Harry Burleigh–A Nice Post for Once

We have been tackling some difficult ethical issues in this class regarding how we should feel and respond to the shameful reality of minstrelsy and its related veins. One conclusion we have come to is to acknowledge the past, recognize (white) America’s shortcomings, and point ourselves and others in the direction of something better. In my research for this post, I feel I have found that something better.

Sheet music for “Steal Away” arr. by H.T. Burleigh.
Complete sheet music here.

I came across the spiritual, “Steal Away,”1 the name of which I recognized as a song Viking Chorus sang during my freshman year. I found that the spiritual was arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, and reading about him was a little shining star in this (at times) depressing class. A rendition of the spiritual can be found on Youtube, among several others.

Harry Thacker Burleigh (b. 1866) is recognized as the first and among the most influential African American composers in post-Civil War America. He studied at the New York National Conservatory of Music where he became friends with Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s director. They spent ample time together, Burleigh sharing with Dvorák the black spirituals and plantation songs that he had heard from his grandfather. Dvorák encouraged Burleigh to save these songs, to arrange them as his work.2 Thankfully, he did. “Steal Away” is one of the hundreds of pieces he arranged and composed. His most successful song is likely his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), a song many people today recognize.3

Photograph of Harry T. Burleigh by Carl Van Vechten

In the booklet of “Negro Spirituals” from which I found “Steal Away,” one of the first pages is a single page note from Burleigh on spirituals. Similar to the descriptions of spirituals Eileen Southern provides in Antebellum Rural Life,4 Burleigh outlines them as “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises”. He goes on to condemn the portrayals of blacks and their music in minstrel shows, declaring that the attempted humorous mimicry of “the manner of the Negro in singing them” is a “serious misconception of their meaning and value”.5

It is my belief that, with the knowledge of the shortcomings of American culture in our hearts, we should look to and celebrate those who do not fall into the questionable traditions we have encountered. I think Harry T. Burleigh is a splendid example. Thus, I would like to end this post with the ending words of Burleigh’s note in the booklet. He speaks of that value mentioned above, the true value of spirituals.

Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, 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.

–H.T.B.

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?

Woodstock 1969

Woodstock poster, 1969. Artist: Arnold Skolnick

“The Woodstock Music & Art Fair” (aka, Woodstock) first debuted as a three day music festival in Bethel, White Lake, New York. The first event in in 1969 attached an audience of 400,000 people.2 Some of the artists that performed in the first Woodstock were: “The Grateful Dead”, “The Incredible String Band”, “Janis Joplin”, “The Who”, “Blood Sweat & Tears”, “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young” and the headliner: Jimi Hendrix.

To many, Woodstock is remembered as a festival of “Love, Peace and Music”. To others, it was seen as a place for “hippies” and other social outcasts. A cartoon drawn by artist, “Bad Dog” shows the audience of Woodstock on a television screen being criticized by the television viewers. The cartoon serves as a cover for an article written with the intention of criticizing Woodstock. They refer to it as “The Music and Mud Fair”1. The article continues:

“The promoters didn’t try hard enough from the start. They planned enough for greasy-spoon food for 200,000 but the population exploded into into twice that many; there were very few doctors (later they flew them in, like in Vietnam)…” -LNS1

This quote equates flying in medical professionals to Woodstock to war-torn Vietnam, flying in supplies and medical help.The article continues to slam the promoters of the music festival saying that they were subjecting the audience to the elements thus forcing them to by tents when the article says the promotes could have “put up a few large circus tents just in case of rain”… the article continues to not only bash the promoters, but also the attendees:

“Each time the rain died down, the wet and bedraggled built fires out of trash, anything half-dry they could  find in the nearby woods, and even lumber limber liberated from concession stands, but so many were tripping or tired that the fires warmed only those heads were clearly focused on survival.” -LNS1

This ad hominem attack seems like a low blow from the author. I think that this tone comes from a writer who is fearful about the direction the music and the new generation is heading.

It is new.

It is different.

It is “other”

Work Cited:

1 “Planned Disaster LNS snarls” And I danced in the mud, the blood, and the beer. Ann Arbor Argus, Woodstock, n.d. © The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. link

2 ‘Woodstock,’ A fete of love peace and music relived in film set for the state-lake. (1970, Apr 22). Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973) Retrieved from link

Skolnick, Arnold, Artist. An aquarian exposition in White Lake, N.Y.–3 days of peace & music / Skolnick. Bethel New York, 1969. [New York: Woodstock Music and Art Fair] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, link (Accessed October 17, 2017.)

