Marian Anderson and Double Consciousness: Why did Marian Anderson not consider herself an activist?

Marian Anderson (1897-1993)

After hearing Carol Oja give a lecture on Marian Anderson, a black woman and arguably one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, one thing that stood out to me is that Marian Anderson did not consider herself an activist. It is easy to question Marian Anderson’s hesitancy in this description of herself, especially from a contemporary standpoint when celebrity political activism is not so taboo. After all, Marian Anderson’s time of popularity was during the pre-civil rights era. She was still a black singer in an overtly racist society, and this placed limitations on her. Despite the overwhelmingly white field of opera and classical music, she gained popularity among greater American society. She had great vocal talent, but her “palatable” performances and public presentation of self likely contributed to her success as a black singer in a racist society. She appealed to common western society through things such as her western vocal training, western repertoire (although she did sing spirituals along with European repertoire), and western dress. This is not to say she did all of these things purposely to appeal to a greater, white audience. She was also extremely popular among black communities, and her pure vocal talent leading to much of her success cannot be denied. This point is also not implying that appealing to these traditionally western ways was necessarily against her nature. However, as one of the first famous black opera singers, her appeal to white, “traditional” opera culture likely aided her popularity gain on such a mass scale.

Although Marian Anderson in many ways appealed to white operatic tradition, she also acted in a variety of ways to show resistance against the racism present in her life as a vocalist. She had performance contracts that prohibited segregated audiences, gave her famous Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial (video clip shown above) in response to the DAR denying her performance at the Constitution Hall, and was the first black singer to debut with the Met. Marian Anderson’s impact on the Civil Rights movement was indeed significant. The newspaper clipping on the right, published in 1991, discusses the struggle for equality for black people over the past 200 years, and mentions Marian Anderson in the fourth full paragraph in the far right column. The impact Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial performance had in “reactivating the NAACP in Washington” is acknowledged, thus emphasizing her important role in the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Some may question Anderson’s denial of an activist label, and even criticize her for not going “all the way” in terms of her activism. Although Anderson’s true motivations behind this statement cannot be clear, one can give her the benefit of the doubt when appealing to Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness.” W. E. B. Du Bois coined the term “double consciousness” as a phenomenon in which a person’s conception of self manifests under conditions of racialization. Thus, there are different types of self formation depending on one’s racial group and societal context. Du Bois argues that the “self” develops from others’ conceptions of us. For black people and other people of color, Du Bois believes a sense of “two-ness” forms due to their dual positions: one in the “dominant community that denies their humanity and [one in] their own community which is a source of support and an arena of agency” (Itzigsohn). There is constant tension between these two versions of the self that is manifested within people of color living in a racist society.

Marian Anderson Singing at the Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson’s double consciousness manifests as her “self” that had to survive as a black singer in a white society and her “self” that was a black woman outside of a white context. It is possible that Marian Anderson resisted the label of activist because of tension between her two selves. She lived in a racist society and likely would have been criticized even more than she already was if she had been more explicit about her activism. At the same time, she acted in ways to resist the racism within society, as mentioned earlier. Double consciousness and tension of the two selves may not have been at the root of Anderson not considering herself an activist. However, it is important to note that Marian Anderson’s lived experiences likely shaped her perception of self and the way she acted as a public figure nonetheless.

Sources:

“Black History Month Special.” The National Chronicle, February 22 (1991): Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, SQN: 12BE222679916188.

Feman, Seth. “Marian Anderson’s Presence.” American Art 28, no. 1 (2014): 104-17.

Itzigsohn, José, and Karida Brown. “Sociology and the Theory of Double Consciousness.” 12, no. 2 (2015): 231-48.

Marian Anderson singing at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., April 9 before 75,000 persons. Washington D.C, 1939. Print. https://www.loc.gov/item/2009633558/.

My Country Tis of Thee. Performance at Lincoln Memorial. Video. Performed by Marian Anderson. 1939. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAONYTMf2pk.

