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.

Bibliography

“Coon Songs.” Savannah Tribune, vol. XXIX, no. 23, 21 Feb. 1914, p. [4]. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A11CCCBEC43F62EDE%40EANAAA-11D5E09364F22910%402420185-11D5E09378D940D0%403-11D5E093CB27DD90%40Coon%2BSongs. Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The J.W. Otts House, Greensboro, Alabama. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2010641120/>.

Kobzeff, Joel. “Martha Strudwick Young.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 15 Mar. 2021, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-4269.

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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26221778

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.  https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=A57V58PNMTYzMzgwNzQ5Ni4yNjM4NTA6MToxNDoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjE3NQ&p_action=doc&p_queryname=7&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-147E02D0C7259700@11449-15E338602ACE6790@37

 

Samuel Coleridge Taylor: the African American Perspective

TW: Discussions of racism and mention of lynchings. 

Coleridge-Taylor’s preeminent work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African Composer – Mary Church Terrell Article from “The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts”

 

Before Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s first American tour, writer Mary Church Terrell traveled to London to profile Coleridge-Taylor as a prominent “Anglo-African Composer” for an American audience. Within her writing, we can see how an African American audience would perceive Coleridge Taylor’s music and status as a prominent British composer. Continue reading

Sherman H. Dudley’s Theater and Support of Theater Owners Bookers Association

Whilst looking through the database of America’s Historical Newspapers, I stumbled across a 1919 advertisement for S. H. Dudley’s theater, a place where they showed photoplay and vaudeville acts. In the ad, they assert that they are “the only theatre on Seventh Street catering to people of color that does not DISCRIMINATE.” This piqued my interest.

The Sherman Houston Dudley theater was founded by its namesake, a man from Texas who had been a minstrel show performer and who had experience performing in the group “The Smart Set.” As Sherman saved money and became an entrepreneur, he slowly bought out a circuit of theaters and used them as safe spaces for black performers.

Sherman was one of the most popular black performers in the late 19th c, adding his skills as a musician with those of a comedian to his sets. Despite his popularity, he apparently never recorded.1

Image result for sherman dudleyEventually, Sherman Dudley’s circuit of theaters for African American performers, the “Consolidated Circuit,” merged into the Theater Owners Bookers Association (TOBA)2 as a way to help promote black artists and vaudeville performers in particular – famous blues singers like Bessie Smith had their start there.3 Dudley’s support of the theater and TOBA helped create a safe space for African American performers who often were still discriminated against despite their in-demand status. As an African American performer himself, he understood the struggles of his fellow black performers and wanted to help even out the playing field and give them fair and safe opportunities.

 


While Alexander Street Jazz Archives provide rather dismal results, I was able to find a recording uploaded to Youtube that supposedly was recorded by S.H.Dudley. There’s no way to really know if it was him, or if the uploader has any credibility. This is also a problem with materials that were recorded, particularly by African American performers – the exploitation and discrimination against them could have led to false advertising, incorrect records, marketing schemes, and deceptive contracts between performers and their companies. The Library of Congress site has many recordings by an S H Dudley, but here, his first name is Samuel – furthering the confusion. In an attempt to capitalize on Dudley’s talent, did someone else record this song under his name? Or intentionally use the first two initials to maintain ambiguity in the hopes that people would mistake this singer for Sherman Dudley? Did Sherman Dudley go by two different names? This could point to a further line of inquiry.

1 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.

2 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.

3 Thomas Riis and Howard Rye. “Theater Owners’ Booking Association.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J445700.

Advertisement, “Dudley’s Amusements” in the Washington Bee (May 24 1919). America’s Historical Newspapers http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=J61W62EXMTUwNzU4NTA0OC41MTA1MDg6MToxNDoxMzAuNzEuMjQwLjI0Mg&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=5&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=5&p_docnum=3&p_docref=v2:12B2E340B2C9FFB8@EANX-12BA623D08261EE0@2422103-12B9B0B664446C80@4-12DCFE90E2C1B868@No%20Headline

Crazy Markets for Crazy Blues

Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith wasn’t a blues singer. Today, however, we know her as one of the most influential figures in the creation of the blues music industry. So what exactly happened?

Smith began as a cabaret singer, but one fateful day in 1920, Sophie Tucker, another singer, coudln’t make it into Okeh Record’s recording studio. Smith was givena chance to ake her first recording, That Thing Called Love, and after that was recruited to make an another recording of a song called Crazy Blues. Though Smith was not by trade a blues singer, she made the record anyway. After it was released, the record sold over 75 000 copies in just a few months. This success is especially notable, as this record was the first recording of a blues song by a black singer.

In addition to being widely commercially successful, Crazy Blues has greater economic and social implications. This recording  heralds the beginning of an entirely new music market. The popularity ofthe song caused the Okeh Records and several other labels to sign more black female blues singers to produce “race records”. Intially, these “race records” were sung by black musicians and were intended for black listeners, but soon the form of classic blues represented by these records became popular across racial lines. Mamie Smith’s record paved the way for countless black musicians to break into the blues market.  Take five minutes and listen to noted activist Angela Davis talk about Mamie Smith’s significant contribution to the music industry in this interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered”.

Article from Front Page of Washington Bee, December 18th, 1920

Further evidence of the new blues craze can be found in this article from the December 18th, 1920 issue of he Washington Bee, an African American historical newspaper based in Washington D.C.. Situated neatly on the front page, this small notice of an upcoming performance at the Howard Theater exemplifies the excitement stirring around the new musical possibilities illuminated by Smith and her record. The author of the article heralds Smith as “one of the most-talked-of women who ever parter her lips to pour forth melodies…”. Not only does this article encapsulate Smith’s increasing fanbase, but also the uniqueness of her position in society. Smith, as a woman of color, was the highest paid among Okeh Records singers. This newfound ability to turn blues into money and record sales was profitable not only for musicians, but also for record companies and theaters. Companies began to find out that if they could contract a blues singer they could make a quick buck . This recording, and the subsequent boom in “race records” ushered in a entirely new and relatively untapped musical market. Before this record, music wasn’t being marketed toward black audiences. Rather, black folk music was idealized to fit white musical standards. While this recording and these newspaper articles may still reflect the capitalist pandering that musicians are so often wont to do, they also reflect a change in the way the msuci industry looked at its consumers. Mamie Smith and her record Crazy Blues opened up an entirely new market to the music industry while simultaneously creating a pop-culture phenomenon. And I think that’s worth noting.

Works Cited

“At the Howard Theater.” Washington Bee (Washington D.C.), December 18, 1920. Accessed October 10, 2017. African American Historical Newspapers,.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Oliver, Paul. “Smith, Mamie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41390.

“Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market.” NPR. November 11, 2006. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market.

Sultry Divas. Recorded September 30, 2008. Columbia River Entertainment, 2008, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_cd%7Cli_upc_723723519221.