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.

 

 

“The Ordering of Moses” and Robert Nathaniel Dett’s compositional output

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a popular African American composer who used spirituals and gospel songs as his inspiration for larger works. His works like the Juba Dance were performed by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and Dett conducted and performed as a pianist in Carnegie Hall.

 

His 1937 oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses,” was seen in its time as controversial, but largely lauded. It was called “the most impressive Negro contribution to music” in the Chicago Defender‘s May 1937 issue. It combines “spirituals such as “Go Down Moses,” reworked into a fugue; the lush romanticism of Dvorak; a seguidilla-like dance complete with castanets; and jazzy inflections throughout.”1

When it was originally performed at the May Festival of 1937, the live recording on radio suddenly stopped midway through, supposedly due to scheduling difficulties, but in later years it is largely believed that too many people called in complaints about the composer’s race for the broadcast to continue. Dett faced much discrimination for this work, and he felt it on both sides. He was told his symphony was too black, and that he was too black, but other people told him it wasn’t black enough. Critic Olin Downes of the New York Times had this to say:

Image Courtesy of The Chicago Defender May 1937 Issue2 

The oratorio can be heard in this playlist below.

 

In addition to creating large-scale works that provoked conversation, Dett made plenty of statements about the difficulties of black composers in a largely white-dominated field. At that time, spirituals when composed and sung by white performers was more acceptable than black people doing the same thing, and Dett made it known the many problems that accompanied that mindset.  In the July 1943 edition of the Chicago Defender, he is quoted saying that black composers and performers should not try to confine to the popular, white and westernized version of songs that were originally from the black community in the first place. He also notes that the black community should “aspire to the top because of spirituals, not in spite of them.”3

Additionally, Dett mentions the difficulties of being a black person in the institutional music system. He says that many African Americans who graduate from insitutions with degrees in music aren’t able to fully cultivate their talent, because if they rise to fame they outshine even the president of the institution (on account of the novelty of being a famous black performer).

Dett’s work “The Ordering of Moses” contradicts his own statements in two ways. First, it conforms more to western European musical standard practices than to traditional practices in the black community. This is something he directly condemned above. Second, it helped him rise to great fame, rather than let him meekly compose semi-successful pieces. However, he did not seem to outshine the reputation of Oberlin University, where he obtained his degree.

There is more to the story, however. If his work had conformed even more toward traditional spiritual practices, white audiences never would have heralded it as such an inspiring and important piece. Then, he might not have gained as much fame and thus wouldn’t even have had an opportunity to share his opinions on the state of black composers and performers in the Chicago Defender. He played the game where he had to in order to balance both black and white audiences. If he hadn’t, he’d have been lost to history, and we wouldn’t remember his works or his name. So before we are too quick to judge the contradictions between his composition output and his musical philosophies, we should remind ourselves of the complex situation of being a POC in America. This should especially be taken into account regarding black musicians operating in a largely western European controlled system.

 

 

 

1 Amanda Angel, “Heavy-Handed Presentation undermines Cincinnati Symphony Revival of Dett’s ‘Moses'” New York Classical Review, May 10, 2014. http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2014/05/heavy-handed-presentation-undermines-cincinnati-symphony-revival-of-detts-moses/

2 (1937, May 22). DETT’S ‘ORDERNG OF MOSES’ LAUDED AS RACE’S BEST CONTRIBUTION IN MUSIC. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

2 Alfred E Smith (1937, July). “Dett Sees Music as Potent Weapon Against Race Hate.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

Artist Files: Tommy Dorsey , 1950-1975 © The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.

Tuskegee Institute Singers – Echoes of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

Whilst browsing the Library of Congress’ “National Jukebox,” I came across recordings from a group called the Tuskegee Institute Singers (later known as the Tuskegee Institute Quartet). They started around 1914 as a college a capella group that took their talents beyond the halls of the Tuskegee Institute (an HBCU founded by Booker T Washington).

They directly adopted practices of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and sang spirituals in a modified harmonized style to appeal to white listeners as the Fisk singers did. Scholars have drawn direct lines from the Fisk singers to the Tuskegee singers. Even if their work had been changed to appease a broad audience, some still found their work “primitive.”1

This follows a long line of judgement of the music of other cultures, which western Europeans often found strange and lower than their own. One review of their music from The Victor Records catalog of 1920 details their sound, which they found at the same time “wholly American” and “primitive” at the same time.2

They note their “weird harmonies” – though they also praise the fact that they, unlike other primitive cultures, have harmony at all. It is apparent that Western European critics felt that the African American community must try to be “American” and follow Western European practice, yet at the same time, they would never dare hold African American music in the same regard as music that originated in Europe. They expected the black community to strive to attain their standards, but also knew they would never accept the music of the black community.

Additionally, it is interesting that the critic here refers to their music as reverent and to be respected, but from his language does not himself revere the music. They reference that the music came from the grandparents of the singers – that it comes from a long tradition of workers. However, the description acknowledges the hard “American” work of the singers, but does not acknowledge that this work was carried out under the hand of slavery. This critic takes credit for the desirable aspects of the music but does not also take credit for the factor that slavery played in the music’s inception.

Below is a recording of the Tuskegee Singers singing “Go Down Moses” (a spiritual). More of their work can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox online site.

 

What do you think of their sound? Did it earn its criticism?

