The Inescapable Theme in Music History

There are often trends throughout history that seem to take on a timeless role. In this instance, I am talking about colonialism. Whether it is researching about the cultural intersect of “New Spain” from in the 16th-18th centuries to the seemingly harmless independence of Cuba from Spanish rule- music always seems to do a superb job in representing ideologies and themes of the times that they were written in.

It turns out- after a deeper dive into the primary source I found (to my knowledge, for the very first time), I realized that this was the same exact source I used for my first blog post! I was deceived by the different cover, formatting, and last but not least- the mYstEriOusLy changed title. Do I have an explanation for this? No. But was I completely flabbergasted? You bet! This title cover was the first one that I looked into. I, at the time, could not find the music to this piece.1

Chas M. Hattersley, “Patriotic American Sheet Music.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience

To my surprise, this time around- I found not only the music to this piece but also a different printed version of it.2

Hattersley, Chas. M., Pond & Co., New York, 1873, monographic.- Library of Congress

Same composer and same lyrics- but different enough for a college music student to almost get stumped by two seemingly different songs. The difference in the title really caught my attention. In looking at the cover that says, “Free Cuba” in all caps, I, in my naive-ness, thought that this song seemed pretty harmless, looking through the words and realizing that this was America’s cry for Cuba’s freedom. A cry out of support and sympathy. But I found myself completely wrong when I looked more into the history of this song and what it pictured amidst the Spanish-American war. This was not a war to gain Cuba’s independence. This war was to transfer rule from one colonist country to the next. This song represents what the “Cuban independence” really meant to America, which can be summarized through the Platt Amendment3 that was enacted in 1901, essentially kept Cuba under the restrictive power of the United States.

W. McKINLEY CARTOON, c1900. American cartoon comment, c1900, on Uncle Sam’s seemingly insatiable imperialist appetite; waiting to take the order, at right, is President William McKinley.

Cartoon regarding the Platt Amendment: “The U.S. did not want the Spanish-American War to be seen as an imperialistic land grab for Cuba.” (

This song pictures the triumph that would take place for America, being able to take over what was another territory.

The representation of various historical events seen through music, as seen through my trial and error, has to be carefully examined and researched. There is no glossing over history and the colonial underlying themes that seem to bleed through history.

1 “Patriotic American Sheet Music.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021. Image. Accessed November 29, 2021.

2 Hattersley, Chas. M. Free Cuba; or, Uncle Sam to Spain. Pond & Co., Wm. A., New York, monographic, 1873. Notated Music.

3 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Platt Amendment.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 24, 2019.

Racial Uplift

In our class discussion on racial uplift during the Harlem renaissance, we talked about W.E.B Du Bois’ idea to uplift the African American race through highlighting the smartest and most educated Black people, who he called “talented tenth.” His idea relied on talented Black people to climb the social ladder and prove to white society that the race is just as capable of brilliance as white people. This applies to our class because the music of Du Bois’ time often reflected his ideas; European influences were a staple of music of the Harlem renaissance. Here is an example of French influence in Florence Price’s “Night,” sung here by countertenor Darryl Taylor.

However, some of Du Bois’ contemporaries had different ideas for racial uplift. Even before Du Bois published his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” Booker T. Washington had created a plan that emphasized racial solidarity and education through crafts and skills as well as academics. His plan was to highlight the necessity of regular African Americans in regular American society, rather than to highlight the talents of a few brilliant African Americans. (PBS)

When searching through African American periodicals, it is clear that scholars of the time had lots of different opinions when it comes to racial uplift. Here are a few examples (State Journal (1883), Freeman (1911), (Savannah Tribune 1913).


It is common for majority groups such as white Americans to see minority groups as a monolith, but the varying opinions of African Americans of Du Bois’ time remind us that like all groups of people, Black Americans did and continue to have a wide variety of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds.

Ma Rainey and the Greatest Interpreters of the Blues

While the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (or T.O.B.A.) had many high powered stars working on its circuit, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is one of the players that continues to resonate with popular culture today. August Wilson’s mid-1980s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the 2020 movie adaptation of the same work are just a couple examples of Rainey’s massive influence in the current media whirlwind. 


Yet, Ma Rainey’s influence was powerful even among her contemporaries on the T.O.B.A. circuit and her adoring audiences. Below are a couple of performance advertisements and reviews of Rainey’s work, which include nothing but glowing remarks regarding her artistry.

“Everybody is still talking about the glad rags that Ma Rainey displayed. She made about ump-teen changes and looked keener each time. Ma sang until she was out of breath, the audience called her back each time and she really did her stuff. She climaxed the deal by doing a ‘Paramount Black Bottom.’ This company is good enough far anybody’s house.”

“IN OLD KAYSEE.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jan 21, 1928.

“There are a number of performers singing the ‘blues,’ but when Ma Rainey sings them, nuff said. She has to take three or four bows every night.”

“Alexander Tolliver’s Big Show.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), January 29, 1916: 6. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Even a blurb from the Kansas Plaindealer speaks of her musical appeal transcending race: 

“‘Ma’ Rainey is widely known to both white and colored lovers of crooney melodies. She was selected after careful canvas to make phonographic records and also to sing on the radio. Her tones are distinctive and have that peculiar resonance characteristic of color singers.”

“‘MA’ Rainey.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) THIRTY FIRST YEAR, no. THIRTY SIX, September 6, 1929: [THREE]. Readex: African American Newspapers.


In an article published long after her death that details the horribly common instance of racism against African Americans across the United States, female journalist Yvonne Gregory writes about Ma Rainey’s extensive artistic reach on her musical contemporaries and her impact on blues music in general. 


In her fairly short article, Gregory manages to create a chronology of notable blues artists, which just happen to be women. She describes how Ma Rainey discovered Bessie Smith when she “heard the little girl sing and was so impressed with her voice and personality that she took her as a pupil and started her on her great career.” Then, the author says that this influence and mentorship continues to occur among African American women — even if less direct than the Rainey and Smith story. 

“Today it’s [] Mahalis Jackson’s gospel music; or it is Pearl Bailey singing ‘Tired of the life I lead, tired of counting things I need’; yesterday it was Bessie singing, ‘Down in the Dumps’; day before yesterday Ma Rainey sang ‘Backwater Blues.’ but yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the blues are an unbreakable thread in the life of our people and in the life of all Americans.”


              • Side note: I could not find a recording of Ma Rainey singing “Backwater Blues.” I could only find recordings of Bessie Smith singing the tune, because she is the composer. So, I’m not sure if Gregory made a mistake in attributing this tune to Rainey, or if the origin story is different from the commonly accepted one. 


At first, I thought the author’s mentioning of all women blues performers was accidental or merely common name associations. She connects performers that fall within this musical era through their similar sounds and stage personas, creating almost a mini-history of the genre.  However, she takes her brief blues music history a step further with a claim that “Negro women are among the greatest interpreters of this art form.”

Simply, this tidbit is exciting for a couple of reasons. First, Gregory’s analysis of this phenomenon in the world of blues music fits almost perfectly with our current mapping project of the T.O.B.A. circuit and the routes of its many powerhouse women performers. Second, even back in the 1950s, women saw the effect of not only Ma Rainey, but also the collective of African American women who contributed in pioneering the popularity of the blues music we know (and even love) today. Here, we see a unique instance of African American women being lifted up, even though the world around them wants to tear them down. Therefore, like Yvonne Gregory, I “look forward to the day that all the people will honor [these African American women],” and I hope that our mapping project will shine a light on some of these powerhouses that many today might not even know.

HBCU Marching Bands Take the Big Screen….Now the Stage

Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs) have been known for their marching bands for over a century. Marching band competitions flood most of the southern states throughout the marching band season with the big competitions such as Nationals and the Honda Battle of the Bands being greatly anticipated. It wasn’t until 2002 when Charles Stone decided to showcase HBCU marching bands and the culture that has been born from this musical community. The film is labeled as a drama, musical, comedy, and romance and features a young man from Harlem who joins a Southern university’s marching band but antagonizes the musical director and its leader. There is a coming-of-age element to the film as the young college student finds his way in college and the band.

Almost a decade later in 2011, a new version of Drumline came out for a different audience. Drumline was made into a theatre production.


When researching the culture behind black marching bands from HBCUs I was intrigued when coming across not only the Drumline Film but also the Drumline LIVE production. It is curious to note the audience that usually sits for a marching band performance and a football game is not usually an audience that would sit for a theatre production.  




Reading into a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Tribune on the year that Drumline Live came out as a theatre production it was clear that the production made quite an impact on the audience and was a surprising success.

“Drumline Live” is the brainchild of Atlanta native Don P. Roberts, a former Florida A&M University (FAMU) drum major who began his musical journey as a trumpeter. An educator who has served as the instrumental music coordinator of the DeKalb County School System since 1996, Roberts was recruited by “Drumline” producer Dallas Austin, an accomplished drummer who is also an Atlanta native, to serve as executive band consultant for the film.”

It was a booming success amongst HBCUs, BIPOC communities, musical communities, theatre-goers, and so many others. Roberts could not keep himself from boasting of the accomplishment that was Drumline Live.

“This show is absolutely the most dynamic, exciting theatrical production to come out in years. These are big words, but every time people see the show, they tell me I was right! I don’t think there’s anything that’s comparable, and I go to shows all the time. I feel like there’s some really good shows out there, but there’s nothing like us. We touch every emotion in your body. We’re going to make you sing, we’re gonna make you shout, we’re gonna make you cry, we’re gonna make you smile, we’re gonna make you laugh – we touch all of the emotions. You will totally be surprised by the things that you see in the show, and that’s one of the beautiful things about it.”

As I read through the newspaper clippings, looked further into the film and the comparison of the theatre production, one question kept coming to mind: Why this way? I do not have an answer for why these two avenues of art would be chosen to inform an audience of the culture of a HBCU marching band yet it was. What art forms are we using to spread knowledge of something that doesn’t seem like it should fit there?



Drumline Live. 2011-12-03. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, (Accessed November 24, 2021.)

Roberts, Kimberly C. 2011. “‘Drumline Live’ Thrilling Audiences.” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct 21, 6-7.






Capitalism and Minstrelsy in Print

A sample program from Haverly’s guide.

Blackface minstrelsy was the pinnacle of American entertainment for decades. In the early 19th century, white audiences and performers commodified and consumed Blackness by creating stereotypical characters. However, after the Civil War, minstrelsy evolved to remain relevant to the American public. I wrote in a previous blog post about how radio was minstrelsy’s medium in the 20th century. At the turn of the century, though, white troupe owners sought to keep minstrelsy relevant by a different medium: print.

J.H. “Jack” Haverly, a white show manager, is remembered by historians as minstrelsy’s most successful promoter.1 In 1902, Haverly published a guide to minstrelsy for aspiring performers. He offers advice on organizing a troupe, many suggestions for jokes and songs, and of course, advertising strategies. Continue reading

James Bland: The Most Famous Composer You Never Knew

A headline from The Pittsburgh Courier (a Black newspaper) in 1939. The article is a biography of James Bland and is a response to the possible adoption of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” as Virginia’s state song. Full page available here

TW: Racist descriptions of Black people

If you’re American, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of Stephen Foster. Even if you couldn’t write a dissertation on him, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard the name, or sung one of his famous songs, like “Oh Susanna”. But have you heard of James Bland? Like Foster, Bland made his fame as a minstrel composer and was major player in the industry in the late 19th and early 20th century, yet Bland is far less known today. The difference? James Bland was Black.

Bland was descended from a long line of free Black people (his father was educated at Oberlin College) and was born in 1854 in Flushing, New York. He was educated at Howard University. He was an extremely successful entertainer, having been part of many famous troupes, including as Sprague’s Original Georgia Minstrels and Callender’s Georgia Minstrels. And of course, he was also extremely successful as a composer. Though well known among those in the industry, Bland did not get the same recognition by the general public. He wrote over 700 songs, but only around 50 were published under his name. Some were even published under Foster’s, as Tom Fletcher, a contemporary of Bland, observed in his book 100 Years of the Negro Show Business:

“Both [Foster and Bland] flourished at the same time, during the early days of show business, but Foster’s friends and heirs kept his name before the public, a privilege Bland did not enjoy. The ideas of the two men on songs were very similar too, and very often a song written by Bland would be credited to Foster with whose name the general public was much more familiar.” (83)

Sheet music for “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” published in 1878

In fact, when “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was proposed as the state song of Virginia in the late 1930s, many believed the song was written by Foster, and, according to the Pittsburgh Courier, when it was discovered to have been written by Bland, a Black composer, the proposition was almost discarded. It wasn’t, however, and Bland’s song was the state song of Virginia from 1940 to 1997, when it was removed due to its racist lyrics which sentimentalize slavery and the Old South.

A recording of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” from 1916


James Bland in many ways encapsulates the tension inherent in bringing to light the accomplishments and successes of Black minstrel performers and composers in general. Many of Bland’s most famous works, like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, have lyrics that romanticize slavery. Black minstrels sometimes both literally and figuratively had to “black up”, or in other words, cater to the white imagination of what Blackness really was. But it’s important to note that Bland also composed antislavery songs like “De Slavery Chains Am Broke At Last”, and had his own voice and agency – he was not merely an imitation Stephen Foster. And also, minstrelsy was one of the earliest opportunities for Black entertainers, performers, and composers to start their careers, to make make money, and to make their voices heard. What’s more, minstrelsy is far from gone in American popular culture. Which begs the question:

So long as we remember Stephen Foster, shouldn’t we remember James Bland too?



Bland, James A. Carry me back to old Virginny. John F. Perry & Co., Boston, monographic, 1878. Notated Music.

Bland, James A, Orpheus Quartet, James A Bland, Josef Pasternack, Lambert Murphy, Harry Macdonough, William F Hooley, and Reinald Werrenrath. Carry me back to old Virginny. 1916. Audio.

Fletcher, Tom. 100 Years in the Negro Show Business. Da Capo Press. New York 1984.

Hullfish, William R. “James A. Bland: Pioneer Black Songwriter.” Black Music Research Journal 7 (1987): 1–33.





A Decolonial Examination of the Smithsonian

When the indigenous song collection group began our research, we found that the Smithsonian funded much of Densmore’s work. As I so clearly and forcefully lined out in my last blog post, I personally believe that Densmore’s work, funded by the Smithsonian, was a form of cultural colonialism. Much of my research here was inspired by the article “Decolonizing Ethnographic Documentation: A Critical History of the Early Museum Catalogs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History” by Hannah Turner.

Continue reading

Dispelling Common T.O.B.A. Myths

Myths. They’re nasty. They slow research. Given that my group for the final project is researching T.O.B.A., the Theater Owners Booking Association, which booked the performances for many notable Black vaudeville performers, let’s dispel some myths surrounding T.O.B.A. so they do not get in the way of our research.

Myth No. 1: T.O.B.A. was founded by Sherman H. Dudley. 

T.O.B.A. was actually founded in 1909 by brothers Fred and Anselmo Barrasso, theater owners in Memphis who wanted to create a theater chain for Black performers1. In this Freeman (a Black newspaper) article2 you can see Fred’s name listed for the theater he managed, the Savoy Theatre, under the heading “Where You Find Colored Theaters: Real Play Houses That Are Owned And Managed By Negroes”.

But wait a second… Fred Barrasso wasn’t Black. He was an Italian immigrant. Stephen Huff, professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Southern Florida, explains in the journal article, “The Impresarios of Beale Street: African American and Italian American Theatre Managers in Memphis, 1900–1915”,

“It may be that this is an example of the ambivalent racial status of Italian immigrants during this period. Accepted as “white” in some circles, perhaps they were, at the same time, accepted as nonwhite by the African Americans they worked with and served in the business of black entertainment.”3

Myth No. 2: The T.O.B.A. Circuit Was Also Known As The Dudley Circuit

Nope! Two separate things. Dudley’s Theatrical Circuit began in 1891, while Sherman H. Dudley was still performing. In 1912, 3 years after Fred and Anselmo Barrasso founded T.O.B.A., Sherman H. Dudley bought theaters, and stopped performing in 1913 to focus on the circuit. In 1916, the Dudley Circuit was absorbed into the Southern Consolidated Circuit, which got into many arguments with T.O.B.A.4

Here’s a mapping project for the Dudley Circuit (by Maeve Nagel-Frazel)!

Myth No. 3: So the T.O.B.A. Circuit Began in 1909….

In 1921, the Southern Consolidated Circuit (the rival circuit) was absorbed into T.O.B.A., allowing the circuits to combine about 100 theaters5. This new, larger T.O.B.A. is the T.O.B.A. that would be advertised in Black newspapers, become popular, and develop quite the circuit, booking major vaudeville stars. The success and fame of T.O.B.A. was due to Sherman H. Dudley, who was not only an effective businessman but a beloved figure, colloquially known as Uncle Dud and even starting a newspaper series in The Chicago Defender called “Dud’s Dope”. In one of the first articles, Dudley talks about wanting to bring big names to T.O.B.A. and his success in bringing Sarah Martin, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith to T.O.B.A.6, dispelling another myth that T.O.B.A. is what helped give performers their starts. While sometimes true, T.O.B.A. also sought after performers that already had acclaim.


Determining the myths surrounding T.O.B.A. helped me answer previously unanswered questions about our group project. For example, for some of our data points, our group was unsure if the performances were through T.O.B.A. or not. Any unsure data points of performances before 1921, I would argue, are not through the T.O.B.A. Circuit. The bulk of advertising and booking announcements are found through Black newspapers, and that advertisement was the work of Sherman H. Dudley.

I also realized through this post that misinformation surrounding T.O.B.A. is rampant, even in works that I considered to be well-researched. This just goes to show how much more research needs to be done. What myths do you want dispelled?



1 Robinson, Cedric J. Forgeries of Memory and Meaning : Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

2 “Where You Find Colored Theaters. Real Play Houses That Are Owned and Managed by Negroes.” Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana) XXIII, no. 21, May 21, 1910: 6. Readex: African American Newspapers.

3 Huff, Stephen. “The Impresarios of Beale Street: African American and Italian American Theatre Managers in Memphis, 1900–1915.” Theatre Survey 55, no. 1 (2014): 22–47. doi:10.1017/S0040557413000525.

4 Knight, Athelia. “He Paved the Way for T. O. B. A.” The Black Perspective in Music 15, no. 2 (1987): 153–81.

5 George-Graves, Nadine. “Spreading the Sand: Understanding the Economic and Creative Impetus for the Black Vaudeville Industry.” Continuum Journal,

6 Dudley, S. H. “DUD’S DOPE.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 16, 1924.

Ethnography in the Late 19th Century

When learning more about Indigenous music in the U.S., it is nearly impossible not to come across the work of Frances Densmore. An ethnographer from Red Wing, Minnesota, Densmore spent more than 50 years collecting Indigenous song for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnography. Students hear a lot about Densmore’s work, but what other ethnographic work was out there around the same time, and how does it compare to Densmore’s? What does their work tell us about the field as a whole, and what did they do well, or what could have been done better?

To delve into these questions, I investigated the life and work of James Mooney, an ethnographer born in 1861 known as “The Indian Man”. Although he didn’t collect songs from Indigenous peoples, his work paralleled that of Densmore’s in that his writings were published by the Smithsonian Institution and he collected for the World’s Fair.

A newspaper clipping written by Lida Rose McCabe describes Mooney’s fieldwork:

In pursuing his work among the tribes Mr. Mooney wears Indian dress, and accommodates himself to the family life. In speaking of this he said to me: “Unless you live with a people you cannot know them. It is the only way to learn their ideas and study their character.

In comparison to Densmore, Mooney’s work was more more focused to a handful of groups, whereas Densmore collects from many groups across the country. Due to Mooney’s smaller group of study, he had the time to develop a deeper understanding of one’s culture and customs while forming relationships with members of the tribe.

However, this does not automatically make all of his work ethical. McCabe writes of his work:

Mr. Mooney’s special business during the last year has been to collect for the Smithsonian World’s Fair exhibit specimens of the domestic and industrial work of the Navajo and Moqui tribes. The esteem in which he is held by the Indians has enabled him to secure everything he desired.

Although Mooney likely cared for the Indigenous people he spent time with, and they likely cared for him, does this mean that he has permission to displace their cultural objects and display them for others? Additionally, we don’t know how comfortable tribes felt sharing objects with him, or to what extent sharing impacted their life:

He carries his own camera, but it has to be used cautiously. Only the stanchest friendship justifies him in asking an Indian to pose for his picture, for it is an article of the Indian’s faith that but such an act he loses part of his personality, and is therefore very likely to suffer sickness or even death.

Although someone outside of a particular tribe may see a particular object as interesting or worthy of study, the collection of an item may have caused very real consequences to those who shared that object. To combat this these injustices today, we can look towards repatriation initiatives, and be vigilant of the greater context surrounding ethnography.

Works Cited

Parker, Ely Samuel (1828-1895). 1828-1894. Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 11. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed November 23, 2021].

Rhodes, Willard. “Densmore, Frances.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 23 Nov. 2021.

What Minstrelsy Means For American Identity

In my research of black minstrel troupes, it has become obvious that American pop culture is infused with references to minstrelsy. Although this influence becomes obvious when it is pointed out, I would like to propose a claim that might not be as readily accepted. Not only is minstrelsy heavily involved in American media, the influence of the minstrel show is a pillar of American art and media. In other words, elements of minstrelsy actually contribute to what it means for a piece of media to be “American”.

The American-ness of the minstrel show and minstrel influences can be seen in the perception of the minstrel show from audiences abroad. In my own mapping of black minstrel shows, I noticed very quickly that these shows were mostly plotted in the U.S. Perhaps this article posted in the Freeman newspaper might give more insight into why that is.

This article posted in the the Freeman in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 8, 1902 titled “The Negro Performer Abroad” explains how the minstrel show was not well received abroad. The article writes: “The English and Australians, by the way, are very austere and reserved as regards the manner of entertainment of histrons, therefore that which we here consider clever, they, over there regard indifferent and treat with almost heartless disdain. Little wonder then that early Negro minstrels met a cold reception and proved a ‘frost’”. 1

This indifferent reception shows us the extent to which American media and humor differentiated from that of Europeans and Australians. In other words, this humor is strictly American. 

We can see this inclusion of minstrel influences as well in other forms of media such as animation in more sinister, more blatant ways. For example, in Ammond’s book “Birth of an industry: blackface minstrelsy and the rise of American animation” he argues that certain characters, such as Mickey Mouse, carried “all (or many) of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself”. 2 For example, in this video of the first Disney animation “Steamboat Willie”, we see that Mickey is whistling a minstrel tune and also wears the distinctive white gloves worn by minstrel performers.



These examples of the influence of minstrelsy on American media show how truly interlaced it is with American identity. The inclusion of minstrelsy can really be seen as a staple of American identity. Although this fact is incredibly troubling, by understanding its implications, we can begin to uncover and become critical about the nature of American identity itself.

Jazz and Afro-Cuban Music

According to the article in the Chicago Defender, in December 2014, the artistic director Orbert Davis led the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra to start collaborating with Cuban musicians. Davis believes that African American musical tradition has strong relationships and connections with their Caribbean counterparts such as in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Davis’s collaboration with Cuban musicians and student delegates has become the spotlight as US and Cuban announce the normalization of their diplomatic relations meanwhile.

YouTube video of Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic performing in the U.S. Premier of Scenes From Life: Cuba! on November 13, 2015 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

I observed that the drum and percussive element of the first piece in the video shares the military/ marching-band themes and topics common in nationalistic “American” music. In the second jazz piece, we hear more Cuban traditional drum grooves mixing with spontaneous jazz chord progressions and spontaneous solo improvisations from different musicians.

This spiked my interest in exploring the similarities between jazz (an African American music tradition) and Cuban (Caribbean) music. Here I found a video of Afro-Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez performing in the Tiny Desk series on YouTube.

Comparing this video with the Scenes From Life: Cuba concert, both of them share the communal, spontaneous and improvisatory characteristics of music-making. Both allow the individuality of each musician the spotlight to shine while musicians (and audience) hypes up and applauds each other. Both share in their distinction from non-western-classical style and structure. The two similar yet different traditions collaborate and unites through their “otherness”, as BIPOC community.

Article about Afro-Cuban music as sharing a similar African root which goes back to my initial “hypothesis” regarding African roots. The uniting of the otherness, non-western, non-classical music. Community based and focus on individuality.

I looked further into this topic about the connection between Cuban and African American music and came across a dissertation about it by Aleysia Whitmore. In a featured interview, Latfi Benjeloune, guitarist and band member of the Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab commented that

“The music didn’t come home and influence African music. Cuban music is already African. These are African sensibilities that are being expressed… in some way we felt like parents with this music… it came from us”. It indeed sheds light to the intricacy of musical traditions, their roots and how they come together after growing apart in different social-political climates and geographical locations.”


Bibliography/ Source

Mdatcher. Orbert Davis: Bringing Cuba and the U.S. Together Through Jazz. November 12, 2015. Online Article.

Orbert Davis y la Chicago Jazz Philarmonic presents SCENES FROM LIFE: CUBA. Video.

The Pedrito Martinez Group: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. Video


Women Supporting Women and their Accomplishments

Women supporting women can be a powerful thing. Whenever I see examples of this phenomenon, I usually smile to some degree. For this week’s blog post, I found a newspaper clipping from the Chicago Defender celebrating a historic occurrence of women supporting each other. “Margaret Bonds Soloist With Women’s Symphony” describes a program featuring Margaret Bonds and the music of many women composers, including Florence Price. Performing Price’s “Concerto,” we can see a warm welcoming of both of these women’s artistry to the Chicago area. Sometimes I forget how intertwined the careers of these prominent musicians truly were.

Even though this blurb is small, the journalist manages to pack a lot of information in a limited amount of space. The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra, directed by Ebba Sundstrom, will feature a long program featuring the music of these women: Eleanor Freer, Helen Sears, Grace Burlin, Mabel Daniels, Phyllis Fergus, Alice Brown Stout, Amy Beach, Florence Galaikian, Cecile Chaminade and Radie Britain.

(Before encountering this article, I had only heard of  three of these women, not including Bonds and Price. Therefore, I spiraled a bit in my accompanying research and found a variety of reference entries in case others would like to explore more prominent women musicians of the early 20th century.)

This program must have been a momentous occasion to experience a night where all of these intelligent women were celebrated. I include a program below of the concert and a recording of the piece featuring Margaret Bonds’ piano skills and Florence Prices’ compositional skills: 



However, while glancing through the article, I noticed the long list of accomplishments noted regarding the careers of Bond and Price. I find this trend frequently in the announcements of events including women musicians. Their value in artistry or ability to excel now is tangled with their past accomplishments. It seems that their only apparent value has been determined by those that granted them funding, judged their competitions, and awarded them degrees in music. As if these accolades now provide the reason to see them perform. Yet, when looking at clippings of contemporary white male musicians, a name drop is sufficient enough press. Notably, especially in Chicago Defender, the careers and achievements of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds are something to be proud of and celebrate, because of “[b]oth of these artists have made history for the Race.”

Specifically, Langston Hughes comments on Margaret Bond’s past achievements, but in a much different way. He applauds the versatility of her art: 

“Miss Bonds is one of the younger performers who, while paying the old masters their due, has the courage to seek out worthwhile compositions by composers of our own day and age, American as well as European, from the Dutch contemporary Bordewijk-Roepman to the sparkling piano pieces of the U.S.A.’s Dorothea Freitag.”

Additionally, like other African American composers from this time period, the incorporation of Black folk music became the norm or expectation of these artists. However, Hughes notes that Bond’s approach to this characteristic in African American music is slightly nuanced compared to her contemporary composers. According to the poet, Bonds “has written and performs some of the most moving arrangements of Negro spirituals [he has] ever heard — which makes me wonder why more frequent use for the piano has not been made of these folk motifs… the spirituals lend themselves to similar treatment in the serious field.” Below is a video of Bond’s “Troubled Waters” (a setting of the folk tune “Wade in the Water”):


To Hughes, people should see this African American composer and performer for her virtuosic playing and thoughtfully accessible music she continues to produce. I agree with Hughes approach to discussing the accomplishments of musicians. While a“program devoted exclusively to women composers” is outstanding, I do look forward to the day when women will consistently be recognized for the work they do, not purely for the work they’ve done

References and further reading

Dempf, Linda. “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” Notes 62, no. 4 (2006): 857–903.

Ege. “Chicago, the ‘City We Love to Call Home!’: Intersectionality, Narrativity, and Locale in the Music of Florence Beatrice Price and Theodora Sturkow Ryder.” American music (Champaign, Ill.) 39, no. 1 (2021): 1–41.

Hughes, Langston. “An Exciting Young Negro Pianist Gives Meaning to our Musical Heritage.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Dec 03, 1949.

Malcolm Merriwea. “Visions of a Master: Unveiling the Choral Orchestral Works of Margaret Bonds.” American music review L, no. 1 (2020).

“Margaret Bonds Soloist with Women’s Symphony.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 13, 1934.

Revelations in Letters to Leonard Bernstein

With the premiere of the 2021 film adaptation of West Side Story coming closer, I decided to look into the correspondence of Leonard Bernstein during the initial conversations with Arthur Laurents and others as they discussed the project. A well-loved and seemingly timeless production, West Side Story also puts the subjects of race and ethnicity on center stage, so to speak, and is well worth being discussed in context with the social issues at play during the time of its production.

In the first noted correspondence to Bernstein in 1955, Laurents nods to the recent “juvenile gang war news” and its impact on not only the papers, but also on a film in the works by Arther Miller. Intended to tell a sideways story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story was originally supposed to feature the star-crossed love story of a Jewish boy and an Irish-Catholic girl. However, creators instead chose to capitalize on the uptick in gang violence in New York and change the identities of the lovers to be a white American boy and a Puerto Rican girl.

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The Western Standards of American Music- Even “The Queen of Jazz” Could Not Escape

What defines a true American singer? What “validates” their voice, style, or even their performing style? Is it the technique, vocal power, polish, etc.? Ella Fitzgerald, a.k.a. Lady Ella, was known as “one of the most loved and honored musical performers of the 20th Century.” 1 In discussions and interviews with Ella herself, it is clear to see that there was a disconnect when it came to how her fame and skill was viewed.

Ella Fitzgerald At 100: Early Hardship Couldn't Muffle Her Joy : NPR

Ella was not just renowned for her vocal talent, but she was highly respected and cherished by peers and the American public as a whole. But to some, this respect and cherished views were motivated by an external quality: her selfless and light-hearted nature. Even after her massive success, both nationally and eventually internationally, she remained “unchanged by her own tremendous significance.” 2

“She never refuses to talk to anyone, never refuses to see anyone. She will stay up until fantastic hours to help our in benefits which are legitimate.”2

It is clear that her personality shined through, despite her upbringing and situations thrown her way- whether it was being a successful woman in the music industry to insanely packed tour schedules. This was a largely emphasized reason often given when it came to defining her success in capturing the hearts of the American people.

The Chicago Defender; Chicago, Ill. 31 July 1954

In other opinions, Ella’s success seems to be defined in a different light. Opera News discusses Ella’s (and Frank Sinatra’s skill and technique as “bel canto” like, even claiming that they “had it easier than opera singers performing live.”3 They compared them to “Wagnerians”- having the same skills and techniques as them. 3
This raised the question, “Why are they taking two singers in a completely different genre, style, and audience appeal and still comparing it with Western classical music? I would assume that Ella was not actively trying to have a “bel canto” style in her voice. There is a dichotomy that I find in this article: Ella and Frank here are seen being recognized for their “virtuosic” technique, but it did not seem like many people of their time and beyond would consider them in a Western classical light. Though this magazine is clearly one that discusses opera, it seems like there is a major disconnect and quite a few liberties taken in terms of how Ella and Frank are viewed even to this day- jazz singers who simply embodied the same Western classical techniques as some of the great opera singers from the past and present. Though the writers of this article most likely had good intentions, it is still something that seemed like a bit of a stretch.

It was clearly seen by not only her die-hard fans, but also her peers and colleagues as well that Ella’s sheer presence and personality could light up a room. This should not be overlooked, and this reason alone is what I think made Ella Fitzgerald even more of an American legend. Sure, her voice could maybe be compared to some of the best opera singers that ever lived- from their technique to the color and style of her voice. But this really made me question how we are still viewing these singers and composers even to this day. The Opera News article was written in 1996, looking in hindsight of Ella’s career. The Chicago Defender was written in 1954, when Ella’s career was alive and booming. The way we look back at singers and performers in America, the more we need to dive into actual primary sources, telling about the lives and journeys of them, not just simply analyzing their voices and what made them “great” or “true American virtuosos” of their time. Ella Fitzgerald was so much more than an impeccable voice and presence in the music industry that still deeply inspires our current generation.


1 “ELLA FITZGERALD TRIBUTE: Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song.” Music Week, Apr 21, 2007, 15,

2 ALFRED DUCKETT Exclusive To,Defender Publications. “Ella Fitzgerald, ‘First Lady of Swing’ Rode A Yellow Basket to Fame: Today She Rates Tops with Patrons and Ace Artists Nation Over Mistake was made–Ella Laughed it Off.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jul 31, 1954.

3 Innaurato, Albert. “Frank and Ella.” Opera News, 11, 1996, 66,

The Defender and the Herald

The Chicago Defender is a black-owned newspaper editorial founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott. Among articles, obituaries, comics, general supposed happenings of editorials at that time, the newspaper has . It was the first newspaper of its kind to include a health section, a full page of comics and have a circulation of over 100,000. It still runs today, though now it refers to itself as an exclusively online publication. Researching this publication’s monumental works, I found an article that very much applies to the ongoing discussion regarding “American Music’s” definition. In writing an editorial for this particular day, this unnamed author addresses an article written in the World-Herald, stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, and sets the record straight, more or less, centered from a black perspective. 

The article in question makes large scale claims about African American contribution to the canon of America music at the time, asserting the popular adage that slave spirituals were no more than reworked tunes from white slave owners. While the author of the Defender’s article was cordial in their approach to responding to this notion(the author maintains that the Herald’s author “did the best he could”), this article centers black voices as being the instrumental factor in the creation of this music. Not only is it fundamentally pro-black in sentiment, the article is mostly full of name-dropped pieces and composers who are due credit. 

He goes on to say the “slave spirituals” in question are the “only native American music”, which gave this amateur researcher a shock in his reading, as I am currently researching the works of Frances Densmore and her quest to document the music of the “American Indian”. Granted, this article uses the term “Native American” to describe the origins of music post colonization, but to my modern ear that segment struck me. 

“The soul of any race is its music” 

Articles like this, in long running publications of this nature, point me toward the problem of underrepresented voices in the world of music research. If we can’t reach out to people whom we make blanket statements about, or productively delve into the history and circumstances surrounding their music, what good is the research we are doing? I hope to do some further digging to find the specific author of this article, as the lack of such information is troubling when its contents seem so personal upon reading.

AMERICAN MUSIC BORN OF THE NEGRO RACE: “Slave Spirituals” of the … The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966); Jan 1, 1916; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender

Duke Ellington


Duke Ellington, or Edward Ellington, was born in 1899 in Washington D.C. and began playing the piano at the age of six. He then began his career as a professional musician at the age of seventeen. He played piano, led his jazz orchestra, and composed the music they performed. In his time and ours, Ellington has been regarded as one of the greatest composers in the U.S. and also a vital figure in the success of Jazz as a genre1


Ellington was wildly successful and won twelve Grammy Awards, nine of which were when he was alive. He also performed globally in places like Carnegie Hall and was even awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon1,2,3. All of this is made more difficult and therefore more impressive because of his disadvantage as a black man in the United States, especially before the civil rights movement.

What I also think is interesting, is that not only do we see Duke Ellington now as crucial to the development of modern music, but he was also recognized as such during his own time. The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, published an article entitled “Duke Ellington to Lead Billikens”. This article was about a parade Ellington lead that attracted over half a million people. At the end of the article is a page listing Ellington’s successes and in it, the author states, “He is regarded as a creator of a new, rich, and distinctly American musical idiom”. They go on to say, Ellington “has contributed more to modern music in originality, melodic material, and arrangement technique than any other contemporary”. Historically, I would argue the rarity of an artist being appreciated for their contributions to the art form in their own time. Therefore, to have this level of accreditation attached to his name speaks volumes for his talent.4

However, of course, this newspaper was published by black writers and written for a black audience, however, the Grammys he won as well as the crowds he attracted are definitely noteworthy and point towards the recognition of Ellington’s talents and contributions to music during his time. While the majority of his success was probably due to his talent and musical upbringing, I can’ help but wonder how he managed to make music and succeed with the racial climate of the fifties in the United States. I think part of it could be due to the fact he was part of the larger movement of the Harlem Renaissance, and partly due to his geographical position in New York. While I do not have these answers yet, I would be interested to read more about his experience as a composer and performer during this time period. Perhaps this is a future blog post?

I included below a performance of Duke Ellington.