Sherman H. Dudley’s Theater and Support of Theater Owners Bookers Association

Whilst looking through the database of America’s Historical Newspapers, I stumbled across a 1919 advertisement for S. H. Dudley’s theater, a place where they showed photoplay and vaudeville acts. In the ad, they assert that they are “the only theatre on Seventh Street catering to people of color that does not DISCRIMINATE.” This piqued my interest.

The Sherman Houston Dudley theater was founded by its namesake, a man from Texas who had been a minstrel show performer and who had experience performing in the group “The Smart Set.” As Sherman saved money and became an entrepreneur, he slowly bought out a circuit of theaters and used them as safe spaces for black performers.

Sherman was one of the most popular black performers in the late 19th c, adding his skills as a musician with those of a comedian to his sets. Despite his popularity, he apparently never recorded.1

Image result for sherman dudleyEventually, Sherman Dudley’s circuit of theaters for African American performers, the “Consolidated Circuit,” merged into the Theater Owners Bookers Association (TOBA)2 as a way to help promote black artists and vaudeville performers in particular – famous blues singers like Bessie Smith had their start there.3 Dudley’s support of the theater and TOBA helped create a safe space for African American performers who often were still discriminated against despite their in-demand status. As an African American performer himself, he understood the struggles of his fellow black performers and wanted to help even out the playing field and give them fair and safe opportunities.

 


While Alexander Street Jazz Archives provide rather dismal results, I was able to find a recording uploaded to Youtube that supposedly was recorded by S.H.Dudley. There’s no way to really know if it was him, or if the uploader has any credibility. This is also a problem with materials that were recorded, particularly by African American performers – the exploitation and discrimination against them could have led to false advertising, incorrect records, marketing schemes, and deceptive contracts between performers and their companies. The Library of Congress site has many recordings by an S H Dudley, but here, his first name is Samuel – furthering the confusion. In an attempt to capitalize on Dudley’s talent, did someone else record this song under his name? Or intentionally use the first two initials to maintain ambiguity in the hopes that people would mistake this singer for Sherman Dudley? Did Sherman Dudley go by two different names? This could point to a further line of inquiry.

1 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.

2 Tim Brooks. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry. Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2010) 520.

3 Thomas Riis and Howard Rye. “Theater Owners’ Booking Association.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed.. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J445700.

Advertisement, “Dudley’s Amusements” in the Washington Bee (May 24 1919). America’s Historical Newspapers http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=J61W62EXMTUwNzU4NTA0OC41MTA1MDg6MToxNDoxMzAuNzEuMjQwLjI0Mg&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=5&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=5&p_docnum=3&p_docref=v2:12B2E340B2C9FFB8@EANX-12BA623D08261EE0@2422103-12B9B0B664446C80@4-12DCFE90E2C1B868@No%20Headline

Rhythm, Drums, and Quills

Through class discussion and our readings in Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, it’s well established that rhythm and percussive sounds were important elements of African-American and slave music. However, its well documented that slaves were banned from making drums and other percussive instruments. Although banjos and fiddles were common examples of instruments mentioned in the text, I was curious to know about less common ones that were created and used as well.

Folk musical instruments including homemade horns, captured sometime between 1934 and 1950, Lomax Collection.

Looking through the Lomax Collection of the Library of Congress, I came across several images of homemade instruments. They appear, and this is only my best guess from analyzing the image, to be crude trumpets. Unlike the rhythmic instruments described in the Crawford, the significance and history with slave music of these instruments is less obvious to me, so I searched for instruments that have a more solid history with the African culture of the slaves.

From this idea, I was able to find the Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippiedited by David Evans. This was a wonderful resource providing many musical examples for each topic it covered, and it also covered many different kinds of instruments. The one I would like to talk about is the Quill.

Quills, a type of pan flute, Tom Leonardi.

The quill is a pan pipe instrument made from  bamboo rods. This instrument is not unique to American culture alone, many variations are found in history all over the world. Specific to the slaves, the quill was a common instrument found in southern Africa today, and when slaves were brought to America, the instrument came along (Leonardi, The Quills…). However, what caught my interest was they way it was described being played in the aforementioned article by Evans.  “The Devil’s Dream” was performed by Sid Hemphill, and recorded by Alan Lomax. The quill used as a 10-note quill, but only the four lower notes were played. The scale of the quill is described as “an unusual hexatonic scale lacking the fourth and the fifth.” The reason being that the octave was stretched by a semitone, roughly, according to Evans. Along side the four notes that were used in the piece, whooping produced the remainder of the sounds.  It is this technique that primarily ties the pan flutes to African traditions, where it was common to alternate between blowing and whooping notes.

