Is American music really American?

After playing in the St. Olaf Orchestra’s concert last spring which essentially had all works from Antonin Dvorak; including Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and “American Suite.” It became clear to me that what we consider “American” music, isn’t actually American. We learned from Joseph Horowitz that Dvorak would take bits in pieces from melodies he heard while traveling around America. It should be noted that most “American” music contains melodies, tunes, and isms from many other different cultures. 

In Dvorak’s Prophecy, Scholar Joseph Horowitz sheds light on the fact that Dvorak was in search of “homegrown” music. According to Dvorak “homegrown meant music created by Black and Indigenous people.” The term “homegrown” can definitely be picked apart to pieces when attempting to determine if Indigenous, Black, or American music is considered to be homegrown or not.

When Dvorak composed these pieces, he had the idea that everything he heard and picked up was essentially American. Although we can acknowledge that most of the tunes he incorporated in his music were from Indigenous people. 

“Dvorak was stirred by the sad fate of the Indian and the pathos of the slave. His empathy found expression in his Symphony From the New World- … It begins with a sorrow song and ends with an Indian dirge. Its most famous tune, later reconstituted as the synthetic spiritual “Goin’ Home,” memorializes the tragic servitude of Black Americans.”

On a similar but a little different note, I think that our education system has failed us in the past. Growing up and hearing music on the radio, on TV, in stores, we’ve always thought that what we were hearing was American music. In actuality, most of these pop songs we hear have stemmed from African American people. We have been surprisingly ignorant when it comes to the origins of the music we listen to and I think that ought to change. We can complete this circle by coming back to Dvorak. Dvorak composed the “American Suite,” in an attempt to capture American music. Before I had any prior knowledge of this piece, I simply thought: Dvorak was in America at the time therefore, the music was American. Oh, how I was wrong, and I imagine I’m not the only one who had thought this way. I hope we can learn and acknowledge our ignorances and move forward with open minds.

Dvorak in Spillville, Iowa where he spent a summer in search of “American” music.

Citations

Music: Dr. dvorak’s new symphony. 1893. The Critic: a Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts (1886-1898). Dec 23, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/music/docview/124901982/se-2 (accessed September 20, 2023).

Horowitz, Joseph. Dvořák’s prophecy and the vexed fate of Black Classical Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Toll, Martha Anne. “Review | He Saw a ‘noble’ Future for Black and Indigenous Composers. He Was Wrong.” The Washington Post, December 10, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/he-saw-a-noble-future-for-black-and-indigenous-composers-he-was-wrong/2021/12/08/9705c2f4-2ba1-11ec-985d-3150f7e106b2_story.html.

The Contradiction of Black Minstrelsy

What do you think of when you think of minstrelsy?

From our contemporary lens, it’s very easy to think of minstrelsy as a horrible, racist manifestation of white supremacy. Which, for the record, it surely was. But it wasn’t just that. For many Black Americans, black minstrelsy offered a form of employment in a depressed economy, a form of control over their representation, and a training ground for later prominent figures in other forms of Black music, like blues.

Black minstrelsy has never been universally admired, and a diversity of opinions have coexisted since its inception. As Southern writes, “The black minstrel has been much maligned by many, including members of his own race, for perpetuating the Jim Crow and Zip Coon stereotypes” (269), a statement which gets to the core struggle and contradiction of Black minstrelsy. White minstrelsy predated Black minstrelsy by several decades, and its success depended on these stereotypes. Many of the owners of Black troupes also owned white troupes. While black performers had some agency to represent themselves at least a little more authentically than white performers, Black minstrelsy still operated with many of the same expectations and for many of the same audiences. Which begs the question, what was it like for the Black performers?

W.C. Handy

The answer, of course, is complex. Rampant white supremacy and racial violence was a fact of life for Black minstrels – Handy, a member of Mahara’s Minstrels writes in his autobiography of the lynching of a band member (43) and many other acts of racially motivated violence and harassment. But Handy, who began his career in minstrelsy and later became a major player in blues, seems to recognize the importance of Black minstrelsy, writing “Historians of the American stage have slighted the old Negro minstrels” (34).

Chick Beaman, another performer from the latter days of minstrelsy, writing for the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, describes almost the exact opposite contradiction . “When you

begin trouping you’re dead – theatrically – and soon forgotten” he writes, “But I love it and it’s a great life. So let the band play.” This is pretty much the reverse of Handy’s experience – Beaman valued minstrelsy as a lifestyle rather than a stepping stone in his career.

So how should we view the legacy of Black minstrelsy? Being itself fundamentally a contradiction, it’s hard to say for sure. But we do know that it was an important social, economic, and musical enterprise with lasting affects today.

 

 

Bibliography

Beaman, Chick. 1921. CHICK BEAMAN: FAMOUS MINSTREL MAN PUTS ON HIS PHILOSOPHICAL SHOES. The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967), Aug 27, 1921. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/chick-beaman/docview/491909725/se-2?accountid=351 (accessed November 15, 2021).

Handy, W.C. The Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. London. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1957.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York, NY. WW Norton Company, 1971.