1 Nick Toches, Where Dead Voices Gether, Little, Brown (2009).

 

2 Victor Records Catalog, (1920).

The ‘Practical Idealism’ of “Porgy and Bess”

The day after the premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Colonial Theatre in New York City, a review of the performance appeared in the New York Times that would both articulate the positive aspects of the opera while also aptly summarizing its importance to American music. A portion of the opening paragraph reads:

“An audience which assembled, uncertain whether they should find a heavy operatic work or something more resembling musical comedy, discovered a form of entertainment which stands midway between the two. The immediate response was one of enthusiasm that grew rather than diminished as the evening progressed.” [1]

In other words, Porgy and Bess was an immediate hit because it successfully bridged the gap between the styles of European grand opera and American musical theater in the style of tin-pan alley. By extension, Gershwin was cementing his reputation as the quintessential American composer: a perfect combination of elite artist and regular American. While this synthesis may appear to be a contradiction, there are a number of descriptions in this and other contemporaneous reviews that support this statement.

A scene from the original Broadway projection of “Porgy and Bess”.

 

From the New York Amsterdam News:

“The first act represents George Gershwin’s most serious writing. It is Gershwin struggling for a greater expression, endeavoring to transcend into the world of great music. Contrapuntally speaking, he does. This is evident in the crap game fugue.” [2]

The author (Allen Gilbert) goes on to compare Gershwin to “Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven” for his clarity of theme in symphonic writing, effectively lifting him into a pantheon of greatness. Yet, Gilbert goes on to call the second act a “let down”, describing it as a musical side-show that more resembles a smorgasbord of primitive American music (hot jazz, broadway ballads, negro spirituals) than it does the work of a grand master. He attributes to Gershwin a false quote suggesting that opera is for the “masses” but that they cannot understand it if it’s not dumbed down for them.

But it is the third act that truly shows Gershwin’s greatness, a “gathering together of the parts” that utilizes both ends of the spectrum without compromising on beauty and emotional power. It is with this in mind that the author crowns Gershwin as the “practical idealist”.

While this is a deserving title for the young composer, we can see quite clearly how mind-numbingly kitschy this is, yet another example of American determinism seeking out the next great musical representative for the U.S. of A. This is especially frustrating when we consider the most problematic yet simultaneously inspiring aspect of the work and its initial performances: its nearly all-Black cast. While the New York Times review emphasizes this historic achievement (even including it in the subtitle), the New York Amsterdam review doesn’t even mention it. The first lauds each cast member and the “characterizing detail” given to a normally inhuman and primitive setting; the latter lauds only Gershwin and his ability to humanize to black music without mention of the African Americans involved.

I don’t mean to suggest that Gershwin is responsible for this discrepancy, but it is worth remembering that in the evolving world of American art music in the early 1900s, Porgy and Bess may have been more akin to minstrelsy than to grand opera for many white audiences. Though an article in the Chicago Defender less than a month later claims that “race music is dignified” by Porgy and Bess, this primarily African-American viewpoint doesn’t necessarily reflect a popular perspective of the work. [3] While Gershwin’s “idealistic” genius and his roster of memorable songs is undoubtedly responsible for the works success, it is fascinating to see how the “practical” matters of the performances may have been ignored.


[1] Special to The New York Times. “Gershwin’s Opera Makes Boston Hit.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 01, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/101340968?accountid=351.

[2] Allen, Gilbert. “George Gershwin, Practical Idealist.” The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938), Nov 16, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/226210087?accountid=351.

[3] McMillan, Alan. “‘Porgy and Bess’ Scores on Broadway.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 19, 1935. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492522466?accountid=351.

The Beauty in “The Negro’s Songs”

Black slave song was once a purely functional form of music that was described as “primitive” or “not inherently musical,” and the thought of it pervading American popular music once seemed impossible. However, after going through a metamorphosis of sorts, it changed into a form that appealed to the people of the United States. By undergoing this change, the songs had lost basically all semblance of their original function as a work song to an art song. Thus began the assimilation of black folk songs into American folk-songs.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 21.25.57

[1]

As a result of black folk music being introduced to the American public, people wanted to capture the origins and nature of this new genre. Books were written chronicling and collecting black folk songs, among them Afro-American Folksongs, A Study in Racial and National Music by Henry Edward Krehbiel and On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs by Dorothy Scarborough. Although these books were invaluable as a source for the average person to learn more about black folk songs and accounts of their encounters with the people that taught the authors the songs, they were written by white people using standard musical notation that is not able to accurately portray how the songs would have actually been performed by the people that originally sung them.

For example, take this transcription from Scarborough’s book of “I Went Up on the Mountain Top:”

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 23.17.06

[2]

The notes, rhythms, and words are present, but we have no idea how accurate this is. We can only assume how fast it went, how to pronounce the words, and the harmonies implied, if any. What results from this collection of songs is not an authentic depiction of black folk tunes, but “…a body of beautiful music. It has been neglected, distorted, made pretty, made tawdry, and now is being presented in various approaches to its native beauty.” [3] This issue of “beauty” became even more contentious when considering how to perform these songs:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 21.59.31

[4]

Due to the vague nature of the transcriptions written by authors such as Krehbiel and Scarborough, the “correct” rendition was up to interpretation. However, it was agreed that that the expression of the text was far more important than the style in which a person sang. Hayes and Robeson are incomparable, but they both hearken back to the original spirituals and the idea of expression as beauty. Although the black slave song was once thought as the music of savages, it quickly became an integral part of American music and was not going away anytime soon.

 

1. 3. 4. Seldes, Gilbert. 1926. THE NEGRO’S SONGS. The Dial; a Semi – Monthly Journal of Literary Criticism, Discussion, and Information (1880-1929), 03, 247. http://search.proquest.com/docview/89694543?accountid=351.

2. Scarborough, Dorothy. On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs. Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1925. Pg. 7. Accessed on archive.org.