Taken from the text of “Afro-American Folk Music…” Image depicts an approximation of the whooped and blown notes of the Quill.

Sadly, today the quill has phased out of use in the United States and replaced by the harmonica, which was due to it being more flexible in sound production and inexpensive to purchase. However, the technique of whooping is still used on the harmonica today in many forms of folk music.

To connect this with our class readings, our class has discussed how rhythm has been important in aiding and defining slave and African-American music. This has primarily been due to our focus of spirituals, work songs, and other folk songs of the 19th center that all include text, we have not talked about purely instrumental music or instrumental sections of songs to any length. By looking at quills, I have not only found other musical resources of folk music that are not focused purely on text, but have found another source that emphasizes the importance of rhythm and percussive sounds. The whooping, due to the change in tone, sounds more percussive. Additionally, it was rare for much more than drums to be played with a quill, showing who folk music used percussive accompaniment with other instruments instead of harmonica or melodic accompaniment. While I can’t verify that the following recording is the one talked about in the Afro-American Folk Music archive, I believe it to representative of the quills sound.


Recording of Sid Hemphill and of the quill.

Sources

  • Leonardi, Tom. “The Quills, an American folk instrument.” American Pastimes | KZFR 90.1 FM CHICO. May 7, 2013. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://kzfr.org/broadcasts/211. http://kzfr.org/broadcasts/211
  • Lomax, Alan. Folk musical instruments including homemade horns, between 1934 and 1950. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs. Accessed October 2, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660366/
  • “Sid Hemphill – Old Devil’s Dream”. YouTube. November 30, 2010. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRVVza3ObfM.
  • Wright, Josephine, David Evans, Glenn Hinson, Charles Ellertson, and North Carolina Museum Of History. “Afro-American Folk Music from Tate and Panola Counties, Mississippi.” The Black Perspective in Music 8, no. 1 (1980). Accessed October 2, 2017. doi:10.2307/1214524. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/LP/AfroAmFolkMusicMissL67_opt.pdf

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).

Over There: Sheet Music, Advertising, and Propaganda

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.

Below I have five sheet music covers, all of the same song (“Over There” by George M. Cohan) from the same years (1917-18), in arrangements published by two separate houses (William Jerome Publishing Corp. and Leo Feist, Inc.).

Over There - William Jerome PublishingOver There - William Jerome 2Over There - Leo Feist 2Over There - Leo Feist 3Over There - Leo Feist 1

Embedded in these five covers is the early history of “Over There” advertising and production.

George M. Cohan claimed that on April 6, 1917, while the general public was reeling from the news of America’s declaration of war against Germany, he was humming. He couldn’t get a tune out of his head. He wrote down some lyrics and played them for his friend Joe Humphreys, a ring announcer at Madison Square Garden, and Joe said, “George, you’ve got a song.”  (Scholars have declared Cohan’s tale apocryphal and now claim he wrote the song in his office on April 7, but that’s such a boring story.)

By the end of 1917, “Over There” was the #1 song of the year. By the end of the war, it had sold over 2 million copies. By 1936, Cohan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He definitely had a song.

The first and most famous group to perform and record the song was Billy Murray & The American Quartet, Murray appropriately being the supreme interpreter of Cohan’s music.

Eager to capitalize on the popularity of the song, sheet music was quickly produced.

Over There - William Jerome PublishingThe first cover from William Jerome Publishing Corp. features a portrait of Nora Bayes, famous singer and comedienne of the Vaudeville and Broadway circuits. After Cohan performed the song in her dressing room, she included it in her act, becoming one of the song’s greatest pluggers. On this patriotic red, white, and blue cover, Bayes wears a stylized military uniform reminiscent of the British Redcoats along with a hat including feathers colored in order of the French tricolor flag (…backwards), thus incorporating the the major Allies of World War I. Eagles and stars, symbols of America, surround her portrait.

Over There - William Jerome 2

The second cover (also from William Jerome Publishing Corp.) features another famous performer of the song, William J. Reilly. The U.S. Navy sailor, stationed on the battleship U.S.S. Michigan, was also a popular singer. Like the Nora Bayes cover, this one incorporates the red, white, and blue of the American flag, a famous performer, and a U.S. military connection, though, as Reilly was actually a sailor in the Navy, this cover carries a heavier political connotation by putting a face and a name to the “son of liberty,” “Yanks,” and “Johnnie” mentioned in the song.

