More on Henry Krehbiel

When reading selections from Henry Krehbiel’s 1914 publication of Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, Music 345 was perplexed to compare his eagerness to embrace African American folksongs as American creations attributed to Black people in America to the writings of George Pullen Jackson in White and Negro Spirituals (1943). There was a general consensus among us that as history progresses, so do our politics. So I want to know: what was Krehbiel inspired by, and what can his background tell us about his research and publications?

I do not seek to answer this question in full with a blog post, however I do think it is worthwhile to consider where his inspirations came from. Henry Krehbiel was a first generation American growing up in a German speaking family. He started working for the New York Tribune around 1880 and soon rose to the title ‘music editor’ which gave rise to his writings on American music. His 1914 publication cited above is said to be inspired by his attendance of the World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. The World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was quite frankly a great show of American exceptionalism meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus in 1492 featuring over 200 buildings boasting neoclassical architecture as well as artists and musicians, including African American music from the Dahomean village.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.20019/.

The very music Krehbiel heard from the Dahomean village at the World Columbian Exchange inspired the musical, In Dahomey, a piano-vocal score written by Will Marion Cook and vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker. According to some sources, this was the first publication of its type and was performed over 1100 times in the United States and England from 1902-1905.

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010193/.

The history behind the Dahomey village as it existed in America has somewhat of a different origin story. The kingdom of Dahomey was a West African kingdom located in present day Benin that was colonized by the French, so many of the artifacts on display at the World Columbian Exchange were actually collected by the French Colonial Office during the scramble for Africa between 1880 and 1885. Knowing that the Dahomey village in America was the product of colonialism and that Krehbiel was probably enthralled in an exotic fascination of their music greatly informs how we think about his research. This being said, Krehbiel’s colonial bias does not detract from the impact of  Dahomean music on American music as a genre. We must instead lend some more credence to the instrumental role African Americans played in creating the genre of American music.

Krehbiel’s interest in the music of the Dahomean village is somewhat analagous to Dvorak’s fascination with folksongs that inspired the New World Symphony which was also written in 1893. This work supposedly also contributed to his own research in gathering music from Americans and immigrants to study and write about. Knowing that Krehbiel, though not an anti-racist by any means collected his own research and information perhaps lends more credence to his work than Jackson who relies strictly on conjecture and other researchers.

Sources

Latimer, .Dwaune”The People & Products of Colonization” Expedition Magazine 57.1 (2015): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 2015 Web. 06 Oct 2021 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=22585>

Abstract: “The Music and Scripts of In Dahomey.” American Music  Publisher: A-R Editions, American Musicological Society. https://www.areditions.com/publications/musa/the-music-and-scripts-of-in-dahomey-mu05-a025.html

Johns, Al, and Frank Saddler. In Dahomey. Sol Bloom, New York, NY, 1903. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010193/.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill. Rand, McNally & Co., Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1893, 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mfd.20019/.

Krehbiel, H. E. (1962). Afro-American folksongs : a study in racial and national music. F. Ungar Pub. Co.

Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship : Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, with 116 Songs as Sung by Both Races. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1943.

Swing Along: Broadway Opens New Doors

In Dahomey, a musical comedy with music written by Will Marion Cook, was a landmark in the development of early 20th-century musical entertainment created and performed by African Americans. In fact, it was the first full-length black musical performed inside a Broadway theatre.1

Cook was a well-educated musician not only in popular song, but also in the classical realm. His skills as a classical performer stemmed out his studies at Oberlin College Conservatory, in Berlin under Joachim, and at the National Conservatory in New York.2 Nevertheless, Cook struggled to be accepted as a serious classical composer and performer because of racial prejudices in the field in the early 1900s.3

Cleveland Gazette Article regarding “In Dahomey”

“The terrible difficulty that composers of my race have to deal with, is the refusal of American people to accept serious things from us.”4

In Dahomey did not start out in a Broadway theatre; however, audiences of the first performances received it with great enjoyment. In this article from the Cleveland Gazette, great credit for the show’s success and trajectory toward Broadway is pointed toward the main stars of the show Bert Williams and George Walker.5 Both actors were African American ex-vaudeville performers who excelled in the realm of comedy.6 Cook was firm in his opposition towards minstrelsy and black face performance and held true to African Americans being played by African American actors.7

The significance of In Dahomey to our class is the incorporation of black folk elements that have risen in our discussions around the components of spirituals, blues, and jazz. What Cook did so brilliantly was draw from black folk songs while rejecting the exaggerated and stereotyped imagery of minstrel show songs.8 Such elements include syncopation, vernacular language, and even the inclusion of the cake walk.

“Swing Along: The Songs of Will Marion Cook” William Brown and Ann Sears, Will Marion Cook, In Dahomey: Swing Along, Naxos Music Library, 4:53, 2006.

“Swing Along” is a song our textbook pointed to as being demonstrative of the inclusion of black folk components. I have included a recording here where the listener can hear syncopation used to jump the end of the phrase into the next. Crawford attests that Cook uses such syncopation to relate back to coon song of black folk culture.9 In this recording made in 2006, William Brown sings with a boisterous tone that carries the intention of a musical comedy true to the musical itself. The setting with piano accompaniment and solo singer shows that Cook’s music was indeed part of the popular genre because such editions were published for performance by all people.

It seems pretty easy to get excited about In Dahomey and its success as the first in New York to be performed African Americans. However, it is also striking that Will Marion Cook, a key contributor to this success, was led to writing for popular song because he was kept away from his true aspiration and talents in classical music. This creates a tension that we as historians must be cognizant of. That is, we have to realize that while this musical was a step forward for black Broadway theatre, it is also linked to a demonstration of racial prejudice and social discrimination in the field of classical music.