1Butler, Gerry. Edward “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) •, May 19, 2021.

2“Duke Ellington ~ Duke Ellington Biography.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, March 31, 2020.

3“Duke Ellington.”, November 23, 2020.

4“Duke Ellington to Lead Billikens: Composer to Greet 500,000.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Aug 01, 1959.

Hard Working Teacher, Composer, Pianist… forgotten

For this week’s blog post, I found an article in The Chicago Defender that I think is interesting and representative of the people of that time. I did not know what I wanted to talk about, so I drew a blank and searched up “classical music”. The source I am showing today is about an African American composer and teacher who was talented, successful and hardworking. However, his story, and a lot of other musicians from marginalized communities, are forgotten by the white supremacist history. 

The article introduces the reader to William Wilkins, a young Afro-American pianist and composer. The title of this article is William Wilkins Musical Genius and His Pupils, and it was published on November 14, 1914 on The Chicago Defender (obviously). What I find really eye-catching is the picture of the musician on top of the page. It is a photo of Wilkins playing the piano and it was delicately cut out. There are also decorative lines drawn on the sides, further embellishing his picture. In this article, Wilkins is described as a successful teacher, whose “pupil’s talent surprises musicians”, and some of them have only received training from him for a few months. The article also reported some of his life stories. Wilkins did not have the best upbringing, and the first time he has played a piano in front of an audience is because of his gardener job. Even when he was older, he still needed money to publish his compositions. However, he was still hard working and would practice “from three to seven hours daily.” This article shows Wilkins’ life in a positive and uplifting way, which is rarely seen in that era. 

I wanted to hear some of his compositions, so I did a quick google search. However, the person who came up was a white American politician. I tried searching for the keyword “william wilkins composer,” but it still did not work. I felt a sense of helplessness at that moment because his legacies should be celebrated more and it shouldn’t have taken any deep dive to know about him and his stories. However, I also felt power and pride, because his experiences were published in this African American newspaper, where his people supported him and were proud of him. Maybe there will be a new day, where stories won’t be forgotten.

Works Cited


Jazz Developments in…Rhode Island?

When people think of jazz, places like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City come to mind — not a small city of 25,000 in Rhode Island. 

The Newport Jazz Festival, with its inception in 1954 has been credited as a crucial component in the development of jazz culture in the Chicago Defender, by none other than Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes

A participant of a sort of jazz himself, being the creator of “jazz poetry” (for an example, see this link!), Hughes’ take on the Newport Jazz Festival impact on jazz is compelling. In his June 1963 article, “Jazz and Newport Festival”, Hughes comments on the festival’s role and ability in cultivating a culture of large group fun while listening to jazz.

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Title No. 1 – Naming Things Like Dawson Did

While browsing through the Chicago Defender for this week’s blog post, I came across an announcement for the premier of William Dawson’s “Symphony No. 1”, and the article describes it as a HUGE deal1. But wait a minute… what’s “Symphony No. 1”? After further research, I realized that the piece in question is now called “Negro Folk Symphony”.

The newspaper article says that Dawson himself called the symphony “Symphony No. 1”. So why is it now called “Negro Folk Symphony”?  Professor Gwynne Kuhner Brown sheds some light on this in her article “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?”2

Definitely read the article if you get the chance, but basically, Brown explains that Leopold Stokowski, the world-famous conductor who would be conducting the piece, sent a telegram to Dawson asking that he title his piece and the movements differently, and recommending that he call it “African American Symphony” or “Negro Symphony”. Dawson replied with the updated title “Negro Folk Symphony” as well as updated names of the movements: “The Bond of Africa”, “Hope in the Night”, and “O Lem-me Shine!”. As Brown asks in her article, would Dawson have assigned race to his symphony if not for the prodding of Stokowski?

We can’t know for sure, but we can know from the Chicago Defender article that Dawson wanted his race to be known by his audience based on this quote:

Here’s another question about the title. Dawson was advised to title the symphony “Negro Symphony”, but it is now “Negro Folk Symphony”. Why? Again, Dawson gives us an answer. In a 1979 interview, Dawson says of the themes within his symphony,

“I don’t call them spirituals. . . . Many years ago I decided that I wanted to know, what do they mean by “spiritual”? And I got an unabridged dictionary and looked it up. There were ten or fifteen definitions of the word “spiritual.” For an example, in Paris, France, they had concerts on Sunday; they called them spirituals. But these are folk songs and we have got to know and treat them as folk songs because they contain the best that’s in us. And anywhere in the civilized world, when you say, “This is a folk song,” all the nations prize their folk songs. All the great composers utilize their folk songs, their source of material for development.”3

Interestingly, the Chicago Defender does not call the sources of Dawson’s themes spirituals OR folk songs, but hymns.

So what’s the difference between a folk song, a hymn, and a spiritual, and does this question matter to our discussion of Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music? I’m not sure I have the answer, but Dawson certainly believed the answer matters, so let’s do what musicologists ought to do and ask more questions.

P.S. Here are the movements to Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. Give them a listen.





1 “William Dawson Writes Race Symphony: Piece Will be Played by Stokowski, World Famous Conductor.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Jan 07, 1933.

2 BROWN, GWYNNE KUHNER. “Whatever Happened to William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony?” Journal of the Society for American Music 6, no. 4 (2012): 433–56. doi:10.1017/S1752196312000351.

3 William Levi Dawson, interview with unidentified interviewer, October 1979. William Levi Dawson Collection, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University (hereafter “Dawson Collection at MARBL, Emory University”). A portion of the interview can be heard at William Levi Dawson: The Collection at Emory,

4 ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: I. The Bond of Africa”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020,

5 ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: II. Hope in the Night”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020,

ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Negro Folk Symphony: III. O Let Me Shine!”. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2020,



The Contradiction of Black Minstrelsy

What do you think of when you think of minstrelsy?

From our contemporary lens, it’s very easy to think of minstrelsy as a horrible, racist manifestation of white supremacy. Which, for the record, it surely was. But it wasn’t just that. For many Black Americans, black minstrelsy offered a form of employment in a depressed economy, a form of control over their representation, and a training ground for later prominent figures in other forms of Black music, like blues.

Black minstrelsy has never been universally admired, and a diversity of opinions have coexisted since its inception. As Southern writes, “The black minstrel has been much maligned by many, including members of his own race, for perpetuating the Jim Crow and Zip Coon stereotypes” (269), a statement which gets to the core struggle and contradiction of Black minstrelsy. White minstrelsy predated Black minstrelsy by several decades, and its success depended on these stereotypes. Many of the owners of Black troupes also owned white troupes. While black performers had some agency to represent themselves at least a little more authentically than white performers, Black minstrelsy still operated with many of the same expectations and for many of the same audiences. Which begs the question, what was it like for the Black performers?

W.C. Handy

The answer, of course, is complex. Rampant white supremacy and racial violence was a fact of life for Black minstrels – Handy, a member of Mahara’s Minstrels writes in his autobiography of the lynching of a band member (43) and many other acts of racially motivated violence and harassment. But Handy, who began his career in minstrelsy and later became a major player in blues, seems to recognize the importance of Black minstrelsy, writing “Historians of the American stage have slighted the old Negro minstrels” (34).

Chick Beaman, another performer from the latter days of minstrelsy, writing for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, describes almost the exact opposite contradiction . “When you

begin trouping you’re dead – theatrically – and soon forgotten” he writes, “But I love it and it’s a great life. So let the band play.” This is pretty much the reverse of Handy’s experience – Beaman valued minstrelsy as a lifestyle rather than a stepping stone in his career.

So how should we view the legacy of Black minstrelsy? Being itself fundamentally a contradiction, it’s hard to say for sure. But we do know that it was an important social, economic, and musical enterprise with lasting affects today.




Beaman, Chick. 1921. CHICK BEAMAN: FAMOUS MINSTREL MAN PUTS ON HIS PHILOSOPHICAL SHOES. The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Aug 27, 1921. (accessed November 15, 2021).

Handy, W.C. The Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. London. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1957.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1971.

Cohen Quest IV: a Lost Composition

Ah yes, here we are, once more. Welcome back to Cohen Quest, the award-winning blogging series. Cecil Cohen, as we have well seen, was a highly accomplished pianist and composer. He occupies a very unique position as someone deeply entangled with the music making of black musicians in the 1910s through the 1960s, but has stayed quite under the radar in terms of historical provenance. Again, I seem to be the only person in the world who has tried to uncover who this guy was. One of the most fascinating examples of this liminal space Cohen enjoyed was as a featured composer in a recital given by Todd Duncan on March 8, 1944, at The Town Hall in New York.1 Duncan and Cohen were colleagues at Howard University: Cohen had been an Associate Professor of Music for two decades now, and Duncan joined the faculty in 1930.2, 3

Although not mentioned in the New York Times article, Duncan performed a piece by Cohen at the end of the recital titled “As at Thy Portals also Death.”4 As far as I can tell this piece was never published and may not have had much performance beyond Todd Duncan’s recitals in 1944. Nora Holt, noted composer and music critic, said this about Cohen’s piece:

“[As at Thy Portals also Death] is composed in a tragic vein with arpeggio accompaniment and was rendered with great feeling by Mr. Duncan.” 5

Through sheer willpower and some emailing, I have been granted access to the world’s entire collection of Cecil Cohen manuscript scores (about six unique scores in total), one of which being “As at Thy Portals also Death.” The piece itself is a lovely, if at times, odd, synthesis of a Walt Whitman poem about the death of his mother; I have yet to confirm it, but I believe Cohen may have written this after the death of his own mother, Flora. It certainly feels plausible: the phrase “to her, buried and gone, yet buried not, gone not from me” is set as recitative over strong and dissonant block chords. The sudden change from the preceding ostinato is jarring and feels like an outburst of grief.

“As at Thy Portals,” like most of Cohen’s songs, is intentionally dissonant, referencing the musical language of jazz; one would be hard-pressed to perform a proper Roman Numeral analysis on it. He tended to avoid Beethoven and Bach on his programs, favoring Debussy and Faure; you can see the French influence in each of his songs, and “As at Thy Portals” is no exception.6 Not many African-American classical composers were incorporating into their music the stylings and harmonies of jazz, a profoundly African-American art form; it is not so surprising then that Cohen enjoyed French Impressionism so much. Todd Duncan likely performed this piece multiple times, once even with Cohen at the piano,7 but it never was published, and Cohen’s legacy was bound to the few songs of his published in a pair of anthologies.

1 M.A.S., “Todd Duncan Scores in Recital Bow Here,” The New York Times, 9 March 1944, 15.


3 Kozinn, Allan, “Todd Duncan, 95; Sang Porgy and Helped Desegregate Opera,” The New York Times, 2 March 1998.

4 “Todd Duncan Hailed in N.Y. Concert Debut.” The Chicago Defender, 18 March 1944, 3.

5 Holt, Nora. “MUSIC: TODD DUNCAN MAKES CONCERT DEBUT TAKES EIGHT CURTAIN CALLS.” New York Amsterdam News, 18 March 1944, 1.

6 Gary-Illidge, Cora. “Music and Drama: “Goat Alley” Cast of Characters.” The Chicago Defender, 28 May 1927, 11.

7 “Todd Duncan Sings again at Tuskegee.” The Chicago Defender, 10 July 1937, 5.

William Grant Still for a White Audience

On July 23, 1936, William Grant Still made his debut in Los Angeles conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. The article I found on this, written by Lawrence LaMar, describes how “an outstanding history making triumph as been achieved.” This performance was only a couple of years after Still won the Guggenheim Fellowship award for “Land of Romance” and “Afro-Symphony Orchestra.” Our class has been looking at the impacts of black nationalism within “American” music and how it has shaped today’s music. This discussion couldn’t be held without William Grant Still and his “Afro-American Symphony.” Even during the 1930’s, the public knew of its impact and what was taking shape, and how it could change history in music. Out of the 20,000 seats at the Hollywood Bowl, 12,000 of them were filled. This sounded like an average amount of attenders based off how the author was describing it. However,

“about 250 of the 12,000 people assembled in the Hollywood Bowl that seats 20,000 were of the Race. This number, although small in comparison to the whole, represents an increase over past regular season bowl attendance of Negroes.”


It is interesting to read how 250 might not have been a large number of people “in comparison to the whole” but that it shows that persons of color are increasing in numbers for attending the bowl.
This article views William Grant Still and thus his pieces as valuably important for American and American music. The writer states, “Each of the gripping symphonies that conveyed the feeling of the Race American toward the land of his folklore was marvelously rendered by the great orchestra that responded readily under the left guidance of its first Race conductor.” I found that this article showed some of the feelings that the BIPOC community was feeling towards Still and his compositions. The article can be used to shed light on this aspect as well as the ideas of how that ties into the impact on American music.
Another interesting aspect of this article is the literal, physical context around it. Surrounding this column in the Chicago Defender are many more negative articles about “members of race.” Titles such as “State Picnic To Be Feature Of Kentucky Hanging” stand out instantly to the viewer upon opening this paper. The article on Still is captivatingly uplifting and hopeful right next to the article that paints such a horrific image for the BIPOC community.
Another aspect of the context around the article on Still is the emphasis on music that this community holds. Simply turning the page of this newspaper brings you to BOLD headlines you can view in the following photos.

Sylvester Russell and his commentary on the CYCB

Although not perfect, we have come to an era in which the voices of people of color, women, and other marginalized voices have started to become more commonly represented within musical communities. It is easy to attribute this progress to the overall trend of people becoming more open minded. However, we have to remember that this progress rode on the backs of certain individuals with radical ideas. One of these ideas is that of Sylvester Russell, who writes of creating an organization that supports black musicians.

Today, I am examining an article written in the Chicago Defender in 1907 by theater and music critic Sylvester Russell. In this article, he discusses the changes that he would make to the existing association “The Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association” (or the CYCB).  1

He first argues that the name of the organization is “not wisely chosen”, as the thinks the inclusion of “vaudeville” gives white people more access to the group, as it would gain attention from white vaudeville managers. He also thinks that the initiation fee of $5 should be reduced to $2 so that the association erases class issues and can include all types of black musicians and actors. He believes the only criterion should be that each member includes “all actors who are making a living as professional entertainers”. He also wants to include women in the association. He believes that by having an association that supports black actors and musicians in Chicago, it is possible that Chicago could become the center of arts for Black Americans.

The idea of creating a union of sorts among a group of people is not shocking. However, I think this column by Russell raises an interesting point about the ways in which black performers and managers were well aware of white influence and sabotage. Russell talks about the importance of how the members of this association present themselves. He argues that “The white man is ever on the bright side of natural instinct, and if actors who belong to this organization are not very careful of what they do and say along certain lines, their individual errors will tend to make the body weaker”. In other words, he thinks that the members of the organization must be savvy in order to keep the power of this organization between people of color.

Russell gives us a good reminder that progress has only happened because of individuals who have thought meticulously about how to keep power in the hand of POCs, careful to not let white people take it away.



William Grant Still and Film Music

The Chicago Defender’s “William Grant Still Tells Of Screenland’s Many Tricks: Famous Song Writer Quits ‘Degrading’ Pix” by WM Grant Still details Still’s experience working on an all-Black film “Stormy Weather,” produced by 20th Century Fox. Still describes how he quit his work on the film because 

“…my conscience would not let me accept money to help carry on a tradition directly opposed to the welfare of thirteen million people.” 

He then goes on to explain how he asked for his name to be removed from the film’s credits and how the potential of the initial storyline was promising. Later on in the process, however, Still found that his preconceptions about the film were incorrect. Producers and other studio executives had come to him with ideas about Black culture and its music rooted in ideas of exoticism and crudeness. By contrast, Still’s understanding of the music that he would produce for the film

“…went against the same Hollywood ‘stereotype’ as regards colored people.”

Still’s article illuminates an interesting dichotomy between reality and Hollywood’s perceptions of the reality of race relations in the United States. In the process of creating an all-Black film, directors and producers for the film had hired Still to replicate what they saw to be a universalized version of Black music. When Still’s ideas for music for the film didn’t accurately portray what was expected of him, and what was expected to represent Black individuals at the time, he chose to reject his position and remove his name from any influence on the film. Despite the intentions of the film creators and the Blackness of the film they were producing, Still saw himself as contributing to the social forces of popular culture that reinforced traditional stereotypes of people of color and perpetuated harm in the movie industry.

The video is the titular song and scene “Stormy Weather,” after it was re-arranged in the final version after Still left: 


Grant Still, WM. “William Grant Still Tells of Screenland’s Many Tricks: Famous Song Writer Quits ‘Degrading’ Pix.” The Chicago Defender, February 13, 1943. (accessed November 15, 2021).

Mary Lou’s Activism

A picture of Mary Lou Williams from Richard Brody’s New Yorker article “A Hidden Hero of Jazz.”

I’ve been looking for an appropriate time to talk about Mary Lou Williams in a blog post all semester. Admittedly, this blog post does not have much connection to class, but I find her music so quintessentially American; in listening to her catalogue chronologically, one can distinctly hear the progression of jazz itself. Along with Duke Ellington, she is one of very few stride pianists to make the transition into swing. More importantly, throughout her career, she maintained a strong commitment to care and activism within the jazz community. 

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Florence Price and Musical Language

Portrait of Florence Price. Obtained from: Jesse Bobick, “Florence Beatrice Price: A Closer Look with Musicologist Douglas Shadle,” Naxos of America, accessed November 14, 2021,

Florence Price is one of many early 20th century Black American composers who had to navigate creating “American” music. Price had added difficulty making a career out of composing in a white male-dominated field as a Black woman. Still, Price rose to prominence after winning the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest with her Symphony No. 1 in E minor and her piano Sonata in E Minor. This Chicago Defender article was published in 1935, three years after the awards it describes. The Wanamaker Contest was a competition sponsored by northern philanthropic donors to uplift Black composers.1

Like the Wanamaker Contest itself, Price sought to introduce Black music to white audiences through classical idioms. Price was more subtle with how she incorporated Black music into her compositions than some of her colleagues. This more hidden approach led to criticism from some Black music critics. Many Harlem Renaissance thinkers believed using Black music in classical settings was a form of racial progress.2 However, Price found a delicate balance between predominantly-white concert spaces and Black folk music to create nationalist music. Continue reading

Florence Price and the “Elevation” of Black Music

Founded in 1905, The Chicago Defender is an African-American run newspaper. In a 1935 publication, an article was published on composer Florence B. Price and her recent successes in composition. Most notably, she won prizes in the Wanamaker competition contest for her Symphony in E Minor and Piano Sonata in E Minor

Price was a notable composer that brought black music to a wider, whiter, audience with her ability to incorporate Black musical idioms into symphonic works. Price’s Symphony in E Minor, which consists of three movements, was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall as well as at the Century Progress Exposition.

“Composer Wins Noteworthy Prizes for Piano Sonata.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), May 04, 1935.

This news article in The Chicago Defender quotes Glenn Dillard Gunn’s of the Chicago Herald and Examiner thoughts on Price’s piano sonata,

“A nationalist in my attitude toward the art, it is pleasant for me to record the brilliant success of Florence Price’s piano concerto. It represents the most successful effort to date to lift the native folk song idiom of the Negro to artistic levels”1

Music critic of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph was also quoted,

“Florence Price’s contribution in the form of a piano concerto was by far the most important feature of the concert for here we see what the Negro has taken from his own idiom and with good technique is beginning to develop alone. There is real American music and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows…”1

These ideas are also repeated and analyzed in Rae Linda Brown’s, “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance”. 2 This chapter from Black Music and the Harlem Renaissance discusses Price’s role in society as a black art music composer that embodies the “American Sound”. Black composers during the Harlem Renaissance, Florence Price included, hoped to elevate black folk idioms to the symphonic form. I’m still grappling with the idea of “elevating” certain music to a white standard and the racism Price and other composers of the time had internalized when thinking of their own music. 

Florence Price was a brilliant composer who did important work to include black artists and black music into the American music conversation. Yet, I think there’s work to be done on how we navigate these discussions on the hierarchy of music and specifically the interplay of race.

One Letter’s Scope

Florence Price ((1887–1953) was an accomplished American composer, writing four symphonies and concertos, organ, chamber, and voice music. Her music and life tell a story of success but also hardship. One letter she wrote in particular speaks to the difficulties Price faced as a Black woman composing and publishing classical music. Price wrote to the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, to ask him to look over one of her symphonies and consider it for performance. This letter begins as follows,


“My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps— those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content;—until you shall have examined some of my work? As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”


What can we learn about Price and her music from this letter that we cannot get from other sources? This letter clearly delineates, in her own words, how racism and sexism affected Price. In an article on Price, which begins by analyzing this very letter, Samantha Ege states that “Price’s letter exemplifies the ways in which her desire to elevate her work on a prestigious platform, access this traditionally white male territory, and invest greater time in cultivating her craft was also controlled by what these ideas meant for a woman composer of African descent in early mid-twentieth-century America.” 


To fully understand the influence and life of Price, this blog post would have to be a lot longer (probably book length). However, this short excerpt from one of her letters gives us a glimpse into the past, and enables us to better understand the present. I had never heard of Price until I got to college. In fact, as Ege also comments, there seems to be an assumption that women didn’t really compose before the 21st century, an assumption that is now slowly shifting due to cultural movements to diversify our understanding of musical history. In our discussions of what is “American music” it is always necessary to analyze the fact that our histories have purposefully written out those deemed to be “other”. This “othering” must continue to be challenged. As Ege writes,


“A commitment towards more diversified narratives can ensure that our present era affords women composers of the past—albeit posthumously—a much-deserved platform for their musical output and access, mobility, and agency in spheres that once excluded them from opportunity. Steps in this direction cannot change the circumstances experienced by such women, but recognize, at the very least, that for those who lived unapologetically and composed passionately, now is surely their time.”


To end this blog post I would like to suggest you go read Ege’s short article on Florence Price. She elegantly and much more comprehensively analyzes how Price’s music fits within the American musical canon, interwoven with a short biographical description of her life and works. The article will be linked below!



Ege, S. (2018). Florence Price and the Politics of Her Existence. The Kapralova Society Journal.


Peebles, S. L. (2008). The use of the spiritual in the piano works of two african american women composers—Florence B. price and margaret bonds (Order No. 3361197). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304528797). Retrieved from

George Gershwin’s Whack at the Big Question…

Trigger Warning: Offensive Language

Defining “American Music” has become a topic harder and harder to grasp for me. It’s like trying to summarize terms like “classical music”, “pop music”, any music… Where do you start?!? How do you end!? Who?! What?! When?!! etc. Though this topic seems quite hard to pinpoint, George Gershwin took a seemingly confident swing at it.

George Gershwin

“And what is the voice of the American soul? It is jazz developed out of rag-time…”


This initial claim caught my attention. Surely he had an explanation- “a method behind his madness.” And sure enough he did. He goes on by clarifying…

“Does the American spirit voice itself in “coon songs”? I note the sneer. Oh, I hear the highbrow derision. I answer that it includes them. But it is more. I do not assert that the American soul is negroid. But it is a combination that includes the wail, the whine and the exultant note of the old mammy songs of the South. It is black and white. It is all colors and all souls unified in the great melting-pot of the world. Its dominant note is vibrant syncopation.”

There it is! From “coon songs” (i.e. minstrel songs) to being “all the colors” a part of the “great melting-pot”, the generalizations are not seldom in this handful of sentences. Gershwin was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and I would think that some of these immensely generalized statements came from his experience being raised by them. This fact could be seen in his next statement saying that if he was a first-generation American, his view of American life would be

” nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar.”

Though I have no extravagant, bold claims or conclusions about Gershwin’s perspective and statements pertaining to American music and the responsibility he put on himself as an “interpreter of American life in music”, questions still fill my mind. Why did Gershwin feel the need to make these claims? What was pushing him to do so? How did his experience growing up with immigrant parents possibly affect this viewpoint? Despite his generalizations, is Gershwin on to something or is that not even something we should try to consider?

The questions don’t seem to end on this one, but nonetheless, there are many things to consider and contemplate about the big question: “What is American music?”.


Tick, Judith., and Paul E. Beaudoin. Music in the USA a Documentary Companion Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.

(original primary source was nowhere to be found- but direct quotes are in Tick’s book!)

Densmore (again)

The St. Olaf Halvorson library, which I didn’t realize was called Halvorson until creating this writeup, has an incredible amount of scholarly articles, primary sources and of course, musical scores. Among these primary sources available in the library, this week I found a memorial study compilation of the work of Frances Densmore. Conversations regarding the ethics of Indegenous song collection have been very prevalent in my experience this year, and I hoped that this book would shed some more light on that song collection. Admittedly I had used this source as a means of data point collection, but the experience of reading this particular collection was very fascinating and speaks to the troubling nature of her data collection.

This book was a compilation of case studies by Frances Densmore, who had died before this was published in 1968. Seeing her words in retrospect present glaring issues regarding her placement of herself in her articles. The very beginning of this book includes a full page spread of Densmore, the clear protagonist of her story. There are plenty of instances where there are personal, almost humorous, asides included in her notation. Not only does this disrupt the reading, they are instances in a trend of Densmore centering herself and her white perspective in place of ethical research. 

In describing the death of a Chippewa Chief, she places herself in the situation. After describing his death and the ritual following, she says “I never felt so alone”, giving herself the spotlight in this “academic” research. She goes on to say in another chapter, “Not for any money would I have parted with the sensation of having been the only white woman in a village of the most ferocious savages in the world”. There is problematic language to boot, selfish centering of this author in the research, among many sections of notating Native music using classical methods, which is to be expected. To our modern sensibilities, this language is very problematic and the exotisicm of Native people made the experience of my reading very jarring. 

Seeing collections like Denmore’s is what makes Indigenous song collection troubling, and what focuses my group’s personal song collection. Too often the culture and music of Native Americans is minimized, trivialized and disrespected. It is a bittersweet fact that Densmore is one of the premiere researchers of Native American music in our history. While her work is quite valuable in retrospect, her methods could be improved greatly and it is our responsibility as music researchers to rise to that challenge.


Hofmann, Charles. Frances Densmore and American Indian Music. XXIII, Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, 1968.

Ellington: A Look At One’s Own Identity

Discussion in class lately has focused a lot on what are the right ways to study music that is not from our culture or with things that are unfamiliar to ourselves. While we aim to learn and gain knowledge from those around us we often go about doing so in the wrong ways. I found myself captivated by the need to first look at my own identity before I can even begin to learn from someone else. I think it is important when trying to understand identity you have to understand your own and the significance of that.

Reading into Duke Ellington, I cam across a book that he wrote about himself. The book spans over 500 pages and is filled with his reflections on every aspect of his musical persona. Speaking in first, second, and third person narrative, Ellington delves into the depths of his music identity.Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Paperback): Ellington, Edward Kennedy: 8601421907941: Books The book is falling apart at the seams and the plastic jacket put on by the library seems to be the only thing keeping it intact. Enjoying the book so much to the point of wanting my own copy I quickly found it near impossible to find a “new” copy of the book and every copy I can across was in similar condition. Skimming through the book one sees it is set up as a performance with multiple “acts” that divide the book up. The “blurb” or synopsis of the book (written by Ellington) draws the reader in with his third person perspective.

“My Favorite Tune? The next one. The one I’m writing tonight or tomorrow, the new baby is always the favorite….The author of these words has created some of the best-loved music in the world: ‘Mood Indigo,’ ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ ‘Caravan,’ ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘Solitude.’ More of a performance than a memoir, this book by Duke is Duke, with everything but the soundtrack. He never wanted to write an autobiography and he hasn’t. What he’s done is lay it all down– the times he’s had, the people he’s know. A superior name-dropper, the Duke only drops names he knows– and he’s known them all: Presidents, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, and most especially his own “boys in the band,” Billy Strayhorn, arranger–lyricist who was “my right arm, my left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head,” plus Sonny Greer, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, and many others. There are short takes: essays on his philosophy of life (Music, Night Life, God and Wisdom, all pass scrutiny); journals of his triumphant tours across the world; and his “Sacred Concerts.” Throughout, he writes with all the elegance, panache, sophistication, and innocence that are marks of his unforgettable music Duke Ellington’s talent radiates a special energy, and a magic that could only evolve from a grandiose love of life. His book, bursting with anecdote and spirits, honors that great gift.”

While the book goes through each “Act” and looks at his tours, the numerous big names he has gotten to know, his personal philosophy of life, and different journal articles about it; it also includes an interview he holds with himself. This was a part I found most fascinating as he conducts a very well done interview with himself that asks questions such as “Do you consider yourself as a forerunner n the advanced musical trends derived from jazz?,” “How do you regard the phenomenon of the black race’s contribution to the U.S. and world culture?,” “What is God for you”, “What does America mean to you,” and so many more.

I was quickly taken by this book and immensely curious to its contents. I found that Duke’s performances have to include the art of writing this autobiography-that-is-not-an-autobiography. This book is valuable information into the life of Duke Ellington. If we could’ve had a book written like this (or maybe spoken aloud) by specific Native American tribes we would learn so much about their perspective of their own music. It’s a great example of quality sources with credible authors. In class (and especially in my education classes) we discuss how everyone is an expert in their life and to their identity. While looking at one individual is not always the best way to learn about a whole group of people it is a great place to start.

William Grant Still “On Composing for the Harp”

In previous blogposts, classmate Abigail Davis explored the relationship between ideas of harp playing and race in her posts “The Harp: Do You See it as a White Instrument” part I and II. As I was searching for primary source materials for this blogpost, I came across an article written by William Grant Still called “On Composing for the Harp”, which expands on Abigail’s research of non-Western harp instruments.

William Grant Still, an American composer and the first black American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, turned to his roots for musical inspiration. He rejected spirituals as a source for music because of the caucasian influence that was present in the genre, and instead took blues as his inspiration, as heard in Afro-American Symphony.

Listen for the 12 bar blues in the first movement:

When writing one of his compositions for harp, an instrument that he was not very familiar with, he turned to his African roots for inspiration, in particular one of the Nilotic African tribes. For the name of the composition, he used the title “Ennanga”, which is a bow harp that resembles an Egyptian harp. It is played on the performers lap, can be carried around, and found over many parts of Africa. Grant Still did not wish to imitate the sound of the ennanga, but he did intend to identify the harp instrument as an influential source for his composition.


In Grant Still’s article, he describes the importance that the title had to an audience member from Uganda:

A young man from Uganda came backstage to say that he recognized the word “ennanga” as belonging to his people, that he felt a kinship with the music, and that it reminded him of home. For him, at least, the music had accomplished its purpose.

In accounts like this one, we can see the importance of bringing into conversation a more encompassing history of the harp. Abigail started an important discussion in her blog posts, one that led to me challenge my initial association with the harp. Along with other primary sources like Grant Still’s writing, we can continue to explore the rich history and repertoire that is often left out of the canon.

Works Cited

Davis, A. (2021, September 27). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music.

Davis, A. (2021, October 18). The harp: Do you see it as a white instrument? Part ii. Music 345: Race, Identity, and Representation in American Music.

Ennanga: Fig.1: Ennanga [arched harp or bow harp], West Nile, Uganda, c1970. Edinburgh University. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Nov. 2021, from

Grant, W. (2021). On composing for the harp. The American Harp Journal, , 36-37. Retrieved from

Watch out boys, we got a stinker

There’s a saying circulating around the internets that probably originated with a Lindsay Ellis YouTube video that goes something like “we all have the stink on us.”1 In her video essay, the “stink” refers to the stink of racism and, more broadly, bigotry, and how no one can escape the odiousness of racism regardless of how “woke” they are, to use Cool Teen Slangᵀᴹ. Her point was that she had slipped up and made several mistakes but did not deserve the barrage of hate and vitriol she received in the blood eagle ritual that was her Twitter cancellation because the very people crucifying her were just as odorous as she.

We can sniff out the stink in musicology too: if you turn up that nose, it’s not hard to run into a Pig-Pen or several, especially in the history of American music (should we retire the metaphor?). Amy Beach was extraordinarily progressive for her day, once writing in 1893 in response to Dvorak’s use of African American melodies in his 9th symphony:

“It seems to me that, in order to make the best use of folk-songs of any nation as material for musical composition, the writer should be one of the people whose music he chooses, or at least brought up among them.”2

Ironically, a decade or so later Beach would compose works using Native American themes and melodies, the first being a set titled “Esk*mos – 4 Characteristic Pieces for Piano”3 published in 1907. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to smell something funky.

Alas, Beach was not a lone durian fruit in a field of roses; her compositions using Native American melodies, whether authentic or not, was part of a wider trend of white composers attempting to define an “indigenously American” music. Some of the usual suspects were Edward MacDowell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Arthur Farwell, the proprietor of Wa-Wan Press, which published his and other’s Western classical arrangements of Native American melodies.4 Needless to say, it’s like a corpse flower is in full bloom.

Beach’s stink is therefore somewhat understandable; she was following trends to stay relevant and didn’t have a framework to check herself against, nor the support from fellow composers to take a proverbial bath. So what do we do? I say we could at least stop performing her “Indian” pieces, and those of her white contemporaries. There is plenty of folk-inspired music by her and others to make up for whatever we feel we might have lost, and give them the bubble bath that they’ve long been needing.

1 Lindsay Ellis, “Mask Off,” 15 April 2021, video essay, 1:40:31,

2 Beach, Amy, “American Music,” Boston Herald 28 May 1893.

3 Slur used against the Inuit people censored. Amy Beach, “Esk*mos, Op.64,” set of piano solo pieces,*mos,_Op.64_(Beach,_Amy_Marcy)

4 Block, Adrienne Fried. “Amy Beach’s Music on Native American Themes.” American Music 8, no. 2 (1990): 141–66.

Two of my favorite composers… “corresponding”?

Florence Price (1887 – 1953)

I am a huge fan of both Florence Price’s and Serge Koussevitzky’s works, having played and listened to a number of them myself. I (with the generous help of Professor Epstein and Karen Olson) tracked down a letter from Price to Koussevitzky dated 5 July 1943 in a scholarly edition of Price’s Symphonies 1 and 3, edited by Rae Linda Brown and Wayne Shirley1.

Price opens this letter by writing:

“To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.”

She writes about her cultural heritage and how she’s worked to incorporate her culture into her music. Price goes on to say she “truly understands the real Negro music.” She finishes her letter by directly asking Koussevitzky, “will you examine one of my scores?” Over the course of nine years (1935 – 1944), Price wrote seven letters to Koussevitzky. She never got a personal response back. On two occasions (17 November 1943 and 31 October 1944), his secretary responded to her, but we do not know what the response said. In October 1944, Koussevitzky looked at one of her scores, but did not program any of her works.

Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951)

Serge Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony, composer, and world-renowned double bass virtuoso. He was known for not only supporting and programming works by living American composers, but commissioning new works for the Boston Symphony as well. Florence Price knew this, and knew her works were being perceived through a number of lenses by her audience. She admits this in her letter, and asks Koussevitzky to look past it and program her work anyway. Unfortunately, he never did.

We could view this as a concrete example of something that is indicative of the available sources about female composers, and composers of color. Clearly, there is significantly less information out there about marginalized groups. Even in our own music library, the imbalance between sources is obvious. When I searched for scores by Florence Price in our library database, I found that the library has 29 physical scores. When searching for a white male composer of similar dates, Jean Sibelius, I found the library has 119 sources. Well, maybe that’s because Price is American and Sibelius isn’t? What about Charles Ives? 115 scores in the library. I don’t think we can dodge the real reason any longer. Florence Price said it herself: she is a female composer of color, and that is why her work is lesser known today. People like Koussevitzky who claim to want to support American composers, but only if the composer fits a certain mold, are the reason these composers are lesser known today. We can start the work to fix this problem now, and great work is already being done to bring underrepresented works to light, but it should’ve started a long time ago.

Works Cited:

[1] Price, Florence, Rae Linda Brown, Wayne D. Shirley, and Florence Price. “Symphonies nos. 1 and 3 ” Middleton, Wis: Published for the American Musicological Society by A-R Editions, 2008.

Aaron Copland and Jazz

American composer, Aaron Copland, is one of the most well known composers of the 20th century and one of the largest influencers of “American Music” … whatever that means. I still don’t know.

The Piano Concerto is one of Copland’s compositions with heavy jazz influences. It was first performed in Boston on January 28, 1927. While it is regarded a success today, upon its premiere it did not receive that recognition. After reading letters from listeners following the premier of the Piano Concerto, Copland wrote to Russian composer, Nicolas Slonimsky, on his reaction to the general public’s distaste of the composition.

“How flattering it was to read that the ‘Listener’ can understand Strauss, Debussy, Stravinsky – but not poor me. How instructive to learn that there is ‘no rhythm in this so-called concerto.’” 1

Gertrude Norman and Miriam Lubell Shrifte, Letters of Composers, an Anthology (New York: The Universal Library Grosset & Dunlap, 1927), 401.

In this concerto,  “Copland himself explicitly states that he intended in this piece to explore the possible applications and extensions of jazz rhythm to modern art music”2. But why was the public so adamant against this piece? Perhaps it was the placement of jazz in the concert hall.

