Different Times, Different Troubles (Same Song)

“Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”, arranged by H.T. Burleigh.

It’s hard to definitely say someone should not sing certain music. When it comes to spirituals, we wonder if the music was supposed to be passed down the generations, or if it was supposed to be left behind, where it could only be associated with slavery and sorrow.

H.T. Burleigh thought such music should be remembered, as he is famous for having arranged the music for many spirituals, including “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”. Burleigh and others published a variety of other arrangements for “mixed chorus, men’s chorus, and women’s chorus”.1
Therefore, it is clear he intended these songs to be sung by a variety of people for generations to come. He believed that spirituals have worth to anyone and everyone. He even made a statement on the second page of this sheet music, warning not to sing these songs as if a “minstrel” performance, mocking the mannerisms of African Americans while singing the song, but instead to respect the value of such musical works:

“Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man–every man–will be free.”2

If a choir of white people gave a lively and vigorous performance of this spiritual or any kind like it, it would come across as disrespectful. Slaves were not allowed to sing work songs mournfully, even though the songs were of sorrow and of trouble.3  “Douglass observed in the 1845 edition of his autobiography that slaves sang most when they were unhappy”.4 A smiley performance of such music seems inappropriate. People today cannot properly fathom the hardships that slaves endured back then, so for anyone other than slaves to sing these songs does not feel right. However, Burleigh might argue that spirituals transcend the history. The music can mean a lot to a lot of people, even if for different reasons.

Perhaps it would help to imagine slaves’ reactions to performances of their songs today. They could think it beautiful that their music has survived so long and that their time is not forgotten or brushed aside as insignificant in history. However, their reaction would probably depend on what performances they see–whose singing for whom and for what reason. They could definitely find it disturbing that their music is occasionally sung out of context for the pleasure of white people listening. But what would they think if they saw a choir in Taiwan singing one of their songs?

We can’t know for sure what they would think, but perhaps if the music is performed in a respectful manner, it can mean more for more people.

1 “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730.

2 Burleigh, H.T. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. New York: G. Ricordi & Co., Inc., 1917. Retrieved from Sheet Music Consortium, http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/23714.

3 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 161.

4 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 177.

Activism: A Rant on Music, Minstrelsy, New Orleans, and Today’s Racism

“Minstrelsy is thing of the past!” my old high school teacher once told me. Is it actually a thing of the past? Just because it is no longer featured and accepted in mainstream media it does not mean that the racism in the United States has ended. It has only evolved. We still hear remnants of this racist entertainment culture in sing-along songs that have been played to many children growing up. There are still references made to minstrelsy through the use of costumes in cartoons such as Mickey Mouse. Have African-Americans, or minorities in general, ever been put first when it comes to economic and emergency aid from the United States government or population? If so, why did Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, Jr. ever have to step on that soapbox to put minorities first themselves?

Martin Luther King. Jr. Quote

Is it a cultural norm for the United States to be considered a nation that puts their people last? Unlike the Swiss and Germans, who have helped their people in times of need, New Orleans says a lot about the reality of the United States and the government’s attitude towards affirmative action aimed at minorities, specifically African Americans.

“While Swiss and German governments have paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and those killed in the Holocaust, black intellectuals have pointed out that there has been no such concentrated effort by the United States to repay African Americans for the unpaid labor required under slavery” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

Looters make their way into and out of a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continue to rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage when it made landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and changed the lives over millions of others. One of the cities most affected by this hurricane was New Orleans, LA. The majority of the people affected by this disaster were African-Americans. According to DataUSA.io, the 75.8% of the New Orleans population is Black, 18.9% is White, and 5.3% is Hispanic.

New Orleans, LA Population Bar Chart of Ethnicity

“The problems that plague the urban poor, who are disproportionately African American, were tangible throughout Louisiana—especially in New Orleans, which sustained the most damage—and in Mississippi near where the storm made landfall. The catastrophic storm only amplified ways the black urban and rural poor in the American South had been ignored” (The American Mosaic: The African American Experience).

It is clear that a disproportionate amount of African-Americans in this part of the South were left without sufficient aid by the US Government emergency systems. According to the article about “New Leadership,” Sanders states that there are many African American intellectuals today drawing on evolving conversations about black identity to “reignite a debate on the need for reparations to African Americans” (Sanders). This debate is similar to that of minstrelsy in the context of African American reparations. What can the United States offer to African Americans as reparations in a post-slavery world? Does the United States do enough for African Americans today? This question is complicated because we must define “United States”. The United States as in: government, citizens, immigrants, and companies. There are many different ways the United States can act as an entity.

