Black Woodstock

New York City Mayor John Lindsay, the “blue-eyed soul brother,” arriving at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) for a July 13, 1969 concert, escorted by Black Panthers.

As the media is flooded with reminiscences about Woodstock, the New York Times remembers “Black Woodstock,” 1969’s rolling Harlem block party.

The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.

And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.

Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?

Clara at 200

A clever student-created animated bio, “The Wild Life of Clara Schumann.”

Clara’s beautiful Lied “Beim Abschied.”

The poem, by Friederike Serre, translated by Richard Stokes.

On departing

A purple glow shines from afar,
Golden now the bright day sinks,
One by one the silver stars
Awaken in the skies.
And the Queen of the Day
Bows her head and goes to sleep;
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Shadows cover the broad earth,
Night lies on the meadows.
Pray be still now, poor heart,
That the day has wearied so!
O appear, gently, mildly,
Sweet image in my dreams.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks;
Now a feeling of bliss,
Now a painful, fearful longing
Is set to break my heart.
Only dreams can restore
That happiness too quickly vanished.
One more greeting, now goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

When I gaze into the dusk,
And the sun sets,
I think of all the pain
That I have endured.
Ah, perhaps the morrow
Will banish all cares.
So be of good cheer! Goodbye!
No farewell! No departure!

What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?

Pianist Jonathan Biss attempts to decode the Schumanns’ relationship.

The wonderful scene where Brahms shows up at the Schumanns’ door in the 1947 film Song of Love.

To the Distant Beloved

Title page of An die ferne Geliebte, with dedication to Prince Lobkowitz.

Read the score here:

Translations are here.

The cycle performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore.

Read the texts and see facsimiles of the “Immortal Beloved” letters here.

Canadian composer James K. Wright composed a cycle of three songs based on the letters for voice and piano trio. The piece, Briefe an die unsterbliche Geliebte (Letters to the Immortal Beloved), was premiered in 2012, two hundred years after the date on Beethoven’s letters. Read Wright’s discussion of the background and process of his piece here.

Listen to it here.

Wright argues for the identity of Josephine von Daym as the Immortal Beloved (you will be familiar with her from the BBC Eroica film). What do you think? Other possibilities are listed here.

The 1994 film Immortal Beloved relied on a theory advanced in a 1957 book called Beethoven and His Nephew: A Psychoanalytic Study of their Relationship, by Editha and Richard Sterba.

The film makes Beethoven out to be more of a player than he really was.

Black Country

This seems to be the summer that country trap reached the mainstream.

Where does country trap come from?

Maybe we should be asking why we think of country music as a white genre in the first place.

A diagram of the main themes of country music.

One of the reasons that we think of country as a white genre is that country music has connotations of Southern rural life, wide open spaces, and farming.

Southern rural life was decimated by the Great Migration, and wide open spaces have not always been safe for black people. What is not widely known is that, before the Great Migration, blacks were also disproportionately represented among American farmers. Not only during slave days, but also up until the early years of the twentieth century, black people were the farmers, at least in the South.

There’s a movement to revive black farming. Here Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, near Albany, explains her mission.

Penniman is also featured in this documentary by Binghamton-native musician Taína Asili:

Watch a documentary about efforts to reclaim the urban decay of Detroit and repurpose it as farmland:

More on the history of black farming:

And the history of black landowners being dispossessed of their land: “The lost property isn’t just money; it’s also identity.”

Appendix 1: Zydeco is a Louisiana-based subgenre that mixes country, folk, and cajun music.

Appendix 2: Watch the 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame,” narrated by the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow, about migrant farm workers, both black and white southerners dispossessed of their land:

Back (and Forth) to Africa

A 1736 map of what would become Liberia a hundred years later.

As Michael Rosenwald observes in the Washington Post, the recent eruption of the disquieting chant “Send her back!” has a long history.

Read the article and all the links.

In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.

In America you get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Everybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with m
e

*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.

The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:

Etta James:

Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:

Harry Nilsson:

The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:

Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?

Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?

What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?

What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?