“The challenge was to do these complex vertical and horizontal experiments and still retain a transparent and lucid texture and a feeling of spontaneity and natural flow. If I felt I had gone to the extreme of where jazz could take me, the audiences and critics in Boston all thought I had gone too far.”3

Copland had many influences on his music, including Ravel, Rouseel, Satie, Milhaud, and Stravinsky. Copland’s main influence that I want to explore is jazz. Milhaud and Les Six are often credited with influencing Copland’s “jazzier” works. Something to explore in greater depth is the implications of limiting Copland’s influencers, especially when it comes to jazz, to white men and why the audience in Boston reacted the way they did when they heard jazz infiltrate their concert halls.

“Music of North American Indians”: A Textbook Approach

St. Olaf’s Halvorson Music Library is home to an exciting and surprising collection of primary sources that we can and will use as we develop our final mapping projects throughout the remainder of the semester. Recently, in both our projects and class discussions, we have been asked us to consider the ways that members of the St. Olaf community should study music made and disseminated by Indigenous people. 

Accompanying the question of how Indigenous music should be studied, one of the more serious questions that we’ve considered in our class, is how much of the kind of language that we associate with western art music should we use in our discussions of other musical traditions. Alongside this question, we have emphasized the significance of incorporating the voices of Indigenous practitioners and scholars into our study of Indigenous music. Scholars like Trevor Reed or Tara Browner have become voices that we’ve engaged with as we try to discern the existing scholarly conversation surrounding the study if Indigenous music.

Louis W. Ballard’s 1975 textbook-style guide to Music of North American Indians offers an interesting complication to the consideration of the ways that we study music made by Indigenous peoples and the language we should use to talk about it [1]. Ballard’s book provides a map that places various groups of American Indians according to their tribe and affiliation, description and photos of instruments, as well as performance practice and composition-style instructions. Ballard was of Cherokee-Quapaw descent and is known for his compositions that combine elements of traditional Native American music and western classical music [2]. 

As an Indigenous practitioner of Cherokee music, Ballard’s booklet provides an intriguing perspective on how an Indigenous musician might use the language of western classical music to describe one’s own traditional music for a broader audience. In Ballard’s career, he composed pieces like “Incident at Wounded Knee” (1974) which narrated the 1890 massacre of Oglala Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890. This piece premiered with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Another one of his pieces,“Katcina Danses,” were inspired by traditional Hopi musical practice. 

Though Ballard refers to many different Indigenous musical practices, it is important to acknowledge that his perspective does not hold sole authority over the characterization of culture and Indigenous music. Ballard’s book was used as an educational tool that catered towards a younger audience most familiar with standard western musical notation. His book offers one perspective, but ultimately makes some interesting characterizations about the “Music of North American Indians.” The booklet is written from an Indigenous perspective, but ultimately creates some broader generalizations about Indigenous music practice as a whole. It can also provide valuable information about the development of education surrounding Indigenous music practice. Ultimately, when considering the best ways to decolonize our listening practices and continue an ethical and equitable study of Indigenous music, one point-of-view doesn’t ever provide a comprehensive viewpoint, regardless of who is providing that perspective.


[1] Ballard, Louis W. Music of North American Indians. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Music, 1975.

[2] Perea, John-Carlos. “Louis Ballard.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Accessed November 8, 2021.




Emile Petitot and the Authenticity Talk

In this week’s discussion, we talked about Frances Densmore and her work on native American music. Like a lot of the scholars we talked about in class, she is an interesting and conflicting character. For today’s post, I want to talk about something I found that is sort of similar to Densmore’s work. At the same time, we can have a conversation about authenticity and who defines it, how to define it (if that is even possible), as well as if it actually exists.

This source is an interesting transcription of some indigenous songs sung by people from various tribes from northwest Canada. This source dated back to 1862 to 1882, which is when Father Emile Petitot spent time in Mackenzie, British Columbia as a missionary priest to the indigenous people on the land. He collected, notated and transcribed their dances, games and ceremonies and put them together, which is the source I am introducing now. He also notated this in French. It is hard to determine who benefits from this source, but it is definitely safe to say that the indigenous people did not get enough credit for this. Emile Petitot is a guy with a ton of middle names (his full name is Emile-Fortune-Stanislas-Joseph Petitot) AND an Inuk name that translates to “Mr. Petitot, son of the sun.” He was a linguist and ethnologist, but I am not sure how credible he is at music notations. Given the fact that he was a priest, it would be reasonable to assume that he has at least some basic knowledge of music to support this transcription. However, it is always good to be a bit skeptical.

The source itself is like a lens that looks into the issue of transcribing music from a different culture, because it just seemed quite lacking. There was not really any background information about the music that was notated, other than titles, and on top of that his handwriting is very hard to read sometimes… The music notation seems to be very straight and there were only quarter notes and eighth notes, which could be how the music was, but once again, I am skeptical because of how much was neglected. Some of the pieces have key signatures and most of the pieces have time signatures, which to me is quite odd as well. I think this way of notation is basically putting a musical practice that does not stem from the Western Classical environment: it obviously would not go well. 

This leads me back to Frances Densmore, who I personally think is doing at least something right. I am not saying that she is the end-all-be-all scholar for native American music; I would never put that title on someone who isn’t from the culture. However, I definitely would argue that recording the songs works so much better than notations, since you can physically hear the indigenous people singing the songs. People might also argue that it might not be as authentic if the musicians were being recorded; my thought is that yes, that might not be ideal, but there’s so many factors, some we can’t even control. Maybe there is no real authenticity.


Works Cited

Petitot, Father, Emile. 1862-1889. Chants indiens du Canada Nord-Ouest [manuscript]: recueillis, classés et notés par Émile Petitot, prêtre missionnaire au Mackenzie, de 1862-1882, 1889. [Manuscript]. At: Place: The Newberry Library. VAULT box Ayer MS 715. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed November 03, 2021].

Savoie, Donat. “Emile Petitot (1838-1916).” Arctic, vol. 35, no. 3, Arctic Institute of North America, 1982, pp. 446–47,

Stomp Dance and Researching the Role of Native American Women


For this week’s blog post, I decided to analyze a musical instrument that I have never encountered before this class: “Women’s Stomp Dance rattles” from the National Museum of the American Indian– pictured below. In Dr. Kheshgi’s World Music class, students explore a few Native Americans dances, some of which are located here in Minnesota. Of these dances, I remember the Jingle Dress Dance and the Hoop Dance, but not the Stomp Dance (something new!). Also, the title of these rattles are attributed to a Native American woman who might have used them. My initial research question centered around what a Stomp Dance sounded like and what the role of women was in a performance. 

“Women’s Stomp Dance Rattles.” National Museum of the American Indian. c.1900. Retrieved from the Smithsonian Institution at this link: 

In my research, I found this article particularly useful in figuring out the purpose of these Women’s Stomp Dance rattles: “The Opposite of Powwow: Ignoring and Incorporating the Intertribal War Dance in the Oklahoma Stomp Dance Community.” According to this analysis, a stomp dance maintains some specific characteristics in order to be considered successful. The people involved in the process include a leader, an accompanying shell shaker, and followers who were primarily “friends and townspeople (or fellow tribesmen and women) who know [the leader] and [their] songs best.” The purpose of having an ensemble of known members would reflect well on both the leader and the surrounding community.

Additionally, Jason Baird Jackson describes women using shells or aluminum cans fastened “around their calves beneath a loose-fitting cotton dress.” The role of women in this dance is not to sing the accompanying music, “but instead provide accompaniment through skill manipulation of their shells or cans while dancing. The singing and general leading of this dance is for a man. 

Below is a link to a Shawnee Stomp Dance, which Jackson groups together with Seminole Native Americans under the larger regional grouping of “Woodland Indians” and would therefore be representative of the music these particular rattles would have participated in:

Shawnee Stomp Dance

Here’s a historical map from around the time of this instrument’s collection to show the close proximity of these tribes:

Rand Mcnally And Company. Map of the Indian and Oklahoma territories. [S.l, 1892] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

In my search for more information regarding the general role of Native American women in these stomp dances, this article presented a more intriguing question for me:   “‘She’s the Center of My Life, the One That Keeps My Heart Open’: Roles and Expectations of Native American Women.” Scholars Jessica L. Liddell,  Catherine E McKinley, Hannah Knipp, and Jenn Miller Scarnato describe the shift in the role of women in Native American society. Prior to colonization, “gender roles were viewed as complementary rather than hierarchical.” Many events and activities were considered “cooperative tasks,” providing fluidity in the roles of men and women in Native American society. Colonization imposed these patriarchal roles that persist today. Researching for this blog post makes me wonder how this shift in gender roles applies to the creation of Native American music or dances. Were Native American women always the accompanying part to stomp dance performances? Why do only men lead the dance? 

Therefore, dear reader, I ask if you have any thoughts or insights regarding this question, and implore you to leave some of them below in the comments. If not, maybe a paper exists somewhere in this blog post. 



Britannica Academic, s.v. “Seminole,” accessed November 2, 2021,

Jackson, Jason Baird. “The Opposite of Powwow: Ignoring and Incorporating the Intertribal War Dance in the Oklahoma Stomp Dance Community.” Plains Anthropologist 48, no. 187 (2003): 237–53.

Liddell, Jessica L, Catherine E McKinley, Hannah Knipp, and Jenn Miller Scarnato. “‘She’s the Center of My Life, the One That Keeps My Heart Open’: Roles and Expectations of Native American Women.” Affilia 36, no. 3 (2021): 357–375. 

Rand Mcnally And Company. Map of the Indian and Oklahoma territories. [S.l, 1892] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>. 

Vigil, Kiara M. Review of Expanding Interpretations of Native American Women’s History, by Tadeusz Lewandowski, Joe Starita, Christine Lesiak, Princella RedCorn, Patrick Deval, and Jane-Marie Todd. Great Plains Quarterly 37, no. 2 (2017): 131–44.


The Oblivious Indian School Curriculum

Currently, there have been over 1000 children’s graves recovered at the sites of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. These schools were an assimilation tactic used by both the United States and Canada from the 1880s-1980s and were the site of horrific abuse and tragedy.

The curriculum for these schools in the US was ascribed by the book Tentative Course of Study for United States Indian Schools, published in 1915 by the US government’s office of Indian Affairs. In every grade, the children were made to study music. There’s a section about the study of music, and the way in which the curriculum is written helps to highlight the ambivalence of the US government to the native communities. 


This is an excerpt from page 111. It explains the topics of instruction.











The beginning of the second paragraph reads, “The first requirement for musical training in the schoolroom is to permit the pupils to only hear good music.” I found this particularly interesting, because, as we know, it’s almost impossible to label music as “good music.” This may be implying that native music is bad, but the text never says that outright. But what it does go on to mention is that singing should always be done with a “good, smooth, sweet, light, and pure tone.” This is important to note because a pure tone (in the western sense) is not something that is highly valued in Native American music. In many native songs, the vocal quality is more raw and focused, as can be heard in this recording of “War Dance Song,” music of the Plains Indians.

There’s also a strong focus on drilling intervals and sight singing. We know from countless charts and attempts to measure native intervals that our scales are not the same, so intervals and sight singing must have been extremely challenging for these children. There’s also a mention of music “stories,” where the teacher would be expected to give information about the history of Mozart and Beethoven. This is especially disheartening, given how we know that many native tribes used song and dance to tell their own stories. 

In all of this writing, there’s no mention of native culture or references to these children being from native tribes. It really seems as if the US government was trying to create a blank slate for these children, not talking about them as “less than” or being outright racist. But by erasing their history, the authors of this book are contributing to the violence enacted against them. These children entered these schools against their will, bringing with them the extreme trauma of being stolen from their homes and forced into a new environment. Erasing all aspects of their history is cultural genocide, and definitely made it easier to ignore the atrocities enacted by the authorities in these schools.


Office of Indian Affairs. “Tentative Course of Study for United States Indian Schools.” Accessed November 1, 2021.

Young, Robin, and Camila Beiner. “Indigenous Kids’ Bodies Recovered – Not Discovered, Says Canada’s Assembly of First Nations Chief.” WBUR, July 20, 2021.

St. John’s Mission, or, a Tricky Research Process

While browsing the “American Indian Histories and Cultures” database, I came across this picture:

“Girls musical club”. Photograph. 1916. From American Indian Histories and Cultures. St. John’s Mission photographs.

This picture is of the “Girl’s Musical Club” of the St. John’s Mission. The picture was taken in 1916. I noticed quite a few interesting things about this picture, notably the instruments the girls are holding (lutes and guitars), and the caption on the top of the photograph. It reads as follows:

“Girl’s musical club. All instruments are donated. You yourself made a kind donation to the Sisters in charge.”

And immediately I had more questions than answers. Who is this caption addressing? What is the girl’s musical club? Who made the donations and why? Who wrote this caption?

I did some digging, and found a bit of information. According to the Arizona Memory Project1, the St. John’s mission was located in Komatke Arizona, on the Gila River Indian Reservation. It did not appear to be hugely long-lasting or successful, but seemed to value a Western music education as important. In fact, after her appointment to missionary teacher, Mrs. Stout wrote a letter that drew attention to this fact. In 1872, she said,

“Let me thank you for sending us the organ and things for the children…The organ is such a nice one and pleased the children so much. It will be a great comfort to us also, for I don’t know what it is to live without some kind of a musical instrument…2

It seems that the St. John’s Mission education recognized the innate human need for music. However, in the research I did, I found no discussion or report of Indigenous music from the missionary’s perspective. In the future, I think it would be interesting to try to locate sources that explicitly talked about Indigenous music from white people (especially missionaries’) perspective.

One thing that made this particular photograph initially interesting to me was not only the photograph itself, but the handwritten caption that goes along with it. To try to figure this one out, I generalized my research focus to try to find out about who would’ve donated instruments to schools or missionaries. Unfortunately, after many databases (including plain old Google), many search terms and phrases, and lots of frustration, I was unable to find much concrete evidence about this. My best inference is that these instruments were donated by either wealthy patrons/supporters of the missions, or were made cheaply for the express purpose of being a “school instrument”. I think the instruments were mass-manufactured (factory-made) in some way, because they all appear fairly similar, with the same body shapes, colors, and details.

It is still unclear to me who might’ve written this note and to whom it was addressed, and I want to try to do some more digging into this (look forward to my last blog post!).

While I still have many questions, one thing that is clear to me is the importance of music education to missionary schools, which also points to the high value white Europeans still placed on music even when they were geographically elsewhere.


Works Cited:

[1] “St. John’s Mission, Komatke, Gila River Reservation, AZ: Papago Indian Children.” Arizona Memory Project.

[2] “Among the Pimas, or, the Mission to the Pima and Maricopa Indians – American Indian Histories and Cultures”. Adam Matthew (Digital).” 1893.

The Role Music Played in Assimilation at Carlisle Indian School

United States Indian Industrial School. 1895-1900. United States Indian industrial school, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed November 02, 2021].

Boarding schools were a tactic used by the American Government to assimilate Native American children from the 17th through the 20th century. Boarding schools isolated indigenous children from their families and communities and stripped them of their cultures by cutting their hair, requiring uniforms, ignoring students given names and forbidding use of their native languages. One large influence on the assimilation of native children that is often not discussed is the music taught and performed at these schools.

In 1879, Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first government run boarding school for Native Americans to open. Carlisle was known nationally for their extracurriculars such as their band and football team. Like the academic classroom settings, these extracurriculars were centered around promoting American ideals1. For example, students put on a performance of, “The Captain of Plymouth,” an opera that celebrates the white settlers’ arrival to America.

Program for performance of “Captain of the Plymouth” at Carlisle Indian School in 1909

Students played and celebrated their white colonizers in this play and had to perform songs such as, “Hail Captain of Plymouth” and “Indian Lullaby”. 

Students at Carlisle were required to take music classes and were taught exclusively Western Classical music. Music was used to enhance the Christian teachings forced on the students as the orchestra and band played for evening Sunday services. Even in the course description of their music offerings, Carlisle makes it clear that there is only one way to make music. The white way.

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 October 31, 2021].

“There is, too, a vocal department, which includes the class work and singing exercises, where all are taught the rudiments of music”

The phrasing, “the rudiments of music” implies that there is only one way to make music, and the way students made music at home was incorrect. Furthering the assimilation practices, the course catalogue encourages western music to be made at “student social gatherings.”

Indigenous people are still impacted from the trauma these boarding schools and white colonizers inflicted upon them. Better understanding the harmful effects western classical music had on Native Americans can steer us in the right direction towards healing.

White People Things: Smothering Peaceful Protests With Violence

Let’s talk about the Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance began as the result of a series of visions by a Paiute elder around 1869 that the Earth would experience healing and the Paiute people would receive help. Twenty years later, another Paiute leader had visions of land being restored to all native people, and Europeans leaving native people alone. He believed that this dance would help his visions become reality. Representatives from different tribes came to hear from this Paiute leader, causing the Ghost Dance to spread, evolve, and be performed as a means of peaceful protest in different native languages1.

(I tried embedding recordings of the Ghost Dance, but was unsuccessful, so you can listen here.2)

But naturally, when white people learned about the spread of this dance across different native groups and the meaning behind the dance, they felt threatened.

An article published on Oct. 28, 1890 in the Chicago Tribune, found through the American Indian Histories and Cultures database, illustrates the fear that white people were trying to stir up about the Ghost Dance. The article begins by discussing the visions that led to the dance, saying of the visions, “they promise… that the white man will be annihilated and the Indian restored to his former power and prestige”. The article then goes on to describe the “Evil Influences of Sitting Bull”, a Lakota chief in South Dakota. The article quotes Agent James McLaughlin, a US Indian Service Agent, who says of Sitting Bull, “He is a man of low cunning, devoid of a single manly principle in his nature, or an honorable trait of character”. The article also informs readers that McLaughlin sent a Lieutenant to tell Sitting Bull “that his insolence and bad behavior would not be tolerated longer and that the ‘ghost dance’ must not be continued.” Sitting Bull told the Lieutenant “that he was determined to continue the ghost dance”, since the Great Spirit said they must do so. McLaughlin seemed determined that he could change Sitting Bull’s mind3.

On Dec. 15th, 1890, less than two months later, when police came to put an end to the Ghost Dance ceremony, Sitting Bull disagreed and was killed. Between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children who tried to escape to safety were killed in what is known now as the Wounded Knee Massacre, but referenced in many outdated history books as “The Battle of Wounded Knee”. The U.S. soldiers who killed Lakota men, women, and children received the Congressional Medal of Honor4.

All of this violence occurred over what? A dance. A dance that seems to have been effectively smothered over time, as I could not find any sources of it still being performed today.

What can we learn from this? We can learn to be wary of news sources which describe people or cultural practices in heightened, emotional language. We can learn to ask ourselves when we feel threatened, and why. We can learn to ask what musical practices we have suppressed in the past because they made us uncomfortable, and what musical practices we suppress today.



1 Hall, Stephanie. “James Mooney Recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs, 1894.” James Mooney Recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs, 1894 | Folklife Today, 17 Nov. 2017,

2 Mooney, James, and Smithsonian Institution. Bureau Of Ethnology. James Mooney recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance songs. [Washington, D.C.: E. Berliner, 1894] Audio.

3 Parker, Ely Samuel (1828-1895). 1828-1894. Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 10. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed November 01, 2021].

4 Hall, Stephanie. “James Mooney Recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs, 1894.” James Mooney Recordings of American Indian Ghost Dance Songs, 1894 | Folklife Today, 17 Nov. 2017,

Transcribing Indigenous Songs

After our last class, I have been thinking about how early scholars of Indigenous music (like Frances Densmore) often come from outside of the Indigenous community. Densmore and others often receive praise for recording Indigenous music in a white savior sort of way. I found Emile Petitot’s transcription of Indigenous chants in what is now called Mackenzie, British Columbia, Canada. I was curious about who Petitot was, his relationship with the Indigenous tribes he studied, and what he sought to accomplish.

Petitot was a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, part of the Catholic Church, who left France for a 12-year mission.1 He was primarily interested in geography and ethnography of the regions he studied and wrote several books on translations of tribal languages to French, his visit to the Tchiglit Inuit, and cultural traditions of a half dozen other tribes.2 Continue reading

Women in Native American Music: Can Egalitarian Tradition Translate Into the Music Culture?

Who knew that a simple word search of “women” could bring me to thinking about feminism in the United States in relation to Native American women and their influence? In my search for primary sources, I wanted to dive deeper on my understanding of the Native American culture pertaining to women. But the obvious question reveals itself: what about women in Native American music? This question was secondary to my research- I found it necessary to get a really solid foundation on Native American women traditions. But regardless, there is something to say about the history and traditions of Native American women and how they were viewed and how they viewed themselves within the environments they lived in. This search process started when I came across various newspaper articles and book sections that discussed Native American women- in tradition and in practice.

Akwesasne Notes, Vol. 13, No. 5, Dec 1981, © The Newberry Library

This first primary source I came across was written by Katsi Cook, a young Mohawk woman, “lay midwife and organizer around women’s health care issues” who played a vital role in Native American women’s advocacy and health. She is the found of the Women’s Dance Health Program in Minneapolis, MN- “translating traditional concepts into a practical tool” for women’s health. Cook goes in great depth about the “origin” of the woman and how various cosmologies have shaped the way that women are viewed in the Native American culture and how they’ve viewed themselves. Cook’s descriptions of the traditional view and journey to womanhood in the Native American culture leads to the emphasis on the dire need for women, the “center of the Circle of Life”, in their culture.

“Women are the base of the generations. They are the carriers of the culture.” -Katsi Cook

I found a newspaper article that supports the theme of the importance of women and the strong role that they have in the Native American culture. This article advertising the Native American Women’s Action Council stood out to me in just how much importance this seemed to hold, even in the 1970s, when the US at the time was ramping up its second wave of feminism pushing for equality. But that’s the thing. Native American women are viewed as equals in their societies. In an article written by Sally Roesch Wagner, the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquis) Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes) women have lived with “rights, sovereignty, and integrity” a lot longer than the European settlers that came after them. The suffrage leaders Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Fletcher, etc. learned a great deal from the Native American women in the late 19th century. There were stark differences in the way women were treated, viewed, and valued.

“Fletcher explained to the International Council, ‘As I have tried to explain our statutes to Indian women, I have met with but one response. They have said: ‘As an Indian woman I was free. I owned my home, my person, the work of my own hands, and my children could never forget me. I was better as an Indian woman than under white law.’” -Wagner

In reading about all the ways Native American women were able to participate and have authority over so many aspects of their culture, it made me ask about how that translated to the music. Did this egalitarian culture of the Native Americans have any influence on how women were involved in the music scene? I couldn’t help but think that it did. It honestly makes me sad that I do not know more about this type of representation. And I feel as if I have barely scratched off the very top layer on this topic. In our Western education, we put a lot of emphasis on mis- and underrepresentation of white, Euro-American women composers and performers, but there is so much more music that has yet to be emphasized and women to be recognized.

A Christian Hymn in an Endangered Language

This week, I came three Christian hymns translated into some indigenous languages of the Northwest coast. One of these, a Chinookan language, is spoken by the Chinook people whose native lands are in what is now called Washington and Oregon (Britannica). The Chinook people have their own spiritual practices that emphasize the powers of nature, but many of them were forced or coerced into Christianity by white missionaries (The American History). This forced Christianization often took place at residential schools where children were forced to abandon their Native culture and assimilate to European cultural norms. Besides the trauma of being separated from their culture, these children were often subject to other kinds of horrific abuse (Hanson).

The hymn pictured below was translated into Chinook in 1892 by Charles Montgomery Tate, a Methodist minister who ran such a school (The Children Remembered). The hymn is a verse and chorus of “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Tate).
I think it is puzzling to find hymns that have been translated into the languages of indigenous peoples, because the ultimate goal of ministers like Charles Montgomery Tate was to assimilate Native Americans into white Christian culture, robbing them of their traditions and even their languages; the Chinookan languages are in danger of extinction, with all of the native speakers of the languages deceased, and very few speakers left at all (Vachter). But in addition to his conversion efforts, Tate also did a lot of work in translating indigenous languages, for example, the Chinookan to English dictionary pictured below (Tate).

What is sad is that some of the only written evidence of how Chinookan languages might have sounded in the past was written by the very people who sought to rob Chinook people of their language and culture. Unfortunately, it is often the case that those in power are the ones who write history; as we have discussed in class, much of the written evidence of how early African American music sounded was written by white slaveholders. As musicologists and historians, it is important to recognize that the primary sources that are left over often leave out the voices most suited to speak to musical and linguistic traditions: the practitioners of those traditions themselves.

Lily Strickland

Spirituals are a popular topic for discussion in vocal music because they bring about many questions to consider. The genre was created by black enslaved people and later notated and arranged by various composers. However, their origins make us pause to consider whether or not predominately white ensembles or vocalists should be allowed to perform these works. I think the general consensus on the subject is “yes, but…”. Conductors should be careful not to tokenize the spiritual in their repertoire for the night, perform it last as is often the case, provide informative program notes about every piece, and they should ensure the song is sung appropriately. There are many more things to say about this subject, however, you get the picture. Likewise, I would argue, and I think most would agree, that while we should perform spirituals by black composers, performing spirituals arranged by white composers is highly problematic. Lily Strickland is one such white composer from South Carolina, and the song in question today is “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”.

Strickland was born in South Carolina in 1884 and died in 1958. She wrote many songs ‘inspired by her southern upbringing and black spirituals and dialect and then her later music reflected her experiences in the continents of Asia and Africa and also wrote works imitating songs of indigenous people. She was wildly successful and her works were played by famous ensembles including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, Melissa Walker, a writer for the South Carolina encyclopedia claims that Strickland wanted to rebel against cultural norms for women in the South1. Arguably, Strickland’s work and success were highly unusual for a female composer in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and so it is really hard as a feminist to face the fact that most of her music plays into harmful practices of cultural appropriation, especially pertaining to her numerous papers on Asia which perpetuate orientalism that I came across while searching through the St Olaf library. Therefore, celebrating or performing her work seems impossible and highly problematic today with our modern lens.

One of her pieces I stumbled across on the Sheet Music Consortium database is the aforementioned “Dah’s Gwinter Be Er Lan’slide”. This song is allegedly “A Negro Sermon” about the coming of Christ. The lyrics imitate southern black dialect and contain phrases like “All who don wanter get lef’ in de lurch, Had bedder cum up now an’ jine de church…”2  From the song title, to the fact that she calls it a “Negro Spiritual”, to the imitation of black dialect, this song is already racist for so many reasons. First of all, the text was written by Teresa Strickland. Teresa Strickland was Lily Strickland’s mother, but it was also lily Strickland’s middle name. Therefore, I’m unsure as to which of the women wrote the text. Regardless, it was written by a white woman, and therefore the language is an unacceptable form of appropriation by today’s standards, and also a blatant falsehood to call it a sermon written by a black person.

Lastly, what frustrated me as I did my research was the lack of critical lens applied by scholars to Strickland’s work. I saw books and scholarly articles that all celebrated her pieces, books, and artwork, but nothing that took a deeper glance into the racism she partook in and the implication of performing her works, and especially the spiritual I discussed.



1Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016.

2Walker, Melissa. “Strickland, Lily.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies, November 18, 2016.

Frances Densmore and the “Well-Meaning” White Woman

As we enter into this section of our class and begin to grapple with the complexities of Native American song collection, I really wanted to avoid talking about and uplifting white voices. However, I woke up in a “I hate Frances Densmore” mood, and decided that a bit of nuance and background might be necessary to really understand what she was trying to accomplish with her work. Furthermore, Densmore can be compared to a broader trend, the trend of white women “fighting” for Native rights. 

Continue reading

The Complicated Legacy of Music and Forced Assimilation – Stewart Indian School, Nevada

Carson City. A sleepy small town in the Eagle Valley of Nevada. Surrounded by brown hills and the mighty Sierra Nevada to the West, the town seems even smaller. In Nevada it is common to spray paint the hills with the letter of the local high schools. In Carson City there is only one public high school, Carson High, and looking to the west you can see a giant C on the hill – we call this C hill. But if you look to the east, you’ll see another letter spray painted on the hill – S hill. But S hill is not the site of high school teenagers yearly pranks and shenanigans like C hill is. It’s a remembrance. A remembrance of the residential boarding school that operated in Carson City for over 90 years.

C Hill

Stewart Indian School, also known in its history as Carson Indian School or Carson Institute, was built as part of the assimilationist era policies of the late 19th century that forcibly removed Native children from their families to be trained at residential schools. The school opened in 1890, first taking students from the local Washoe, Paiute, and Western Shoshone tribes, but later expanding to take students from all across the Western United States.

This snapshot is from the Board of Indian Commissioners Bulletin No. 34 in 1917, and is representative of the white savior complex that was common at the time and associated with Stewart

There is a lot that can be said about residential schools and about Stewart in general, such as the way white people viewed and operated the school, the drastic differences in experience of students across the school’s 90 years of operation, and the historical trauma and reclaiming of the space by the Nevada Indian Commission today. I encourage you to learn more at their website. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to focus on one element of the school – the band.

Considering Stewart’s legacy of forced assimilation and the punishment of students’ cultural heritage (like language, music, and traditions), I expected to be writing a post about how the school’s band was just another tool of assimilation and erasure. But while it was undoubtedly part of that same structure of assimilation and cultural violence, my research led me to view the Stewart band’s legacy as more complex than just that.

Since documentation was much harder to find for the earlier years of operation, I’m focusing on the last 40 or so years of operation, from the 1940s to 1980. Looking through many school yearbooks from this era, I found that the band was always featured prominently. It had at least it’s own page and often many pictures, sometimes accompanied by a description of the band’s accomplishments. The band was public facing, competing at competitions, performing at the Nevada Day Parade, and giving public concerts. I managed to find an aural resource, a description from the son of former band director Earl Laird (director from 1930-1939) which described Laird as a beloved teacher, and an interview clip of an alumnus of the band from the 1940s who described playing in the Nevada Day Parade as “the biggest highlight”.

Based on my preliminary research in the yearbook archives and the audio recording, my impression is that the band was important to the students, at least in the later years of operation. So despite being part of an institution of forced assimilation and being inextricably linked to this horrible legacy, perhaps within the context of the school itself the band offered some sort of relief. More research is necessary to fully understand the Stewart band, but one thing is certain – it has a complex legacy.



Nevada and California Indians. Board of Indian Commissioners Bulletin No. 34, 1917. American Indian Histories and Cultures.
Tara Williams, and Susan M. Tracz. “Taking Back the Fire: Schooling Experiences of Central California Indian People Across Generations.” Journal of American Indian Education 55, no. 2 (2016): 75–98.
“Stewart Indian School ‘Home of the Braves.’” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Feb. 2021,

“Stewart Indian School Trail Map.” Stewart Indian School,


What can maps tell us about how colonialists thought?

Before this course, I had not thought in depth about how something usually perceived as “neutral” by the viewer (i.e. maps) can actually contain many clues as to the motivations and thoughts of the creator. I always saw maps as an unbiased source of information, which of course, I have come to learn is completely false. With this new found enlightenment, I decided to take a look a a map I found in the American Indian Histories and Cultures database. This map is titled “A map of the British and French settlements in North America”. It is dated to be created between the years 1745 and 1749. I could not find a single cartographer or artist name, but we can assume the creator came from a British perspective because the language of the map is English.

The first thing I noticed is that this map is extremely chaotic. Certainly not up to Maeve’s standards. The colors do not correspond to any particular legend or key and too many things are labeled so that the viewer doesn’t know what to focus on.

So besides the fact that this is just a poorly designed map, what does this tell us about the perspectives of colonialists?

The first thing that I noticed is the way the territories are color coded in completely straight lines or rarely with landmarks such as lakes or rivers. This reveals a couple of things. Firstly, this gives us insight to the way in which colonialists either negotiated with each other to create such clear and arbitrary boundaries or that the British (creating this map) are simplifying the ever changing territories with these completely perfect barriers. Nonetheless, we can recognize that these boundaries are indications that the colonialists had very little regard to the Native Americans that were living on these lands in the context of dividing up land.

Speaking of Native Americans, we can also notice from this map that although the land division among the colonialists does not regard them at all, their presence was almost certainly known among colonialists, as the rivers are labeled after them. For example, we can see, a “Chickasaw” river and a “Cherokee” river. There is even an area labeled “Chactaws” where I assume that the Choctaw people inhabited.

This dissonance between the recognition of Native American presences in labeled landmarks and the absence of them in territory borders gives us lots to grapple with. For one, we have to realize that Native Americans were obviously a notable part of life for colonialists in the 16th century. The map shows us this. However, the map also shows us how the lack of inclusion of them in drawing boundaries, at least in the perspective of the British, illustrates how colonialists saw Native Americans as “uncivilized” or “savages” not worthy of owning land.


Giddens and Powers: Reclaiming Minstrelsy

Much like the tunes from our sheet music discussion, “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” features a sweet tune with racialized lyrics, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for most twenty-first century listeners who stumble upon it. (Side note: the plethora of sheet music that fit this exact description is somewhat overwhelming, to be honest.) 

Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline

Composed in 1914 by Caro Roma, this song features the words of the poet William Henry Gardner — who she seemed to work with quite often, according to WorldCa. Like many popular minstrel songs and vaudeville pieces, W.H. Gardner writes in the dialect white people  projected onto African Americans. Although the title is heavy with this racist misrepresentation, this poem also includes phrases like the following:

 “I miss yo’ when de moonbeams out on de ribber shine,” and 

“It’s mah heart a-callin’ dine.” 

Likewise, the song follows the narrator who pines over his love Caroline, equating a lot of this emotion with natural imagery, as evidenced in the lines featured above. However, Caroline could be either oblivious to their attempts to swoon or is simply not interested. Regardless of what Caroline thinks of the narrator, I think this tune is not only relatable to most people, but speaks to a more common theme of unrequited love in art music — I digress, but Robert Schumann’s Dichterleibe comes to mind, especially considering the rich harmony combined with the expressive chromatic melody. 

While I do enjoy the tune and the story,  I chose this song because of  a secondary video recording I discovered when searching for a recording of the piece. Listen to Bill Power’s rendition of “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” below.


To quote the only YouTube comment accompanying this video, I “don’t know [of]  bill powers but this is mighty moving.” I shared a similar reaction to El Baby Snail after watching this video. Singer Bill Powers takes Roma’s prescriptive text “with expression” to heart. Each repetition of sweet Caroline’s name seems to stretch for longer and longer, articulated with a thoughtful breath or pause. Not only does the emotion of love and lack thereof come through in his voice, but his facial expressions and gestures take this performance to another level. 

from the 1st verse of “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline”

This performance actually reminds me of some of the interviews featured  in Sheryl Kaskowitz’s article “Before It Goes Away….” In this blog post, Kaskowitz presents Rhiannon Giddens’s argument to understand the many layers that minstrel songs contain, including knowing a song’s history and even “replac[ing] offensive lyrics with those that uncover, rather than denigrate, the experience of African Americans.” In this recording, I see Bill Powers engaging with some of Giddens’s ideas, long before Giddens’s birth. The singer omits some of the lyrics–  the line about the “ribber” and the entire second verse– and plays the written dialect way down. If anything, “heah” sounds reminiscent of a British accent in this recording. 

Ultimately, I think this combination of sheet music and recording shows how the steps that African American performers took were incredibly small. Bill Power’s rendition of this tune produces a dignified version of a song that could have easily gone the other way. “[M]ighty moving,” indeed.


Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “Before it Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy,” The Avid Listener Blog.  

Merrill, Sally. “Roma, Caro.” Grove Music Online. 2 Jun. 2011; Accessed 28 Oct. 2021.

Reynolds, Christopher. “Documenting the Zenith of Women Song Composers: A Database of Songs Published in the United States and the British Commonwealth, Ca. 1890-1930.” Notes – Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association 69, no. 4 (06, 2013): 671-687.

Roma, Caro and Gardner, William Henry, “Can’t Yo’ Heah Me Callin’ Caroline” (1914). Historic Sheet Music Collection. 38.

Representations of Indigenous Song

In my own independent research for our culminating semester project, I’ve been exploring Indigenous song collection in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. So, with my exploration of the Sheet Music Consortium this week, I wanted to see what sheet music could tell me about this particular ethnographic practice. What is particularly challenging in my own research in Indigenous song collection is the tension between Indigenous musical practice and ethnographers like Frances Densmore who recorded songs, through both audio recordings and written scores. Though written scores, especially like those Densmore published in her bulletins (like Chippewa Music)  for the Bureau of American Ethnology, can provide insight into Densmore’s experience with Indigenous music, there are still questions as to how accurately they represent concrete, traditional musical practice.

