How An Architectural Interior Designer Captured the Evolution of the African American Spiritual

http://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity|recorded_cd|72058

It isn’t often that an architectural interior designer from Detroit with a battery-operated reel-to-reel tape recorder captures a vitally important moment in history, but Carl Benkert, a man who happened to fit the aforementioned description, managed to accomplish just that. In the year of 1965, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and protesters were marching from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery for access to the voting registration, Benkert recorded live freedom songs, chants, and speeches that were released in a documentary-album, “Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama.” One of the tracks (found in the hyperlink above), titled “Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” caught my attention as it captures the spirit and constant evolution of the complex African American Spiritual.

While other musical traditions in North American such as Sacred Colonial Songs or American Indian music contain a strong and definitive presence of responsorial singing, African American spirituals have a unique take on the matter that seems to maintain traction throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Known as the “singing man” by many, spirituals have generally been led by one singer who introduces melodic material that is then repeated and varied upon by the “congregation,” or participants. In Benkert’s recording, Hosea Williams, a Civil Rights leader and member of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference, acts as this “singing man,” providing the melodies of two spirituals, which are answered by his fellow protestors. In addition to this call-and-response style comes an element of improvisation and variation that has been present throughout the history of spirituals. Author of 1867’s “Slave Songs of the United States” William Frances Allen touches on this subject, describing how “there is no singing in parts as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing.” This improvisatory tradition can be found in “Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama” through the various declamatory vocables, including a man shouting “Come on,” and the distinctive bass and soprano voices.

SUDDEN AND WILD TANGENT: BUT WAIT, AREN’T THESE PERFORMERS SIMPLY LOWERING THE THIRD AND THE FIFTH TO ACHIEVE THESE VARIATIONS? NO, I’M GLAD YOU ASKED.

While using buzzwords such as “loose harmonies” are decent descriptions for the Western-oriented reader, listening to varied live music is the best way to capture the true distinction found in African American music. By comparing two saxophone players from different backgrounds, such as Kenny G. and Charlie Parker, we can quite easily see the emotional, personal, and distinct differences that cannot be captured through Western imitation or transcription.

END OF SUDDEN AND WILD TANGENT.

Another simple means which connects spirituals of the 18th and 19th century and the civil rights movement is the purpose behind and use of biblical texts. As put in the Crawford text, many original spirituals fashioned traditional biblical stories into songs of a “sober dignity and moral force” that were sung in ways that “condemned slavery, affirmed faith in God, and tapped the depths of human souls.” In other words, found not in our beloved textbook, spirituals were transformed in ways that signaled and led the ways for racial equality. To see such iconic pieces as Steal Away and Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen still being presented and utilized in a constant fight for equality during the March to Montgomery is a testament to the inherent emotional core of African American spirituals.

In describing the spirituals recorded during the Montgomery March, Benkert captures the idea behind this musical “core”:

“The music was an essential element; music in song expressing hope and sorrow; music to pacify or excite; music with the power to engage the intelligence and even touch the spirit.”

 

SOURCES:

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama. Folkways Records, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C72058. 
KennyGuille. “Kenny G – Titanic (My Heart Will Go On).” Youtube. Dec. 28, 2007. Accessed Monday, Oct. 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qzUJphkVZs
 Kirkland, W. M.. “Hosea Williams (1926-2000).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 23 December 2016. Web. 02 October 2017.
rgsmusicargentina. “Charlie Parker – Ornithology.” Youtube. Jan. 23, 2017. Accessed Monday, Oct. 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2tvlp7RnlM

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

 

 

 

Transmission of “Nobody know(s) the(de) Trouble I(‘ve) See(n)”

As former slaves entered American culture and society as citizens with slightly more rights after the Civil War and Reconstruction they created bands and groups for themselves to play in. In the late 19th and early 20th century military bands, small orchestras, and “stock bands” were formed mostly performing popular music of the day as well as notable Classical music such as Mozart Operas.

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001705781>

 

At this time spiritual music had long been co-opted by white culture with many former slave songs being compiled in “American” songbooks. In the 1920s black composers and arrangers were able to publish their settings for these groups. Composers Gussie Davis, M.L. Lake, Robert Cole, and others were very popular stock band composers and arrangers during the ’20s. Here is a setting of the familiar tune “Nobody knows de trouble I seen” from M.L. Lake.

Setting for small orchestra. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010139/pageturner.html?page=2&section=p0001&size=640

Setting for small orchestra.
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010139/pageturner.html?page=2&section=p0001&size=640

 

We can find the melody in the treble voice and this is a form of the melody that modern listeners would most likely be familiar with. However because of its setting it and acculturation it is rife with western harmonization and figuration. This adaptation of black folk songs is something that we are very comfortable with and reminds me of William Grant-Still’s Afro-American Symphony.

H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was an essential figure in bringing black folk music to the classical music scene in post-reconstruction America. He introduced popular singers to the literature and was well connected with influential musical big-wigs, including Antonin Dvorak.

H.T. Burleigh's setting of "Nobody knows" for voice and piano. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

H.T. Burleigh’s setting of “Nobody knows” for voice and piano.
http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

The earliest notated record of this particular tune we have is from Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, the seminal work of collecting slave songs in the Antebellum South. This representation from the collection is not definite however, it is still subject to editing and doesn’t account for massive variation across the southern states. SlaveSongsThis post outlines how different settings of the same tune have been treated when brought into a western context and setting. First the tune is in its most original form (that we have available), then adapted to solo voice and piano for mass consumption and use in the home and then finally used as popular music that can be recognized by the populous who attend concerts.