The Black Law in Missouri, 1861

Minstrelsy poses the same concerns because it requires reparations in its own context. The question posed with regard to minstrelsy is, “Should minstrel songs and culture be erased from history or should we educate our following generations on its history?” For lack of a better way to state this, I will say it as it is: The United States as a whole is not doing everything it can do to owe reparations to African Americans today.

 

Sources:

  1. Sanders, Joshunda. “New Leadership, 2001–2008.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Topics/Display/39.
  2. The Black Law in Missouri. The National Era (Washington D. C., United States), Thursday, January 26, 1860; pg. 15; Issue 682 (224 words (1860/01/26/): https://goo.gl/P7Ahw6
  3.  https://datausa.io/profile/geo/new-orleans-la/#ethnicity
  4. Simpson, George. “Disney race shock: Mickey Mouse ‘was based on blackface minstrels’.” Express.co.uk. February 3, 2017. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/762722/Disney-racist-Mickey-Mouse-gloves-blackface-minstrels-Vaudeville-The-Opry-House.

The Catchy Past: Separating the Song from the History

“Zip Coon.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612306.

Most children grow up learning songs by Stephen Collins Foster, and the melodies are quite catchy. However, if one thinks of the background of such tunes, and how they are mostly minstrel songs, they can seem problematic. Minstrel shows incorporated blackface: when white people would use burnt cork to give themselves the appearance of an African American with exaggerated features.1 While in this getup, they would portray racial stereotypes that are very offensive. This sheet music cover depicts one of the stock characters white men would portray in their minstrel performances.

The songs of minstrel shows inspired Stephen Foster into writing more of these popular tunes.2 He is famous for many memorable melodies, including “Oh, Susanna!” and “Old Folks at Home”. These songs remained popular well passed the 1920s, and we all know them today. If one watches a scene from Riding High (Frank Capra, 1950), one can hear the legendary Bing Crosby singing one of Foster’s hits, “Camptown Races”.

It sure is catchy! However, if one listens closely and reads the original lyrics, one can see where this song becomes problematic. First of all, the actual title is “De Camptown Races”, and the words are written in a way that portrays the dialect of a stereotypically, ill-educated, African American; for example: the use of “de” and “gwine”. This little ditty was originally written with the intention of white performers painting their faces black and singing the song in order to mock African Americans.3 Despite the racist nature of this tune, it lives on as an American folk classic, as many of Foster’s songs have.

I’m not saying it’s horrible to enjoy this song or others like it. Many people do. No matter if people still find the melody catchy today, it is important to remember the history, whether or not they associate the song with the disturbing truth of the past.

1 “Minstrel Songs – The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.” The Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/popular-songs-of-the-day/minstrel-songs/.

2 “Stephen Collins Foster, 1826-1864.” The Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035701/.

3 Ruehl, Kim. “The ‘Doo Dah’ Song: ‘Camptown Races’ by Stephen Foster.” ThoughtCo. October 25, 2017. www.thoughtco.com/camptown-races-stephen-foster-1322494.

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.

 

 

Florence B. Price

On June 15th, 1933, Florence Price made history: the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor, making her the first African-American woman composer to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

This work, originally subtitled “Negro Symphony,” draws on many of the stylistic traits of African-American folk music without ever explicitly quoting folk melodies;  instead of writing symphonic music around a 12-bar blues or a spiritual tune, as did many of her contemporaries, Price instead incorporates some of the harmonic and melodic elements of blues and spirituals into her own unique voice.  The resulting composition is strikingly original.

Despite the high quality of her music, Price had difficulty attaining performances of her work.  In a 1943 letter to Sergei Koussevitzky, she explains the manifold struggles she faces as both a female composer and a composer of color:

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, frothy, lacking in depth, logic, and virility.  Add to that the incident of race – I have Colored blood in my veins – and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position”

In the remainder of the letter, Price asks Koussevitzky to consider one of her compositions, insisting that he make “no concession” on the basis of race or sex, but rather evaluate the score on its musical merit alone.  Despite receiving many such letters from Price, Koussevitzky never programmed a single one of her works.

