success without,” while the Cleveland Gazette calls a similar show a “complete failure and a disgrace to themselves as well as others.” In another review, this time of a show with actual black performers and not just white people in blackface, the author says, “it is a pity that the coloured people cannot find something better in which to employ their talents… it would go a long way toward ridding us of the nuisance.”

These quotes reflect some of the same issues facing viewers of Key and Peele’s comedy today. These concerns are a part of the reason that Key and Peele no longer have a Comedy Central show, but the permanent nature of digital content and the continued views speak for themselves; audiences still connect with these deep-rooted, harmful stereotypes, and they make money.


The Day of Jubilee

In his essay-review The day of jubilee, published February 27, 1959 in the Los Angeles Tribune , Chestyn Everett confronts issues concerning the commercialization, dilution, and decontextualization of black spirituals. Everett, who was a scholar, civil rights activist, and later, a professor at Cornell University, starts his essay with a more general condemnation of black and white artists alike for corrupting their renditions of spirituals and remaining less and less faithful to the genre and the historical background. He goes on to make generalized characters and condemning them for each way they have warped the genre.

“We must admit, however, that the average white artist approaches the Negro spiritual as if the Negro slaves who had created these songs, had studied “lieder” composition and voice at some classic conservatory in which they attended evening classes after a day’s session in the cotton fields. On the other extreme, the white popular “singers” approach the negro spiritual as if, instead of the conservatory in the cotton fields, the negro slaves had a “rock and roll” band by which they rhythmically picked cotton and did little chores around the house for the “missus”, and that the “kind ole massah” had put up a “dark town strutters bistro”– and that each night this “tired-happy, free loving, fun loving, maddening throng of dark humanity” converged upon the DTSB singing “When the saints go marchin’ in” to the insane-frentic backing of “Old Black Joe and his Cotton Picking Ramblers”

He continues with several critiques of certain black musicians. First, he critiques black musicians who “clean up the language,” that is, editing the southern slave dialect into more modern english. He argues that this is the same as saying that the slaves who created the spirituals lacked “the finer points of musical intelligence,” (Everett 9). His next critique is of incompetent black musicians who rationalize the validity of their performances by recalling that slaves would have had no formal training. “[this singer] labors under the unfortunate assumption that being a Negro establishes the assumption that he can sing Negro spirituals, and further that any vocal ability he is conspicuously lacking is inconsequential to the fact that he “feels” what he is (not) doing,” (Everett 21).

His main issue with many modern practices of spirituals is with the recontextualization of this music. Similar to what we have learned in class, the way that music, and more specifically, information, is portrayed in the present paints firmly guides how many view the past. While he characterizes and exaggerates these examples, his worry holds true.

Works Cited:
Everett, Chestyn. “The day of jubilee: an essay-review.” The Los Angeles Tribune, February 27, 1959, pp. 9, 21. African American Newspapers. Accessed on October 3, 2019.

Black Opera and Catholicism: A Case of Selective History

While the most recent course readings and discussions have focused on the (relatively little) good and (predominantly) bad effects of minstrelsy, discussion of other black performance in the 19th century has been limited or in passing. While browsing the archives of the African American Newspapers database, I came across a name that was mentioned multiple times in a few articles about black vocal performances in the Washington D.C. area in the latter half of the 19th century. A “Mrs. Smallwood” was cited multiple times for her performances at various churches. Further digging revealed Agnes Gray Smallwood to be a vocal performer, with multiple newspaper articles hailing her as an outstanding performer.

In this newspaper review, Agnes Smallwood is hailed for her solo singing after a concert given at a local church.

This announcement was found in many papers, noting Mrs. Smallwood’s achievement, yet failed to mention specifically which church she would sing at.

Mrs. Smallwood was a part of a group of singers that formed the little-known Colored American Opera Company, America’s first opera company for black singers. The group rose out of the need to raise funds for St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., a catholic church that has long established itself as the “mother church of black Catholics”. The church established itself as a haven for free blacks in the final years of the Civil War, and has since been a spiritual and cultural refuge for blacks.

Although I could not find any video or other media related to the Colored Opera Company, take a moment to view a short video about St. Augustine Catholic Church and how the work of the opera company lives on today in this unique catholic church.


Although there were newspaper reviews praising the voices of colored singers with no conservatory preparation, any sort of monetary or moral support appears to have come from within the black community (despite evidence that white audiences attended the opera performances and enjoyed them). The opera company was formed in a short term effort to raise funds, so there appears to be no long term musical consequences from the formation of this opera company- it did not last beyond the short time the group performed to fundraise for the church. It appears Agnes Smallwood and her peers in America’s first black opera were victims of the selective history we’ve discussed in class. Despite creating opportunities for themselves as artists in a time when barriers hindered access to the art music of upper-class whites, Mrs. Smallwood and the legacy of the Colored American Opera Company have failed to get much recognition over time. They live in the dark shadow of minstrelsy, a legacy that imposes itself of the narrative of black musicians and music in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But, it is important to acknowledge their work where we can, and understand how their influence on places like St. Augustine Catholic Church live on in black music and experiences today.


Primary Sources

“That Concert.” People’s Advocate (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), March 22, 1884: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Personal.” Sentinel (Trenton, New Jersey), January 14, 1882: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Secondary Sources have been hyperlinked in the prose above.

Blackface Minstrelsy on the World Stage

Here is a picture of William “Billy” Emerson

As talked about in class, blackface minstrelsy that originates from the United States. This form of racism borrows from the Italian theatrical form of Commedia Dell’arte as well as multiple musical practices. This performance practice came to feed into a culture of racism and uphold the constructs of whiteness and blackness in the United States in ways that affect our contemporary society. It’s also important to recognize how this form became seen from an international perspective.
In an 1885 article of the Huntsville Gazette, a newspaper based in Alabama, there’s an article called “Two Noted Minstrels, Who Have Won Fortunes and What They Say About Stage Life”. The article discusses the minstrel performer “Billy” Emerson who immigrated from Scotland to pursue a life on stage. Many assume that performers were only white American men but blackface became so popular during this time that shows went on international tours.
The article says:
He visited Australia in 1874 and on his return to America joined Haverly’s minstrels in San Francisco at $500 a week and expenses. With this troupe he played before her majesty, the Queen, the Princes of Wales, and royalty generally.

In class we discussed how common minstrel shows at the white house had become but rarely are the performances for European royalty recognized. This is an example of non-Americans working in an American form or being exposed to an American form. Europeans took part in blackface Minstrelsy but my question becomes “Does this form become entirely tied to an American sense of identity such as the mime for the French or Commedia Dell’arte for Italians?” This past performance practice was capitalized on and I worry blackface minstrelsy is the only American form we’re known as a country for during this century. Thinking internationally, I question how that affected racial constructs in other countries.


“Two Noted Minstrels, Who Have Won Fortunes and What They Say About Stage Life.” Huntsville Gazette, 6 Oct. 1885, pp. 4–4.

Yeager, Danni Bayles. “Billy Emerson.” Performing Arts Archive,

Unpacking the Link Between Nature and African-American Music

Imagine you’re sitting in studio class, getting feedback on your musical performance. Someone describes your performance as “natural-sounding”. We’ve all received notes like this before and wondered: Was that a compliment, or a criticism? Reading through our course materials and seeing a persistent, underlying description of African-American music as “natural-sounding,” I was left asking the same question. The answer, unsurprisingly, is not simple. The common association between naturalness and African-American music is simultaneously demeaning and empowering, and has been both since well before the 20th century.

In Blues People, Amiri Baraka identifies one of the leading criticisms of Blues music as the judgement that it is “raw” or “unrefined”. Baraka traces this back to a fundamental difference between Western and African conceptions of music as “art music” versus “functional music”, which results in “the principle of the beautiful thing as opposed to the natural thing”.1 It is this very principle that has often caused the association of African-American music with a natural sound to be degrading. Blues-players such as Charlie Parker often actually imitate the human voice with their instruments, but in these cases, many critics perceive this type of natural playing as uncultured, hoarse, or raucous.2

James Trotter writes a whole chapter of his 1880 book, Music and Some Highly Musical People, on the music of nature. Though generally venerative of music’s natural origins, Trotter’s content opens the door for exactly the kind of degradations of African-American music that later critics would make of Charlie Parker. Trotter says that it was from nature that “man received his first impressions, and took his first lessons in delightful symphony.”3 While this is a lovely thought, it also places music that emulates nature at the earliest, most primitive point in musical evolution, which opens the door for racist analysis of “natural-sounding” African-American music. Trotter also speaks highly of “the charming music of the birds,” placing birds just below humans in rank.4 Later perversions of this general idea would allow critics to degrade African-American music as more natural-sounding and thus more animalistic, and even savage.

So on the one hand, we have “natural-sounding” African-American music being demeaned as simple, unpolished, and crude. But on the other hand, we have authors like Baraka acknowledging these degradations and reclaiming the natural sound as an intentional and meaningful choice. It came as a surprise to me that this kind of empowerment was present even long before Baraka. A letter to Frederick Douglass published in Douglass’s paper in 1855 compares two recent concerts, one given by white singers, and one by an African-American choir:

In this review we see the typical assessment of the music by the African-American choir as “simple”, but in this case, there is also a positive spin. The music may be simple, but it is also heartfelt. The author of the letter goes on to question his time’s assumptions concerning the value of the kind of “high character” music that the white performers sing5:

Here we finally have an author who identifies a link between African-American music and nature in a positive manner, asserting that the simplicity he perceives in the music actually enhances its beauty and grandeur.6

From both the letter-writer and Amiri Baraka, we learn that the link between nature and African-American music is fraught with complications. Historically, it has been used to degrade and demean, but even back in the 19th century, some authors acknowledged it as a choice and a strength.

1 Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Perennial, 28-30.

2 Ibid., 30.

3 James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston Lee and Shepard, 12.

4 Ibid., 13.

5 For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 3.

6 Ibid., 3.


Works Cited:

Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: Perennial, 2002.

“For Frederick Douglass’ Paper from Our Brooklyn Correspondent My Dear Douglass.” Frederick Douglass’ Paper. (Rochester, New York) VIII, no. 6, January 26, 1855: [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People. Boston: Boston Lee and Shepard, 1880. Readex: Afro-Americana Imprints.


“Good” Minstrels?

Throughout our classes, the aspect of Blackface Minstrelsy (and other forms of racial exploitation) that seems to be of greatest concern, is the way in which white society comodifies and reduces various races and cultures into stereotypical caricatures for the purposes of white entertainment. In Love and Theft, by Eric Lott, however, he discusses that in the case of Blackface Minstrelsy, there is the simultaneous presence of racism, fear, and even “fascination.” It struck me as a very unique and unusual statement, the idea that Blackface Minstrelsy could come out of and be perceived by some as an expression of fascination and twisted admiration. That was until I read the article “Good Minstrels” from page 6 of a 1919 issue of The Broad Ax, a Chicago newspaper.


This reviewer from the Chicago Tribune praises this Blackface Performance for it’s “…amazing Negro feeling for rhythm and pulse and life…” and even compares their performance to that of the Fisk cantors (the Fisk Singers being a historically well known African-american music ensemble).

Throughout the article, the reviewer expresses nothing but excitement and respect for the performance, even referencing “Negro” music in the same breath as Brahms and Dvorak. It is clear that this is Blackface Minstrelsy performance at a high caliber, and in this case, it’s not outwardly comedic or meant to be degrading. It was a performance that showcased black music as something worthy of being performed in the same venues and at the same skill level as that of western classical music. This is highly remarkable given date of this review. After reading even this one review, Lott’s claim, that there is a certain fascination and admiration for “blackness” present in white performances of Blackface Minstrelsy, doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it may first appear…

-Sources Consulted-

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), February 15, 1919: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 (Introduction and Chptr. 1)

Outrage All the Way!: Jingle Bells, Racism, and Unfair Media Portrayal

After last Thursday’s session, Dr. Epstein told me about an academic journal article that proved the popular Christmas carol, “Jingle Bells,” has its origins in blackface minstrelsy.  Lo and behold, I did encounter the article written by Dr. Kyna Hamill, a theater professor at Boston University, with damning evidence about a beloved Christmas song that many of us so innocently learned as young children.  She drew evidence from various songs about sleigh-riding and how many lyrics between these songs were shared between one another [1].  One similarity she found was in its original title (“One-Horse Open Sleigh”) to a lyric in the 4th verse of Stephen C. Foster’s “Brudder Gum” (see below):


While the article makes some very interesting insights as to how the song came into being and how its racial history has been lost to the passage of time, it came with its fair share of praise and unfair share of relentless criticism.  A particular example can be found in a feature on Fox News’ daytime show “Fox & Friends,” which features Dr. Carol Swain, a former political science professor from Vanderbilt, debasing Dr. Hamill’s work as a mere ploy of the “liberal agenda” to “destroy Christmas.”

Professor claims ‘Jingle Bells’ is rooted in racism

This segment was truly meant to sensationalize a very thorough examination on America’s “swept-under-the-rug” racial history of “Jingle Bells” by attaching it to the various attacks that conservatives believed they faced (e.g. War on Christmas and liberal indoctrination.)  By vaguely pulling one quote out of Dr. Hamill’s article and framing a discussion around much larger concepts in the sociopolitical sphere of American culture, Fox News wildly misrepresented Dr. Hamill’s work as a deeper examination in popular American culture and wrote it off as simply destructive.

What also peeves me about this segment is the purpose of Dr. Swain’s role on the show.  By simply having a PhD and an academic career, this gave the impression that her take as an academic gave her credibility with her remarkably vapid arguments.  Perhaps it was simply that she wanted to shill her new book, but by mocking another academic, she allowed Fox News to portray her as a maverick professor taking on the “liberal agenda.”  It may also be worth noting that by being a black woman, Fox News may be taking advantage of Dr. Swain as a token commentator on race issues, and while she is very much entitled to her opinions, Dr. Swain cannot be the overall representation of all African-Americans in regards to this issue.

It is disappointing to see how Fox News portrayed Dr. Hamill, but it is not out of character for their role as a news outlet.  The same could probably go for many of the other major news broadcasting companies in the United States and the world, but when Dr. Hamill decided to go against the grain of popular American culture and uncover one of its many black-eyes, her image took a significant beating as the scapegoat of the “liberal agenda.”


[1] Hamill, “The story I must tell,” 376

[2] Foster, “Brudder Gum”


Foster, Stephen. “Brudder Gum,” New York, NY: Firth and Pond, 1849.

Hamill, Kyna. “’The story I must tell’: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire,” Cambridge University Press 58, no. 3 (September 2017): 375-407,

Pierpont, J. “The one horse open sleigh,” Boston, MA: Oliver Ditson, 1857.


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.

Minstrelsy and the Audience: What we don’t know

When racial ambiguity was built into the performative framework of blackface minstrelsy, what did it mean for the audience? The racial make-up of audiences is extremely difficult to track down, particularly when it comes to performances of blackface minstrelsy in the Industrial North. One way to accomplish this is to research the race of the owner of the venue but that identity could mean nothing. Another way to learn more about audience is by reading critical reviews of blackface performance, or to examine advertisements for those performances. 

One such advertisement is an 1889 flyer for “DeVere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags and Conundrums”1 featuring an ensemble seated on stage in blackface, with white on-lookers placed above the stage in fancy clothing. This artistic framing places a white observer at the forefront of the musical space, imposing a clear hierarchy between performer and audience member.

Why does audience matter? Eric Lott writes in Love and Theft that “Regarding even the class-bound audiences of the 1840’s, there was some confusion among commentators about just who was out there in the pit and the gallery. As I will argue later, one of minstrelsy’s functions was precisely to bring various class fractions into contact with one another, to mediate their relations, and finally to aid in the construction of class identities over the bodies of black people (67).”2 Lott makes the important point that minstrelsy wasn’t exclusively white and black performers acting out racist and harmful stereotypes for exclusively white audiences, it was more complex than that. 

In a Chicago Weekly Review from 19113, The Pekin Theater put on several acts, including a white ventriloquist, two “colored musical acts” and a blackface ensemble. Slyvester Russell4 writes in his vaudeville review “The Musical Randolphs gave an act which needs encouragement and may yet develop to become quite a feature. It will be necessary for this act to plenty of ragtime music with comedy action, but what’s the use of a blackface comedian if he doesn’t do something?” This is a black critic, writing for a black newspaper and therefore a predominantly black audience, attending a theatre which was programming lots of types of performances all within the same week. 

The audience therefore appears to be a fraught racial space, where the ambiguity and complicated racial politics being played out onstage were being echoed in the audience. In order to understand the popularity of minstrelsy, particularly as it was marketed and cultivated across geographic and cultural barriers it is crucial to consider the sheer magnitude of the audiences and to consider how it permeated and part of that research begins with combing through the legacy of performance space, not exclusively programming. 

Poetry and Minstrelsy

When discussing minstrelsy in class, we continuously mentioned that minstrelsy went on much longer than most people realize or care to mention. In my research I found a theme of disturbing nostalgia surrounding the practice. One example of this nostalgia can be found in poetry.

In W.D. Nesbit’s poem published in the Chicago Tribune in 1903, “The Yesterdays of Nations”, he states, “Once the trumpet in brazen glee sang at the palace gates; Once the masters of minstrelsy babbled of loves and hates”(“The Yesterdays”). This fondness of olden days is evident through Nesbit’s language, regarding the performers of this offensive practice as “masters”, as if they are people to still be held in high esteem.

The times that Nesbit’s poem reflects so fondly upon can be seen in a second poem. This poem by James Gnocott is “Resignation.- A poem”. This poem so casually mentions minstrelsy that it truly reflects the ordinariness of minstrelsy in entertainment and life, stating “Oh! Trust in patience- hoping, trust the Lord, Although unstrung thy harp of joy may be; Yet may it give a most harmonious chord, to bless the minstrel in the minstrelsy”(“Resignation”).  The fact that this music is being described in a godly way and played by minstrel players is disturbing. The poem is meant to be agreeable in tone yet it’s encouraging God to “Bless the minstrel”. Followers of the Christian faith are meant to act like God, sending the message that the Christian faith itself condones and promotes these crude caricatures of African Americans.

The sentimental value that is placed on minstrel performances is shocking, and yet believable. I think the reason the poems are so nostalgic in tone is because they reflect a time of music and minstrel performances being one of the only times people were brought together in a light-hearted setting. People were willing to look past the innate wrongness of the way African Americans were portrayed easily because it could be written off as just a song or a joke. This mindset persists in our modern world, as jokes and racial microaggressions are brushed off in the same way. Clearly the effects of minstrelsy are even more long-lasting than we realized.

Works Cited

“Resignation.” Freedom’s Journal, 31 Aug. 1827, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 1 Oct. 2019.

“The Yesterday’s of Nations.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XVIII, no. 39, 4 July 1903, p. [3]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 3 Oct. 2019.

The Far Reach of Minstrelsy

Program for the Amateur Minstrel Show and Dance

Program for a later performance of the same event, found at Heritage Auctions site.

The legacies of minstrelsy touch many corners of popular culture today (for examples of these legacies, scroll through other blog posts on this page), but even when it was the country’s primary means of entertainment, its reach stretched further than one would reasonably expect. The sobering reality is that it was enjoyed by members of all demographics of American culture–including African Americans.

In 1924, near the end of minstrelsy’s reign as a cultural juggernaut, The Broad Ax published an article glowing with praise for the “Amateur Minstrel Club” of Chicago. Known for its founder and editor, Julius Taylor, the paper advocated tolerance and equality and occasionally featured inflammatory language.1 Most relevant to my argument, it was catered to black readers. The writer extended praise toward every component of a performance by the aforementioned club, from its “soul-inspiring” music to its “peppy” jokes and “real fun makers [sic].”2

Description of the event, praising colored attendance and the performance itself.

Clipping from the Broad Ax, 26 April, 1924.

It is hard enough to swallow the reality of minstrelsy with regard to white audiences. That a black newspaper could describe minstrel acts as “twenty times better than . . . regular traveling old time minstrel shows,” with an audience comprising “the best class and the leading colored people residing in all parts of the city” which were led to “forget their aches, pains, troubles, sorrows and suffering in this world,” is a sobering reality. But this last quote should not be too quickly cast aside; while sorrows exist for everyone, it could easily be that the paper intended to affirm the struggles African Americans were facing to change institutions and bring about the equality Julius Taylor sought. If true, this lends the reader a glimpse into a complex reality of racial politics of the time.

Assuming African American participation in the club, it seems to me that this particular group was making a bid to control black identity through commercialization. Given the support of this paper, it is unlikely it perpetuated as many harmful stereotypes as other minstrel acts. Significantly, the benefits from the performance–some $3000 dollars, worth well over ten times that much in today’s money3–were donated to a place called the Old Folks Home. This commercial success, coupled with generosity, would neatly fit into a story which shifted societal ideas about African Americans away from poverty toward ability. Even if this was a case of ceding one’s dignity in the name of making a living, their philanthropic act, coupled with the Broad Ax’s praise of the artistic skill of the performers, does foster respect for the troupe–and African Americans by extension.

Advertisement to recruit minstrels

Advertisement found in a Freeman paper in June 1916.

While the popularity of blackface minstrelsy was and is a disturbing reality, African Americans have found ways to claim this popularity to succeed financially. More than that, and on a much more optimistic note, the stories constructed about minstrelsy by African Americans can re-frame otherwise disturbing performance to also include ability, rather than mere comedy.

1 “About The broad ax.” Library of Congress.

2 1924. “Easter Monday Evening the Amateur Minstrel Club Gave Its Twenty-Eighth Annual Minstrel and Dance.” Broad Ax.

3 “Consumer Price Index.” Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Blackface at Mardi Gras: Paint and Mask

Mardi Gras – It was a beautiful day yesterday, even though the heat was somewhat oppressive. The joyful children of the chaos celebrated Mardi-Gras with dignity. The balls/dances were not empty of beautiful or ugly masks. Some people failed to keep their masks on, while others maintained them. And so went the world, beautiful alongside ugly; light, then shadow. If there was anything that would have struck strangers who had never seen a Mardi-Gras masquerade in New Orleans, it would be the large quantity of people who had masks depicting a “negro” character. Our caucasians have the gift of imitation, to a high degree/standard, because the greater part among them imitate the “negro,” and above all the traditional “negro” which is represented to us by the Olympic Theatre minstrels, with a perfection that denotes to our cousins’ home (as belonging to our cousins, either referring back to the Theatre minstrels or to caucasians) a grand superiority. (1)

The last short segments of the article go on to describe one or two other events which occurred at the Mardi Gras parade, including a mysterious musical group. However, this is the most striking segment. Rarely, aside from a description of coming musical acts, is blackface or minstrelsy so directly addressed in the newspaper articles of this particular decade (at least of those I encountered). It’s an interesting peek into history to see celebrations such as Mardi Gras occurring during a time that we usually only study to discuss the violence that was committed.

This article is from 1869, only about 30 years after the first Mardi Gras parade was held in New Orleans in 1837 and 4 years after the end of the Civil War. The tradition was brought to the area by French colonisers when Louisiana and the surrounding area were still under French control.  It has many ties to the Brazilian celebration of Carnival (2).

The attitudes portrayed here are unclear. The New Orleans Tribune, which published this article, was an African-American publication, and yet it seems to paint quite a complimentary picture of white folks in blackface. I believe, however, that the over-the-top, complimentary wording is likely ironic – it certainly came across that way on my first reading, although it may not be as clear in my rough translation, given above. Minstrelsy was still quite in its height in the South, where it became more popular after the Civil War by leaning into the derogatory, rather than abolitionist, ties. It may very well have been unwise for a black paper to be publicly decrying minstrelsy and white participants in Mardi-Gras, hence the use of irony.

This time is also the origin of another very complicated Mardi Gras tradition. Benevolent Aid Societies came into being after the Civil War as a form of community insurance among black members of these societies – they could provide financial and other support for those who fell ill or lost family members. From these Aid Societies eventually came a group known as the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which formed under that name in 1909 and still exists today (3).

As part of the Mardi Gras parade, this social and activist club has traditionally dressed in costumes representing Zulu warrior garb, including face painting. Now a multi-racial organisation, all members of the club, regardless of race, dress this way. However, while native Zulu face painting usually involves the bright colours seen in the costumes, the Zulu club relies on black (and some white) face paint. This has caused controversy several times in the club’s history, most notably in the 1960s, when it was condemned by several members of the Civil Rights movement as promoting negative stereotypes. Membership of the club dwindled to only about a dozen members that decade, and they switched to wearing masks instead of paint (3, 4). Since then, the Zulus’ numbers have increased again and transitioned back to face paint, causing yet another controversy in 2018. Whether they are drawing on the tradition of blackface, and whether it matters, is very much up for debate. Zulus claim that they are making no effort to conceal their race or pretend to be what they are not, that they are showing a positive portrayal, that it is a long standing tradition, and that it is not based in blackface. The last claim in particular is difficult to prove, although certainly their intention is important. The controversy in ongoing, but the overall consensus seems to be that the Black leaders of the club have the right to decide whether it is appropriate for their members to dress up the way they do. As long as they are deciding that it is, many other prominent figures have refrained from condemning the practice (4).

We must consider and decide, at least for ourselves, whether it makes a difference who is portraying a negative stereotype or drawing on a painful history, as well as their intention. Can blackface, in any form, be reclaimed?

  1. “Chronique Locale.” New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 10, 1869: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Mardi Gras,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed October 3, 2019).
  3. Becknell, Clarence A, et al. “History Of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Zulu Social & Pleasure Club,
  4. Krupa, Michelle. “The Black Leaders of an Iconic Mardi Gras Parade Want You to Know Their ‘Black Makeup Is NOT Blackface’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Mar. 2019,


Whiten’ up

While we have now become more familiar with blackface, white people are not the only ones to change the color of their skin and take on a new persona. Blackface minstrelsy might have been all the rage by gathering popularity and attention in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but behind closed doors, whiteface was growing among slaves through illegal late night cabals. Just as blackface was for white people, whiteface allows black people to assume a new identity comically, one that comes with privilege, power, and what it means to be white.

In a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 1984, Eddie Murphy becomes a “white man.”1
The lightening of his skin, mustache, and change in hair shows the physical changes he undertook to become white. To prepare for his disguise, Murphy is shown watching TV to analyze how white men walk and act, to the audiences amusement. He practiced his “white man” voice that sounded more like a bark and authoritative. It is comedic to watch his experience of privilege, such as getting a newspaper for free from a fellow white man instead of having to pay for it. While applying for a loan at a bank with nothing to his name, he is turned down by a black man, but when the banker is replaced by a white man, stacks of money get shoved into his hands with jolly words of “pay us back-or don’t!” The skit puts a comic spin on the underlying issue of privilege and trustworthiness.

When Murphy was on the bus, as soon as the last black person got off, it became a  party with wine, cheese and jazz music complete with clapping by a white guy who had no sense of rhythm. It depicts that life as a white person is a constant party. It is comparable to the modern day slogan of “white people be like.” In social media, a platform where people try to be the best versions of themselves, girls are lightening their skin, straightening their hair, and becoming blonde; an unmistakable trait for people of European descent. It is problematic that, what some deem as the best version of themselves, is stripping their blackness. Even our Beloved Beyoncé is known to almost always have dyed blonde hair to look more European instead of embracing her natural curls. Video tutorials flood Youtube with “natural whiteface.”2

Image result for beyonce blonde

Beyoncé with straightened, then curled, blonde hair.

For as long as their has been differences in race, there has been others trying to copy and make fun of the “other”. Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live is a classic example of a race poking fun of the traits that come along with the other race. Fortunately for the actor, is was done in 1984, after the civil rights movement, so the fear of being criticized or physically hurt was lessened than predecessors. Still, it goes to show that just like blackface, with a little makeup, anyone can be anything.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”


In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

Simple Poster, Complicated Play

CW: Racial slurs, suicide 

I stumbled upon this advertisement in the Afro-Americana Imprints database and immediately had about a thousand questions. Why have I never heard of this play before? What is it about? How was this show cast? What does the title even mean? Scanning the list of characters and their descriptions set off more alarm bells as characters include “Wahnotee, an Indian,” “Pete, a Slave, an Old House Servant,” a number of judges, and more slaves. Given this list and the fact that the advertisement was published during the American civil war in 1864, I was fairly certain that if I dug in deeper I would find no end to the amount of problematic material it contained. Unfortunately, I was right.

What is The Octoroon? The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, opened in 1859 at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City. The play itself was adapted from the novel The Quadroon by Thomas Reid (1856). Set in Louisiana, the conflict revolves around Zoe who is the “Octoroon,” a word that was used to describe someone who was 1/8 African, 7/8 Caucasian. (Note: Although I had never heard these terms before and they are fairly outdated,”octoroon”  and “quadroon” are listed in the Racial Slur Database). 

Although technically Zoe is a free woman, she is barred from marrying her (white) lover George and is pursued by the evil M’Closky. In the British conclusion the lovers are successful, but in the American version Zoe drinks poison and dies in George’s arms to prevent portraying an interracial marriage in American theaters. The play has been credited for its sympathetic view of slaves and their humanity, but Boucicault claimed that he promoted neither a specifically abolitionist or proslavery view.[1]

Was blackface used in this production? It was never explicitly stated in anything I read, but red-face was certainly used, so it can be assumed blackface was as well.

Is Octoroon still performed? The play does appear in and I was able to find evidence a performance in March 2013 and a movie in 1913. However, there is little else to suggest it is regularly performed although there is substantial literature in theater magazines as it relates to the changing portrayal of race on stage. The play seems to find its most relevance in an adaptation called An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Soho Rep, 2014), a play within a play which examines the writing of the original Octoroon.

Although most people may not know the show now, this newspaper excerpt from an 1884 New York Globe publication states that The Octoroon is a “play very familiar with most theatre-goers.”[5]

Furthermore, it demonstrates in pervasiveness in American society since it was performed by amateurs as well as professional companies.

How does this finding connect with readings that we’ve done? I’m not going to lie, I got a little distracted from my original investigation into the use of blackface. There is so much to unpack in the play itself, and a lot of fascinating literature about it, particularly Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s 2012 book Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction. Paulin sets out the argument that Zoe’s body acts “as a surrogate for other characters’ desires and for the intersecting racial, gender, and (trans)national ideologies informing the play.”[2] Because she is this surrogate, she can “perform dramatic and complex significations throughout the play, disrupting racial, gender, and sexual codes that govern those around her.”[3] I saw a parallel to this in Lott’s argument that blackface is tied to an obsession with black bodies. If we assume Zoe was portrayed in blackface, or at least extend this to encompass the performance of black-ness onstage, her relationship with George demonstrates a desire to control black sexuality as well as a fear of female power and autonomy.[4] Although not classified in the genre of “minstrelsy,” The Octoroon navigates similar themes as the examples outlined in Lott’s chapter.

Now what? In the end, I (understandably) left my research with infinitely more questions than I had begun. I felt like the more scholarly articles I read the less I understood. The play itself is dense and confusing to read, packed as it is with 1860s language and politics. I wasn’t even able to begin an investigation into the portrayal of Native Americans, gender, or power, and I obviously barely even touched the surface of race. Had I known that I would be leaving with more questions than answers, I might have picked a different artifact. However, even though I strayed away from music, this play and its multitude of complexities is certainly something I am interested in researching more in the future.


