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.

Let My People Go: Moses in African American Spirituals

The traditional lyrics and melody. Burleigh, H.T. “Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go!),” in Negro Spirituals (New York: G. Ricordi, 1917),https://library.duke.edu/dig italcollections/hasm_n0708/.

After relentless, long and hard days working in the fields, enslaved black people had little in forms of comfort. Singing spirituals was one way for enslaved people to come together, to sing about their hardships, to praise God, and to lift their spirits. Although some scholars, such as George Pullen Jackson,1 have argued that spirituals stem directly from white Protestant music, spiritual songs centered on Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery, such as “Go Down, Moses”, highlight how the slave experience distinctly shaped African American spirituals.

In the numerous songs featuring the biblical character of Moses, “Go Down, Moses” is the most popular. This as well as other Moses songs directly reflects enslaved people’s longing for freedom. For many enslaved people, Moses was representative of the brave “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, that guided enslaved people to freedom.2 The lyrics of “Go Down Moses” indicating that Moses, someone who did not have as much power as the Pharaoh, could defy him and demand “to let [his] people go!” was incredibly powerful for enslaved people who dreamed of defying their master. In many ways it became a way of defying their master even if they did not run away.3

Although this version of “Go Down Moses” remains the most popular, other versions also highlight connections between the African-American slaves and the Israelites. In John Davis’s version of “Go Down, Moses”, he reveals that the chariot symbolizes the Underground Railroad and the “rivers rolling” as the rivers that runaway slaves would cross though to lose their scent.4 Although the lyrics are different, the message remains the same: a dream and a reflection on the fight for freedom.

Krehbiel’s assertion that “Nowhere save on the plantations of the south could the emotional life which is essential to the development of true folksong be developed”5 rings true in “Go Down, Moses”. Although whites may have shared Christianity with enslaved blacks, they could not emote the same connection with the enslaved Israelites. The emotion present in the slow, melancholy song in the video and sheet music above reveals the deep sadness of living in slavery and a longing for freedom that only enslaved people could understand.

1 Jackson, George Pullen. “Negro-Borrowed Tunes are Traced Back to Britain: Did the Black Man Compose Religious Songs?,” in White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1943): 264-289.

2 “Georgia islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals,” Southern Journey 12 (1998): 14.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves,” in Afro-American Foksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, (1914): 22.

“The Voice is not nearly so important as the Spirit”

After reading Eileen Southern and Dena Epstein’s accounts of American slave songs and particularly spirituals, my curiosity was piqued. I set out to see what sheet music for spirituals looked like from the days of the sheet music craze and naturally ran across something I wasn’t really expecting.

What I found was H. T. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” for low voice and piano.1 One thing that initially struck me about the song was that it fit with what Epstein wrote about as a common theme in slave songs, that is the repetition of the same line of text several times in a row. Another common characteristic was syncopation, which is also an important driving characteristic of this song.2

The cover of the sheet music for “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. A recording of this arrangement can be found here.

However, arrangement is also interesting because it has been written in the style of arias and art songs. The melody is written out clearly, omitting some of the vocalizations that perhaps would have been sung by slaves. It is also made clear that the song does not perhaps fully fit a European method of transcription by the footnote on the first page which offers an alternate rhythm for one of the measures. Additionally, the arrangement contains a simple piano accompaniment consisting mainly of repetitive chords on the beats. This makes sense as the arranger, H. T. Burleigh studied on scholarship at the National Conservatory of Music in New York and ultimately became famous for being the first to arrange spirituals in the style of art songs, allowing for their entry into recital repertoire.3

The other interesting aspect of this sheet music is the arranger’s note that precedes it. In it, Burleigh gives a brief history of spirituals and claims that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song”. He then goes on to advise the would-be singer that “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit” when preforming, and that rhythm is the critical element. He admonishes that spirituals should not be linked with “minstrel” songs and that one should not try to imitate “Negro” accent or mannerisms in performance.

Ultimately, this got me thinking again about our discussion question of who gets to sing these songs and who gets to decide who gets to sing them? This arrangement was obviously originally intended for a white audience because of its warning about trying to perform them imitating the ways that are “natural to the colored people”. Written as it is in the style of an art song, means it caters to recitalists. Most recitalists of the time were white, as Burleigh himself is regarded as one of the first African American recitalists. Can white performers sing these songs that came out of the deep anguish of slavery and do them justice?