It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”

Classically Black, V: Playlist for “Home” by Langston Hughes

The pieces Roy Williams plays in his mother’s house when he returns from Europe:

The most famous of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms (called “The Gypsy Dances” by Hughes):

Roland Hayes singing “The Crucifixion” (for more on Hayes, including the poem Langston Hughes wrote on the assault on the great tenor in Georgia, see here):

The “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet:

It’s worth noting in the context of the Hughes story that, in the 2018 film Green Book, composer and pianist Don Shirley does not play classical music for white audiences, but rather his own jazz-classical hybrid form, a choice that makes white listeners more comfortable with the separation between him and themselves; in a sense, Hughes tells us, it’s the blurring of race and musical genre that leads to Roy’s death. For Don Shirley in the film, it’s only in a black bar that he’s finally allowed to play the music that he loves the most.

For more about the real Don Shirley, the subject of the film, read this.

What do Kira Thurman’s essay and Langston Hughes’s story tell us about the experiences of black classical musicians?

X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:

“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”

“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”

Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.

Names have power, in other words.

Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”

The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

No to Joy

The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:

Joy, beautiful spark of God,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, fire-drunk,
Heavenly, your holy sanctuary.
Your magics bind again
What custom has strictly parted.
All men become brothers
Where your tender wing lingers.

Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:

Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?

Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.

This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.

Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading it in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942:

What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Hitler?

It was also adapted by the brutal colonial governor, Ian Smith as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):

The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:

In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:

We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.

What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?

Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?

Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?

“The artist is a critic of society”

The San Francisco City School Board recently voted to scrape down a mural (one panel of which is shown above) from a wall of the city’s George Washington High School. The 13-panel mural, which depicts the life of our first president (the school’s namesake), was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-Jewish immigrant and committed Communist. At a time when the founders of our nation were uniformly portrayed as morally upright men, Arnautoff made the provocative choice not to shy away from the brutality of our nation’s founding: he painted paint Washington’s slaves picking cotton on his Virginia estate, as well as the corpse of a Native American victim of European expansion. Arnautoff intended his mural to shine a bright light on America’s difficult history. You can see more panels from the mural and read explanations of their iconography here.

Why does the San Francisco school board want to destroy this important work of art? Because its members believe the depiction of enslaved Africans and dead Indians will make students feel unsafe.

One of the [school board] commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools” . . . Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, [said] that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost [estimated to be $600,000], he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

How is the destruction of a work of art that is critical of the injustices in American history “reparations”?

Dewey Crumpler, an African-American artist and professor of art history at the San Francisco Art Institute, disagrees. Crumpler himself painted a series of “response murals” at George Washington High School, inspired by Arnautoff’s murals, in 1974. Watch as he explains Arnautoff’s disturbing imagery and why it is so important.

Professor Crumpler refers to the legend, passed down from generation to generation of schoolchildren, that Washington could not tell a lie. Is it possible that Arnautoff’s murals are, likewise, an attempt to tell the truth about our history as a nation?

Do you think students need to be protected from painful imagery? Would destroying a work of art that contains such images protect them?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed precious centuries-old statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan because the statues offended the sensibilities of their new Islamist republic. Do you think this act of destruction was different from, or similar to, the proposed destruction of the Arnautoff murals?

The Nazis also destroyed works of art that they believed were “degenerate,” because they were by Jewish or gay artists, or because they depicted “unpatriotic” scenes, like the painting above, “War Cripples” (1920), by Otto Dix, which shows a parade of grotesque-looking wounded German World War I veterans.

Do you think the impetus behind the pending destruction of the Arnautoff murals is different from, or similar to, the impetus behind the destruction of so-called degenerate art by the Nazis? 

The author of a new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, suggests that censorship of disturbing images could have a damaging effect on the ability of students to contend with the inevitable challenges of adult life:

If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when [students] go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on.

A commenter on the New York Times piece makes an important distinction when it comes to the interpretation of images, or any kind of historiography:

One problem common among those who seek to censor works of art, books, movies, etc. is that they cannot critically discern between the depiction of a thing and the endorsement of a thing. To look at this imagery and to conclude that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” is an example of how zealotry creates ignorance.

The commenter then adds: “This article makes me feel sick.”

Do you think that art should make us feel safe?

What about music?

What about education?

And a related question: Does avoiding exposure to painful topics actually make one safe? What is safety in the context of learning?