[1] Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire, ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

[2] Paulin, 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture,” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

[5] “Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884.


Works Cited

“[Playbill. 1864-04-22].” Afro-Americana Imprints. 

Lott, Eric. Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture.” Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

Paulin, Diana Rebekkah. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in US Drama and Fiction, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire. ” University of Minnesota Press: 2012.

“Performance of ‘The Octoroon.’” New York Globe. New York: 28 June 1884. African American Newspapers. 

Behind the Mask: Minstrelsy Today

**Trigger Warning- the following post contains images of blackface

Last week, a video of Justin Trudeau (Canada’s prime minister) was released. In the video, the camera slowly pans downwards and we see Trudeau wearing an afro and his entire body is covered in dark paint. Several other images from separate occasions also emerged. The prime minister (who is up for re-election) confessed to a “massive blind spot” in his thinking, saying he was “deeply sorry.” When I saw this story, I honestly wasn’t that shocked. It seems as though “blackface shaming” has become the ultimate way to control powerful, important people. People are digging through their yearbooks and old photographs (physical not digital!) from years ago in order to shed light on the racist actions of people they knew back in the day. 


Photo courtesy of Afro-Americana Imprints, LCP, no. S351.

Blackface is definitely not anything new. Blackface minstrelsy was a popular form of entertainment for decades. As we discussed in American Music, stock characters such as Jim Crow, Zip Coon, Mammy, and Jezebel would be played by all-white male casts. African Americans in these shows were shown as barbaric, simple, passionate, hyper-sexual, and faux-suave. The cast would then come out at the end of the show as their normal white selves, dressed in elegant attire to prove they were truly “civilized white men.” As we can see in this “Eleventh St. Opera House” advertisement, minstrel shows were catered to families- they even had a discounted price for children (only 15 cents!). Names such as “The Sure Cure” and “Magic Pearl” further enticed audiences to come experience this strange “other” culture.

You may ask yourself, how does this relate to the present day? Sure, minstrel shows were incredibly racist and oppressed an entire culture of people (to put it lightly), but minstrel shows don’t happen anymore, right? However, there have been many recent cases of popular and respected figures being outed as having donned blackface besides Justin Trudeau:

While blackface is nothing new, shaming it is. The mindset on blackface and cultural appropriation has done a huge turnaround and “calling-out” culture has taken its place. In my opinion I think this is generally a really great thing. Powerful people should not be able to dehumanize others. However, I do not think people always leak blackface photos to promote the injustice of racism, but rather for their own personal or political motivations. In our current cultural climate, blackface accusations have the power to prevent reelections, cause people to be fired from their jobs, and cause public shame and humiliation. I do not think it is a coincidence that Trudeau’s blackface photos were released in the midst of his reelection campaign. 

On a positive note, there have been steps to change the legacy of minstrelsy. I came across an article written for Black News, a digital newspaper, that explains how a company called EdAnime Productions has produced an animated children’s series called Meltrek. The show follows a group of students and their teacher, and its main goals are “preserving African American history, fostering self-awareness, self-esteem and solidarity, and to project positive images of African Americans into the national consciousness [1]”. While change won’t be easy or happen quickly, it’s very positive to see that companies are moving in a more diverse direction. 

[1] Lee, Dante. “Black Media Company Releases First Animated Series That Teaches Children Authentic African American History.” BlackNews.Com, 11 Jan. 2016.

The Pervasiveness of Blackface Minstrelsy

While to our modern sensibilities, Blackface Minstrelsy is a abhorrent sight worthy of outcry (and rightly so, with its racist background, undertone, and purpose), however it is important to understand the reception of Blackface to understand just how ingrained it is in our society’s pop culture.  While it isn’t pretty, it is undeniably there, and what better way to see this than one of the most famous classic movies of the 20th century: Holiday Inn.

Image result for holiday inn movie

For those who haven’t seen it: go watch it then come back and keep reading, it’s an American classic that should be seen to understand the culture of America in the 1940s and 50s, plus it has some of Fred Astaire’s finest dancing in the 4th of July scene (complete with actual firecrackers he threw at his feet).

Image result for holiday inn movie 4th of july

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, into the meat of why this movie is relevant in a discussion about blackface.  Spoiler alert: they use blackface in this film.

Image result for holiday inn movie blackfaceImage result for holiday inn movie blackface

They don’t use it because it’s funny or to incite racist hatred of the only black character in the movie (named Mamie and well loved by all the characters for her stern discipline and folksy wisdom, which is a problematic stereotype present in many blackface troupes but we can talk about that later).  They use blackface as a plot device to conceal the identity of Linda Mason (played by Marjorie Reynolds) who is the leading lady to Jim Hardy (played by Bing Crosby).  It plays well in the film for one key reason: blackface was everywhere.  It isn’t suspicious that a performing group uses blackface, even though they have never used blackface until that point, because it was so pervasive in American culture that they were seen as merely experimenting with a different form of comedy and performance.  To the audience in the movie, they were essentially trying an improv show.  Maybe a little out of character for suave and smooth Bing Crosby, but not out of the realm of possibility.

This highlights the problem I’m discussing here: blackface is everywhere during this time.  Even in 1942, when blackface is past its prime of popularity, a new blockbuster movie can feature a blackface scene with confidence that it won’t be criticized until at least 1970.  In fact it wasn’t until the 1980’s that showings began to omit the blackface scene (a practice continued on AMC to the current day, so if you haven’t seen it yet you’ll have to go to Turner Classic Movies to see the unedited version).  This practice is problematic in its own way as it pretends that such actions did not exist, and were not common.  The film uses blackface in this way for a reason, and can provide important context (intentionally or unintentionally) on the pervasiveness of blackface in performance.

This is how I talk: Comedy and language – a minstrel legacy

The writers for Saturday Night Live are not the first people to use African American English (AAE) and its mannerisms as comedic subject matter. AAE is defined by Mufwene in Encyclopædia Britannica as:

“a language variety that has also been identified at different times in dialectology and literary studies as Black English, black dialect, and Negro (nonstandard) English”[1]

He then goes on to explain that there is no clear consensus of how this language variety emerged. Some connect it to influences by African language, for instance as a descendant from 17th-century West African Pidgin English or, while others argue that it is an English dialect with its roots in colonial English or creole language.

Pullum stresses in his chapter in The Workings of Language[2], that what is known as the “African American Vernacular English” (AAVE), often used synonymous with Ebonics and AAE, is in fact not just standard English spoken inadequately, but is its own legitimate version. The starting point for his discussion he writes about the “media frenzy”[3]  that occurred in 1996 when an Oakland School Board recognised AAVE as a language in their district due to a large Afro American Population. The critics viewed AAVE as “black slang” and not appropriate in a formal setting. Pullum argues due to the use of “a different grammar, clearly and sharply distinguished from Standard English”[4], through his linguistic analysis, this argument does not hold up.

Eric Lott in his book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class references the song “Jim Crow”[5]. The lyrics clearly reflecting, or at least trying to reflect, a specific way of speaking. What the text does not reflect, is the tone, body language and gestures that comes with any living language.

I am no linguist, but it seems to me that the major differences between Standard English are really in the spelling (or pronunciation) of a handful of words, for example “Ob de real ole stock”, not in the actual grammar. Having in mind that this text and Pullums analysis is separated by almost 170 years, which leaves room for considerable development of any language, I would be inclined to suggest that the lyrics are based of the idea, still present in 1996, that AAE/AAVE is just an inferior shadow of “proper” English.

Based on the sheet music presented  in How to put on a minstrel show from 1921[6], I would seem like in 100 years the language in lyrics have moved more towards Standard English. This is also present in the jokes, dialogues and monologues in the book. The author Geoffrey K. Pullum states in the beginning that his book is based of more than 30 years of experience of staging amateur minstrel shows. I will not try to pass this off as representative of the actual practice, this might just be the procedure when notating minstrel songs, leaving the interpretation to the performers. Considering this, the book is intended for amateur performers with limited experience.

Excample from How to put on a minstrel show(1921):

Saturday Night Live’s sketch reflects the portrayal of African American English previously presented in the early minstrel shows. The language and cultural non-verbal mannerisms have been made fun of, on basis of its perceived inadequacies, which in later years, have been argued are actually structural idiosyncrasies of a legitimate variety of the English language.

Primary Sources

“This is how I talk – SNL” (May 17,2015). Saturday Night Live (YouTube) [Accessed October 2nd, 2019]

Rossiter, Harold. How to put on a minstrel show. (1921) [Accessed October 2nd , 2019]

Secondary sources

Pullum, Geoffrey K. “African American Vernacular is Not Standard English with Mistakes”, The Workings of Language. (1999). Westport CT: Praeger. [Accessed October 2nd, 2019]

Mufwene, Salikoko Sangol. Encyclopædia Britannica. “African American English” (January 29th 2016). [accessed October 1st 2019]

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (1993). Oxford University Press, New York


[1] Mufwene 2016

[2] Pullum 1999

[3] Ibid p. 39

[4] Ibid p. 57

[5] Lott 1993:  p. 23

[6] Rossiter 1921: p. 54

Minstrel Shows at School?

Carl Cass was a professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Drama, and wrote a newspaper article titled “Racial and Conventional Types of Make-up” in 1949. 


He begins the article by dividing all races and ethnicities into the following categories: The Yellow Race, The Negro, The American Indian, The Brown Race, The Clown, and The Minstrel.


He describes the physical characteristics and facial features that he believes accompany each race, and offers instructions on how to apply makeup to most resemble this race.

Cass distinguishes between “The Negro” and “The Minstrel,” stating,”Many amateurs tend to confuse the coloring of a negro with that of a minstrel that is really a clown-caricature of a negro” (1). According to Cass, manufacturers sold shades of makeup labeled “light negro” and “mulatto,” which are much lighter in color compared to “minstrel black.”


In addition, he includes a blurb for each race describing their typical facial features. For the minstrel, Cass articulates,

“The lips tend to be thick and protruding. They may be painted as wide as desired, and, occasionally, they may be made to protrude by inserting soft rubber or chewing gum under them…Color a wide strip around the mouth for the lips with either white or very pale flesh-colored grease paint – red is a very inferior color because it lacks contrast with black” (1)


It is interesting how blackface performers placed such an emphasis on the white strip around their lips; perhaps they wanted to ensure that the audience knew they were actually white.


As one of the article’s ‘lessons,’ Cass instructs readers to “Select from papers and magazines pictures of both men and women of all races and nationalities…Classify these pictures and study them” (1)


The author of this article was a professor of drama at the University of Oklahoma, which indicates that minstrel shows were popular with both the general public and college students, and colleges were instructing students in the ‘art’ of minstrelsy.


This advertisement for the National Thespians lists its 1934-5 season “Banner Plays,” described as including “hits for schools, colleges, universities…and all other drama groups.” Enrollment in The National Thespians was open to students with extensive theater experience. Several of these shows include minstrel acts.

The fact that minstrel shows were performed in schools raises the question of intent, and how these shows infiltrated academia. 

Stephen Johnson also poses this question of intent in his book Burnt Cork; he states:

There are questions of intent: whether blackface performance was integrationist, working class, and populist, parodying and complaining about those in power…or whether it was segregationist and derogatory, reinforcing a white status quo of superiority…or both” (3). 

In the case of minstrel performance in schools, the intent was seemingly the latter. Drama teachers taught minstrel makeup application alongside instruction in how to dress like a clown, or how to tailor choice in makeup for the stage. From my interpretation, minstrel shows in schools were simply a part of the standard curriculum, enforcing white supremacy whether the students and professors necessarily realized it or not.

  1. Cass, C. B. (1949, 05). Racial and conventional types of make-up. Dramatics, 20, 6-8. Retrieved from
  2. Advertisement: BANNER PLAY BUREAU, INC. (1934, Oct 01). The High School Thespian, 6, 0-0_2. Retrieved from
  3. JOHNSON, S. (Ed.). (2012). Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. University of Massachusetts Press. Retrieved from


We’re familiar with blackface’s awful history. We’ve seen the problematic images like the one above that give us an idea of the ways that blackface reared its ugly head in the late 19th century. But what we may not be aware of, is the ways in which blackface has prevailed into the 21st century culture.

2019 blackface goes by a different name… “blackfishing.” Urban Dictionary defines blackfishing as, “Commonly perpetrated by females of European descent (white) which involves artificial tanning and using makeup to manipulate facial features in order to appear to have some type of Black African ancestry.”[1] Blacking rears its ugly head in social media and the music world. “Influencers” such as Leana choose to portray themselves with stereotypical black features and style elements. The first of her posts below is from 2016 and has 3,961 likes, and the second is from 2018 and boasts 38,964 likes. Many call this the modern day blackface, as these influencers, “capitalize off the looks of historically oppressed groups of people.”[2]

“They don’t have to deal with the everyday existences of what it means to be a black woman, for example, but they are then parading themselves on social media as such.” -Dr. Aria Halliday, Professor of Africana Feminisms in Womens Studies, University of New Hampshire [1]

Blackfishing is not exempt from the music industry. Bruno Mars, Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, and Ariana Grande have all received backlash about blackfishing for personal gain. Greek and Italian Ariana Grande’s “style evolution,” is more closely related to blackfishing than it is to a fashion statement. Similar to 19th century blackface performers who chose to dress in blackface to draw a bigger crowd, it could be argued that Ariana has adapted to a more “black” persona in order to reach a wider audience. Ariana’s appearance has drastically changed since she first came into the public eye: she now chooses to darken her skin, wear a textured ponytail wig, and talk with a “blaccent.”

Ariana Circa 2010 [3]

Ariana Circa 2018 [4]

Perhaps an even more startling parallel between 19th century blackface and 21st century blackfishing is the appropriation of stereotypical “black elements” of music. One of Ariana’s recent music videos, 7 Rings, includes several elements of “black music”: the Cadillacs sitting in the front lawn of a pink house are thanks to black rapper, 2 Chainz’s Door Swangin, the stereotypical ‘Scotch Snap’ has been said to have been copied from Soulja Boy’s Pretty Boy Swag, and some have argued that a portion of Ariana’s lyrics were modeled after Princess Nokia’s ode to brown and black womens’ hair, Mine

2 Chainz Pink Trap House[5]

Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings[6]

“There’s this idea that blackness is a certain thing, and if you are black, there’s a certain stereotype …  [but] black people look all different ways across the globe,” she said. “If we continue to feed into these generalizations and stereotypes, we continue the idea that people can put on our costume and wear it.” -Dr. Halliday [1]



Primary Source: De Vere, William. “De Vere’s Negro Sketches, Endmen’s Gags and Conundrums Adapted to the Use of Amateurs or Professionals.” De Vere’s Negro Sketches, Endmen’s Gags and Conundrums Adapted to the Use of Amateurs or Professionals. New York, NY: Excelsior publishing house, McKeon & Scofield, proprietors, 1889.









So, you want to put on a comedy? Then put on a minstrel show!

Or at least that’s what Harold Rossiter encourages in his book How to Put on a Minstrel Show, published in 1921.  According to Rossiter, the objection of giving a minstrel show is that it “is the one form of entertainment of which the public never seems to tire and a show can be safely produced at least every two years and in the larger towns or cities a show every year is not too often” (1).  After this assurance that the readers’ minstrel show will be popular simply based on the fact that the public desires such a show, Rossiter goes on to discuss how to successfully put on a minstrel show, through musical examples, joke suggestions, instructions on how to put on and take off blackface makeup, and a sample program.

Rossiter’s sample program

One chapter in his book is titled “Jokes for Minstrel Show.”  In this section, before providing some example jokes, he advices:

“Don’t let the end-men use too much negro dialect in telling their jokes. The average amateur negro dialect is almost pitiful, and they nearly always overdo it with the result that the audience fails to understand a word they say, and the joke goes flat. Have them use good, plain English” (1).  

Good, plain English. This makes the assumption that African American individuals, whom Rossiter is encouraging his performers to stereotypically over-emulate, use a different form of the English language that is so opposing than his own that if his performers attempted to recreate it, the joke will fail.  He exoticizes the African American population, establishing them as an “other” group.

In this quote, Rossiter also mentions the “end-men.” In minstrelsy, these were the performers in blackface who were the brunt of the jokes. Rossiter gives examples of jokes between end-men named Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, and an Interlocutor who, according to Rossiter, “is not blacked up; he always performs his part white-face” (1). Here’s an example of one of these jokes:

Example of Rossiter’s end-men jokes

Each of Rossiter’s jokes in How to Put on a Minstrel Show portrays the Interlocutor, who is white in the production, as the wise, intelligent individual always correcting and ridiculing Brother Tambo and Brother Bones, who are both in blackface.

These jokes send the overt, racist message that white individuals are, in addition to more eloquent in speech, smarter and must correct the foolish mistakes of the “black” characters.

 Just six years before Rossiter published his book, in 1915, the Chicago Weekly Review published an article that highlights the craving that audiences demonstrated for minstrel shows, emphasizing their popularity in white society in the early 1900s and exemplifying the humor white audiences found in ridiculing the blackface performers and therefore the African American race. The author, Sylvester Russell, writes that this specific minstrel show, containing blackface, was a “musical comedy” introducing “Billy King, one of the greatest and funniest blackface comedians of minstrel reputation” (2)

Chicago Weekly Review article of a minstrel show

Audiences enjoyed minstrel shows, audiences found blackface hilarious, audiences were obsessed with ridiculing the African American population.  Eric Lott writes in his introduction to Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, “Although it [minstrelsy] rose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies which underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshly investments through ridicule and racist lampoon” (3).

As Lott explains, as well as how these primary sources exemplify, the racists beliefs of white Americans in the early 20th century led to the popularity of the minstrel show. While minstrelsy doesn’t carry the comedic weight it once did, it is important to recognize what this history means in terms of racism in America today – how it formed, what actions led to  the current attitudes of some individuals, and how we use these horrible historical references to make changes in how race is perceived now.


(1) Rossiter, Harold. How to Put on a Minstrel Show. Chicago: Max Stein Publishing House, 1921. Afro-American Imprints.

(2) “Chicago Weekly Review.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), July 31, 1915: 5. Readex: African American Newspapers.

(3) Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly): Musicking in U.S. Prisons

What caught my eye whilst perusing the Lomax archive was this photograph:

The men depicted are both in prison uniforms, and on the back of the photograph is handwritten, “poss. Leadbelly”; Angola, Louisiana, July, 1934; “Huddie Leadbetter”.

I guess I wasn’t the first to be captured by this image because when I googled the description, the Lomax collection, of course, came up; what I didn’t expect to see was an Amazon link that resold reprints of the image. Further investigation led me to not just one, but several documentaries surrounding the culture of the Angola Prison (AKA: The Louisiana State Pen). Angola is currently the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and resides on 18,000 acres of property [1]. The land which was a plantation pre-civil war was “transformed” into a privately-owned prison by a former confederate general in the late 19th century where slave labor was replaced by inmate labor[1]. Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) was in a way discovered by Alan Lomax while collecting in the south and aiding Lead Belly in recording an album, helped to secure his early release by sharing the album with Louisiana Governor O.K. Alan [2]. 

Whether or not the inmate in the photo is Heddie Ledbetter is unclear, however, the photograph provides evidence that musicking did not stop once people were convicted. 

I have a few questions in regards to the motives of the Lomaxs that include: Why did the Lomaxes decide to collect from prisons? Did it have to do with concepts of the authenticity of black music? Similarly, how did Jim Crow Era politics and criminal justice have to do with the perpetuation of black musicks? Josep Pedro’s biography on Leadbelly suggests that there was indeed a power dynamic at play. 

Leadbelly was effectively liberated in 1934 and the popular legend – backed by both the Lomaxes and the artist himself – made the white ‘ballad hunters’ responsible for the black man’s liberation.” [4]

The Lomaxes created a short film surrounding the liberation of Leadbelly and his transformation into a blues star. The video feels rehearsed (Leadbelly stumbles over a line at 2:28) and is shot skillfully with the usage of continuity editing and non-diegetic noise. Lastly, the film declares the Lomax discovery of Leadbelly’s music was, “the greatest folk song find in 25 years” [3]. The physical copies of his music were then to be stored in the same archive as the original copy of the Declaration of Independence [3]. The juxtaposition of the two is certainly evoking and ethos in legitimizing Leadbelly’s music as authentically American. 

Works Cited

[1] Schrift, Melissa. “Angola Prison Art: Captivity, Creativity, and Consumerism.” The Journal of American Folklore 119, no. 473 (July 1, 2006): 257–274.

[2] “Leadbelly.” In Chambers Biographical Dictionary, by Liam Rodger, and Joan Bakewell. 9th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2011.

[3] March of Time. Volume 1, Episode 2. “Leadbelly”. [New York, NY] Home Box Office, 1935. Accessed September 26, 2019.

[4] Pedro, Josep. “Leadbelly.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter, 111–119. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Marketing ‘Selves’ and ‘Others’: How a Biased Recording Process Divided Bluegrass

In our last class, we talked about the role of the record company and consumerism in the separation of bluegrass into its racially differentiated sub-genres.  I wanted to delve deeper into the idea, exploring the different ways recording and preserving music prioritized some identities and invalidated others within the genre as well as the way that marketing shaped these newly conceived identities.

Willie McTell, with 12 string guitar, hotel room, Atlanta, Ga.                                                        “A prolific musician, McTell had recorded not only 12-bar blues (in the so-called Piedmont style), but also ballads, spirituals and contemporary gospel tunes, songs from minstrelsy and vaudeville, rags, hillbilly songs, and tunes of traditional origin” (Nunn 265)

Despite bluegrass’s transracial origins, the history of the genre has been mired in essentialism and exclusion.  As we could see from Erich Nunn’s article and the “Monologue on Accidents”, folklorists like John Lomax, who were attempting to preserve the traditions of southern ‘folk’, asked specific questions of their African American informants to influence what types of songs were recorded:  

[The informant] McTell’s proffering a spiritual instead of the “complaining song” Lomax asks for speaks volumes about the uncomfortable relationship between white collector and black informant. So, too, does his insistence on the spiritual’s universality in the face of Lomax’s rather startlingly insensitive demand for a racially specific song of social protest (Nunn 267).

This is significant in that Lomax, whose supposed motive is to record authentic moments of music-making in southern society, asks pointed questions to certain informants in order to create and control the image he was to preserve, therefor undermining the original goal of the project.

Another factor in the division of bluegrass is the record companies that were recording the genre for entertainment purposes.  The common practices of marketing the same groups under “hillbilly” and “race record” labels in order to cater to perceived racial differences and turning away groups who didn’t conform to ‘their’ genre are more attempts at controlling, curating and marketing the images of ‘selves’ and ‘others’:

The record companies had the power, and they wielded it at will – as Ralph Peer himself was quoted saying in 1959, “I invented the Hillbilly and the Negro stuff.” Except, of course, that he didn’t say ‘negro’  (Giddens).

While the motives of the folklorists and record executives were different, what they have in common is that the bias of the person behind the recording equipment always shines through.  These disingenuous recording practices changed the face of bluegrass due to the misattribution of certain styles to different groups and the erasure and ‘othering’ of music created and performed by racially diverse groups, who have just as much ownership over the style as their white counterparts.

It is important for us to learn more about this complex history, as the consequences of this division are still at play in current music, and there are still efforts made to suppress diverse artists in today’s charts.  We, as informed listeners, should do more research into these issues and understand when bias could be introduced in any step of the music-making process.


Works Cited

Blind Willie McTell, with 12 String Guitar, Hotel Room, Atlanta, Ga.

Nunn, E. (2009). COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK. Criticism, 51(4), 623-649.

Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.

Stimeling, Travis.“Ken Burns’ Country Music does Little to Tell the Story of the Non-White, Non-Straight World of Country,” 15 September 2019.

There’s No Place Like… Home? Decentering Appalachia As The Home of Bluegrass

While perusing the “Introduction” to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, I was fascinated by the importance of location in the nostalgia of bluegrass. The folk scholar notes the creation of a fictional geography in commercial bluegrass production and performance.1 I was reminded of a similar conversation when we discussed country music- how decades of scholarship focusing on country as the music of the American South complicated and even diminished the truth in its origins. But this poses the question: If bluegrass really isn’t the music of Appalachia, where was this music being made?

The idea of Appalachia as a cohesive unit has a large element of mythology to it”

Bluegrass: a History, pg. 13

In searching for clues in a photography collection in the Library of Congress, I found a photograph that captured a geography that challenged the concept of bluegrass as an Appalachian genre. The picture, taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1937, was published in a set of photographs displaying the dwellings and lives of squatters and settlers in the area. While most photographs in the lot detail the shelters and natural surroundings of the settlers, this picture stands out.

‘Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan’. Taken by Russell Lee, May 1937.

Take a listen to the piece listed in the photograph description


Take a listen to an older recording here on another blog (not too different from this one!)

It should be noted that we can hear quite a bit of variation among performances and recordings of the piece. Instrumentation greatly varies between recordings, as well as ornamentations and some stylistic approaches to the core material of the music.

Upon consultation of scholarship regarding the movement of bluegrass, it is clear that Michigan and other states in the Upper Midwest created hotspots for this music as economic migrants traversed the country.2 In the years during and directly following the Second World War, places like Detroit got ahold of musics like bluegrass and marketed it to a country longing for an identity that harkened back to the days of peace and the free, roaming settler. 

It is fascinating to piece together how one photograph can demonstrate an amalgamation of Southern migrant histories and Midwestern musical production. But consultation of additional sources helped contextualize this photograph in the complex geography of bluegrass that had been previously simplified by production companies intending to sell a particular image of the bluegrass musician and backstory.


Primary Source

Lee, Russell. Lon Allen and his son playing their fiddles to the tune of “The Arkansas Traveler.” Near Iron River, Michigan. May, 1937. LOT 1044, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Secondary Sources Cited

[1] Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: a History. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) 3-13.

[2] Maki, Craig., and Cady, Keith. Detroit Country Music : Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013) 2-8.

Troublesome Music Collecting

In the first recordings blue grass, Erich Nunn argues the whiteness of Lomax making the informant uncomfortable in his playing. In my other blog, I discussed the tension in recordings that may have risen with Frances Densmore. In this post, this picture shows the collector and the informant, as Nunn describes. The discomfort of the performer with the collector makes me question the authenticity of the recordings. In the recording, Monologues on Accidents, the interaction between the collector and musician becomes awkward the longer they interact:


McTell: Well, that . . . all songs that have reference to our old people here . . . they hasn’t very much stuff of the people nowadays because . . .

Lomax [interrupting]: Any complaining songs, complaining about the hard times, and sometimes mistreatment of [sic] the whites. Have you got any songs that talk about that?

McTell: No, sir, I haven’t. Not at the present time because the white people’s mighty good to the Southern people, as far as I know.

Lomax: You don’t know any complaining songs at all?

McTell: Well . . .

Lomax: “Ain’t It Hard to Be a Nigger, Nigger,” do you know that one?

McTell: Well . . . that’s not in our time. And . . . now, there’s a spiritual down here called “It’s a Mean World to Live In,” but that don’t have . . . still don’t have reference to the hard times.

Lomax: It’s just because of the . . . Why is it a mean world to live in?

McTell: Well, no, it’s not altogether. It has reference to everybody. Country music and the souls of white folk 627

Lomax: It’s as . . . It’s as mean for the whites as it is for the blacks, is that it?

McTell: That’s the idea (Nunn 623)

With the racial politics of the era, it becomes reasonable to ask if any of these recordings collected are authentic. In this interaction, it seems as though Lomax is looking for a concept of black music rather than what the specific musician had to offer. Even as a respected musicologist, I question what John Lomax specifically looked for in his collection.
This photo includes John Lomax and musician Richard Amerson, who went on to record other folk albums later on in his career.
I continue to wrestle with the idea that record companies would advertise to different racial groups based on the race of the musicians. I wonder if this also become the case for Lomax and his collection based on the Monologues On Accident and photo. It feels as though while Lomax may be preserving a tradition through recordings, but also preserving problematic notions of race through his preconceived notions of what he wanted in his collection.


– Nunn, Erich. “Country Music and the Souls of White Folk.” Criticism, vol. 51, no. 4, 2010, pp. 623–649., doi:10.1353/crt.2010.0000.

– “Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 3: Rich Amerson—1/ Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,

– Lomax, Ruby. Richard Amerson and John A. Lomax, Sr., at the Home of Mrs. Ruby Pickens Tartt, Livingston, Alabama. 27 Oct. 1940.

Breaking the Mold: Subversive rhetoric in In Dahomey

For this blog assignment, I found a performance of the song, “On Emancipation Day,” from the musical In Dahomey, with music by Will Marion Cook and lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Dahomey is a significant piece of art for several reasons.

First and foremost, it was the first full-length musical written by african americans, with an african american cast to appear in a major Broadway Theater. The musical was very successful; it ran for 53 performances, including two United States tours as well as a tour to the United Kingdom.

However, there is a deeper significance to this work than just pure success. It also pushed against social norms of the time period. In the chapter “Early Black Americans on Broadway,” by Monica White Ndounou from the Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, she argues that the musical contained some subversive ideas regarding black freedom of representation and production in theatre.

“The song “Broadway in the Jungle” incorporates African iconography in its vision of the Great White Way, but in a more subversive way than Williams and Walker may have been credited with in their lifetime. They speak not of bringing Dahomians to Broadway but instead building a Broadway for colored people in Dahomey. They sing: “If we went to Dahomey. Suppose the king would say, we want a Broadway built for us, we want it right away.” They call for a space in which blacks control production and performance. Stereotypical references throughout, however, detract from the revolutionary idea (for instance, using a crocodile, or a “Crock-o-Dial” on the face of the Broadway clock, getting gorillas to use as the police, and a hippopotamus for Justice of the Peace, etc). They fail to improve African representation, but succeed in the use of dialect and other devices,” (Ndounou 67-68).

Even though they challenged the status quo in this way, it fell into line with others. The play was not exempt from the influence of minstrelsy, which permeated all black theatre of the time. Ndounou also comments on this:

“In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy draws character names from minstrelsy, while combining low comedy, ethnic jokes, and references to current social and political events within its three-act structure. Whereas white comics were able to access a range of ethnic stereotypes (i.e. Irish, Hebrew, and Dutch), black performers could only play variations of the “Darky” and the Chinese. In Dahomey features these constrained representations of ethnic identity, while building on models established in previous shows,” (Ndounou 66).

To tie this back into class, even though In Dahomey followed the familiar narrative of Black Theater being a successful, though problematic form of entrepreneurship, it should also be recognized for how it pushed against the expectations of the time.

Works Cited:
Bordman, Gerald, Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 190.

Ndounou, Monica White. “Early black Americans on Broadway.” The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, edited by Harvey Young, Cambridge UP, pp. 59-70.

Spencer, Len, baritone. On Emancipation Day, by Will Marion Cook. Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 25 October, 1902.

