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.”

Sylvester Russell Claps Back at a Racist White Lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

W. C. Handy and the Blues

H.E. Krehbiel (right), 1917

In 1914, Henry Edward Krehbiel published Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. Although white, he was critical of the research that had come before him in relation to black music. In his book, he notes that the “overwhelming majority of the travellers who have written about primitive peoples have been destitute of even the most elemental knowledge of… music.” (13). This was in response to the gross misclassification of African instruments by people such as Dr. Richard Wallaschek. It was also a widely known fact in musicology back in the day that black folk music came as a result of white spirituals. While Krehbiel admits later on that “[s]imilarities exist between the folksongs of all peoples.” (14), he ultimately concludes that “the songs of the black slaves of the South are original and native products.” (22).

W. C. Handy

It was from this environment that William Christopher Handy was born. Those of you know know jazz history may know W. C. Handy for his influence in blues, pre-jazz, and in early jazz. While scouring the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox, I looked up blues songs by date and saw “The Memphis Blues” early on. The earliest recording in the National Jukebox is, coincidentally, also from 1914, although the sheet music is from 1913.

https://www.loc.gov/item/playlist?embed=resources&tracks=jukebox-275361|jukebox-41556

Songs like this and “St. Louis Blues” helped shape the face of popular black music and eventually popular music as a whole through what’s known as the 12 Bar Blues. This song form repeats a particular 12-bar harmonic structure throughout most of the song, only varying it slightly between different songs. This was not only popular throughout the early 1910s and 20s, but can also be seen throughout much of popular music in the 50s and 60s, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

It’s all a bit ironic in hindsight to see the original claims of white music influencing black music end up being quite the opposite today. While it’s not fair to say that it was a one way influence, it’s impossible to go through the journey of American music through W. C. Handy to Chuck Berry to Beyoncé and not recognize the huge influence of black musicians and black music in general on what American music is today.

 

Folk Music, “Born not Made”

The spiritual, “Oh, Freedom”, popularized during the civil war, is American folk music at its core. In his book, Afro-American Folksongs, Musicologist Henry Krehbiel cites W. E. B. Du Bois when mentioning this song and its influences. 

“The song ‘Oh, Freedom over Me,’ which Dr. Burghardt du Bois quotes in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as an expression of longing for deliverance from slavery encouraged by fugitive slaves and the agitation of free [black] leaders before the War of the Rebellion, challenges no interest for its musical contents, since it is a compound of two white men’s tunes- ‘Lily Dale,’ a sentimental ditty, and ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom,’ a patriotic song…” 1

Here are recordings of the two “white men’s tunes” Du Bois mentions, “Lily Dale” and “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” as well as “Oh Freedom”-

Lily Dale (1910)

The Battle-Cry of Freedom (1907)

Oh, Freedom (1957)

Oh, Freedom (1965)

A casual listener can hear the melodic similarities, especially between the choruses of “Lily Dale” and “Oh, Freedom”. Lyrical ideas are also shared between “Battle-Cry of Freedom” and “Oh, Freedom”.

“Oh, Freedom”

O Freedom, O Freedom,

O Freedom over me!

Before I’ll be a slave.

I’ll be buried in my grave,

And go home to my Lord,

And be free!

 

“Battle-Cry of Freedom”

We will welcome to our numbers

The loyal, true and brave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;

And although they may be poor,

Not a man shall be a slave,

Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.2

 

So, is “Oh, Freedom” an appropriated song? Sure, but at the end of the day, isn’t everything?

Enslaved black people took the white man’s songs and reappropriated them. “Battle-Cry of Freedom” was a song that swept over the north and united the union after Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers for the union army. The enslaved took this power the song created and used it for their own gain in this emancipation song. 

The many influences of “Oh, Freedom” from existing songs, as well as the lived experiences of the enslaved, highlights that at its core, it is a folk song. 

1Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 17.

2 “Civil War Music: The Battle Cry of Freedom.” American Battlefield Trust. The History Channel. Accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/civil-war-music-battle-cry-freedom.

The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Music: giving us insight into the disgusting ideas held about black Americans.

As someone who is currently studying musicology, one of the main tasks required of me is to use music as a clue to make larger claims about society at that time. In other words, I sleuth around in musical documents to figure out how people thought. Just like any primary source, music leaves us a trail that can bring us to bigger discoveries about human nature. So this week, I decided to embark on the task of using musical documents to bring light popular sentiments about black Americans.