The underrepresentation and erasure of Florence Price continues to the present day: after searching several databases, I found that there is only one recording of the Symphony in E minor that is readily available to the public.  Scholarly research on Price’s life is also relatively sparse, with the writings of late musicologist Rae Linda Brown existing as some of the only works that honor Price’s life and pay homage to her music.  The conspicuous silence surrounding Price in scholarly and musical discourses clearly illustrates the racist and sexist systems that ceaselessly oppress female composers of color.  Performing, researching, and recording the music of these underrepresented composers is essential if we ever hope to dismantle these systems and construct a new musical landscape that truly offers equal opportunities for all people.

Sources

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith. Temples for tomorrow: looking back at the Harlem Renaissance. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Price, Florence B. “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora, Vol. 3.” Albany Records, 2011.

 

The Privilege of Romanticizing

Louis Arden Schuch (1876-1944) was a composer. Born in Germany, immigrated with his parents to the United States and settled in Auburn New York. He composed his problematic work titled “Mineola” in 1904. “Mineola” which translates to “pleasant place” in the Algonquian language. The piece’s alternative title is “The Wedding of the Indian and the Coon”. The piece is subtitled: “A Characteristic Indian Serenade”. The text is as follows:

“Mineola or the Wedding of the Indian and the coon” cover art

Out near the town named the Needles
There lives a pretty Indian maid
She is the Pride of the Kickapoo Indian
and her skin of Navajo shade
While out way up on a vista
A Coon perchance the maid to meet
and to her he took a fancy
 … every night and day
this Coon to her would say,

[chorus]
Won’t you be my Indian baby?
Love you yes indeed I do
I will make you happy, happy
Babe, now that I’ll be true

On the Indian reservation
Say you’ll be mine, don’t decline
the wedding of the Indian and the Coon

Told him she hadn’t thought of marriage
although she loved him heap much so
And if he expected her to Marry
To the Big Chief he would have to go
….
The ask’d what shall I say to him
In reply says dear don’t worry
have nerve drink some Tom Gin
As he said good bye that day
… to her did say

Where to even begin? Right off the bat, we have the term “coon” used to describe an African American man. This term came from the Spanish word barracón which was a large building constructed to hold merchandise, where slaves were kept for sale. This word was later anglicized into “barracoon” then shortened into the slag: “coon”. The first verse sexualizes the Native American woman emphasizing her skin tone. In the chorus begins “Won’t you be my Indian baby? Love you yes indeed I do” to be followed later in the piece by “Told him she hadn’t thought of marriage” which leads me to question motives/consent. Last but not least, the final verse mentions how the gentleman caller would need to ask the “Big Chief” referencing the Chief of that Indian tribe. Additionally, this piece says the love interest was from the Kickapoo tribe. This tribe was believed to be located in the part of the country that is now Oklahoma and Texas. I find it hard to believe that Schuch had any contact with this tribe in Auburn, NY. This piece is a whole new level of problematic. Written by a  German immigrant, a love song between two people of cultures to whom the composer does not belong nor know enough about to compose a piece of music. This is just scratching the surface on how people can completely abuse traditions they are not educated on.

Work Cited

Schuch, Louis Arden. Mineola or the Wedding of the Indian and the coon. Sheet Music Consortium, Duke Music Libraries. Auburn, NY. 1904. link

Schuch, Louis Arden Jr., Find A Grave.com link

Swanton, John R. The Indian Tribes of North America. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. 1953.

Where is THAT in the blues?

W.C. Handy is the “Father of the Blues”

Headline: Seen and Heard While Passing; Article Type: News/Opinion
Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana) • 09-26-1914 • Page 6

W. C. Handy became the “Father of the Blues” when he titled his autobiography that same name in 1957. However, this legacy started decades sooner, when Handy published the first “blues” with “Memphis Blues” in 1912. This blues became an immediate commercial success.

I was interested by the fact that “Memphis Blues” was the first blues ever written down, so I tried to find an early review of the work. In 1914, an Indianapolis newspaper, Freeman, ran a review of Handy praising the “Memphis Blues.” What surprised me most was a comment near the end of the article,

[Memphis Blues’] rapid increase in popularity everywhere makes it a psychological study and it is bound to become a classic of its kind just as the real Negro compositions of Will Marion Cooke, Scott Joplin and other Negro composers are now considered to be the only real expression of the Negro in music and the only genuine American music.

 

The “only genuine American Music?” Have you heard “Memphis Blues?” In case you have not, here is an early recording of it from 1944 by Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band

Does that sound a little like ragtime to you? To me, “Memphis Blues” simply does not sound like what I know as The Blues. Of course, is this a problem? Furthermore, who am I to decide what the blues should sound like? Well, thankfully, we have musicologists for that.