Oja, Carol. “Marian Anderson and the Desegregation of the American Concert Stage.” 2016-2017 Fellows’ Presentation Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016.

Van Vechten, Carl. “Portrait of Marian Anderson.” Van Vechten Collection. Jan. 14, 1940. Print.

Upbeat in Music

In a democracy at war, the cultural values of a young and vigorous nation can and must be preserved.

The closing lines of Upbeat in Music echo the rising nationalist sentiment that permeated America in the 1940s. This film, originally premiered in 1943 catalogues the musical year. And if one quote can sum up America’s musical life in the middle of World War II, it is certainly the one listed above. Upbeat in Music is a short documentary  put together by newsreel makers, the March of Time. This year, 1943, in particular is compelling. America was in the middle of World War II and the nation’s sole preoccupation was establishing a strong national identity. Music was not spared from this endeavor. In fact, music is perhaps one of the great definers on American musical identity. This short film while attempting to discuss only 1943 ended up encapsulating the spirit of American Music as a whole in a few key ways.

Committee determining “Hit-Kit” songs

First, the entire film is preoccupied with the definition of “American” sound. To be fair, the film was made during a time of increasing nationalist fervor. World War II was in full swing and music was not be be exempt from the military industrial complex.  In fact, the film points out throughout WWII the US Government printed in “hit kits” (books of five American songs and one song by an Allied Nation) that would be given to soldiers in the field. What got to go inside of the hit-kits was hotly contested. So much so that the government formed Music Committees of msuicians and impresarios like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Paul Whiteman to determine which pieces of music were “American” enough to be included. At this crucial time in history, it became incredibly important that America establish a cohesive musical identity. And the most American way to establsih and American musical identity is certainly through the formation of a government committee.

Even after the reel moves on from talking about World War 2, it continues to emphasize a true “American” sound. The reel describes the efforts of American composers to create Americna works, referring to the compositions of Duke Ellington, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland. Later, the video goes on to describe the way the Jukebox is changing the music industry and discusses the way musicians are struggling to maintain credit for (and therefore profit from) their work. This struggle reflects a another aspect of American music as a whole: the duality of the musician both as an artist and businessperson. The film spends a great deal of time talking about Serge Koussevitsky and the BSO and acknowledging the Metropolitan Opera and several large symphony orchestras as both important business and important artistic forces.

The last section of the film focused heavily on popular music, pointing out that the American musical landscape is predominantly molded by the desires of a white, middle class market. This too is present throughout all of American music hisotry, the idea of capitalism and music coinciding. The presence of these sentiments from a documentary in the 1940s only proves that markets for music have been driving forces behind musical development in America long before the new millenium.

The film discusses the growing importance of jazz and recognizes the importance of Marion Anderson‘s recordings of spirituals as well, only briefly touching on the subject. While the film does discuss composers like Duke Ellington and performers like Anderson, it is also important to not the racist overtones that permeate the work. Nearly every person in the film is white, and when Ellington was brought up, through praised for his work in jazz, he was contrasted against “serious” composers like Copland and Thomson. Paul Whiteman was considered to be the standard bearer for jazz when it came to determining what should go into the “hit-kits” rather than someone like Duke Ellington who had a great deal of experience in the subject. In fact, no person of color was allowed on the “hit-kits” committee. As I said earlier, this film succeeds in painting a complete picture of American music history, and that history includes racism.

The film closes with the patriotic images of young soldiers giving recitals and the reminder that “In a democracy at war, the cultural values of a young and vigorous nation can and must be preserved”. For a nation at war, the preservation and definition of musical culture was of utmost importance. Upbeat in Music serves both as a time capsule and as an example of the major themes in American musical history. It is an invaluable insight into the ways music interacts with politics, culture, and economics as well as the way we talk about and research music.

 

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

March of Time Archive

 

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: Marian Anderson and Spiritual Transmission

Marian Anderson in 1951

Marian Anderson occupies a unique position in history. Born in 1897, the contralto represents the culmination of hundreds of years of musical transmission and development along with the continuously evolving nature of American Culture.