Over There - Leo Feist 2The third cover is a copy of the previous one except for one detail: the publisher is not William Jerome, but Leo Feist, Inc. By October 1917, Jerome had sold over 440,000 copies of the song, and it was a hit feature in five New York shows (including productions at the Hippodrome and the Winter Garden). After hearing the song himself, Leo Feist offered Jerome $10,000 for the song. Jerome said no. Feist offered $15,000, $20,000, $25,000. Finally Jerome said, “it’s gotta be in cash.” After paying this high price (over $458,000 now, the highest price paid for a song at the time), Feist quickly put the piece to market, keeping the same cover and aggressively pushing the song, reportedly grossing over $30,000 in new orders within thirty days.

Over There - Leo Feist 3The fourth cover brings another American icon into the story. Norman Rockwell, a popular painter and illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post, created this painting for Life Magazine‘s January 31, 1918 issue. The picture presents four American infantrymen animatedly and excitedly singing and playing a banjo-ukelele with tents in the background. Although lacking in historical detail (would soldiers really be singing like this in an active combat zone?), the tag line above presents Feist’s pitch for the piece: “Your Song – My Song – Our Boys’ Song!” Notably, no red, white, or blue is featured on this cover.

Over There - Leo Feist 1

The final cover features four soldiers holding their hats in the air and guns to their shoulders while marching across the page in an Broadway-like gesture, sketched by Henry Hutt, an American illustrator. Like the Bayes’ cover, this one features the colors of the three major Allies (Britain, France, and the U.S.), with a sideways French tricolor as the backdrop. Further emphasizing the unifying quality of the song, the tagline reads “This great world song hit now has both French and English lyrics.” Clearly Feist was marketing “Over There” as a worldwide hit. And in an age of war and patriotism, how could a true American or Frenchman NOT buy this song?

Thus through five pictures we can trace the early production of the song “Over There,” including the advertising and propaganda that furthered its reputation as a patriotic American anthem.


 

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [Dancing soldiers cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n1170).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [Norman Rockwell cover]. Mississippi State University Libraries (Physical ID: 32278011441759).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: Leo Feist, Inc., 1917. [William J. Reilly cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n0967).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: William Jerome Publishing Corp., 1917. [Nora Bayes cover]. Duke University Libraries Digital Collections (n1186).

Cohan, George M. “Over There.” New York: William Jerome Publishing Corp., 1917. [William J. Reilly cover]. Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection. http://jhir.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/22148.

Performing Arts Encyclopedia, s.v. “Over There.” Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2014. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200000015/default.html (accessed April 27, 2015).

Sullivan, Steve. Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 1. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013.

Original Dixieland Jass Band

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/4669

Originally from New Orleans, LA, the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was recruited to Chicago in 1916 to perform at Schiller’s Cafe.  There was interest in bringing a New Orleans-style band to Chicago.  After a number of personnel changes, ODJB was booked to perform in New York City.  Starting in January 1917, ODJB took up residency providing upbeat dancing music at Reisenweber’s Restaurant in New York City.

At the time, the center of the music recording industry was New York City and New Jersey.  ODJB had earned their own following in New York and received invitations to record.  In the end of February, the band recorded with Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded two sides of a 78 record under the Victor name.  The song here, Dixie Jass Band One-Step, and Livery Stable Blues were the first songs released on this record.

Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band – Dixie Jass Band One-Step Victor 18255-A, February 26, 1917 Library of Congress National Jukebox

With the release of this record, ODJB gained immense popularity in America.  The members dubbed themselves “Creators of Jazz” having given the American people their first taste of jazz with their record release.  After a successful first release, the ODJB recorded more songs for a total of 25, 2-song records before the group’s disbandment in 1925.

Dixieland jazz is different than what we think of as “jazz” today.  It follows the 12-bar blues model, but instead of having a dominant soloist in the foreground, each of the five players play throughout.  It sounds as if each player is playing his own solo throughout the whole song.  It gives a different flavor of ensemble than we are used to in today’s instrumental music.

One of the primary uses for this music was dance.  The complexity of the music itself and each of the five instruments intertwining with each other parallels that of public dancing.  Everyone dances to the same beat, but each person on the dance floor is dancing his or her own way.  No one looks or sounds the same.  The same applies to Dixieland Jazz.

 

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/4669

John Chilton“Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz2nd ed.Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed March 2, 2015http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J339300.

The Timeless Light of the “Midnight Special”

When John and Alan Lomax visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary of Angola, Louisiana in July of 1933 they were in search of folksongs. Little did they know that they would instead come across a musical star, whose treatment of a popular prison song would transcend the boundary between folk and pop styles. The musician was Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and the song was “Midnight Special”.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Angola, Louisiana prison compound, July 1933. Leadbelly in the foreground.