Music and the Market: The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson were musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and powerful figures of what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Beyond being known for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which has been called the black national anthem, Johnson and Johnson thrived as songwriters in New York City during the Tin Pan Alley era of popular music, in which songwriters would churn out sheet music to be sold or recorded. In James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography “Along this Way”1 Weldon Johnson explains his process behind writing a hit song titled The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes

“In those days the royalties of a writer depended largely upon the young fellow who would buy a copy of the song and take it along with him when he went to call on his girl…In writing “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes” we gave particular consideration to these fundamentals. It needed little analysis to see that a song written in exclusive praise of blue eyes was cut off at once from about three-fourths of the possible chances for universal success; that it could make but faint appeal to the heart or pocketbook of a young man going to call on a girl with brown eyes or black eyes or gray eyes. So we worked on the chorus of our song until, without making it a catalogue, it was inclusive enough to enable any girl who sang it or to whom it was sung to fancy herself the maiden with the dreamy eyes (160).”

James Weldon Johnson makes it perfectly clear that in writing this piece of music, the objective was to make the song appeal to as large of a group of people as possible, something that is accomplished by literally listing several eye colors in the song. A 1902 recording of the song by the Victor Recording Company, sung by a Canadian tenor named Harry Macdonough accomplishes the precise sweetness that Weldon Johnson refers to in his account. For another, more recent recording check out this version by Melinda Doolittle.


The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes

Part of the specific success of this song was due to new customs surrounding dating at the start of the 20th century. Magazines and journals made money off of marketing to new audiences and age groups, especially to a certain subset of young people who would eventually be called teenagers, Beth Bailey2 writes

“The middle-class arbiters of culture, however, aped and elaborated the society version of the call. And, as it was promulgated by magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, with a circulation of over one million by 1900, the modified society call was the model for an increasing number of young Americans (15).”

This new middle class is also something we tend to think of as predominantly white, a market that Weldon Johnson found great success in despite being a black artist. In his autobiography, he wonders if consumers of his music are aware of his identity, writing about a letter he received as follows.

“The very serious-looking Mr. Bok read me the letter and laughed uproariously over it. I laughed too; but me laughter was tempered by the thought that there was anybody in the country, notwithstanding the locality being Georgia, who, knowing anything at all about them, did not know that Cole and Johnson Brothers were Negroes (196).”

Everything we know about the creators behind The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes makes it a piece of black art, with words by a black poet and a musical arrangement by a black composer, but in standard examples of what “black music” is, it would be highly unlikely to ever hear this song. In my preliminary search of Alan Lomax’s photo collection tied to his work on folk music in the south in the 1930’s I found no instances of pianos, despite the fact Weldon Johnson’s music, published some 30 years prior was based around a piano.

When music is cataloged and categorized, everything that doesn’t fit into those boxes gets left to the side because it fails to serve the central narrative about what that particular music means. While The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes is goofy and a clear grab for money, what new stories can we explore when it is as much of a piece of black music as any recording taken by Alan Lomax in the South?

1Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way : The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

Country Music Mythologized in Murals

Mismatched faces loom down at passersby in Dothan, Alabama. Some grinning, some straight-faced, sixteen white ovals are superimposed on each other. The mural’s array of country music artists is reminiscent of a bad photoshop job. I will argue that our conception of country music as a genre is just as piecemeal and whitewashed.

Country Music Mural in Dothan, Alabama

Wes Hardin’s 2010 mural presents a myriad of flat, disconnected faces and instruments that are meant to represent country music as a whole. These individual, one-dimensional shapes are imposed on a vaguely southern, pastoral backdrop. This representation of country music is almost exactly what we encounter in written attempts to describe the genre. As Jeffrey Manuel points out, the history of country music is intertwined with a “set of ideals and customs” prescribed to the “plain white folk”.1 These plain white folk themselves are often given a physical description: “Fat or lean, blonde or brunet, the Southern type could be discerned by travelers”.2


Written histories have taken perceived elements of white folk culture, pasted them onto a general image of white folk, oriented the whole scene in a generic Southern landscape, and called it country music. Perhaps the ridiculousness of a mural in Alabama with sixteen heads of varying sizes shows us how this description is a mere caricature of country music.

Mural to Country Music in Bristol, Virginia

Meanwhile, in Bristol, Virginia, a similar sight meets our eyes. Yet another mural depicts symbols of country music painted together onto a brick wall. More white figures holding guitars and banjos dominate the scene, reinforcing the public perception of country music as a genre of the “plain white folk”. This mural, created by Tim and Murphy White, reveals another element of our perception of country music as well. The words at the top claim the town as a “birthplace” of country music, seeming to attribute a whole genre to a few white guys in a southern town. While most people are aware that the genre’s origins aren’t quite so easy to pin down, this mythology of country music as a genre spawned by some white folk in the rural south is still pervasive. The use of white figures and common symbols of country music such as the banjo to represent the genre only perpetuates this view.

Murals such as those in Alabama and Virginia show us an image of country music that is easy to swallow. They depict a genre that can be neatly boxed up and captured by a mythical sense of southern, white culture. But as Jeffrey Manuel points out, no genre of music is ever this easily defined. We need to move past thinking that such basic tropes of southern culture can characterize an entire history and genre of music.

1 Jeffrey T. Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society, 421.

2 Ibid., 422.

3 Ibid., 421.


Works Cited:

Hardin, Wes. Country Music, 2010. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America. Dothan, Alabama. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Jeffrey Manuel, “The Sound of Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins,” Popular Music and Society 31, no. 4 (October 2008): 417-431.

Murphy White and Tim White. Mural to Country Music, 1980-2006. Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Bristol, Virginia. Accessed September 23, 2019.

A Gaelic Bluegrass

Formed by Crockett Ward, the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters are, by their appearances alone, precisely the sort of people a record company of the mid 20th century would market as Bluegrass musicians. They are shown playing stringed instruments, including the emblematic banjo and fiddle, Crockett (front and center) is in a farmer’s coveralls, they are in an ensemble (including family–with Crockett’s brother, Wade, on banjo, and Fields Wade on guitar), and all are white.

[Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp]

Found in the Lomax Collection of the Library of Congress

Yet, when the group is viewed through the speech Rhiannon Giddens gave at the 2017 IBMA conference (linked here), Bluegrass is not comprised merely by these attributes. However, I would like to spend a moment to reflect on the Scots-Irish influences Giddens is–rightfully, mind–pushing back on. While these cultural roots certainly don’t tell the whole story, there may be insights hidden beneath the simplistic veneer of “Bluegrass-as-white” which so frustrates Giddens.1

The Gaelic roots which inform this group are apparent in two places. The surname of three of the members of the band, Ward, has origins in that culture ( Perhaps more interestingly, “bog-trotting” has distinct Irish connotations which add more detail to the study of Bluegrass. Contemporary bands have taken up the name, including the Galax Bogtrotters.

A depiction of peasant bogtrotters, including some falling into the bog

Found at the British Museum website

“Bogtrotter,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a usually disparaging term used to refer to a “native or resident of Ireland.” Somewhat defensively, the Irish Times reports that the term unfairly implies a lack of knowledge; to the contrary, they say, the very real act of bog-trotting is strenuous and filled with potential missteps.2


This presents a charming portrait of the self-debasement alongside showy technical skill typical of American country music, and clearly involves the Gaelic culture in Bluegrass. But which culture can claim possession of the band? As I pointed out in my last post, it may not be so simple. The Bogtrotters certainly fit in the mold crafted by record companies named “Bluegrass,” they come from the Appalachian region where “Old Time” sound is said to have originated, and they probably have Gaelic ethnicity. Reality is, here as always, more complicated than the categories we use to make sense of it. It seems to me that the Bogtrotters are just as much a Gaelic band playing non-Gaelic Bluegrass as they are proof that Gaelic culture plays some role in Bluegrass, yet another case study in the interdependence of musical expression.


1     Povelones, Robert. 2018. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” International Bluegrass Music Association.

2     2000. “Bog Trotters.” The Irish Times.

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.

Alan Lomax: “Appendix on Guitar and Banjo Accompaniment”

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was an American folksong scholar who dedicated his studies to searching for new folk songs to record in the rural South using an ethnographic lens. He investigated the correlation between folk song structures and melodies with folk musicians’ races, locations, and economic status. He compiled many manuscripts during his research, one of which, the “Big Ballad Book,” includes his “Appendix on Guitar and Banjo Accompaniment” [1].


He begins his appendix by describing his findings related to the differences in folk music between black and white communities. He states that white frontiersmen generally sang solo a cappella, whereas “Most Negro singing was group performed and was accompanied at least by clapping, foot-patting, and, frequently, by other instruments, played poly-rhythmically, such as the mouth-bow, the panpipe, the bones, etc.” [2], page 2.


However, according to Lomax, white folk musicians had been recently picking up influences from black musicians they met either “on the job” or “in the slums” [2], page 2. This phenomenon of stealing a culture’s music while simultaneously oppressing that culture was, and is, common among colonizers. They also encountered these ideas through the radio, recordings, and touring minstrel groups. As a result, white folk musicians began incorporating instruments into their songs. 


Lomax additionally comments on the practice of judging folk music through a Western lens. As he points out, Western European harmonic traditions were formed in urban areas, whereas folk music developed in rural parts of America. 


“Although Harmony is taught in schools as if its rules were laws of nature, classical Western European harmony is, in fact, just one more fashion …subject to change as the mood of mankind changes…to graft the ideas of this sophisticated urban music onto the sober, workaday back of folk music is an act of vanity and poor taste” [2], page 2.


As a result, composers like Beethoven and Copland who arranged folk songs for concert settings failed to capture the songs’ emotional tension and melodic simplicity; they made “no contribution to the lasting tradition of the song” [2], page 3. Lomax attributes this to the fact that these composers have not lived with the people from these folk traditions they are adapting from, and yet their arrangements caught on with the public while lacking authenticity. 


Furthermore, Lomax highlights several misconceptions surrounding folk music. He argues that many perceive folk music as based upon improvisation rather than strict structure, and consequently feel free to adapt or arrange songs as they choose.  In actuality, the minimal improvisation that can appear does so in a familiar and traditional way. He also states that while many believe that folk songs evoke individuality, a folk singer actually serves as the “mouthpiece of his culture or subculture” [2], page 5.


Finally, Lomax offers a beginner’s tutorial in how to play folk banjo and guitar, including diagrams of rhythmic strumming and picking patterns like “Carter Family’s Lick” and “Woody’s Lick.” 


The numbers above the notes indicate which strings to pluck, 6 being the lowest string. “Abs” means ‘any bass string.’ The letters below the notes indicate which fingers to use to pluck or strum the strings; “Br” means brush the strings with the first three fingers, and “T” means to use the thumb. The arrows indicate which direction to strum.


  1. Lomax, Alan, and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Big Ballad Book, -1991. to 1991, 1961. Manuscript/Mixed Material.
  2. Porterfield, Nolan, and Darius L. Thieme. “Lomax family.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 23 Sep. 2019.


Bluegrass and Black Appalachian Banjo

When I found a set of manuscripts collected by Alan Lomax on the playing of musicians in Black Appalachia, the last thing I expected was to end up reading about Earl Scruggs. Nevertheless, this letter from Stu Jamieson on field recordings done in 1946 of a trio of Black Appalachian musicians connected directly into our discussions of bluegrass music from Thursday’s class. The recordings this letter is referencing are of Murphy Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York on banjo, fiddle, and guitar respectively. Apparently a banjo player himself and familiar with the rise of bluegrass by the time this letter was written in about 1978, Jamieson writes to a friend and scholar at the Library of Congress about the Gribble’s particular styles of banjo picking and fingering. As with Bill C. Malone, part of the reason his recounting is convincing because of his own study and experience with the styles he discusses.

Very few of the recordings referenced are easy to find; however, three songs played by this trio appear on the Black Appalachia CD of Deep River of Song – the same series that supplied our listenings for Black cowboy music (1). The three songs can be seen in the list given to the right, labelled with Murphy Gribble’s name: “Christmas Eve,” “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” and “8th of January.” Notably missing from this set is the solo recording of Gribble that Jamieson spends most of his time discussing.

Perhaps this sort of delving into history is what Rhiannon Giddens did when she started to discover the complex roots of bluegrass, which had been introduced to her as a white genre (2). While it is unlikely that these particular players had much to do with the spreading popularity of this style of play until it developed into bluegrass, Jamieson is certain that they are clues to a more significant history, and that there must have been more musicians who played like Gribble, Lusk, and York. As a broader style, and not simply a characteristic of a single isolated musician (or three), it likely would have spread and been one of the streams which fed into the development of mid-19th century bluegrass. In the letter, Jamieson says that the musicians told him what they were doing was “the way the black folks always played” (3). This discussion and the solo recording of Gribble’s playing are his main pieces of evidence in claiming that there is a “whole world” of black country music that has been missed by white recorders. His excitement is genuine and somewhat infectious, but it seems also to be a bit simplistic. Countless other strands of folk music traditions have not been recorded and preserved exactly as they were, but that does not mean they are completely lost; on the contrary, they exist in the traditions that they helped develop. And there certainly are plenty of recordings of black country musicians that could hold the keys that Jamieson says are missing. He himself admits that he saw “nothing new of note” until he persuaded Gribble to play alone; it’s distinctly possible that a similar style had been recorded, but not independently (3).

I also noted that toward the end of the letter, Jamieson (depicted below) tells his friend who to contact for permission to share the recordings they are discussing with a broader public (4). Any of the musicians who appear on the recordings, or any of their family members, as several of them had passed away by the time the letter was written, are not given as contacts. This is not directly relevant to the validity of the story being shared, but it does raise some interesting questions about the ways Jamieson thinks about the music he has recorded, in comparison with other statements about the treatment of black country musicians.

Works Cited:

  1. Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia. Recorded January 1, 1999. Rounder Records, 1999, Streaming Audio. 
  2. Povelones, Robert. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address – IBMA Business Conference 2017.” IBMA, International Bluegrass Music Association, 17 May 2018,
  3. Lomax, Alan. Alan Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, A Recorded Treasury of Black Folk Song, -1981, Black Appalachia. to 1981, 1978. Manuscript/Mixed Material.
  4. Wikipedia contributors, “Robert Stuart Jamieson,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 24, 2019).

Dolly Parton: Breaking and Reinforcing Country Stereotypes and Fallacies

For this blog post I researched into Dolly Parton and the role she has played in shaping country music and challenged the ideas of the poor white hillbilly being the norm in this world. When one hears the word hillbilly they usually associate it with a man, which I think originates from the fact that the music industry was dominated by men at the time of country music being brought into popularity by white Southerners. So what is different about the way Parton presents herself? How does it simultaneously challenge the hillbilly stereotype and become extremely popular, leading her to become a timeless and iconic face within not just female country artists, but the entire genre?

The answer lies within her music and marketing. Dolly markets herself as the common woman, but not in the same “down on their luck” way that most people would expect country music to be presented. In her song, 9 to 5, which is also a feature film, Dolly presents us with the problems of the average person who is dealing with their dead-end job. Sure, this could be construed as someone being down on their luck, but the lyrics “They just use your mind And they never give you credit It’s enough to drive you crazy If you let it”(Parton). show this is a problem that is relatable to any listener that isn’t part of the upper 1%. The imagery of the poster shows how the working class, particularly women, are ready to take back the power from the wealthy (Gibert). This power-dynamic shift is again showing how Parton likes to fight against the typical country music narrative.

This specific line is a bit hypocritical, as country music rarely recognizes the fact that much of their origins come from African American music. Still, the spirit of the song, especially sung by a woman in 1980, is that of resistance. Is it reaching to black women and saying “I”m here! I’m your ally! We’re in this together”? Well, no. It is lacking in connecting that boldly and directly, much like most country music of that era. She presents an air of sticking to your roots but not being afraid to succeed, but isn’t showing off talented African American country and bluegrass singers alongside her.

Although she isn’t making that extra step, I feel she is still stepping out and fighting the patriarchal stereotypes of country music more than other female country singers of the era. She is known for performing alongside modern feminist folk singers, like Brandi Carlile, a known gay Grammy winner. She performed the song Just because I’m a Woman with Carlile’s band at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019 (Ballantyne). This shows that she is still pushing back against double standards that oppress women, while still staying true to the historical descriptions of bluegrass and country, as the lyrics do make it feel like a complaining song, just complaints that are more relevant and valid than some more patriarchal country songs.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Anna, director. Dolly Parton Sings ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’ with Brandi Carlile and the Highwomen at Newport Folk. YouTube, YouTube, 28 July 2019,

Gilbert, Bruce, producer. “9 to 5”. Poster. Twentieth Century Fox, 1980. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Web. 22 Sept, 2019. []

Parton, Dolly, director. Dolly Parton- 9 to 5 (Official Video). YouTube, YouTube, 15 Mar. 2014,

DIY Folk Music

Even though my career as a washboard virtuoso was neither long nor successful, nostalgic recollections of my wild adolescence resurfaced when I found photographs of homemade instruments in The Lomax Collection. Personal experiences aside, the usage or repurposing of household items as musical instruments is an aspect of folk music, and the adjacent genres like country and bluegrass, that is worth further examination.

The Alan Lomax Collection  [1] contains documentation from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’ field research on folk music locally in the US and internationally. The pictures chosen are from Lomax’ early American research between 1936-1950, while working for the Library of Congress. To accompany the photographs, I have chosen a recording from 1941 by performer Wayne “Gene” Dinwiddie. The recording begins with him explaining how he made a wind instrument and then he performs a song with it.

Bruno Nettl states in his article [2] on folk music in Encyclopædia Britannica that it primarily refers to the music of the majority, “particularly the lower socioeconomic classes”.  Other keywords from the article are “informal”, “social function” and “participatory” which may indicate an improvised and impromptu culture for musicmaking.  He stresses the inclusive, ‘low-bar for participation’ culture. Knowing this, we can begin to understand the need for making instruments or utilizing every-day items. The photos show a wide array different types, varying form wind instruments to strings and percussion.

One could argue that homemade instruments can provide context to the noisy and “unrefined” soundscape so often attributed to folk-related genres. The prejudices against what is identified as a “hillbilly”, “down home” genre may be enforced with the use of homemade instruments. Listening to Dinwiddie one could argue that what sounds like a lot like a modern kazoo, sounds quite tuneful. I would seem that instruments without centuries of history and development, do not get the instant status even though they apply the same basic concepts for generating sound. On the other hand, one could argue that the homemade instruments give folk music a more authentic sound, free from the restraints of western, classical dogma.

[1] Folk Musical […] 1934-1950

[2] Nettl 2019

Primary source; From the Lomax Collection:

Folk Musical Instruments Including Homemade Horns. , None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Folk Musical Instruments Including Homemade Horns, Homemade Drum, and Washboard. , None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Todd, Charles L, Robert Sonkin, and Wayne “Gene” Dinwiddie. There’s More Pretty Girls Than One. Arvin FSA Camp, 1941. Audio.

Secondary sources:

The American Folklife Center.  Alan Lomax Collection [Accessed September 23, 2019]

Nettl, Bruno, Encyclopædia Britannica, “ Folk music”, January 2, 2019. [accessed September 23, 2019]


The Darktown Comics Banjo Class: A Glance At Currier & Ives Lithographs

For this blog assignment, I decided to go the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Catalog and simply search the term ” banjo” to see what would show up.  I was primarily interested in what is still documented in the public perceptions of African-American banjo players based on this quote in Rhiannon Giddens’ address at the IBMA Business Conference in 2017:

“To understand how the banjo, which was once the ultimate symbol of African American musical expression, has done a one-eighty in popular understanding and become the emblem of the mythical white mountaineer… In order to understand the history of the banjo and the history of bluegrass music, we need to move beyond the narratives we’ve inherited, beyond generalizations that bluegrass is mostly derived from a Scots-Irish tradition, with ‘influences’ from Africa.” [1]

Many of the results consisted of photographs of white banjo players or artists’ depictions of African-Americans, which were usually black men sitting on a chair playing the banjo either in minstrel clothing or in “plantation” clothing, which demonstrated what kind of rabbit hole I was entering.  However, I was most struck by this lithograph from Currier & Ives dating to 1886 being the top result:


It was definitely off-putting to see a very caricatured depiction of African-Americans as the first result for just the word “banjo” with no other filter given to the search.  I thought this was some sort of anomaly at first, but the I went back to the search bar to look up “Darktown comics banjo,” and the database returned with two results: one of the first image I found and the other being the “response” to the first comic:


There are a few things that are very striking to me in both images besides the highly stereotypical presentation of their anatomical features.  First, all of the people in both lithographs are wearing very formal clothing with the men in suits and the women in Victorian dresses.  After glancing at several other lithographs from this series, this theme is not uncommon, because the purpose of displaying African-Americans in clothing that belonged primarily to the upper class seemed to be making a satire of stereotyped depictions of African-Americans.  It is as though this series is like an alternate universe where African-Americans run the world, but their stereotypes act as their guiding principles, making them have irrational judgement compared to white audiences.  This also goes into the second point, where the musicians sitting in the group decide they cannot play in a rigid sitting position, so they can only perform by getting rowdy or “loose.”  The artist uses these two comics to create a joke in the “setup-punchline” sense, which seems quite strange, but also not off-kilter for this time period.

While I was originally going to discuss the presentation of banjos and their relationship to African-Americans, I couldn’t help but not comment on these rather obscene comics and how they were somehow considered acceptable enough to be printed.  After browsing Google further, I found that some of these prints in the Darktown comic series are being reproduced and sold on Amazon of all places [HistoricalFindings Photo: Darktown Comics,Darktown Fire Brigade,Chief,Firefighters,1885,African Americans], which would only make sense if it was used for an academic purpose, but otherwise, I do not know who would purchase these or why someone would need it.

If you are curious as to any of the other Darktown comics presented by Currier & Ives, here is a rather expansive blog post by a historical archivist: []


[1] Giddens, Rhiannon “IBMA Business Conference 2017”

[2] The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key

[3] The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune


Giddens, Rhiannon. “IBMA Business Conference 2017 – Keynote Address.” IBMA Business Conference 2017. September 23, 2019.

Teoli, Daniel D. “Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection.” Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection (blog), May 13, 2018.

The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key: “If yous can’t play de Music, jes leff de banjo go!”. Photograph. Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune: “Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!” . Photograph. Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Stavin’ Chain and the “Batson” Ballad

I was drawn to this photo because it was one of the few in the Lomax collection that depicted black musicians performing. The photo is titled “Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La,” although notes later on clarify that this titled was devised by library staff. The picture is from June of 1934 and is part of the Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, a collection that focused on the southern United States and the Bahamas.

The first question I had was what the ballad “Batson” sounded like.  While I eventually found the recording, in my search I also happened to come across a particularly helpful three part series of blog posts/essays (blessays??) by Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick. Winick’s analysis is a wonderfully detailed, albeit lengthy.

“Batson” is a ballad about a string of murders committed by Albert Edwin Batson in Lake George, Louisiana, and his subsequent trial and execution and subsequent trial. Winick examines how ambiguity in the song allows listeners to come to their own conclusions regarding Batson’s innocence. He also compares the ballad presented by Stavin’ Chain (Wilson Jones) and lesser-known versions collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, John Lomax’s Library of Congress predecessor.

Winick categorizes this ballad as an example of African American string bands, which Rhiannon Giddens notes as an influence to the development of bluegrass. This photo supports her argument that black musicians were participating in many types of music generally assumed to be “white.” The photo dates from 1934, before “bluegrass” became its own genre but after the white-washing of country music began. Although perhaps obvious, it is valuable in its depiction that black musicians were engaging in the genre of string band ballads in the 1930s which ultimately helps modern musicians rewrite the notion that these genres do not exclusively “belong” to white musicians.

At the beginning of her speech, Giddens asserts that the question should not be “How do we get diversity into bluegrass?” but rather “How do we get diversity BACK into bluegrass?” As a primary source, this photo helps document Giddens’ claim that bluegrass emerged from diverse roots rather than belonging exclusively to white Americans.

Works Cited

Caffery, Joshua C. Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. Featuring Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones, Charles Gobert, and Octave Amos. “Batson.”

International Bluegrass Music Association. “Rhiannon Giddens – 2017 IBMA Business Conference Keynote Address.” 2017.

Lomax, Alan. “[Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad ‘Batson’ accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.]” June 1934.

Winick, Steven. “’I Didn’t Done the Crime’: Stavin’ Chain’s ‘Batson’ and the Batson Case.” Library of Folklife Today , July 27, 2017,


A Symbol That Transcends Race?

As I began looking through images of bluegrass musicians from almost a century ago, I realized that amidst the controversial discussion about which culture bluegrass music sprang from, one element in this polarized history remains constant. It was present whether the musician was Celtic or Cajun, young or old, man or woman.

Front porches… they abound in the bluegrass music world. Scroll through the Lomax photo archives from the 1930s, or do a quick, modern-day Google search, and your results will be similar. Front porches have become a constant, universal symbol of a bluegrass musician. Front porches had no racial bias–they crossed the lines between races at a time when no other thing did. Cajun fiddlers and white fiddlers, black guitarists and Mexican guitarists, cajun singers and black singer-songwriters alike; Lomax images show that front porches were the bluegrass musician’s favorite place.


Nicknamed “pickin’ parlors,”[1] front porches became the unofficial location for jam sessions to break out in 1930s southern communities. One might argue that front porches are a favorite performance venue for bluegrass musicians because of their great acoustics, or because the intense heat of the south required musicians to play outside in the breeze, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that. I think that by playing on a porch, these musicians were inviting neighbors, relatives, and friends to enjoy this musical tradition.

The front porch lives on in the modern bluegrass scene. There’s a Spotify-curated playlist called Front Porch: Sit back, stay awhile, and savor the soft, sweet sounds of this folksy collection. Front porches remain in country music today. There’s a Front Porch Bluegrass band, an annual Front Porch Bluegrass Festival and Pork Roast, and a bluegrass radio station called Front Porch. It seems that we simply can’t call music “bluegrass” without reference to a front porch.

No matter the person’s race, front porches offered their wooden floors and rocking chairs to any musician.



[1] Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian,Science Monitor. “Pulled Up by the Banjo Strings: ALL Edition].” The Christian Science Monitor, Jun 23, 2005.

Pictures referenced:

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Singers & dancers, New Bight, Cat Island, July. Bahamas Cat Island, 1935. July. Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Pete Steele and family, Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton Ohio United States, 1938. Photograph.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Lolo Mendoza and Chico Real, with guitars, at the home of Mrs. Sarah Kleberg Shelton, Kingsville, Texas. Kingsville Texas United States, 1940. [Sept. 20] Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Bill Tatnall, sitting, playing guitar, Frederica, Georgia. Frederica Georgia United States, 1935. June. Photograph.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Cajun fiddler, Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Wayne Perry playing fiddle, Crowley, Louisiana. Crowley Louisiana United States, None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Cajun singers, southwest Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Summer. Photograph.

From Slaves to Mumford and Sons: The Banjo’s Association with the American Dream:

Growing up, I had a specific image of a banjo player in my mind. I imagined a white male wearing overalls sitting on the front porch of a white house with a white picket fence surrounded by farmland.

Now, I recognize how close this picture is to an idea of the American Dream, a hope often associated with, home ownership, comfortable living, wealth, opportunity, and fame.  While the image of the “white picket fence” is more of a romanticized image often situated in Hollywood, it does represent a core tenant of the American Dream—success.

But, how come my image of a banjo growing up was so aligned with a version of the American Dream?  

            To further consider the banjo’s symbolism in the American Dream, specifically the image and idealized version of this dream, I searched simply “banjo” in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, and eight photographs appeared from the search. Each photo contained either an individual playing the banjo, or a group of musicians, one of which is playing a banjo.

Two crucial traits were consistent throughout all the images: white and male.

            One, for example, is an image from 1937 of the Bog Trotters Band, where one of the players is on the banjo (below). They are looking at sheet music in a house with lace curtains, wearing a variety of clothing from overalls to a suit, playing instruments in good condition. While subtle, the three factors of well-taken care of instruments, nice clothing, and delicate lace curtains represent, to me, success, crucial to the American Dream. It appears as though these men are living out their American dream, using the banjo as a stepping-stone to their success [1]. The Bog Trotters Band was such a staple of bluegrass that there is now a new band in the 21st century, the Galax Bogtrotters, who found their music so inspiring they decided to use their name.


            From this image, and what I found by searching “banjo,” it appears as though I’m not alone in categorizing the banjo with a romanticized ideal of the American Dream and with, to be frank, whiteness. Neil Rosenberg in his “Introduction” from Bluegrass: A History shares a common perception of the history of the banjo. While the following quote doesn’t address the banjo explicitly, it discusses the popular ideas of when bluegrass began, and the banjo is a crucial aspect of bluegrass.

It seems imbedded in the history of the bluegrass genre, and Rosenberg questions if bluegrass began in 1939 with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys or in 1945-48 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were performing with Bill Monroe. All white men [2].

            However, Rhiannon Giddens in her Keynote speech at the 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference would argue that bluegrass began much earlier, as she defines bluegrass as complex Creole music coming from African, European, and Native American roots. She adds that the banjo used to be a symbol of African American expression, as it started as a plantation instrument, but it has done a 180 [3]. She evaluates how the banjo and bluegrass has become known as a white art form, but it rather began with roots in slavery.

           Fast forward to the now.  There are still popular bands that feature banjo playing, such as Mumford and Sons. As you can see in the picture above, these men all still identify as white. In a way, they are continuing the same image that the Bog Trotters Band did: white men living out the American Dream of fame and success, but ignoring an entire race who contributed to the evolution of the banjo and bluegrass.


[1] Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments. 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs: Lomax Collection, Washington D.C., USA.

[2] Rosenberg, Neil. Bluegrass: A History. PDF file.

[3] Giddens, Rhiannon. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 2017.

Black Female Pop Artists and “Being too White”

The idea that a black female pop artist is “too white” is unfortunately nothing new. In a 1988 article published in Ebony magazine (a magazine written by and for an African American audience), Lynn Norment talks to Whitney Houston. Norment claims “Black disc jockeys chided her for ‘not having a having a soul,’ and ‘being too White,’ while other critics [said] she [was] ‘too distant and impersonal [1].’” I thought Houston’s response was very interesting. Houston explains:

“‘Picture this […], you wake up everyday with a magnifying glass over you. Someone is always looking for something- somebody, somewhere is speaking your name every five seconds of the day, whether it’s positive or negative. Like my friend Michael [Jackson] says, ‘you want our blood but you don’t want our pain.’ […] Don’t say I don’t have a soul or what you consider to be ‘Blackness.’ I know what my color is. I was raised in a Black community with Black people, so that has never been a thing with me. Yet, I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean I’m White…pop music has never been all-White. […] My success happened so quickly that when I first came out Black people felt ‘she belongs to us,’ […] and then all of a sudden the big success came and they felt I wasn’t theirs anymore, and I wasn’t within their reach. It was felt that I was making myself more accessible to Whites, but I wasn’t.’”

Whitney Houston, 1983.