H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

Burleigh also adds an interesting dimension to the puzzle. As a black man born after the abolition of slavery, does he still have a right and connection to these songs? After all, he came from a poor family and learned many of his spirituals from his grandfather, who had been a slave.4 Furthermore, Burleigh still lived in a time of deep racial inequality and probably experienced ugly racism and discrimination in his own life.

Perhaps Burleigh, in is own way, provides a bit of an answer to this quandary in his performance notes when he remarks that spirituals’ “worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man”. It may not be a perfect answer, but it is something.

1Burleigh, H. T. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” from Negro Spirituals. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15037coll1/id/5400. Accessed March 19, 2018.

2Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

3““Harry” Burleigh (1866–1949).” In African American Almanac, by Lean’tin Bracks. Visible Ink Press, 2012. https://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/vipaaalm/harry_burleigh_1866_1949/0?institutionId=4959. Accessed March 19, 2018.

4Snyder, Jean. “Burleigh, Henry [Harry] T(hacker).” Grove Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002248537. Accessed March 19, 2018.

Different Times, Different Troubles (Same Song)

“Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”, arranged by H.T. Burleigh.

It’s hard to definitely say someone should not sing certain music. When it comes to spirituals, we wonder if the music was supposed to be passed down the generations, or if it was supposed to be left behind, where it could only be associated with slavery and sorrow.

H.T. Burleigh thought such music should be remembered, as he is famous for having arranged the music for many spirituals, including “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”. Burleigh and others published a variety of other arrangements for “mixed chorus, men’s chorus, and women’s chorus”.1
Therefore, it is clear he intended these songs to be sung by a variety of people for generations to come. He believed that spirituals have worth to anyone and everyone. He even made a statement on the second page of this sheet music, warning not to sing these songs as if a “minstrel” performance, mocking the mannerisms of African Americans while singing the song, but instead to respect the value of such musical works:

“Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and 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.”2

If a choir of white people gave a lively and vigorous performance of this spiritual or any kind like it, it would come across as disrespectful. Slaves were not allowed to sing work songs mournfully, even though the songs were of sorrow and of trouble.3  “Douglass observed in the 1845 edition of his autobiography that slaves sang most when they were unhappy”.4 A smiley performance of such music seems inappropriate. People today cannot properly fathom the hardships that slaves endured back then, so for anyone other than slaves to sing these songs does not feel right. However, Burleigh might argue that spirituals transcend the history. The music can mean a lot to a lot of people, even if for different reasons.

Perhaps it would help to imagine slaves’ reactions to performances of their songs today. They could think it beautiful that their music has survived so long and that their time is not forgotten or brushed aside as insignificant in history. However, their reaction would probably depend on what performances they see–whose singing for whom and for what reason. They could definitely find it disturbing that their music is occasionally sung out of context for the pleasure of white people listening. But what would they think if they saw a choir in Taiwan singing one of their songs?

We can’t know for sure what they would think, but perhaps if the music is performed in a respectful manner, it can mean more for more people.

1 “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730.

2 Burleigh, H.T. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. New York: G. Ricordi & Co., Inc., 1917. Retrieved from Sheet Music Consortium, http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/23714.

3 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 161.

4 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 177.

William Arms Fisher’s “Goin’ home”: somehow a “Negro spiritual”

This week while browsing the Sheet Music Consortium my eye was caught by a particular title: “Goin’ home: Negro spiritual from the largo of the New World Symphony, op. 95.” I was curious as to what this material could be – was the New World Symphony based on a spiritual?

William Arms Fisher

I was surprised to learn that this title was in fact invoking a song written to the music of the largo from Dvorak’s famous American symphony. The lyrics to “Goin’ home” were written and set to music by William Arms Fisher in 1922, after the premier of the “New World Symphony” in 1893. Fisher was a student of Dvorak’s at the National Conservatory, and later went on to become a music editor, historian, and songwriter. He wrote on the impact and importance of 18th and early 19th century American music, and also compiled anthologies of Irish songs and Negro spirituals. Fisher is however most well known for the setting of “Goin’ home” at hand.

In his forward to “Goin’ home,” Fisher writes about his inspiration for writing lyrics to go with the second movement of the New World Symphony:

“That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words “Goin’ home, Goin’ home” is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.”

“Goin’ home” title page

In this statement by Fisher, as in the symphony as a whole, we see a blending of genres, a crossing of Dvorak’s European symphonic traditions with pastoral and folk-y American inspiration. Fisher believed that the homesick, almost tragic qualities of the English horn melody in the largo movement embodied Negro spirituals, which thus called him to interweave the spiritual with the symphony. However, is “Goin’ home” a Negro spiritual if Fisher wrote the lyrics and Dvorak wrote the music?