I decided to take a closer look at this document:

 

(It’s a little blurry here, so take a look here for a clearer picture: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b35698/)

This is a sheet music cover for a piece titled “the Contraband Schottische” written by Septimus Winner in 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). Winner dedicated this piece of music to Union General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler was in charge of implementing the “Contraband Decision” in which escaped slaves who retreated to the North during the Civil War were considered “contraband” or illegally stolen goods. This allowed Slaves to live in a state not being owned but also not being free in the North. This was decided in retaliation to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in which slaves were to be returned to their masters if caught after escaping.1 On the cover of “the Contraband Schottische” there is a cartoon depicting a slave owner chasing his four black slaves rolling down the hill as if they are merely goods. Although the Contraband Decision ended up being a helpful decision for slaves as a side effect, we can’t sit here and celebrate Butler, he wasn’t even an abolitionist after all.

The depiction of slaves in this cartoon gives us an inside look into some of the attitudes held by society at the time. In this cartoon, slaves are illustrated to be synonymous with products or goods, as they are rolling down the hill like a sack of potatoes falling out of an 18-wheeler.

This sentiment of black Americans being treated as “property” or “goods” seems to infiltrate and inform other assumptions about their intellectual ability or identity as functioning humans. If we fast forward to 1943, this idea develops into another held by author George Pullen Jackson in his book White and Negro Spirituals. He holds the belief that black Americans are not capable of producing sophisticated spirituals, and therefore, must have developed all of their music from the influence of Europeans.

“We know that our fathers (Europeans) brought to this land a rich and hoary heritage of folk melody. We know that the negro slave entered into this heritage eventually by adopting it to the extent of his ABILITIES and desires”.2

This quote infers that black Americans would not have the ability to create music as sophisticated as Europeans. By looking at these documents surrounding music, we can see that the sick attitudes of black Americans as “goods” or “property” and the conclusion that they therefore can not produce sophisticated music are rampant for over a hundred years. That’s pretty disgusting.

Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.

 

The Persisting Whiteness of Bluegrass Music in the Media

By, R. S. (1959, Aug 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE: MOUNTAIN MUSIC GETS SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/bluegrass-style/docview/114687317/se-2?accountid=351

NPR. (n.d.). Carolina Chocolate Drops. NPR. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/artists/99046725/carolina-chocolate-drops.

When someone has a question they want answered quickly, their first instinct is to take out their phone and Google it. Usually, a quick Wikipedia blurb will pop up at the top of the page and that’s settled, your question is answered. But what if it wasn’t? Not to the fullest truth anyways. 

If anyone is curious about the bluegrass genre and looks up the term “bluegrass music” on Google, they would find that “the genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.” A little further down they would find that the originator of bluegrass music is in fact Bill Monroe. Our hypothetical casual researcher would likely be satisfied with their answer and put their phone away after this. 

They shouldn’t be. 

Bluegrass musician, Rhiannon Giddens explains in her 2017 Keynote Address at the IBMA Business Conference that bluegrass is the result of cultural exchange. “[it] is actually a complex creole of music that comes from multiple cultures, African and European and Native” not from “a Scots-Irish tradition with ‘influences’ from Africa” (Rhiannon).

Going back to our hypothetical casual researcher Googling terms on their phone, if they wanted to learn a bit more about bluegrass music, they would find that the fourth search result when you Google “bluegrass music” is a link to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame website. A quick skim through the list of inductees would show them that every person ever inducted to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame is white. 

Similarly, a Rolling Stones Article titled The New Bluegrass: Five Acts to Watch” names five bands where almost all musicians are white. 

So, where does the media’s fascination with equating whiteness and bluegrass come from? A New York Times article on bluegrass from 1959 gives us some insight. 

In this article the author, Robert Shelton, gives bluegrass a definitive place of origin, Kentucky, U.S.A. and describes it as a “post-war phenomenon”. 

…a form of ‘hillbilly’ music known as ‘bluegrass’ (for Kentucky, the Blue Grass State, where it was born)” (Shelton).

Shelton also continues to list many bluegrass artists such as Mike Seeger, Don Stover, Chubby Anthony, and Eric Weissberg, who, like from the Rolling Stones Article, are almost entirely white. 

When we look at early reports on bluegrass along with the complicated history of American Music, it is not entirely shocking that credit is not given where it’s due. A good step in the right direction is to acquaint ourselves with some bluegrass artists who aren’t just white, because they exist and have for a long time. 

Some Artists to listen to and know:

Sources

By, R. S. (1959, Aug 30). BLUEGRASS STYLE: MOUNTAIN MUSIC GETS SERIOUS CONSIDERATION. New York Times (1923-) Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/bluegrass-style/docview/114687317/se-2?accountid=351

Inductees Archive. Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.bluegrasshall.org/inductees/. 

Pearley, L. J. (2021, May 11). The African American folklorist: An un-recorded legend of bluegrass. WKU Public Radio. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.wkyufm.org/post/african-american-folklorist-un-recorded-legend-bluegrass#stream/0. 