This idea of not belonging seems to be a common theme among female pop singers of color. In a recent example, pop artist Lizzo has experienced the tug-of-war between being in the black community, yet appealing to largely white audiences. She is also a classically trained flautist, who often pulls out her flute during performances (between twerking), and this further complicates people’s perceptions of what “black pop music” really is.



People from the black community are releasing tweets like the following:








Another Tweet in Response:

On the “white” end of the spectrum, “white girls” are posting pictures about attending concerts and using Lizzo’s song lyrics for captions:

There are some strong opinions present here, and these social media posts are obviously not representative of entire communities, but I think it is important to see how the general public is perceiving Lizzo as an artist. 

So what can I do as a listener and performer to break down these stereotypes? Is it okay for me as a white woman to attend concerts or to perform music by these black female artists? Professor Louis Epstein, of St. Olaf College, says that it is a “good idea for people who live “whiteness” to feel limited- but it also reinforces boundaries [2].” These boundaries can cause even more limitations. In class, we also discussed strategic essentialism (the idea that under pressure and in the context of oppression, minority groups draw together while ignoring differences to present a unified front),
as something that has positive intentions like protecting oppressed minorities and giving them political power. Strategic essentialism also has unintended consequences, such as reducing a people to homogeneity and potentially contributing to the very racialist logic they’re trying to overcome.

Ethel Waters, another black female singer accused of sounding “too white,” was the fifth black woman in history to record a record (she also was the first black woman to have her own television show, The Ethel Waters Show. Waters performed throughout the Harlem Renaissance, but as her fame grew she performed for primarily white audiences. picture courtesy of the Library of Congress

Rhiannon Giddens, on the subject of bluegrass, says “the question is not, how do we get diversity into bluegrass, but how do we get diversity BACK into bluegrass [3]?” This idea readily applies to pop music, and how artists are overcoming th seperations between “white pop” and “black pop.” We as audience members, listeners, and performers need to bring diversity back into pop music and make it okay to have artists included from a variety of different backgrounds. As Whitney Houston says, pop music has never been “all-White,” so the idea that we need to make subdivisions between “black pop music” and “white pop music” seems like a step in the wrong direction. Giddens explains that”we have a lot of work to do. We need to build on these moments, on these incredible opportunities [like going to a Lizzo concert] to expand understanding [3].” 

I have a hard time knowing how to handle issues like this. On the one hand, I love the music that black female pop artists are releasing (because it’s honestly so incredible), on the other, I don’t want to take their life experience and claim it as my own. I think the most important thing that listeners and performers who are not part of the African-American-women’s experience is to educate ourselves. Go out and find artists of color that may not have gotten the same publicity as their white counterparts- this is especially important in music genres that are typically considered “white” music (classical, country, pop, etc.). Another way is to keep up the conversation. Talk to peers, other musicians, and people outside of your own community. This issue isn’t going to be fixed overnight, but with conversations I believe learning and understanding will take place.


[1] Norment, Lynn. “Whitney Houston Talks About the Men in Her Life- and the Rumors, Lies, and Insults that are the High Price of Fame.” Ebony (1848-1921), vol. XLVI no. 7, May 1991.

[2] Epstein, Louis. Lecture to his American Music class, September 2019.

[3] Giddens, Rhiannon. “Rhiannon Giddens Keynote Address.” Paper presented at the IBMA Business Conference, Raleigh, NC, September 2017.

The Camera Lens vs. the Public Lens: Perceptions of African Americans in the South

Portrait of Bill Tatnall1

When visiting the Library of Congress’s Lomax Collection, I was intrigued by the photos on the main page, which featured an African American man playing guitar (right). Clicking on the image, I saw “African Americans–1930-1940” listed as one of its categories, and clicking on that led me to a list of other images of African Americans in this time frame—standing, sitting, walking, running, and doing other normal, everyday activities, including more guitar playing (below).

Hurston and others2

Hurston and others3




In contrast to these photos, the following two images also caught my attention, captioned according to the Library of Congress’s summaries:

Left: “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem:” Seven illustrations from Mid-Week Pictorial, May 23, 1936, showing conditions in the South, including a man with a horse, poor children, a shack, an Alabama steel mill, construction of a house, and African American cotton pickers.4 Right: Cartoon shows two men with rifles, walking away from a lynching victim hanging from a…5

These were some of the few images listed that were not plain photographs, but images of commercial publications. As both feature whites, they were likely both intended for white audiences. More striking, though, is their representation of African Americans. The title of the first image, “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem,” in addition to the summary’s indication that it is seven illustrations “showing conditions in the South,” would indicate that it is attempting to portray a broad view of the South. African Americans, though, are depicted only as cotton pickers, confining their place in the South to the cotton fields. The second image is even more striking; the two figures in the foreground are whites with guns, and in the background is an African American hanging from a tree, a lynching victim. This shows an even more explicit and extreme racial dynamic.

Neither of these images are surprising in their content, but stand in stark contrast to the many other images in the collection showing African Americans engaged in non-stereotypical and non-confining activities—acting like “normal” people and even playing “normal” Southern music. These two publications publications serve as a reminder that, for most of the commercialized white South of the early 20th-century, African Americans were African American first and Southerners second. They were cotton pickers and lynching victims, separate from the culture of white Southerners, from their horses and poor children to their banjo- and guitar-playing, despite the evidence we have that they were part of these cultural and musical phenomenon just as much as Southern whites.

1 Lomax, Alan. Portraits of Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring, Frederica, Georgia, from recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

2 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston and other African Americans, probably at a recording site in Belle Glade, Florida, 1935. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

3 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

4 The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem. 1936. Photomechanical prints. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

5 Chase, William C. Man and son walking with guns, and man hanging from tree in background, and the / Chase. 1935. Drawing on illustration board, crayon. Cartoon Drawings, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,

Tradition and the New Chocolate Drops

Southern music is often categorized as predominantly “white,” due to the prevalence of famous white country stars and white bluegrass groups throughout history.  And while the history of Southern music, and bluegrass in particular, would be incomplete without legends such as Bill Monroe or JD Sumner, the contributions of musicians of other races and ethnicities should not and cannot be brushed over.  The art of Black String Bands goes back to the 19th century, predating the Blues, Bluegrass, and Country by several decades.  A paper by Sean K McCollough explores the background of bluegrass as it relates to race (article found here).  McCollough points out that fiddle playing in the America’s grew in the south, with many African slaves being trained to play the fiddle and accompanying dances or parties that their master’s threw.  This tradition of fiddle playing was then passed down through the generations as a new part of the distinctly African-American culture that was arising (which I differentiate from Black American culture, as not all Black Americans can trace their lineage back to Africa and the slaves taken from their).  This tradition then grew in the late 19th century to become the Black String Bands.

An early band of this style was the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, but they’re not who this blog post is about.  Instead I’ll be looking at a group that may have taken inspiration in both their name and makeup, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  This group is much more recent, having been founded in 2005, and bases its style on the string bands of the early 20th century.  In the groups “About” page, which can be found here, they describe their founding as having been something of a happy accident.  The three founding musicians (Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemens, and Justin Robinson) would travel together to the home of fiddler Joe Thompson to hear stories and “jam,” as they put it.  Thompson himself inherited much of his fiddle technique from generations of family musicians, potentially stretching back to the slave musicians described by McCollough.  Now Thompson was passing down his skills to a new generation, and when he passed away the three students chose to form a group to honor his legacy and continue the musical tradition.  The group has since changed membership slightly, losing their fiddle player and gaining a cellist, and has gone on to win several Grammies.

Article Cited:

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s Hammer Ring: Moving Beyond Black and White Images of Appalachian Music.” Kaleidoscope of Cultures: A Celebration of Multicultural Research and Practice: Proceedings of the MENC/University of Tennessee National Symposium on Multicultural Music. R&L Education, 2010.

MacDowell vs. Ballard: A Comparison of American Indian Identity in Classical Music

As we discovered in our readings last week, Edward MacDowell’s “Indian” Suite for Orchestra represents a point in American music history where composers felt obligated to present the Indian identity in their compositions.  This is often referred to as the “Indianist” movement inspired by Antonin Dvorak in his use of Native American and African-American thematic elements used in his prolific Symphony No. 9 “New World.” 1 However, we look back on it today as a example in a long line of misunderstood interpretations of the American Indian identity by primarily white people at the top of a hierarchy, whether it be at the helm of a government entity or a religious, social, or cultural sphere.  To drive the point home, here is an excerpt from an article written by Henry Finck as a tribute to Edward MacDowell’s legacy.  This particular excerpt was written in response to hearing the “Indian” Suite performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“The Indian suite played at this concert was interesting from many points of view, which I can touch on only very briefly.  It is based on genuine American Indian Melodies.  The introduction has almost a Wagner touch thematically, but it is note for note Indian, and there is also a curious Northern ring in some of the theme… we might say that the MacDowell suite is civilized Indian music.” 2

By presenting the notion that MacDowell refined American Indian songs to become more “civilized,” Finck asserts that American Indian music is something uncivilized or perhaps “savage.”  This perception of Native American culture by Americans was commonly accepted and was a longstanding notion in the use of programs sponsored by the United States government, with one of the many examples being the use of Indian Boarding Schools as a way of brainwashing American Indian children into becoming more “American.”

While the “Indianist” movement did portray a negative connotation of Native American music, it would later inspire other composers to counteract with their own take on how American Indian identity should be portrayed in classical music.  Take for example, “the father of Native American Composition,” Louis W. Ballard:


As a Quapaw Cherokee Indian, Ballard wanted to blend the styles of Western classical music with “the music and dance traditions of his culture.”  He studied with several different composers in the 1940s and 50s, such as Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Carlos Surinach, Felix Labunski, and Bela Rosza, meaning that he was very dedicated to the craft of composition in the style of Western classical music.  As a composer, he wrote several pieces of varying instrumentation from solo works like the one presented here by Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli  (Louis Ballard: Four American Indian Piano Preludes, Emanuele Arciuli, piano,) to woodwind quintet pieces with Native American flute, ballets, symphonies, and even a chamber orchestra piece titled Incident at Wounded Knee, which was commissioned and performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1974.  Alongside his compositions, he also served as the National Curriculum Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1979 and wrote American Indian Music for the Classroom which served as a curriculum “for teachers who wanted to incorporate American Indian music in classroom instruction.” 3

With his contributions to American music, Louis Ballard and several other Native American composers provided their unique voice from the precedents set by composers like MacDowell and Dvorak to write “Indianist” works.  Even Ballard himself accredited Dvorak’s prediction as an inspiration to compose his music, saying that “‘…[he] was in good company when [he] took up [his] pen to express the sufferings of [his] people, their regeneration and hopes for a better future life…'”

1. Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians” 1
2. Finck, “An American Composer” 448
3. Berkowitz, “Finding a Place” 4-16

Berkowitz, Adam E. “Finding a Place for the Cacega Ayuwipi within the Structure of American Indian Music and Dance Traditions.” Florida Atlantic University, May 2015. 4-16
Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” AMS, 2016. 1
Finck, Henry T. “AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: EDWARD A. MACDOWELL.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1897. 448,

Double standards? In MY America? It might be more common than you think.

In Dan Blim’s paper, “McDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” he exposes a contrast between how post-emancipation white Americans viewed Native Americans and African Americans. He argues that the view that Native Americans were “vanishing” as part of a natural process allowed them to be parodied in their portrayals in a way that Black Americans could not, as many Americans were deeply uncomfortable with America’s slaveowning past.

The document I chose juxtaposes two hymns with each other; one from a “converted indian” and the other from “a little slave boy. The two have a stark contrast in the language they use. The “indian hymn” uses an extremely vernacular dialect of english, whereas the “slave boy’s hymn” is rather eloquent. To illustrate further, I will show the first stanza of each.

“ In de dark wood no indian nigh, den me look heaben and send up cry, upon my knees so low. Dat God on high, in shinee place see me in night wid teary face: de priest he tells me so.”

“There is a book, I’ve heard them say, which says ‘thou shalt not work or play on God Almighty’s holy day.’ On Sundays then, O let me look, in God Almighty’s holy book” (Christian Advocate).

Regardless of whether either text’s authorship is genuine as the publishers describe it (I’m not sure that it is. I couldn’t find another publication of the “slave boy’s hymn”, but the “Indian Hymn” has been included in numerous publications, including several that assert origins for the hymn, all of which conflict with each other. One such origin is even verifiably false. Friends’ Review published a version asserting that it was written down by Reverend William Apess in 1798. Rev. Apess was a renowned public speaker and activist for Native American rights in his day, not to mention that he was himself from the Pequot tribe, but he was born in 1798, so whatever plausibility the publishers of the Review sought to gain by using his name is lost when the facts are checked. While the exact history of the hymn is unknown, it is certainly sketchy.) , we can see even from their choice to include these contrasting texts that some dynamic akin to what Blim describes is at play. Even though the readers of the Advocate might not have assumed that either party would be educated, the slave boy is shown to have some eloquence, while the Indian is portrayed as a caricature that would be familiar to their audience.

The column concludes with a paragraph that echoes McDowell’s own comments on slavery. “Thank God that the old days of slavery, with all the enforced ignorance, the bitterness of bondage, and the cruel seperation of families, are gone forever, and that so much now is being done to give the freedmen both the ability and the opportunity to read in ‘God Almighty’s holy book,’” (Christian Advocate). This supports the narrative that Blim illuminates, where White Americans seek to uplift Black Americans in order to forget the horrors of slavery, but feel comfortable enough to portray the “vanishing indian” as a caricature.

Works Cited:

“Two Quaint Old Hymns.” Christian Advocate, 18 May 1893. American Periodicals,, Accessed 19 September 2019.


Steel Guitars: from Hawaii to Hank Williams

When I think of country music, in my mind I can hear what sounds like to me the whiny steel guitar to accompany that accompanies it. What I did not know was the “whiny” steel guitar is not only a trademark to country music, but Hawaiian as well. The origin of the steel guitar begins in Hawaii in the early 1893.

The repertoire first performed by the steel guitar performed by the first generation of steel guitarists consisted of mele and was in the Hawaiian language. The songs often reflected the political turmoil taking place during that time in the state in the early 1900’s.1

Joseph Kekuku is credited with inventing the steel guitar, and spent the rest of his life perfecting it. The very origin of how he invented the steel guitar is contested, but according to his great niece he developed the sound by an accident. As she recalls, Kekuku was eleven years old when he was sitting on the front steps of his house. By accident, he leaned over and his metal tooth comb fell out of his pocket and onto the strings of his guitar, making a sound he would spend his life trying to recreate and perfect.2 Trademarks to the Hawaiian guitar are the ornamental sweeps such as: glissandos, dampening the strings to imitate glottal stops, sliding notes with the steel bar and many others were used to imitate ancient Hawaiian music.

Above is audio of how the steel guitar was used in Hawaiian music. While it is not performed by Kekuku, Sol Hoopii is another well known Hawaiian steel guitarist who made his living performing across the country.

The effects that the Hawaiian use of steel guitar in the music draws similar response to the “complaining songs” of country music that yearn for a better life. Bjorn Jonsen from Brooklyn wrote “I have never been to Hawaii but someday I will go. The playing makes one forgets the care’s worries of the day and makes one want to forget the humdrum existence of the city for the sandy white shores of beaches where the sun always shines.”3 Helen Ward from Ohio agrees saying “It is my favorite music. Especially when I am tired, nervous, overtaxed from worry. It is so resting, so comforting when I am all alone and blue.”4 No doubt, the expressiveness of the steel guitar is modeled in the listeners.

The steel guitar was brought to the United States by traveling troupes in the 1910’s. America’s reception to the steel guitar like other foreign musical cultures and instruments was exotic but not threatening. While the very start of the instrument’s implementation in country music and American culture is heavily debated, the pioneer of country music, Jimmie Rodgers is one of the first know musicians to use the instrument. The exotic sound of the guitar and the “whine” it made was a perfect backdrop for the complaining songs of country music. Below is an example of the steel guitar used in country music, in a song by Hank Williams.

In both videos the steel guitar is used as an accompaniment and “whine” and slide of the guitar is evident.

America’s reception to the foreign steel guitar was exotic like other foreign music but not dangerous. The dreaminess as told by reviews gave listeners a sense of comfort. The steel guitar unites the “whiteness” of country music and the “whine” in their music with the sounds of another culture that experiences the very same feelings linking together people of very different backgrounds and filling them with comfort and hope.

1 TROUTMAN, JOHN W. “NOTES.” In Kika Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, 235-320. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. pg 62.

2 STEEL GUITAR PLAYING INVENTED BY HAWAIIAN. 1927. New York Times (1923-Current file), Jan 23, 1927. (accessed September 23, 2019).

3 Bjorn Johnsen to the Oahu Serenaders, February 7, 1933, folder 2, box 83,

4 Helen B. Ward to the Oahu Serenaders, January 22, 1934, folder 7, box 83,

The Reception of Edward Macdowell Throughout The 20th Century

In our studies of Native American music, I have come across the name “Edward Macdowell” several times.  Most recently in an article by Daniel Blim entitled “Macdowell’s Vanishing Indians.” This peaked my interest in the composer to see what his general reception was amongst the musical community.  Much of his music uses themes from Native Music that is fraught with problems in respect and appropriation (to modern listeners), as can be represented by the Blim article. There are two reviews of Macdowell that I will be exploring to do this, one from 1944 in the Music Educators’ Journal and one from American Music in 1987.  

The first review takes Macdowell’s Second “Indian” Suite under fire as a piece for High School Orchestra.  The full text is short and is reproduced below:

The piece is lauded for its musical accessibility and distinct “Americanness” and its ability to rekindle interest in Macdowell, who it describes as “much neglected on our present day concert programs.”  The only acknowledgement of source material in this (very short) review are that the melodies are suggested by the North American Indians. The score can be found here, for reference to the melodies that it describes.  Despite the short nature of this review, there are a few things we can safely extrapolate from it.  The first surrounds the “much neglected” comment. This shows that Macdowell was not a key facet of many, if any, concert programs in 1944, just 36 years after his death.  The reason for this is not specified, but it does go to show that the use of such Native American Melodies was not popular for composers to do, as Macdowell did with a number of pieces (he has at least two full Indian Suites as the title of the piece suggests).  This could be for a number of reasons, among them being a general disdain for non-white-sounding music (possible, but severe speculation) or a loss of interest in the music of American Composers who weren’t Aaron Copland (again, speculation).  

The second review is much longer, and is regarding a recording of several piano works by Macdowell.  For our purposes, we can just look at the material regarding the piano work itself. The reviewer, Margaret Barela, found Macdowell to be compositionally important to the development of American Music, but not because he “lacked foreign influence.”  Barela likens Macdowell’s music to that of Liszt and Chopin, although Chopin died before Macdowell was born and Liszt died when Macdowell was 26, so they were not contemporaries. Barela praises the first two sonatas of Macdowell for their narrative splendour, but had little good to say about the second two.  This might shed some light on why Macdowell was “much neglected,” even by the 1940s. Macdowell, while an important composer in the development of American music, did not do enough to revolutionize it to gain a spot on the pedestal of history that we historians reserve for the “greats.” It would indeed be ironic if the music of Macdowell “vanished” with history, just as his Indians did.

Works Cited

Barela, Margaret Mary. American Music, vol. 5, no. 2, 1987, pp. 231–233. JSTOR,

Louis G. Wersen. Music Educators Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, 1944, pp. 42–42. JSTOR,

The role of the Medicine Man in Native American Music

A Native American Medicine Man standing beside a sick woman, c. 1870. Photographed by O.C. Smith (American, active 1860s – 1870s).

In almost every Native American tribe, there is a medicine man or healer, as seen in the picture above. These men, and occasionally women, had to go “beyond human power” to use their herbs and chants to heal ailing tribesmen. A medicine man gained his power to heal through dreams, visions, and even during the song, as discovered in class while looking through many primary sources. During visions and encounters with the Great Spirit, healers were told how to heal ailments and advised on which herbs, roots and plants to use, and which to avoid. To aide their power, healers often lived in quiet seclusion to be in tune with nature its power sometimes giving them the name “forest folk”.

A traditional medicine mask used to scare off evil spirits and disease in tribe members.

Ely S. Parker, born in 1828, was from the Iroquois tribe and in newspapers, recounts the practices of the medicine man through public and private ceremonies. Native American medicine men treated the sick and ailing in public ceremonies followed by a private meeting. The public ceremony was attended by tribesman of high power and influence and took place over several days. During those public and private healing sessions, the medicine man may have told narratives, chanted, and sing. A “sacred song” is chanted only by one medicine man. If anyone else chants the “sacred song,” it is expected that evil events will follow.2   To further aide him, he may have used tobacco pouches and the herb of choice sent to him by the Great Spirit. There are times when the the medicine man is not able to heal the sick, but this is viewed as the will of the “Great Spirit” who is asked to “guide the red man and choose for his best, always.”

Most songs were accompanied by a regular drumbeat, dubbed as the heartbeat of the Earth, to help calm and relax the sick. Additionally, the drumbeat expanded the mind of the medicine man to the awareness of self and spirit. Other instruments like the rattle, shook away disease, and bells borrowed from Christianity invoked God’s healing power.3  It is told that “he who holds the medicine has time to die.” That is, they can choose their successor because their death is never sudden and “has time to die.” This background of the medicine men’s rituals which were alien and exotic to foreigners such as John Smith helps shed a light on what outside visitors encountered.

1 Hofmann, Charles. American Indians Sing New York: John Day Co., 1967. 46

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2 Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 11, 1828-1894, © The Newberry Library, 96


The Native American Princess

     Whilst perusing the “Hearts of Our People” exhibit this summer at the MIA, an exhibit featuring exclusively female Native American artists. What I found striking was a video from the early 1950s of a woman named Maria Tallchief who was in fact not in traditional regalia, but an elaborate ballet costume, pointe shoes, and dancing to Igor Stravinsky. I thought to myself, “Wow, a Native Ballerina? If I would have seen this video as a kid I probably never would have quit ballet.” 

     The findings of Densmore as well as of the explorer’s accounts we read in class point to a correlation between Native Americans and dance. I would find it safe to say that not all of the dances Densmore recorded, let alone what those who made first contact saw, made it to the 21st century in their original form due. The role of the U.S. government in intentionally trying to vanish Native Americans, leading to the “Vanishing Indian” sentiment which eventually evolved into what Rebekah Kowal refers to as the Termination Era (early-mid 20th century), created the environment out of which Tallchief had her start. The article that caught my eye was titled, “American as Wampum” and was published in TIME magazine in 1951 following her performance with the New York City Ballet Company in Balanchine’s adaption of Firebird [1]. The article claims she was produced by the same era that created Shirley Temple and that:

“Onstage, Maria looks as regal and exotic as a Russian princess; offstage, she is as American as wampum and apple pie.” 

Taken from TIME Magazine

The discussion of her lineage only mentions that her father was a full-blooded member of the Osage tribe [1], further exoticizing her and leaving out the fact that her mother had European heritage: Scotch, Irish, Dutch [2]. It is possible that the author of the article simply didn’t know that Tallchief was mixed-race but I find it more likely that her choice in self-identifying primarily with her Native heritage contributed to her fame and success as the first American Prima Ballerina. Her image, both literal and social, is another aspect of her life I found compelling. It was her front page of Newsweek that crowned her, “the finest American-born ballerina the twentieth century had ever produced…” [2]. The use of a literal crown in both articles, Newsweek and Time,  the image of the “Native American Princess”. This brings us back to depictions of the idealized Native woman, the peace bringer such as Pocahontas, a role model of femininity and what was called civilization, integration, or assimilation[3]. Toll argues that the trope Tallchief embodies is more complicated than simply playing the civilized Indian in that her achievement of being the first-ever American Prima Ballerina, that she was a creator of western culture rather than an “assimilated Princess” [3].

Works Cited

[1] “American as Wampum.” TIME Magazine, vol. 57, no. 9, Feb. 1951, p. 78. EBSCOhost,

[2] Kowal, Rebekah J. “‘Indian Ballerinas Toe Up’: Maria Tallchief and Making Ballet ‘American’ in the Tribal Termination Era.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 46, no. 2, 2014, pp. 73–96., doi:10.1017/S0149767714000291.

Toll, Shannon. “Maria Tallchief, (Native) America’s Prima Ballerina: Autobiographies of a Postindian Princess.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 50–70,

The Choctaw Hymn Book and Native American Hybrid Music

While we weren’t able to take much time on it, I was intrigued by the article we looked at in class on Native American hybrid music.  In my research, I happened upon the names of a few hymn books, but the one that interested me the most was the Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso of the Choctaw.  I was also able to find corresponding letters from the missionaries who had shared their hymns with them, which I found interesting.  



Missionary Paragraphs [2]

misc. Choctaw hymn alphabet [3]

The hybridization of Native American music and Christian hymnody adds complexity to the oftentimes oversimplified narrative of the erasure of Native American culture.  While the Choctaw welcomed the missionaries and adopted the tradition of hybridized music, other groups reluctantly converted, and “…people [who] had initially pretended to convert in order to survive, went on to ask, ‘At some point, did we forget we were pretending?’”[4] Such practices oftentimes came about through generations of forced acculturation; however, for some groups, they were accepted into the culture, expanded upon with original works and have been ingrained within their practices to the point of becoming a part of their musical tradition. 

While we’ve been talking in class about the “Vanishing Indian” trope in the context of 19th century classical music, I believe the same ideas of misplaced nostalgia and oversimplification are prevalent today and relevant to the delegitimization of modern Native American culture.  As hinted at in some of the letters above, Choctaw were thought to be more receptive to conversion due to the available access of their language in printed form. This aspect might have aided in their conversion; however, it also aided in the preservation of their language and the transmission of what is now seen by them as their own traditional music.  The collection and performance of these hymns, original and translated, have helped the Chactaw maintain its ethnic identity through frequent meetings and the continued use of native language [5]. While these hybrid forms were born out of the gruesome history of Native American genocide and cultural erasure, to invalidate this living tradition due to its western sound is, in my opinion, just as problematic as the commodification of a curated characterization of what this music ‘should’ sound like.

  1. Chahta Vba Isht Taloa Holisso : Choctaw Hymn Book. Richmond, Va: N.p., 1872. Print.
  3. MISCELLANEOUS.: CHAHTA VBA ISHT TALOA. CHOCTAW HYMN BOOK, 18MO, PP. 84. BOSTON: CROCKER & BREWSTER. ALPHABET. (1831). American Annals of Education (1830-1839), 1(11), 537.
  4. “Musical Interactions.” Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3 – The United States and Canada. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. Routledge (Publisher), 2000. 510-20. Music Online: The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Database. Web. 
  5. STEVENSON, G. W. (1977). The Hymnody Of The Choctaw Indians Of Oklahoma (Order No. 7802869). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302857576).

Indian Tunes and Protestant Hymns: Early Assimilation of Native Music

Many people have a clear and narrow impression of Native American music, broadly amounting to a simple, percussive beat and non-syllabic unison melody atop it. As is the case for many such clear-cut descriptions, this is a gross oversimplification. Through the work of musicologists such as Frances Densmore, we can be secure in the understanding that the music of North America’s native tribes in the 20th century was far more complex than that impression, and assuming that complexity extends both forward and backward through history is natural.

Exemplifying the diversity of Native repertory is a collection of shape-note hymns called Indian Melodies, compiled by Thomas Commuck, a member of the Narrangaset tribe from the East Coast, now living in Wisconsin [1]. The Christian verses, set to choral, sometimes-chromatic textures, are a far cry from the stereotype. Yet its distance raises another concern: that of appropriation.

Sheet music of a shape-note hymn, Missionary

An example of the distinctly European harmonization of “Indian Melodies.”

While Commuck himself professes Christian sentiments–referring to himself as being enlightened “under the blessing of God” and expressing a desire to “spread the knowledge of the Redeemer”–it is informative that his work be titled as it is. The combination of traditional tunes with Protestant verse is seen by the author as an expansion of Indian repertoire in a collaborative, rather than parasitic, light. But that is still not enough to pick apart the dialogues surrounding this work. In the preface, Commuck makes his intentions with the writing clear.

“[The author] feels willing to acknowledge frankly and openly the truth, and he assures his friends and the public, that notwithstanding all other ends which may result from the publication of this work, his object is to make a little money.”

This statement opens up the possibility for concessions made in the interest of financial sustenance. Perhaps, as James Page suggests [2], Thomas Hastings’ involvement in arranging the music was forced by the publisher, thereby obscuring the intended blending of worlds with the one-sided use of the Native as a touchstone for American identity, thereby contributing to the story of the Vanishing Indian. If Commuck was desperate enough for the publishing of the book, it is at least plausible.

However, as a refutation of this line of thought, Commuck’s parting words in the preface emphasize the merely ceremonial usage of the Indian elements of the work. After stating that the tunes will use Native titles, he insists that “This has been done merely as a tribute of respect . . . also as a mark of courtesy.”

If these final words can be taken as genuine (without financial concern forcing his hand), Commuck himself may have been a participant in the era of the Vanishing Indian, at least in part. Referring to the elements of Native American culture which inform the work in such brief terms suggests their non-importance. At the same time, the most apparent part of the book remains the most potent proof of its expansion, rather than narrowing, of Indian culture–its title. Protestant hymns may also be Indian tunes after all.


  1. Thomas Commuck, Indian Melodies, (New York, Lane & Tippett, 1845). Accessed at
  2. James Philip Page, “Thomas Commuck And His Indian Melodies, Wisconsin’s Shape-Note Tunebook”, (1989). Accessed at

Noise, More or Less: White Ethnologists and Their Role in the “Vanishing Indian”

Upon decades and even centuries of reflection, scholars can debate the true motivations and implications of the cultural observation and study of Native Americans. At best, the efforts of ethnologists like Frances Densmore and James Owen Dorsey can be hailed as necessary archival work that preserved cultures on the verge of extinction from a colonialist nation. At worst, their work can be essentialized as the groundwork necessary to provide a basis for the “Vanishing Indian” discussed at length by scholar Daniel Blim and our class. 

The latter is my understanding of the work of Rev. Myron Eells. In his article “Indian Music” published in an 1879 volume of The American Antiquarian: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to Early American History, Ethnology and Archaeology, the anthropologist and missionary studied many indigenous groups of the American Northwest.1 In his article, his first topic sentence immediately eases the fear of any upstanding, white American enjoying some ethnology from the safety and comfort of their log cabin: Eells assures readers the music of the American Indian is nothing complicated or culturally relevant.

“Music… consists more of a noise, as a general thing, than of melody and chords” – Rev. Myron Eells describing the music of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest

Eells compares the musicality of the Clallam and Twana people of the Pacific Northwest. Despite detailed accounts of the percussive instruments created and the diverse use of song in the daily lives of these peoples, Eells summarizes the music as plain and dull, with little variety save for loud or soft moments. The reverend does notate the various melodies described in his prose, but his level of analysis and specificity is but a shadow of the work of Frances Densmore- a scholar discussed at length in class who will release volumes of her own works just a few decades later. Eells’ work is important in providing a sort of early “part one” to the “Vanishing Indian” condition, assuring white audiences that the music of the Native American groups he’s studied the sophistication to deserve attention beyond defining their music as simply cacophony.

