“The Voice is not nearly so important as the Spirit”

After reading Eileen Southern and Dena Epstein’s accounts of American slave songs and particularly spirituals, my curiosity was piqued. I set out to see what sheet music for spirituals looked like from the days of the sheet music craze and naturally ran across something I wasn’t really expecting.

What I found was H. T. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” for low voice and piano.1 One thing that initially struck me about the song was that it fit with what Epstein wrote about as a common theme in slave songs, that is the repetition of the same line of text several times in a row. Another common characteristic was syncopation, which is also an important driving characteristic of this song.2

The cover of the sheet music for “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. A recording of this arrangement can be found here.

However, arrangement is also interesting because it has been written in the style of arias and art songs. The melody is written out clearly, omitting some of the vocalizations that perhaps would have been sung by slaves. It is also made clear that the song does not perhaps fully fit a European method of transcription by the footnote on the first page which offers an alternate rhythm for one of the measures. Additionally, the arrangement contains a simple piano accompaniment consisting mainly of repetitive chords on the beats. This makes sense as the arranger, H. T. Burleigh studied on scholarship at the National Conservatory of Music in New York and ultimately became famous for being the first to arrange spirituals in the style of art songs, allowing for their entry into recital repertoire.3

The other interesting aspect of this sheet music is the arranger’s note that precedes it. In it, Burleigh gives a brief history of spirituals and claims that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song”. He then goes on to advise the would-be singer that “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit” when preforming, and that rhythm is the critical element. He admonishes that spirituals should not be linked with “minstrel” songs and that one should not try to imitate “Negro” accent or mannerisms in performance.

Ultimately, this got me thinking again about our discussion question of who gets to sing these songs and who gets to decide who gets to sing them? This arrangement was obviously originally intended for a white audience because of its warning about trying to perform them imitating the ways that are “natural to the colored people”. Written as it is in the style of an art song, means it caters to recitalists. Most recitalists of the time were white, as Burleigh himself is regarded as one of the first African American recitalists. Can white performers sing these songs that came out of the deep anguish of slavery and do them justice?

H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

Burleigh also adds an interesting dimension to the puzzle. As a black man born after the abolition of slavery, does he still have a right and connection to these songs? After all, he came from a poor family and learned many of his spirituals from his grandfather, who had been a slave.4 Furthermore, Burleigh still lived in a time of deep racial inequality and probably experienced ugly racism and discrimination in his own life.

Perhaps Burleigh, in is own way, provides a bit of an answer to this quandary in his performance notes when he remarks that spirituals’ “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”. It may not be a perfect answer, but it is something.

1Burleigh, H. T. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” from Negro Spirituals. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15037coll1/id/5400. Accessed March 19, 2018.

2Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

3““Harry” Burleigh (1866–1949).” In African American Almanac, by Lean’tin Bracks. Visible Ink Press, 2012. https://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/vipaaalm/harry_burleigh_1866_1949/0?institutionId=4959. Accessed March 19, 2018.

4Snyder, Jean. “Burleigh, Henry [Harry] T(hacker).” Grove Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002248537. Accessed March 19, 2018.

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 Preservation of Black Slave Songs: An Interview with Billy McCrea

Throughout history, many oppressed people have not received documentation or enough accurate documentation regarding their culture and other aspects of their lives.  Especially in musicology, documentation can be scarce and inaccurate.  For many sources that scholars depend on, it is crucial to think critically about the presumtions and backgrounds of those who created them. However, it is also important that we preserve the resources and works that we do have. Sometimes it is better to have semi-accurate interpretations of music and culture than nothing at all.  Even biased information can provide insightful information about who created it.  One effective way to avoid misrepresenting people is to interview and accurately preserve their traditions.

Billy McCrea in Jasper, TX 1940

In this recorded interview with ex-slave Billy McCrea, McCrea elaborates about his experiences as a slave working on a Steamboat as a cook.  Upon request, McCrea sung the steamboat song, “Blow Cornie Blow” for the interviewer John Avery Lomax.