Povelones, R. (2021, April 26). Rhiannon Giddens keynote address – IBMA business conference 2017. IBMA. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/. 

Rolling Stone. (2018, June 25). The new bluegrass: Five acts to watch. Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-new-bluegrass-five-acts-to-watch-88265/. 

The Arnold Shultz Fund. IBMA Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://bluegrassfoundation.org/arnold-shultz-fund/. 

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.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”

 

In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Cover of How to Put On a Minstrel Show3

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

The Darktown Comics Banjo Class: A Glance At Currier & Ives Lithographs

For this blog assignment, I decided to go the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Catalog and simply search the term ” banjo” to see what would show up.  I was primarily interested in what is still documented in the public perceptions of African-American banjo players based on this quote in Rhiannon Giddens’ address at the IBMA Business Conference in 2017:

“To understand how the banjo, which was once the ultimate symbol of African American musical expression, has done a one-eighty in popular understanding and become the emblem of the mythical white mountaineer… In order to understand the history of the banjo and the history of bluegrass music, we need to move beyond the narratives we’ve inherited, beyond generalizations that bluegrass is mostly derived from a Scots-Irish tradition, with ‘influences’ from Africa.” [1]

Many of the results consisted of photographs of white banjo players or artists’ depictions of African-Americans, which were usually black men sitting on a chair playing the banjo either in minstrel clothing or in “plantation” clothing, which demonstrated what kind of rabbit hole I was entering.  However, I was most struck by this lithograph from Currier & Ives dating to 1886 being the top result:

[2]

It was definitely off-putting to see a very caricatured depiction of African-Americans as the first result for just the word “banjo” with no other filter given to the search.  I thought this was some sort of anomaly at first, but the I went back to the search bar to look up “Darktown comics banjo,” and the database returned with two results: one of the first image I found and the other being the “response” to the first comic:

[3]

There are a few things that are very striking to me in both images besides the highly stereotypical presentation of their anatomical features.  First, all of the people in both lithographs are wearing very formal clothing with the men in suits and the women in Victorian dresses.  After glancing at several other lithographs from this series, this theme is not uncommon, because the purpose of displaying African-Americans in clothing that belonged primarily to the upper class seemed to be making a satire of stereotyped depictions of African-Americans.  It is as though this series is like an alternate universe where African-Americans run the world, but their stereotypes act as their guiding principles, making them have irrational judgement compared to white audiences.  This also goes into the second point, where the musicians sitting in the group decide they cannot play in a rigid sitting position, so they can only perform by getting rowdy or “loose.”  The artist uses these two comics to create a joke in the “setup-punchline” sense, which seems quite strange, but also not off-kilter for this time period.

While I was originally going to discuss the presentation of banjos and their relationship to African-Americans, I couldn’t help but not comment on these rather obscene comics and how they were somehow considered acceptable enough to be printed.  After browsing Google further, I found that some of these prints in the Darktown comic series are being reproduced and sold on Amazon of all places [HistoricalFindings Photo: Darktown Comics,Darktown Fire Brigade,Chief,Firefighters,1885,African Americans], which would only make sense if it was used for an academic purpose, but otherwise, I do not know who would purchase these or why someone would need it.

If you are curious as to any of the other Darktown comics presented by Currier & Ives, here is a rather expansive blog post by a historical archivist: [https://danieldteolijrarchivalcollection.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/currier-ives-darktown-comic-series/]

References

[1] Giddens, Rhiannon “IBMA Business Conference 2017”

[2] The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key

[3] The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune

Bibliography

Giddens, Rhiannon. “IBMA Business Conference 2017 – Keynote Address.” IBMA Business Conference 2017. September 23, 2019. https://ibma.org/rhiannon-giddens-keynote-address-2017/.

Teoli, Daniel D. “Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection.” Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection (blog), May 13, 2018. https://danieldteolijrarchivalcollection.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/currier-ives-darktown-comic-series/.

The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key: “If yous can’t play de Music, jes leff de banjo go!”. Photograph. Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91724113/.

The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune: “Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!” . Photograph. Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91724110/

A Symbol That Transcends Race?

As I began looking through images of bluegrass musicians from almost a century ago, I realized that amidst the controversial discussion about which culture bluegrass music sprang from, one element in this polarized history remains constant. It was present whether the musician was Celtic or Cajun, young or old, man or woman.

Front porches… they abound in the bluegrass music world. Scroll through the Lomax photo archives from the 1930s, or do a quick, modern-day Google search, and your results will be similar. Front porches have become a constant, universal symbol of a bluegrass musician. Front porches had no racial bias–they crossed the lines between races at a time when no other thing did. Cajun fiddlers and white fiddlers, black guitarists and Mexican guitarists, cajun singers and black singer-songwriters alike; Lomax images show that front porches were the bluegrass musician’s favorite place.