To further contextualize the “Vanishing Indian”, we look to an article published The Atlanta Constitution in 1906. In this article, we are informed that an ancient relic has been preserved that upends decades of historical understanding of Native American music. The article claims a portion of the “first, genuine Indian melody” has been found. Overlooking the concerning lack of scholarly oversight in this sweeping statement, the article focuses instead on composer Abe Holzmann’s2 arrangement of this melody while in-process. After further digging, I was able to procure both a recording of a military band arrangement and a score of a piano rag arrangement of the piece.

Scan of Holzmann’s “Flying Arrow” Rag for Piano

This sheet music was found in a rag piano collection at the music library of St. Olaf College

Recording of a military band performing Holmann’s band arrangement of “Flying Arrow”

The work of ethnologists like Rev. Eells signaled to broader American society a subordination and savagery of Native Americans, which allowed composers like Abe Holzmann to create music that glorified indigenous melodies (whether truly authentic or not). By comparing these two examples, we see how the passage of time allowed for conclusions from earlier ethnologists to be realized by the musicians of the early twentieth century.



Music as a Priority in Native American Culture

As a part of a personal diary, William T. Parker, M.D. and Indian War Veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote of his experiences with Native American populations and peoples in New Mexico, California, Canada, and Kansas between 1867 and 1885.

The section of his journal I found most topically interesting and pertinent to our class learning is titled: “Concerning American Indian Womanhood – an Ethnological Study.” In this section, Parker discusses the role of women in music and the arts in Native American society. 

Parker places most of the importance of this section of his writing on, what he takes to be, the poor prioritizing of Native American tribes. Unlike Macdowell’s “Vanishing Indians,” Parker’s writing does not discuss attempts to appropriate and commodify Native American music and art for white consumption, but instead belittles Native American emphasis on music and art. He consistently reinforces his biased belief that American Indian populations place too much importance on art, music, and religion, and not enough on health and traditional (European) gender roles, with respect to home life. He names Native American women as the reason for the poor education of children, particularly female children, in that they are taught music and art before they are taught homemaking skills. He also blames spikes in women’s health issues on this “poor education,” saying “if hygiene and manual labor could be looked after more carefully, then might follow the cultivation of the arts.” In stating this, Parker ignores the intersection between religion, the arts/music, and health, that we know existed and still exist in Native American culture, particularly the medicinal qualities of Native American music.

Parker’s accounts and opinions of his time spent with Native American populations seems typical of someone of his background at the time of his writing. Unlike Densmore, he did not write critically about Native American lifestyle as a viable and rich culture, but instead stuck to a pre-defined, Eurocentric view of what makes for an acceptable lifestyle. 


Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North American Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 17, 2019].

Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

Full text of “Frances Densmore and American Indian music : a memorial volume”. Accessed September 17, 2019.


The “Vanishing Indian” Ideology in 19th Century Poetry

Reading the melancholy words of an 1841 poem entitled “The American Indians,” I can practically hear the final F major chord of Edward MacDowell’s “Indian Idyl” fading gently into the background. The two works could easily be based on each other. In her poem, Emeline Smith describes Native Americans as “passing away like a dream,” a sentiment echoed perfectly in the soft closing passage of “Indian Idyl”.1
As Daniel Blim discusses in his paper, MacDowell’s work evokes a wistful nostalgia that reflects a white American vision of a cohesive Native American culture confined to the past. According to Blim, this is just one instance of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, an assertion that is supported by the presence of the exact same sentiments in Smith’s poetry.2

Emeline Smith, writing her poem as an entry in the monthly issue of A Lady’s Companion, is blatant in her perpetuation of the “vanishing Indian” trope. She refers to Native Americans as “doom’d,” “passing away like a dream,” and even “hastening on to decay,” clearly displaying the same attitude we discussed MacDowell as guilty of during class.3 Smith treats Native American life and culture as a relic of the past. What MacDowell does artistically in his New England Idyls, Smith does verbally in her poem. 

Just as the cover art of the collection presents an image of Native Americans that reduces them to a part of the landscape, Smith couples nearly every reference of Native Americans to a description of nature.4 She views Native American existence as merely a fading memory that is now incorporated into the natural landscape of white America.

The cover art of a collection of Edward MacDowell's music.

Lanman, Charles. “Farmyard.” 1838. Naxos of America.

Furthermore, the title of Smith’s poem, “The American Indians,” implies that the subject will have something to do with Native American life or culture. What follows the title, however, contains little more Native American identity than superficial references to “chieftains,” “warriors,” and “relics”. Even in her remembrance of Native Americans, the only details Smith describes are a warrior’s shout and the “low music” of an echo of Native American life that lingers in the hills.5 These two auditory remnants simultaneously represent a distant memory of a powerful culture and a dwindling present existence – exactly what we hear in MacDowell’s music as well. The lively opening passage (a “warrior’s shout”) reflects a dramatized view of Native American life, while the way each phrase subsides into nothingness (“low music”) marks this life as something of the past.6

What struck me most about Smith’s poem was how evident the “vanishing Indian” perspective was in a seemingly ordinary piece of poetry. If it took me only a few searches and clicks to stumble upon such a blatant example of the “vanishing Indian” ideology, then surely this is some indication of how pervasive the concept is. From music to poetry, representations of Native Americans as a vanishing race are ubiquitous.

1 Emeline Smith, The American Indians, (New York, The Ladies’ Companion, 1841), 220.

2 Daniel Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, (Vancouver, 2016), 3.

3 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

4 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 10.

5 Smith, The American Indians, 220.

6 Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, 9.

Works Cited

Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

Smith, Emeline S. 1841. The American Indians. The Ladies’ Companion, a Monthly Magazine; Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts (1834-1843). 02, (accessed September 15, 2019).

Alice Fletcher: “Indian Songs: Personal Studies of Indian Life”

Alice Fletcher (1838-1923) was an American ethnologist who worked for the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. She extensively studied the Great Plains Indians, and was frequently able to gain their trust and immerse herself in much of their daily lives. She recorded and transcribed hundreds of songs and recorded observations of their rituals and music (using Western notation, similar to Frances Densmore). While she seemed to care about the Native Americans she interacted with, and even helped one woman get a loan to attend medical school, she also advocated for the Dawes Act, which redistributed reservation land and broke up tribes with the goal of assimilation (1).


This excerpt narrates her experience living on an Omaha reservation. She begins by asking to observe a dance, and her “Indian guide” leads her to a white tent filled with men and women sitting around a large drum (2). She states, “I was startled by a sudden mighty beating of the drum, with such deafening yells and shouts that I feared my ears would burst” (page 1); this echoes Drake’s description of Native American singing as shriek-like. As the music and dancing continues, she describes, “I felt a foreignness that grew into a sense of isolation…I was oppressed with its strangeness…It was nothing but tumult and din to me; the sharply accented drum set my heart to beating painfully and jarred my every nerve” (page 2). She doesn’t see the sounds she hears as music because it doesn’t sound like typical Western classical music, and she, along with many others, holds Native American music to a Western standard. She additionally writes, “The outstretched arms brandishing the war-clubs…called up before me every picture of savages I had ever seen,” calling the Native Americans “terrible creatures” (page 3). The use of the word “savage” relates to all of the course readings we have done so far, which contrast the white view of Native Americans as violent and savage while also nostalgic.


However, in the next paragraph she says that she later “had a laugh with her red friends” over this incident; she sees some Native Americans as savages, and others as her friends. Fletcher grew ill and Native Americans would come sing softly to her without a drum; “the last vestige of the distraction of noise and the confusion of theory was dispelled, and the sweetness, the beauty, and the meaning of these songs were revealed to me…from that time forth I ceased to trouble about scales, tones, rhythm, and melody” (4). She seems to finally realize that she shouldn’t base all musical analysis off of Western scales, and finishes her account by describing different types of songs and transcribing several.


  1. DeVale, Sue Carole. “Fletcher, Alice Cunningham.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 16 Sep. 2019.
  2. Fletcher, Alice C. “INDIAN SONGS.: PERSONAL STUDIES OF INDIAN LIFE.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1894, 421,

What’s in a Fight Song?

As an Iowan growing up in a college town, Saturday football games were unavoidable. I’m from Ames which is home to the Iowa State Cyclones, and the biggest game of the year is when we play our in-state rivals the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. This last weekend was the biggest rivalry game yet, when some 160,000 extra people came to town just to celebrate and watch football. So when I went searching for a text that stood out to me, I was stopped in my tracks by the words written for a celebratory song called “The Proud Hawkeye State” by Richard B.B. Wood. I found the lyrics as part of an 1884 reunion for “The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”1 to be performed after a series of speeches celebrating what it meant to be an “Old Settler,” or in this case, someone who lived in one of the states prior to 1860 or who had been there for the last 25 years. Amid the triumphant chorus these lines stand out to me

They were long and tedious hours

When we sought these western bowers

Grown with rude uncultured flowers

In that time long ago

Now this happy land is beaming

Bright as angels that are dreaming

With the harvest that is teeming

On our own Hawkeye soil

Iowa became a state in 1846, only 38 years prior to the year the convention was held. While it is unclear, the general consensus by Iowa historians is that the “Hawkeye” nickname comes from fans of “The Last of the Mohicans” an 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper set during the French and Indian War in which “According to Cooper’s story, the Delaware Indians bestowed the name of “Hawkeye” upon a white scout and trapper, who lived and hunted with them, who also braved their perils in war against the Iroquois and Hurons.”2
It seems absurd but the nickname was bestowed by white Iowan newspaper men, inspired by a story by a white writer, in which Native Americans give a white man a Native American name. In Iowa, almost all of the Indigenous population was forcibly removed by the government by 19303, except for the Meskwaki Tribe which still exists to this day, so when this reunion was held there were likely attendees who were very familiar with this history.

“The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa”

The Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa

In Dan Blim’s “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”4
Blim explores the concept of the “Vanishing Indian” as demonstrated in Edward MacDowell’s compositions. Blim explains that by creating art that claimed to eliminate any threat from Native Americans, Europeans could incorporate that imagined other into their cultural heritage, and that by establishing that Native American culture had “died,” it outlined white, European culture as something triumphant and unifying. 

Similarly in these lyrics, Richard B.B. Wood celebrates  “Old Settlers” as a powerful group of people who arose from some sort of tension to create a shining and glorious land on “their own Hawkeye soil.” However, while history is no doubt alluded to with racist coding like “rude uncultured flowers” these tribes are never named. The song is more about proving the excellence of the “Old Settlers” whose identity is literally grounded in economic prosperity tied to the richness of the land. 

The act of singing a song meant to celebrate an identity in opposition to something is unifying. Anyone who cheers for a certain sports team can feel a sense of camaraderie with perfect strangers if they wear the same colors as us, hate the same people as us, and sing the same song as us. In the case of “The Proud Hawkeye State,” the team is the “Old Settlers” and the opponent is effectively unworthy of a name since it was defeated. “The Proud Hawkeye State” claims that something that once was “uncultured” has now been replaced to use a farming analogy as Iowans love to-do, it was uprooted. 

1Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association of Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. 1884-1887. Report of the first-[fourth] reunion of the Tri-State Old Settlers’ Association, of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Keokuk, Iowa: Tri-state Printing. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West.

Pocahontas: a History Vanished into the World of Disney

In 1995, a new Disney princess was introduced: one that did not follow the typical “damsel in distress.” This princess may have not been a damsel in distress, but she certainly sparked new conversations regarding a people overlooked and often forgotten, considered vanished, even.

This princess is Pocahontas, and the people are Native Americans.

The Disney producers’ goal in creating Pocahontas was to “address the rise in public criticism from various ethnic groups over racial stereotyping in their most recent productions” (1). In order to prevent another cultural appropriation outbreak in Pocahontas, the producers hired Native American advisors to join their team and cast Native American performers to provide the voices for the main Native American roles.

(Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.”)

However, by creating a story about Pocahontas (while attempting to incorporate love, drama, and music), they risked continuing the stereotype of the “Hollywood Indian,” as outlined in Gary Edgerton and Kathy Jackson’s article, “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the ‘White Man’s Indian,’ and the Marketing of Dreams.” This stereotype is an image focused on representative types and traits that are typically used to depict Native Americans in films, such as dress and spirituality (1). Beyond the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, the producers of Pocahontas also allowed the “Vanishing Indian” theory to strengthen.

It all began in their marketing campaign, specifically their partnership with McDonald’s.  A 20 second McDonald’s commercial from 1995 opens with a flute-like instrument playing, accompanied by a rhythmic drum sequence. The camera zooms in on two children, wearing what looks like modern-day Native American Halloween costumes and feathers in their hair, playing with the Pocahontas toys from the McDonald’s Happy Meals. Next, an older man beckons the children into a teepee, where they start watching the Disney movie Pocahontas. The commercial concludes with two individual dressed in what looks like wooden masks and armor playing with the Happy Meal toys. This commercial exudes stereotypes from the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype, such as the dress, non-historical teepee, and the men in wood, which seems to inaccurately symbolize spirituality and tradition.

(The 1995 McDonald’s commercial advertising Pocahontas)

This ties into the liberties that Disney took throughout the movie, such as distinguishing the violent and traumatic experiences that the real Pocahontas endured, such as her kidnapping, isolation from her people for a year, marriage, and eventual death at age 21 from tuberculosis. By leaving them out, they strengthen the “Vanishing Indian” theory, as discussed in Dan Blim’s paper, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians”, with Pocahontas a specific example of an Indian vanished into history, ignoring her true fate and primarily remembered by her Disney-depicted fate (2).

However, Disney is not entirely to blame for the diminishing of Pocahontas’ true story.  A May 1907 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal published an article titled “The Love Story of the First American Girl”, written by Laura Spencer Portor. This article begins, “Few of us know the entire story of Pocahontas. Yet it is a delightful story so full of romance that it might fitly begin in the old romantic way, ‘Long, long ago,’ or ‘Once upon a time’.” (4)  It continues talking about a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, portraying her history as one like a fairytale. As shown by this article, the idea of the “Vanishing Indian” in terms of Pocahontas was a concept that was initiated very early on, much before Disney; people didn’t want to acknowledge the dark, violent aspects of her life brought on by their ancestors. Rather, they wanted to think about a Native American princess falling in love with an Englishman, saving the colonies from disaster from the “savages.” Disney, however, only further prompted these stereotypes and false account of Pocahontas’ life.

As summed up by Edgerton and Jackson:

“The film’s scriptwriters chose certain episodes from her life, invented others, and in the process shaped a narrative that highlights some events, ideas, and values, while suppressing others…Disney’s Pocahontas is, once again, a parable of assimilation.” (1)



[1] Edgerton, Gary and Kathy Merlock Jackson. “Redesigning Pocahontas: Disney, the “White Man’s Indian,” and the Marketing of Dreams.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1996). 90.

[2] Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

[3] OnTheTelly. YouTube. YouTube, September 14, 2016.

[4] By Laura Spencer Portor Author of “A Gentleman of the Blue Grass,” “‘The Light of,Other Days. “The Love Story of the First American Girl.” The Ladies’ Home Journal (1889-1907), 05, 1907, 10,

Densmore and the uninterested Ute Tribe

When studying Frances Densmore’s notes on the music of the Pawnee people, I was impressed that many recordings were supplemented with written European musical notation such as sheet music. Phonetic pronunciation of words and sounds were provided. It’s very clear that for the time, Densmore used all the resources available to her to put together an archive of Native American tribal music.
When reading through her memoir of Frances Densmore and American Indian Music, Densmore accounts on instances where her plans of recording tribes became difficult due to lack of cooperation. In this primary source dating from 1916, she recounts her first encounter with the Ute tribe, located on their Southwest Colorado reservation, and their disinterest in making an archive and recording.
She writes:
Not all Indian tribes have the same disposition and before I went to the Utes I was warned that they were “touchy” by nature. Events proved this to be correct. From the day of my arrival the Utes did not like the idea of my work. I had a pleasant cottage for an office, far enough from neighbors so the singing could not be overheard, and on a street conveniently near the trader’s store. I set up the phonograph in the front room, secured a good interpreter and hoped for singers. Many Indians came out of curiosity, looked in the windows, sat around the room and laughed. In vain I explained through the interpreter, that I had been with many tribes who were glad to record their songs. I told of the building in Washington that would not burn down, where their voices would be preserved forever, but still they only looked at each other and laughed (Densmore 39).

The lack of desire from these tribes to work with Densmore poses a problem. Densmore is a pioneer in her attempt to preserve the believed to be disappearing traditions of Native American tribes. Through all the work we have studied as a class, I believe her intentions were to give the most accurate preservation of the music and such is shown in the visceral work she provides through writing and recordings. This primary source makes me question the authenticity of the work Densmore strived for (the musical practices and songs of Native American tribes) given that there were clearly Native people who had no interest in cooperating with Densmore. There are many factors that make me question whether Densmore achieved the goal she set out. Not only were the people clearly apprehensive but their songs had been taken out of their ceremonious context.
This source opens the audience up to the possibility that Densmore may have not achieved her goal. In the book, Densmore labels this section as “Incidents In The Study of Ute Music”. The format in which Densmore chooses to present the encounter becomes a question of biased. If the passage begins with her warning the reader of the tribe being “touchy” and continuing on to what allegedly happened, it stands to reason that other tribes may have felt uncomfortable taking part in Densmore’s work but had not spoken up.

Works Cited

-Hofmann, Charles, and Frances Densmore. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music; a Memorial Volume. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1968.

Misconceptions of Native American Music and Tradition

The source that I found for this blog post is Personal Experiences Among Our North American Indians 1867 to 1885 by William Thornton Parker. Parker was an author from New Mexico who studied at both Harvard and the Institute of Technology. One particular section of his book felt very relevant to our conversations from class, and was similar to the first assigned primary source readings we had. One segment focused in on the connection between dance and music that is so essential to Native American music, but is often left out in our education about it as a recording cannot fully convey what the Native American musicking experience was like. After he had personally observed a war dance, he states that “he [the dancer] dances with the peculiar motions of the Indian, so indescribable, yet so suggestive that he is able to convey to the onlookers the passions which sway him” (Parker, 14). I think this excerpt helps to demonstrate the complicated ways that Americans have historically, and currently, interact with native culture, and especially their music. They know it is passionate and feel the meaning but at the same time they find it odd and crude; simplifying it to be insignificant rather than putting effort into understanding.

Like in MacDowell’s Indian Suite, he is taking the elements from Native American music that he perceives to demonstrate the brute force and ignorant simplicity that Native Americans were inaccurately thought to have. He does this while wrapping it in a package of typical Western orchestration that is more palatable to a white audience, allowing them to further generalize and stereotype the culture from which this music was derived. Parker views these Native Americans in such a light, shown by his journals stating “the drums are, in fact, musicians skilled in this particular are of war-dance music” (14). The use of “in fact” in such a contrary way shows that the default idea is the Native Americans could not be skilled as musicians, and it’s almost as if he is patting himself on the back for noticing that there is actual depth to a cultural practice that has been going on for hundreds of years.

Works Cited

Parker, William T. 1913. Personal experiences among our North [[American]] Indians from 1867 to 1885. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 15, 2019].

Woah Look at That! Colonial Tourism Within Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair

Moving pictures from the 1983 Chicago World’s Fair

There is strong evidence to suggest that sensationalism occurred within the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, specifically within the Native American exhibit. Professor Dan Blim of Denison University speaks to historian David Beck’s argument that “the fair provided Native Americans one of their earliest opportunities to self-represent rather than the familiar caricatures featured in Buffalo Bill’s traveling shows,” and that “the exhibit also generated interest in anthropological ethnography for some visitors, including Frances Densmore, who had her first encounter with Native American culture there [1].” Beck believes visitors came away from these exhibitions with a strong impression of Native Americans. For Blim, the exhibit “undoubtedly offer[ed] visitors a chance to engage in some form of colonialist tourism [1].” This idea of “colonial tourism” has made me question how visitors saw themselves in the context of the exhibit. Were visitors truly interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Native American culture, or were they there purely for entertainment?

In order to understand more about what the general public’s perception was about these exhibitions, I did some digging. I first looked at an article published in The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, called “Man and His Works,” written by Harlan Smith in 1892 before the fair had happened. The article speaks to the proposed plans of an “Indian school exhibit.” Smith explains the exhibit will show how “our government represents its method of educating and civilizing them, […] and will occupy four acres of land [2].” 

Students from the Haskell Indian School

To get a second perspective on what the general public thought of this specific exhibit, I looked at an article published in The Independent, an article that is published in 1893 after the fair had taken place. In the article, Carl Johnson describes an exhibit of the Haskell Indian School from Lawrence, Kansas “decidedly animate and correspondingly interesting[…] [3].”  The children in this exhibit were between ten and twenty years of age, and Johnson describes them as “a remarkably intelligent-looking lot of young people, who had none of that stolid, indifferent look common to the average Indian.” Johnson goes on to explain that the Native Americans “plainly desire to reverse that popular sentiment that ‘there is no good Indian except a dead one’.” 

In my opinion, I think the Native American exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair was there not only to entertain (which supports Blim’s argument of colonial tourism), but also to support the idea that the United States government was “saving the savages.”As we see in Smith’s article, the government specifically wanted the Indian school front and center as a tribute to “Man and His Works,” and while some visitors might have been there to gain a better understanding of Native American culture, the exhibit was so edited and controlled by those outside of the Native Americans that it had to have been nearly impossible to gain an accurate understanding. Both articles are heavily influenced by racist views (especially when Johnson explains what the “popular sentiment” of Native Americans was at the time). I was honestly kind of shocked that these articles were printed and accepted as the norm, and am thankful society has (mostly) developed a deeper understanding of respecting cultures. We still have a long way to go!

[1]. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

[2] Smith, Harlan. “Man and His Works.” The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal (1880-1914), vol. 15, Mar. 1893.

[3] Johnson, Carl. “World’s Fair Letter.” The Independent … Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921), vol. 45, July 1893.


Cultivating Compassion: an Unexpected Plea for the Native Americans

Figure 1                                   Figure 2



For this blog post I will examine the book History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and homeseekers’ guide (Fig. 1), published in 1906 and written by James L. Puckett. The book itself is based on statements given to the author by different people that were in some way affiliated with the native American tribes in the area. The specific primary source is the experiences as stated by Ora. A. Woodman (Fig. 2)[1], after his capture during an Indian raid and the subsequent adolescence as part the tribe. Puckett stated that there is little to no evidence of Woodman’s ancestry or background, other than being born somewhere in western Texas before the civil war[2]. In the section I chose from this account, Woodman explains how the Native American music might be wrongly perceived (Fig. 3)[3] and how he views it.

Figure 3

Why did Puckett include this rather nuanced encounter, stating somewhat radical opinions on Indian music, in his book? Woodman, with no recollections of his life outside the tribe and one could argue without the biases that comes with western, Eurocentric society, has an interesting platform for promoting the Native American cause. Or did Puckett simply include this story as a curiosity for the readers, a local Tarzan of sorts? Does he want to show the world the depravity attainable when one fraternizes too much with the natives? To find meaning and take pleasure in their music?

When it comes to Puckett’s personal views and credibility it is worth looking into his life story according to his own recollections, a separate chapter of the book, he began his career moving cattle in Arkansas of which he soon tired. After a failed courtship with a Cheyenne woman he went to Oklahoma where he had close friendship with a Cherokee man (Fig. 4 a and b)[4] culminating in him attending gatherings for the native tribes an interacting with them.

Figure 4 a

Figure 4 b

He ended up being married to three Cherokee women, separately, throughout his life and the book names the third one as a co-author (Fig.1). It seems to me that this is a life and the actions of a somewhat progressive thinker, through marriage and friendship he interacted a lot with native tribes and collected testimonies from them directly. in spite of this   it is important to highlight the somewhat autobiographical nature of this collection of experiences.

As far as the original or intended audience for this book Puckett writes that he believes what he calls his “memories” will be “worth something to people seeking homes in the new country”[5]. Considering this statement in light of what might be perceived as sympathetic undercurrents in the text, I would be inclined to assume that Puckett’s intentions were conscientious; That he wished that newcomers to the territory would have a better understanding of the land, its people and consequently their music.


Puckett, James L. History of Oklahoma and Indian Territory and homeseekers’ guide. Vinita, Oklahoma: Chieftain Publishing Company. 1906. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American West, [Accessed September 15, 2019].

[1] Puckett 1906: p. 71

[2] Ibid p. 73

[3] Ibid p. 77

[4] Ibid p. 123-124

[5] Ibid p. 149

Skulls: a 19th-Century Justification for Racism in Music


Anyone could read this short passage and recognize that the author is approaching music with a problematic, racist mindset, but I had no idea the undercurrent of “science” propelling these opinions until I dug a little deeper…

The pseudoscience of phrenology was running rampant in mid-19th century society. Racist beliefs and actions were justified through this “science.”[1] Phrenologists argued that a person’s character, intelligence, and opinions could be deduced from the shape and size of their skull.[2] This was fodder for 19th-century minds to be opposed to whole races and ethnicities, solely based off the external shape of their skulls. Samuel George Morton wrote Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America[3] in 1839. Crania americana allowed racism to reign in 19th-century thinking under the guise of science, as the book was published in great quantities and spread across the continent and across the ocean to Europe.[4] Through drawings like the ones below, Morton provided “reasoning” for the acceptability of racism against Native Americans. Phrenology directly influenced how people viewed Native American music and musicians.

Looking back at the first excerpt,[5] it is easy to witness how this undercurrent of phenological thought influenced the cultural norms of the 19th century about racism towards Native Americans. This passage comes from the American Phrenological Journal, a publication by scholars of this pseudoscience. Much to my chagrin, this journal would have held great authority over its original audience, an audience well-accustomed to phrenological thought. American Phrenological Journal deems the music of the “wild Indian” to be lesser, because they believed that a Native American’s brain did not physically have the same capacity for music making as a European did. Before even hearing the music, phrenologists had deduced the music to be less advanced than “Christian” music, purely because of the shape of the musicians’ skulls. Along with making assumptions about the music before listening to it, the author makes conclusions about the whole people group based off of the music. They say that “it is a fact” that people can be judged by their music, and that this serves as confirmation that white European-descendants are “superior,” as organs and pianos are a testament to.



[1]  SciShow. “Victorian Pseudosciences: Brain Personality Maps.” YouTube. YouTube, December 1, 2016. Accessed September 14, 2019.

[2]  Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Phrenology.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed September 16, 2019.

[3]  Morton, Samuel George. Crania Americana, or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America to Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839.

[4]  “Skulls in Print: Scientific Racism in the Transatlantic World.” University of Cambridge, March 19, 2014. Accessed September 13, 2019.


Henry Finck & the Construction of An American Sound

Henry Finck’s 1906 article “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer” was published in Outlook, a New York-based magazine in operation from 1893-1924. The article’s opening lines casually establish Finck’s authority on MacDowell by stating that in the summer of 1895 he “spent a few days with Edward MacDowell in a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva.”[1] He further drops a subtle brag that MacDowell was “sorely tempted to ask my advice about various details, but refrained for fear of breaking into my vacation.”[2]


This is Henry Finck. In addition to having an impressive mustache, Finck was an American music critic. Although German and a Wagnerite, he distrusted Germany. His 18 publications include Wagner and his works: the story of his life, Richard Strauss: The man and his works, Songs and Song Writers, an autobiography, and books on gardening and food. Finck was a music critic at the Evening Post for 43 years and a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Music (alongside Dvorak).[4]

The purpose of Finck’s article is not consistent. The first page seem to build up to the thesis that “It is time to drop the ludicrous notion that a truly national art can be built up only on folk-songs.”[5] This theme, particularly the importance of individuality, is further developed through the third page. Finck then suddenly switches to a lengthy discussion of MacDowell’s education. Interestingly, in this section Finck uses the same revering tone that he describes MacDowell using towards his own idols (particularly Liszt and Raff), even going so far as to assert that MacDowell was “the greatest pianist this country has produced.”[6] Finally, Finck ends with a quick overview of what he considers to be MacDowell’s best pieces and mourns the “loss to American music” caused by MacDowell’s death. He never seems to return to his “thesis” that individuality is the key to building a national art. In this way the article has a unique mix of informal musicological argument and half reverent biography.

I came upon this source about MacDowell while searching for more context on Dan Blim’s essay “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” I was excited to find this article because it seems to contrast some of Blim’s arguments. Blim’s essay states that:

“[A] so called “Indianist” movement had emerged, placing Native American subjects at the fore of US musical nationalism. Pisani attributes the success of this movement in large part to the participation of Edward MacDowell, the preeminent American composer of the day, who premiered his Second Suite for Orchestra with the moniker ‘Indian,’ in 1896.”[7]

While Blim only quotes Pisani on this point, he does not refute it, leading me to the conclusion that he agrees with this argument. Blim in fact seems to take the argument for granted as it is presented in the portion of the essay dedicated to context. Although it perhaps was a personal issue that I didn’t catch this distinction the first time around, my first experiences with the article led me to think that Pisani’s claim was indeed a central pillar of Blim’s own argument.

However, Finck’s article gives evidence that MacDowell specifically didn’t want to create a new American sound based on Native American music. Finck states that MacDowell:

“…never indorsed the view… that a great American Temple of Music might and will be built with Indian songs as the foundation-stones. Nor has he ever countenanced the widely prevalent opinion that negro melodies form the only other possible basis of a distinctively American school of music.”[8]

In combination with his own argument that individuality is the key to building up an American school of music, Finck’s interpretation of MacDowell’s intentions (or lack thereof) contrasts with Pisani’s claim that the “Indianist” movement was conscious and deliberate. Finck only speaks towards MacDowell’s intentions, and because actions and intentions are not the same, it is highly plausible that both Pisani and Finck are correct. I synthesize these conflicting arguments into the claim that MacDowell did not intend to participate in the ‘Indianist’ movement but was nevertheless accidentally a key player in the construction of a US musical nationalism.

This was but one interesting tidbit in a rather long article. Other intriguing morsels that I don’t have space to unpack in this blog post include:

  • Your daily dose of sexism/engrained hypermasculinity (“exquisite feminine tenderness” and “sturdy, manly spirit”)
  • Condescension poorly hidden by Finck’s belief in his own open-mindedness (“The aboriginal Iroquois and Iowan songs which form its main themes are in themselves by no means without charm…”)
  • Was Finck in love with MacDowell? He’s really quite complimentary of his musical accomplishments, not to mention his handsomeness (“His face retains its unearthly beauty… and his eyes still have the light of genius in them.” However, Mark Grant says “Finck was an unabashed enthusiast, not a paid puffer but a booster, and he did not hesitate to write articles about his particular favorites… that bordered on press agentry.”)
  • Finck has strong opinions on what a “real American,” so much so that perhaps the establishment of an American identity can be better examined in the way music is talked about rather than in the music itself



[1] Henry Finck, “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer,” Outlook 84, no. 17 (1906), 1.

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] “Henry T. Finck,” Lapham’s Quarterly,

[4] Mark Grant, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Dan Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Vancouver, 2016, 2.

[8] Finck, “Creative Americans,” 1.