Blow Cornie Blow

“I think I hear the captain call me, blow cornie blow. 
I think I hear the captain calling, blow cornie blow.
A blow cornie blow.
Blow cornie blow.
A blew it cold, loud and mournful.
Blow cornie blow.
I think I hear the captain??? –blow cornie blow.
They carried lo-o-o-o-ong onto bend.
Blow cornie blow.
They soon will be to the landing corner.
Blow cornie blow.
De captain hand me down my ???
Blow cornie blow.
Oh, blow boy and let them hear you.
Blow cornie blow.
Oh, blow loud and ???
Blow cornie blow. 
Oh, blow loud just so he can hear you.
Blow cornie blow.
I think I hear the captain call you.
Blow cornie blow.”

He explained that he and “the boys” would tote salt from the boat to a warehouse while singing.  Upon hearing McCrea sing, it is tempting for scholars and students alike to want to notate “Blow Cornie Blow.” This stems from a western presupposition that written forms of preservation are more superior, accurate or long lasting than preservation through oral tradition.  Is written preservation of oral tradition inherently problematic? Because scholars notated slave songs using a western notation system, they were limited because they could not capture all of the musical nuances and emotions of the slave songs. Notating slave songs is useful to provide context to people who were more familiar with European music, but what is problematic is imposing western traditions on slave songs and adapting them.  Many slave songs were published with harmonies that were not originally sung. This act of “fixing” or refining slave songs to conform to a western ideal of beauty contributes to the erasure and inauthentic representation of black folk music.  Many debates regarding notation must address the issues of preservation, authenticity and erasure of tradition.

Eileen Southern’s book, The Music of Black Americans: a History, recalls a quote from Frederick Douglas remembering the songs as “they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with bitterest anguish…The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

Interviews like McCrea’s are so important regarding of preservation of history and prevention of erasure of people, or distortion of their stories.  Lomax’s work positively contributes to the study of slave music because he gives voice to the people whom we draw from in music and culture.

Works Cited

Lomax, John Avery, et al. “Interview with Uncle Billy McCrea, Jasper, Texas, 1940 (Part 1 of 2).” The Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 1940, memory.loc.gov.

Southern, Eileen. “Chapter 5 Antebellum Rural Life.” The Music of Black Americans: a History, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 177–178.

Bluer Than Blue: Michael Johnson and Folk Music at St. Olaf

If you search through St. Olaf’s Manitou Messenger, in the 1970s and 1980s, you will notice a trend: St. Olaf College loved folk music, especially the music of Michael Johnson.

He performed on campus in the spring of 1973, on May 11, 1974, on October 24, 1975, and November 20, 1981:

Michael Johnson in 1975.

Playing for large audiences in Skoglund Gymnasium and in the Women’s Gym (now Kelsey Theater), Johnson performed hits from his albums There Is a Breeze and For All You Mad Musicians (the 1975 concert) like the songs “Bluer Than Blue” and “On the Road” (1981 and 1974 concerts, respectively). The popularity of Johnson was perhaps his ability to not only perform ballads/love songs and classic folk tunes, but also jazz and classical arrangements (and rearrangements) of his own and other peoples’ music.

That’s not to say everyone desired to hear a variety of music when Johnson came to town. In 1981, Johnson shared a concert with Simon and Bard, a fusion jazz group (many people left at 10pm when the band began their set). As the Manitou Messenger article from that event relates, that whole night was a fiasco: the doors opened 30 minutes late, Eastern Airlines sent Johnson’s guitar to Atlanta, and, the greatest crime of all, Simon and Bard was supposed to play first, but instead, Johnson opened. Many diehard Michael Johnson fans arrived late only to hear the end of Johnson’s set and the entire Simon and Bard set. Oops.

Michael Johnson in 1981.