Continue reading

The Georgia Minstrels Break Tradition

We often focus importantly on the elements of minstrelsy which tie each troupe together; the costumes, dialect, racial humor, and urban audiences, however the Georgia Minstrels were breaking this tradition as early as 1876. They were often asked to perform in vocal ensembles in churches and classical music performance venues, often part of a larger organized group’s performance.

One such performance was on March 12 1876 at the Boston Theatre where the Georgia Minstrels were invited to perform at the Grand Sacred Jubilee Concert, featuring the Grand Jubilee singers and others presenting works by Haydn, Rossini and other classical composers as well as Negro spirituals. Here is one piece which is from Plantation Songs and Jubilee Hymns (1881):

This piece is similar to many we have looked at already, as it repeats the phrase, “Den I dont want to stay here no longer” before jumping into the chorus which reads “Run home Levi, run home for de sun’s down.” The Georgia minstrels drew heavily on character songs and plantation songs, and not as much on Negro Spirituals.

It was novel for me to find out that there was a place in classical music and choral negro spiritual venues for minstrel songs. Though it is not clear whether or not the Georgia Minstrel singers dressed up fully as they would for a show, minstrelsy clearly had a place in American society as early as the the 1870’s.

Duality of Dave Reed Jr’s Compositions

There’s little information about composer Dave Reed Jr. available online. And although many records of his compositions exist in Databases, there are few recordings and even fewer quality recordings. What I’ve learned from my research is that Dave published his sheet music, for which he was the composer and lyricist, from 1894-1921. His father was Dave Reed Sr., a famous minstrel performer. That being said, I still couldn’t figure very much out about either of these men.  

In all of my research, what I was most interested in finding was the context for some of Dave Reed Jr.’s published songs. On the sheet music consortium, I found 3 pieces by Reed that piqued my interest. They were all about women, specifically women of color (two about black women and one about a native American woman). Interestingly, all of these songs describe these women as beautiful, graceful, and even aristocratic. Take a look at these lyrics from “Lady Africa”

“…She is de Queen of color’d high society

They shout Hurrah for Lady Africa

For she’s the perfect essence of propriety…”

I found myself wondering, are these songs actually celebrating black women? Spoiler alert: I don’t know. But in researching and reasoning, I ended with one final thought: Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I’ll elaborate.

First, I was curious about the race of the composer, since I figured there would be a higher chance for celebrating black women if the composer was a black man. Some of the songs are also written with a black-American dialect. Dave Reed Sr. was part of a group called Bryants Minstrels, who at first glance seem to be a white troupe since the leaders (the Bryants) were white. But with further reading, I learned that they did have at least a few black performers. Additionally, I found a picture of David Reed Sr. wearing blackface, where he looks white, but of course, I can’t say that definitively. 

Next, I examined the music in relation to the time period. These songs were all published before 1920, placing them in the minstrel time period, yet there was no evidence that they were ever performed as minstrel songs. But when comparing the music to other music at the time, it is not very different. The instrumental parts all seem similar to a ragtime style, which we know came almost directly from minstrelsy. Furthermore, the subject matter is the same as that in minstrels. The lyrics simply talk about romantic themes and black women: something that doesn’t seem out-of-place now but could’ve been satirical in that time. 

After researching, it seems as though Dave Reed Jr. was not intending to celebrate black women. But without context, it might not matter. These songs talk about black women in high standing, from beautiful lands, who are desirable in many ways. I think it’s possible that these songs could be reclaimed today, given that the lyrics could be seen in a positive light.


Music Division, The New York Public Library. “My Hannah lady, whose black baby is you” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 25, 2021.

Books and Media, Duke University Library. “Lady Africa” Duke University Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 25, 2021.

Arizona State University. “My Kickapoo Queen” Arizona State University Sheet Music Collection. Accessed October 25, 2021.

Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. “Reed, David,” accessed October 25, 2021,

Joe Davis’ Minstrel Folio… boy oh boy

This week, we continued our discussion on minstrelsy, so I looked up some primary sources by searching up minstrel shows and performances. There was one source that was quite interesting and concerning at the same time. It is a book of songs and jokes performed at minstrel shows with a frankly horrible sense of humor, and I want to present to you a few pages in this book. 

This source is a book titled Joe Davis Entertainment and Minstrel Folio, and it was published in 1931 in New York, and was compiled by Joe Davis. This book also included works by some other musicians and composers, which are all credited on both the cover page and individual scores. Honestly, it was hard to determine who this source is for, but Joe Davis himself seems very proud of this work. In his foreword he said, “Never before has such a wealth of material suitable for Radio, Home entertainment, professional or amateur show been assembled in a single folio.” I can’t imagine playing minstrel songs with racist undertones and bad jokes that are mostly unfunny and unbearable… Yeah I roasted him. I tried to do a deepdive on Davis, but when I typed his name into google, this same book showed up and it is quite easily accessible still, and it is sold on amazon for the sweet price of 26 dollars. It is quite concerning to me that this part of the history is not dead, but pretty much still alive. 

There are two specific things in this book I want to talk about. First, there are a lot of short early stages dad jokes (which I may or may not be stealing), but there are also some pretty racist jokes. On page 14, which is a section of jokes titled “Da*ky-ology,” and the one at the bottom of the page does not involve any slurs but makes jokes at black people’s death. It goes like:

Sam: Where were you the other morning at nine o’clock.

Ruf: I went Black Berrying.

Sam: Black Berrying? What do you mean by that?

Ruf: Well, I went to a colored funeral.

So… I don’t see how this is funny, and it was quite uncomfortable when I first read it.

Another page I want to talk about is page 51, which is a music score of a song titled Dixie Jamboree. Similar to the joke, this song takes black experience and makes entertainment and mockery out of it. The lyrics suggests the theme of  slavery and plantation life, hence “Way down South there in the land of cotton.” A theme I have noticed in minstrelsy (and white scholars’ study of African American music) is that they try to skew the realities of slavery and try to make it seem like the enslaved black people were enjoying their lives, when in reality they are far from that. One of the arguments they would use is that enslaved people would not be singing if they were not having a good time, but we have discussed that although sometimes music was used in celebratory scenes, a lot of times it was a way of mourning and praying. The lyrics delivered the same ideology, such as, “They have some times, wonderful times, known as Dixie Jamborees, Such good fun one seldom sees.”

This source connects with course material quite closely, and I really hope what happened a century ago will not happen again today, where white people and society as a whole finds interest in black art, but separates it from black emotions, faiths and experiences. I know it is still happening today. We NEED to be better. 


Works Cited

Cohen Quest III: The Red Herring

Welcome again, travelers, to yet another installment of my award winning blog series Cohen Quest. Today, hear the whistle of the archival train as we pull into our next stop, the Sheet Music Consortium. An initial search of “Cecil Cohen” proves fruitless; confining the search to “Names” seems to break the database even further (but maybe the website is just bad). A search of “Charles Cohen,” however, pulls up an interesting piece of music entitled “Baby Lou,” held in the Duke University Digital Collections. Let’s follow it down the proverbial rabbit hole, shall we?

I have many questions to answer regarding this particular entry, such as: when was this piece composed and/or published? who is Vandersloot Music Pu. Co? who is Kenneth Lacey? is this our same Mr. Cohen? And this is where Sheet Music Consortium, or the archivist who entered this data, has failed us. There is no outside link to the material, and when I searched “Charles Cohen,” “Baby Lou,” and “Vandersloot” in the Duke University Digital Collections, it came up empty. After some deeply frustrating searches through WorldCat and the UMKC audio archives, it seemed as though, yes, this “Baby Lou”, which really is the B-side to a record called “My song of the Nile”, was in fact composed by our same 1894-1967 Cecil Cohen. Great, now we have another piece of his to add to the collection!

Sheet music for "Carnival Bingo" by Charles (Chas.) Cohen.

“Carnival Bingo” by Chas (Charles) Cohen, held at the Mississippi State University Library.

The next two search results under “Baby Lou” are a pair of entries for a song called “Carnival Bingo”. The first doesn’t give us much besides that its also held at Duke University (no results when searched in the Duke digital collections) and the publisher being Vandersloot. The second gives us a bit more: actual images for sheet music to “Carnival Bingo,” this time held at the Mississippi State University Library. Excellent! Sheet music! I never thought I would get this excited over sheet music. Let’s look at the entry in the MSU database and… oh. The composer is listed as “Cohen, Charles, 1907-“. No matter, maybe they just credited his dates wrong? Let’s click the name to pull up the other entries to see if the pieces we recognize are there, and…

Now I’m confused. The other two pieces listed, “River Side Rag” and “Fashion Rag”, both include a portion on the front page listing “Chas Cohen” as composer of “Carnival Bingo,” “I love you still,” and “Baby Lou”. A search in WorldCat for “I love you still” brings up yet another piece found in the Duke University Collection, but this time with a link to a piece by “Cohen, Charles, 1878-1931”. Clicking this name, I find an entry for “Baby Lou,” and putting “Carnival Bingo” in WorldCat brings me to the same guy.

Y’all, it was a red herring. There are two Charles Cohen’s: both mixed-race composers and pianists, born late 1800s, and died early/mid 1900s. The major points of differentiation are that this Chas Cohen composed primarily rags and stayed around the East Coast (New York and Pennsylvania), whereas the guy I’m looking for wrote mostly art song, was born in Chicago, and worked at Howard University in DC until his death. There is a very real possibility that our Cohen started going by his middle name of Cecil so as not to be confused by the other Charles Cohen.

There is a real issue going on: it seems as though these two black composers are being conflated by various databases simply because no one has done the necessary work to separate them. Composers of color are not given the same care and attention to identify them as distinct, with rich inner lives; this is a tragedy that needs remedying. The best way to do this, of course, is to encourage archivists and librarians to focus more on composers from marginalized backgrounds and identities; unfortunately this is a lot more difficult than it sounds because the powers that be make more money by upholding white supremacy in Western music.

See you next time on Cohen Quest, dearest reader.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Five Fairy Ballads”

In many African American music traditions that we have studied thus far, we have seen music as a tool of expression of joy, sorrow, or hope, to name a few. While this class has mainly focused on spirituals, popular music, and sacred music, I was interested in looking at African American expression in classical music. This brought me on a search for sheet music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, an English composer, conductor, and professor of music during the late 18th century and early 19th century. My question was, “how might Coleridge-Taylor choose to express the topic of race in a musical tradition in which white people have held the power?”.

After Coleridge-Taylor met the African American poet P.L. Dunbar in 1897, his music began to focus more on his heritage and his desire to “establish the dignity of African Americans” (Banfield), leading to works such as African Romances (1897) or African Suite for Pianoforte (1898), among others. The work of Coleridge-Taylor that I’m focusing on in this blog post, Five Fairy Ballads, was written in 1909 to poems by Kathleen Easmon, a friend of Coleridge-Taylor and the first West African to earn a diploma from the Royal College of Arts.

I thought that this work was interesting to investigate because of the clear way that Coleridge-Taylor is choosing to use the text of another artist with African heritage. Due to racism, classical music repertoire has been overwhelmingly white for most of its history, despite the fact that many black composers have created masterpieces. The classical music world still has a lot of work to do in terms of representation and inclusivity, but Coleridge-Taylor’s music, along with other BIPOC composers of his time, established that it should be a place for everyone. Five Fairy Ballads makes a space for African voices in a world that has silenced them, and invites others to join in.

Works Cited

Banfield, S., Dibble, J., & Laurence, A.  Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2021, from


What’s White Christmas without Minstrelsy?

White Americans have always love nostalgia and cozy feelings of their past. What could be more nostalgic than a white family curled up on a couch watching Irving Berlin’s White Christmas? If you noticed something wrong about that sentence, good. The movie is all about nostalgia with the actors “dreaming of a white Christmas” or singing tunes such as “Gee, I wish I was back in the army.” In the film White Christmas there is an iconic scene called the Minstrel Number.

This was a song that was a medley written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. The song “Id Rather See a Minstrel Show” opens the medley when sequels into “Mr. Bones.” “Mr. Bones” has Clooney singing of “minstrel men we miss” and “when Georgie Primrose used to sing and dance to a song like this.” Now Primrose was a white vaudeville song-and-dance man who wore blackface in the late 19th century. However, to really feel the effects of these lyrics popping up in one of America’s favorite nostalgic movies we have to go back to another movie of Irving Berlin with the infamous Bing Crosby; Holiday Inn; in which “White Christmas” was first sang.

While Holiday Inn was released in 1942, by 1954 when White Christmas was released it was already considered ill of someone to black up their faces. In Holiday Inn there is one song in particular that stands out and is often CUT out of the movie during showings. This is “Abraham” performed by Bing Crosby in full black face on Abraham’s birthday.

All the musicians and dancers around him are also in full black face. Only 12 years before White Christmas and 12 years before performing in black face was looked down upon, black face performances amongst major mainstream stars at the time was very acceptable. This brings me to the sheet music of both “Abraham” and “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show.” Upon researching minstrel music in pop culture I came across the beloved Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby; both loved by generations of Americans. I saw that Irving Berlin had had both “Mandy” and “Id Rather See a Minstrel Show” published in Ziegfield Follies of 1919. While “Mandy” was of easy access, the Minstrel Show number was almost impossible to come by. I spent quite some time following every bunny trail I could to get to the sheet music of the Minstrel Show number but to no avail. Recalling Holiday Inn and Minstrel themes in that movie I tried to find sheet music to “Abraham.” This piece was also surprisingly hard to find on Sheet Music Consortium and I was eventually redirected to Baylor University’s Digital Libraries before I found it.

These two pieces are important as they bind exemplify some of America’s most beloved actors and song/screenwriters. They humble us as they remind us that none of us were too good for blackface and the enjoyment America wrongfully sought in it. It also reminds us of how minstrelsy and still be in pop culture of today and the elements of life that are important to our cultures.

Abraham : From the Paramount picture, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Abraham : from the Paramount picture, Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – Quartex site. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Library Of Congress. (n.d.). I’d rather see a minstrel show – library of congress public domain search. Library Of Congress. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

A Little More “Fascination” Talk…

I was quite “successful” in finding sources for this blog post, and please take the air quotes with a lot more weight than a grain of salt. Let’s just say I wasn’t super thrilled with the plethora of findings I had in searching this topic. This post “piggybacks” off of my last post talking about fascination. Let the conversation continue!

It should be no surprise that Asian Americans have constantly dealt with harsh racism throughout American history. Although, the proof of this racism can be found in the musical scene of the first few decades of the 20th century in particular. From derogatory slang to severe stereotypes, this music is not lacking in either. The interesting content I found can seamlessly tie to Eric Lott’s thoughts, despite his focus on specifically blackface minstrelsy, points to the dichotomy regarding “love and theft” and “envy as well as repulsion” (page 8) in regards to how white people have gone about these traditions.

I found numerous pieces of sheet music alluding to this dichotomy of this expropriation yet strange eroticization towards Asian people. For example, in From Here to Shanghai, a song written in 1917 by Irving Berlin, it explicitly brings up various aspects that Americans tended to deeply stereotype the Chinese. It references sitting in “bamboo chairs”, “sipping Oolong tea”, pairs of “wooden sticks”, “Chinaman that speaks away up high”, and the list goes on. This song alludes to a sense of fantasization of the Chinese- “I’ll soon be there”- referring to almost an urge to want to see this culture that differs from America.  

From Here to Shanghai (1917) – Irving Berlin

Another source I found points to the side of the dichotomy revealing themes of “envy” and eroticism. Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows talks about the narrator wanting to find a “sweet little China pearl” with “dreamy almond eyes.” It goes on in this “search for love”: “I’ll fix my lips for some Chinese kisses” and “I’m going to find what Chinese bliss is.”

Where the Yang-Tze (1917)- pg. 4

This overtly reminds me of the quote in Lott’s book:

“…because they were so attracted to the culture they plundered” (page 8).


Where the Yang-Tze Ki-Ang Flows (1917) – Cover Page

It is painfully clear that there was an immense, oddly obvious attraction to the Chinese. This seems contradictory to other lines in the song that again refers to stereotypes and terrible generalizations. I couldn’t help but make the ties between this type of music with the practice of blackface minstrelsy. These songs written about the Chinese people can define the whiteness and white perspective of most likely a large chunk of the American society, especially considering the political climate emerging from the Chinese Exclusion Act published in 1882.  

The underlying themes that we’ve talked about in class have been perspective-altering, to say the least. The fact of how much they tie together astounds me, as well. It will be hard to look at any music from now on in a non-critical manner, which I think only benefits us as musicians in the long run.


From Here to Shanghai:

Where the Yang-Tse Ki-Ang Flows:

An analysis of works published by T.B. Harms & Co.

Last week we analyzed some shocking images in the form of sheet music. Printed, sold, and studied sheet music. I was not only floored by the experience of handling such egregious materials containing such ugly content. I was further surprised by the knowledge that “Hello my Baby”, a song sung to me as a child by my mother and the television alike, a song that just earlier that week I referenced in jest, was a minstrel song. The knowledge that minstrelsy is ever present in our present lives is equal parts haunting and infuriating, as with that knowledge comes the inevitable inward analysis required to recognize my place in perpetuating it. This week I decided to the sheet music that spoke to me the most, and go further and analyze those who created this work. Who would make this? Who would sell this? What other egregious and ugly content have they gotten away with making and selling? In doing so, I found the name. T.B Harms & Co. Publishing House.

B. Harms & Co were one of the most notable music distributors in the early 20th century. Founded in 1875 by Alex and Thomas Harms, the distribution company worked to produce music for many notable artists at the time, namely George Gershwin and Cole Porter, among others. In using the Sheet music Consortium to find scores released at the time, I found more striking pieces using racist imagery, writing and art.

Take this for example. This piece, titled “I Want Yer Ma Honey”, is another example of a popular song, similar to “Hello Ma Baby”. The singer sings about waiting an unnamed figure badly, being passionately in love with them, though the text reads as follows: 

“When de banjo’s a-strummin’

And de darkies’ a-hummin’

Den I want yer, ma honey

Yes I do”

Another example shows that the racism and fetishization present in work from T.B. Harms was not exclusive to the black community. An example found from the SMC, titled “Poor Butterfly”, depicts a pulp story of an American soldier sailing to show a waiting Japanese Damsel how to “live and love the American way”, only to leave her stranded where she was found, waiting for her American hero to return. 

These images can be painful to sift through and analyze, but the study of these images and scores not only clues us in to how large this issue was at the time, but also how ingrained this music and its ideals is in our everyday lives. These publishing dates are not that far from our present date, and these musicians weren’t necessarily nobodies. Their tunes remain, their influence lingers, and most importantly, the scars they’ve inflicted aren’t yet healed.

SMC Portal to T.B. Harms’ works:

Info on T.B. Harms & Co. :–b–harms—francis–day—hsheet musi

Can a Font be Racist?

Content Warning: Anti-Asian Racism

“Oyster pail takeout box.” Image is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you take a look at this photo of a takeout box, you probably don’t have to even think to know what kind of restaurant it came from; the font is clearly “Chinese.”

However, the reality is that there is nothing truly Chinese about this font at all. “Chop Suey Font” is so named because like the American food “Chop Suey,” the font has come to be associated with Chinese culture despite being an entirely American creation (Quito). The first version of this stereotyped font was patented in the United States in 1883 (United States Trademark Office) and has been frequently used in anti-Asian propaganda for the United States government (Quito).

Anti-Japanese propaganda printed by the United States government in 1943. Image is in the Public Domain in the United States.

Chop Suey Font is also everywhere in early 20th century American music, where sentimentalization and satirization of people of color was a common feature of music enjoyed by white audiences. Here are four examples that I found in the Sheet Music Consortium database (My Chinese Butterfly, My Oriental Girl, Chinese Blues, Oh that Oriental Rag).

While “Oh That Oriental Rag” is not written specifically in Chop Suey font, the lettering resembling bamboo is also an example of an ethnic font, or a font associated with an ethnic identity.

The lyrics and music songs of these songs reflect American attitudes of Orientalism, which defined “Eastern” culture as different and inferior to “Western” culture. Specifically, the East was seen as untamed, seductive, and emotional, while the West was civilized, rational and logical (Grove Music Online). The songs include sensual melodies full of accidentals, sexualized Asian women as love interests, and open fifths, which are frequently used in stereotyped representations of Eastern music, perhaps because of their bare and “primitive” sound.

With Chop Suey font so often being used in disparaging contexts, it is worth wondering if the font should be used at all, especially by white people. However, the font is also frequently used by Asian American business owners, which reminds me of our discussion of how early 20th century Americans of marginalized ethnicities often satirized their own identity in order to sell music to white audiences. Like many facets of American culture, Chop Suey Font is a remnant of America’s past that reminds us to consider the less obvious ways in which our country’s history of racism continues to pervade our society.

Performer, Performance, and Class in Minstrelsy

CW: Images of blackface

Prior to the 1840s, performers of minstrelsy were depicted on sheet music and other performance advertisements in costume, with props, and simulating stereotypical aspects of African American life. The images featured white performers in blackface, and often in “dance-like” positions, emulating a dancing enslaved person.

In this representation, the performers are not depicted as someone giving a performance, but rather a “character”, which gives the impression that the performance is realistic and representative of the lives of enslaved people. This can be seen in an advertisement for a performance by Mr. T.D. Rice, a.k.a “The Original Jim Crow”. It can also be seen on the sheet music cover for “At a Georgia Campmeeting”. Continue reading

What’s a Cakewalk?

Last class period, we briefly talked about cakewalk dances and songs, and I decided to do some digging. I was very intrigued in the origin and history of cakewalks, as well as what type of music makes it a cakewalk.

According to Grove Music, a cakewalk is a “social and theatrical dance of African American origin, developed from a competitive “prize walk” done by slaves on antebellum plantations in southern states.1

There are musical similarities between the cakewalk and ragtime, and I noticed this while I was perusing the Sheet Music Consortium database. Of the numerous results for “cakewalk”, most of the sources are also listed as “two-step”, and some are categorized as a ragtime also. See for example this image below the entry2 for “Raz ma taz” by William H. Smith.

The source fits into quite a few categories, and I also think it’s interesting that ragtime and the cakewalk are so similar, yet I had never known the cakewalk to be anything but an elementary school carnival game.

Admittedly, my source-searching-and-locating process felt a little random this time. Eventually, I found a source titled “Raz-Ma-Taz”, which is shown below. This piece was composed in 1901 by William H. Smith, and was intended to accompany a two-step dance. 

Something that immediately struck me was the obvious rhythmic similarities to some of the famous ragtime pieces we have all heard before.

Looking at arguably one of the most well-known pieces in a ragtime style out there (above), we can see the rhythmic and structural similarities between these two pieces. From the left hand stride pattern prominent in both pieces to the syncopated melodic figures and flourishes, it is pretty clear that these styles are closely intertwined.


Works Cited:

[1] Conyers, Claude. “Cakewalk.” Grove Music Online. 23 Feb. 2011; Accessed 26 Oct. 2021.

[2] Smith, William H. “Raz ma taz; Cake walk & two-step; What it is?.” Duke University Libraries Repository. Last modified , 1901. Sheet Music Consortium (B-912).

Minstrel Songs, the Whitewashing of Lyrics, and Erasure of History

Oh Susanna is a song I personally remember singing in my childhood, during daycare, summer camps, and elementary school. So, when I learned in class that Oh Susanna is a song written for minstrel shows in the mid 1800s and has extremely racist origins I wanted to do a deeper dive on the history of minstrel songs that are still sung today, and learn more about why said songs have had such an effect on our culture.

The first thing that I learned when researching was that Oh Susanna was one of the first popular ‘American’ songs to be published- there were over 100,000 copies sold, where before no song had sold more than 5,000. Many articles I read stated that minstrel songs had been considered in the early 1800s to be America’s purest or singular musical contribution to the world. This is obviously not true. But, the fact that minstrel troupes and songs were published internationally and minstrel shows were extremely popular forms of entertainment led to this genre of music having a great impact on American culture. An article written by Dr. Katya Ermolaeva on the history and impact of songs such as Oh Susanna and Camptown Races states, “Minstrelsy left an indelible mark on the American music and entertainment industries”. The first ever film with sound in America, The Jazz Singer (1927), was a story of a singer who wanted to work in a minstrel troupe.

Why are these songs are still taught and sung by people often, and why were they so popular? The answer to that question is complex, but I would like to focus on a singular issue- the whitewashing of their lyrics. Oh Susanna’s original lyrics include racist slurs and is written in a stereotyped black dialect common in minstrel shows of the mid 1800s. Ermolaeva explains how, throughout the decades of the 20th century, due to the civil rights movement and growing social justice movements, minstrelsy and blackface became more and more unacceptable in society. But, instead of being removed entirely from songbooks and soundtracks, minstrel songs and stereotypes merely became more and more subtle. Ermolaeva discusses such a change in the context of the minstrel song also still popular today: I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. “ The mythologizing of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as a tune celebrating American values has continued into recent decades. When Smithsonian Folkways reissued Seeger’s recording in 1990, the liner notes touted the “democratic passion” of folk revivalists to include the “music of working-class Americans” as part of the “national cultural conversation.” The Black Americans represented in “Railroad,” however, barely had any rights as laborers in railroad camps and arguably still lack basic rights as Americans today.”

The fact that minstrel songs are still sung and accepted as unproblematic additions to the  ‘American music canon’ is incredibly distressing. I would like to finish this blog post with Ermolaeva’s words, which I think speaks to our responsibility to work towards never letting these songs with their racist pasts exist unchallenged. Ermolaeva states, “Removing minstrel songs from children’s music programs will not undo the damage already done by blackface minstrelsy. Their removal, however, would serve as an acknowledgment of the damage wrought by these songs and a pledge to no longer promote that legacy. Our children won’t know the difference now, but one day they will be grateful for our efforts to rid their classrooms — and their childhoods — of racist songs…”



Ermolaeva, K. (2019, November 7). Dinah, Put Down Your Horn: Blackface Minstrel Songs Don’t Belong in Music Class. Medium.

Oh! Susanna. (1848). The Library of Congress.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 14). Oh! Susanna. Wikipedia.!_Susanna

What do we do with minstrel show texts?

I’m sure many of us have read about the influence that minstrel shows have in our daily lives. We’ve heard about how all of our favorite Disney movies are filled with racist minstrel songs, how our favorite folk songs stem from minstrel shows, and how many of the racist stereotypes people still hold about black folks originate from minstrel shows. I personally experienced a run in with material from a minstrel song that made me think twice about the ways in which we engage with this material.

When looking for music in the Sheet Music Consortium, I looked for music by the famous American (and minstrel song) composer Stephen Foster. The first search result that came up was a piece titled “Under the Willow She’s Sleeping”.

My breath caught in my throat when I saw the title. One of my all time favorite choral songs is an arrangement of this text titled “Under the Willow” by Susan LaBarr. I was introduced to this piece as a sophomore in high school in my state choir. It’s a beautiful song, here’s a recording of the choir singing this piece:

This is a time when my mind was far detached about the realities of minstrel shows, in fact, I had never heard of them. All I knew is that the text discussed a mother burying her daughter. The conductor never acknowledged the origins of the text, which, when looking back, is troubling. Here are the lyrics:

Under the willow she’s laid with care
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Under the willow, with golden hair,
My little one’s quietly sleeping.

Fair, fair, with golden hair,
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Fair, fair, with golden hair,
Under the willow she’s sleeping.


Under the willow no songs are heard,
Near where my darling lies dreaming;
Nought but the voice of some far-off bird
Where life and its pleasures are beaming.


Under the willow by night and day
Sorrowing ever I ponder;
Free from its shadowy, gloomy ray
Ah! never again can she wander.


Under the willow I breathe a prayer
Longing to linger forever
Near to my angel with golden hair
In a land where there’s sorrowing never.

A beautiful text is it not? Not a text you would assume to be involved in a minstrel show no?

But unfortunately this text has origins as a minstrel song. Stephen Foster composed it for the Christy Minstrels. 1

So besides the shock of learning that one of my favorite choral pieces and texts has its origins in a minstrel song, there is also the responsibility of how to handle this information. Firstly, there is the fact that this text is not inherently racist. This gives a nuanced view of the minstrel show as having both racist and non racist text. This paradoxical nature of the minstrel show gives us the challenge of figuring out what to do with a beautiful text such as “Under the Willow”. Do we do away with it because of its minstrel origins? Or do we continue using this text with a disclaimer? Personally, I think it is better to grapple with the duality of these texts than to get rid of them completely.


World War I, Sheet Music Art, and Romanticization of the Military

Throughout our long and complicated militaristic history, music has both shaped and reflected the public perception of the military. In my casual browsing of the Sheet Music Consortium, I began to notice patterns within the depictions of the military in both the art provided on the cover of the sheet music and the music itself, specifically with popular music written either pre or during World War I. As I dug deeper, I realized that I had seen these patterns before in the vast majority of post 9/11 country music.

Continue reading

Radio Minstrels and Aural Blackface

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans

Illustration from the introduction of Paskman’s book.

Blackface initially used visuals to create an image of whiteness, deriving from a contrast with the Blackness portrayed on the stage. However, blackface has adapted to mass media to continue to survive through mediums like the radio. I was intrigued by a book of “new” minstrel music published in 1936 by Dailey Paskman. Paskman was a radio programmer and producer who founded the Dailey Paskman Radio Minstrels, whose popularity led them to vaudeville circuits.1 The introduction of this minstrel folio sheds light on how minstrelsy persisted through a medium without visuals.

In the introduction of his book, Paskman demonstrates his awareness that minstrelsy has changed to maintain an audience. He asserts that

“times and styles may change, but nature persists in reproducing the thoughts, the aspirations, and the accomplishments of mankind.”2

Central to this quotation is the idea that minstrelsy is part of human nature, fighting against an unnamed enemy that resists this art form. This also implies that Paskman sees minstrelsy as an accomplishment worthy of being celebrated. Continue reading

Minstrelsy and American Popular Culture

Content Warning: Offensive language, racial slurs

There’s a common and very problematic sentiment in America that racism and racial oppression are things of the past, and this sentiment certainly applies to minstrelsy as well. While I like to think the majority of Americans would be able agree that minstrelsy was a deeply racist phenomena, a much smaller percentage has a grasp on just how influential it was and still in American popular culture. It’s easy to box it off, to say it was a bad episode of our history, to confine it to the past. But this is certainly not true. The research I did for this blog post made it abundantly clear just how recently minstrelsy was big, and just how absurd it is to claim it has no influence today.

The primary source I focused on was the sheet music for a minstrel song written in 1912, “At Uncle Tom’s Cabin Door”, music by Rubey Cowan and lyrics by Chas. Bayha. The lyrics of this song are extremely racist, romanticizing plantation life and claiming that enslaved people were happier before the Civil War. This recording is from 1913, and I’ve included the lyrics below. The picture shown in the video is the cover of the sheet music.

“In Eighteen Sixty, In Eighteen Sixty,
Those happy days before Emancipation,
‘way down in Dixie, ‘way down in Dixie,
merry darkies you would see.
They had their sorrows, that’s quite true,
But there were happy hours too,
Let’s go back once more,
Back before the war,
and we’ll see some jubilee.

See them dancing around,
Watch them prance on the ground,
Uncle Tom is gay, troubles fade away,
Hear them after each encore,
Roar for more,
Banjo’s strumming a tune,
Topsy’s acting like a loon,
There’s some celebration on the old plantation
At Uncle Tom’s Cabin door.

Just hear them singing, Just hear them singing,
Those good ole darkey tunes they’re harmonizing,
Just see them swinging, just see them swinging
to the strains of “Old Black Joe.”
Here comes the Marsa from his ride,
There’s little Eva by his side,
Sime Legree’s away, bloodhounds are at play,
Those were happy, happy days.

Now, this overt racism is probably not at all surprising even if you know almost nothing about minstrelsy. But what caught my attention about this example is the composers, Cowan and Bayha. Neither of them are especially well known, but what they are known for is not minstrelsy. It’s other forms of popular culture.

We’ll start with Charles Bayha. He was a New Yorker best known for writing wartime songs during World War I, including I’d be proud to be the mother of a soldier. What little information I could find about him made no mention that he wrote minstrel songs, even though he evidently did. He died in 1957, as did Rubey Cowan, coincidentally. I bring this up because 1957 is still within living memory for some Americans.

Rubey Cowan was possibly a bit more well known, given that he had an obituary written in the New York Times. Cowan is described as a TV executive, composer, and music publisher – he worked at Hollywood. I think what is the most striking to me about this is that Cowan – and many others who worked in entertainment – had careers that spanned the time from when minstrelsy was big to when TV was big. It simply was not that long ago that big executives at Hollywood had begun their careers in the minstrelsy industry. From this research it’s not hard to imagine the strong tie between minstrelsy and many other forms of American popular culture.


Bayha, Charles Anthony, William J Halley, and Rubey Cowan. At Uncle Tom’s cabin door. 1913. Audio.

Cowan, Rubey and Charles Bayha. At Uncle Tom’s Cabin Door. York Music Co., New York. 1912. Mississippi State University Libraries, Digital Collections.

“Rubey Cowan, 66, Dies”. New York Times. July 30, 1957, 23.


Minstrelsy: This is (Still) America

Content warning: offensive language and images

Childish Gambino’s, “This is America” and its accompanying video dominated conversations and social media feeds for days following its release in 2018 as well as receiving critical acclaim at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

The music video provides a commentary on gun violence and the lasting impacts of systemic racism and discrimination in America. Of these lasting impacts, one that stands out to me is the presence of minstrelsy in Gambino’s video. 

Minstrelsy is one of the earliest forms of appropriation of black culture in the United States. Eric Lott’s, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, explores the roots of minstrelsy and its lasting effects today. He argues that minstrelsy is not only an act of violence against black people, but also an act of love and fascination. When describing minstrelsy, Lott goes beyond appropriation, describing the act as “expropriation.”

“Cultural expropriation is the minstrel show’s central fact, and we must not lose sight of it… it establishes little about the cultural commerce suggested by one performer’s enthusiasm as he gathered material for his blackface act: ‘I shall be rich in black fun.’”1

White performers are exploiting black culture for (white) public entertainment and subsequently profiting off of it. 

40 seconds into the “This is America” music video as Gambino is dancing, he makes an over exaggerated smirk on his face and winks his eye, similar to the cartoonish way black people were represented in minstrel shows and drawings. Much like the “Turkey in the Straw” sheet music cover art and the Coon-Chicken Inn restaurant logo.

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018),

Otto Bonnell, “Turkey in the Straw.” Mississippi State University, Mississippi State University Libraries (electronic version), 1921, accessed October 23 2021,

“Burgers in Blackface: Coon Chicken Inn,” “Coon Chicken Inn” in “Burgers in Blackface” on Manifold @uminnpress, accessed October 24, 2021,

This subtle act is the first reference to minstrelsy in the video. 

The second reference to minstrelsy is a bit less subtle than Gambino’s facial expressions. At 51 seconds, Gambino pulls out a gun and takes a specific stance before pulling the trigger. This stance references Jim Crow sketches and is incredibly similar to the 1834 cover art for the sheet music of the minstrel song “Zip Coon.”

Childish Gambino, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video),” YouTube (YouTube, May 5, 2018),

Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music.

Gambino’s placement of these references to minstrelsy in the middle of viral dances like the Nae Nae is especially compelling. Today, a major form of cultural appropriation is white people performing and profiting off of dances made and popularized by black artists. So, Gambino using his body to refer back to minstrel shows while performing the Nae Nae, which took America by storm in 2015, is no coincidence. 

Minstrelsy still permeates American culture today- When one looks up “Turkey in the Straw” on google, it’s described as a “folk tune” and suggests performances of the song by Bill Monroe and the Hi-Lo’s. This brings me back to my first blog post and specifically the idea of discovering the whole truth when it comes to American music. Minstrelsy is still alive and well, so what do we do with that information?

1Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 19.

“The Memphis Blues” Becomes The Memphis Joke

While I was looking through Sheet Music Consortium to determine my topic for this blog post, I decided I wanted to talk about representations of my hometown, Memphis, TN, and the perfect piece came up to do just that: “The Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy.

“The Memphis Blues” originated as an instrumental piece1. This is important. Lyrics can totally change the impact of a song, especially if the lyrics do not match the initial message, or “vibe”, if you will, that the instrumental version conveyed. To demonstrate this, I decided to do a little experiment. I passed my headphones to a friend this weekend and asked him to tell me what thoughts and images came to mind as he listened to this instrumental version of the piece2. I made sure that he had not heard it before and that he did not know the name.

Unprompted, he said, “I feel like I’m walking down the street in a city, like a southern city, maybe Tennessee vibes… Oh, now I’m in a restaurant, like a barbecue restaurant, about to devour some ribs.” WOAH!!! That’s Memphis! (Granted, I think Memphis barbecue started closer to the mid-late 20th century, but still.) I said, “Wait, I didn’t accidentally say the name of the piece, did I? It’s called ‘The Memphis Blues’.” He affirmed that I hadn’t told him the title.

I then asked him to listen to a 1915 recording3 with lyrics by George A Norton, a white, non-Memphian, although, again, I said nothing about the version before passing the headphones.