This brings up the question of authorship for me, and the author’s/composer’s intentions while writing the music. First of all, Fisher chose to write the lyrics in a dialect, which was a conscious decision on his part. It seems to me like an effort to be more authentic and true to the style in which he was writing, a style rooted in a tradition and experience he did not share. Fisher’s outsider and dangerously essentialized perspective of black people is shown here in the introduction to his anthology entitled “Negro spirituals.” He writes that black people were:

“Given an ingenuous native capacity for rhythmic musical expression, the gift of improvisation, a primitive but intense emotionalism, a condition of life that ranged from the most naïve light-heartedness to tragic somberness, and an utter dependence for consolation upon faith in invisible realities, often tinged with lingering elements from a barbaric past, and you have that truly unique product – the Spiritual with its background of torch-lit groves, swaying bodies and half-closed eyes.”

Sheet music to “Goin’ home”

In this quote Fisher throws one stereotype after another at his reader, while attempting to recognizing the greatness of the genre. So since the spiritual is, as Fisher asserts, “a truly unique product” then why did Fisher not have any qualms about writing music for this genre? Lastly, as I watch videos and listen to recordings of “Goin’ home” being performed, I am reminded of the commercial purposes that this setting of text to already established music serves. The vocal version of this piece increases its accessibility, and provides many more opportunities for performance and commercial consumption. Fisher builds on the success of Dvorak, in a time where it would’ve been prudent to expand the boundaries of this symphonic work.

Sources

  1. Beckerman, Michael. “The Real Value of Yellow Journalism: James Creelman and Antonín Dvorák.” Musical Quarterly 77, no. 4 (1993): 749. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/742357.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A44e9b3926e7a50b8f624e4eafb225c8b
  2. Dvorak, Antonin and New W. Symphony. 95 Adelaide: Cawthornes Ltd, 1922. (retrieved October 23, 2017). http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-166692271/view?partId=nla.obj-166692390#page/n1/mode/1up
  3. Karl Kroeger. “Fisher, William Arms.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/0974
  4. “The Looking Glass.” The Crisis, February 1927, 210-11.
  5. “[Front Matter].” In Seventy Negro Spirituals, edited by William Arms Fisher, 1-42. Oropesa, Castilla-La Mancha: Oliver Ditson &, 1926. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C3399955

“The Ordering of Moses” and Robert Nathaniel Dett’s compositional output

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was a popular African American composer who used spirituals and gospel songs as his inspiration for larger works. His works like the Juba Dance were performed by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and Dett conducted and performed as a pianist in Carnegie Hall.

 

His 1937 oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses,” was seen in its time as controversial, but largely lauded. It was called “the most impressive Negro contribution to music” in the Chicago Defender‘s May 1937 issue. It combines “spirituals such as “Go Down Moses,” reworked into a fugue; the lush romanticism of Dvorak; a seguidilla-like dance complete with castanets; and jazzy inflections throughout.”1

When it was originally performed at the May Festival of 1937, the live recording on radio suddenly stopped midway through, supposedly due to scheduling difficulties, but in later years it is largely believed that too many people called in complaints about the composer’s race for the broadcast to continue. Dett faced much discrimination for this work, and he felt it on both sides. He was told his symphony was too black, and that he was too black, but other people told him it wasn’t black enough. Critic Olin Downes of the New York Times had this to say:

Image Courtesy of The Chicago Defender May 1937 Issue2 

The oratorio can be heard in this playlist below.

 

In addition to creating large-scale works that provoked conversation, Dett made plenty of statements about the difficulties of black composers in a largely white-dominated field. At that time, spirituals when composed and sung by white performers was more acceptable than black people doing the same thing, and Dett made it known the many problems that accompanied that mindset.  In the July 1943 edition of the Chicago Defender, he is quoted saying that black composers and performers should not try to confine to the popular, white and westernized version of songs that were originally from the black community in the first place. He also notes that the black community should “aspire to the top because of spirituals, not in spite of them.”3

Additionally, Dett mentions the difficulties of being a black person in the institutional music system. He says that many African Americans who graduate from insitutions with degrees in music aren’t able to fully cultivate their talent, because if they rise to fame they outshine even the president of the institution (on account of the novelty of being a famous black performer).