St. Olaf’s affinity for Michael Johnson and his folk music showed the college’s continued participation in the folk revival, which began in the 1940s, peaked in the 1960s, and after that began to lose steam in the face of the British Invasion and the rise of rock. It also demonstrates the tastes of Oles, perhaps the unchanging tastes of Oles: to this day, one of the most-discussed concerts is Ingrid Michaelson’s visit to St. Olaf in 2012 (Michaelson is a singer-songwriter especially associated with the indie pop/folk movement).

Folk music in general has a strong following at St. Olaf. It could be the hipster-ish aspect of campus and folk music (“Have you heard of this person? They’re SO refreshing”) or maybe it’s the more rural origins of most of our students. Whatever the reason, in both the 1970s and the 2010s, folk music is alive and well at St. Olaf College.


“Calendar: Coming.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), April 26, 1974.

Lemke, Brenda. “Johnson steps up slow start.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), December 3, 1981.

Schrader, Beth. “Johnson and Johnson, pigskins and alumni.” Manitou Messenger (St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN), October 24, 1975.

Newport Folk Festival Hosts Composer of the “The American Folk-Song Mass”

As the folk tradition started to die out, American folk started to take flight when John and Alan Lomax recorded and collected music of the rural regions of the United State, particularly in penitentiaries. In the 1940s, artists around the country decided to takes these recorded folk songs and make their own recordings. A single vocal accompanied by a guitar became the standard folk song, and people decided to write their own songs in the “folk” style.1

Along with this surge of new folk composers came Father Ian Mitchell, “the guitar-toting Episcopal priest…, and his wife, folk-singing star Caroline.”2 Father Ian Mitchell composed The American Folk-Song Mass, consisting of several liturgical and some original text set to the twang of the guitar. The Chicago Defender stated that “Father Mitchel composed [The American Folk-Song Mass] because he got tired of ‘cloying, cornball, 19th Century hymns.’”3 Later, Father Mitchell released Catholic version of his folk-song mass, incorporating the texts of the Roman Catholic Liturgy. According to the liner of the Catholic version of the mass, Father Mitchell was later commissioned to compose the Funeral Folk Mass.

According to the Chicago Defender, Father Ian Mitchell and his wife Caroline signed on to the Newport Folk Festival, best known for hosting renowned folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell, to perform songs from their newly released album Songs of Protest and Love. However, I hardly consider Father Mitchell’s music to actually be “folk.” Father Ian Mitchell was “a city-dweller who spent three years in the wastelands of Utah,” seemingly making him more apt to folk styles.4 All he did was take liturgical text and sing them with a different melody with a guitar accompaniment. According to Oxford Music Online, “the [folk] revival spawned a large number of singer-songwriters who accompanied themselves on the acoustic guitar but had little in common with those concerned primarily to bear witness to the tradition.”5 I believe that Father Ian Mitchell falls into this category and his “folk-song” mass should be considered “Mass: Plus Guitar, Minus Organ.”

1 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.” Grove Music Online. www.oxfordmusiconline.com (accessed Mar. 12, 2015­)

2 “Newport Folk Festival to Feature “Singing Priest”.” Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973), July 12, 1969. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493434506?accountid=351.

3 Ibid.,

4 Mitchell, Ian. Rev. “The American Folk-Song Mass” F.E.L Records. Back Cover.

5 Laing, Dave. “Folk Music Revival.”

Development of Folk: Pre-Civil War to Civil Rights’ Movement

Folk music is one that draws many questions from American music historians. Questions like, “who owns folk music?”, “where did these tunes originate?”, and “what is a folk song?”.  One perspective that is particularly interesting and comes to a strong conclusion is that the origin of American folk music is based upon African Tradition. An article in The Chicago Defender claims that from African Americans and slave music, the genre of folk emerged. The argument is that the melodies of African American music prior to the Civil war were considered true American folk songs. Some original, but also based on African traditional music. The English, French, and Spanish all brought their own style of song to the United States, so their music isn’t naturally American. Oscar Saffold wrote in his article, “There is, however, a real indisputable folk song in America, an American production, born in the hearts of slaves — expressing a part of the life of our country.” This can be argued against, saying that the music of the slaves is originally from Africa, but Saffold’s argument is moreover strong, in that the African American traditional music had a large influence on proceeding music styles such as the blues and then jazz.