He said that this version had a very different feel, and reminded him of New York, appropriated, white ragtime. Interesting. “The Memphis Blues” no longer seemed to reflect Memphis in the way that the original instrumental version did, but the lyricised version is what became popular.

So how and why did a white, non-Memphian’s lyricised version of a Black Memphian’s instrumental song about Memphis become more popular? It all began when Handy sold the song to the music publisher Theron Bennett (Handy later said that he felt he was cheated out of the rights to his song)4. Then, Bennett hired George A Norton to write the lyrics. Why? I believe Bennett was aware of the lucrative nature of minstrelsy, and knew that adding lyrics would help turn “The Memphis Blues” into a minstrel song. If you read the lyrics, you’ll notice there is lots of dialect, as well as commentary about the accepted musical roles for white people versus black people in the lyrics. Once the lyrics were written, Bennett convinced The Honey Boy Minstrels to perform the piece.

cover for the sheet music performed by the “Honey Boy” Minstrels5

It only took a few years for the song to enter into the mainstream, but once popularized, the song was forever changed. While the song has always been upbeat, I believe the initial, un-lyricised version sounds like a simple, genuine, upbeat nod to Handy’s home. Every recording I’ve listened to with lyrics seems to be for the purpose of a laugh.

In conclusion, if a song once was instrumental but now has lyrics, we should perhaps ask ourselves the question: Are those lyrics serving the original composer’s intent and the mood of the instrumentation? Or was the purpose to make money?



1 “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy. Auburn University Digital Library, Memphis: Theron C. Bennett Co.,

2  Handy, W.C. “The Memphis Blues by William Christopher Handy (1912, Blues piano)”. YouTube.

3 Collins, Arthur & Harlan, Byron G. “Collins and Harlan ‘Memphis Blues’ by W. C. Handy (‘Mister Crump’ early blues) 1915 Columbia A1721”. YouTube.

4 Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

5 “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy and George A. Norton. The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections, Theron C. Bennett Co.,

The Harp: Do You See It as a White Instrument? Part II

Welcome back to Part II of my blog series “The Harp: Do You See it as a White Instrument?”. 

As we have previously discussed, if the average American were asked what they envision when they think of harp music, it is likely that their description would most closely match Western classical music. Their image of a harpist would most likely match that of a white woman, angel, or cherub. 

Conversely, if the average American were asked what instruments they think of when they think of jazz or swing music, the harp would unlikely be named at all. 

Silhouette of five players in jazz band, white background

Silhouette of five players in a jazz band, none of whom are playing the harp1

Allow me to challenge these prevailing images by introducing you to Olivette Miller, a Black swing harpist born in 1914. 

From left to right: Gene Sedric, Cliff Jackson, Olivette Miller, and Josh White2

What do we know about Olivette Miller?

It was very difficult to find scholarly secondary sources about Olivette Miller. In fact, Catalyst, the library interface for St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, shows only 15 results for “Olivette Miller”, and they are mostly references in the context of her famous father or ex-husbands (I smell academic sexism). Google results for Miller include a sparse Wikipedia page3, IMDB page4, and an African American Registry entry5, each listing very few, if any, credible secondary source references. One of the best scholarly sources I could find was The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts6, which only briefly mentions Olivette Miller under the biographical information for her father, saying she “was a renowned jazz harpist”. I searched for a recording of Miller playing the harp for a very long time, but only found a recording of her singing7:

What did a mid-twentieth century audience know about Olivette Miller? 

There are far more references to Miller in primary source newspapers, where you discover, after digging, that she was famous in her time. In a 1942 article within the Arkansas State Press8, shown below, a headline reads “Olivette Miller Featured With Noble Sissle”, a prominent jazz composer. The article informs readers that Miller studied harp at the Conservatory of Paris, which is no small feat. 

A newspaper clipping from the New York Age in 1948 announces that Olivette Miller gave a surprise appearance at Fisk University, calling her “New York’s boogie woogie harpist”9:

A clip from the Cincinnati Enquirer advertises Olivette Miller directly underneath Jackie “Moms” Mabley, calling Miller the “World’s Greatest Swing Harpist”10

I also found the advertisement for a movie called “The Joint is Jumpin’”, shown below, which stars and highlights Olivette Miller11. It appears as though the film is lost. Still, Olivette must have been featured because advertisers believed her fame would help ticket sales. 

In conclusion, we know that Olivette Miller was famous in her time, but that she has since been lost to history. What does her disappearance from modern-day discussions of jazz or harp say about race, identity, and representation in American music? Do we only preserve in our memories individuals who fit our expectations for race and genre? 


P.S. If you want to hear what jazz harp would sound like, here’s a recording from the only slightly more-discussed jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby, born 18 years after Olivette12:


1 Amon, Markus. Untitled. Getty Images. Photograph.

2 Gottlieb, William P. Portrait of Gene Sedric, Cliff Jackson, Olivette Miller, and Josh White, Café Society Downtown, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. United States, 1947. , Monographic. Photograph.

3 “Olivette Miller.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Sept. 2021,

4 “Olivette Miller.” IMDb,,

5 “Olivette Miller, Jazz Harpist.” African American Registry, 22 Aug. 2021,

6 Fullwood, Steven G. “Flournoy Miller Collection.” Flournoy Miller Collection, The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts,

Protone Records. “Olivette Miller – Look Up.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 May 2020,

“Olivette Miller Featured With Noble Sissle.” Arkansas State Press, 6 Nov. 1942, p. 7. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

9 “Olivette Miller, Jazz Harpist, at Fisk University.” New York Age, 5 June 1948,

10 “The Latin Quarter (Advertisement).” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 12 Oct. 1947,

11  “The Joint Is Jumpin’ (1949).” DREAM13 Media, 10 Aug. 2021,

12  Regent Records. “Dorothy Ashby – Thou Swell.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 June 2010,

Minstrelsy and African American Folk Music

Yeah…CW: Racist language that are quite uncomfortable

For today’s blog post, I want to talk about two primary sources that I find interesting. This week, we talked about the origin of African American folk music, and I was thinking to myself, where exactly did the music go? Some of them, as we already know, were adapted by minstrel shows. I came across a short article in a hundred-year-old newspaper, which talks about minstrelsy in an interesting way. Based on that, I went in and looked for other sources related to minstrelsy and found some parallels and differences between the two. 

Here is the first article.

This article stood out to me because it seems to be critical of minstrelsy in the first half, but then it quickly shifts to glamourising this “new” form of minstrel shows, which I think is such an interestingly complicated idea. This article was published on April 12, 1902, in the newspaper Portland New Age. The author of this article is unknown so I can’t do that much of a deep dive on them. For the first half of this article, the author states that the death of past minstrel actors signifies the death of the old minstrel shows. At this point, I thought this article is serving some fresh, woke ideas. 

Then, it shifted into sort of an advertisement for this new age minstrel show, and the author said that the old minstrel shows “represent no class and their programs are a hotch potch of absurdly sentimental drivel and eccentric vaudeville specialties.” The author introduces the new minstrel shows by stating the type of dance, music and instruments that will be there, “The dances were… The instruments were the banjo, the fiddle, the bones and the tambourine. The songs were the racy plantation melodies, the jubilee, hymns, … ” all of these were elements of African American folksongs

This is not even the worst part (since they were just being mean to their predecessors), the author went on and said that the old minstrel shows “was to represent the plantation negro in his native humor and with all his racial peculiarities.” This answers the question I posed earlier: where did the African American folksongs go? The person writing this article as well as those who performed in the shows are the ones answering my question without speaking a word– obviously they appropriated it. It is just nuts to me how they think his new and improved version of minstrelsy is good and worth advertising. But oh wait, it probably has a market. 

This is a poster for a show. 

This other source is simply a poster of an “old” school minstrel show, since it was posted in 1860, and it shows some names of minstrel actors, programs, as well as the price for entering the theater. On the top of the poster, it shows a bust drawing of an African American person juggling a banjo, a fiddle and a tambourine, which happens to be the instruments mentioned in the article. The poster also referred to the minstrel actors as the “great stars,” which rubs me the wrong way. The two sources combined tell a story, a story of appropriation, a story of tears and cries viewed as mockery, and a story of the bloody past in the camouflage of music.


Works Cited

“Topics Of The Times.” Portland New Age, 12 Apr. 1902, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 2 Nov. 2021.

A Guide to “Negro Minstrelsy”

As the class discusses minstrelsy and the history of such a vile music genre, I decided to take it a step further and delve into the nitty gritty aspect of minstrelsy. I found a guide book to “negro minstrelsy, containing recitations, jokes, cross-fires, conundrums, riddles, stump speeches, ragtime and sentimental songs, etc., including hints on organizing and successfully presenting a performance” (Haverly, 2).

Haverly describes the art of minstrelsy as something anyone can do. It further mocks people of color saying that it is an easy feat and that the audiences are fascinated by it.

Getting into the details of minstrelsy, Haverly sets up his guide to include any bit of information that one might need when researching minstrelsy. The guide starts by laying out valuable information on how to arrange the stage, who you should use as each of your characters (i.e. middle man, and end men), even getting into the makeup. Taking note of the make up routine of blacking one’s face one can find an art behind the cruel act. Idid not realize how detailed the make up process had to be. I had always assumed that one just rubbed ash or painted their faces with some sort of paint. However, the guide included the tip to first wear cocoa butter to allow for easy removal as well as the ear-mine to replicate larger lips in people of color’s facial feature (Haverly, 6-7).


Haverly left nothing out and included how to make the most out of advertising for the public. I did note that he stated “if procurable 

from your local printer, get humorous darker cuts to insert upon it–thereby making it attractive or something that will not be immediately thrown away” (Haverly, 8)

Throughout the guide, Haverly includes dozens of pages of various jokes, riddles and songs that a minstrel could use for a show. Before he gets into all of the examples he includes an example program set up.

Just one state over, four years after the guide was written, I found an advertisement for minstrelsy. It was from the Freeman newspaper written for a primarily black audience. Two Thirds of the way down the advertisement is an inclusion of “White and Drinkeley” with blackface clowns.

These two sources tell us the prevalence of this musical genre. It can show researchers the popularity of this music from. You can gain valuable information of the details behind minstrel shows. They are excellent sources for researchers looking at the history of American music or for those looking into more of the racist ordeals of our country. The information I briefly touched on above only begins to convey the information that Haverly includes in his all-encompassing guide. I strongly recommend looking further into the guide for more information.



“Advertisement.” Freeman, vol. XIX, no. 14, 7 Apr. 1906, p. [5]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

Haverly, J. (1902). Negro minstrels a complete guide to negro minstrelsy. United States–Illinois–Chicago.; United States–Illinois–Chicago.


Women in Minstrelsy?

Minstrelsy is often correctly thought of as performance done by and for the white man. In whatever form it took, it was undoubtedly offensive and purposeful in its sedimentation of black subversion. What I find interesting about women’s participation in minstrelsy come the late 19th century is not that it changed the purpose of minstrelsy, and certainly not that it was any less offensive. However, it does bring into question the intersection of race and gender in America.

Maty Barnard Horne [1845-1931] was one of the first female authors of minstrelsy scripts. She wrote various musicals, school productions, adapted others’ performances for the stage and of course, minstrel shows. Interestingly, she dealt with the social and political status of women during this time in America where voting rights for black men and white women were similar.

Here is one of her first shows, entitled Plantation Bitters. The text is highly racist yet also is one of the first shows in which women were cast on stage. This does not lend any credence to the tradition of minstrel shows, but rather shows a greater trend of white women weaponizing their status to further black oppression.

We see the same trend today, as some of you might remember the woman in central park, NYC during 2020 that tried to call the police on a black man for telling her to leash her dog. It has been a trend throughout history that I do not think the presence of women in minstrelsy does anything to combat.

Dissonant Perceptions of Black Music in the Early 1900s

There is something inherently dissonant about perceptions of blackness in the artistic community before the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In certain circles, white musicians and writers  seemed to have collective understanding and appreciation for African-American music.

In an interview published as far back as 1893, renowned European musician Antonin Dvorak openly claimed that “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” The article from the Cleveland Gazette  is boldly titled, Negro Melodies: Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition. The obvious placement of value on Black music seems at odds with the events going on in the late 1800s and early 1900s- during the time of Jim Crow and the height of the anti-lynching movement. 

It seems at once that Dvorak’s opinion was both common among Eastern Europeans in America and, as the piece describes, “radical”- however, in the context of other articles sharing the sentiment, it is rather ordinary: fellow musician Giacomo Minkowsky was interviewed for the Portland New Age in an article titled, GIACOMO MINKOWSKY: Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.

The two pieces share something in common apart from the explicit theme and school of thought: an undertone of dissonant attitudes and ideas regarding blackness. 

For instance, Minkowsky is quoted in the interview saying, “I have come to the conclusion that the cradle of American music lay below Mason and Dixon’s line, and that it is the Negro to whom we owe the series of melodies comprising our national music.” Later in the article, he claims, “It is the Negro who is the innovator in this country in “syncopated” meter.”  

Only a few paragraphs later, he goes on to berate his contemporaries, many of whom were Black, and state that the merit of “these [Black] melodies” is their originality, and “primitiveness”: “….I cannot say that our composers in their treatment of these melodies have in any way improved them. In their primitive state they had, as I said before, the merit of originality, a merit which they lost on account of unskilled treatment.” 

The article closes with Minkowsky calling ragtime music “mutilated forms of it [original negro melodies].” “If asked today whether these ‘ragtime’ songs actually represented American music, I would answer: No; they are but the mutilated forms of it; for the genuine popular music you must go back to the old Negro melodies. We have abandoned our sources merely to go back to them again.” One might take this to mean that the “Negro songs” and “melodies” mentioned throughout the article, as being the foundation of American music, are only those he deems of value and artistic merit. 

While Dvorak does not go on to rebuke his Black contemporaries, this might be only because he does not comment on Black performances, or Black music as played by Black people. He praises the importance of “Negro melodies”; “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies.” Only to later divulge, “When the Negro minstrels are here again I intend to take my young composers with me and have them comment on the melodies.” Minstrel shows were inherently racist and anti-black from their conception. The entire premise is humor in the form of ridiculing Black people, while wearing blackface. 

These two articles exhibit a classic form of American racism:  disenfranchising and expropriating the art and music of Black people, to conceptually separate Black people from Black art.



“Giacomo Minkowsky Says the Negro Songs Is the Cradle of Our Music.” Portland New Age, 10 Nov. 1900, p. 4. Readex: African American Newspapers, 

“Negro Melodies. Must be the Foundation of Any Serious and Original School of Composition To.” Cleveland Gazette, 3 June 1893, p. 1. Readex: African American Newspapers,

African-American Spirituals and Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”

Antonín Dvořák

As we attempt to answer the question “What is American Music?” one perspective to take is that of an outsider. Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” is a work that showcases an outsider’s perspective on American music and culture — this music and culture being undoubtedly shaped at least in part by African-American spirituals. 


In speaking of this composition, Dvořák went so far as to claim that “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” Obviously problematic, this statement essentially tells white Americans that it is in their best interest to continue to take advantage of the people they have violently enslaved and oppressed to further their musical mark. 

Continue reading

Laura M. Towne

While reading Dena Epstein’s book Sinful Tunes and Spirituals1, the various diary entries and letters stuck out to me, and I was curious to learn more about who was behind those entries, as well as find primary sources by and about the writers. In April 1862, a woman named Laura Towne described a shout she witnessed during her teaching in the Sea Islands (a chain of islands off the southeastern coast of the United States).

A quote from a letter written by Laura Towne, describing a shout she witnessed2.

One small detail really stayed with me throughout this reading, and it was that Towne was a teacher on the island. This is the information I used to guide my primary source searching. I found an article from a Black newspaper called the Broad Ax4. The Broad Ax was a popular African American newspaper published by Julius F. Taylor from 1895 to around 1930. As one historian noted, the newspaper was “the most controversial black newspaper in Chicago in the late nineteenth century5“.

In this edition, there was an article commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Penn School, which was the school Towne founded and taught at for the majority of her life, and also the oldest learning institution for people of color in the south.

In all my 15 years of education, I have never once learned or read about this school, or its female abolitionist founders. I was surprised when reading about this, and even more surprised to learn it was among the first of its kind AND founded by women.  Prior to reading Epstein’s book, I did not know about the Sea Islands, Laura Towne, or the Penn School. Finding little bits of information like this makes me wonder what else is missing from our education. How can we as scholars and students work to make history less biased and more inclusive?

Works Cited:

[1] Epstein, Dena. “Reports of Black Folk Music, 1863-67” In Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. University of Illinois Press, 1977.

[2] Towne, Laura M. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884. Edited by Rupert Sargent Holland. United States, Massachusetts: Riverside Press, 1912.

[3] “Penn School Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary. Occasion of Joy For All – General Robert Smalls Speaks.” Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), May 18, 1912: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

[4] “About The broad ax. [volume] (Salt Lake City, Utah) 1895-19??.” Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed October 11, 2021.

[5] Ibid.

The Life of John Curtis


This week I found a newspaper article, listed as being released in 1829, advertising a concert to be performed in New York City. Not only does it advertise as was expected, it outlines the life story of the leading musician, a story that shed some light on the experience of a free Black man in the time of slavery who also happens to be a touring violinist accompanied by his adolescent children. They are also touring violinists.

Link to the original document:

The article describes the experience of Curtis from being blinding by his wife’s slaver, to purchasing his kids from bondage with money he earned performing music, to finally teaching them how to play violin as well. At first I was surprised at the sympathetic tone this article sported while telling the story, then remembered that the article is from an African American publication, one that would likely empathize quite a bit more than their white counterparts with the plight of a struggling black man. 

There isn’t much to be said about John Curtis. A pointed google search of the violinist followed by the publication year and the publication’s location in New York showed me very little. As the article very concisely summarizes the artist’s life up to the point of the concert, it reveals the concert’s exact location. It’s then that I searched up Laurent street, the street where John Curtis and his two children played the violin, and found that it was once referred to as “Rotten Row”, by a less than scholarly blog from 2011. 

Check it out:

While the source had some less than charitable things to say about the Laurent street that once was, it is very clear that John Curtis’ conditions for performance were less than ideal. Not only was he, a blind, black man in the time of slavery, a working musician. He was touring with two children, both taught in the art of the violin, both taught by a father who had never laid eyes on them. The opportunities for performance were, as we’ve studied, events for slavers and for run down concert halls in poor neighborhoods. 

With all our conversations about the origins of “American Music” and defining the term for ourselves, our conversations cannot understate the importance of black music to the overall scope of American music, undefined as it may be. Performers like John Curtis, and the stories that they leave behind, will likely go unstudied and their personal stamp on the world of classical music, in particular, will likely remain undiscovered. The tragedy of music history is the lack of information available to further recognize this man’s contribution to the world of music. 

(There isn’t much to say, I just wish that there was a movie about this guy)

Necessary Beginnings: Reflecting on Blackface Minstrelsy

When working through the designated databases this week, I found many articles and scores pertaining to blackface minstrelsy, like a lot of my fellow classmates. However, I found many glowing reviews with advertisements for future performances of many different troupes. I was surprised, to say the least. The language was light, enthusiastic, and endearing to this particular group of performers — Christy’s Minstrels. 

Therefore, in today’s installment of American Music discourse, Taylor Wesseln grapples with how the perception of the morality and ethics of human creation change over time. In other words, how could someone write a warm advertisement for a group whose mission and success came from the tried and true racism of all members involved? These thoughts  could also boil down to this simple question: “why the h*ck was minstrelsy popular at all?”

“Christy’s Minstrels.” New Orleans Daily Creole (New Orleans, Louisiana), October 2, 1856: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

After days of sitting with this blurb from the New Orleans Daily Creole, I still have no answer. Here, the author describes the unique talent of the Christy Minstrels, because “[n]o minstrelsy of Nature’s choristers can give greater pleasure to the ear that is attuned to music than their artistic warbling.” This group appears to have the ability to “beautiful[ly] execut[e] the native melodies of [the] black population” in New Orleans. When looking at one of the songs they would have performed, “Julia Green,” one can see right away that the music is hokey with a simple arpeggiating accompaniment and singer’s imitative dialect of what they think African Americans sound like.  

 Basically, this advertisement ensures that attending this performance will guarantee an excellent night of entertainment, complete with “innocent recreation” and “phlegm-dispersing laugh[ter]” for about 50 to 75 cents a person. Golly.

Reading about Christy Minstrels this weekend felt like a difficult but necessary introduction to minstrelsy for me. I wanted to skip to the end and see when black performers began performing themselves, taking back their narrative one millimeter at a time. However, history does not work in this fashion. 

Christy’s Minstrels were instrumental in the spreading popularity of minstrel shows and music. Not only did they assist in solidifying the format of these shows into three acts, they also created a household name when touring around the country and even across the pond. Audiences, particularly white audiences,  near and far enjoyed their work– as evident by the above newspaper clipping.  Without creating this foundational following, who knows if African American performers would have ever been included in this crazy mix of performance art that is minstrelsy.


“Christy’s Minstrels.” New Orleans Daily Creole (New Orleans, Louisiana), October 2, 1856: 2. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Julia Green” sung by the Christy Minstrels ; written & composed by Frank Spencer. Date of Publication: 1848 Afro-Americana Imprints From LCP, no. S2171.

Stevenson, Robert. “Christy, Edwin Pearce.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 10 Oct. 2021.

Lott, et al. “Blackface Minstrelsy.” Public Broadcasting Station. Accessed on 11 October 2021. 

The Impact of the Black Church in Civil Rights

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois’s describes the religion of the slave with the “preacher, the music, and the Frenzy”

“The Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil”


“The Music of Negro Religion… still remains the most orginal and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born American soil.”


“The frenzy or ‘Shouting’… was the last essential of Negro Religion and the one more devoutly believed in than all the rest.”1

Black Americans’ Christianity has a long and complicated history in this country. While it is a direct result of the colonization of Africans brought to the United States against their will 200 years ago, Christianity provided enslaved Africans a sense of hope and security. When asked about their seemingly joyful mood one slave responded,  “We endeavor to keep ourselves up as well as we can. What can we do unless we keep a good heart? If we were to let it weaken, we should die”2. Christianity and music allowed for this in a time it might seem impossible.

While some argue that the enslaved shouldn’t have converted to Christianity because it is the religion of their colonizer, I think there’s something to be said about the power of Black Americans using the religion of their colonizer to gain back some of their freedom.

A Milwaukee newspaper article documenting the role of the black church in civil rights

A Milwaukee newspaper article documenting the role of the black church in civil rights “Black Churches’ Role in Civil Rights Told.” Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) XI, no. 27, November 20, 1971: Page 7. Readex: African American Newspapers. 

Christianity gave more than just hope to blacks in early America, it also played an important role in the advancement of their civil rights. The church influenced early rebellions, helped Frederick Douglass “find his voice”, as well as giving Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King an early platform. The Black Church even had a role in getting the Civil rigths Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 singed as John Lewis, an ordained baptist minister, was present at both signings.3 

Mirroring the sentiment from the seemingly joyful slave, Rep. John Lewis remarks on the everlasting need for hope in dark times, “The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith.”

Frankie Manning, “Shorty George”, Savoy Ballroom: The People and Places of Early Lindy Hop


Frankie Manning in 1938, age 24 (from the Frankie Manning Foundation)


I first heard about Frankie Manning through my participation in St. Olaf Swing Club, where we learn to dance a style of swing called Lindy Hop. I watched a few videos of Manning dancing, and even learned to dance one of his signature moves, the “Frankie sixes”. However, besides Frankie Manning’s name, I never felt like I knew much about the origins of Lindy Hop. Now, as a student officer of the St. Olaf Swing Club, I feel both an obligation and a curiosity to learn more.

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953” (from Grove Music Online)

Knowing also that Lindy Hop was created by Black dancers in America, I found that the African American Newspapers database was the perfect place to start piecing together Lindy Hop’s origin story. A column from a newspaper published in Topeka, Kansas in 1931 advertised for a spring N.A.A.C.P. dance happening at the Savoy Ballroom, which would feature a “National Lindy Hopper’s Contest” at midnight. The Savoy Ballroom, located in Harlem in New York, ended up being mentioned in almost every source I found relating to Lindy Hop and the early Lindy Hop dancers.

The Savoy Ballroom can be spotted on the left edge of this 1933 map of nightclubs in Harlem (from the Library of Congress).

A different segment in the exact same publication states outright that Lindy Hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom, as opposed to Broadway revues where the dance style had been made available to wider audiences in the U.S. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop” (from Plaindealer)

At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, a $100,000 theater was built to showcase the dance styles that had developed in the Savoy Ballroom. Fairgoers could pay 25 cents admission to enter the theater, where they could view 20-minute dance performances by “the country’s greatest rhythm dancers”. 

While I could not find a list of the aforementioned rhythm dancers who performed at the 1939 World’s Fair, multiple primary and secondary sources gave me the names of some of the pioneers of Lindy Hop. Along with Frankie Manning, “Shorty George” Snowden (who was genuinely a really short guy), “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, Herbert “Whitey” White, and Norma Miller (“the Queen of Swing”) were likely to be mentioned in accounts of the history of Lindy Hop. “Shorty George” actually coined the term “Lindy Hop” in 1937 as a reference to Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The Frankie Manning Foundation website is an excellent source of short biographies of Lindy Hop’s founding dancers, including historical photographs. 

The amount of primary and secondary source material available on this topic thrills me, especially compared with the lack of sources on other topics of interest to me. I can and probably will dig into the history of Lindy Hop and the Savoy Ballroom for hours on end, but for now I can only share a glimpse into where my curiosity will take me: was Ben Homer’s 1939 song, “Shoot the Sherbert to Me Herbert” referencing Herbert “Whitey” White? The song has the ideal tempo and rhythm for lindy hopping, and was written during or right after when “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” were performing at the Savoy Ballroom. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.


Campbell, E. Simms , Cartographer, and Publisher Dell Publishing Company. A night-club map of Harlem. [New York, N.Y.: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., ©, 1932] Map.

Conyers, Claude. “Lindy Hop.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 6, 2012. 

Conyers, Claude. “Manning, Frankie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. 

Conyers, Claude. “Savoy Ballroom.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press, February 23, 2011. 

“Dancers in Savoy Ballroom 1953.” Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed October 11, 2021. 

“Harlem Credit for the Lindy Hop.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Harlem’s Famous Savoy Ballroom Will be Represented at the New York World’s Fair by the $100,000 Savoy Ballroom Theater.” Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas) XLI, no. 13, April 7, 1939: PAGE EIGHT. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“N. A. A. C. P. Spring Dance Mar. 16 to Draw New York Notables.” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas) 9, no. 33, February 27, 1931: [1]. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Pritchett, Judy, Mandi Gould, and Lindy Hop Reporter. “Biographies Archives.” Frankie Manning Foundation. Frankie Manning Foundation, July 26, 2020. 

“Savoy Ballroom Exhibit – 1939 Worlds Fair –,” May 13, 2013. 

Van Dort, Paul M. “Savoy Ballroom.” Savoy ballroom, 1996. 


Cohen Quest II: The Early Years

Welcome back to another installment of everyone’s favorite series Cohen Quest. This week, we’re diving deep into Cohen’s early years, his family, and the beginnings of his musical career. Who knows what we’ll find out about our guy!

Based on census records, a draft registration card, and various indexes, we know that Cecil Cohen was born on April 27, 1894 in Chicago, Illinois, and lived there for the first 10 years of his life with his parents John and Flora. After his father died in 1906 he and his mother moved in with his cousin Julia where he stayed until he left to attend Fisk University and Oberlin College. I know, that’s a lot of hyperlinks. What I’m most interested in, however, are the multiple announcements and advertisements for a recital given by a Miss Maude J Roberts, “Chicago’s sweetest soprano singer”.

Announcement of a recital by Ms Maude J Roberts, soprano, assisted by C. Cecil Cohen, pianist.Chicago’s soprano song bird Miss Maude J. Roberts in recital at 8:15 pm on February 4, 1915, at the Abraham Lincoln Center in Chicago (now the Carruthers Center).

Tons of hype was generated for this particular concert that was early on in both Cohen and Roberts’ careers; of course, the hype was relegated to the local African-American newspapers The Broad Axe, The Chicago Defender, and The Indianapolis Freeman. Sylvester Russell, a music critic for The Freeman, had some harsh words for the young performers, although admittedly it’s difficult to parse out the early 1900s syntax and tone. He writes,”[Cohen] has a good technic but the warmth of his artistic temperament was distracted by nervousness”; I would be nervous too, if I was playing for a large portion of my community at a major center of social and artistic life.

It might be worthy to note that each composer represented on the recital program was white and, besides Amy Beach, a European man. At a time when blackface minstrelsy was still embarrassingly popular, black classical musicians were still performing music by white composers.1 It seems as though it wasn’t until composers like HT Burleigh and Florence Price came along that African-American Art Song started coalescing as a distinct genre of classical art music, paving the way for people like Cecil Cohen to produce their own music that stays within the style, or pushes on the boundaries.

1Minstrel Songs,” Library of Congress

Who was Francis Johnson

While researching in the Afro-Americana Imprints database, I came across the cover for sheet music dedicated to musician Richard Willis, which included music written by Francis Johnson. Immediately, I was interested in the identity of these men, particularly Francis Johnson. Initially, I found that he was born in 1792 either in Philadelphia or Martinique (A Caribbean Island), and that there’s not much known about his personal life, other than that he was a free black man who lived in Philadelphia.

Upon further investigation, I found that Frank has the most impressive resume. It was rumored that he played all instruments, taught black and white students, toured the US and Europe, composed hundreds of pieces, and was gifted a silver trumpet from Queen Victoria her

self! This is especially impressive, given that during his lifetime, slavery was still thriving in the South. But this information is all from secondary sources, namely the African American Registry website, and the University of Pennsylvania archives website. I was interested in finding first-hand accounts of Francis and his music, yet it seems like there’s almost no primary source material available. 

I tried searching the Frank Johnson Musical Association, band, players, groups, etc., to no avail. Almost everything was either irrelevant or about another Francis Johnson. I was only able to find one writing that mentioned the accomplishments of Francis Johnson the musician. It’s titled “Music and Drama,” published in the People’s Advocate, published in 1880. It reads:

“[He] could play on every instrument then known, In 1839 he visited Europe with a portion of his band and was rumored to play the silver six-keyed bugle… was a tutor on the bugle of Willis…  was a composer of no mean celebrity”

Upon further examination, I found that this was a republication of an article from a newspaper called the Elevator (which took a lot of sleuthing to figure out), which was most likely written by a woman named Jennie Carter. Still, I don’t know who that is or if she is reliable.

This has all made me ask: Why is it so hard to find information about this man who seemed to be so successful? Perhaps not much was written about him, but to me, it seems more likely that not much was saved about him. Although the white newspapers and print were getting archived and filed away, did black people have these resources? Once again I’m seeing how my view of black Americans is so hugely shaped by racist history and the fact that white people have always been in control. I find myself wondering if we can ever uncover the true history of black Americans. 


“The Death of Willis.” Flot, Meigan & Co. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1837: Readex: Afro-Americana Imprints

“Music And The Drama.” People’s Advocate (Washington (DC), District of Columbia), May 1, 1880: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Frank (Francis) Johnson, Musician, and Teacher Born.” African American Registry, June 16, 2021.

“Francis Johnson.” University Archives and Records Center. Accessed October 12, 2021.


“Brilliant Social Function”? : A Perspective on the Minstrel Show

“Broad Ax” Chicago, May 23, 1903

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.

As I was doing my research, I came across this column in a 1903 edition of the Broad Ax. Entitled “Montana Society Note: Characteristic Description of a Brilliant Social Function in the Cow Country,” it provides some interesting insight into perceptions of minstrel shows throughout history. Upon an initial skim, one might think that this is a genuine recount of an evening of entertainment at a minstrel troupe performance. Language like “roaring success” and “It was one of the most brilliant heel-and-toe stampedes ever held in this settlement” initially hint towards the success and ingenuity of a performance like this. A little bit of further exploration of the paper and its author reveals an interesting perspective. 

Continue reading

Centering Black Voices

As evident in Southern’s book, The Music of Black Americans, music-making has always been an important part of African American culture in the United States. One aspect of Southern’s writing that I found particularly interesting was her use of newspaper articles to highlight the values of a certain time, and how they related to music. During the time of slavery in the United States, most of the newspaper ads were written from a white enslaver’s perspective, however, after the Civil War and the onset of African American-based newspapers, black American perspectives began to shine through. 


I chose to investigate a music advertisement from the Cleveland Gazette, published in 1883, that highlights this change in perspective. Bold letters that capture the audience’s attention read:

Lovers of music, secure at once a copy of the new edition of “Bright Eyes”.


Written by Cleveland Gazette editor Harry C. Smith, “Be True Bright Eyes” was a song for piano (or organ) with voice, and includes a score for four-part harmony. This push to buy piano and vocal music, in conjunction with other music related ads found in the Cleveland Gazette, such as the piano ad below, demonstrate the different types of music-making that black Americans participated in during this time period.

We have seen in Southern’s reading through newspaper ads that fiddle, banjo, and horn playing were popular instruments, and now through an African American lens, we also see the importance of piano playing with a vocal melody. Although primary sources written by white people, like the ads Southern uses, can give researchers important information, African American newspapers like the Cleveland Gazette are necessary sources to include in research because they highlight the narrative of black Americans. Researchers must always look to sources like the Cleveland Gazette that center black voices and experiences. 

Works Cited

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 3. Readex: African American Newspapers.

“Advertisement.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), October 18, 1884: 4. Readex: African American Newspapers.

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. “SMITH, HARRY CLAY,” May 11, 2018.

Smith, Harry C. Be True Bright Eyes. Smith, H. C., Cleveland, monographic, 1883. Notated Music.


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.


Why The Fascination?: Minstrel Shows in the 19th Century

The fascination. The excitement. The muse. I have so many mixed feelings when it comes to looking into minstrel show advertisements and newspaper article sections about these apparent highly sought-after shows. I cannot help but question where this grand excitement for these shows is rooted. Was it for entertainment? The humor? The sophistication? The representation? As I looked into newspaper sections that talked specifically about the Campbell Minstrel group, I started to find some possible answers and drew some parallels between our most recent reading by Eric Lott about the concept of love and theft.

The newspaper sections that I found are from the New Orleans Daily Creole, “a Creole pro-slavery newspaper launched in 1856.” Is it also noted that scholars of the African- American press generally exclude the Daily Creole when referring to these types of newspapers. In reading this statement written about this newspaper I found on a database dedicated to African American Newspapers, I found this to be quite odd. I see a pretty distinct dichotomy between the foundational intention of this news source vs. how they portray the minstrel shows in these newspapers. This can definitely allude to Lott’s mention on how there seemed to be a general theme of “love” (eroticism, “celebration”, etc.) vs. “theft” (exploitation, insensitivity, etc.)- both terms in a great deal of contradiction. The minstrel shows seemed to be quite “sophisticated” based on the fact that they had a “change of programme nightly.” This broad repertoire most likely appealed to the general public quite extensively, almost giving them more of a reason to come back each night to hear a different show, even getting to hear “new selections” of various songs written for the shows.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 20th, 1856.


This other section of a newspaper clipping brings out more fundamental draws and attractions to the minstrel shows. The sentence where it talks about how Matt Peel, “never tires the ear or the eye” goes to show the fascination with the visual and audio aspects of the minstrel show- being drawn to the aesthetics and physicality of enslaved people. Even when referring to the jokes and how they are “excellent”- this can apply to the concept of “celebrating” or treating the experiences of black enslaved people as mere entertainment or a type of comic relief.

The New Orleans Daily Creole- November 24th, 1856.

These fascinations with the “grand” minstrel shows of the 1850s prove to show that there was a huge draw and attraction to the black experience- having shows go day after day. The “rage” continued for decades (as we can see in the Campbell Minstrels seeming to have toured for over 12 years). Although, it must be noted that all of these reviews and ads come from a pro-slavery newspaper- which alludes to the themes of “theft” and stealing of the black enslaved experience. It is so crucial to dive deeper into these themes that we read and really see the real-life evidence and sources that provide us with proof of these themes that we have read about.;p_product=EAIX&amp;d_collections=ABEA&amp;d_collectionName=ABEA&amp;p_action=doc&amp;p_topdoc=1&amp;p_docnum=1&amp;d_searchform=customized&amp;p_text_custbase-0=14569&amp;p_field_custbase-0=docnum&amp;p_sort=YMD_date:D&amp;p_nbid=N5CL5BQQMTYzMzk5OTc4MC4xMTQ0MzA6MToxNDoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjE1Mg&amp;p_docref=

Minstrel Concert Ad, 1856

Works Cited:

“Advertisement.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 20 Nov. 1856, p. 3. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

“The Campbells.” New Orleans Daily Creole, 24 Nov. 1856, p. 2. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.