Her recording of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen made in December of 1924,specifically, illustrates the complex history of spiritual transmission. First described as part of an 1866 description of a shout held in an old cotton gin house by an author named only M.R.S., and later transcribed in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States, this shout, like many, has a rich transmission history. Since its initial transciption, the shout has been taken on tour by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and performed by a number of artist from Louis Armstrong to Mahalia Jackson (here’s a playlist of different versions of the Nobody Know’s the Trouble I’ve Seen).  Below is the 1924 recording (remastered and brought to you courtesy of Spotify) of Anderson’s. Take a listen to the recording while you read the rest of this post.

So why this recording?

Anderson would debut in Europe at Wigmore hall in London in 1930, and later, would famously perform for a crowd of 75 000 at the Lincoln Memorial after she had been denied a performing space at Constitution Hall on racial grounds. Before all that, however, she made these recordings of spirituals, shouts, and work songs. What is striking about this recording of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen is Anderson’s vocal technique and how that reflects contemporaneous American cultural ideologies.

The technique used on the recording echoes the sound Anderson uses in the works she most frequently performs; the Lied of Schubert. Her use of classical technique to cover a song that had once been a ring shout is telling of the way Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen has changed over time. While some may argue that her technique is simply a result of her classical training, I would posit a more insidious explanation. As the Fisk Jubilee Singers demonstrated through their early performances of traditional spirituals, often times the vocal technique used when singing spirituals had to be altered so that the original spiritual could be safe for white consumption. The emphasis on western tonality as the only acceptable and marketable base for music contributes to the erasure of diversity in the “American” musical canon.  Zora Neale Hurston in her work Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals goes so far as to argue,

There never has been a presentation of genuine Negro spirituals to any audience anywhere. What is being sung by the concert artists and glee clubs are the works of Negro composers or adaptors based on the spirituals.

While this recording shows Marian Andersons’ devotion to performing spirituals, it also demonstrates how capitalist necessity and white supremacy absorb and appropriate any culture deemed to be “the other” and, in doing so, prohibit any genuine presentation of a spiritual.

Transcription of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had from Slave Songs of the United States (1867)

At the start of a career, it is incredibly important to build an audience, and if the majority people who were paying for her recordings wanted to hear an “idealized” spiritual, an “idealized” spiritual is what they would get. Classical technique and pure westernized vowels would reign supreme over the original spiritual singing technique which placed greater emphasis on expression of lyrics and rhythm.  The influence of white audiences on the sound of spirituals like the one exhibited here can be seen as symptomatic of a larger societal problem wherein white tastes and experiences are centered over those of people of color. Marian Anderson’s recording of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen represents another chapter in spiritual transmission and simultaneously serves as an example of the ways music reflects and influences dominant culture ideologies.

 

Just a Note: The articles on Marian Anderson from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and African American Music Reference  focus heavily on her amazing performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Take a break from scholarly journals and learn more about it from this NPR article. Also, if you want to learn more about Anderson, check out this other playlist of her performing spirituals and pieces from the Western Classical canon.

 

Photographs From Marian Anderson’s Website

Works Cited

“Anderson, Marian, 1897-1993, by AMG, All Music Guide.” In All Music Guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music, 1. San Francisco, CA: Backbeat Books, 2001. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbiography%7C438020.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful tunes and spirituals: Black folk music to the Civil War. Urbana Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Max de Schauensee and Alan Blyth. “Anderson, Marian.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 2, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/00865.

Tick, Judith, and Beaudoin, Paul, eds. 2008. Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion. Cary: Oxford University Press, USA. Accessed October 2, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Williamson, Etta L. The Journal of Negro Education 26, no. 1 (1957): 38-40. doi:10.2307/2293324.

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/09/298760473/denied-a-stage-she-sang-for-a-nation

Slave Songs of the United States 1867