Learn Your Genres (and History)!

The way white people describing Black Americans and their music never ceases to shock me, especially from an older source like a 1920s newspaper article. In the specific article I will be referring to, the title is “Dancers Need Substitute for U.S. Jazz”. At first glance, I thought it was a flier notifying its readers that dancers for a show were needed, but this is not at all what the article dives into. 

 

It was hard to tell where this “article” came from because there was no author stated and all it says at the top is “Prague, Czech Home Service”. I was unsure if this was a newspaper or a subsection of a paper. This was extra confusing because the topic was on American music but there were European countries in it. However, after a closer look, I realized that it was a transcribed message from, likely, a radio show. 

 

The very first “ear” catching statement made by the narrator was quoted from a musical composer “many people are unable to realize the difference between jazz and dance music”(Par. 1) The narrator goes on to share their own thoughts on this statement. It is a bit hard to deduce who the narrator is and anything of their background, but it seems like they have only heard the white american perspective. Comments such as “Old Negro folk songs were only sung. Their rhythm originated from the rhythm of work. So-called modern jazz has no effect on feelings, but only on the lowest primitive urges.”, and “American owners of slaves and plantations”(Par. 3-4). This second comment alone lets me know that this narrator didn’t view these people as enslavers. This to me says that they don’t understand the trauma and suffering of slavery, therefore they don’t understand the meaning behind slave songs. Slave songs also aren’t jazz. They influenced jazz, but the reverse is not true.


Work Cited:

DANCERS NEED SUBSTITUTE FOR U.S. JAZZ. (1954, March 17) Prague, Czech Home Service. Translated in DAILY REPORT. FOREIGN RADIO BROADCASTS (Publication no. FBIS-FRB-54-053, published 1954, March 18), HH2-HH3. Available from Readex: American Race Relations: Global Perspectives, 1941-1996: https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/apps/readex/doc?p=TOPRACE&docref=image/v2%3A12895BC6AA32DB40%40FBISX-131CEE8714B10AF8%402434820-131CEE95A3BF5E00%4036-131CEE9605E97168%40DANCERS%2BNEED%2BSUBSTITUTE%2BFOR%2BU.S.%2BJAZZ.

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. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/composer-wins-noteworthy-prizes-piano-sonata/docview/492427674/se-2?accountid=351.

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.

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: Amazon.com: 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.

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), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Otto Bonnell, “Turkey in the Straw.” Mississippi State University, Mississippi State University Libraries (electronic version), 1921, accessed October 23 2021, https://cdm16631.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/SheetMusic/id/24823.

“Burgers in Blackface: Coon Chicken Inn,” “Coon Chicken Inn” in “Burgers in Blackface” on Manifold @uminnpress, accessed October 24, 2021, https://manifold.umn.edu/read/untitled-6b2e0c15-9dd8-4cec-a2b3-81298b9e74ec/section/f907c8e0-69d3-4a83-b630-57fcda04c072.

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), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

Zip Coon. Thos. Birch, New York, monographic, 1834. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1834.360780/.

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.

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.

 

Citations:

“Advertisement.” Freeman, vol. XIX, no. 14, 7 Apr. 1906, p. [5]. Readex: African American Newspapers, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B28495A8DAB1C8%40EANAAA-12C55E8EC9FC1378%402417308-12C55E8F07B85568%404-12C55E900B6CBA78%40Advertisement. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

Haverly, J. (1902). Negro minstrels a complete guide to negro minstrelsy. United States–Illinois–Chicago.; United States–Illinois–Chicago. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/Evans/?p_product=EAIX&p_theme=eai&p_nbid=Q58J56BLMTYzNDAxMTMwNy4yNzY1ODA6MToxMzoxOTkuOTEuMTgwLjg0&p_action=doc&p_queryname=10&p_docref=v2:13D59FCC0F7F54B8@EAIX-147E02C4840557B8@4658-14A4E19D75C56D38@8

 

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. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12A7AE31A7B3CA6B%40EANAAA-12CCE815B2DC3F98%402441276-12CCE815F11A1950%4014-12CCE816F3418178. 

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.”

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

 

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.

 

Bibliography

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. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646020/

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.