Works Cited

Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Vancouver, 2016.

“Henry T. Finck.” Lapham’s Quarterly.

Finck, Henry T. “Creative Americans: Edward MacDowell, Musician and Composer.” Outlook 84, no. 17(1906).

Grant, Mark. Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.



The Expansion of the “Vanishing Indian”

In his paper “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians,” Dr. Daniel Blim writes that the “Indianist” movement of using Native American inspiration for American music owes its success largely to the composer Edward MacDowell, and especially to his Indian Suite, premiered in 1896. Blim connects this to the “vanishing Indian” trope: “the Indian as a cultural figure . . . began to ‘vanish,’ and no longer a threat, could be reappropriated in the national imagination as a nostalgic figure rather than a living oppositional force.” He discusses MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music as one way in which it aligns with this trope. Regarding MacDowell’s piece “From an Indian Lodge,” Blim writes, “the subject of this work is not Native America, but a reenactment, subtly Westernized.”1

Reviews of the Indian Suite support this view, showing a strong alignment with the “vanishing Indian” trope and praising MacDowell’s Westernization of Native American music. Blim uses the Indian Suite as an example of MacDowell’s music before it reflected the shift to the “vanishing Indian” view, still depicting Native Americans as a “living oppositional force.” However, the following two reviews, though approaching the Indian Suite from opposite directions, both project the “vanishing Indian” trope onto the piece.

In 1898, the magazine The Critic published a review (right) praising MacDowell’s ability to “weave a series of tone-pictures out of . . . purely native material.” It contrasts his suite with Dvořák’s ninth symphony, stating that MacDowell “clings to what is elemental and more thoroughly representative, . . . carefully avoiding as inappropriate a too complex treatment of native themes.”2 Rather than seeing Native Americans as a living opposition still in need of Westernization, The Critic praises MacDowell for getting to the core of what is Native American, showing the extent to which their opposition had been replaced by an opportunity for inspiration.

In 1939, 41 years later, the magazine Forum and Century also published a review (left) praising the Indian Suite, but comparing it favorably with Dvořák’s symphony: “The Suite is in no sense a sequence of Indian tunes. It is a sweeping orchestral work, symphonic in nature, that evokes auditory images of our ancestors, their mores, and their cherished aspirations and bitter frustrations.”3 For Forum and Century, rather than Westernization being an obstacle, it allows the Native American to be more effectively appropriated, so much so that they are now “our ancestors,” and the music’s frustration that Blim associates with their oppositional position now reflects the “bitter frustrations” of the Native Americans themselves.

From only two years after the premier through the following several decades, MacDowell’s Indian Suite was fully enveloped by the trope of the “vanishing Indian.” Though approaching the piece from opposite directions, both reviews celebrate MacDowell’s synthesis of Native American music. They do not make Blim’s differentiation between the suite and pieces that more explicitly align with this trope. Rather, due to the strength of the national shift spurred by MacDowell himself, they project onto this piece the concept that the Native American has vanished and transformed into fodder for American music.

1. Blim, Daniel. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory, Vancouver, BC, November 2016.

2. “Music: Notes of the Season.” The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898), Feb 05, 1898, 97,

3. ARTHUR, WALLACE HEPNER. “THE RECORD REVIEW.” Forum and Century (1930-1940), 11, 1939, 1,

The Way from Marginal to Mainstream: Another Early Example


I can freely admit that this playbill announcement caught my attention because I share a name with it. Helena, Montana and its musical and theatrical scene is almost as far from the musical encounters we have discussed between Europeans and coastal Native American tribes as I am, but I do believe that it has some connection to the development of an “American” music.

Native American references are markedly absent from this particular theatre’s presentation, although they seem to have been fairly common in other places at the time. The Montana Territory, not yet a state in 1866 when this playbill was published, was a frontier territory. Clashes between Native American tribes and European settlers were still common. Perhaps this continuing conflict is the reason for this music’s absence; theater is designed to be an escape, and comedy, farce, and melodrama were particularly popular in this period (1).

However, there are plenty of interesting and multicultural features of this program.  “Exotic” features or tidbits of a marginalised culture are often used as a draw in entertainment, so it is probable that this is the case here. Prominently displayed are the acts of Ethiopian comedian Ned Ward and the play “The Irish Diamond.” In discussion of anti-blackness and the racism particularly directed at non-white groups as a society and a class, we often neglect to be aware of the struggles of other groups, such as the Catholic Irish who were marginalised in both Protestant America and Britain after the English Reformation. This playbill was published not terribly long after a large wave of Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 1840s. This type of wave of immigration often comes with mixed feelings toward the group in question, and the Irish certainly were not met with arms all open. The prominence of an Irish drama in this program could be another example of what was discussed in our very first class session: the construction of a distinct American identity through reference to and use of the art and culture of marginalised American groups. There is even a second Irish play in what appears to be a “coming soon to theatres” section at the bottom – Arrah-na-Pogue, which was written in 1864 and adapted into an early silent film in 1911 (2)!

American music and art has always been an amalgamation of cultures, and that of frontier Montana in the 1860s is no different. Home to mostly young, male miners (3), this playbill from a theatre in Helena, Montana nonetheless draws on different styles of music, dance, and theater, and conveys an interesting picture of the artistic landscape that people from this time would have encountered. Much like music of the time, American theater was moving away from its European counterpart and searching for a new identity in the cultural resources of the “New World.”

  1. Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama, New York: Feedback/Prospero, 1994.
  2. Williams, Henry Llewellyn, and Dion Boucicault. Arrah-Na-Pogue; (Arrah-of-the-Kiss.) or, The Wicklow Wedding. Founded on the Same Incidents as the Celebrated Drama. New York: R.M. De Witt, 1865.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, “Montana,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed September 16, 2019).

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. 

“We’ll Never Turn Back”: Gaining Sympathy and Forcing Intervention in the Voter Registration Struggle

John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963,, accessed April 29, 2018.

Discouraged by the violence and disappointment, a 21-year-old woman sings with tears in her eyes. She sings of the horrors she has witnessed. She sings of the friends and leaders she has lost. She sings of her hopes for the future. Bertha Gober’s singing of “We’ll Never Turn Back” in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee Atlanta field office exemplifies the struggle and dedication of the fieldworkers trying to register black voters in the Deep South. Furthermore, the news article featuring the description of her performance works to gain the sympathies of readers.

John Poppy opens his article with the emotional scene of Gober singing. He uses her singing to usher in his discussion of the hardships and barriers, such as violence and withdrawal of aid, which fieldworkers and anyone who talks to them face in the Deep South. Poppy then inserts the question: “Why does Bertha Gober sing, ‘We’ve had to walk all by ourselves’”.1 He uses this lyric to emphasize the fieldworkers’ demand and need for federal intervention and their frustration that they have not received help at this point.

As an article published in Look, a popular magazine covering anything from sports and fashion to “social issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and women’s changing roles,”2
it had the power to reach people across the United States. The use of music in the article demonstrates how SNCC and their demonstrators utilized music as a tool of propaganda. Poppy illustrates the students’ determination and passion through describing a young woman’s performance of a freedom song. The poignant account of Gober singing “We’ll Never Turn Back” and working alongside her fellow young volunteers to gain equality, worked to gain the sympathies of readers, shifting popular opinion and eventually forcing the federal government to intervene.

1John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963,, accessed April 29, 2018.

2 Library of Congress, “About This Collection,”  Look Collection,, accessed April 30, 2018.

Activism Through Song: The Freedom Singers

Robert Shelton, “Negro Songs Here and Rights Drive: Mahalia Jackson, Freedom Group at Carnegie Hall.”  New York Times (New York), June 23, 1963. Digital Public Library of America.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gained national attention in 1960through staging sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, igniting a sit-in movement across the country. They continued to lead the Movement in the Freedom Rides of 1961 as well as a number of other protests, marches, and voter drives across the South. In the midst of their protesting, SNCC members sang songs that reflected their passion for the cause, lifted their spirits, and stood as a symbol of resistance against segregationists.

SNCC protestors Bernice Johnson, Ruth Harris, Cordell Hull Reagan and Charles Neblett emerged from the Albany Movement in 1962 to form the Freedom Singers. This quartet of singers, all between the ages of 19 and 21, sought to draw attention to and raise money for SNCC’s fight for racial equality through performing the songs of the Movement. 1 The young singers captured the hearts of people across the country with their musical ability and passion for social change. Performing songs composed in jail cells, on the Freedom Rides, or in other protests,2 the Freedom Singers traveled thousands of miles and shared their music and message to audiences at over 100 concerts.

This newspaper clipping from the New York Times reviews the Freedom Singers’ performance at the esteemed Carnegie Hall in New York City. The Freedom Singers collaborated with renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, but the reviewer Robert Shelton reveals, “There was perhaps even greater interest in the Freedom Singers and their songs, which echoed with the immediacy of today’s headlines, the integration battle in the South”. 3 Shelton goes on not only to praise the singers’ passion for their cause but their musical ability as well. He further commends their performance: “Even if the quartet were not dealing in matters so urgent as the topical freedom songs of the integration movement, it would be outstanding for its singing…. The Freedom Singers [are] in the top level of American folk groups” 4 Shelton’s review indicates that the Freedom Singers were successful in gaining the sympathies of audiences across the country through their passionate and impressive musical talent.

In many ways, the Freedom Singers resemble the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Both groups sing music intimately connected to the black culture of the past and their present. This is problematic in that they are performing for predominantly white audiences in order to raise money for their causes. Both groups experience the pressure of upholding something important at a young age: a newly founded black college and a student movement fighting for racial equality. Like the Jubilee Singers, the Freedom Singers’ commitment to their cause is admirable. They demonstrate how the power of music can bring people together in one common cause.

1 Robert Shelton, “Negro Songs Here and Rights Drive: Mahalia Jackson, Freedom Group at Carnegie Hall.”  New York Times (New York), June 23, 1963. Digital Public Library of America.

2 “The Freedom Singers.” Werner-SNCC Documents, Articles and Clippings. Box 2, Folder 5. (Atlanta, GA), 1962-1965. Digital Public Library of America. http://content.wisconsinhistory.or g/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/21078, 48.

3 Shelton,“Negro Songs Here and Rights Drive.

4 Ibid.

Exploring the Minstrel Show

For my final project, I am writing a children’s book on blackface minstrelsy. To better understand what minstrel shows actually looked like, so that I can more accurately discuss them, I found a book called Minstrel Breezes by Arthur Kaser, a “collection of up-to-the-minute first-parts, sketches, skits, monologues and afterpieces.” The book was published in 1937 and was essentially a collection of scripts meant for amateur minstrels to use in their own minstrel shows. Reading through the scripts, I found that most of the humor comes from highlighting the dim-wittedness of the “black” characters, especially through pun and complicated faulty logic. For example, here is a selection from a conventional minstrel first-part, with an interlocutor and an Endman named Sideswipe:

INTERLOCUTOR: …you bragged to me the other day that you were the smartest pupil in school.

SIDESWIPE: I was de smartes’.

INTERLOCUTOR: Your sister told me this morning that you couldn’t even get out of the fourth grade.

SIDESWIPE: Dat was account of mah report card. Everything on dat report card was “A” except one.


SIDESWIPE: Just one “B” on dat card, an’ dat’s what stung me.

I also found some videos on Youtube from a  1951 film, “Yes Sir, Mr. Bones,” in which popular minstrel performances are reproduced. This clip (Content Warning: Blackface) was a popular comedy routine called “28.”

The comedy routines in their contexts are quite disturbing; the blackface, the gross caricatures, the belittling of black folk all culminate into a disappointing picture. However, I raise a question: could these sort of routines be funny today if the blackface and racism was removed? Many of the jokes are puns and general silliness. Perhaps this is a controversial question, and by no means am I arguing in favor of minstrelsy, but it does make me wonder what are the limits of humor? When is a joke going too far? Is there any comedy from minstrel shows that can have any value, or do the implications mean too much? I suppose I am also thinking along the lines of the old minstrel tunes and that we know from childhood, that we know are from that tradition, but still hold onto. What do you think?


Jamaica: Exploring the Caribbean on Broadway

After reading Carol Oja’s article “West Side Story and The Music Man: Whiteness, Immigration, and Race in the U.S. During the Late 1950s” for class, I found myself wondering what other musicals premiered on Broadway during the 1957-1958 season.1
A quick google search revealed that, along with West Side Story and The Music Man, three other shows were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958: New Girl in Town, and Oh, Captain, as well as one name that stuck out to me: Jamaica. Knowing nothing about Jamaica, I was immediately intrigued by the idea that another musical dealing with American-Caribbean relations was on Broadway at the same time as West Side Story.

Cover of the opening night program for Jamaica, which opened at the Majestic Theater on October 31st, 1957.

Using a modified Calypso musical style that was popular in New York, Jamaica (book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, music by Harold Arlen, and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) tells the story of a Caribbean island community and its experience with tourism and other current events of the late 1950s. The musical was not a critical success, but became “the longest running black-cast Broadway musical up to that time.”2
Theater scholar Shane Vogel remarked that “Jamaica parodied the colonial system, Caribbean tourist economies, and the ideological struggles that subtended a cold war that was never very cold. It may be the only Broadway musical to stage, just before intermission, a mushroom cloud.”3 Through a variety of artistic changes made just before opening (including replacing the original Jamaican star Harry Belafonte with Lena Horne) the political critique of the show was somewhat watered down. (It is also interesting to note that Alvin Ailey appeared in the ensemble.)

West Side Story and Jamaica uses similar themes of connection between Caribbean islands and the United States, but in dramatically different ways. While West Side Story focused on the trials of racial and cultural integration of white and Puerto Rican American youth in New York City, Jamaica emphasized the detrimental effects of colonialism on the inhabitants of the fictional Pigeon Island, at least at first. By the time it got to Broadway,

Advertisements frame the list of scenes in Jamaica.

and despite the intentions of the writers, “the show appeared as a typical instance of mid-century Broadway Caribbeana: a tourist production that traded on notions of an undifferentiated Caribbean landscape and a tropical aesthetic of “calypso” rhythms, moonlight romance, and folk simplicity” “where blackness was staged as a site and possibility for diasporic political consciousness,” according to Vogel.4 Reflecting this change, advertisements that appeared in the opening night playbill were for cruise ships, clothes, and alcohol.5
While the songs still contained critiques of American intervention (for example “Yankee Dollar,” and “Leave the Atom Alone”), the Playbill synopsis now reads “A Jamaican woman dreams of moving to New York City, despite her boyfriend’s contentment with the island life.”6
Despite giving a platform to black artists, many of whom became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, Jamaica was a far cry from giving a unique political voice to black island communities. For further reflection on the evolution of musicals with Caribbean themes, it would be interesting to compare Jamaica to the current Broadway musicals that take place on Caribbean islands, such as Once On This Island, and Escape to Margaritaville.

1 Oja, Carol. “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): 13-20.

2 Oja, Carol. “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): 2. ProQuest. Accessed April 15, 2018.

3 Oja, “Jamaica on Broadway,” 1.

4 Oja, “Jamaica on Broadway,” 2, 18.

5 “Jamaica,” Playbill Vault.

6 Ibid.

Politics and Music: Reconciliation Through Celebration

1865 was one of the biggest years in the history of the United States of America. The end of the American Civil War was fast approaching and the 13th amendment was ratified early that year. Celebrations, both public and private, erupted all over the country. With these celebrations came some historic national firsts. One particular first came in a religious celebration that took place in the Capitol soon after the completion of the 13th Amendment. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet was invited by The Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Reverend William H. Channing to speak and perform religious ceremonies to honor this historic moment. 1

Rev. H. H. Garnet

It was not only the first time that an African American preacher had performed a religious ceremony in the Capitol but, according to public letters, it was also the first time a black man had spoken there. 2 The significance of this event was not lost on Washington residents and both white and black men came to hear him speak. To further the momentous occasion congregants of the local black Methodist church, joined by a variety of members of nearby white churches, sang for the occasion. This interracial choir showcased both an ideological and political commitment to the expansion of rights for African Americans.

Article reflecting on Rev. Garnett’s appearance in the Capitol

Spirituals are such an integral part of the African American experience, in many cases they represent hope and strength in times of strife. 3 It’s fitting that they would be included in such a historically important moment. The combination of politics, religion, and music symbolize the progressive and creative changes happening in the United States at this time. This celebration is ultimately representative of how music and ceremony can provide an outlet for people to come together and represent the multi-faceted nature of change. This moment in time shows how music can help to bring people together and how it can provide a platform for the celebration of progress.

Cultural Appropriation: Is It Bad?

From pop sensations Bruno Mars to Iggy Azalea to old school entertainers like Elsie Janis, musical cultural appropriation has always been and is still a problem to many people. Is music appropriation a bad thing? Here is some background to understanding why musical cultural appropriation is a problem.

Cultural Appropriation

First, before we get to it, we need to understand what “appropriation” means. According to the definition of music appropriation is: “the use of borrowed elements (aspects or techniques) in the creation of a new piece,” (

Now, appropriation of music styles in itself is not bad. However, once those music styles are being re-interpreted by people who didn’t originally create that particular genre or song style, we start to find problems. This is called “Cultural Appropriation”. According to The Free Dictionary, “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1] Cultural appropriation may be perceived[2] as controversial, even harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture; this is seen as misappropriation and a violation of intellectual property rights” (

An example of cultural appropriation is when someone who is not Mexican throws on a Charro suit as a costume for Halloween.

Mexican Cultural Appropriation

It is completely misrepresenting its origins. Cultural appropriation in music has been an issue in the Western world, especially in the United States. The reason is most, if not, all music that is “American” is originally black music. Most jazz, blues, ragtime, hip-hop, country, spirituals, and other songs we have discussed in class have found their origins in African-American culture.



Today, artists such as Bruno Mars and Iggy Azalea are being criticized for creating music in genres that originated from black musicians. Even after Bruno acknowledged his influences at the 2018 Grammy’s for example,

[Bruno Mars Acknowledges His Influences in 2018 Grammys]

an article was written about his role as a racially ambiguous artist in today’s music industry. Even Seren Sensei posted a video on Twitter defending her argument that Bruno Mars is using his racial ambiguity to further his credit in creating black music.

[Seren Sensei]

However, this issue is a bit more complex than it seems. To understand why, we must allude back to the cultural music appropriation of black music by white artists in the early 20th century United States.

[Elsie Janis – Anti Rag-Time Girl (Audio)]

2nd: Elsie Bierbower, aka: “Elsie Janis” was a singer, songwriter, actress and screenwriter from Columbus, Ohio. She moved to Los Angeles to live her dreams in the entertainment industry, and travelled around the world performing for vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. She was immortalized by her nickname, “the sweetheart of the AEF” when she would entertain the troops during World War I.

Elsie Janis – Anti-Ragtime Girl Sheet Music

Elsie Janis could be described as a someone who made it in Hollywood. She was very famous in her time. However, as with everything that seems to good to be true, Elsie utilized ragtime, an African-American genre, to write her 1913 song “Anti-Ragtime Girl”. By 1913, Ragtime was in its prime as a popular American genre, similar to how hip-hop is dominant in mainstream culture today. It is clear that she uses ragtime to create this piece. Are her actions considered cultural appropriation? Yes and no. Yes, because she did not invent ragtime music, and it is clear that she is living lavishly for herself based off the income of her music’s success. Some may argue that it is not moral for one to use another’s culture to re-interpret in another perspective. It is still very complicated.

That leaves us with today. Eminem, Iggy Azalea, Bruno Mars, and Macklemore have all won Grammys for their success in performing music that is arguably black music. However, differences in opinion leaves us with an open-ended question: Where does the line between creating original art and committing cultural appropriation sit?


Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. S.v. “appropriation.” Retrieved March 19 2018 from

Harriot, Michael. “The Bruno Mars Controversy Proves People Don’t Understand Cultural Appropriation.” The Grapevine. Retrieved March 19 2018 from

Janis, Elsie. “Anti Rag-Time Girl.” Oregon Digital. Retrived March 19 2018 from

Sheet Music Singer. “Anti-Ragtime Girl (1913).” YouTube. Retrieved March 19 2018 from S.v. “Appropriation (music).” Retrieved March 19 2018 from


Let My People Go: Moses in African American Spirituals

The traditional lyrics and melody. Burleigh, H.T. “Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go!),” in Negro Spirituals (New York: G. Ricordi, 1917), italcollections/hasm_n0708/.

After relentless, long and hard days working in the fields, enslaved black people had little in forms of comfort. Singing spirituals was one way for enslaved people to come together, to sing about their hardships, to praise God, and to lift their spirits. Although some scholars, such as George Pullen Jackson,1 have argued that spirituals stem directly from white Protestant music, spiritual songs centered on Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery, such as “Go Down, Moses”, highlight how the slave experience distinctly shaped African American spirituals.

In the numerous songs featuring the biblical character of Moses, “Go Down, Moses” is the most popular. This as well as other Moses songs directly reflects enslaved people’s longing for freedom. For many enslaved people, Moses was representative of the brave “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, that guided enslaved people to freedom.2 The lyrics of “Go Down Moses” indicating that Moses, someone who did not have as much power as the Pharaoh, could defy him and demand “to let [his] people go!” was incredibly powerful for enslaved people who dreamed of defying their master. In many ways it became a way of defying their master even if they did not run away.3

Although this version of “Go Down Moses” remains the most popular, other versions also highlight connections between the African-American slaves and the Israelites. In John Davis’s version of “Go Down, Moses”, he reveals that the chariot symbolizes the Underground Railroad and the “rivers rolling” as the rivers that runaway slaves would cross though to lose their scent.4 Although the lyrics are different, the message remains the same: a dream and a reflection on the fight for freedom.

Krehbiel’s assertion that “Nowhere save on the plantations of the south could the emotional life which is essential to the development of true folksong be developed”5 rings true in “Go Down, Moses”. Although whites may have shared Christianity with enslaved blacks, they could not emote the same connection with the enslaved Israelites. The emotion present in the slow, melancholy song in the video and sheet music above reveals the deep sadness of living in slavery and a longing for freedom that only enslaved people could understand.

1 Jackson, George Pullen. “Negro-Borrowed Tunes are Traced Back to Britain: Did the Black Man Compose Religious Songs?,” in White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1943): 264-289.

2 “Georgia islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals,” Southern Journey 12 (1998): 14.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves,” in Afro-American Foksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, (1914): 22.

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?

Masculinity and Minstrelsy: Intersectional Issues in Blackface Performances

As long as the entertainment industry has sought to reach the masses it has caused controversy. Minstrel shows, the first form of mass entertainment in the United States,1 is one of the most prolific examples of this. Minstrelsy relied heavily on songs and dances performed in blackface, the act of covering one’s face in burnt cork to give the illusion that the actor or actress is black themselves. Characters that were in blackface were played as caricatures of stereotypes in the African American community.

Thomas Rice as the original Jim Crow

These performances not only relied on racist notions of identity but also gendered ones. White male performers could experiment with identity and commodify it by playing on the entertainment quality of challenging racial and gendered notions of identity.2 Thomas Rice, the actor who created the Jim Crow character, is one example of these performers.3 The Jim Crow character was modeled as a former slave who wished to return to the way things had been during the antebellum years. During and after reconstruction real, living, breathing black American men lived in fear and persecution due to racist beliefs that created a scary and wild image of them. Minstrel shows furthered these images by showcasing them as stupid and brutish. The Jim Crow character was an emasculating and oftentimes pitiful version of the African American man.4 This portrayal stood as a stark contrast from the expectations of white men during this time period. A poster from a five person minstrel show shows this contrast. In it you can see through their difference in posture, clothing, and personality the inferiority of their African American characters.

The cover to sheet music for a five part piece designed for a blackface minstrel show

Jokes at the expense of the African American men were the real cherry on top. For example, the Jim Crow character’s wish to return to plantation life also included his desire for the protection of his master. This falsely portrayed wish for domination says more about white men than it does about their black counterparts. It exhibits the racist and sexist values of the United States and the too slow change in societal acceptance. Minstrelsy was a popular and important part of the American entertainment industry. Like many forms of entertainment, though, it helped to fuel the fire of hate a prejudice and that cannot be forgotten.

1 Weiner, Melissa F. “Minstrelsy.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

2  Locke, Joseph. “Blackface.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

3 Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

4 Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

Performing Jim Crow: Stereotyping a People

Williams Clay, Edward. “Mr. T. Rice as the Original Jim Crow”. In Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture by W. T. Lhamon, Jr. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

In 1828 a New York City native, Thomas Rice, created the character of Jim Crow while performing in Louisville Kentucky. Performing in blackface, Rice presented the character of Jim Crow as a ragged, lazy, child-like, and irresponsible black man. Rice’s performance turned him into a celebrity, igniting the popularity of blackface minstrelsy throughout the United States.1

Blackface minstrelsy perpetuated and exaggerated stereotypes of blacks and thus served as a means of justifying slavery. Jim Crow was no exception. Jim Crow or the Sambo character quickly became the stereotype of black men. Depicted as ignorant, lazy, childish, and completely dependent on their master, minstrel performers justified slavery by implying that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves. Spectators preferred this depiction of black men as loyal to their masters rather than the alternative stereotype of the Savage who was rebellious and would attack white women.2

“Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed March 6, 2018.

Published in 1847, the cover of the Jim Crow Jubilee sheet music, “a collection of Negro melodies” promotes the Jim Crow caricature and blackface minstrelsy. The cover mirrors the staging of a minstrel show: one central figure surrounded by three other performers with a fiddle, mandolin, and bones. The crowd of people in the background also suggests that this image is set on a plantation and that this characterization of black people’s appearance and behavior is representative of the black population.

The central figure of Jim Crow greatly resembles the original image of Jim Crow that advertised for Rice’s performances. Both feature a smiling black man with exaggerated and comical facial features and ragged clothing, including torn pants and shoes. While we discussed in class that performers often wore fantastical clothing on stage, the earlier characterizations of Jim Crow highlighted this disheveled appearance. In both images, the Jim Crows also strike a similar pose as if they are in the middle of dancing to the blackface minstrel music.

The origins of Jim Crow in black face minstrelsy highlight how a character’s name came to be a symbol of black people as a whole, discrimination, and institutional segregation across the South. Depictions of Jim Crow and other black characters demonstrated to audience members that blacks were inferior to whites in their appearance, speech, intellect, and general behavior and personality. This characterization reaffirmed color boundaries and led to the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws.

Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. ch/Display/1606088.

Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 6, 2018. https://africaname ri

Children’s Songs Become Folk–“Rosie”

Unsure of what to research, even after spending hours scrolling through and skimming journals, narratives, pictures, and musical selections, I inevitably turned to children’s songs on the Library of Congress Lomax Collection. I have always been fascinated by culture and media for children, be it stories, rhymes, or whatever else–I’m even writing a non-fiction book on Nigeria for children right now.

An intriguing aspect of these children’s songs is their folk quality. For example, I dug quite a bit into the song “Rosie.” There are several recordings available in the Lomax Collection and each–despite being recorded within days of each other (May 1939) and in the same area (Livingston, Alabama)–is a little different. These are the versions: Vera Hallthe McDonald Family, and Ed Jones.

This is a classic call and response song, with a leader calling out and the group responding emphatically as a whole. The chorus is essentially the same in each with the “ha ha Rosie” and referring to her as either “baby” or “pretty girl.” The verse lyrics differ, but the overall structure remains the same, as well as the clapping beat underneath. Another recording, from the Smithsonian Folkways Records, is of children at Brown’s Chapel School in Alabama singing the tune:

“Rosie Darling Rosie” appears alongside various other play songs, including ones we may recognize, such as “Mary Mack” and “Loop de Loo.” The lyrics of this one also fall in line with those mentioned above, the chorus following “Rosie darling Rosie / ha ha Rosie / Rosie darling Rosie / ha ha Rosie” and the verses having different words but the same structure. The verse seems to suggest that the song (or at lease this particular rendition of lyric) is from the time of slavery, a slave calling upon his baby to run away with him to Baltimore (a notedly free place in those days) to escape their bondage.

“Rosie Darling Rosie” lyrics from Folkways Records

The pamphlet that accompanies this record also includes lyrics which the kids do not sing in this particular recording but are still often sung (pictured at right). In the recording of Vera Hall above, she uses these lyrics, except her rendition replaces “preacher” and “two” with “nigger.” Otherwise, it is the same. This illustrates both how folk songs change over time and place and simply who is singing the song, as well as that these folk songs from the days of slavery may be reworked over time to be more palatable to the general populace.

Vera Hall at the home of Mrs. Ruby Pickens Tartt, Livingston, Alabama

I delved a bit deeper into Vera Hall, as I was most drawn to her rendition of “Rosie.” Apparently, nearly a decade after Alan Lomax recorded her singing in Livingston, AL in 1939, Lomax invited her to come perform at the 1948 Fourth Annual Festival of Contemporary American Music at Columbia University in New York City. She accepted and left Alabama for the first and only time in her life. During this time, she stayed at Lomax’s apartment where he recorded more of her singing (including two more renditions of “Rosie”) and commentaries on the songs and her life. She describes “Rosie” as a song she and the other children in her area would sing and play as a line game. It was a song passed around purely by word of mouth, which is a wonderful example of how folk songs such as this survive.

Folk Music and Square Dancing: Expression of Rural Whiteness

In 1939, John Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax set out on an adventure into the homes and communities of the American South to collect folk music. Their trip documented music that had developed in the American South and stood as a symbol of southern rural white culture. Their collection of recordings includes the American classic “Turkey in the Straw” performed by Elmo Newcomer and his son Theo Newcomer, available below. 1The song represents the simplicity of the “down home” feeling represented in folk music.

Like much folk and country music, “Turkey in the Straw” features both the banjo and the fiddle. Although folk and country music are often considered white genres , the presence of the banjo indicates the influence of the African American community, as the banjo has African origins.2 In addition to standing as a representative of traditional Southern music, the song features the duple meter and 16-bar units popular to bluegrass music These features indicate how this song and others like it influenced later Southern and Appalachian Mountain music.

“Members of the Bog Trotters Band, posed holding their instruments, Galax, Va. Back row: Uncle Alex Dunford, fiddle; Fields Ward, guitar; Wade Ward, banjo. Front row: Crockett Ward, fiddle; Doc Davis, autoharp” in Lomax Collection (Galax, Virginia: 1937 )http://www.loc. gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660127/ (accessed February 25, 2018).

“Bent Creek Ranch Square Dance Team dancing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina” in Lomax Collection (Asheville, North Carolina: 1938-1950) colle ction/lomax/item/2007660059/ (accessed February 26, 2018).

This recording, performed in the Newcomers’ home, demonstrates how folk music was part of the lives of the poor rural family and the community. The lyrics in the Newcomers’ performance, “Went out to milk/ And I didn’t know how/ I milked the goat/ Instead of the cow” reflect the everyday lives of rural white farm families.