Born in the late 1880’s to the oppressive cotton fields of Louisiana, Ledbetter feared only one thing: failure. It was from this determination that he received the nickname “Lead Belly”, as he could outwork, outfight, and out-sing anyone who dared challenge him. “I wants to be the best – the king” he would say. He even went so far as to call himself “The King of the Twelve-String Guitar”, a talent that he used to exploit the Texas prison system he entered in 1917 on a thirty year sentence for assault. He famously used his musical talent to garner the attention of Texas Governor Pat Neff, who pardoned and released Ledbetter from prison in 1925.

It was in this same spirit that he was brought to the Lomax’s attention in 1933. Incarcerated once again for assault, Ledbetter sufficiently wooed the Lomax’s that they convinced Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen to pardon Ledbetter. Thereafter, he worked as John Lomax’s chauffeur and relocated to the Northeastern United States, often traveling to Washington D.C. to record for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Volume I of the LOC Lead Belly collection.

Midnight Special as it appears in "The Leadbelly Songbook"

Midnight Special as it appears in “The Leadbelly Songbook”

Midnight Special by Lead Belly, Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196310/

Volume I of the LOC collection is titled “Midnight Special”, and though it contains memorable treatments of many classic folk-tunes, the titular song is Ledbetter’s most famous and influential adaptation. Thought to originate among prisoners in the South, the refrain of the song references a passenger train of the same name, the light of which shone into cells as it passed by:

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,                                                                Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.

If the “ever-loving light” of the train landed on a prisoner, the inmates believed that man would soon be set free.

When Alan Lomax first recorded Ledbetter’s version of the song he attributed the authorship to Ledbetter. However, this is fundamentally untrue. In addition to the fact that it was a popular prison song, it had been recorded commercially by Sam Collins as the “Midnight Special Blues” in 1927. His version seems much more like an extemporaneous performance of a folk song, while Ledbetter’s is a precise arrangement of the melody, harmonic progression, and guitar accompaniment.

In this vein, it may be fair to say that Lead Belly didn’t write the song, but did ‘compose’ a version of it that achieved mass popularity and lasting influence in the public conception, as heard in versions by Creedence Clearwater Revival….

…. and ABBA.

While both versions seem to emerge from Ledbetter’s arrangement, the ABBA version is particularly notable due to its seemingly contradictory nature: why is a Swedish pop group performing an African American prison song? According to the official ABBA website, this song was performed as part of a medley of American folk songs on a charity record the group contributed to in 1975. The artists carefully selected songs that “were in the public domain as far as copyright was concerned” in order to avoid composer royalties. Despite this, the site recognizes Ledbetter’s “distinctive arrangement of the song that made it truly famous” as the inspiration for this version.

To conclude, “Midnight Special” exemplifies a major problem regarding folk music and its chronicling: differentiating between the folk song and popular versions. When do we lend credit to individuals and their renderings? How do we identify legitimate folk versions? While these questions may be difficult to answer, they ought to be considered as we examine popular reactions to folk music.

“Rock Island Line” and Questions of Authenticity

In search of music authentic to the African-American tradition–that is, music passed down from slavery and unsullied by white influence–folk music collectors of the early 20th century made recordings at prisons and penitentiaries where music like the work song was more likely to be alive. In 1934, John Lomax recorded a group of African-American prisoners at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas singing a tune called “Rock Island Line.” You can listen to Lomax’s original 1934 recording below.

Figure 1

This recording contains evidence of the work song tradition in its call and response structure and the sound of shovels hitting the ground rhythmically.  However, the polished harmonies sound closer to the music produced by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was based on slave music but was highly modified to fit the tastes of white audiences. Another threat to authenticity was the presence of Lomax, his recording equipment, and the cognizance of a future audience during the making of functional music. Consider this photograph of an inmate pausing briefly from work to be photographed in comparison with the following photograph of the Cummins State Farm inmates congregated to perform “Rock Island Line” for Lomax’s recording.

Figure 2

Figure 3

In the first photograph, the prison officer is amongst the inmates, and the inmates do not seem to be coordinating their work. In the second photograph, the prison officer stands apart from the group of prisoners–much like an overseer–while the prisoners swing their shovels in synchronization over a small patch of land. Are both of these representations of Arkansas prison life accurate or is the second photograph staged to look more “authentic” to the work song tradition?