Public Reception of the Hyers Sisters

CW: Racist representation of Black Americans

Newspapers are valuable resources for studying the public perception of musicians. (Yes, young people still know what newspapers are.) The writings of newspapers reflect their audience’s values. I found some articles mentioning singing sensations Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers: the Hyers Sisters. The duo started performing opera selections and art songs in the late 1860s, soon adding spirituals to their repertoire. However, by 1876, they ventured into musical theater, for which they are most known.1

An article reviewing a performance of the Hyers’ Sisters drama “Out of Bondage.”

These Black newspapers offered much praise but did so in ways that reflect how the authors perceive the Hyers Sisters’ careers. This 1886 article, published in the Cleveland Gazette, reviews a performance of one of their old dramas. The author wrote that their theater company has the best Black musical and dramatic talent in the country, and they deserve a packed crowd everywhere they perform.2 Such high praise comes with a qualifier of race, asserting that the Hyers Sisters are great Black musicians rather than simply great musicians. Continue reading

Howard University 1910: Students Refuse to Sing

Trigger warning: This blog post contains racist language.

Throughout history, the music of black Americans has been commodified and enjoyed as ‘other’. When slavery still existed throughout the United States, enslaved people were often made to make music for enslavers and enslaved people that could play an instrument or sing would be ‘worth more’ at an auction. Even after the abolition of slavery, the music of black Americans continued to be seen as a product for the enjoyment of others.1 A black musician could be talented and their music upheld as great, but their work would still be seen as ‘different’ or ‘weird’ as it was often called, and the performer themselves would still be treated poorly by the very folks who came to watch the performance.

For the purpose of this blog post, I decided to focus on an article from the Cleveland Gazette, published in January of 1910 entitled, “Will not Sing ‘Coon Songs’. This article is about students at the all-black college, Howard University, standing up to the president of the University, Dr. Thirkield, and refusing to sing what he called “old time plantation “coon songs” and religious rags”2

According to the journalist, the president justified his actions by saying “It was well for Negro students to keep alive the traditions of their ancestors and emulate the spirit of contentment and happiness expressed in the folklore and plaintation melodies of before the war”.2

There is a lot to unpack in this single quote. Besides the blatant racism, the president treats the antebellum period with nostalgia, disregarding intergenerational trauma. These students very well could have had enslaved relatives and even parents, given that slavery was only abolished between 23-30 years before they were born. To suggest that enslaved people were happy on the plantation and these students should look back on that period with fondness is insulting. Additionally, this comment furthers the romanticism of the antebellum period that still occurs today.

Later, we find out the President of the university wanted them to sing these songs to entertain important visitors.

“On the occasion of a vist recently by a government officer the president’s effort to start an old time “coon” song failed because nearly all the students would not sing”2

The students in this case refused to be a commodity or curiosity for visitors, much to the outrage of Thirkield. Thirkield, like people throughout America’s sordid past, wanted to present the perceived ‘otherness’ and trauma of his students as entertainment.

To conclude the article, the writer takes the side of the students and states “Howard’s students are right and should stand firm”.2


1Southern, Eileen. “Entertainment for the Masters.” Essay. In The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.

2“Will Not Sing ‘Coon’ Songs. Students of Howard University Very Properly Revolt Against the President’s.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), January 1, 1910: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers.



“Our Country’s Shame”

This week I found an 1874 article from the Weekly Louisianian, a black-owned newspaper that ran from 1837-1921. The article, titled “Our Country’s Shame,” condemned the United States for the prejudice with which they treated the touring musicians of color. The first musician they described was a virtuosic Mexican musician who was pronounced “a wonder as a violinist.” According to the article, the violinist was treated so badly in the United States that he went home early without even completing his tour. The article emphasized the violinist’s high class and noted that in Europe he was “respected by the nobility, from whom he received many admirable presents.”

The second musical group they discussed was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a prestigious African-American choral group from Fisk University in Tennessee. The article laments how the choir will be treated once they return to the United States form their English Tour (“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME”).

I was unfortunately not surprised by the level of racism that these musicians had received in the United States, but I was curious as to why it was so much better in Europe. In my search, I found an article by Allison Blakely titled “The Black Presence in Pre-20th Century Europe: a History,” which explains that while racism in Europe existed, discrimination based on class was much more common, as a person’s class was more important than their race (Blakely).

In addition, a Charles Seeger article titled “Music and Class Structure in the United States” explained how 18th century United States underwent a campaign to “make America musical.” In the 1800s, the upper class began to differentiate the religious and folk music enjoyed by the lower class from the concert music of the upper classes. This concert music often satirized and sentimentalized the lowest classes, especially African Americans. According to Seeger, this served as a way for whites to “think they were socially above [African Americans], even though both were poor, downtrodden, and unschooled. It offered ready compensation to the musical and cultural superiority-inferiority complexes of the cities” (Seeger) People of color to performing  in the prestige of the concert hall would challenge these superiority-inferiority complexes, threatening the white-supremacist attitudes of the 19th-century United States.

Blakely, Allison. “THE BLACK PRESENCE IN PRE-20TH CENTURY EUROPE: A HIDDEN HISTORY.” BLACKPAST, 9 February 2008. Accessed 10 October 2021.

“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME.” Weekly Louisianian, 30 May,1874, New Orleans. African American Newspapers.

Seeger, Charles. “Music and Class Structure in the United States.” American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1957, The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971, New York.

Sylvester Russell Claps Back at a Racist White Lady.

A big question that I have been grappling with and something we have discussed in class has been the origin of American music, and more specifically, the role of slave songs in American music. We’ve touched on two opinions already in class surrounding this question at the beginning and middle of the 20th century; those of Henry Krehbiel and George Pullen Jackson. Krehbiel argues that enslaved people were the only people in America that were capable of producing true folk music because of their circumstances1 and Jackson argues that music from enslaved people in America was all taken from European music 2. After reading these opinions, I was interested in learning some other opinions surrounding this topic.

Luckily for me, I encountered a newspaper article that discussed this exact topic. Check out the full newspaper here. This newspaper article was written in “the Freeman”, an Indianapolis newspaper for people of color published on July 30, 1904. This article is titled “Music of the Slaves: America’s Original Music” and is written by Sylvester Russell who was a music critic of this era. In this piece, he is commenting on another article written by a woman named Emma Bell Miles in Harper Magazine. This essentially, is the 1900s equivalent of “clapping back”. Even the tone of this article left me laughing to myself. Russell is a savage and uses the most hilarious tone to trash Emma Miles. One of my favorite insults is: “Miss Miles, poor thing, like many lucky women, got a chance to write for a great magazine without knowing anything much to write about…”.

Russell states that Miles argues in her article: “It is generally believed that America has no folk music, nothing distinctly native out of which a national school of advanced composition may arise”. Russell does not like this at all, and argues that there is plenty of research being done on the folk music of American slaves, and in fact, the “advanced composition” that has come from this tradition did very much exist and that it is referred to as “ragtime”.

As much as I love this “clap back” article, I’m not exactly sure that Russell has fantastic evidence for his argument. And to be fair, it doesn’t sound like Miles had much evidence for her argument either. Russell at least gives a name to the music genre that has come from American slave songs, and that’s good evidence. However, as much as I love his condescending tone against this racist white lady, I think he might need some more concrete evidence to support his argument.

1 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs. (New York, NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.), 22.

2 Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeld Song Making and Singing among Our Country Folk. (Locust Valley, NY: J.J Augustin Publisher, 1975.), 293.

Tracking Scott Joplin’s Career through Primary Sources

Scott Joplin, now considered the most premier composer of ragtime, led a complicated professional and personal life. He found extreme fame within his traditional ragtimes, including “The Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” however, was consistently on the poverty line, forced to sell his possessions and manuscripts. In examining newspaper articles, we can examine the public perception of Joplin and also review these writings with historical perspective. 

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How Should Plantation Songs Be Preserved? An Early 20th Century Dialogue

Romanticized notions about plantation life have a strong grip on the white American imagination – think Gone With The Wind, and a plethora of novels like it. This genre typically depicts enslaved people as happy and contented and focuses on the lives of the usually benevolent seeming enslavers. Overall the scene is idyllic, despite what the conditions for the enslaved people were actually like. This romanticized, exoticized view of enslaved people and their descendants is relevant to many publications from both before the Civil War and after, including one that I am going to focus on today: Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and Other Negro Lyrics & Monologues by Eli Shepperd with “Pictures from Life” by J. W. Otts, published in 1901.

First just look at the cover of this book. There’s a banjo, some upside down corn, and some sort of exotic looking squirrel. The inside is full of photographs of rural Black people and poetry/song lyrics that have no context. When I first found this source I was thinking “What on earth is this? There has to be more context.” And it turns out there is, and that the context is intimately related to the plantation romance genre. Eli Shepperd was the pen name of a well known white Alabaman author, Martha Strudwick Young. Young was wealthy and educated and specialized in writing dialect poetry and fiction – in other words, she used the language of Black people, wrote from their perspective without their consent, and made a successful career out of it (Kobzeff).

The house of JW Otts,  (Library of Congress)

I found the photographer, J.W. Otts, to be similarly wealthy and white, and this perspective definitely shows through in the photographs, which make out the lives of the Black people to be simple and happy. The picture at right is a good example of this bias. Interestingly, Young later went on to write several poems (again, from the perspective of Black people) about Black resistance to white photographers, which seems to indicate that she found the activities of photographers ethically questionable but never applied the same standards to her own work (Matthews).

Intrigued, I set about to find other perspectives that existed at the time regarding plantation songs, and began searching African American newspapers. One of the more interesting articles I found was titled “Coon Songs” and was written in 1914 for the Savannah Tribune, just a little over 10 years after the publication of Plantation Songs.

It wasn’t clear to me whether or not the author themself was Black, but the newspaper is definitely directed at a Black audience. The article actually had something in common with Young’s book – it makes a case for the preservation of plantation songs as a historical heritage. This is where the similarity ends. The author bemoans the fact that plantation songs are not being preserved by the new generation.

“The young colored people of our day cannot sing [plantation songs] and do not appreciate them. It seems to me a pity that the young colored people patronize the minstrel shows that merely burlesque sacred songs of the old days.”

The author suggests that young men form classes to learn the old plantation songs “from the old people who are passing off the stage”, concluding that “a spirit of genuine patriotism and race pride calls upon intelligent men to preserve these true songs”.

The major difference between this article and Young’s book is that the author of the article argues for the preservation of plantation songs by learning from old performers for the purpose of uplifting Black people, while Young’s book attempts to preserve Black heritage in book form, through a white lens, for urban white people’s imaginations. Both respond to what was evidently viewed as a problem in the post-Reconstruction South – the old plantation songs were disappearing. And both strive to offer a remedy. The difference is who the remedy is for.


“Coon Songs.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XXIX, no. 23, 21 Feb. 1914, p. [4]. Readex: African American Newspapers, Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The J.W. Otts House, Greensboro, Alabama. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Kobzeff, Joel. “Martha Strudwick Young.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 15 Mar. 2021,

Matthews, Scott L. “Protesting the Privilege of Perception: Resistance to Documentary Work in Hale County, Alabama, 1900–2010.” Southern Cultures, vol. 22, no. 1, University of North Carolina Press, 2016, pp. 31–65,

Shepperd, Eli. Plantation songs for my lady’s banjo and other Negro lyrics & monologues by Eli Shepperd with pictures from life by J. W. Otts. R.H. Russell; New York, 1901. Afro Americana Imprints.


Dancing Through History: A Political Presentation of Music and Dance

Content Warning: Racist representation of Black Americans.

Our last few class sessions have asked us to consider how history presents Black music and culture and the ways that we can critically evaluate these presentations. Our syllabus assigned us a series of readings about Black music, which were all categorized under the subheading “The White Hypothesis.” The authors of these articles, Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923) and George Pullen Jackson (1874-1953), each highlight a relatively convoluted set of principles that they see to be universal truths about the origins of Black music and spirituals. Though Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s arguments are different, they’re both rooted in inaccurate assumptions about Black culture, identity, and music. 

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More on Henry Krehbiel

When reading selections from Henry Krehbiel’s 1914 publication of Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, Music 345 was perplexed to compare his eagerness to embrace African American folksongs as American creations attributed to Black people in America to the writings of George Pullen Jackson in White and Negro Spirituals (1943). There was a general consensus among us that as history progresses, so do our politics. So I want to know: what was Krehbiel inspired by, and what can his background tell us about his research and publications?

I do not seek to answer this question in full with a blog post, however I do think it is worthwhile to consider where his inspirations came from. Henry Krehbiel was a first generation American growing up in a German speaking family. He started working for the New York Tribune around 1880 and soon rose to the title ‘music editor’ which gave rise to his writings on American music. His 1914 publication cited above is said to be inspired by his attendance of the World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. The World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was quite frankly a great show of American exceptionalism meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus in 1492 featuring over 200 buildings boasting neoclassical architecture as well as artists and musicians, including African American music from the Dahomean village.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

The very music Krehbiel heard from the Dahomean village at the World Columbian Exchange inspired the musical, In Dahomey, a piano-vocal score written by Will Marion Cook and vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. According to some sources, this was the first publication of its type and was performed over 1100 times in the United States and England from 1902-1905.

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music.

The history behind the Dahomey village as it existed in America has somewhat of a different origin story. The kingdom of Dahomey was a West African kingdom located in present day Benin that was colonized by the French, so many of the artifacts on display at the World Columbian Exchange were actually collected by the French Colonial Office during the scramble for Africa between 1880 and 1885. Knowing that the Dahomey village in America was the product of colonialism and that Krehbiel was probably enthralled in an exotic fascination of their music greatly informs how we think about his research. This being said, Krehbiel’s colonial bias does not detract from the impact of  Dahomean music on American music as a genre. We must instead lend some more credence to the instrumental role African Americans played in creating the genre of American music.

Krehbiel’s interest in the music of the Dahomean village is somewhat analagous to Dvorak’s fascination with folksongs that inspired the New World Symphony which was also written in 1893. This work supposedly also contributed to his own research in gathering music from Americans and immigrants to study and write about. Knowing that Krehbiel, though not an anti-racist by any means collected his own research and information perhaps lends more credence to his work than Jackson who relies strictly on conjecture and other researchers.


Latimer, .Dwaune”The People & Products of Colonization” Expedition Magazine 57.1 (2015): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 2015 Web. 06 Oct 2021 <>

Abstract: “The Music and Scripts of In Dahomey.” American Music  Publisher: A-R Editions, American Musicological Society.

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material.

Krehbiel, H. E. (1962). Afro-American folksongs : a study in racial and national music. F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship : Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, with 116 Songs as Sung by Both Races. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1943.

“Whitewashed” and Romanticized Notion of Blackness

As I was browsing through the prints and photographs archives of the Library of Congress, I come across an interesting primary source– “The Negro Element in American Life”, a published oration by Abraham Lincoln DeMond (1867-1936).

The cover of the published oration, The Negro Element in American Life, by Rev. A. L. DeMond, Jan 1st, 1900.

Demond, a minister and advocate for African-American emancipation in the late 10th to early 20th century, published his speech at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on January 1st, 1900 and published it as “The Negro Element in American Life”. In the oration, he eloquently points out and argues for the contributions and achievements of black folks to the United States since before the country was even formed. His speech pushes back against forces and trends that challenges the validity and worthiness of black Americans as “authentic” American, urging people of his time to see the contributions and achievements of black Americans towards the founding and prosperity of the country as well as being full embodiments of American values and aspirations.

In the past week on Henry Krehbiel and Pullen Jackson’s readings, our class explored some of the arguments for and against whether people should consider black spirituals, folk songs and plantation music as “original” and as “American”. Krehbiel believed and tried to prove that black music is spontaneous, native and original by both locality as well as musical characteristic, although Jackson pushes back on this idea by contributing most “origins” of black music and tunes towards European roots.

“If the songs which came from the plantations of the South are to conform to the scientific definitions of folksongs as I laid it down in the preceding chapter, they must be “born, not made”; they must be spontaneous utterances of the people who originally sang them; they must also be the fruit of the creative capacity of a whole and ingenuous people, not of individual artists, and give voice to the joys, sorrows and aspirations of that people”

Henry Krehbiel, Songs of the American Slaves (1914), P.22

These discussions around identity, race and nationalism are so intertwining that we simply cannot talk about one without the other. Complementary to Krehbiel’s arguments, DeMond calls for people to consider black folks in America as Americans who belong on this land and carry this “American” identity just like all their white European counterparts in the country both by locality and by merit.

However, the positionality of DeMond narrative as a white pastor inevitably whitewashed the experience, merits and achievements of the African Americans on this land which is the foundation of his arguments. For instance, he pictured black folks as the silent, obedient and hardworking contributors of the prosperity of the United States, and that the statue of liberty was the hard labour of black Americans doing the job for the wage that white American workers declined. By doing so, he presented an almost romanticized idea of African Americans on this land as what Jackson has briefly mentioned in his writing.

The privileged subjectivity from a white man’s perspective is both a path for change and call-for-actions as well as a subject to be criticized from romanticized notion of race and identity in the United States.


Demond, A. L, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Emancipation Proclamation Association, and Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection. The Negro element in American life. Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Printing Company, 1900. Pdf.

Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962).

Who’s allowed to use dialect? Not me, that’s for certain.

I know, I know, you’re disappointed this is not another installment of my world famous series Cohen Quest. Fear not, dear reader, for yet have an interesting history to uncover. After an obligatory “Cecil Cohen” and “Charles Cohen” search in the National Jukebox Collection, I found myself sorting the recordings by date; the first recording to pop up was that of a song called “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?”, composed by a Mr. Will Marion Cook, and recorded by “Sousa’s Band”, conducted by Arthur Pryor.1

At first I was more than a little disturbed by the use of dialect and automatically assumed this was a blackface minstrel song and prepared myself for the worst as I looked up the contributors. Hoo boy was I wrong!

Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) was a prolific and accomplished composer and conductor; he studied at Oberlin College, the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and under Antonin Dvořák at the National Conservatory for Music, and because racism prevented him from having a career in classical music he switched to composer popular music and was extraordinarily successful. His musicals Clorindy (1898) and In Dahomey (1903), composed for the comedy duo Bert Williams and George Walker, were the first all-black composed, produced, and performed musicals on Broadway.2

The text of Clorindy, where “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?” comes from, was written by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The use of dialect, in this case, was not in mockery; at the time Clorindy was first performed, operetta and minstrelsy were all the rage. As it was one of the only ways black musicians could be successful, Cook and Dunbar wrote their musicals in the styles of minstrel shows to appeal to white audiences, and subsequently helped usher in a new era of musical theater.3 Listen to the tenor William Brown sing the original version of the song, and perhaps follow along with the lyrics:

There was once a great assemblage of the cullud population,
all the cullud swells was there,
They had got them-selves together to discuss the situation
and rumours in the air.
There were speakers there from Georgia and some from Tennessee,
who were making feather fly,
When a roostah in the bahn-ya’d flew up what folks could see,
Then those darkies all did cry.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
Blame de lan’ let white folks rule it,
I’se a lookin fu a pullet,
Who dat say chicken is dis crowd.

A famous culled preacher told his listnin’ congregation,
all about de way to ac’,
Ef dey want to be respected and become a mighty nation
to be hones’ Fu’ a fac’.
Dey mus nebber lie, no nebber, an’ mus’ not be caught a-stealin’
any pullets fun de lin’,
But an aged deacon got up an’ his voice it shook wif feelin’,
As dese words he said to him.

Who dat say chicken in dis crowd?
Speak de word agin’ and speak it loud–
What’s de use of all dis talkin’,
Let me hyeah a hen a sqauwkin’
Who dat say chicken in dis crowd.4

There are a few things going on here: Cook and Dunbar were incredibly talented artists caught in a time in which, because of national trends and the distribution of money, they were forced to write in a style that was a bastardization and exploitation of their very recently enslaved ancestors. Perhaps this is one manifestation of DuBois’s “double-consciousness”: this second sight encourages black artists to incorporate the proclivities of white consumers to have a chance at success.5 We could easily track the long history of black artists capitulating to white sensitivities in order to survive, starting from enslaved instrumentalists performing at plantation balls as described by Eileen Southern. However, for the artists involved, this can also be a way to take back some power: their use of dialect and minstrelsy styles gave the production team a larger audience and greater notoriety in a time where all-black productions were rare.

1 Cook, Will Marion, Sousa’s Band, and Arthur Pryor. 1900. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”. Library of Congress National Jukebox. Audio.

2 Library of Congress. “Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)”, accessed Oct 4, 2021.

3 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “minstrel show.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 2, 2020.

4 Cook, Will Marion, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?”, Library of Congress Sheet Music. 1898. Notated Music.

5 Du Bois, W.E.B.. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings”. The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches. Oxford University Press, 2007, pg. 7-14.

Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare

Felix Arndt’s piece Desecration Rag: A Classic Nightmare, takes works by classical composers Chopin, Liszt, Dvorak, and Sinding and rearranges them in a rag style, which was a popular musical genre in the early 1900s. Rag or ragtime is a musical genre that originated from and was created in African American communities. Rag can be identified by its syncopated rhythms and “ragged beat”. Rag was a precursor to the “swing” jazz and Blues, both musical traditions deeply rooted in Black culture, that developed throughout the 1910s and later years of the 20th century.

Scott Joplin, one of the first well-known composers of ragtime music and known as “The King of Ragtime”, stated the following in an interview for the newspaper New York Age: “that there had been “ragtime” music in America ever since the Negro race has been here, but the white people took no notice of it until about twenty years ago[in the 1890s].’” 

Joplin was referring in part to the white composers and bands beginning to arrange their own ragtime music in the 1910s and 20s, and also to the rising popularity of ragtime being played in minstrel shows; “entertainment” in which actors or singers performed in blackface and utilized racist stereotypes in typically comedic skits at the expense of black people. 

The increase in popularity of African American musical genres was met with opposition by many upper and middle class white people. This was especially true in the classical music sphere. A strong indication of this cultural sentiment is the presence of a counter culture to resist it, however superficial and performative some aspects of the movement might be. 

Arndt was a white, middle class, classical pianist, and, even if he obviously has an appreciation for ragtime, it is evident he had no intention of furthering recognition and appreciation for black art-forms in the mainstream.

Desecration Rag, published in 1914, contained the subtle subtitle “Introducing ragtime perversions of “Humoresque (Dvorak)…””. The syncopated, ragtime beats Arndt included in his work were labelled a “perversion” of classical music, and thus, a “classical nightmare”, by no other than himself and his production team. Even in modern times, one could easily identify it as a shock-value publicity stunt. 

To provide ragtime the same respect classical is given in the “mainstream”, is a tangentially different objective from instigating fear of the desecration of classical music.

If an artist sought to celebrate dialects, they would not call them a “Desecration of  the English Language”, as that would elicit an immediate negative response, and attract “purists”. An artist would only do this to create controversy, an endeavor most lucrative in the artistic profession. 

What Arndt’s piece elicited was the expected reaction from both conservative and more liberal white audiences, a reaction that entirely relies on anti-blackness, elitism, and young artists rebelling against the status quo. Arndt was not publishing this record in recognition of the brilliance of ragtime, or to empower those who pioneered it; he was just taking advantage of white middle class fears to evoke an emotional response from an early 20th Century audience, which now paints a staggeringly clear picture of racism in America. 


Arndt, F. & Arndt, F. (1914) Desecration rag A classic nightmare. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, September 24). Ragtime. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from

Photographing African American Affluence

I enjoy this image for many reasons: the intelligent stare from the African American man giving lessons, the graceful hands of the pianist, the cloth draping over the upright piano, the ornate room with crown molding and intricate windows. Whether it features posed subject matter or a day-to-day occurrence, this particular piece draws  me into this piano lesson. 

This image is part of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s collection of almost 400  photographs called African American Photographs Assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition. W.E.B. Du Bois was an African American writer with a passion for social justice. These pictures, in particular, depict African American life in the regional south and take a different approach to the racist ideology circling both academic and public thought among white people. At the time of this exhibition, the world had taken to portraying African Americans (or any person of color, for that matter) as a race lacking the means to “attai[n] great material and cultural achievements”. However, W.E.B. Du Bois’s collection of photographs, like the one above, portrayed African Americans as “a proud people, dressed in splendor, as accomplished scholars and intellectuals studying the world with as much competence” as any student of the classics. Simply, Du Bois debunks many racist assumptions of African American citizens by photographing many men and women who work and live in affluent positions.

I think this photo of an African American man giving piano lessons serves as a wonderful example of Du Bois’s goal with the collection. To this day, playing the piano maintains a certain level of social sophistication– a skill that could be a party trick, the main entertainment, or a sign of affluence in one’s community (pianos are #expensive). Playing the instrument well requires diligent practice and lots of hours dedicated to improvement. Furthermore, African American pianists are not restricted to music that originates from their experience (i.e. spirituals, folk songs, psalmody…). Learning any instrument provides exposure to composers that wrote music particularly for that music-making machine. Even though it is difficult to see in this image, these African American pianists could be playing the same music as white pianists. 

At this moment, I recall our Eileen Southern reading: The Music of Black Americans. Southern  includes African Americans in the same musical and social practices as early white colonists, something scholarship was lacking  prior to her work. She uses language like the following phrases throughout these initial pages : “a variety of informal social activities were available to colonial villagers, participated in by white and black alike…” and “white or black, servant or master, religious instruction was not only an essential prerequisite for membership in the church, but was also a basic part of daily life.” Similar to how Southern takes back the narrative of African American life in the early settlements of America, Du Bois’s collection reclaims that African Americans are not only capable of producing intelligent cultural products, but also have always succeeded in doing so. 


Du Bois, W.E.B (William Edward Burghardt),  collector. [African American man giving piano lesson to young African American woman]. Published 1899 or 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Photograph. Accessed on 1 October 2021. 

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Provenzo, Eugene F.. Illustrated Souls of Black Folk. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

The W.E.B Du Bois Center. W. E. B. du Bois’s Data Portraits : Visualizing Black America. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2018. Accessed October 5, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History. [1st edition]. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

Black American Musicians Through the White Lens

From the many sources we’ve read in class, we know that black American instrumentalists existed, playing many instruments that could be classified in the  “folk” or “blue-grass” genre today. In Eileen Southern’s book, we learn about the runaway slaves who were fiddlers, singers, and guitar players. We also know the banjo originated from a West African stringed instrument made out of a gourd.  ( And from Rhiannon Gidden’s speech, we learned that bluegrass has always been a black genre. So I wanted to know: What stories do the pictures tell?

Factually, the same thing. These instruments have always been a part of black history. But of course, with almost anything from these time periods, the narrative is always in the hands of white people. And that’s especially true with the photographic sources that are available today.

This first photo is taken from a popular (in the 1800s) cartoon by Currier and Ives called Blacktown, a satire aimed at making fun of black people. Its one of the first images that results from the search of the word “banjo,” yet we know that banjo was a popular instrument in black communities. Its a useful source to pair with Southern and Gidden’s points, because it places the banjo in the black musical canon, yet it’s entirely controlled by the white people who made it.

Gassman PickaninniesThis picture, from 1901, is of a “picaninny” performing child, a popular vaudville act, in which children performed for white spectators, often for humor, under the hand of a white adult female. The children often travel with the troupe without their families. Again, the mandolin places the instrument into the black music narrative, but the picture is likely taken by a white person for other white people. I find this picture especially disturbing, as the child is nameless, naked, and smiling (is she happy?). She is viewed as an object for entertainment; property to the act. This is another example of white people in control: not only of the picture and narrative, but of the life of this child.

"Retrospection". Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo

Although pehaps not as sinister, this 1902 image isn’t light-hearted either. Once again, we see the banjo and the player, yet he looks somber– Is it because a white man is taking his photo?

When looking at these pictures I keep asking: where is the joy? For me (and for most of us, I think) music is about expression, joy, happiness, and freedom. I want to see pictures of black people playing their instruments joyfully, like we know they must have; like Southern and Giddens both provide proof for; like we might’ve gotten if black people were allowed to control their own narrative.



Retrospection, Old Negro man sitting and leaning on his banjo. United States, 1902. Photograph.

“Banjos.” Smithsonian Music. Accessed October 5, 2021.

Currier & Ives, creators. Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!. United States, 1886. Cartoon.

Gassman Pickaninnies. United States, 1901. Photograph.

Giddens, Rhiannon. “Community and Connection.” IBMA, April 26, 2021.

“The Picaninny Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University. Accessed October 5, 2021.

biased and bright, ‘ppropriated and proud

It is so interesting (and frankly funny) to look back at history and see what embarrassing things people have said and done, it’s like that feeling when you log onto your old social media account and see that cringey selfie with the horrible fashion choice. Thankfully, even though we did not live to see the past, we have databases to help us dig up some dirt on those arrogant scholars. What I want to highlight is the hypocrisy when it comes to the origins of certain music and how the mainstream (which is the white community at the time) perceived them completely differently.

In this week’s reading and discussion, we focused on some articles that had a lot of racist opinions and language. In his book , Jackson cited some different views on the origin of African American spiritual singing. Wallaschek argued in his Primitive Music (yikes) that the black community simply imitated white music, which is similar to what Jackson ends up arguing. In White and Negro Spirituals, Jackson pulled up a map and a statistic table in and tried to prove a point that the white hymnals is the direct causation of black spirituals’ existence.

For this blog, I searched up some open ended keywords, and in my research I found out something interesting.

This is a collection of notated music for banjo. It was published in Philadelphia in 1885 by S. S. Steward(/t), and the file is titled “Plantation Jig.” This source is quite trustworthy because S. S. Steward is a big name in the banjo world, and is often being brought up when talking about banjos and their history. This collection is quite similar to what a modern music book looks like, it has some music scores and the first four pages consist of information about what to look out for when purchasing an instrument, prices of sheet music and performance notices. It even has advertisements. This collection is clearly marketed towards those who want to know more about the banjo. It is interesting that on page 5, the drawing of a white man shows up. His name was J. E. Henning, and he was a banjo teacher. I did a tiny deep dive on him, and it turns out that he is still a name that pops up in the banjo making industry.

The actual musical content is also very interesting and… eurocentric. It is written similarly to an instrumental method book, with explanations of how to do certain things on the instrument as well as basic technique training. What stood out to me is that the music selected in this collection are all very European. On page 9 of the digitized file, the two titles are Waltz and Schottische, which is a slow polka dance of European roots. Basically, in this book, Steward planted the European music traditions onto a non-European instrument. It is nuts to me that the banjo, an instrument that is 100% African in its DNA, was whitewashed since 1830 and still is being whitewashed (Winans, 174). 

Both the spirituals and the banjo are parts of American music history that involve African American and the white Americans. However, the way the white scholars/musicians went about this is very problematic and telling of societal issues. When there’s similarities in white and black practices, the white scholars are quick to claim that the black community assimilated the white practices; but when the white community picked up on banjo, they did not credit the black community, but instead whitewashed the instrument and the repertoire.


Works Cited

Holmes, Michael I. “Identifying S. S. Stewart Banjos.” Identifying SS Stewart Banjos, 1997,

Jackson, George P. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship. New York, J. J. Augustin Publisher, 1943. 

Jackson, George P. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. New York, Dover Publications, 1932.

“John E. Henning.” Henning # – Vintage Banjo Makers, 

Stewart, S. S. Plantation Jig. Steward, S. S., Philadelphia, monographic, 1885. Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Winans, Robert B., and Charles Reagan Wilson. “Banjo.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 12: Music, edited by BILL C. MALONE, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, pp. 174–75,

Who is she? History blanks on Elsie Blank

The summary of this 1929 photo from the Library of Congress reads, “Mrs. Elsie Blank holding a huge tuba and her son Jack holding the music for her at the Orchestra Hall, Chicago.”

The combination of this image and these words immediately sparked an avalanche of questions in my mind. Who was Elsie Blank? Why was this photograph taken, and why was her son there? How “huge” was the tuba? Was it 5/4 size, or does it just look “huge” to the summary writer in the arms of a woman? Did Mrs. Blank even play the tuba? If so, did she play in the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra as suggested by the caption of the photograph (“Features of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra”)? 

Advanced searches for any kind of answer in every plausible database available left me with next to nothing. Interestingly, the most consistent results were offers to purchase the photograph as a poster (by which I am strongly tempted).

Lost in a sea of browser tabs, search boxes, and quotation marks, I started to get the feeling that I was the only person in the world who wanted to know who Elsie Blank was. But then there was Linda Dempf.

Dr. Dempf, a professional French horn player, author, and librarian with an interest in the history of all-women orchestras in the United States, had written an article on the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. I learned that the orchestra had existed in two versions, the “Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra” (1924-1928) and the longer-lasting “Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago” (1925-1947). Thus the plot thickens: if Elsie Blank was indeed a member of such an orchestra, which group was she part of? These groups and other similar all-female orchestras were started in the 1920s for a reason that one might predict: lack of opportunities to take part in professional music-making controlled by men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity continues today as the lack of written records renders me unable to learn much at all about the all-female orchestras, especially about Mrs. Elsie Blank. 

I am currently hoping for a response to an email that I sent to Dr. Linda Dempf, asking if she has any more information on the personnel of the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra and specifically any information on Elsie Blank. As I wait, I must turn to my imagination to reflect on my questions about this photograph. Mrs. Blank’s correct positioning of the tuba (see a counterexample) makes me believe that she did indeed play the tuba. Perhaps her son was in the photo to show a glance at the home lives of the women in the orchestra, who ranged from high school girls to grandmothers. I have hope that some real answers to my questions are out there somewhere, and that I’m not truly the only one who cares who Elsie Blank was.



Dempf, Linda. “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.” Notes 62, no. 4 (2006): 857–903.

Features of the Chicago Womans Symphony Orchestra. , 1929. Nov. 7. Photograph.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Women With Tuba. United States, 1928. Photograph.

The Genesis of the Blues Is Earlier than You Think

I’m sure many of us associate the blues with the early 20th-century; the 19-teens being the “Blues Era” in American society, but what if I told you the blues was at least 45 years old at that point? The blues is a great deal older than what tends to be portrayed in music circles and wider society; the practice actually goes all the way back to Emancipation, if not further. (“Memphis Blues” recorded in 1914, considered one of the marquis blues songs of the 19-teens.)

W. C. Handy was the composer of “Memphis Blues” and is considered “Father of the Blues.”

The blues emerged around the time of Emancipation, coming from the traditions of the shout and the spiritual. It was an expression of the newly available social and cultural structures that were previously unavailable, but it was also an expression of the new experiences regarding self-reliance and freedom. The way the blues evolved into a more standardized practice was through the migratory patterns of formerly enslaved people; whether that was from having to work as migrant farmers or moving to new areas due to the formerly unavailable ability to migrate as they pleased. Different regional forms of the blues would be exchanged as people moved around the South and later also moved to the North during the Great Migration. Regardless of the standardization, the blues began as a deeply personal form of expression and remained a personal form of expression for many Black artists. It was a way to express their reactions to their new found freedom, but it was another form of oral history and storytelling. Early blues songs were used to tell the stories of great Black heroes and what they accomplished, in spite of everything American society told them they weren’t. (“Ain’t That a Shame” the oldest blues recording I could find in the National Jukebox archives, recorded in 1901.)

 The early form of the blues does not take the form we would anticipate it to take. The blues is associated with a 12-bar, 3 line, AAB structure, but the most that could be found to be similar with the blues just after Emancipation would be the 3 line structure that came from the shout. One of the ways the early blues were able to be separated from spirituals and shouts is the usage of instruments within the music. Spirituals and shouts were primarily a capella due to restricted access to many instruments on plantations, but after Emancipation a wide variety of instruments were now available be used within their musical traditions. The guitar was an instrument that became quite popular among blues players for 2 main reasons: it was similar to the banjo(which many formerly enslaved people were familiar with) and it was an instrument that could be played and still retain the ability to sing. This usage of guitars(and other instruments) resulted in a further standardization of the blues because now vocalist had to be cognizant of the tonality of the instruments they were singing with. (“Homesickness Blues” recorded in 1916, as the genre was beginning to take off within wider society.)

Nora Bayes, the performer of “Homesickness Blues”, showcasing the acceptance of blues music into white audiences and homes, but only through the rendition of white artists themselves.


The reason we are mistaken as to the general era of the blues is because the genre didn’t become popular with white audiences until the 20th-century. The reason recognition was even taking place was because the blues lyrics were shifting from AAVE(African-American Vernacular English) to the typical American English standard. It was at that point white record labels began to seek out blues musicians to potentially teach their white performers, but seeing an opportunity, many blues composers began to seek out white performers in order to further spread their music. This is when the blues was brought into the mainstream music scene of early 20th-century America. The blues is a musical tradition far older than we(as a broader society) give it credit for, and it greatly helped to develop the popular music styles of the 20th-century. The blues could exist without jazz, but jazz could not exist without the blues.



Handy, W. C, Morton Harvey, and W. C Handy. The Memphis blues. 1914. Audio.