Dett’s work “The Ordering of Moses” contradicts his own statements in two ways. First, it conforms more to western European musical standard practices than to traditional practices in the black community. This is something he directly condemned above. Second, it helped him rise to great fame, rather than let him meekly compose semi-successful pieces. However, he did not seem to outshine the reputation of Oberlin University, where he obtained his degree.

There is more to the story, however. If his work had conformed even more toward traditional spiritual practices, white audiences never would have heralded it as such an inspiring and important piece. Then, he might not have gained as much fame and thus wouldn’t even have had an opportunity to share his opinions on the state of black composers and performers in the Chicago Defender. He played the game where he had to in order to balance both black and white audiences. If he hadn’t, he’d have been lost to history, and we wouldn’t remember his works or his name. So before we are too quick to judge the contradictions between his composition output and his musical philosophies, we should remind ourselves of the complex situation of being a POC in America. This should especially be taken into account regarding black musicians operating in a largely western European controlled system.

 

 

 

1 Amanda Angel, “Heavy-Handed Presentation undermines Cincinnati Symphony Revival of Dett’s ‘Moses'” New York Classical Review, May 10, 2014. http://newyorkclassicalreview.com/2014/05/heavy-handed-presentation-undermines-cincinnati-symphony-revival-of-detts-moses/

2 (1937, May 22). DETT’S ‘ORDERNG OF MOSES’ LAUDED AS RACE’S BEST CONTRIBUTION IN MUSIC. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

2 Alfred E Smith (1937, July). “Dett Sees Music as Potent Weapon Against Race Hate.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492486822?accountid=351/

Artist Files: Tommy Dorsey , 1950-1975 © The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.

African American Spirituals in post-slavery, pre-civil rights movement, America

Late 1800s through early 1900s America was not a great time to be African American. I am not meaning to imply that African Americans have ever had it particularly well in America, but African American welfare throughout American history is a topic of whose discussion would be well beyond the scope of this blog post. Nonetheless, despite any social and cultural forces acting against them, African Americans still managed to keep spirits up and fight for a better future for them and their children. One of the ways they did both of these things was through singing spirituals. In slave times, the spiritual served as a musical outlet with which to keep spirits high, (or at least as high as one can keep spirits while enslaved) and a way to spread hidden messages, frequently about the Underground Railroad, without the slave-drivers realizing. After the Civil War, spirituals continued to aid in keeping spirits high, but took on the additional role of being a powerful force with which people used to fight for civil rights. One example of this is the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Program2

The Fisk Jubilee Singers can be heard in this recording1 singing the spiritual Golden Slippers. They were a group of singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee who became well-known after touring the United States and the world singing spirituals. However, one of the less remembered parts of their legacy is that of their civil rights tours from 1879 to 1882.2 As can be heard in the recording, the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought a style of singing and harmony to the white world that had been previously unknown and, in the process, won international fame for their university. While the Fisk Jubilee Singers were by not means the only African American musical ensemble singing spirituals,3 they are the most famous and remembered example to this day

1 http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/1815

2 Seroff, D. (2001). “A voice in the wilderness”: The fisk jubilee singers’ civil rights tours of 1879-1882. Popular Music and Society, 25(1), 131-177. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/208067875?accountid=351

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).

“Room Enough” [unless you’re black]: The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Hypocrisy

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.34.59 PMOh, brothers, don’t stay away, . . .
For my Lord says there’s room enough,
Room enough in the Heav’ns for you,
My Lord says there’s room enough,
Don’t stay away.”

Oh, the irony. As the widely acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers preached this message of welcome to thousands of concertgoers, yes, they themselves were met with respect and praise by audiences, but all too often they were also greeted with closed doors.

In 1872, only a year after the ensemble began touring the United States and only a few days after receiving “continuous ovation” as guests of the governor of Connecticut, they were turned out of a tavernkeeper’s hostelry. When the Jubilee Singers booked the rooms, he assumed they were a company of blackface minstrels. Upon discovering they were the real deal, not a group of white people engaged in cruel mimicry, he could no longer stomach hosting them. A scathing account of this incident appearing in the March 14, 1872, edition of New York’s The Independent mocks the “publican” tavernkeeper for showing more respect to the “burnt cork of the harlequin,” the blackface of minstrelsy, than the “pigment . . . of [the Creator’s] own hands”:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 5.24.05 AMA similar incident, layered in even greater irony, occurred in Jersey City later that same year. Mr. Warner, the proprietor of the American House, a place most would assume to be welcoming to Americans of all colors, had a misspelled cable sent to the Jubilee Singers’ sponsor, the Amercian [sic] Missionary Association, saying:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 5.30.29 AM

After insulting the intellect of Mr. Warner and his clerk, The Independent writer rightly wrote, ” Somebody ought to teach this patriot to spell “American” a little less violently.”

