Tribute or Treading on Toes? Percy Grainger and Black American Folk Music

Australian-born composer Percy Grainger had just moved to the United States in 1915 when an editorial article on Black American folk musics was published in Current Opinion, a quarterly magazine focused on literature and current issues, extensively citing Grainger as “a recognized authority on folk music.”1 The author’s reasoning for bestowing the title of “authority” was that much of Grainger’s career as a composer was characterized by his extensive use of folk music, particularly British folk tunes, in his works. The article goes on to recount many of Grainger’s opinions on Black American music and musicians, which generally attempt to characterize him as a champion of the marginalized. The caption under his portrait states that Grainger believes that “Especially worthy of preservation… are the folksongs of the American negro [sic].” In 1915, the readers of Current Opinion would’ve likely agreed with this characterization, but several sentiments expressed by the author as well as in Grainger’s quoted statements leap out as problematic to today’s reader. 

Picture by John Sargent

The author, who remains unnamed by the publication, begins the article by comparing African-American folk tradition to folk traditions from the British Isles, stating that many scholars have “arrived at the conclusion that the origin of the music of the colored [sic] race in America was in the British Isles.”2 This statement of the prevailing opinion credits white colonizers with the musical traditions of Black Americans, drawing a racialized line through music in the United States, and then continuing to delegitimize the music attributed to Black Americans as simply imitations of White3 European folk musics. From here, the author seems to try to assert that Grainger rejects the idea that the Black American tradition is somehow lesser than, and is rather interested in preserving all folk musics, regardless of origin. The author mentions Grainger’s telling of a story about a British composer, Frederick Delius, whose music was influenced by the work songs he heard running his father’s plantation in Florida. Grainger seems here to be championing the influence of Black American music on the predominantly White world of classical music. However, the author then goes on to quote Grainger’s description of his theory of three steps in the development of music. 


To Grainger, the first step is “traditional old songs and melodies of the people,” also referred to as folk music. Next, there is a transition from the folk to the “vaudeville,” or popular music that serves the sole purpose of entertainment. Lastly, there is the transition into the world of classical music, which Grainger refers to as the “‘world game.’” Again, Grainger has fallen into the trap of the prevailing race divide in music that still persists to this day. In this three-step theory, he posits Western classical music to be a universal ideal of music expression, the eventual evolution of all musics, regardless of cultural origin. As well, by asserting that Black Americans are behind White Americans and Europeans in their development of music expression, Grainger again devalues Black American music in his attempt to advocate for the preservation of Black American folk music as a legitimate genre of music. 

Broadly, the Current Opinion article on Grainger’s perspectives of Black American folk music, despite some evidence of good intentions of preservation and legitimization, ultimately advocates for the assimilation of Black Americans into a Western musical culture that both the author and Grainger believe to be superior. This sentiment is not unusual for the time, as all non-Western musics were largely considered to be primitive, and this prevailed in early ethnomusicological study by scholars such as Frances Densmore. It is also expected of Grainger, as private correspondences reveal that was an advocate for “milder theories of eugenics,” and “Nordic racial (and artistic) superiority.” It’s crucial to understand how these opinions prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not just within the academy regarding study of musics outside of the Western classical tradition, but among leading composers and performers, as well as the general populace. Recognizing past structural flaws and how they came about allows current and future musicologists to deconstruct the racialized structures and Eurocentrism in the study of music.


1“PERCY GRAINGER’S TRIBUTE TO THE MUSIC OF THE AMERICAN NEGRO.” Current Opinion (1913-1925) OL. LIX., (08, 1915): 100. 

2 Ibid.

I capitalize White when referring to it as a race, as other race categories are also usually capitalized (i.e. Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.). I believe the lowercase spelling reinforces Whiteness as the default race.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Gillies, Malcolm, and David Pear. “Grainger, (George) Percy.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 21 Sep. 2023.

Percy Grainger and Henry Cowell: BFFs?

I was surprised when I first started reading about the friendship between Henry Cowell and Percy Grainger. My understanding of Cowell was that he was an abrasive, noisy ultra-modernist, while Grainger was a pleasant, folksongy writer of band music. It seemed like these men had nothing in common. I was surprised to learn that they had a remarkable amount in common. To begin with, both had a reputation for their treatment of the piano. Cowell’s for his use of extended technique, and Grainger for his wild virtuosity. Both were considered geniuses, each with a deep interest in researching and analyzing music of other cultures. Both men often taught classes or guest lectured, which is how they ended up meeting each other.

Grainger and Cowell in 1951

The two first met on January 17th of 1933, when Cowell was giving a lecture at NYU. Grainger was so impressed, he attended another lecture of his two weeks later. The two talked and agreed to meet to show each other their compositions and field recordings of folk music. After a successful ‘show and tell’ of sorts, they decided to remain in touch, marking the beginning of their correspondence. After their first meeting, Cowell wrote to Grainger

 “I am still in a rare state of excitement and delight at having contact with you today, and finding that you are so enthusiastic over the same things that I am!”

Grainger responded to this by writing

“The more I think about it the more I am amazed by the beauty , purity & charm of your epochmaking experi- ments as a composer, & the sanity & balance of yr attitude as a student of worldwide music”

The men continued writing letters for a year or so, and gave guest lectures at each other’s classes. The two temporarily lost communication in 1934 when Grainger moved to Australia for some time. From 1934 to 1937, there was no correspondence between the two. When Grainger mailed Cowell’s journal to receive Cowell’s mailing address, he was shocked to learn that Cowell had been sent to prison. In 1936, Cowell was sent to San Quentin Prison for having sex with an underage male. This did not stop the friendship between the two. Between 1937 and Cowell’s release in 1940, they exchanged over 100 letters with one another. Eventually, Grainger wrote to Cowell saying that once he got out of prison, he wanted Cowell to become his personal secretary, and the two men could research music together. Cowell joyfully accepted, writing

 “What a wonderful opportunity you and your wife offer me! I have no words to express myself with…To go to the islands to ‘get away from it all’ is one thing; but I should like to go there to get into it all”

Thanks to Grainger’s pressure on the Prison board, and for sponsoring Cowell’s parole, Cowell was released from prison in 1940 and moved to Grainger’s house in the Cook Islands. Once there, it was Cowell’s job to preserve Grainger’s archive of wax cylinders, scores, letters, manuscripts, pictures, drawings, and writings.

Grainger and Cowell having a jam session

During this time, Cowell was also experimenting with composition, and played with Grainger’s massive collection of exotic folk instruments. Because of financial strains, Cowell’s employment was mutually terminated in 1941. The two remained friends, occasionally exchanging letters until Grainger’s death in 1961.



Henry Cowell Web Site. Accessed November 07, 2017.

Music Division, The New York Public Library. “Henry Cowell and Percy Grainger” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 7, 2017.

Robinson, Suzanne. “Percy Grainger and Henry Cowell: Concurrences Between Two “Hyper-Moderns”.” The Musical Quarterly 94, no. 3 (2011): 278-324.