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

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

“No.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning of letter in The Chicago Defender2

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

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

1 Van Ness, Chris. “Isaac Hayes: Superstar behind the soundtrack for Shaft.” The Los Angeles Free Press, Jan 14, 1972. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=1101225.

2 Ruth, Smith McGowan. “Reader Disappointed when Singer Omits Negro Spirituals.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 06, 1965. https://search.proquest.com/docview/493112600?accountid=351.

“Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft (1971).” YouTube video, 4:39, posted by Alamo YTC Germany, Oct 7, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q429AOpL_ds.

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

John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963, http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/5401, accessed April 29, 2018.

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

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

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

1John Poppy, “The South’s War Against Negro Votes” in Look vol. 27, no. 10. May 21, 1963, http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15932coll2/id/5401, accessed April 29, 2018.

2 Library of Congress, “About This Collection,”  Look Collection, https://www.loc.gov/collections/look-magazine/about-this-collection/, accessed April 30, 2018.

Let My People Go: Moses in African American Spirituals

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 “Georgia islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals,” Southern Journey 12 (1998): 14.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves,” in Afro-American Foksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, (1914): 22.

Railroad Songs and Gandy Dancers

Railroad songs were a genre created by laborers for the railroads in America. The origin of the genre is disputed and rather mysterious. We can all recall “I’ve been Working on the Railroad” (pre Civil War), but it is unclear if that is one example of the genres earliest pieces. Archie Green suggests in “Railroad Songs and Ballads: From the Archive of Folk Song” that “[the songs] welled directly out of the experiences of workers and were composed literally to the rhythm of the handcar. Others were born in Tin Pan Alley rooms or bars. But regardless of birthplace, songs moved up and down the main line or were shunted onto isolated spur tracks.”1 John Lomax had recorded many of these railroad songs. Here is an example of one: http://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000326/  2

These songs were created by workers to entertain and convey stories up and down the rails. The subjects of the songs, that are recorded, range from the erotic, basic railroad construction, and common themes like love and loss. The creators of the railroads songs included African Americans and many immigrant people. Unfortunately there are little to no record of the songs created by immigrants in different languages and today there is no way of rediscovering those songs. These songs created by African Americans and immigrants created a new slang term for these people called “Gandy Dancers”.

In the article “Country Music and the Souls of White Folk” by Erich Nunn, we get a sense of the effect that the Gandy Dancer’s music has had on country music, we are told, In My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers, a biography of her late husband published in 1935, Carrie Williamson (“Mrs. Jimmie”) Rodgers presents Jimmie as a crucible in which the “darkey songs” he learned as a boy are transmuted by “the natural music in his Irish soul” into something distinctive and new.”3 The songs that Carrie writes on were created by the African American men that worked of the rails and influenced Jimmie Rodgers.

Gandy Dancers used their songs as a method of keeping rhythm for the laborers of the railroad and striking in time amongst the laborers. Here is a short snippet of a documentary done on Gandy Dancers: 4

  1.  Green, Archie. “Railroad Songs and Ballads.” Archive of Folk Song, 1968. Accessed February 26, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/LP/AFS_L61_opt.pdf.
  2. Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Arthur Bell. John Henry. near Varner, Arkansas, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000326/. (Accessed February 26, 2018.)
  3. Nunn, Erich. Country Music and the Souls of White Folk. Wayne State University Press.
  4. Folkstreamer. “Gandy Dancers.” YouTube. June 23, 2008. Accessed February 26, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=025QQwTwzdU.

 

 

“Southern Thoughts for Northern Thinkers”

In 1904, a musician and lecturer by the name of Jeannette Robinson Murphy published an unusual volume entitled “Southern Thoughts for Northern Thinkers,” in which she voices several complex and controversial opinions about black music in the American South.  Murphy, who grew up in the South, was intimately familiar with black spirituals and became well-known for giving lectures and demonstrations of spirituals to Northern audiences.  

Although her academic approach to teaching and preserving spirituals certainly demonstrates her respect for the spiritual-singing tradition, she also exoticizes black music in a way that is deeply problematic, especially when viewed through a modern lens.

The opening paragraph of Murphy’s text reveals the deep respect she has for black spirituals.  She writes:

“Fifty years from now, when every vestige of 

slavery has disappeared, and even its existence has become a fading memory, America, and probably Europe, will suddenly awake to the sad fact that we have 

irrevocably lost a veritable mine of wealth, through our failure to appreciate and study from a musician’s standpoint the beautiful African music, whose rich stores will then have gone forever from our grasp”

Modern-day readers may scoff at Murphy’s naivete in believing that slavery will be quickly forgotten, but it seems to me that her basic impulse is praiseworthy: she is arguing that African-American music is rich and beautiful, and that it is worthy of musicological study and preservation.  Later on in the same chapter, she goes on to condemn blackface minstrelsy.  Calling minstrel songs “base imitations” of African music, she insists that “the white man does not live who can write a genuine negro song.”

Despite her making several laudable arguments, Murphy still ends up voicing some seriously racist opinions about black music, at one point describing its melodies as “strange, weird, untamable [and] barbaric” but with a “rude beauty and a charm.” These exoticist statements make it difficult to endorse Murphy as any sort of progressive figure.   In her writing, she simultaneously endorses black music and demonstrates a perverse fetishization of black culture.  Although it may be tempting to try to read her work as simply an anti-racist text that champions black spirituals as important musics that are worthy of study, the truth seems to be far more complicated than that.

 

Sources

Murphy, Jeanette Robinson. “Southern thoughts for Northern thinkers.” New York: Bandanna Publishing, 1904.  America’s Historical Imprints, accessed Nov. 15 2017.