In 1880, they were refused at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, IL. The Springfield audience greeted this news with hisses and cries of “shame!”

Perhaps the greatest example of a mixed welcome occurred two years later during their visit to Washington, D.C. After they were turned out of numerous hotels in the nation’s capital, they wandered the city until midnight, when they managed to find lodging in private homes. A few days later, they were at the White House at the invitation of President Chester A. Arthur. The Singers brought the president to tears with a performance of “Steal Away to Jesus” and the Lord’s Prayer. “I have never in my life been so much moved,” said the president.

Honestly, I am disgusted with such behavior. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, I would hope that African Americans would be treated with more respect and dignity. Instead I see a distinct laziness shown by the public. Before the war, slaves would entertain Southerners at the plantation house, performing for no money and being told where they could and couldn’t stay. After the war, freedmen would entertain Northerners at concert halls, performing for money and being told where they could and couldn’t stay.

As a culture, we seem to deal best with small changes: from plantation houses to concert halls, from no money to admission prices. We say all we want, using overblown platitudes to demonstrate our support for a cause, but we do as little as we can, avoiding actions that put any kind of strain on our time, budgets, or attitudes, even if a small change on our part could change someone else’s life. Look to the examples of the people of Springfield, President Arthur, and the writers, and go even farther: back up your words with actions. Otherwise, you’re only a hypocrite.


Sources

“THE JUBILEE SINGERS.” The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921) 24, no. 1215 (Mar 14, 1872): 4. http://search.proquest.com/docview/90171741?accountid=351.

“THE JUBILEE SINGERS AND THE WASHINGTON LANDLORDS.” New York Evangelist (1830-1902) 53, no. 12 (Mar 23, 1882): 2.

“THE JUBILEE SINGERS AT THE HOME AND TOMB OF LINCOLN.” Christian Union (1870-1893) 22, no. 8 (Aug 25, 1880): 156. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137032063?accountid=351.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876. Accessed February 23, 2015. https://archive.org/.

“President Arthur and the Jubilee Singers.” Church’s Musical Visitor (1871-1883) 11, no. 6 (03, 1882): 162. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137466484?accountid=351.http://search.proquest.com/docview/125358571?accountid=351.

From Negro Spiritual to Folk Revival: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

Link

Negro Spirituals began as religious songs written by enslaved African people that were usually unaccompanied monophonic songs. One of the most famous of these Negro Spirituals is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was written by Wallace Willis, a Choctaw freedman in Hugo, Oklahoma in 1840.

slowschariot

He was inspired by the Red River, located in Mississippi, which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah’s being taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). The song also uses lyrics that refer to the Underground Railroad, the network that helped Blacks escape from Southern slavery to freedom in the North.

The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University consisted of nine students under George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music director. The group began a U.S. on October 6, 1871 to raise money for the school. On this tour, The Jubilee Singers popularized many Negro Spirituals, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

A few months into their tour, a review by the Oneida Circular, a newspaper that was “a weekly journal of home, science, and general intelligence” in Western New York praised the singers for their performance.

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The song regained popularity in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights and Folk Revival movements. The same lyrics that made reference to the Underground Railroad were now being used to fight for equal rights and an end to segregation and Jim Crow laws. At the same time, the Folk Revival movement began as a way of bringing back earlier genres of music like Gospel and the Blues. Bridging the two movements together was Joan Baez, a White American folk songwriter, whose personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these particular concerns. She gave perhaps one of the most memorable performances of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the famous Woodstock Festival in 1969.

It’s evident that this song has continually been reused and repurposed for the people that connect with it. In the 1870’s, it promoted the idea of freedom from slavery. In the 1960’s, it promoted civil rights for all. What will it be used for next?

Allen, William Francis, Ware, Charles Pickard, and Garrison, Lucy McKim, eds. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Slave Songs of the United States. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Accessed February 23, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

H, W. B. “THE JUBILEE SINGERS.” Oneida Circular (1871-1876) 9, no. 16 (Apr 15, 1872): 126. http://search.proquest.com/docview/137675405?accountid=351.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Vol. 1 (1909-1911). Recorded January 1, 1997. Document Records, 1997, Streaming Audio. Accessed March 18, 2015. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/74675.