Hess, Cliff, Nora Bayes, Cliff Hess, and Walter B Rogers. Homesickness Blues. 1916. Audio.

Queen, John, Silas F Leachman, and Walter Wilson. Ain’t That a Shame. 1901. Audio.


Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021. W. C. Handy. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 4 October 2021]. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nora Bayes.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 15, 2021.


Baraka, Amiri. “Primitive Blues and Primitive Jazz.” In Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed from It., 72-92. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1963., Stephanie. The Painful Birth of Blues and Jazz. Library of Congress, February 24, 2017.

Louis Armstrong and the Traces of Minstrelsy

Louis Armstrong is perhaps one of the most well known and respected jazz musicians of all time. As a trumpet player and vocalist, he played a large role in the development of jazz, and his music had a lasting impact on the genre. He used his trumpet as an extension of his voice, popularized scatting after forgetting the words to “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926, and developed the individual solo aspect of jazz playing.1 With his soulful playing and cheerful stage presence, he captivated audiences around the globe.His contemporaries looked up to him for his artistry, although his music-making did not go without criticism from others. Known for his wide grin and cheerful, silly stage persona, as can be seen in this caricature drawn by Makoto Wada3, this aspect of Armstrong’s playing was controversial because it evoked traces of minstrelsy in his performance.



The 1932 short film, Rhapsody in Black and Blue, displays these traces well. Armstrong plays jazz in a dreamland called “jazz mania” while depicting African Americans as “savage” along with other stereotypes. As a response to Armstrong’s stage presence, Miles Davis said of him, “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.”, while others accused him of being an “Uncle Tom”.2


Although Armstrong may have depicted stereotypes while catering to a white audience, through his music, he was able to celebrate his black individuality. He used the roles as opportunities to advance his career, and as he gained popularity, he used his music as a form of protest. In 1931 after being arrested, put in jail, and then bailed out so he could perform, Armstrong dedicated the song “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal, You” to the Memphis Police Force.2 He later spoke out against segregation in the audience, losing many of the audience members who came to see him.2 Although Armstrong sought to entertain, above all he was proud of his heritage, outspoken in his individuality, and paved way for many other African Americans.




W. C. Handy and the Blues

H.E. Krehbiel (right), 1917

In 1914, Henry Edward Krehbiel published Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. Although white, he was critical of the research that had come before him in relation to black music. In his book, he notes that the “overwhelming majority of the travellers who have written about primitive peoples have been destitute of even the most elemental knowledge of… music.” (13). This was in response to the gross misclassification of African instruments by people such as Dr. Richard Wallaschek. It was also a widely known fact in musicology back in the day that black folk music came as a result of white spirituals. While Krehbiel admits later on that “[s]imilarities exist between the folksongs of all peoples.” (14), he ultimately concludes that “the songs of the black slaves of the South are original and native products.” (22).

W. C. Handy

It was from this environment that William Christopher Handy was born. Those of you know know jazz history may know W. C. Handy for his influence in blues, pre-jazz, and in early jazz. While scouring the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, I looked up blues songs by date and saw “The Memphis Blues” early on. The earliest recording in the National Jukebox is, coincidentally, also from 1914, although the sheet music is from 1913.|jukebox-41556

Songs like this and “St. Louis Blues” helped shape the face of popular black music and eventually popular music as a whole through what’s known as the 12 Bar Blues. This song form repeats a particular 12-bar harmonic structure throughout most of the song, only varying it slightly between different songs. This was not only popular throughout the early 1910s and 20s, but can also be seen throughout much of popular music in the 50s and 60s, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

It’s all a bit ironic in hindsight to see the original claims of white music influencing black music end up being quite the opposite today. While it’s not fair to say that it was a one way influence, it’s impossible to go through the journey of American music through W. C. Handy to Chuck Berry to Beyoncé and not recognize the huge influence of black musicians and black music in general on what American music is today.


A Closer Look

Upon approaching research for this week’s blog post, I stumbled across this image in the Library of Congress’ digital archive of images. In the name of the thirst for knowledge, I looked for further images; maybe one that was a more readily used piece of music, or maybe a log of a certain event that might point me towards the cultural events of a given time period. Though educational and truly interesting, I kept remembering the painting of the happy black fiddler and the happy white family and the happy children dancing happily. 

image link:

The picture’s description as it states in the Library of Congress’ web archive is as follows:

Print shows an African American man playing fiddle and family dancing. It resembles, but is an Americanized variation of, Auguste Dircks (1806-1881) “Dancing to the fiddle” now in the Josef Mensing Gallery, Hamm-Rhynern, Germany. 

The reading of Eileen Southern jumped to the front of my mind. Her reading explores the means of musical practices in the the South during the years of slavery, and the ways that black musicians were often times used as entertainment for white slave owners. With that knowledge, I began to consider the circumstances of this image’s creation, as I was very taken aback by the painting’s lighthearted nature. Certainly a painting depicting a slave and white family happily coexisting to the credit of some fire fiddle music should have been painted by a white person, someone with a stake to try and “paint” the history of black Americans playing music in servitude in a far more positive light. 

Not much is known about August Dircks other than the information that he was German-born and lived from 1806-1871. With the knowledge that this painting was not American born, my viewing of it was altered slightly. Though it is important to mention the African diaspora was not exclusive to the United States, knowing this painting came from a mind outside of the Antebellum South shifted my focus. My attention went toward the black fiddler in the center of the painting, the only character painted who does not have attention paid to his expression. Rather his face is obscured by the fiddle he is being forced to play, looking downward as a slave player like him would likely be privy to not making mistakes when performing for his oppressors. Obscured, ignored, relegated to the painting’s source of joy without the slightest mention of his experience or attitude, this man fades into ambiguity. 

I think that this painting is actually quite interesting, as the experience that I had dissecting its contents is likely the desired experience for Dircks. As a white person in America, the circumstances of my upbringing have predisposed me to ignore the experiences of minority individuals. My white eye went directly to the white family having a good bit of Southern fun, and not the enslaved black man, quite literally playing for his life. This realization is the painting’s purpose, a mirror image towards the viewer’s worldview. 

I don’t know if I did this assignment entirely correctly, but I just had an interesting experience researching this image and was reminded that music research can be flawed as well.

Duval & Hunter, and James Fuller Queen. Power of music / chromo. of Duval & Hunter, Philadelphia ; Jas. F. Queen after A. Dircks. New York: published by A. & C. Kaufmann. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

The Crucial “Contradictions” in Black American Church Music History

When you think of a hymn, what sound, mood, and/or style pop into your head? In a typical Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc. worship setting, I think that we can all agree that we would expect to hear something similar to the sheet music below written by Philip Bliss: 4 system, 4 verse, chordal song, verse-refrain format, etc.

“Hold the Fort” (1876) Written by Philip Bliss

Although, when looking into various Gospel hymns of the 20th century, I noticed something different about these hymns, particularly when performed or recorded. Listen to this version of “Hold the Fort” that was recorded in 1899.

As you can hear, it is not sung as “straight” as some scholars would maybe expect this song to be sung in a typical church setting. There are rhythmic and slight melodic liberties taken- from rubato to sliding up to certain notes and cadence points. In another example that I looked into, this song “Leave it There (Tkae Your Burdens to the Lord)” written by Charles Tindely- a widely renown black gospel hymn composer- was notated in the same format as seen before in 1916. 

“Leave it There (Take Your Burdens to the Lord)” (1916) Written by Charles Tindley

Continue reading

Sometimes, Maps Don’t Tell All

The Context

As I was (somewhat blindly) perusing the Library of Congress prints and photographs database, I came across a collection1 of maps showing various demographic data about African Americans living in Georgia around the year 1900. The first map I came across (Figure 1) initially caught my attention because of a striking similarity to a source we looked at in class. Have you guessed what yet?

Figure 1. The very first map I came across. Look familiar?

Yeah. It’s George Pullen Jackson’s book titled “White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship2.” More on that later. I decided to look at this collection of maps and the more I read about them, the more interested I became. Continue reading

Higinio Ruvalcaba

I knew Mexico was home to classical composers and had its own history in classical music, however, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea about the extent of its history. Mexico was creating music in the classical style at least as early as the seventeenth century during the baroque period. Unfortunately, many of these great composers have been forgotten or been written about so little. For that reason, this week I would like to discuss Higinio Ruvalcaba, a Mexican composer, and violinist who lived from 1905 to 1976.

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Doing research on Ruvalcaba has certainly been very challenging. There are very few resources and documents about him in Spanish and even fewer in English. His son Euginio Ruvalcaba did publish a book on him in 2003, but I unfortunately did ot have access to it. For the purposes of this blog post, I will summarize the sources I could find and link the texts in the footnotes.

I could write an entire paper on his life, but I think his daughter Marcela Ruvalcaba does an excellent job of summarizing it in her article “In Memory of the Virtuoso Violinist Higinio Ruvalcaba”. I would highly reccomend checking it out. It is in Spanish and for the purposes of this post I read it in spanish, however you can hit the translate button and get the genral idea of the article. According to his daughter, Ruvalcaba was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1905 and was a child prodigy on the violin and with composition. he began composing for strings at a young age. He learned the violin at four years old by listening to a mariachi player and imitating the sounds coming from his violin on his own instrument. Throughout his life, Ruvalcaba played in many orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Mexico city Philharmonic. He also conducted and composed many works1

The first piece of of Ruvalcaba’s work I came across was his piece “Chapultepec” (listen here) in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox archive. This particular recording was performed in 1923 in New York, New York by the International Novelty Orchestra. The piece is labeled a foxtrot. A foxtrot was popular during the 1920s and is in 4/4 time with a lilting beat2
.Ruvalcaba’s foxtrot “Chapultec” has the style of a foxtrot with some added instrumentation and musical ideas that bring in Spanish culture. One example of this cultural blending is the utilization of castanets in the recording. Castanets are an instrument popularized by flamenco music and dance and they are made of wood and make a unique wooden clicking sound.

Another interesting fact about this piece is that every recording I found utilizes different instrumentation and stylistic add ons such as the addition mordents, the melody being played by a salterio instead of a wind instrument (I struggled with identifying the instrument used in the 1920’s recording). A salterio is a traditional instrument used in Spanish music dating back centuries3.

In some ways, the recorded version of the piece performed in America is definitely more Europeanized, but since I could find little evidence or notation of Ruvalcaba’s piece I am unsure as to which recordings are more true to his intentions. Given that he was classically trained in what was accepted as the western canon, but also raised around and inspired by Mariachi I could see his vision going either way. I attached some other recordings below so you may compare them yourself.

The first is at this link!

Overall, I wish I had more answers About Higinio Rulvacaba and his life, but I was and still am excited by what I did find.

1Ruvalcaba, PorMarcela Flores, Marcela Flores RuvalcabaBailarina, Bailarina, See author’s posts, and Nombre *. “A La Memoria Del Virtuoso Violinista Higinio Ruvalcaba.” Periodismo del sector cultural al estilo GRECU, April 20, 2020.

2Norton, Pauline. “Foxtrot.” Grove Music Online, January 20, 2001.

3James W. McKinnon, Nelly van Ree Bernard, Mary Remnant and Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. “Psaltery.” Grove Music Online, July 30, 2020.


Baptist Brethren

George Pullen Jackson

In the debate over the origins of Black spirituals in the southern United States, George Pullen Jackson, makes many problematic and strong claims. A notable musicologist specializing in southern hymnody, Pullen’s tone and voice in communicating his “true” origins of Black spirituals is heard loud and clear. 

In the telling of all history, however, it is commonly acknowledged that it is told from the perspective of the “winner”. Thus in good practice, it is important to search for and listen to the perspectives of other stakeholders in said history, who may tell a very different history.

As Black southerners were Christianized in the mid-1700s, four out of five Black church members eventually flocked to Baptist churches (Jackson, 286). This proportion is astounding, and impossible to not feel the need to inquire more about. This of course led me to wanting to know more about the first and oldest Black Baptist church. Continue reading

Folk Music, “Born not Made”

The spiritual, “Oh, Freedom”, popularized during the civil war, is American folk music at its core. In his book, Afro-American Folksongs, Musicologist Henry Krehbiel cites W. E. B. Du Bois when mentioning this song and its influences. 

“The song ‘Oh, Freedom over Me,’ which Dr. Burghardt du Bois quotes in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as an expression of longing for deliverance from slavery encouraged by fugitive slaves and the agitation of free [black] leaders before the War of the Rebellion, challenges no interest for its musical contents, since it is a compound of two white men’s tunes- ‘Lily Dale,’ a sentimental ditty, and ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom,’ a patriotic song…” 1

Here are recordings of the two “white men’s tunes” Du Bois mentions, “Lily Dale” and “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” as well as “Oh Freedom”-

Lily Dale (1910)

The Battle-Cry of Freedom (1907)

Oh, Freedom (1957)

Oh, Freedom (1965)

A casual listener can hear the melodic similarities, especially between the choruses of “Lily Dale” and “Oh, Freedom”. Lyrical ideas are also shared between “Battle-Cry of Freedom” and “Oh, Freedom”.

“Oh, Freedom”

O Freedom, O Freedom,

O Freedom over me!

Before I’ll be a slave.

I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord,

And be free!


“Battle-Cry of Freedom”

We will welcome to our numbers

The loyal, true and brave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;

And although they may be poor,

Not a man shall be a slave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.2


So, is “Oh, Freedom” an appropriated song? Sure, but at the end of the day, isn’t everything?

Enslaved black people took the white man’s songs and reappropriated them. “Battle-Cry of Freedom” was a song that swept over the north and united the union after Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers for the union army. The enslaved took this power the song created and used it for their own gain in this emancipation song. 

The many influences of “Oh, Freedom” from existing songs, as well as the lived experiences of the enslaved, highlights that at its core, it is a folk song. 

1Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 17.

2 “Civil War Music: The Battle Cry of Freedom.” American Battlefield Trust. The History Channel. Accessed October 4, 2021,

How Posters Communicate Musical Identity

Musicians’ public reception begins before they play a single note. The advertisements for their performances preview who they are and what kind of music they make. I was captivated by a poster for a 1910 Fisk Jubilee Singers concert, designed by Winold Reiss. The artwork offers insight into who they were performing for and what themes the performance might have had.

Winold Reiss, “[Graphic Design for Fisk Jubilee Singers.] [Concert Poster with Harp and Mask Motif],” still image, last modified 1910, accessed October 4, 2021, resource/ppmsca.64409.

Before I sought recordings from the performance, I researched Winold Reiss, the poster’s creator. Reiss immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1913, three years after this advertisement was published.1
While the Library of Congress lists 1910 as the date of publication, the fact that Reiss had not yet moved to America makes this improbable. Still, he was devoted to non-white subjects, known for his portraits of the Blackfoot and Blood Indians of Canada and the northwestern United States. The Reiss Partnership summarizes the perspective he brought to his art, stating that,

“His idealism challenges the notion that as Americans we are anything less than “us,” a totality that includes rather than excludes.”2

To be clear, Reiss should not be seen as a sort of white savior just for making art that centers Black and Indigenous folks. However, his idea of creating an inclusive American identity mirrors the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ history, and later, this poster.

Continue reading

The South’s Struggle to Build Community Without Glorifying Slavery

CW: This post discusses the use of a term that many consider to be problematic.

One of the many great gifts of music is that it is a tool through which we can build community. After all, community is an innate human need. Unfortunately, however, in some of our attempts to form community, we forget or blatantly disregard the groups that we may be excluding from our community, and the harm that may be caused by our conscious or unconscious exclusion.

Below is the first verse of a 1915 song1 that clearly aims to build community:

Hello there, stranger! How do you do?

There’s something I’d like to say to you.

Don’t be surprised; you’re recognized!

I’m no detective but I’ve just surmised.

You’re from the place where I long to be.

Your smiling face seems to say to me,

You’re from my own land,

My sunny homeland,

Tell me can it be!

The first verse is innocent enough. I imagine that many would be able to relate to its sentiment. I remember hearing someone’s accent during my first year at St. Olaf and asking them if they, too, were from Memphis. We both lit up with excitement at the realization we could connect over our hometown. In the first line of the chorus, however, which also happens to be the title of the song, lies the song’s problem:

Are you from Dixie?

I said from Dixie?

Where the fields of cotton beckon to me.

I’m glad to see you.

Tell me how be you

And the friends I’m longing to see.

If you’re from Alabama, Tennessee, or Caroline,

Or any state below the Mason-Dixon line,

Then you’re from Dixie.

Hurray for Dixie!

‘Cause I’m from Dixie too!

The term “Dixie” is… complicated. Some believe that the term came from Jeremiah Dixon, after whom the Mason-Dixon line was named. Others believe it came from New Orleans, where some $10 bills were called “dixies”. Others, still, believe it came from a minstrel song that later was known as an unofficial Confederate anthem.2

The origin of the term is not as important as the harmful ways in which it was used. Whether the term originated with its links to the Confederacy or whether those ties developed later, the Confederacy and the term “Dixie” became intertwined. This led to the term being largely used by white people to refer to an image of their idealized, pre-Civil War South, a South in which white people lived on large, rich plantations built off of slave labor, and in which Black people were seen as synonymous with inferiority.

In the second verse of “Are You From Dixie”, this glorification of the Confederate South is more obvious via the positive reference to plantations:

It was a-way back in eighty-nine

I crossed the old Mason-Dixon line.

Gee! But I’ve yearned, longed to return

To all the good old pals I left behind!

My home is way down in Alabam’

On a plantation near Birmingham,

And one thing’s certain,

I’m surely flirtin’

With those southbound trains!

Then the cheery, catchy chorus5 is repeated. While the previously discussed term is still widely used in the South, and is in the names of Memphis fast food chains and famous TikTokers, it is slowly but surely being recognized as a glorification of horrific history and phased out. Dolly Parton removed the term from her Stampede dinner show3. The country music band The Chicks removed the term from their name4. Each attempt at the term’s removal seems to be shrouded in controversy, but my hope for our country is that we can prioritize the inclusion and welcome of all over our nostalgia for a past that wasn’t so nostalgic for everyone.



1 Cobb, George L, and Jack Yellen. Are you from Dixie?. M. Witmark & Sons, New York, 1915. Notated Music.

2 Britannica Academic, s.v. “Dixie,” accessed October 3, 2021,

3 Garcia, Amanda. “Dixie Stampede Name Change Sparks Reaction From Fans.” WATE 6 On Your Side, WATE 6 On Your Side, 11 Jan. 2018,

4 Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Dixie Chicks Change Band Name to The Chicks.” NPR, NPR, 25 June 2020,

5 Cobb, George L, Ernest Errott Thompson, Ernest Errott Thompson, Jack Yellen, and Ernest Errott Thompson. Are you from Dixie?. 1924. Audio.

The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Music: giving us insight into the disgusting ideas held about black Americans.

As someone who is currently studying musicology, one of the main tasks required of me is to use music as a clue to make larger claims about society at that time. In other words, I sleuth around in musical documents to figure out how people thought. Just like any primary source, music leaves us a trail that can bring us to bigger discoveries about human nature. So this week, I decided to embark on the task of using musical documents to bring light popular sentiments about black Americans.

I decided to take a closer look at this document:


(It’s a little blurry here, so take a look here for a clearer picture:

This is a sheet music cover for a piece titled “the Contraband Schottische” written by Septimus Winner in 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). Winner dedicated this piece of music to Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was in charge of implementing the “Contraband Decision” in which escaped slaves who retreated to the North during the Civil War were considered “contraband” or illegally stolen goods. This allowed Slaves to live in a state not being owned but also not being free in the North. This was decided in retaliation to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in which slaves were to be returned to their masters if caught after escaping.1 On the cover of “the Contraband Schottische” there is a cartoon depicting a slave owner chasing his four black slaves rolling down the hill as if they are merely goods. Although the Contraband Decision ended up being a helpful decision for slaves as a side effect, we can’t sit here and celebrate Butler, he wasn’t even an abolitionist after all.

The depiction of slaves in this cartoon gives us an inside look into some of the attitudes held by society at the time. In this cartoon, slaves are illustrated to be synonymous with products or goods, as they are rolling down the hill like a sack of potatoes falling out of an 18-wheeler.

This sentiment of black Americans being treated as “property” or “goods” seems to infiltrate and inform other assumptions about their intellectual ability or identity as functioning humans. If we fast forward to 1943, this idea develops into another held by author George Pullen Jackson in his book White and Negro Spirituals. He holds the belief that black Americans are not capable of producing sophisticated spirituals, and therefore, must have developed all of their music from the influence of Europeans.

“We know that our fathers (Europeans) brought to this land a rich and hoary heritage of folk melody. We know that the negro slave entered into this heritage eventually by adopting it to the extent of his ABILITIES and desires”.2

This quote infers that black Americans would not have the ability to create music as sophisticated as Europeans. By looking at these documents surrounding music, we can see that the sick attitudes of black Americans as “goods” or “property” and the conclusion that they therefore can not produce sophisticated music are rampant for over a hundred years. That’s pretty disgusting.

Racism within the National Jukebox’s Tagging System

TW: Extensive use of slurs in both lyrics and titles of songs.

The last paragraph on the National Jukebox’s About This Collection reads as follows: 

These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the language, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users.

In early stages of research, I hoped to link musical traditions in modern musical theater to some of the early recordings within the “Humorous Songs” tag. However, as I scrolled, I began to notice how many of these songs were also tagged “Ethnic Characterizations.” We’ve begun to explore research and presentation of complicated data and information within this class, and I wondered how a database run by the Library of Congress would present difficult topics. I selected two songs tagged as “Ethnic Characterizations,” and examined what is missing and necessary for productive conversation.  Continue reading

Faces and Voices behind the Name

In class we spent a day discussing the origins of “black music” through the lens of white hypothesis. We spent time looking at the maps of slave songs through the states, a collection of southern folk music, as well as a map of the tours that the Fisk Jubilee Singers took in the late 1800s.

I had learned briefly about the Fisk Jubilee Singers back in my freshman musicology class and their story was one of the snippets of information that stuck with me after that class. I’m not entire sure why their story stuck with me. Perhaps it was the relatability to me of using music to afford college or perhaps the biblical reference to the book Leviticus with the history of the “year of Jubilee.” Whatever it might be I new I wanted to find out more.

As I researched the Jubilee singers I came to realize that all I had in mind of these strong-willed singers were a mixed gender group of people of color. For all of the time spent in class learning about them I had never stopped to imagine their faces. On top of that their voices never received the chance to be heard by the person learning about how they used their voices. I believe that an important aspect of researching is to create the setting of the topic. While backstory is a great place to begin, do you really know who you are researching. The image I chose was a print of what is believed to be the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. Their names are not encompassed by that title but also Isaac Dickerson, Ben Holmes, Greene Evans, Thomas Rutling, Ella Sheppard, Maggie Porter, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, and Eliza Walker. Upon further research into their music I had come to realize I hadn’t listen to them either.

The link directly above brings you to a recording done by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. While this isn’t the original group of singers and while there isn’t a recording of those original singers, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers continue to sing today and uphold the legacy of the Jubilee Singers.

These two different sources allow a researcher to get to know their topic. When you look at the face of a human being and hear their voices, it becomes a personal research. It forces researchers to acknowledge their research topics as real people regardless of how long ago. In our class’s ties to discussion on race and identity today it is a reminder of the importance of recognizing people of color as real human beings no matter how long ago they walked this earth. How can we easily conjure up images of George Washington and Ben Franklin but fail to have an image of Crazy Horse (beyond outfits), the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Frederick Douglas, or Robert Smalls?


American Missionary Association, photographer by Black, James Wallace. Jubilee singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. / negative by Black. [Place not identified: Publisher not identified, ?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Work, John Wesley, et al. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. 1909. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021.


The Role of Christian Music in Cultural Cleansing

In class we have been studying how missionaries and colonizers brought English music, specifically sacred music, to the “New World”. The colonizers installed missionary schools to teach Native Americans how to sing hymns and psalmody. Christian music was also taught to African slaves.

These topics and histories led me to question the role music played in colonization and slavery. What was the purpose of teaching Christian music to non-Christians? 

The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes has helped me investigate this question and opened a door to a wealth of sources that depict the various ways Christian music has been weaponized as a tool of indoctrination.  

Published in the Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register on the 20th of May, 1844, The Gregorian Chant- Their Introduction Among the Negroes gives modern scholars an insight into the purpose behind this practice, and the reason why a magazine article would deem this article relevant to its readers.  

This literature also stands as testament to the historical trend of American Christians weaponizing religious music to dominate, disenfranchise, and uproot the cultures of non-Christians of color. 

The correspondence was written by a church musician who taught African slaves Gregorian chant on a plantation in the South, claiming that learning this music will be to their benefit.

“The benefits of all this to the negroes you will appreciate without my pointing them out. To learn so much, at once of Scripture and of the Church service; to learn it in a way to imprint it indelibly on their memories, and to have it ever at hand for their instruction, warning, comfort, and devotional use…”.

Gregorian Chant, which is taught orally and sung in unison,  is said to give comfort and purpose to those who learn it, according to the people who were deeply involved in the business of slavery and proselytization. 

There is very little literature confirming this that was not written for and by slavers and clergymen at the time; and it is likely that these ‘benefits’ were greatly exaggerated, as Gregorian chant also served to familiarize “new Christians” with scripture, which they learned and potentially memorized through active participation in worship service in the form of collective singing.  What the article provides is, in fact, a ‘helpful guide’ to the Gregorian chant as a reliable method of forced assimilation: most writings about the subject focus on the practicality of teaching Gregorian chant to slaves as a gateway into re-culturing those who they deemed uncultured. 

The author cites its singular ability to be taught to those who are “unacquainted with music”, blatantly contradicting his own assessment that “the religious songs which they [enslaved Africans] are now accustomed to” were, in fact, music.

In an eerily similar fashion to the missionary schools put in place to erase Native Americans through cultural as well as ethnic cleansing; the magazine writers seem more invested in diminishing these individuals’ cultural identities, as an entire new mechanism of exerting control, than in ‘gifting them salvation’.






THE GREGORIAN CHANTS–THEIR INTRODUCTION AMONG THE NEGROES. (1844, 05). Charleston Gospel Messenger and Protestant Episcopal Register (1842-1853), 21, 45. Retrieved from

The Power of Images – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

While this well known adage has probably originated in comparatively recent times, the sentiment has existed for centuries. It certainly seems to have been the guiding business strategy of Frank Leslie, founder of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, whose success was largely due to the novelty and appeal of illustrations in news reporting. The paper, founded by Leslie in 1855 and printed for another 42 years after his death in 1880, was extremely popular in its day and now regarded as an important source of primary source evidence. In this blog post, I will focus on the extent to which this newspaper is a reliable way to learn about the musical activities of enslaved peoples before the Civil War, using one particular image printed Leslie’s 1857 newspaper as a case study.

The image in question is titled “Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” and can be seen below.

The illustration provides a wealth of detail about what holiday celebration might have looked like on a Southern plantation — central to the image is two black dancers and to the right a group of black musicians, one playing the fiddle and one playing the banjo (or similar instrument). The presence of white onlookers (presumably owners), shows that the celebration was not free of supervision.

The illustration provides strong evidence that enslaved people had and used musical instruments during their time off at celebrations, The musicality of enslaved people can be corroborated with other evidence, for example from colonial newspapers and runaway slave listings, which often make mention of enslaved people’s musical abilities on the violin, french horn, and other instruments (Southern). The setting of the musicians in this illustration also gives some evidence of the type of music being performed (most likely dance music). To this extent, the illustration is helpful in knowing some basic information about the musical activities on Southern plantations.

An excerpt from Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans, demonstrates the musical abilities of runaway slaves.

The illustration, however, also has some glaring omissions and hidden biases. One glaring omission is the location that the illustration claims to depict. The only indication provided is that it is on a Southern plantation, an indication that is very vague and generalized, making it easy to assume that that the celebrations of enslaved people were the same throughout the South — a fact that is, in all probability, false. This generalization shows a lack of respect for the musicians and also shows that this image is catered to the white imagination of his audience. Additionally, if a researcher was interested in more specific regional variation of musical practices, the illustration would be of no help at all. Of course, the newspaper’s aim wasn’t to respect the traditions of enslaved peoples or aid future researchers. The aim was to make money.

Keeping this purpose in mind is especially relevant for this particular publication. From 1855 to 1857, Leslie struggled to keep the newspaper in operation (Pearson). Publications from this time needed to sell. The paper was published in New York, so the audience was probably largely white Northerners, and the image likely caters to this subgroup, attempting to satisfy their curiosity about what life on Southern plantations was like. This could very well affect the way the scene is depicted.

Consequently, the illustrations in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper are useful primary sources, but only if taken in context. The white audience and need to sell are key biases that must be recognized when working with this type of material, and while perhaps each picture is worth a thousand words, another thousand words may be necessary to analyze reliability of the source.



Pearson, Andrea G. “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly: Innovation and imitation in nineteenth-century American pictorial reporting.” The Journal of Popular Culture 23.4 (1990): 81-111.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Third Edition. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1997.

“Winter Holydays in the Southern States. Plantation Frolic on Christmas eve” Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. V, no. 108, p. 64. New York, 1857. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Hot Takes with Henry Hanchett

I have to commend Henry Granger Hanchett, a musician, doctor, and lecturer, on one thing: his choice of title for this piece, which was published in The Outlook (a New York magazine) in 1896. Posing the question, “What is ‘Good Music’?” in the title of an article implies to me that the author intended to answer that question to some degree of certainty within approximately one page, something most authors would be cautious of. In fact, Hanchett appears to have had few reservations about answering such large musicological questions, having also written during his lifetime a book with the title, “The Art of the Musician. A Guide to the Intelligent Appreciation of Music.”

In this particular article, “What is ‘Good Music’?”, Hanchett explores typical themes such as church music, the purpose of music, personal tastes, the roles of instruments and performers, and so on. However, what I found to be the most telling about Hanchett in this article, as well as the role of race and identity in his musical opinions, were his offhand comments about “Gospel Hymns”. He uses the example of the song “Way Down Upon the Suwanee [Swanee] River” being performed by a beloved opera singer, Christine Nilsson, to illustrate that even the most inferior compositions can be made into good music through a virtuosic  performance. In the midst of an article otherwise dominated by a casual and exploratory tone, Hanchett shifts to an exasperated condemnation of what he believes to be gospel music. He describes these “Gospel Hymns” as “not really worth the paper upon which [they are] printed,” having “no musical sense or meaning,” and overall, “not good music.”

As I attempted to get a clearer understanding of what Hanchett’s definition of a “Gospel Hymn” was, I searched for recordings of “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” (also called “Old Folks at Home”). This immediately led me to a video of Al Jolson, a popular minstrel show performer in the 1900s, performing the song in blackface in the movie Swanee River.

Diving deeper into the background and the lyrics of this song, it turns out that “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” is, in fact, a minstrel song written by Stephen C. Foster (and currently the Florida state song??). In addition to being written by a white guy for other white guys in blackface to perform, the song makes no reference to religion or the gospel. I may not know a perfect definition of what a Gospel Hymn is, but I’m pretty sure that this is not it. All available evidence leads me to assume that Hanchett hates this particular song, as well as the musical style, not because it is rooted in the racist practice of minstrelsy but because he actually perceives it to be genuine Black music and he’s just super racist. Although Henry G. Hanchett had his knack for musicological confidence, behind that confidence was the privilege and ignorance that make his opinions irrelevant today.



Crawford, R. (2005). America’s musical life: A history. W.W. Norton.

Goldstein, H. (2001, January 20). Jolson, Al. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Hanchett, Henry G. “What is “Good Music”?” Outlook (1893-1924), Feb 15, 1896, 287,

Martin, S. L. (2015, May 28). Hanchett, Henry Granger. Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Old folks at home. Song of America. (2018, July 16). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Root, D. L. (2013, October 16). Foster, Stephen C(ollins). Grove Music Online. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

Southern, E. (1983). The music of Black America: A history. Norton.

Complicated Crossroads of Colonialism

In the grand search of defining the term “American Music”, the deeper you dig, the more muddy and complicated it gets. It is seen even in this simple sheet music cover published in 1898 that the so-called “Yankee message” was something that was emphasized at one point or another, having an impact on what they coined as “patriotic music” (“Patriotic American Sheet Music.”)

The phrase “The Yankee Message” caught my eye and caused me to want to research the context and intention of this particular music. This piece of music was published and written in the midst of the Spanish-American War. According to an article from the American Mosaic talking about the Spanish-American War, for the United States, much of this war was ignited by the desire and push for American Expansionism (“Spanish-American War.”). Most Americans saw the conflict between Cuba and its colonial combatant Spain as an “in” for greater expansion and influence:

“Some were attracted by the idea of new financial markets; others were inspired by the notions of spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions of liberty and equality to other peoples.”

This raised the question for me: “How can we look at music from this time period without the harsh influence of the American urge to be a world power?” The concept of “spreading the twin ideals of Christianity and American conceptions” made me think of the article we read by Richard Crawford pertaining to the Early Christian Music-Making that took place in colonial America where much European influence took place in the beginning formations of music in general of America when it came to sacred music-making and how colonization had a huge part in this movement of music at the time. This can point to the fact that this piece of music pointed to a sort of “patriotism”, even though much of the surrounding context revolved around wanting to gain total power and influence. It also made me think of the article we read by Drew Edward Davies discussing the topics revolving around “local music” and the music of “New Spain.” Reading about the influence that Spain had on the Latin music that has survived up until the present day (“villancico” and the Latin-Baroque style) compliments the backdrop and context of this sheet music cover from the Spanish-American war. The ideas that Davies raised at the end of their article pertaining to challenging the assumptions of particular genres of music involving various cultures that Spain (and eventually America) dominated and dialoguing about the “repertoire’s problematic issues” are ones that should be taken in consideration about these types of pieces as well.

Looking into the greater context of this piece of sheet music greatly coincided with the topics discussed around the locality and dominant influences of Europe when it comes to music produced and composed in times like the Spanish-American war and beyond. Terms like “The Yankee Message” can go beyond a simple phrase and raise questions around the context of various music composed and what directly and indirectly influenced the music of that time.

Davies, Drew Edward. “Finding ‘Local Content’ in the Music of New Spain.” Early Music America 19, no. 2 (2013): 64–62.

“Patriotic American Sheet Music.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“Spanish-American War.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

Cohen Quest: Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert


Welcome to Cohen Quest! In the very first installment, I have some exciting letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles to share and discuss that solidify our guy Chas’s1 place in history. Spoiler alert, it has to do with Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert; but you already knew that, didn’t you? You’re so smart. 

I should start with an explanation of what the Cohen Quest series is: last year, I received the art song “Epitaph for a Poet” composed by a Cecil Cohen. In doing my song research, I had extreme difficulty finding information on the composer besides two short biographies from the African American Art Song Alliance and the African Diaspora Music Project, respectively. This lack of information is indicative of a greater issue:  composers of color are often left out of history, their stories forgotten and pushed to the side. Who was this man who composed a “deceptively simple”2 but absolutely gorgeous piece? And why is it that I, an undergraduate vocal performance major in Minnesota in 2021, am seemingly the first person to try to piece together a narrative of Cohen’s life? This series, I hope, will get to the bottom of both of these questions. So let’s get started before I hit the word count!

Dorothy Maynor sings Cohen’s “Epitaph for a Poet” live at the Library of Congress, accompanied by Arpád Sándor.

On April 9th, 1939, the very famous contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.3 The story goes, after being denied access to Constitution Hall because she was black, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes invited her to perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial, an extraordinarily high honor even for a celebrated singer like Anderson. What does this have to do with Cecil Cohen, you ask? Well, at the time, Cohen was the chairman of the Howard University Concert Series, and therefore in charge of organizing and producing Marian Anderson’s concerts in Washington, DC, and therefore directly involved with one of the largest classical music concerts in modern American history.4

Newspaper article describing Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9th, 1939.In early January 1939, Charles Cohen approached the manager of Constitution Hall, Fred Hand, inquiring about renting it for a concert on April 9th. Cohen was informed of two things restricting their use of the space: firstly, the National Symphony Orchestra was already set to perform that afternoon, and secondly, a 1932 DAR policy restricted use of the hall to white performers. Due to the enormous popularity of Anderson, Cohen needed to book an auditorium large enough to accommodate at least 1,500 people; outstanding circumstances prevented the use of other sizable auditoriums in the area.

Cohen contacted the impresario and Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok about the issue who then contacted the DAR and was informed that Constitution Hall was available April 8th and April 10th.5 When Cohen again contacted Fred Hand to book the hall, Hand once again denied him, saying it “will not be available on either April 8th or  April 10th for the Marian Anderson Recital.” 6 The reply is short and sweet, and it speaks to Hand’s dismissiveness and callousness in the face of mounting pressure to open the hall to non-white musicians. That March, several prominent members of the DAR, including Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization, further increasing the conflict’s presence on the national stage.7 Then Secretary Ickes stepped in and Anderson performed for thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and the day was saved.