In the same way, the musical categorization of “Rock Island Line” is complicated. Is it a work song as the second picture above seems to show? Is it a blues song like Lead Belly’s 1949 rendition would have us believe? Or is it an American Folk song as white artists of the 1950s, 60s, and beyond would portray? The only thing we can say conclusively is that Lomax’s recording and Lead Belly’s subsequent reworking and marketing of the song changed it into a song well known but of questionable authenticity in America’s musical history.

Footnotes

“Original 1934 John Lomax recording of ‘Rock Island Line’ by Kelly Pace and Prisoners,” Youtube video, posted by Jan Tak, September 10, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NTa7ps6sNU

 

“[African American convicts working at an outdoor location].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934-1950. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660147/resource/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“[African American convicts working with shovels, possibly the singers of “Rock Island Line” at Cummins State Farm, Gould, Arkansas, 1934].” Photograph. Washington, D.C.: c1934. From Library of Congress: Lomax Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.00422/ (accessed March 1, 2015)

“leadbelly rock island line,” Youtube video, posted by Northern soul, September 23, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iJEVOUqepo

 

“Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line (Live) 15/6/1961,” Youtube video, posted by Paul Griggs, December 29, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wI4nRD-DRpk

Hammering Out “Our Singing Country”

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

[1]

John Lomax and his son, Alan, set out for one of the most ambitious tasks attempted in American folk song history: To travel thousands of miles and collect recordings of as many songs as possible in order to preserve them in the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Early in their travels, they came upon a black guitarist and singer named Huddie Ledbetter. He would later be more commonly known by his nickname, “Leadbelly.” The Lomaxes were very impressed with his repertoire of folk songs as well as his virtuosic skill as a twelve-string guitarist. As a result of his four year imprisonment in the Louisiana’s Angola Prison for murder, he was cut off from hearing the popular music of the day. For the Lomaxes, he was a prime living example of the folk tradition they were seeking out and sought to bring his voice to the American public. After employing him as a driver and servant, they brought him to New York in order to record and promote his “pure folk” sound.

Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn.

[2]

However, in order to make Leadbelly’s music palatable to the public, it seems some edits had to be made. Take the work song “Take This Hammer,” which can be found in the Lomaxes’ collection Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads from 1941 shown here:

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in Our Singing Country

[3]

Library of Congress Recording of prisoners at Florida State Prison singing “Take dis Hammer”

Now compare it to the transcription found in The Leadbelly Songbook, as transcribed by Jerry Silverman in 1962 and recorded by Leadbelly in the 1940’s:

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“Take This Hammer” as it appears in The Leadbelly Songbook

[4]

As you can see, the general notes and rhythms are still the same, with some added notes in Leadbelly’s performance. However, in the Leadbelly version, the controversial verses about the “captain” calling him a “nappy-headed devil” and grabbing his gun are omitted. Also, in Our Singing Country, “Take This Hammer” is considered to be a highly rhythmic song that was sung when a slave worked in a gang in order to synchronize the dropping of axes and to “…make the work go more easily by adapting its rhythm to the rhythm of a song.” (citation) In the field recording, which lacks the dropping of picks but is conveyed through the “wahs” of the men singing, the tempo is considerably slower than when Leadbelly sings it.

If the Lomaxes wanted to accurately portray the pure folk tradition in this song, they would have sent the Florida State prisoners to New York to record it how it would have been performed. But no one would have bought the record or even bothered to listen to it. Instead, they realized that in order for the dying folk tradition to be kept alive they had to bring the style into American popular music. Unlike the folk song preservers of the past, they respected the black musical tradition and wanted it to be accessible to white audiences without losing too much of its authenticity. In doing so, the Lomaxes brought folk music to the American popular music sphere and created a new musical tradition.


1. “Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660160/ (accessed 3/2/15).
2. “Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660303/ (accessed 3/2/15).
3. John A. and Alan Lomax. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. (New York, Dover Publishing Inc., 2000), 380-381.
4. Moses Asch and Jerry Silverman, The Leadbelly Songbook. (London, Oak Publications, 1962), 45.

Romanticizing the Struggle of the Common Man in Folk Music

For black Americans in the 1930s and 40s, Jim Crow laws made it impossible to forget the color of their skin, even for celebrated musicians performing in upscale venues.  Lead Belly, discovered in a penitentiary, was no stranger to these racial prejudices.  In a trip to Washington DC in 1937 requested by Alan Lomax, Lead Belly wrote the song “Bourgeois Blues” in response to the unfair treatment he received.

Me and my wife went all over town
And everywhere we went people turned us down
Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around …

I tell all the colored folks to listen to me
Don’t try to find you no home in Washington, DC
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town
Uhm, the bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Prison compound in Louisiana, Lead Belly in front.

