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.