In Elijah Wald’s book, Escaping the Delta, notes:

“[experts argue] that Dock Boggs was a blues singer but that W. C. Handy’s songs were ragtime… Musicologically, that makes sense.” 

So I’m not crazy! There is something going on in “Memphis Blues” that makes it feel like ragtime instead of a blues! A further look at the sheet music published by W.C. Hardy indicates something unique… “Memphis Blues” is not in a standard 12-bar form! Its a 16-bar form. A 12-bar like figure appears in the chorus, but it is not clearly laid out.

Perhaps this was just an initial form that became updated over time. Perhaps my notion of “the blues” is simply chronologically later. I looked into another take on “Memphis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and as you can hear it is just the same confusing 16-bar form.

But this track also brought me to the bonus track on this album. The bonus material includes an interview of the producer of the track with W.C. Handy himself regarding Louis Armstrong. I was surprised to hear how much Handy emphasis “naturalness.” Handy thought that audiences most liked Louis because he brought a “pride of race” to his playing.

I struggled to understand why Handy valued “naturalness” so highly. Especially when he took samples of black musical culture, polished it, and commercialized it. I think perhaps Handy gave a title to the movement of the Blues, but he soon watched it expand to engulf several different genres and become mainstream popular music. As the consumers enjoyed the folk aspect of the music, Handy tried to make this more of a selling point to his music. He soon began to place a lot of value on Authentic Black American Music, after the fact of Memphis Blues’ initial publication.

So why don’t I think of the Memphis Blues sound as “The Blues?” Well, likely it is due to the influence of Robert Johnson as recorded by the Lomaxes and other influences. This may have led to the B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton sounds that I associate with the blues today. To know for sure  I would have to start looking into Robert Johnson’s history.

Nevertheless, Handy should be praised for being the Father of the Blues, even if some of his music feels unauthentic to me. As Wald comments in Escapign Delta,

“to say that the artists who gave the music its name and established it as a familiar genre are not “real” blues artists because they do not fit later folkloric or musicological standards is flying in the face of history and common sense” (7).

Wald highlights an important point. Handy certainly put a lot of work into the genre, and he should be remembered for that.

Works Cited

Handy, W., & Bontemps, A. (1957). Father of the blues : An autobiography. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Handy, W., & Handy’s Memphis Blues Band. (1994). W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

Willie Bunk Johnson/ Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Bunk & Lu [Streaming Audio]. (1990). Good Time Jazz. (1990). Retrieved October 10, 2017, from Music Online: Jazz Music Library. 

Whitney, S.H. (1914, September 26). “W.C. Handy, Composter of the Memphis Blues, the Man Who is Making Memphis Famous.” Freeman, pp. 6. Retrieved from newsbank.com.

The Cakewalk

Black dancers perform the “Cakewalk” at the Pan Am Expo in Buffalo, New York, 1901.

The Cakewalk is an African American social and performance dance, derived from dances of corn-husking festivals. The Cakewalk was a traditional African American from of music and dance which emerged among southern slaves. Those who won the dancing contest would win a cake, from where the term is derived.1

Here’s where the history on the Cakewalk get’s a little fuzzy. Some sources say it began as a parody of the formal European dances of the white slave owners, but went on to become a popular attraction patronized by white landowners.2 Meanwhile other sources say “Black performers brought dances such as the cakewalk, the shimmy, and the Charleston to the American and European public, and in the process they challenged and redefined constructions of race, gender, and nationality.”3 Both very strong opinions on the same variety of music!

No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s; “New York Age” (New York, New York) • 05-03-1890 • Page 2

I stumbled across an article that was published in Rochester NY on April 29th (c. 1890) praising the African American community, but bashing the Cakewalk. The article praises the African American women of Rochester saying “that in no city of New York are the Afro-Americans more thrifty then our people here… Our ladies [the African American “ladies” of Rochester] are educated and refined”4 Is this statement biased? Absolutely! I still was intrigued because this is perspective we don’t read don’t find very often — especially in the 1890s. The article continues, “Of course, Rochester, like other cities, has a few Afro Americans who can not appreciate a notable gathering of their own race at a banquet or a state convention as will take place in this city May 22. They will not be seen at the banquet because there is no cakewalk on the program”4 Ouch… This statement detracts from the compliment made towards the African American women of Rochester earlier in this newspaper article. This article praises the culture of African American women, as long as their culture is now one that appreciates “notable” things such as “banquets” or a “state convention”. They praise African American women for adopting white European ideals of sophistication and anything else is seen as “less than”. Problematic? Incredibly. The article is titled “No Cakewalk on the Program for the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues”. The author creates a division among the African American women of Rochester NY. It personifies naturalization which in this case I would define as: we’ll allow you to become part of our society, only if you become like “us” ( this “us” meaning white people). This author completely dismantles and discourages historically African American dances and ideals thus defining a superior and inferior culture.