Although his life contained many of the hardships described in blues and folk songs, Lead Belly was never quite portrayed as a poor folksperson.  Instead, to gain the respect due his talent, he adopted a more professional persona, working extremely hard and finding passion in every aspect of life.  In an interview with PBS, Alan Lomax said that “he simply felt that he triumphed over everything”  (PBS).  In this, he left his early life in the penitentiary far behind.

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Huddie Ledbetter and Martha Promise Ledbetter. Wilton, Conn., Feb. 1935.

 

Woody Guthrie, on the other hand, tried to embody the folky image, but never achieved it fully.  He became a spokesperson for the hardships of ordinary Americans but due to his popularity was never a common man himself.  And, as a white American, his persona never needed the sort of professionalism that Huddie Ledbetter needed to adopt.

Woody with his guitar.

Woody with his guitar.

Alan Lomax, a champion of folk music and a believer in its romanticism, spent years recording both Ledbetter and Guthrie and championing their cause as remnants of true American voices.  Many Americans who listened to folk music idealized the singers as tortured souls moaning out their troubles.  But while Lead Belly and Guthrie experienced the sorrows of racial prejudice, the Great Depression, and dustbowl-era America, neither one completely represented the hardworking common man so heavily lauded in the work of the Lomaxes.  Their fame and status as alternative folk heroes lifted them way beyond the label of common man.  Instead the common man remains in his dusty home, toiling his hours away and singing folk songs to bring up his spirits.

Sources:

Lomax, Alan.  [Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground].  Photograph.  Louisiana, 1934.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660073/

Lomax, Alan.  Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Martha Promise Ledbetter, Wilton, Conn.  Photograph.  Connecticut, 1935.  From Library of Congress: The Lomax Collection.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660385/

Aumuller, Al.  [Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, facing slightly left, holding guitar].  1943.  From Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division.  http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95503348

From Blues to Jazz: Handy to Vaughan

Jazz is a musical style native to the United States, that emerged in the early Twentieth century. Jazz was influenced from Blues music, which was established most notably by W.C. Handy in 1917. Jazz has new sound that incorporates both the African American musical stylings and the European American form of music. This hybridization of the two heritages created a unique style of music which we now call under a big genre “umbrella,” Jazz. In the Library of Congress photo archives, a photo of the reputable Sarah Vaughan was present among many photos of white jazz singers. She became popular in the late 40s and early 50s when Jazz was really hitting it’s stride as popular music, with the likes of Frank Sinatra.

sarah vaughn

Vaughan was highly influenced by the early blues style, of W.C. Handy. Handy’s invention or development of the Memphis Blues, drew on the folk style of the old southern plantation music. The emotional context of this music is heard in the vocal stylings of the renowned Sarah Vaughan. The memphis blues eventually took shape to the 12-bar blues, which also led to the development of Jazz.

While Vaughan represents a big part of the Jazz era, more commonly was the presence of white artists, such as Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and Sinatra. They emulated the sounds of a soulful Vaughan, singing on topics that go back to the days of slavery.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/

“St. Louis Blues” is a great example of an old dixieland jazz band song that evolved over the years. In the recording provided in the above link, the instrumentation, while has elements of a traditional jazz band also still has southern sounds to it… likely from New Orleans. In the video below, the song is presented in a different style of blues and jazz, one that emerged later with artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan.

 

Bibliography

Gottlieb, William, photographer. “Portrait of Sarah Vaughan in Café Society (Downtown).” Photograph. New York, N.Y.: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs. Aug. 1946. Online.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/

 

Double Appropriation

“Chinaman, Chinaman
wash ‘em laundry all day
Chinaman, Chinaman
smoke ‘em pipe they say OR Wants his freedom that way
He’s got a little China gal
She love him all right,
He love little China gal, too,
So he sings to her ev’ry night
Sung Fong Lou, Sung Fong Lou
Listen to those chinese blues;
Honey gal, I’m crying to you
Won’t you open that door and let me in?
China man cries, baby, won’t you let me in
Chinaman feels his habit (OR lovin’) coming on again.
She cries to him “what’s the matter with you
I got those Ipshing, Hong Kong Ockaway Chinese Blues”

 

Recording of Irving Kaufman singing the Chinese Blues

Recording of Sousa’s Band playing the Chinese Blues

Written by Oscar Gardner, this song was not only published in a Treasury of the Blues by the “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy and recorded by George Gershwin, but also was, according to the critical notes by Abbe Niles, “the first and best by a white man, and had wide popularity in 1915.” [1] Niles’ notes also clarify that “Chinese Blues” falls under the category “blues-songs,” which do not follow the classical 12-bar blues form, but include songs that have any relation to the blues. “Chinese Blues” only fits the blues category in that it tells the story and emotion of the unrequited lover and there are a couple blue, or flatted notes, to the melody. We know that the early 20th century saw a trend of appropriating the blues to label any song that had ragtime rhythms, blue notes, and the longing emotion, even though the blues specifically came out of African American oppression.[2] In other words, Oscar Gardner, a white composer, tapped into the commercial blues genre in anyway he could to make money, and W.C. Handy benefitted by publishing it in his anthology of the blues.