In addition to being performed in their homes, the themes of this classic song related to the rural farm community at large. White rural Southerners shared this music at gatherings and this song like many other folk songs were popular square dancing tunes. Square dancing has been a tradition in the Appalachian Mountains since the 19th century.4 One place that folk music and square dancing came together is at the  Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina. This gathering and the general union of folk music such as “Turkey in the Straw” and square dancing celebrates folk music and the “down home”, simple lives of the rural white communities.

As we discussed in class, this song like many other folk and country songs gave rural Southern whites a voice, art, and setting to express their culture. This often came at the expense of the black community who were excluded from the memory of folk music by the music industry and scholars such as John Lomax.

Newcomer, Elmo and Bill Newcomer, “Turkey in the Straw” in John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (Pike Creek, Texas: 1939) (accessed February 25, 2018).

2Allen, Ray. “Folk Musical Traditions” in Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2017) (accessed February 26, 2018).

3 Root, Deanne L., Linda Moot, and Pauline Norton. “Square-Dance”, in Oxford Music (2001), (accessed February 26, 2018).

4 Ibid.

Bluegrass: A generational experience

The concept of “nurture versus nature” is a scientific and ideological question that haunts every single academic field. Not even the immortal and ever changing world of music can escape. In her 2017 IBMA Keynote address bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens notes that the intersection between her biracial identity and love for bluegrass music are just an examples of why it is so important to “celebrate the greater diversity of the people who have shaped the music that is so much a part of [her] identity”. 1 There is a generational thread that exists within bluegrass music that is not simply resigned to Rhiannon Giddens’ story. The Lomax family, a similarly generational act, documented families all across the American South during the late 1930’s, some who are participating in the musical traditions associated with folk and bluegrass music. 2  

Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments, Galax, Va. Includes Doc Davis, with autoharp; Crockett Ward, with fiddle; Uncle Alex Dunford, with fiddle; Wade Ward, with banjo; Fields Ward, with guitar

Music is so often attached to particular aspects of identity, it goes beyond family and represents tradition within an entire line of people. One aspect of the folk musical tradition is the way in which it can, and has, reinforced gender and age roles within a tradition. In many songs there may be particular parts mapped out for different vocal ranges, allowing for mother, father, and children to talk their place within the musical tradition. 3 A slightly more contemporary example that S.W. Mills uses in Bringing the family tradition in bluegrass music to the music classroom, is Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass”. 

The idea of this broad category of music bringing people together didn’t exist just in communities of white Americans.The racial makeup of these traditions is something explored both by Giddens in her keynote address as well as the Lomax family. Their documentation spanned the gamut, showing musicians in each tradition.

Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.

One thing that connects these two racially divided traditions is the generational role of music, especially folk music. It shows its importance not only in the formation of modern folk music but also its role in the formation of family values. Though documentation (and misuse) is a relatively controversial topic the ability to study such things wouldn’t exist without the resources provided from people like the Lomax family. Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge the beautiful and meaningful way music brings people together.

1 Giddens, Rhiannon. “Community and Connection.” IBMA Keynote Speech 2017, Nashville, TN, 2017.

2 Cohen, Ronald D.. Alan Lomax, Assistant in Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

3 Mills, S. W.. Bringing the family tradition in bluegrass music to the music classroom. General Music Today, iss. 22, p. 12-18.

Dear Mexico, También Somos Aleman (We are also German)

This artifact intrigued me not necessarily the word, “uber” which is seen nearly of every street corner of most major U.S. cities today in the form of a car. Rather, what caught my attention was the name, “Guadaljara” which is actually spelled Guadalajara today. This is where my parents were originally born, near a city with a name derived of an Arabic translation, as stated in the official Ayuntamiento de Guadalajara website.

Access: Map of Guadalajara & Zacatecas

“In its distant origins, Guadalajara was linked to Celtoberian culture, though the earliest historical references tell of its strategic military importance to the emirs and caliphs of Córdoba. It was then known as Madinat al-Faray in memory of its conqueror, and Wad al-Hayara, Arab translation of its pre-Roman name, Arriaca.” (

La Ciudad de Guadalajara

My father actually went to college in Guadalajara, and had essentially gone through what I am experiencing now, “a home away from home.” His decision to sacrifice that education in Guadalajara in Mexico just to seek a better quality life in the United States without citizenship has allowed me to write this blog on this St. Olaf webpage for today. Had he not done so, I would not be here, in this very moment, writing this blog. Now you see why Guadalajara caught my attention. This city’s name creates an emotional response in myself because it symbolizes my family’s origins.


The map is a piece of cartography recorded in 1832 and completed in 1855 by German explorer, Carl de Berghes. One can easily (not actually) identify this source by its title, “Beschreibung der Ueberreste Aztekischer Niederlassungen auf ihrer Wanderung nach dem Thale von Mexico durch den gegenwärtigen Freistaat von Zacatecas


According to a dear friend and Berlin, Germany native, Leander Krawinkel, the title translates into — “The Map which shows the directions and through which ways the Aztecs emigrated to Mexico” Aztecs were a group of the indigenous peoples who occupied a majority of the territory of today’s Mexico. By this account, it is fair to state that this was one explorer’s observation of how the indigenous people lived and traveled in their land. However, one may be skeptical of Berghes’s perspective on these people’s reason for migrating.

In this following image of a map titled, “Mexico, Texas und Californien” by a German explorer, Heinrich Kiepert indicates the different locations of French and German colonies near Mexico. This is significant because it is a clear reminder to all that that which makes up today’s Mexicans ethnically, around the world and especially the United States, is not just Spanish and Aztec blood, but also German and French blood, as evidenced in the presence of these European explorers in these areas. These cultural encounters were written solely from the perspective of the European explorer’s eye. This blog analysis should aid in the modern Mexican and white-American community’s understanding of their ethnic diversity and similarities as a whole, in hopes of encouraging a more united attitude rather than a separatist attitude from both cultures in a time of political and racial turmoil.


Berghes, Carl de (1792-1869). 1832-1855. Beschreibung der Ueberreste Aztekischer Niederlassungen auf ihrer Wanderung nach dem Thale von Mexico durch den gegenwärtigen Freistaat von Zacatecas [manuscript]. [Manuscript]. At: Place: The Newberry Library. VAULT Ayer MS 1045. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, Accessed February 20, 2018.


Kiepert, Heinrich, 1818-1899. Mexico, Texas und Californien., map, 1847; Weimar. ( February 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting University of Texas at Arlington Library.

The history of the city, from the Celtiberian origin until today.” The history of the city, from the Celtiberian origin until today. – Ayuntamiento de Guadalajara. Accessed February 20, 2018.

Music as a Cultural Weapon: Indian Schools

Indian Schools were designed by the United States government to eliminate a threat of a generation of people whose predecessors they had slaughtered by assimilating them into the dominant Western culture. Part of this ‘Westernization’ was the role of music in the lives of the students.

This text from 1915 is a review of an Indian School in Pennsylvania that had been put in place to train them into the “American” culture. What is of note is the focus on music as a form of entertainment as well as education. Another example is this:


As can be seen in this other guidelines of an Indian School, music is a part of the total enculturation of the students. Music had become a cultural weapon with which the United States established it’s authority. Although it never explicitly states the institution’s intention to erase and replace an entire culture, this can still be seen in the rhetoric used. One can read at the bottom of the image that these student associations that management is required to “see that the true purpose of the associations is maintained.” For those managing the school, the true purpose was the study and practice of Western music.

Music in the Indian schools had to fall within the ‘Course of Study’ prepared by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who, in 1915 wrote “Music opens the way to a new world of joy.” but a sentence later explains this music must be “only good music” and then lists a series of operas and patriotic music to use.2

All of these examples set up the framework and intention behind the use of music in these institutions. Music was used as a two-pronged weapon to encourage assimilation. On the one hand, it did attempt to increase an appreciation of Western music because then the students would be less inclined to look elsewhere for that fulfillment. At the same time, it worked to ignore and eliminate the multitude of Native American cultures that had existed before it. This was necessary so these students would not have these other cultural practices that could define them and create a distinct identity separate from an “American” that could present a threat against the government.

Music and these schools were a part of the larger cultural narrative that encouraged the supremacy of Western culture over anything that had been produced by the indigenous people before it and created these schools to asset that. These Indian Schools were a powerful tool that used music as a way to eliminate a threat the US Government saw to its power.

1.Carlisle Indian Industrial School. 1915. Catalogue and synopsis of courses, United States Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle: Carlisle Indian Press. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed February 20, 2018].

2. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 1915. Tentative course of study for United States Indian schools. Prepared under the direction of commissioner of Indian affairs. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed February 20, 2018].

3. United States Indian Service. 1913. Rules for the Indian School Service, 1913 / Department of the Interior, United States Indian Service. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed February 20, 2018].

Misinterpretation in the Ghost Dance of 1890

Historically, most Americans lack a thorough appreciation of Native American culture. One way we can begin to understand this rich culture is through a study of Native American music, which often closely relates to culture and religion. One example is the Ghost Dance, a religious ceremony in which tribal members sing and dance on four consecutive nights. The songs include repeated chants (usually an a-a-b-b phrase) while members of the tribe dance enthusiastically in a circle. Included here is an  example of a Ghost Dance song from a tribe in the western Great Plains. It was recorded as part of James Mooney’s recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs in 1894.

Although specifics rituals and song patterns differ depending on the region or tribe, each Ghost Dance represents an intensely cultural experience during which “communal performance of song and dance” is the center piece of [the] religion” (Vander 113).

We now know and understand the elements of this dance, but there were (and still are) gross misconceptions about the meaning of the Ghost Dance. One letter from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota highlights this lack of appreciation for Native American culture. The letter, written in 1890, by John M. Sweeney, a white schoolteacher, is addressed to a U.S. Indian responsible for implementing federal policies on reservations. Sweeney echoes Chief Little Wound’s sentiments that the Ghost Dance is not a threat, and that U.S. troops are encroaching on the reservation with no justification. His letter asserts that the Dance will continue until Spring no matter the consequences.

Letter Excerpt #1 – John M. Sweeney dictating words of Chief Little Wound

At first, it appears that Sweeney is sympathetic towards the Native Americans, yet he later comments on the stubbornness of those who continue to dance. He notes that those who lead the ceremony are also those who refused to sign the Sioux Bill, a government-forced bill that reduced Sioux Reservation land mass, broke up tribes, and placed further restrictions on Native American groups (North Dakota Studies).

Letter Excerpt #2 – John M. Sweeney reflecting on Native American stubbornness

In fact, Sweeney speculates that this Ghost Dance was indicative of the Native Americans’ plan to revolt. He shows a blatant disregard for Native American culture. It acts as a real-life example of how tensions plagued relationships between the Native Americans and European immigrants. U.S. government fear that the Ghost Dance in 1890 was a threat led to the Battle at Wounded Knee, where approximately 300 Native Americans were murdered. This widespread misunderstanding ultimately carried forward through the recording of U.S. history.

The Ghost dance by the Ogallala Sioux at Pine Ridge Agency … Dakota / Frederic Remington, Pine Ridge, S. Dak.

Through the Ghost Dance, Native Americans connected to nature with expressive song and dance, hopeful that their spirits would restore prosperity and the Indian way of life. Historians now understand the cultural importance of musical ceremonies like the Ghost Dance. There is much to glean from this culture that can, hopefully, create a new understanding of ways in which historical biases have caused harm, and restore an appreciation for the rich culture of Native American peoples.

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Native American Dance and Music: A Dueling Struggling for Appropriate Representation

Music is a multifaceted art form that intersects with many other forms of expression and has both a creative and cultural importance to many Native American communities. One prolific intersection, especially in Native American cultures, that exists is that of music and dance. In some of the earliest entries from European explorers, their experience with native tribes comes hand in hand with music and dance.1 One of the issues we have talked about in class is the appropriation and misuse of Native American cultural practices. This is not an issue that exists solely in the realms of music and other object-like representations. Within many European cohorts “American” dance was seen as something exotic, a form of entertainment that was both culturally intangible to them yet consistently available for general consumption.2 Unlike with Native American songs the technology to record the movement of dance was not widely used until the 1950’s. This meant that the visual representations of dance, outside of live performances, was concentrated in the lens of photographers.

Emma B. Freeman was a popular American photographer during the late 1910’s.

Emma B. Freeman was one such photographer. Freeman’s work concentrated on stylized portraits of indigenous people, culture, and fashion. She was a relatively controversial artist in that she was not always consistent in her portrayal of specific tribes and groups of people.3 She would accidentally mix, match, and generalize certain aspects of the tribes she was studying. Music and dance were both subjects she played with at times, documenting ceremonial dancers lined up before a dance. She also introduced musical instruments into the portraits of unmoving patrons.

Dancers from the Hoopa tribe.

Members of the Klamath tribe preparing for the white deer skin dance.

Emma B. Freemen’s style idealized the Native experience and tokenized their appearance through objectification. This stands as an example of the balance between appropriation and preservation and shows just how complicated the intersection between art and representation can be.

1Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick, and Paul Beaudoin, Oxford University Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,

2Haines, John. 2012. “The Earliest European Responses to Dancing in the Americas.” U.S. Catholic Historian 30, no. 4: 1-20. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost.

3 Clark, Gus. 1991. “Emma B. Freeman: photographer romanticized, stylized Native Americans.” Humboldt Historian 39, no. 5: 5-10. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost.

The Grass Dance and Ankle Bells


From the accounts of early settlers and newcomers to America, from Judith Tick’s Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion we know that Native Americans used drums, flutes, canes, and rattles in their music.1 I have been to the Mahkato Association’s Pow Wow in Mankato, MN a few times and there was a certain instrument that was not only decorative to the attire, or regalia, of the Native American dancers but to the rhythm and beat of the music. Many of the dancers wore bells on their ankles to add an element to the dance or what is called the “Grand Entry”.

The ankle bells appear in the Grass Dance that has been passed down and is still performed and preserved today by many tribes originating from the Great Plains region.  According to the descendents of Omaha-Ponca and Dakota-Sioux tribes, this dance is so integral to these tribes today because “in an attempt to stabilize during a period of rapid cultural conversions by the United States government, it became important to both preserve and spread dances—including the merging of many tribal dances that formed what we now know as grass dance—to preserve indigenous unity.”2

3. Ojibwa Ankle Bells c.1900-1950

The bells in the Grass Dance, and other dances like the Grand Entry, help keep the rhythm with the beat of the music.2 These bells were often fastened to sheep skin and then tied to the ankle. These ankle bells can now today help represent the merge of tribes during a difficult time and the effort that has gone into preserving dances. The bells that appeared in the Pow Wow in Mankato are a part of an annual event that remembers and aims to reconcile the 38 lives that were lost as a conclusion to the Dakota War in 1862.

  1. Tick, Judith, and Paul E. Beaudoin. Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  2. ICT Staff. “Origins of the Grass Dance.” Indian Country Media Network. April 06, 2011. Accessed February 19, 2018.
  3. Peterson, Alfred. “Ojibwe ankle bells · Digital Public Library of America.” DPLA: Digital Public Library of America. Accessed February 19, 2018.
  4. Mahkato Wacipi. Accessed February 19, 2018.

Lead Belly and folk music

This video shows John Lomax collecting songs in the Louisiana from a black prisoner named Lead Belly. This video is a good representation of part of what went into collecting and preserving folk music. We also get a good look at the differences in power and how race plays into that.

John Lomax is known for his work in the field of folk musicology, and we can be grateful for his work. The Lomaxes have been recognized for their contributions. John Lomax influenced the repertory of folk music that helps define American folk music, and he also helped establish Leadbelly who, along with other artists, helped pave the way for future artists and genres such as rock music. Yet, it is important to remember the way in which the Lomaxes impacted folk music. Their goal was not only to preserve, but to popularize folk music, too. They specifically picked songs that matched this agenda. Once they were recorded, they were preserved and created into a history by design.

Once Lead Belly was released from prison, he continued working with the Lomaxes in order to advance his career outside of prison. Lomax’s praise of Lead Belly’s songs, can be heard in the video; “I never heard so many good negro songs.” Yet, Lomax often presented a romanticized view of the hardships that African Americans went through. Lomax made sure that Lead Belly would perform in his prison uniform, even during the time after his release. Lead Belly was also advertised as being dumb and violent, despite his gentle nature. The Lomaxes were able to get away with presenting a kind of folk music that they thought would beat the commercial tendencies of the time at the expense of black folk artists like Lead Belly.

“Leadbelly” in March of TimeVolume 1, Episode 2 (New York, NYHome Box Office1935, originally published 1935)

Filene, Benjamin. “”Our Singing Country”: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past.” American Quarterly 43, no. 4 (1991): 602-24. doi:10.2307/2713083.

Birth of Jazz

In the March of Time archives has a short video entitled Birth of Swing. The makers of this video trace swing back to around 1917 when the Dixieland Jazz Band was formed. The narrator explains that swing music has become extremely popular at the time of its creation (1937) and dives into the history of it. The video tells the story of a Victor Talking Machine (a brand of record player) music scout visiting a cafe where the pianist was playing a “kind of swinging music.” In response to being asked what his band’s name was, the pianist replied “Dixieland Jazz Band.” The scout decided to bring them from New Orleans to New York City to the recording studio. Since then they became extremely popular across the United States. This was when jazz started to become a term commonly used in the popular music idiom. Somewhere over the course of time between then and 1937, the term jazz however, had received negative connotations as a lowly, cheap kind of music and therefore was undesirable by white audiences. A simple marketing strategy to change the word on albums from “jazz” to “swing” enabled the popularization and dissemination of the music all throughout the country. And so during the days of the production of the video swing one of the most popular music genres in the country. Swing music, it gets concluded, was simply jazz music from an earlier period in American History.

Birth of Swing. Produced by Home Box Office. 

Louis Armstrong – Music, Meaning, and Marijuana?

Louis Daniel Armstrong, born on August 4th 1901, has always been a staple of 20th century Black music. Growing up, he was constantly referenced as a musician, both a trumpeter, vocalist, as well as composer. His life may have seemed to be glamorous as ever, but he lived his life not without struggles, some struggles that many of us can only pale in comparison to.

Louis Daniel Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was abandoned by his father and rarely was ever in contact with his mother during his early years. He primarily raised himself growing up in a ghetto in New Orleans. He survived in those early years by singing on the street corner for tips. When he was 11, he formed his first vocal quartet, this became his source of income for this time. In January 1913, Armstrong was sent to the Colored Waifs Home after firing a gun in public. It was at this home that he joined the school’s band, playing drums. After being a part of the group, he found he was more attracted to horn instruments, so he switched to the trumpet, which is how we primarily know him as today.

During this time he was able to continue his music and get a piece published. His first public work was titled “I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate’ which was a moderate success. He continued to grow his musicianship by joining an orchestra, even though he was unable to read music still at this time. He kept up with his composing and began to record Jazz Albums in 1924/1925. Armstrong was able to influence jazz, blues, and rock vocalists alike. Predating rap, his scat style later peaked with the piece “Basin Street Blues.”


Sometime during the 1920’s, Armstrong was introduced to marijuana by white jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, Armstrong enjoyed smoking it heavily throughout his life, this is one contributor to the calm, cool demeanor that we know him by today. By 1929, Armstrong took a more commercial route, singing more popular tunes and replacing his combo with that of larger orchestras. Armstrong was always much more a featured soloist than a bandleader.


In 1934, Armstrong severely damaged his lips, so while he kept his playing to a minimum, his preference to singing took the centerpiece for his career.

Armstrong was considered an innovator for his styles, predating rap, as well as in the early 1940’s, Armstrong predicted the fall of a larger band style and began to work back to his smaller combos. He was one of the first Black musicians to “Break the Color Barrier” by performing in the largest concert halls all over the world. It is his career that defines him as an important figure.

Armstrong was considered an innovator for his styles, predating rap, as well as in the early 1940’s, Armstrong predicted the fall of a larger band style and began to work back to his smaller combos. He was one of the first Black musicians to “Break the Color Barrier” by performing in the largest concert halls all over the world. It is his career that defines him as an important figure.

Arguably his most popular number, Armstrong has held his position of international fame with the recording of the song “What a Wonderful World”. This song speaks to the good things and the joys in this world, focusing less on the negative, he attempts to paint a picture of the beautiful things that can still be found on this planet. While the initial release of this song wasn’t immediately popular, it wasn’t until after his death where this song really found its popularity in the 1988 Robin Williams movie “Good Morning, Vietnam”


Talveski, Nick. “Louis Armstrong.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2017.

What a Wonderful World. August 7, 2016. Accessed November 14, 2017.

It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Idealized Swing)

The video series The March of Time was shown from 1931-1951, and provided Americans with a subjective take on current affairs or history. It reached a large amount of the American people, and “informed” many on issues they otherwise might be ignorant to. The video segment I will be focusing on is titled the “Birth of Swing”, published in 1937. To trace the history of any one branch of jazz is a difficult task, and it is all too easy to romanticize the story. Unfortunately, The March of Time does exactly that. However, the video does provide insight into one narrative that was widely disseminated on the origins of swing music. I would encourage you to watch the full, seven minute video here.

The popularity of swing music is undeniable, and The March of Time certainly addresses this. But not all swing is created equal. Swing music is described as being “accepted at Manhattan’s ultra-formal Rainbow Room” and “is indispensable at dark Harlem’s hot and noisy Savoy”. This fits into the picture painted by other musical accounts as well. To white audiences, as well as some champions of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz was music that had to be lifted up to a higher state and accepted by systems that previously would have turned from it.

Swing music as presented in “sophisticated” clubs like the Rainbow Room.

Swing music as presented in “dark” Harlem.

Ultimately, the video concludes that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band not only contributed to jazz idiom, but also was the foundation for swing music. This conclusion is not inherently flawed, and certainly has convincing evidence. Yet the context in which it is examined has some significant flaws. The narration states that “In England, Oxford students form a Hot Club. Members seek to determine whether this new music originated with the African or the Indian.”

The verbiage of “the African” and “the Indian” point towards an inherent bias in viewing those people as “other”. Arguably a third option should be included, one called “the white American”. Instead, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band becomes the savior of a sort. No, white Americans don’t need to worry about the popular swing style as coming from “the African or the Indian”. One can be perfectly comfortable enjoying the civil music developed by a group of white musicians for a respectable audience.


Birth of Swing. Produced by Home Box Office.

The Depression’s Effects on American Concert Life

During the Depression, American concert life survived on patronage, but that was hardly enough to keep them afloat because potential audiences didn’t have the financials to attend live performances. Audiences turned to radios to listen to orchestras and the invention of sound film eliminated the need for silent film orchestras. The first half of the Depression left about 70% of all musicians unemployed, and the government was able to create the Federal Music Project to support these musicians. At its peak, the program employed 16,000 musicians and supported 28 symphony orchestras, creating more abundant access to music.

However, America’s post-Depression concert life thrived more than it had before. Thanks to the efforts of musicians during the Depression, concert halls were bringing in broader and larger audiences than ever before. The episode Upbeat in Music from Time Magazine’s The March of Time discusses America’s post-Depression concert life. One of the highlights of classical music’s growing audiences was the healthy state of 200 symphony orchestras (compared to the 28 government-backed orchestras of the Depression).

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment in concert music directly following the Depression years was the American Federation of Musicians’ efforts for royalties in 1943. Because the Depression put such an emphasis on radio broadcasts and recorded music, the AFM made a move to fully share the profits made from commercial use of recorded music. James Caesar Petrillo, AFM’s president, led these efforts; he demanded that royalties on classical recordings be paid to a union employment fund and forbade union musicians from performing for any recording company. Despite heavy public criticism, he was backed by 138,000 union members and they found success when all but the two largest recording companies of the time agreed to their terms. With the success of these efforts, the AFM used these funds for the advancement of live concert music.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Upbeat in Music. Produced by Home Box Office. 

Why “American” Music?

A poster from War time used as propaganda to rally spirits

What is the purpose of defining American Music? At least in our class setting, we have treated the desire to define American music as the intellectual endeavor to become an independent nation and establish a sense of musical nationalism separate from Europe. For example, jazz history is often narrated as a quest for an independent, truly American sound. Folklore has also been a source of inspiration; so many composers and musicians have drawn on folk music to establish an unprecedented sound.

Other than for pure enjoyment or education, music also plays an important role in politics and society in most, if not all cultures. Why is having a “national” sound so important? Was it to simply have pride in having a uniquely American sound? Or was it to become an independent nation not only politically, but also culturally? Because music is so prevalent in everyday life, it can be a positive or negative force.

In the newsreel series March of Time, one of the episodes, “Upbeat in Music,” shows just how powerful music can be on a large scale.

March of Time Series: Upbeat in Music episode 5

 In “Upbeat in Music,” music is being used as a rallying force to encourage people to go to war. It uses the “American” sound to evoke feelings of pride in the US and also excites people with a delusional image of war and what it means to serve your country. The narrator mentions many composers such as Gershwin and Copeland that represented the American spirit. In The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945, by John Bush Jones, he states that every song does its part in fighting the war.

Entertainment is always a national asset. Invaluable in time of peace it is indispensable in wartime . . . All those who are working in the entertainment industry . . . are building and maintaining national morale both on the battlefront and on the home front’’ ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Since music had such an influential role on society, and also in a sense worked in favor for the government, it had political power. How crazy is that? Because music had political power, there were people who desired to maintain that power. One way music was used as a political tool was through censorship. In Marie Korpe’s article Shoot the Singer! Music Censorship Today, she claimed that music had an important position in organizing political opposition or enforcement. For example, if a certain song relayed messages of rebellion, the government would ban it. Music had the power to evoke excitement, nostalgia, homesickness and many other feelings that could contribute to the productivity of the war.

The idea that music can be used for political or social advancement is not a novel concept. In the time of slavery, instruments were banned from slaves because they could be used as communication and songs to resist masters. The music itself was used to keep spirits up, and also regulate the speed at which they worked. Because this music aided slaves with their work, its use was encouraged because it proved to be useful to the slave masters. This is one example in which musical censorship was employed to control a group of people on a larger scale.

Music saturates society and everyday life much more than we realize. With the power that music can hold, it is necessary to be responsible in educating ourselves how it may affect people both positively and negatively.

Work Cited

Jones, John Bush. The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2006. 31.

Street, John. Popular Music 24, no. 1 (2005): 153-54.

Korpe, Marie. Shoot the Singer! Music Censorship Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005.

Upbeat in Music. Performed by March of Time . New York, NY: Home Box Office, 1943. Film. 2011.

John Lomax “saves” Lead Belly in promotional film

As I am researching the Lomaxes for my final paper and for future work this spring, I took this opportunity to look through March of Time for any evidence regarding Lead Belly and his interactions with John Lomax. I was not disappointed. In a video that Professor Charles Dill calls “disturbing,” Lomax and Lead Belly “recreate” their meeting and the story of their travels together through the Northeastern United States.

Image result for 1933 new york herald LEad bellyThe March of Time series on the whole appeared quite groundbreaking in the 30’s through 50’s, when it ran. The mini documentaries of March of Time tackled some uncomfortable topics like Nazi sentiment in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1938. Though today we might see this as a shining example of forward, positive thinking and challenging the public, the series also is a little strange – many of the videos there aren’t actual film, they are in fact recreations of events. Think of a worse version of the producers of “Survivor” re-filming the players’ dramatic moments.

The video in question regarding Lead Belly and John Lomax, titled “Leadbelly,” is a recreation of the meeting of Lead Belly and Lomax. It says that Leadbelly was released from prison (where he was being held on charges of murder) due to Lomax’s influence, and that Lead Belly was so grateful that he dedicated his life to following Lomax. In real life, however, Lomax and Lead Belly’s song for the governor had no influence on his release. The myth lives on, however.

More concerning than the false story, however, is the marketing of Lead Belly and the marketing of Lomax in the film. Lead Belly, in prison clothes, speaking of murder so openly, is a man in need of a friend. Lomax, the one who acts almost as Lead Belly’s conscience in the dialogue, appears not only as a friend, but as Lead Belly’s white savior figure. Follow this link to watch the video yourself (hopefully this will be available to embed on this page if I can get WordPress to cooperate).

This is not the only instance of the media portraying Lead Belly as a big, bad, convict. In the New York Herald, they title an article of Lomax and Lead Belly “Lomax Arrives with Lead Belly, Negro Minstrel; Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to do a Few Tunes Between Homicides.” 

I have a lot of words to describe my reactions to that heading but I can sum all of them up with an all-encompassing “yikes.” I believe that the Lomaxes, despite whatever intentions they had to the contrary, contributed to the othering of black folk music in the way they “introduced” black folk singers like Lead Belly to the general public and made them hit sensations. I look forward to further researching this in my work this semester and this coming spring.

Here is a Lead Belly spotify playlist, for reference to his work.



For more reading on this subject, see links below:

New York Times article 


“Southern Thoughts for Northern Thinkers”

In 1904, a musician and lecturer by the name of Jeannette Robinson Murphy published an unusual volume entitled “Southern Thoughts for Northern Thinkers,” in which she voices several complex and controversial opinions about black music in the American South.  Murphy, who grew up in the South, was intimately familiar with black spirituals and became well-known for giving lectures and demonstrations of spirituals to Northern audiences.  

Although her academic approach to teaching and preserving spirituals certainly demonstrates her respect for the spiritual-singing tradition, she also exoticizes black music in a way that is deeply problematic, especially when viewed through a modern lens.

The opening paragraph of Murphy’s text reveals the deep respect she has for black spirituals.  She writes:

“Fifty years from now, when every vestige of 

slavery has disappeared, and even its existence has become a fading memory, America, and probably Europe, will suddenly awake to the sad fact that we have 

irrevocably lost a veritable mine of wealth, through our failure to appreciate and study from a musician’s standpoint the beautiful African music, whose rich stores will then have gone forever from our grasp”

Modern-day readers may scoff at Murphy’s naivete in believing that slavery will be quickly forgotten, but it seems to me that her basic impulse is praiseworthy: she is arguing that African-American music is rich and beautiful, and that it is worthy of musicological study and preservation.  Later on in the same chapter, she goes on to condemn blackface minstrelsy.  Calling minstrel songs “base imitations” of African music, she insists that “the white man does not live who can write a genuine negro song.”

Despite her making several laudable arguments, Murphy still ends up voicing some seriously racist opinions about black music, at one point describing its melodies as “strange, weird, untamable [and] barbaric” but with a “rude beauty and a charm.” These exoticist statements make it difficult to endorse Murphy as any sort of progressive figure.   In her writing, she simultaneously endorses black music and demonstrates a perverse fetishization of black culture.  Although it may be tempting to try to read her work as simply an anti-racist text that champions black spirituals as important musics that are worthy of study, the truth seems to be far more complicated than that.



Murphy, Jeanette Robinson. “Southern thoughts for Northern thinkers.” New York: Bandanna Publishing, 1904.  America’s Historical Imprints, accessed Nov. 15 2017.

Sexism in 1940s Night Clubs

Screen Shot from March of Time “Night Club Boom”







March of Time, in 1946, did a feature on the boom in night clubs in the United States. For relevant numbers, March of Time cites that there were 70,000 nightspots in the U.S. is 1946. In the central hub of night clubs in the 40’s, New York was home to several thousand of that number.

