Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.

 

“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?

Minstrelsy Today: What It Looks Like and What We Do About It

Minstrelsy refers to the form of musical stage entertainment in the 19th and early 20th century that sought to parody black slave culture. The hallmark feature of minstrel shows was the use of blackface – white actors covering their faces with burnt cork to appear as and make fun of African Americans. Today, white Americans hear the words “minstrel show” and cringe with embarrassment. How could something seemingly so racist have been such a popular form of entertainment? Despite a more thorough acknowledgement of the ways in which racism has plagued our country for centuries, it would be a crime to ignore remnants of minstrelsy in our society today, and subsequently, to dismiss the conversation surrounding whether we reclaim or ignore elements of minstrelsy today.

Advertisement for the Morris Brothers minstrels from Boston, c. 1869.

When exploring minstrel-related themes on the African American Experience database, I was struck by one particular image. The image (left) depicts an advertisement for the Morris Brothers Minstrel group.[1] The figure’s blackface and bright, big red lips are obvious features, and his banjo emphasizes the theatrical portion of the traditional minstrel show.

The costume is striking when compared side-by-side with an image of the Harlem Globetrotters (below), an exhibition basketball team who combine athletic ability, comedy, and theater on their wildly successful tours. The Harlem Globetrotters represent a prime example of contemporary form of minstrelsy: an all-black performance troupe, using showmanship and comedy to entertain primarily white audiences.

For obvious reasons, the Harlem Globetrotters are not problematic in the same way as traditional minstrel shows, but it nonetheless begs the question: how do white Americans appreciate these forms of entertainment, while simultaneously acknowledging the troubled history to which they are intrinsically related?

Harlem Globetrotters performers today.

This question led me to think of other popular forms of entertainment in the 20th and 21st centuries that reflect minstrel themes, and there are countless. For example, towards the tail-end of minstrel show’s run, the 1920s/30s-radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy featured white actors portraying black characters, a sort of auditory blackface.[2] More broadly, hip hop altogether also walks this fine line: a popular genre of music with primarily African American origins. In its near 50-year history, hip hop has been commercialized to meet the demands of white audiences, and many feel that the prevalence of white rappers in the industry represents a metaphorical blackface.[3]

How do we interpret these similarities today? Are they successful attempts at reclaiming minstrelsy themes, or do they gloss-over and ignore the racism associated with minstrel shows? Sheryl Kaskowitz touches on this struggle in her article on reclaiming the songs of blackface minstrelsy.[4]  Ultimately, these questions are difficult to answer, and the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. But, I would argue, successful reclamation – as evidenced by the popularity of the Harlem Globetrotters or the powerful minstrel song performances by Rhiannon Giddens – might go a long way in addressing these historical wrongdoings, while simultaneously preserving them for future generations. Certainly, not an easy task, but an important one at that.

 

[1] “Minstrel Show Advertisement.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image. Accessed March 7, 2018. https://africanamerican2.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1612307.

[2] Watkins, Mel. “What Was It About ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’?” The New York Times. July 06, 1991. Accessed March 08, 2018. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/07/books/what-was-it-about-amos-n-andy.html?pagewanted=all.

[3] Taylor, Yuval, and Jake Austen. Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

[4] Kaskowitz, Sheryl. “Before It Goes Away: Performance and Reclamation of Songs from Blackface Minstrelsy.” The Avid Listener. Accessed March 08, 2018. http://www.theavidlistener.com/2017/07/before-it-goes-away-performance-and-reclamation-of-songs-from-blackface-minstrelsy.html.