As if this level of mis-labeling isn’t enough, the song also reflects racist stereotypes about the Chinese and their music. While the published music looks like an average ragtime or jazz arrangement, both period performances of it from the Library of Congress (Sousa’s band and Irving Kaufman) recordings emphasize an “oriental sound,” namely flutes slurring up to their notes and percussion including a gong and woodblocks. The lyrics “Sung, Fong, Lou,” though they don’t actually have a real translation in Chinese, also try to evoke the Orient. Additionally, in the lyrics depending on which version you look at, the Chinese are either washing laundry all day in order to get their freedom or suffering from an opium/other drug addiction. So, in sum “Chinese Blues” presents an example of a white composer using a genre traditional to African American oppression to subjugate the Chinese.

[1] Oscar Gardner, “Chinese Blues,” A Treasury of the Blues, ed. W.C. Handy, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926), 184.

[2] Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), Ch. 1, “What is Blues?” 1-13.

 

 

Evolution of a Battle Cry

In modern society, copyrights prove claims to authorship in music.  In the past, too, great songwriters are immortalized as the formants of a genre–Cole Porter and George Gershwin are among the composers who churned out music to popular consumption.  However, folk songs are traditionally passed along orally, and often authors are lost amidst the many additions and changes.  Does embellishing and editing a previous author’s work remove the credibility and culture of the original message of a piece?

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is typically a piece played in a militaristic style–a strong brass section, lots of snare drums, and in this YouTube clip, an obnoxious animated American flag.  Its patriotism is not a new appropriation, but rather began during the Civil War when marching soldiers of both sides sang what was then “John Brown’s Body.”  Although the John Brown the lyrics were written for was a soldier of the Massachusetts regiment and therefore a Civil War figure (PBS), he was not the one immortalized in the song.  Rather, the abolitionist John Brown became the martyr the lyrics remember.

Both sides of the war sang this song, changing the words to fit their message (Library of Congress).  But perhaps it is most appropriate that the northerners, with their message of freedom for the slaves, won the war and the song, as it had descended from fragments sung at ring shouts by the very slaves themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.18.14 PM

HELEN KENDRICK JOHNSON. The North American Review, 1884.

According the Helen Kendrick Johnson and The North American Review, the earlier version of this tune was found in a “colored Presbyterian church in Charleston.”

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.00.45 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 1.01.01 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Say, Brothers

Say, brothers, will you meet us (3x)

On Canaan’s happy shore.

(Refrain)

Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)

For ever, evermore!

The score for this hymn is not the complete beginning of “Glory Hallelujah,” but rather only the version sung by congregations at revivalist meetings and in stricter church settings.  Some scholars attribute the musical phrases and lyrics to ring shouts (Soskis 24-5).  It is easy to imagine the call-and-response singing of the Biblical lyrics, along with interjections of “Glory, hallelujah!”  In addition, the same message of escape, travel, and lands of ‘happy shores’ is evident in this piece as in many other slave songs.

Like many folk songs, spirituals, and hymns of early America, authorship is highly disputed.  Claims of ownership come from many different sources, and usually the privileged, educated members of society have the most lasting paper trails.  But the strong presence of a black musical tradition is evident in the very roots of music in America.  White Northerners may have appropriated the traditional tunes and modified the lyrics, but it is a grand image to imagine soldiers singing a song reminiscent of the cause of freedom to its very core.

 

SOURCES:

“History of ‘John Brown’s Body,'” PBS. 2010. Web.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/sfeature/song.html

Johnson, Helen Kendrick.  The North American Review.  May 1884.  Accessed from Proquest.

Library of Congress.  http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000841/

Linder, Douglas O.  “Famous Trials,” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.  2015.  Web.  http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/johnbrown/brownbody.html.

Soskis, Benjamin and John Stauffer.  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On.”  Oxford University Press, 9 May 2013.  http://books.google.com/books?id=bIRQpD3HNSAC&dq=%22will+you+meet%22&source=gbs_navlinks_s