Work Cited

1 Cakewalk. (2017). In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. Retrieved from link

2 Dancers, New York, 1901: Getty Images link

3 Griffin, F. J. (2009). Cake Walk, Shimmy, and Charleston. Women’s Review Of Books, 26(4), 12-13. link

4 New York Age. “No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s”. News/Opinion; New York, New York 05/03/1890 link

Characteristics of Black Church Music

A new religious tradition emerged when slaves were brought to America, which blended elements of indigenous West African worship with the Protestant worship traditions of Euro-American whites.  Along with this new form of worship came a new form of music.  This African-American church music expresses both the deeply religious feelings of a passionate people and the profound pain and suffering of a people ravaged by years of enslavement.

As we explore some of the unique characteristics of Black church music, it is important to acknowledge that “Black music” is not a monolithic, homogenous entity: instead, it is made up of countless independent styles and traditions.  That said, many of these musical traditions share common cultural influences, and as such share some general stylistic qualities that are worthy of study and analysis.  It is in this spirit that we discuss the rich musical landscape of Black church music.

Rev. Haynes’s Methodist Church, Eatonville, Florida

Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of African-American religious music is its vociferous, improvisatory quality.  This quality can be observed in the recording below; here, the Reverend Henry Ward leads a prayer in a chant style, similar to the way a white congregation might intone a psalm.  At the :54 second mark, however, a woman from the congregation chimes in with a response, weaving a florid melisma above the preacher’s chant.  Other voices join in, either adding to the melismatic accompaniment or offering a shouted “Amen!”  Later on, the florid melismas give way to a simple, passionate humming.  The resulting heterophony is both deeply moving and, presumably, entirely improvised.

These musical outbursts are no mere embellishments, but rather are integral parts of the worship experience.  In Shane White’s book, The Sounds of Slavery, he quotes Elizabeth Ross Hite, a former slave, who claims that “you gotta shout and you gotta moan if you wants to be saved” (102).  Indeed, the melismas, hums, and interjected “amens” are just as holy and full of meaning as the Reverend’s chant which they are decorating.

Another hallmark of African-American sacred music is its focus on Old Testament texts, to the near exclusion of the New Testament.  Slaves identified closely with the narrative of Exodus, seeing reflections of themselves in the enslaved Israelites.  Because of their constant yearning to escape captivity, many African-American spirituals use Old Testament language to describe themes of liberation and freedom.

Having examined just a couple of the many unique features of African-American church music, we can begin to understand how fascinating and complex this tradition is.  The collision of Indigenous African worship traditions with white Protestantism, when filtered through the horrors of American chattel slavery, produced a rich and multifaceted musical tradition which can still be observed in Black churches throughout America today.

 

Sources

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Rev. Haynes’s methodist church, Eatonville, Florida. June. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 2003.

Ward, Henry Rev., et al. Prayer. Livingston, Alabama, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

White, Shane and Graham J White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. Boston, Beacon Press, 2005.

Tuskegee Institute Singers

Booker T Washington, the founder of both the Tuskegee Institute and the Tuskegee Institute Singers

The Tuskegee Institute is a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school was founded on July 4, 1881. Three years after the school’s founding, the Tuskegee Institute Singers was formed but the by the founder of the college, Booker T Washington. The choir’s mission was to “promote the interest of Tuskegee Institute”. The ensemble’s primary purpose was to provide music at the school’s vesper services and perform at other significant functions on campus. The ensemble began as a quartet consisting of students: Hiram H. Thweatt, John F. McLeMore, Warren Logan and Robert H. Hamilton. The choir grew in size and fame as the years passed.

