The Blues Mode and 12-Bar Form (examples)

A collection of some of the musical examples referred to by Peter van der Merwe in your reading.

As you listen, think about the similarities in these musics from across cultures. What makes them blues or blues-like?

  1. Charley Patton, “Tom Rushen Blues”.

You’ll be reading more about Charley Patton later. For the moment, pay attention not only to what van der Merwe calls his “shake” on the third scale degree, but also on his technique of doubling the vocal line with the guitar.

2. Bessie Smith, “Poor Man’s Blues”:

3. Traditional Mossi music from Burkina Faso, west Africa. Pay attention to the long, unmetered, chant-like vocal lines.

4. “Goin’ Home,” recorded by the Lomaxes at Parchman Farm, a notorious segregated prison in Mississippi. Note the chant-like, repetitive vocal line and the reverse-dotted rhythm.

4. “Show Pity, Lord,” a Protestant hymn by 18th-century English composer Isaac Watts. Why does van der Merwe include this example?

6. “Gwineter Harness in de Mornin’ Soon,” another song John Lomax collected from Dink on the banks of the Brazos River in Texas.

7. “Dance in the Place Congo” by 20th-century composer Henry Gilbert: it’s in 5/4 and is meant to evoke the dancing on Sunday in Congo Square, New Orleans, prior to Emancipation.

8. “The Maid Freed From the Gallows,” a traditional English ballad.

Led Zeppelin’s version of this ballad, “Gallows Pole”:

9. “Way over in the New Buryin’ Groun'”:

10. “Pretty Polly,” an Appalachian ballad:

11. “Go to Sleep”:

12. “Freight Train Blues.”

Gullah/Geechee Resources

The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.

The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves, and were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:

Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:

The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:

Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).

https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/

Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.

George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).

A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:


The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.

What makes this a complicated endeavour?

Blood Memory in Porgy and Bess

Alfred Walker as Crown in Porgy and Bess

Over the weekend, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful new production of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown, below, was interviewed backstage about the dances she created for the production. She spoke about drawing on the performers’ “blood memory.”

In a recent TED talk, Brown explained that:

Movement has always been a part of the African tradition. So, when you look at the Middle Passage and how the culture of the African people, they attempted to strip them of their culture, but somehow it was still living in their body and we call that a blood memory. That idea of movement being a way of expressing ourselves is something that is traditional and it’s a heritage that continues to be passed down. It’s just something that is innate, in black people specifically. So, you’re tapping into something when you’re moving your body that I believe is very spiritual. 

Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?

Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?

If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?

Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.

Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?

What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?

The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:

The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.

A few of the countless cover versions:

As one critic noted, Porgy and Bess is

a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner [Dubose Heyward], scored by a New York Jewish composer [George Gershwin], written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism.

These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?

Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:

The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.

Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.

Intersectionality: Gay Harlem

A playlist of some of the “songs of gay Harlem” mentioned by Steven Blier.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.

“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.

Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”

“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:

“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

  • What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
  • Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
  • Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?

Playlist and Journal Assignment for "Race and the Embodiment of Culture"

Content warning: racist imagery.

One of your first two reading assignments, “Race and the Embodiment of Culture” by John Szwed, was published in the journal Ethnicity in 1975. Szwed makes reference to many music and dance forms, as well as visual imagery, across times and cultures. This post is a compendium of the the forms he mentions.

Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”

Sub-Saharan African:

Polynesian:

Eastern European:

On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.

Western European:

Euro-American:

Middle Eastern:

Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites:

Al Jolson:

Amos N’ Andy:

Eddie Cantor:

Mick Jagger:

Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:

In your journal, write answers to the following questions. Make sure you write in complete sentences, using your best prose!

1. On p. 27, Szwed talks about the first generation of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy to be recorded and filmed – Al Jolson, Amos and Andy, et al. He then mentions Mick Jagger as a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface.” What do you think he means by this?

2. On p. 30, Szwed says:

The irony of the situation is obvious: the low-status [racial/cultural] group, cut off from the sources of power and production in the larger society, is at the same time less alienated from its own cultural productions [than is the high-status group]. The twist is that the elite of society is free to draw on the lower group’s cultural pool. Were there ever more massive examples of the conversion of community life and culture into commodity than those in which black folk life has been turned into national culture in the US?

What does he mean?

Give a musical example of this process of conversion — of black American culture into national American culture — from your own lifetime.

3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:

We now find ourselves becoming famished and desperate students of the discredited and displaced in a pastoral of ludicrous dimensions.

What is a “pastoral,” and what does Szwed mean when he says that “we now find ourselves” in one? Give a musical example that reflects the ways that you believe mainstream America is “famished and desperate” for authenticity in culture.

Due in class on February 4.

Black Girls' Handgames

The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:

The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.

In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:

In black girls’ play, “black” may be symbolically associated at some level with one’s ethnic identity — dressing oneself in blackness, so to speak.

R&B singer Rufus Thomas remixed “Mary Mack” into “Walking the Dog” in 1963:

Black Girls Handgames Project’s version:

For more, see the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s blog, here:

https://festival.si.edu/blog/black-girls-handgames-project

And the BGHP’s Facebook page, here:

https://www.facebook.com/handgamesproject/

The DNA of American Classical Music

While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).

At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.

Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house — Price’s, as it turns out, in the Chicago suburbs — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.

As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:

Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.

Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.

http://www.jordanrsmith.com/blog/2018/5/25/the-price-is-right

So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?

In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:

So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:

And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:

And William Grant Still, whose opening theme echoes Dawson’s:

And white composers jumped on the bandwagon too:

Including John Powell, an avowed white supremacist (for more on Powell and his music, go here):

Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.

The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.

In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:

In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:

So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.


American music is so largely African-American music, and this is true also of American classical music.

Composing Irony

“How the animals laid the hunter to rest” (woodcut, Moritz von Schwind)

The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”

In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.

How is this image an expression of irony?

In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired for Jewish weddings in Mahler’s Bohemian hometown — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.

What does Mahler mean by this? Is his music also an illustration of irony?

Mahler himself wrote, in 1901, that this movement “is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.”

In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.

In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.

Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.

Linden or lime tree (tilia cordata)

Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?

This 1970 poem by Alice Notley captures and distills the failure of Romanticism’s program:

“I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, …”
I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, 
& every time the moment has conquered me. 
I’m strangely unhappy 
                                  because the pattern of my life 

is complicated, 
because my nature is hopelessly complicated; 
& out of this, to my sorrow, pain to you must grow. 
The centre of me
                          is always & eternally 
                                                            a terrible pain- 


a curious wild pain—a searching 
beyond what the world contains, something 
transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, 
I don’t think it is to be found.

It’s like passionate love for a ghost. 
At times it fills me with rage,
                             at times with wild despair. 
It’s the source of gentleness & cruelty & work

The Valkyries

The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.

Read a synopsis of the rest of the plot here:

https://www.metopera.org/user-information/synopses-archive/die-walkure

The earliest-known use of the music in a film.

Some later examples.

An excerpt that begins as diegetic but becomes something else:

Wagner goes back to Vietnam:

Both diegetic and self-referential: “The Ride of the Valkyries” as a meta-narrative:

Ironic Wagner: In Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2, Marcello Mastroianni is a film director suffering from creative block. He visits a spa for treatment, where he is recognized by the other patients.

And then there’s this:

Illustration of Brünnhilde (Act III) in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Heinrich Lefler. Austrian (1863 – 1919)