 

Nicknamed “pickin’ parlors,”[1] front porches became the unofficial location for jam sessions to break out in 1930s southern communities. One might argue that front porches are a favorite performance venue for bluegrass musicians because of their great acoustics, or because the intense heat of the south required musicians to play outside in the breeze, but I’d like to think it’s deeper than that. I think that by playing on a porch, these musicians were inviting neighbors, relatives, and friends to enjoy this musical tradition.

The front porch lives on in the modern bluegrass scene. There’s a Spotify-curated playlist called Front Porch: Sit back, stay awhile, and savor the soft, sweet sounds of this folksy collection. Front porches remain in country music today. There’s a Front Porch Bluegrass band, an annual Front Porch Bluegrass Festival and Pork Roast, and a bluegrass radio station called Front Porch. It seems that we simply can’t call music “bluegrass” without reference to a front porch.

No matter the person’s race, front porches offered their wooden floors and rocking chairs to any musician.

 

 

[1] Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian,Science Monitor. “Pulled Up by the Banjo Strings: ALL Edition].” The Christian Science Monitor, Jun 23, 2005. https://search.proquest.com/docview/405544729?accountid=351.

Pictures referenced:

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Singers & dancers, New Bight, Cat Island, July. Bahamas Cat Island, 1935. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660223/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Pete Steele and family, Hamilton, Ohio. Hamilton Ohio United States, 1938. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660375/.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Lolo Mendoza and Chico Real, with guitars, at the home of Mrs. Sarah Kleberg Shelton, Kingsville, Texas. Kingsville Texas United States, 1940. [Sept. 20] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660028/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Bill Tatnall, sitting, playing guitar, Frederica, Georgia. Frederica Georgia United States, 1935. June. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660089/.

Lomax, Ruby T, photographer. Cajun fiddler, Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660087/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Wayne Perry playing fiddle, Crowley, Louisiana. Crowley Louisiana United States, None. [Between 1934 and 1950] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660067/.

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Cajun singers, southwest Louisiana. Louisiana United States, 1934. Summer. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660227/.

The Camera Lens vs. the Public Lens: Perceptions of African Americans in the South

Portrait of Bill Tatnall1

When visiting the Library of Congress’s Lomax Collection, I was intrigued by the photos on the main page, which featured an African American man playing guitar (right). Clicking on the image, I saw “African Americans–1930-1940” listed as one of its categories, and clicking on that led me to a list of other images of African Americans in this time frame—standing, sitting, walking, running, and doing other normal, everyday activities, including more guitar playing (below).

Hurston and others2

Hurston and others3

 

 

 

In contrast to these photos, the following two images also caught my attention, captioned according to the Library of Congress’s summaries:

Left: “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem:” Seven illustrations from Mid-Week Pictorial, May 23, 1936, showing conditions in the South, including a man with a horse, poor children, a shack, an Alabama steel mill, construction of a house, and African American cotton pickers.4 Right: Cartoon shows two men with rifles, walking away from a lynching victim hanging from a…5

These were some of the few images listed that were not plain photographs, but images of commercial publications. As both feature whites, they were likely both intended for white audiences. More striking, though, is their representation of African Americans. The title of the first image, “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem,” in addition to the summary’s indication that it is seven illustrations “showing conditions in the South,” would indicate that it is attempting to portray a broad view of the South. African Americans, though, are depicted only as cotton pickers, confining their place in the South to the cotton fields. The second image is even more striking; the two figures in the foreground are whites with guns, and in the background is an African American hanging from a tree, a lynching victim. This shows an even more explicit and extreme racial dynamic.

Neither of these images are surprising in their content, but stand in stark contrast to the many other images in the collection showing African Americans engaged in non-stereotypical and non-confining activities—acting like “normal” people and even playing “normal” Southern music. These two publications publications serve as a reminder that, for most of the commercialized white South of the early 20th-century, African Americans were African American first and Southerners second. They were cotton pickers and lynching victims, separate from the culture of white Southerners, from their horses and poor children to their banjo- and guitar-playing, despite the evidence we have that they were part of these cultural and musical phenomenon just as much as Southern whites.

1 Lomax, Alan. Portraits of Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring, Frederica, Georgia, from recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660097/.

2 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston and other African Americans, probably at a recording site in Belle Glade, Florida, 1935. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660344/.

3 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660101/.

4 The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem. 1936. Photomechanical prints. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98519128/.

5 Chase, William C. Man and son walking with guns, and man hanging from tree in background, and the / Chase. 1935. Drawing on illustration board, crayon. Cartoon Drawings, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679638/.

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.