History class at Tuskegee University in 1902

William L. Dawson, director of the Tuskegee Choir beginning in 1931

In 1931, the choir reached 100 singers and was now under the direction of William L. Dawson. It was Dawson who brought the Tuskegee Choir to Carnegie Hall in 1932. This performance sparked further prestigious performances such as performing for President Hoover at the White House and sang on  ABC, CBS, and NBC radio networks in the years to follow. The Tuskegee Singers were the first African American performing organization to appear at Constitution Hall. During the term of John F. Kennedy, the choir was invited to sing at the National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington DC.

The Tuskegee Choir continues to flourish today under the direction of Dr. Wayne Anthony Barr. They have toured across the United States performing at many churches and colleges releasing many recordings of their timeless spirituals such as   “Go Down Moses” (National Jukebox).

Citations

 

1Johnston, F. B., photographer. (1902) [History class, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama]. Alabama Tuskegee, 1902. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98503043/.

2 Jones, P. P., photographer. (1910) Booker T. Washington / Photo by Peter P. Jones, 3631 State St., Chicago. , 1910. [Approximately] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013649123/.

3 Tuskegee Institute Singers . “Go down Moses.” Camden, NJ; 31 Sept. 1914.

4 [William Dawson, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right / Moss photo, N.Y]. , None. [Between 1930 and 1950] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/93510796/

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Walt Minstry: Dumbo’s Jim Crow

Disney’s feature film Dumbo, released in 1941, tells the tale of a loveable baby elephant born with unnaturally large ears which he is consequently able to use for flying. One of the scenes presented in the film presents some highly problematic material however. Halfway through the film, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who assist in motivating, encouraging, and teaching him to fly. By aid of the “magic feather” the crows give him, Dumbo is then able to return to the circus and perform a revolutionary new act which crazes the nation.

Unfortunately, the crows Dumbo runs into are presented as African Americans. The very fact that Disney chose the particular characterization of crows to display black-coded stereotypes is questionable, but to make matters even worse, their leader’s scripted name is Jim Crow. The blatant reference to the offensive term of Jim Crow, the stereotyped language given to the crows, the voice casting of African Americans as the crows they’re playing, the animator behind their creation, and the role they play in the film’s plot all pose large problems which can’t be overlooked.

“Jim Crow” is a term full of racial connotations most often associated with the Jim Crow laws of the early 1900’s. Historian C. Vann Woodward notes that while, “The origin of the term ‘Jim Crow’ applied to Negroes is lost in obscurity. Thomas D. Rice wrote a song and dance called ‘Jim Crow’ in 1832, and the term had become an adjective by 1838.” The origin and etymology of the term comes specifically from a minstrel performance by Thomas D. Rice from the early 19th century. Although the exact origins of Rice’s inspiration for the Jim Crow character are unknown, it quickly became a sensational performance phenomenon. In his book Jump Jim Crow, W. T. Lhamon Jr explores the history and characteristics of the Jim Crow craze. He states that “No other American cultural figure stirred a legacy that endures such widespread censure as well as continual appropriation.” Such a widespread cultural figure can’t be referred to without indicating the negative racial stereotypes associated with it. A visual comparison between the two characters confirms the similarities between T. D. Rice’s representation of Jim Crow in minstrelsy and the animation of Dumbo’s crows. Even the poses, dance, and body language of Dumbo is a direct tribute to the original minstrel tradition.jim crowjim crow dumbo

Having already established a problematic visual representation of Jim Crow, the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” next adds a disturbing linguistic stereotyping of African American language. The main line of the chorus uses speech reminiscent of early minstrel songs: “But I be don’ seen ‘bout ev’rythang, when I see an elephant fly” It’s interesting to note that the lyrics of this song in current Disney songbooks have changed the lyrics to “But I think I will have seen ev’rything when I see an elephant fly.” The removal of dialect from the printed sheet music seems to reflect a recognition of the racist implications to it.

The controversial visual and linguistic stereotypes presented in Dumbo’s crows are further complicated by the voice casting. Jim Crow is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, while the rest of the crows are voiced by the African American choir Hall Johnson. (The same chorus Disney used in the racially controversial film Song of the South.) Whether it’s more problematic to have African American actors voicing racist stereotypes or to have a white actor voice a caricature of Jim Crow is difficult to determine. To have a white actor giving a racially black coded performance, even if animated, is the same act as a blackface minstrel show. And if the animated character being performed is Jim Crow himself, what makes this any different than T. D. Rice’s own performance a century prior to Dumbo’s release?

Works Cited:

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Print.

Lhamon, W. T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Disney Productions: The New Illustrated Disney Songbook. New York: Abrams, 1986. Print.