During the time of the Civil Rights’ Movement, there were many protests in southern United States, to express the desires and rights of equality among people; To blur the racial lines. These protests were filled with demonstrations that used art to promote equality, and the folk song emerged as an effective protest song. This incorporated the melodies of the old slave songs, but with new words. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.16.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 1.17.10 PM

This type of folk song is called a freedom song. It was used as a way to unite a community of people during the Civil Rights’ Movement, and was thought to communicate and express sentiments when words weren’t enough. This is tied into the work songs of slaves during the Antebellum South.

A poignant quote from the article says, “while there is no American folk song in the sense of expressing American life as a whole, still there is a folk song in America, and that is the music of the Negro” (Saffold). The roots of American folk music go deep into the history of the African American slaves of Southern American, and since, folk music has taken on many other attributes with the Folk Revival of the late 20th Century.

 

Bibliography

Saffold, Oscar E. “How american folk songs started.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), 25 Feb. 1933. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492356076?accountid=351

“Songs seen Vital in Albany Demonstrations.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), 22 Aug. 1962. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493909703?accountid=351.

 

Can Bluegrass be Categorized as “Folk” music ?

There is a discussion about whether bluegrass music, a kind of music promoted and developed by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys band from 1950s, is “authentic” folk music. According to the research I did, by the time bluegrass music had been labeled as “folk”, the hallmarks of the style (e.g. acoustic instruments, fast tempo and high tenor vocals) included many of the features that had originally made up by Monroe himself, as an “original invention”, not a subgenre of “folk” music or folk revival. However, bluegrass was adopted by the revivalists later as a type of “folk” music since revivalists subjected bluegrass to ideals of authenticity that have.

When Steve Rathe interviewed Bill Monroe in Dec. 10, 1973, Bill Monroe first told audience about “what bluegrass music is and what elements have gone into its composition”.

 Ewing, Tom, ed. The Bill Monroe Reader. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

From this interview, I can see that Bill Monroe saw his music as a new production, a synthesis of genres he admired, and a way of making profits. However, at this time bluegrass music had not been ”absorbed” by folk revivalist and the best way of gaining this kind of acceptance was to characterize bluegrass as ”folk”. I assumed that it won’t be hard to see bluegrass as folk music, since it featuring much of the traditional repertoire that interested the revivalists.

For example, from the interview Bill Monroe also mentioned his reproduction of Mule Skinner Blues, which completely fit in his definition of bluegrass. I was disappointed of not being able to find an online score of this song, but I can still recognize some characteristics he mentioned in the recording.

 

The song uses the instrumentation of bass, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo. The rhythm, especially the syncopation featured a combination of blues songs and early 20th-century pop song, with fast-paced instrumental breakdowns. After a short entrance, Bill starts with his high-pitched, “lonesome” vocal line with four-parts harmony; and he shows his use of the folk tune “the little mule” in the second stanza. Also, he separates song verses and choruses with virtuosic instrumental soloing.

However, since bluegrass had its origins as a commercial country music in which artists performed on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded for major labels, the music couldn’t hold up as an unchanging tradition that was anti-commercial and “from the mass”. As far as I understand, putting bluegrass in folk genre was an imagined construction and lack of grounding support. Asserting membership in a genre can thus be a form of cultural affirmation, a process that Allan Moore has identified as “second person” arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression to the listener that the listener’s experience of life is validated.

I would love to end with what Charles Keil said about folk music:

Keil, Charles. “Who Needs” The Folk”?.” Journal of the Folklore Institute(1978): 263-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813980

 

 

Resource:Ewing, Tom, ed. The Bill Monroe Reader. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

 

Keil, Charles. “Who Needs” The Folk”?.” Journal of the Folklore Institute(1978): 263-265. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813980