A news clip from Marian Anderson’s concert on April 9th, 1939, at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

Obviously, the story is a little more complex than that, but we’ll save those primary sources for next time. The point is, there was an extremely important figure completely left out of the narrative to make a cleaner, more concise story; not to mention his exclusion from history as a talented and forward-thinking composer and pianist. Hopefully we’ll continue to uncover more secrets of Cohen’s life as the semester goes on, the guy certainly deserves it.

1 O’Day, Caroline. [Supporters [arranged alphabetically] M-W: O’Day, Caroline]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 27, 2021).

2 Story, Rosalyn M., [liner notes to] Dorothy Maynor, soprano, Historic Performances from the Library of Congress, December 18, 1940, compact disc, 16.

3 Special to the New York Times. Throng Honors Marian Anderson in Concert at Lincoln Memorial. Newspaper. New York: The New York Times, 1939.

4 Cohen, Charles C. [Howard University, 1939: Cohen to Hurok]. Letter. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 28, 2021).

5 Hurok, Sol. [Howard University, 1939: Hurok to Cohen]. Telegram. Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania). Colenda Digital Repository. (accessed September 28, 2021).

6 Cohen, Charles C; Fred Hand. Letter from Cohen (Howard) to Hand with his reply. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939.
Howard%29%20to%20Hand%20with%20his%20reply.pdf (accessed September 28, 2021).

7 Roosevelt, Eleanor. Letter of resignation from Roosevelt to PG Roberts. Letter. Daughters of the American Revolution. NSDAR Archives Marian Anderson Documents January-April 1939.
om%20Roosevelt%20to%20PG%20Robert.pdf (accessed September 27, 2021).

Rise and Shine – African American Religious Music

In Eileen Southern’s writing, there were a lot of passages where she talked about hymnals and prayer music. She also introduced us to different practices, traditions and schools of psalmody singing, which all work with each other in the dome of music sung and played by the enslaved. While in class and doing readings, I have been thinking about what the music actually sounds like when they were sung by the enslaved African Americans: will they add their own harmonies? Any changes to the melodies? I found a source that also aimed to look into that.

This is an article that is, in my opinion,  “woke” for the time. The point of view of this article is neutral and unarrogant (unlike a lot of writings from that time), respectful of the culture, and the author acknowledges that more research needs to be done. The title of this article is Music: The Slave as a Revitalist. It was written by Horatio C. King, and was published in the Christian Union periodical on January 26, 1876. This article analyzed the music of African American religious gatherings (that are referred to in text as “sperichuals”… so is it spirituals?), and King provided information on what that is like, “To a stranger the peculiarity most striking is the intense emotion which pervades their singing and prayers as well as their preaching (pp. 78).” The outpour of emotions is not the only thing that stood out to him; he highlighted the importance of singing by stating that a meeting without singing will not accomplish much, and will also not uplift and enlighten people (pp. 78). 

King also pointed out some of the problems he encountered in his research. He stated that the harmonized melodies in the articles “must not be inferred that the ex-slaves sing thus strictly; nor on the other hand that they sing only in unison (pp. 78).” This is a slippery slope when it comes to musicological research because when music from a non-European tradition is transcribed into staff notes… you might lose some of that spice. King used the word “weird” when describing the tones of the music, and he is not the only one: in another periodical article, Penick, someone who is not a musician, said, “I am not able to analyze the weird melodies of the negroes.” (pp. 33) I bet some of that “weirdness” is lost in translation. 

I felt a bit lost with the property of this source, because it occurred to me that it is a combination of primary and secondary sources. It was written back in the days, and it has music scores from that time. However, it clearly states that some of the sources King cited were melodies heard from other people, and he understood that the melodies can’t be fully dictated, thus making it less authentic… Maybe this is the curse of doing research! 🙂 I think this topic is very interesting because you can’t avoid the discussion around authenticity, and the author approached the topic in an interesting way by combining African Americans’ religious life with their musical practices, and I find that quite interesting.


Works Cited

King, Horatio C. “Music.: THE SLAVE AS A REVIVALIST. THE OLD ARK’S MOVING. MY LORD, WHAT A MORNING. RISE AND SHINE.” Christian Union (1870-1893), vol. 13, no. 4, Jan 26, 1876, pp. 78. ProQuest,

Penick, C. C. “NEGRO MUSIC AND FOLK LORE.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897), vol. 24, no. 2, 02, 1895, pp. 33. ProQuest,

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans, 3rd Edition. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Credit where Credit is Undue

While reading Eileen Southen’s passage about psalmody and hymnody practices in New England meetinghouses in the 1600s, I was interested to learn more about the separated and unseparated musical practices in the church based on skin color. Specifically, I was interested to learn more about when the separation of parish choir members shifted to include members of the black community — and why.

This curiosity led me to learn about H.T. Burleigh, dubbed “The First of His Race to Sing Among Vested Vocalists in a White Parish” by the New York Herald in 1894. The article highlights Burleighs trailblazing position as baritone soloist at St. George’s Church in New York City. The author, though unnamed, outlines Burleigh’s musical achievements, and throughout the article, praises all of the people that helped him along the way — people who are most likely white. 

While I’m sure it is true that Burleigh received much help along the way, this help is what the article focuses on. In doing so, the author seemingly takes much of the focus away from Burleigh and instead focuses on the people who made his success possible for him. With the likelihood that the author of this article is also white, it is impossible to ignore how their own musical experiences and perspective influence the means in which Burleigh’s story is presented.


This writing and tone of this article is therefore like many others of its time when the subject is the accomplishments of African Americans and Black people in the United States in that it either highlights or focuses on the role that white people played in such accomplishments. The tone of these writings intend to take some or all of the credit for the success of Black people in America and instead contribute it to the resources and doings of white Americans. 


A common theme in African-American and Black music-making, this portrayal of Burleigh’s success points to the overwhelming role that oppression played and has continued to play in American history. With this in mind, it is important to compare and contrast this primary source with other written histories in order to find the “truth”.

One way to do this is to read and learn about these histories in sources written by people with differing musical experiences, similarly to how we learned contrasting histories surrounding the origins and highlights of American bluegrass music. Though it is not a primary source, G. Yvonne Kendall’s recount of Burleigh’s career successes and highlights in The American Mosaic: The African American Experience paints a very different picture as to how Burleigh came to be the first Black chorister in a white parish, attributing it to his success at the Chicago World’s Fair.

This history considered, it is also hard for me to ignore the very title of this article, “No Color Line in this Choir”. The title attempts to diminish and ignore the role that race and ethnicity play in the lives and successes of African Americans and Black people. This title is nearly equivalent to the phrase “I don’t see color” and ignores the history and sacrifices that needed to be made in favor of continuing the oppression of African American and Black success.]



Kendall, G. Yvonne. “Concert Music: 1861-1919.” The American Mosaic: The African 

American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 28 Sept. 2021.

“No Color Line in This Choir.” New York Herald, 1894.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.


Mexican Corrido and Music Born of Revolution

The beginning of the 20th century brought about a slew of cultural and political revolutions in Mexico, more specifically 1910-1920. Fleeing the political turmoil, typically as a result of stolen land from wealthy capital owners, hundreds of thousands, left from the one tenth of the population’s live lost, of immigrants migrated to the US. With blooming inductres in the sector of mining, agriculture and ranching, the hundreds of thousands of hungry Mexican immigrants answered the call, and were met with radicalized violence and discrimination, as was probably customary at the time. It was in this time of integration that the Mexican tradition of Corrida was born, or folk songs that were sung between migrant workers to bring them together. 

Understanding the Corrido tradition requires close examination of the political turmoil happening at the time. Pofrio Diaz ruled Mexico from 1876-1911. Under his administration, the goals of the government lied towards bringing in investments from outside the country and revitalizing the country’s infrastructure. However altruistic, these goals were met from direct exploitation of the peasant working class, and many were forced from their land. Work conditions were incredibly terrible.

Corrido de la Cucaracha broadside by artist José Guadalupe Posada showing a full-length figure of a simply dressed woman with a shawl around her shoulders and hands on her hips, 1915. The song conveys the story of la cucaracha, which literally means “cockroach,” but during the Mexican Revolution this term was synonymous with “camp follower” and referred to women who would follow and live with their male partners in the war camps.’

These songs were sung by the Mexican immigrants working in America’s booming industries. Due to the nature of this musical practice’s tradition, many of the contents of it citation do not exist, though the primary source I’ve chosen to analyze is, in fact, written down. 

Music born from political roots, and born form the direct experience of assimilating into another culture, is something we’ve touched on in this class and classes previous. Not necessarily born in Mexico, thought deeply rooted in existing Mexican musical tradition, Corrido is an interesting mix of assimilationist hardship and musical creation. I found this practice particularly interesting as it relates to our conversations about American music being a shared experience, not necessarily born from one group with one distinct sound.

Christian faith, the role of music, and comfort zone

During a recent picnic social with our ELCA church congregation in Lonsdale, I get acquainted with a retired pastor who so happened to be talking about the brief founding histories of early colonizers in Minnesota from different parts of Europe who used church, religion and congregation as a way of reinforcing identity which inevitably set rules and definitions to exclude “others”. This led me to reflect on the purpose of music and musical practice in religious settings which I’ve been learning and putting much thought into for a musicology class about Race, Identity and Representation in American Music at college.

In Eileen Southern’s book, Music of Black Americans that we are currently studying, she pointed out that commercial and religious outreach formed the basis for Europe’s settlement of North America which confirms what the retired pastor was sharing with us during the picnic. Considering the first book published in the United States (the colonial America) was the “Bay Psalm Book”, printed by Stephen Daye in 1640 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is not hard perceiving truly how significant a role Christian faith played in people’s identity formation as well as the development of music in the colonial America.

“Bay Psalm Book”, the first printed book in colonial America.

By searching through the American Periodicals Series Online 1740-1900, I came across a primary source publication, Western Recorder (1824-1833) volume 2, by American Periodicals Series II in Apr 26, 1825. In the column “Poetry and Music”, they first presented a translation of an ancient Spanish Poem, then followed by a reflection of the purpose and performance practice of music in religious congregational settings during services.

“The following is a translation from an ancient spanish poem, which, says the Edinburgh Review, is surpassed by nothing which we are acquainted with, in the Spanish language, except the ode of Luis de Lean.”

Extremely few background or ethnographic information was provided except describing the piece as an “ancient Spanish poem” and it is interesting that no effort was made to at least include the original Spanish title of the poem. Instead, only “Kindled only at the skies.” This stands out to me as a form of using language (English) as a way of creating a new collective identity. Given that the language, the shape and sound of it plays a significant role in poetry, I’m surprised that zero efforts were made to include original texts in this column. I’ve tried briefly searching for the original texts with the English translation with no success.

In the section that follows, the writer discusses the fine line of the use of music during worship, that is to invoke a state of deep contemplation on the end of the worshipper without making the music too much of a distraction. The writer argues that in achieving such an ideal state of worship, the repertoire must be drawn from familiar tunes, with minimal use of dissonance or technical brilliancy or skills displayed by the musicians. While using familiar psalms and tunes provides security being within the comfort zone for the congregation to engage in contemplations and worship, it raises the question of how far the church and its congregations is willing to engage in truthful yet difficult topics that reflects Christian values and how progressive the church congregation is.

The religious movement, “Great Awakening”, during the 1730s has greatly shifted the music scene at congregations throughout colonial America. Slow, dragging and sometimes monophonic psalms are gradually getting out of favour while the more lively and vibrant hymns take over in many congregations. While this Western Recorder article was published in the early 19th century, it somewhat reflects a conservative drawback on the congregation and Church leadership.


Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

POETRY & MUSIC. (1825, Apr 26). Western Recorder (1824-1833) Retrieved from

Art as Social Community mid 1800s


The art of Musicking is seen throughout generations, across oceans and countries, throughout the vast variety of cultures that fill our world. It links together humans by allowing us to see similarities between all people groups in the way they do music. As I started researching I was reflecting upon the use of music in cultures and people groups. We have been discussing in class how the colonists and the people in America during the 1700s and 1800s used music.

Upon reflecting on that I was thinking about music as a social construct. In class we had been mostly focusing on the psalmody and different forms of church music of the time. Simply looking at the way slaves used an excited celebration style of music for church while their slaveowners focused more on the liturgical aspect. However, we haven’t yet really delved into the use of social music.

I found a newspaper article from January 3, 1856 written in Brooklyn. The article is title “Social Music” and found in the “Home Paragraphs” portion of the paper. Reading through the article, the unknown author uses a poetic writing to describe the beautiful uses of social music in the mid 1800s. Beginning their article, the author introduces other “studies” of the time that fall short of the enticing aspect of music such as history, arithmetic, and French. None of these can compare to the stunning use of music that brings a people together.

“Community as this, to the pleasure we experience in listening to music discoursed by a great variety of instruments, in the hands of skillful players, and all making beautiful harmony with each other… When this is done–when an individual produces a perfect sound–it brings every other member into sympathy with him. It kindles the elements of love and unity in his own heart and in the hearts of all around him.” –Home Paragraphs

The picture above is just one of the fine ways people used music as a social construct. The artist, John Doyle, portrayed this “Rehearsal” as an opportunity for the beauty that the Home Paragraphs described as “bringing every other member into sympathy with him.

A journal article from February 17, 1855 titled “Music and the Pianoforte” from the Scientific American opens with,

“In all civilized nations has mustc been cultivated as one of the fine arts, and even among savages has it received some attention. Any country may well be judged of its advancement  in civilization by the musical progress and education of its people. Inspired by the love of melody, man has made and used various instruments for the production of music, from the eights generation to the present time.” -Music and the Pianoforte


Works Cited:

Artist: John Doyle (Irish, Dublin 1797-1868 London), et al. Ancient Concerts – A Rehearsal / HB Sketches, No. 538. p. 1, The Metropolitan Museum of Art;

B. “Music and the Pianoforte.” Scientific American, vol. 10, no. 23, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1855, pp. 179–179,

C, A. R. “Home Paragraphs.: SOCIAL MUSIC.” Circular (1851-1870), Jan 03, 1856, pp. 199. ProQuest,


The Persisting Whiteness of Bluegrass Music in the Media

By, R. S. (1959, Aug 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE: MOUNTAIN MUSIC GETS SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from

NPR. (n.d.). Carolina Chocolate Drops. NPR. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from

When someone has a question they want answered quickly, their first instinct is to take out their phone and Google it. Usually, a quick Wikipedia blurb will pop up at the top of the page and that’s settled, your question is answered. But what if it wasn’t? Not to the fullest truth anyways. 

If anyone is curious about the bluegrass genre and looks up the term “bluegrass music” on Google, they would find that “the genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.” A little further down they would find that the originator of bluegrass music is in fact Bill Monroe. Our hypothetical casual researcher would likely be satisfied with their answer and put their phone away after this. 

They shouldn’t be. 

Bluegrass musician, Rhiannon Giddens explains in her 2017 Keynote Address at the IBMA Business Conference that bluegrass is the result of cultural exchange. “[it] is actually a complex creole of music that comes from multiple cultures, African and European and Native” not from “a Scots-Irish tradition with ‘influences’ from Africa” (Rhiannon).

Going back to our hypothetical casual researcher Googling terms on their phone, if they wanted to learn a bit more about bluegrass music, they would find that the fourth search result when you Google “bluegrass music” is a link to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame website. A quick skim through the list of inductees would show them that every person ever inducted to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame is white. 

Similarly, a Rolling Stones Article titled The New Bluegrass: Five Acts to Watch” names five bands where almost all musicians are white. 

So, where does the media’s fascination with equating whiteness and bluegrass come from? A New York Times article on bluegrass from 1959 gives us some insight. 

In this article the author, Robert Shelton, gives bluegrass a definitive place of origin, Kentucky, U.S.A. and describes it as a “post-war phenomenon”. 

…a form of ‘hillbilly’ music known as ‘bluegrass’ (for Kentucky, the Blue Grass State, where it was born)” (Shelton).

Shelton also continues to list many bluegrass artists such as Mike Seeger, Don Stover, Chubby Anthony, and Eric Weissberg, who, like from the Rolling Stones Article, are almost entirely white. 

When we look at early reports on bluegrass along with the complicated history of American Music, it is not entirely shocking that credit is not given where it’s due. A good step in the right direction is to acquaint ourselves with some bluegrass artists who aren’t just white, because they exist and have for a long time. 

Some Artists to listen to and know:


By, R. S. (1959, Aug 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE: MOUNTAIN MUSIC GETS SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from

Inductees Archive. Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from 

Pearley, L. J. (2021, May 11). The African American folklorist: An un-recorded legend of bluegrass. WKU Public Radio. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from 

Povelones, R. (2021, April 26). Rhiannon Giddens keynote address – IBMA business conference 2017. IBMA. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from 

Rolling Stone. (2018, June 25). The new bluegrass: Five acts to watch. Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from 

The Arnold Shultz Fund. IBMA Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from 

Reverence, Ignorance, or Danger

When approaching a musical tradition that I find unfamiliar, I hope to analyze that particular tradition with the reverence it deserves. Additionally,  I aim to avoid making sweeping statements that describe this music in terms that fit only my personal musical experience. 

In today’s entry, I will examine some of the dangers of failing to do these actions within research through Reverend George H. Griffin’s article “The Slave Music of the South,” published in The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music in February of 1885. It is important to note that even though this article is published years after slavery became illegal, the scars of its horrors were still fresh and did not dissipate immediately (if at all). 

At first, when I stumbled onto this article, I was taken aback by the glowing praise of slave songs packed into such a short blurb. This author not only labels African American songs as exhibiting the “real genius of music,” but also describes their emotional power on all who experience it. However, after further contemplation, I find his language ultimately misleading and maybe even dangerous.

In this article, Griffin begins with an examination of how the music of enslaved people feels to “outside” listeners. He introduces the concept of the “soul of music” and how this music provokes a “responsive thrill in every human breast.” I find that  beginning an article in this manner is interesting. In a lot of musical discourse, authors seem to dive into the sonic descriptions of the music they study before tackling the emotions that these sounds promote. For example,  Griffin points to the hauntingly pure melody of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”  Ultimately, I think genius for Griffin seems to be primarily how the music makes him feel, not the way it sounds. 

The sound of a slave song, however, does contribute to Griffin’s categorization of a “genius” piece of music. Upon his listening, this author points to different aspects of African American song that co-exist with Western Classical ideals. These songs contain balanced and rich harmonies, interesting melodies, abrupt “resolutions,” expressive bass line, common tempo, and “strange points of emphasis put upon syllables and unexpected cadences in rhythm, which are well nigh unreducible to musical notation.” Even though “[n]o exhaustive analysis of slave music is here attempted,” Griffin manages to describe this music in purely western musical terminology (e.g. “harmony,” “resolution,” ad libitum) . The crux of his description is how all “the children of bondage knew nothing of the methods of the school”  This music sounds  like “genius” to Griffin because these European-esque characteristics appear in enslaved people’s music without a “proper” musical education.

Despite both of these problematic ideas, I found that Griffin’s ending line made my stomach churn the most:

“The sweetest utterance of the sacred poets of all the centuries have been those ‘song in the night’ that came forth from the bitterest experiences of human woe.”

This line may seem bittersweet, because it sounds as though all beautiful creations come from absolute despair — then, “real genius” will manifest. I am somewhat surprised Griffen did not make a reference to ye olde Ludwig Van Beethoven at this moment. Anyway, what I find most troubling about this line is what is the audience supposed to do with this assertion. It seemingly justifies the horrors of slavery with reference to the beautiful music that resulted from the suffering of the enslaved. What are we supposed to do with this conclusion? These questions remind me of Mark Monmonier’s article regarding the way scholarship (in this case, maps) can deceive and justify the unimaginable. Here, Monmonier references the way “Nazi propagandists also used facsimile maps to prove their opponents’ treachery and justify Germany’s advancing western front” (Monmonier 104). I wonder if Griffin is subtly engaging in something similar–with intent, I am not sure. 

After sifting through this primary source, I include some questions that came up while writing this post:

  1. Could an article praising the beauty, emotional power, and “naturally” Western-ness  of  slave songs justify the actions of those participating in the horrid institution? 
  2. Is this an article to alleviate white guilt? 
  3. Or was the purpose to canonize slave songs within Western Classical Music by pointing out the sonic similarities?

Leave a comment if you have some thoughts!



Griffin, George H. “THE SLAVE MUSIC OF THE SOUTH.” The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897), 02, 1885. 35,

Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps  Third edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.–ubpi6ivwKxafR71b9xA 

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Streaming Audio. Recorded by Water Garrick. U.S.A. South Negro Folklore Collection.

Corridos and the Stories They Tell Us

I have always found that one of the most powerful aspects of music is its ability to tell a story, whether that story is triumphant, despondent, funny, or meant to act as a soothing balm to the soul. There is a folk genre among the Mexican community that encompasses all of the previously mentioned stories and more; it’s called Corrido.

Corridos have a documented history to pre-colonial Spain during the medieval era, but they were called “romances” instead of corridos. They were epic tales and lyrical poetry composed to entertain the people of Spain, from the poorest laborers and servants to the courts of nobility. Romances were tailored to their audience, exemplified by shorter pieces and the addition of refrains due to public demand for favored passages to be repeated, but missionaries found they could also be tailored to emulate the epic tales of the Indigenous people they resolved themselves to convert.

Corridos didn’t truly take hold in Mexican culture until around the time of the Mexican Revolution, but that isn’t to say that it was an immediate transition from religious propaganda romances to corridos. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and to that point, once the romances arrived in the colonies(especially the northern colonies) there began to be a shift in the format and topic of the epics. Instead of serenading audiences with religious stories and tales of love, the subjects changed to infidelity, incest, the majesty of the landscape, and other more novel topics. Examples of the shift from romance to corrido date back to 1808 in New Mexico and 1824 in Santa Barbara, California.

It was with the Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, that corridos really became a part of Mexican culture. They were used for communication between various regions and towns, to relay information during battle, and as a way to proliferate propaganda across the country. It was these very practices that led to the corrido form used today; it’s known to have a three-part structure(introduction, events, and farewell) to chronicle the great deeds of those that came before us.

There are also subgenres within corrido: border ballads are one of them. The border ballads were a social unionizer of sorts; they told stories of resistance against the ruling class and an oppressive society, and it helped to create a national identity due to many Mexican citizens being able to empathize with the heroes of the story and their desire to be free from societal oppression. These ballads wove tales of exploits and daring escapes, but they had various endings too. Some were triumphant with the escape of the bandit and others showed the bandit’s defeat, at times from double-crossing confidants or the bandit’s surrender. An example of this is the corrido of Aurelio Pompa who killed a man in self-defense, was convicted by an all-white jury, and killed.

The link below will take you to the transcript:

Through learning more about corridos, I have come to understand how much information and how many stories can be told through music. I also have greater respect for everything Mexican citizens and immigrants have gone through to be able to share corridos with their communities. We have a chance to learn from these corridos, to understand the issues facing Mexican communities today, but that also means we are given the chance to try and help fix these issues. Stories are told so that younger generations may learn from previous mistakes, so let us listen and learn to ensure that the subsequent generations have just a little less to fix when it is their turn.


“‘Life, Trial, and Death of Aurelio Pompa’ (1928).” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2021.

Kanellos, Nicolás. “Corrido.” In The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021. Accessed September 26, 2021.

Avila, Jacqueline. “Corrido.” Grove Music Online. 16 Oct. 2013; Accessed 26 Sep. 2021.

“‘Venimos De Matamoros’ [3:13].” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience audio. 2021. Accessed September 27, 2021.

Pompa, Carlos A. “Aurelio Pompa (CORRIDO).” May 17, 2018. Youtube video. 6:04.

Leadbelly, Lomax and Leftism

On the first day of musicology the class had a candid, inquisitive discussion about the origins of American music. We gracefully came to the conclusion that what we consider American music likely did not start with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s, and that it is more plausible that American musicking had been going on for hundreds of years before then, as Rhiannon Giddens suggests. We concluded by emphasizing the subjectivity of what American music is, and how identity and power often manipulate our definitions.

In researching early American music for this blog post, I noticed that much of the research I turned up quoted a father and son by the names of John and Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax is quoted as a credible historian and ethnomusicologist of the time who travelled across the US and Haiti documenting and recording local musics. One especially enthusiastic source exclaims that few sources deserve greater praise than him for “the preservation of America’s folk music.” It is astounding that he recorded over 5,000 hours of song recordings from people across the world during his travels which is mostly all accessible through online databases.

I rested on one particularly interesting set of recordings which features a singer by the stage name of Leadbelly. The story goes that Lomax discovered Leadbelly (Huddie William Ledbetter) and his music when visiting the prisons in Louisiana where he was imprisoned for murder. When he got out, the Lomaxes took him on tours around the United States where he performed and gained popularity to the point where many of his songs are today considered folk classics.

At this time in America during the depression of the 1930s the Lomaxes were in search of a cohesive identity for Americans to find in music. The fact that they looked to cotton plantations, ranches, and segregated prison music was purposeful and undeniably has altered the documentation of American music. However they also altered the music in which Leadbelly was able to perform. Listen to a Leadbelly original, Mr Tom Hughes Town as it was originally recorded in 1934:

and now listen to this recording which was for the American Record Company:

For our purposes, I think it is most important to understand simply that these recordings are much different in their storyline and musical style. The Lomaxes often changed his music or told him to learn new music in order to appeal to audiences, specifically Whiter audiences. The second recording is thought to appeal more to Northern, whiter audiences as it is less “sharp-sounding.” In order to gain popularity, they would even have him dress in his prison clothes and purposefully include his backstory in shows to get people interested.

This is a stark contrast to the movie made about him some 40 years later in the 1970s in which he ends up in prison for playing music in a segregated country club. (see photo attached) leadbelly

I think the alteration of Leadbelly’s music illustrates importantly how progressivism may act as a convenient disguise for perpetuating the inequalities that such an ideology seeks to overcome.


Lomax, Alan, 1915-2002, by Jason Ankeny, All Music Guide. (2001). In All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music (p. 1). San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books. Retrieved from Music Online: African American Music Reference database. 

Field Recordings Vol. 5: Louisiana, Texas, Bahamas (1933-1940) [Streaming Audio]. (1998). Document Records. (1998). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 

FERRIS, W. R. (2007). Alan Lomax: The Long Journey. Southern Cultures, 13(3), 132–143.
Filene, B. (1991). “Our Singing Country”: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past. American Quarterly, 43(4), 602–624.
Leadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-1949 – Disc B [Streaming Audio]. (2006). JSP Records. (2006). Retrieved from Music Online: American Music database. 
Monaco, J. (1977). Gordon Parks’ LEADBELLY. Cinéaste, 8(2), 40–40.

Music Shaped by Oppression

As Eileen Southern points out in The Music of Black Americans, African Americans had many opportunities to make music during colonial times, whether it be psalm singing, slave songs, or fiddle playing. Additionally, many enslaved people were valued for their musical abilities (Southern 26) due to a high demand for plantation dance fiddlers. While reading Southern’s chapter, it struck me that African Americans were able to learn new instruments by teaching themselves and practicing during odd hours of the day. Learning a new instrument is difficult enough the way it is, and even more so given the constraints imposed on them through slavery.

This brings up the point that much of African Americans’ music making was shaped by oppression. A common reason for fiddle playing in the first place was to fulfill the demand for colonists, and other music making was a response to oppression. African Americans had to learn new instruments because they did not have access to the ones they were accustomed to from their homeland, and they were given no other option but to find the time to practice during odd hours of the day. Additionally, they were forced to give up their native tongue.  This does not mean, however, that all of the music of black Americans was devoid of their African roots. There were many ways of infusing music with traces of Africa, whether this be with musical tools, imagery, or language. 

An excerpt from an 1847 magazine features a conversation about a slave song that highlights how the music of African Americans can be shaped by oppression, yet carry with it its roots:

This evening the female slaves were unusually excited in singing, and I had the curiosity to ask my negro servant Said, what they were singing about. As many of them were natives of his own country, he had no difficulty in translating the Mandara or Bornou language. I had often asked the Moors to translate their songs for me, but got no satisfactory account of them. Said at first said, ‘Oh! They sing of Rubee,’ (God.) ‘What do you mean?’ I replied impatiently. ‘Oh, you don’t know,’ he continued, ‘they asked God to give them their Atka!’ (certificate of freedom.) I inquired, ‘What else?’ Said: ‘They remember their country, Bornou, and say – Bornou was a pleasant country, full of all good things; but this is a bad country, and we are miserable!’ ‘Do they say anything else?’ Said: ‘No; they repeat these words over and over again, and add-O God! Give us our Atka, and let us return again to our dear home.’


Those who sung this song did so in their Native tongue, with references to their own religion and homeland. Although we can’t know what it sounds like, these markers in their language show how music continued to carry traces of Africa in it.

However, it is important to note that at its core, this song is still shaped by oppression because it functioned to comfort those who faced the horrors of slavery, and connect them to a homeland that they were torn away from. 



Boahen, A. Adu. “JAMES RICHARDSON: THE FORGOTTEN PHILANTHROPIST AND EXPLORER.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 1 (1964): 61–71.

J, G. WHITTIERNational Era. A Song of Sorrow: Song of the Slaves in the Desert. Christian Secretary (1822-1889), Feb 05, 1847. 4, (accessed September 26, 2021).

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

Humanizing Narratives of Incan Musical Practices

We understand music through the lens of our identity and lived experiences. Musical narratives differ, and the predominantly-known history of music is written by those whose identities hold power by associating their idea of musical skill with the self.

I thought of Neil Rosenberg’s book on the development of bluegrass, which focused on the impact of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. 1 Rhiannon Giddens offers a more holistic perspective and insists that bluegrass is a blend of African, European, and Native traditions. 2

Musical histories like these are even harder to uncover when their records are further removed from the present and written by colonizers. One of those histories is that of the pre-Columbian Incan Empire in present-day “Peru.”  Continue reading

A Critical Look at a Liberator Article



TW: racism and violence

Francis or “Frank” Johnson, an African-American composer and performer, is said to have helped pave the way for Jazz and Ragtime, and therefore modern music as we know it. Johnson published works in a variety of genres and he was the first black composer to have his sheet music published and also the first black musician to tour Europe. His music was enjoyed by white and black people alike and he reached immense fame. However, he was still confronted by racism, hatred, and violence1

The text I would like to focus on this week is an article entitled “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s band mobbed”. The article was published in the Liberator in 1843 and covered the violence against Johnson and his band on March 17th in Pittsburgh after a performance benefitting the temperance movement. The writer reports 

A large rabble of men and boys gathered around the doors and windows, and by their hooting and yelling did what they could to mar the pleasure of those within, who had previously paid their money for a rare musical treat”“Francis Johnson”2

My first instinct was to applaud this author for condemning the appalling racist behavior of the mob. However, upon digging deeper and thinking more critically I came to the realization that they were not condemning racist behavior per se, but disruptive behavior. Behavior that made themselves and their peers miss out on something they paid for. A commodity. There was no mention of the effect on Johnson or his band members beyond their physical injuries. The author then goes on to describe the attack on Johnson and his band after the show. 

“The mob followed Mr. Johnson and his company shouting (a racial slur)… and hurling brick-bats, stones, and rotten eggs… One poor fellow was severely, it is feared dangerously wounded in the head, and others were more or less hurt… Every well disposed citizen deeply regretted the disgrace thus brought upon our city…”2

The word choice leads us to believe the author was less concerned about the safety and well-being of Johnson and his band, but rather how the actions of the mob made the city look.

 I do want to be clear that the article was written in a time where condemning the violence at all was very progressive, but I cannot help but wonder at the reasoning for the condemnation. Beyond the feelings of being sighted out of a show they paid for, the author likely has other motivations.

 In their parting words in regards to this event, they state “of course no friend of the temperance enterprise could be engaged in this cowardly affair”2

Clearly, not only is the writer offended by the ruining of their evening, but they also want to use it to push their own political agenda. By stating only people against the temperance movement would engage in violent mob behavior the reporter demonizes those against the abolition of alcohol. 

Overall, the fact the creator of this article condemns the actions of the mob is a step in the right direction, but their motives do not feel pure to me.


1“Francis Johnson.” University Archives and Records Center,

2 “Riot Near Pittsburgh— Frank Johnson’s Band Mobbed.” Liberator, 9 June 1843, p. 93. ProQuest, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

One Man’s Perception of Music in America


Having your own opinions is a good thing. Feeling the need to make your opinions heard is sometimes a good thing. When looking through stacks of newspaper articles from the mid-19th century, sometimes what you really want is a good opinionated article to take you inside the mind of a minister from 1838. 

Portrait of Rev. John Todd.

Rev. John Todd

Take Reverend John Todd from Philadelphia. He has a lot of opinions, but the one he felt the need to publish in Christian Register and Boston Observer on October 6th, 1838 was this one: Music is good.

Well, that’s cool.

But why does Todd feel so emphatic about music? What would a minister from Philadelphia in 1838 have to say about music? Probably that it’s a glorious gift from God so therefore must be used to praise God in worship, right? Well, yes, but he says more too.

As I read through this article, I realized that it’s essentially an opinion piece with a clear argument and a bit of rambling.

In his article, Todd brings up religion, as well as national pride and status, as things music can fortify in one’s life. I thought it was interesting that he spent so much time discussing one’s status and national price, especially because the title of the article would lead me to believe that it would be entirely about religion. Just look at the opening line:

“God has created the soul for music, and made provision to supply its desires1 ”.


A few paragraphs later, Todd says: “Any price will be paid for exquisite music”. 

He goes on to describe how a famous violinist would make more money in a year than “eighty of our ordained missionaries”. According to Todd, these examples show the strong love we all have for music.

Next, Todd discusses how music contributes to one’s sense of national pride and identity. He talks about “Yankee Doodle” and how the song “will probably create an American feeling as long as our nation exists”.

However, the point which Todd focuses on the most is how music is innate to children. He demonstrates his point by describing instances where music was included in school teachings. According to Todd, German schools commonly taught singing and music, and every child was expected to read, write, and perform music.

In Todd’s view, this has been widely successful, and in the few cases in which it has not, was most likely because the songs were too lengthy or complicated. This can be connected with Eileen Southern’s descriptions of the movements led by Elias Neau at Trinity Church in New York to educate servants in psalmody. According to Southern, Neau at one point taught over one hundred servants in the singing of psalmody2.. However, Todd never explicitly mentions Black musicians – in fact, he never mentions race at all.

Elias Neau

Elias Neau

An interior view of Trinity Church, New York.

An interior view of Trinity Church, New York.

I would like to compare this source with some primary sources from Black musicians at the time to see where and how they differ. I wonder how the perception of music would differ by author, and if it does, why? Does it have to do with social status, race, location, occupation, or all of the above?


[1] Todd, John. “RELIGIOUS MISCELLANY.: VALUE OF MUSIC. SINGING IN SUNDAY SCHOOLS.” Christian Register and Boston Observer (1835-1843), Oct 06, 1838, 1,

[2] Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.

Music and Identity at American Protests

In December of 2005 an immigration bill was passed that greatly increased the restrictions on immigration and undocumented immigrants. And although people from every country immigrate to the US, one community always seems to get singled out in the discussion: the Hispanic community. In response to the bill, protests occurred all across the country, with over a million people protesting in Los Angeles alone. 


This picture, taken in Los Angeles during one of the protests, depicts a mariachi band leading the protest, framed by signs and waving american flags. To me, this image is a perfect representation of a cultural identity existing in America, being celebrated with music. The mariachi music is displaying feelings of pride in one’s culture and in one’s immigration status. The band, with their traditional clothing, displays a strong hispanic pride, while protesting in america shows a unity to the country and to their community. In fact, the sign behind the band reads, “If you think I’m ‘illegal’ because I’m a Mexican, learn the true history. Because I’m in my homeland,” most likely referring to the Pobladores, a group of Mexican families who lived in (and named!) Los Angeles before the USA existed. 

I think that by performing and leading this protest, the mariachi band is completing the highest form of protest: celebration. By celebrating hispanic heritage and culture with mariachi music– something that’s usually joyful and special– their placing the joy of their culture and their community within the view of people outside of their community (ie. white people). Their adding to the significant history of protest music in the US, a genre that captures the emotions and qualms of politic unrest in the US. 

The music at the protest also somehow makes the atmosphere more lighthearted, which is sometimes needed at a protest, to remind people that their is hope and a future worth protesting for. 

Interestingly, many of the areas in which mariachi is suspected to have originated are the same areas from which mexican immigrants are from. Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and Sinoloa are all areas with heavy emigration and areas in which there is a strong mariachi presence. 

Below is an example of mariachi music being played at a protest– this time against Donald Trump, who is famously anti-hispanic immigration. 



“Mariachi Band Leads Protesters.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2021, Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.

Hameed, Fatimah. Millions in the U.S. Protest Immigration Policy, 2006, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.