Clearly nightclubs were prevalent in society, so the roles that employees took in such spaces may reasonably reflect the standard across the U.S. at that time. It is incredibly striking how much March of Time emphasizes the various important role’s that females play in nightclubs. However, is is equally disappointing to see the women constantly referred to as objects for monetary gain.

The documentary starts by describing the various jobs at a nightclub. Once the narration moves past the roll of the door-man, they come to the job of the coatroom or “checkroom girls.” The narration describes that

In most clubs, the checkroom girls are hired at a fixed salary by an outside concessionaire. He picks them for the kind of personality that will attract tips and everything they collect goes into their employer’s box, which is securely locked.

The rhetoric implies a distrust to these girls, and emphasizes that their social interactions are strictly for monetary gain. Certainly, it would not have hindered the narration to indicate the useful service that these women provided for the nightclub.

In contrast to these women, the head waiter does not need to put his money in a lockbox to give to the employer. Rather, the head waiter is seen dealing with thrifty costumers by putting them at poor tables until they tip him generously. On screen, the costumer is seen giving the head waiter a $5 bill to change seats. This was drawn in direct opposition to the checkroom girls who received a half-dollar and needed to put it in a check box immediately.

This March of Time documentary short was meant as an education tool for those who did not go to nightclubs to understand their “social order.” The depictions in this documentary continue to label the women in the nightclub business as objects to be examined and payed according to their visual aesthetic while labeling the men in the nightclub business as individuals who grant a service. This, of course, reflects the social attitudes of mid 20th century America. Nevertheless, it is valuable to examine and take note of such subjugating examples because patriarchal attitudes certainly have not died out by the year 2017.

The value of this documentary short, specifically for american music, is its emphasis on nightclub culture. In the postwar era, genres such as bebop was born in late night club sessions (after the patrons would leave), but most of the music being played was dance music. The music itself is mentioned a number of times as an important key to success for any nightclub, but the individual musicians are never mentioned.  This attitude toward musicians views them as providing a function service (much as how the checkroom girls are presented). These social situations are what provided the motivation for beboppers to focus their music on their own personalities.

One of the most prevalent clubs in Harlem was the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played frequently. Although Duke was not mentioned in the video, his music was played throughout. Therefore, I have left a song here for you to enjoy.


Works Cited

Night Club Boom

in March of Time, Volume 12, Episode 8 (New York, NY: Home Box Office, 1946, originally published 1946), 21 mins 

John Lomax as Creator in the Narrative of Leadbelly

John Lomax recording Leadbelly singing and playing guitar at Louisiana State Penitentiary

Huddie Ledbetter, or more widely known as Leadbelly, remains to this day as one of the most significant blues musicians of the 20th century, sparking inspiration in countless musicians throughout the past century like Bob Dylan, Little Richard, and Brain Wilson. His iconic singing voice and guitar playing have also been key in defining for many people a truly American “folk” music. This association as a significant music for American identity, however, did not happen by chance or solely due to Leadbelly’s virtuosity and musicianship. John Lomax, the American folk music collector, is responsible for the first recordings of Leadbelly, which happened when Lomax was visiting American prisons in search of “unadulterated” American folk music. The story of Leadbelly and Lomax’s intermingled careers is told in the March of Time episode titled “Leadbelly,” showing their first meeting and recordings at the Louisiana State Penitentiary where Leadbelly was serving time, as well as further into Leadbelly’s career and how Lomax was largely responsible for Leadbelly’s success, taking him around the country to colleges, concert halls, and to Lomax’s own home in the North. While the short film’s focus seems to be a celebration of the musicianship and career of Leadbelly, John Lomax’s immense influence on the narrative of Leadbelly seems to overshadow the musician himself.

The film’s awkwardness seems to come not only from the fact that Lomax and Leadbelly both seemed to be following a script to reenact their meeting and interactions together, but also from the relationship between the two that the film depicts. Specifically, it is hard to ignore the issue of race here, as the film seems to depict a sort of idealized version of a master/slave relationship. The way Leadbelly is shown to have begged to be Lomax’s “man” and his referring to Lomax as “boss” and “sir,” as well as Lomax presenting himself in a way that makes him to be the hero of the story for taking in the underprivileged minority, all give the film a tone that feels problematic, though this may be a product of viewing such a film in the 21st century.

The importance the film places on Lomax is, however, appropriate in a way that was perhaps not intended. The creation of a national identity through the folk music of particular black musicians uninfluenced by commercial music of the time was a deliberate act by John Lomax, scholar Benjamin Filene claiming that the Lomax brothers were “creators as much as caretakers of a tradition” (Filene 604). Essentially, what became known as true American folk music was shaped by people like the Lomaxes’ own visions of what that means. Viewing this film under such a lens perhaps makes John Lomax’s significance within the film make a tremendous amount of sense, even though it may take away from the incredible musician that is Leadbelly himself.

Link to the film

Works Cited:

Filene, Benjamin. “‘Our Singing Country’: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past.” American Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 602-624.

N.A. “Leadbelly.” March of Time, Vol. 1, Ep. 2, Home Box Office, 1935.


Charles Ives’ Modernism

Though Charles Ives has gained a reputation of being one of the most private and mysterious

Charles Ives

American composers, through his many verbose writings about his own music as well as his correspondence with other musicians and publishers, many insights can be found about his unique musical processes and his own feelings about his music’s place within the larger musical world.

In particular, a letter from Ives to Franco-American pianist and composer E. Robert Schmitz from 1923, found in Selected

E. Robert Schmitz, Franco-American pianist and composer

Correspondence of Charles Ives, addresses Ives’ relationship with his own music and his interest in a modernist musical drive. The letter is in reference to an article by Ives featured in the bulletin published by Schmitz’s Franco-American Music Society about the use of quarter-tones. He writes about some parts of the article that were omitted that he decides “would probably be better left in,” parts that he feels would “bring out more fully the underlying idea that the use of quarter-tones is but one of the ways by which music may be less encaged by some of the restrictions of custom and habit” (Ives 143). This alone to me shows an interest by Ives in the ability of music to break free of norms and push forward out of tradition, an interest shared by many composers during this time in the early 20th century.


Ives, Charles. Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives. Edited by Thomas Clarke Owens, University of California Press, 2007.


Let me begin this post by apologizing for where I’ve acquired my artifact of the week. The assigned library to dig through was the Halvorson Music LIbrary, but while browsing St. Olaf’s Catalyst I found a book that I feel would be too valuable to our learning and the theme of this course not to write a post on. The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters by Jeffrey Ogbonna Green Ogbar is an amazing resource for anyone interested in looking at the Harlem Renaissance as a time period, or simply a person who wants to look at African-American identity and racial tensions in the United States in the 20th century. The book is made up of single chapters written by many different authors in order to cover a wide variety of topics and give readers a comprehensive view of the many different ways to view the problems addressed. The author divides these chapters into five different sections: Aesthetics and the New Negro, Class and Place in Harlem, Literary Icons Reconsidered, Gender Constructions, and Politics and the New Negro. Ogbar writes in his introduction of the book:

“This volume brings together fresh perspectives from recent scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance. Although it covers only part of the story, it asks again what the Harlem Renaissance was all about, especially in terms of its major figures and its arts, letters and political landscape.”

I would highly recommend to anyone looking into any related topics for their papers to visit this book as a potential resource as there are many different scholarly voices present and though music isn’t the primary focus of this book, it does touch upon popular figures such as Gershwin and Ellington, but more importantly, as is written in the introductions, the book articulates the major figures of the time as well as the political landscape in which a lot of the music we’re studying was written and produced.

Ogbar, Jeffrey Ogbonna Green. The Harlem Renaissance Revisited : Politics, Arts, and Letters. Baltimore [Md.]: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Copland’s El Salón México

This letter from Leonard Bernstein was sent to Aaron Copland in October of 1938. The letter was written in response to Copland’s El Salón México.

It is important to note the effect that Copland’s piece had on Bernstein and how it reflects views of music during the time. One of the first things that Bernstein mentions is how Copland’s music got stuck in his head. He is also able to easily notate the opening theme of El Salón México. This goes to show that Copland accomplished music writing that was simple enough to be remembered, and he incorporated themes that would recognizable.

Bernstein acknowledges that he admires Copland’s work and calls him a “master in America.” Copland’s simplified style of this time period is well-known as Copland’s own sound as well as an American sound. Copland was working to move contemporary composition from appealing to a select few towards appealing to the masses. It seems that Copland accomplished this with the success of El Salón México and other works. In fact, Elizabeth B. Crist argues that Copland’s El Salón México was able to project political ideologies onto the concert public.

Crist acknowledges that, the ideological dimensions of Copland’s works have been generally lost within the music’s enduring success, obscured by the legacy of anticommunist historiography and its formalist reification of art.” Bernstein focuses on Copland’s technique and the “solid sureness of that construction.” This makes me wonder more about Copland’s other non-musical intentions.

A recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting Copland’s El Salón México:


Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Crist, Elizabeth B. “Aaron Copland and the Popular Front.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 56, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 409–465.

Pollack, Howard. “Copland, Aaron.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 7, 2017,

Simeone, Nigel, ed. The Leonard Bernstein Letters. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.

Copland’s Inspiration and Fears for El Salón México

Schaal, Eric. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 06, 2017.)

Copland and Chávez

In a letter to Mexican composer/conductor Charlos Chávez, Copland wrote “I am terribly afraid of what you will say of the Salon Mexico–perhaps it is not Mexican at all and I would look so foolish,” which shows his concern regarding appropriation. He may have gone ahead with orchestrating and publishing the piece, but he was well-meaning in the same way that Dvorak was with his New World Symphony. Some differences here are that Copland interacted mostly as a tourist in Mexican culture and drew on more accurate sources for Mexican folk melodies.

Copland’s October 1934 letter to Chávez

In addition, Copland published The Story Behind My El Salón México in the quarterly journal Tempo. He discusses that the music he heard during his two summers in Tlaxcala, isn’t what inspired this piece as much as the spirit of Mexico, specifically regarding “their humanity, their separate shyness, their dignity and unique charm.” He, like many other composers writing in this style, relied on the use of folk melodies, but his goal was never to quote them directly, instead choosing to heighten without falsifying the natural simplicity of the songs.

On the subject of whether this was good or bad appropriation, I would argue that this was good appropriation because of his genuine approach to the piece; Copland never claimed or exploited Mexican folk traditions. Additionally he was aware of his position as a white man composing in a Mexican style (even calling himself a gringo) and was completely taken aback by the support that he received from the Orquesta Sinfónica de México (who premiered the work with Chávez in 1937). The group viewed his composition as a foreigner finding their melodies as worthy in the world of Western repertoire which gave him affirmation regarding his fear that the piece would be perceived as a foolish attempt of claiming Mexican culture.

Crist, Elizabeth B. and Wayne Shirley. The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Copland, Aaron. “The Story Behind My El Salón México.” Tempo, no. 4 (1939): 2-4.

Copland, Aaron. Letter from Aaron Copland to Carlos Chávez, October 15, 1934. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 07, 2017.)

Schaal, Eric. Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. , . Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 06, 2017.)

Duke Ellington’s, Music is my Mistress

“My favorite tune? The next one. The one I’m writing tonight or tomorrow, the new baby is always the favorite”    -Duke Ellington

The opening words from Duke Ellington’s autobiography: Music is my Mistress. This autobiography was considered by Duke to be “more of a performance than a memoir”. Ellington never wanted to write an autobiography about himself, and he hasn’t. Divided into 8 separate acts (or sections) this book is an account of the people he has met, the experiences he has had, and the music that he has made throughout his life.

Duke Ellington

Ellington was born just before the turn of the 20th century in Washington D.C. and raised primarily in New York city. With a career spanning over 50 years, Ellington is considered to be one of the most influential Jazz composers of all time. Being a pianist, composer, and bandleader, Ellington primarily gained fame with his orchestra’s performances in the Cotton Club in Harlem as well as the touring of Europe. He was an essential figure in the world of Jazz by redefining what was considered to be American Music. He considered himself an American Composer, not simply a composer and performer of Jazz music. Having over 1000 cataloged works, Ellington has certainly made his mark on history.

One particular correspondence that I feel really draws the character of Ellington was a passage describing Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Ellington does on to describe how it was working with these 3 men and how privileged he felt. It is a real glimpse into the humble person that was Duke Ellington.

“The only time I had the privilege of working with John Coltrane was a record date… John Coltrane was a beautiful cat, I am proud to say that I loved every minute of it”

Works Cited

Ellington, D. (1973). Music is my mistress (1st ed., African American music reference). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Florence B. Price

On June 15th, 1933, Florence Price made history: the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor, making her the first African-American woman composer to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

This work, originally subtitled “Negro Symphony,” draws on many of the stylistic traits of African-American folk music without ever explicitly quoting folk melodies;  instead of writing symphonic music around a 12-bar blues or a spiritual tune, as did many of her contemporaries, Price instead incorporates some of the harmonic and melodic elements of blues and spirituals into her own unique voice.  The resulting composition is strikingly original.

Despite the high quality of her music, Price had difficulty attaining performances of her work.  In a 1943 letter to Sergei Koussevitzky, she explains the manifold struggles she faces as both a female composer and a composer of color:

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, frothy, lacking in depth, logic, and virility.  Add to that the incident of race – I have Colored blood in my veins – and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position”

In the remainder of the letter, Price asks Koussevitzky to consider one of her compositions, insisting that he make “no concession” on the basis of race or sex, but rather evaluate the score on its musical merit alone.  Despite receiving many such letters from Price, Koussevitzky never programmed a single one of her works.

The underrepresentation and erasure of Florence Price continues to the present day: after searching several databases, I found that there is only one recording of the Symphony in E minor that is readily available to the public.  Scholarly research on Price’s life is also relatively sparse, with the writings of late musicologist Rae Linda Brown existing as some of the only works that honor Price’s life and pay homage to her music.  The conspicuous silence surrounding Price in scholarly and musical discourses clearly illustrates the racist and sexist systems that ceaselessly oppress female composers of color.  Performing, researching, and recording the music of these underrepresented composers is essential if we ever hope to dismantle these systems and construct a new musical landscape that truly offers equal opportunities for all people.


Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith. Temples for tomorrow: looking back at the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Price, Florence B. “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3.” Albany Records, 2011.


Father and Son

Mercer Ellington was the son of Duke Ellington. Mercer was born in Washington D.C. in 1919. It is fitting that Edward Kennedy Ellington had the nickname of “Duke,” (and for that matter perhaps Mercer should have been nicknamed the Earl) because their family became jazz royalty. Duke, a fantastic and prolific composer, brought a lot of attention from white audiences to the jazz community. Duke wrote an autobiography titled Music is My Mistress, and Stanley Dance also wrote a strong biography on Duke titled The World of Duke Ellington. In 1979, Mercer Ellington wrote Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir hoping to strike a balance between these two previous works on the Duke. Mercer said,

I should like to think that [this biography] sheds light on the relationship between father and son, and in such a way that each person can be seen as the other’s alter ego.

I value Duke Ellington in Person for the incredible insights it can give into the personal life that it can give on a figure steeped in a pre-written historical tradition.

If you are unfamiliar with the works of Mercer, it is perhaps because he continued on the Duke Ellington Orchestra after Duke passed away. Duke Ellington’s name went onto a lot of Mercer’s works, but here are a few great tunes to check out:

Duke Ellington in Person highlights, perhaps better than other sources, the racial tensions that Duke constantly dealt with in his career. In a section on Irving Mills, Duke Ellington’s front man for a number of years, Mercer discusses how Duke and Irving were both interested in reaching white audiences with their music. In the writing of the hit, “Mood Indigo,” the title of the song was manufactured for a clean reception. Mercer highlights the process when he states that Duke

originally titled it “Dreamy Blues,” which described its character; but the other title [of Mood Indigo] had a more sophisticated sound to the public of that era. Irving understood the importance of adding prestiege to the produce, almost, I would say, of packaging it. So did Ellington.

Anecdotes like these are incredibly important from Mercer’s perspective because they can help clear some of the tone behind the racial issues that Ellington dealt with on a daily basis. As you ponder this, I will leave you with several popular renditions of Mood Indigo. I hope you are able to view this piece within the context it was created.



–Brock Carlson

Works Cited

Ellington, Mercer, and Stanley Dance. Duke Ellington in person: an intimate memoir. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979.

Why 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence might just be about as American as music gets

While considering which art music composer to dive into this week, I became overwhelmed with the infinite details that envelope one of the course’s essential questions,

“What is considered to be true and authentic American music?”.

After nearly 2 1/2 months of research and lectures I still feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of what defines the American sound. Take MacDowell, for example, who felt that he was capturing the true essence of the American landscape by banking on the romanticized notion of the “dying” Native American tribes. Or Gershwin who, while successfully transcribing the musical idiom of jazz into a symphonic setting, borrowed extensively from traditional blues, folk, and jazz genres, creating pieces defined by a diverse and hazy collection of backgrounds and identities. Even artists practicing extended techniques, such as Henry Cowell, relied on East Asian influences amidst his tone clusters and “vanishing chords.”


This thought process ultimately led me to the year of 1952, where American experimental composer John Cage composed a piece of music entitled 4’33“. Equally famous as controversial, the piece centers around three movements (intended for any instrument or combination of instruments) that consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. While at a surface level this piece could easily be described as a joke (or even be seen as an early example of what the kids are now calling “memes”), I think that Cage’s intentions behind it could potentially bring the silent work to the forefront of that dreaded and loaded essential question.

Live Performance of 4’33”:

In a series of revised letters and interviews by Richard Kostelanetz, Cage introduces and defines the purpose behind 4’33”:

“You know that I’ve written a piece called 4’33” which has no sounds of my own making in it…4’33” becomes in performance the sounds of the environment.”

Rather than writing for the sake of originality, Cage composed a piece that does not will any sounds from the composer or the audience, ideally causing both to merely become observers of their surrounding environment. It exemplifies a motion towards the music found behind “nothing” and the acceptance of non-intentional sounds in an artistic setting. While other American composers, including the aforementioned, have borrowed and elaborated on musical elements from a diverse background of sound (often resulting in an unintentional act of cultural appropriation), Cage was the first American composer to create an artistic space that captures an “environment” of sound void of any racial or ethnic infringement.

This is not to say that Cage could consider himself free of any cultural breaches throughout his career (or that this component of composition is intrinsically negative), but 4’33” is an interesting example of a composer temporarily distancing themselves from that reality. Unfortunately, Cage himself deemed 4’33” an unsuccessful attempt at making a non-dualistic structured piece of music (as he created and determined certain set “bounds” of the piece), but it certainly is, if not anything else, a commendable example of how music listeners should take a step back from the world of symphonies and sonatas and enjoy the natural, indeterminate sounds of the world around them.


Joelyhberg. “John Cage’s 4’33”.” YouTube. December 15, 2010. Accessed November 05, 2017.

Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the sounded self: john Cage and the American experimental tradition. Univ. New Hampshire Press, 1998.

Once Upon a Time White Folk had a Small Falling Out With Native Americans, The End.

I would like to preface this by stating any criticisms to the article are not specifically directed at the author, as I believe it is a common mistake and something that we are currently all working on more, especially within newer discussions that have emerged recently.

In searching for a topic to write about for this blog post I was searching for something relating to Native Americans, as I’ve been focusing on that topic in my blog posts. I was having trouble finding sources as each article in the Manitou Messenger only had the word a couple times and the actual focus was not Native Americans. I found the word once or twice in each article used as a supporting fact but nothing more. I was going to try to find something else to research because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find enough information, when I realized that the lack of information I had found was the exact thing I needed. Where were articles on Native Americans? Why weren’t they ever talked about or discussed? Why have we, as “Americans,” generally effaced Native Americans from conversation and discussion?

I eventually found an article regarding the creation of Indigenous People’s Day vs Columbus Day. This article provided some good information about the importance of this type of change, especially considering that as people become more #woke Columbus day isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. Sure, he “discovered” America, but at the same time how can something truly be “discovered” if it’s already inhabited. I expected the article to provide some insight on this, but it almost seemed as though it was skirting around the subject. It did provide a small portion of the issue by stating

The American Indian culture has been repressed since America’s origins. They were torn from the land that was theirs for centuries and forced to live on Indian Reservations. As the demand rose from white settlers, pieces of that land were taken away until the enactment of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

On the other hand, while this statement is true and something we should focus on, I still feel that a 3 sentence excerpt on the issue at hand of the utter massacre of Native American’s doesn’t do the situation justice let alone respect. Massive groups weren’t simply told to move, which is an issue in itself, but were rather murdered and utterly erased from The Land of the Free. Simply skipping the fact that this happened isn’t doing anyone a favor as it’s a part of the history that we cannot ignoring. Ignoring it is almost just as sinful as disrespecting it, as it’s basically the same thing.

I found a vinyl of American Indian Music in the Southwest: Sound Recording, which provided a fascinating insight into recordings of some music that was passed down. Of course, I cannot be completely sure of the authenticity of the recordings, but it’s something that can still be studied alongside legitimate sources.

This sound recording is something that we would have possibly never been able to listen to had we completely and utterly effaced the existence of Native Americans. If we had ceased to have discussions and respectful learning, which often times it seems we are on our way to doing so, we would not have been able to learn about this culture that we mistreated so horribly in the past. Discussions like the Manitou Messenger had on Columbus Day, while it had it’s faults, are good in enlightening the folk around who are not aware of the issues. Discussion of current issues and movements as well as historical events are what we need to continue keeping our history alive. It’s not all pretty, and in fact some of it was a downright bloodbath, but we cannot pick and chose what we want to remember in our history.

Rhodes, Willard. “American Indian Music of the Southwest : Sound recording” (Folkways Records, 1951). Link

Haggstrom, Katie. “New indigenous peoples day challenges the status quo,” (Manitou Messenger, May 13 2014). Link


Did Everyone Like Jazz?

LP Album Cover. Rhapsody in Blue: the 1925 Piano Roll, Michael Tilson Thomas, Columbia Records, 1976.

One of the most notable compositions that comes to mind when ruminating on symphonicjazz is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924). Listen Here. In thanks largely to Paul Whiteman’s clever marketing as an “Experiment in Modern Music” and its premiere performance in a well-known venue, the Aeolian Hall, the piece was largely well-received by audiences and critics.1 Much of the praise for Gershwin’s work was that it encompassed what American’s wanted out of distinctly “American Music.” As Crawford points out, it encompassed three strands of development: blues as popular music, the spread of instrumental jazz, and a want for modernism in the classical sphere.2

As we’ve discussed in class, the perception of Gershwin’s music as uniquely American can be troublesome because to some it seeks to exploit and adjust music of cultures aside from Gershwin’s own for the profit of symphonic tastes. As Crawford also points out, it was certainly not the first to present black dance music or jazz in concert settings although many think it to be so simply because the previous works by composers like Will Marion Cook or W.C. Handy are less well known simply because of their minority in that era’s society.3

Manitou Messenger, Feb. 14, 1933.

A story that’s less-often told is that some people really did not enjoy “Rhapsody in Blue” or jazz elements in general. When exploring writings on jazz, I came across an article from our very own campus paper, The Manitou Messenger. Interestingly, an article from 1933, nine years after the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” conveyed stern opposition to jazz band at St. Olaf saying “jazz is profanity in music.”4

“Many…students who aspire to and cherish the higher things in life despise this type of music.”5

Is this negative reception of jazz a sign of the times at St. Olaf in the 1930s? It seems pretty forthright, which at first lead me to think there was room for anti-jazz, conservative thinking on campus at the time. However, in the publication later that month, another student wrote an opinion article which countered that the former article “was of very little consequence” and “hardly worthy of a serious reply.”6 This author claimed that this jazz band nay-sayer was fueling the fire that the college was attempting to paint itself as heavily religious.

Manitou Messenger, Feb. 28, 1933.

“Why be afraid to admit St. Olaf is not a monastery?”7

Interestingly, both authors simply signed their articles with their first initial leaving some room for anonymity. Although we don’t know who these students sharing their opinions were, what they were studying, or where they are now, we do know that responses to jazz were not all in loving favor.

1 Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 573.

The Forgotten Great

Thelonious Monk is referenced in 5 Manitou Messenger articles. In each, he is referred to as a “great” or treated as a hallmark of sound to which campus bands strive. However, he was not always well known. For years, Monk’s cabaret card was revoked because of a narcotics charge. This meant that Monk could not play in any club in New York that served alcohol, which was all of them. But instead of giving up, Monk sat in his room and practiced.

When Monk finally got another break, it was 16 years later. He had been left behind and was no longer considered a forefather of “modern music,” which would become bebop. The reason Monk made it back into the mainstream was largely due to a favorable review by jazz critic Nat Hentoff (who just passed away this last January). With his comeback, Monk started recording for Riverside Records. The St. Olaf Library had Monk’s 10th album with Riverside on vinyl. It is Five by Monk by Five.


The rhetoric is that of a lost opportunity for Monk, with his review saying that he “has only in the past few years begun to receive the general acclaim he has long deserved.” However, the rest of the album review praises Monk’s intellectuality. The liner notes suggest that Monk’s two new compositions for the album were fresh. However, there is even more emphasis on the fact that Monk’s three older songs do not lack ingenuity with their rediscovery of “his own neglected earlier material.” In fact, Monk is praised for his approach to each recording session, “regarding each as a fresh challenge and a fresh opportunity to speak his mind.” You can hear such ingenuity for yourself in this Spotify playlist of the album.

Monk certainly was to become known as a musician who speaks his mind. Five by Monk by Five was recorded in New York on June 1st and 2nd in 1959. In just 9 months time ,the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins would occur. Monk and his friends would get together (normally an apolitical group), and hold a benefit concert to support the sit-ins (Monson). Monk, however, had always been pouring his voice into his music. Here is a youtube vide to demonstrate what the lunch counter sit-in meant to the individuals who started it.

I can only imagine to someone like Monk, who had been put out of his career for several years due to issues surrounding racism and segregation, would have felt being around these brave people. I encourage you to go back to the 1959 recordings on the above Spotify playlist and listen to the stories and experiences Monk’s quintet screams into the music. Even when he tried, Monk could not be completely apolitical, because his work was nothing but intellectual.

Works Cited

Monson, I. T. (2010). Freedom sounds: civil rights call out to jazz and Africa. New York: Oxford University Press.

History channel Website on the  Greensboro sit-ins.



Judd group takes on Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, and Skoglund Auditorium

What on earth could Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, and St Olaf all have in common?The band “Judd.” The Judd Group found popularity in the 1970’s with their original songs and covers of the music of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. They toured for 10 years, had two hit singles, and opened for Lynard Skynyrd, The Beach Boys, and Tina Turner. A group of a few white, midwestern young men, their sound, which infused black music traditions into their rock sound (such as blues, soul, jazz, and folk), stands as a hodge podge representation of more popular bands of the time.

Article on Judd by S. Crumb in The Manitou Messenger (1916-2014), No. 8, Vol. 91, November, 1977

On Sat., Nov. 12th, 1977, Judd played a gig at St. Olaf College in Skoglund Auditorium. As the equivalent of the current St Olaf MEC fall concert, it was quite an event. Their covers of the Doobie Brothers’ “It keeps you Runnin” and Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam” were well received.The Manitou Messenger covered the group and praised their playing and overall entertaining.

They drew inspiration from Steely Dan’s incorporation of jazz into rock, and from the Doobie brother’s use of folk and later soul music into their work. These groups all help represent a movement from the 60’s and 70’s of incorporating black music genres into rock music. As we can see, this movement was quite popular, and I think we should consider the implications from this.

Since popular rock bands incorporated certain genres in their sound, they essentially bridged a gap between their sound and genres often associated with black Americans, like jazz, soul and blues. They labelled themselves as “folk rock” – but more accurately, it was “black folk rock” – though it was more often than not sung by white musicians.

This could be seen as a good thing – a way to expose these genres (which admittedly had exposure already from plenty of other white performers and POC’s) to a crowd which was perhaps more concerned with rock and newer genres. However, I believe that it also helped erase some of those older black folk genres and create impressions of these genres that weren’t necessarily true.

In the Manitou Messenger article above, for example, the reviewer refers to the percussion of the Judd group as “Latin” inspired, but on listening to examples of the group’s work from their website, it isn’t “Latin” inspired at all – the reviewer falsely attributed a different (but also marginalized) culture to the music because they weren’t familiar enough with the black folk genres they were hearing to tell a difference between that and something else. They perpetuated their stereotype of what they thought Latin percussion to be instead of relaying what actually was in the music. The video below shows the group performing some original works and covers, and here you can listen for yourself to hear the inaccuracies in the Manitou article.

While the Judd group is not quite popular enough to merit a space in the St Olaf vinyl collection, they do have records of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan – both of which I believe would be excellent additions to our exhibit as we explore the implications of white performers incorporating and appropriating black music genres into their works.


St Olaf owns vinyl of “Best of the Doobies,” which includes “It Keeps You Runnin'” and “Black Water”

While Judd’s work cannot be found at the St Olaf Library, I think that the records St Olaf does have of the Doobie Brothers could be a nice addition to our library exhibit here at St. Olaf. It would display a group that used black folk elements in their rock sound, like in “It Keeps You Runnin” and “Black Water,” where they incorporate blues and soul and say “like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand.” Particularly in “Black Water,” the pitch bending, dialect, and instrumentation all point to folk genres in the black tradition. I also think that this would accurately represent what St. Olaf Students at the time were listening to, and it would be nice to do a snapshot portion of the exhibit to look at St Olaf Student’s perception and reception of black folk music and its incorporation into rock.



Symphonic Jazz Opinions

This Manitou messenger article is a report on a talk given by a St. Olaf professor about jazz music. Even though the article is more of a report on what happened, it seems to be a good representation of students’ opinions and other opinions of the time because the author didn’t feel the need to argue against what this professor said.

It is clear that Overby doesn’t think that jazz music is “good.” The criteria that he sets up for this judgment doesn’t speak well for what jazz is, but it conveys the thoughts that show the well-established differences in popular and classical music. Overby claims that jazz has some goodness through the “modern school of composition.” Walter Damrosch’s view from around the time of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue reflects a similar claim. He argues that jazz is a very low form of art, but that a great composer could lift it up into something with more emotion.

So, Overby is saying that not all jazz is to be condemned. Yet, according to the views expressed in this article, jazz is only praiseworthy once it has been made into symphonic jazz. This goes back to the fact that many things get changed and appropriated to suit audiences so that the product can be acknowledged and respected. Often people validate their actions of appropriation by saying that it comes from a place of respect for the original, but did composers have to respect original jazz sources to begin with in order to use them? Paul Whiteman, known as “the King of Jazz,” called it primitive, which seems inherently disrespectful to me. His orchestra can be heard on this LP titled, “Jazz.” Most people can recognize that the nature of developments like symphonic jazz aren’t entirely favorable for everyone involved all the time, but it is important to reflect on this in order to apply modern issues of cultural appropriation.



Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Harrison, Max. “Symphonic jazz.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 31, 2017.

Oja, Carol. Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ramsey, Frederic, Jr. Jazz. The Blues Folkways Records FJ 2804, LP, 1958.