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:
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 me
*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.
The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:
Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:
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.”
Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D Major, which Kira Thurman imagines Draylen Mason playing:
Two of the pieces Kira Thurman played for her music school audition:
The piece that Thurman says she is “obsessed with playing and listening to”:
An excerpt from Cycles of My Being by Tyshawn Sorey:
The Spark Catchers, by British composer of African descent, Hannah Kendall:
Essay by artist and critic “Coco Fusco, Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” which Thurman cites on p. 244:
Dana Schutz, “Open Casket” (2016), in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
In Langston Hughes’s short story “Home,” Roy Williams plays the following pieces 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?
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).
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.
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”:
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 the end of the Ninth Symphony in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942 (starting at 1:59, following remarks by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich):
What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Nazi ideology?
It was also adapted by the brutal British 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 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.
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?
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:
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?
Porter suggests here that Coltrane wasn’t truly improvising, but composing.
Is A Love Supreme a jazz example of word-painting, a compositional technique dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras?
An example of word-painting from the English Renaissance: Thomas Weelkes’s madrigal “As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending.” Note the way the vocal line travels downward on the word “descending,” for instance, and upward on the word “ascending.”
The fourth movement, entitled “Psalm,” is Coltrane’s note-for-word musical translation of his poem “A Love Supreme,” which was included in the liner notes of the LP. Coltrane described it as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.”
A Love Supreme I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related… all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be His name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations– all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way… it is so lovely… it is gracious. It is merciful–Thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God… everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear… believe… Thank you God. The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way… it is so wonderful. Thoughts–deeds–vibrations, all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful… Thank you God. Glory to God… God is so alive. God is. God loves. May I be acceptable in Thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of Thee, O Lord. Thank you God. God will wash away all our tears… He always has… He always will. Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God. To whom all praise is due… praise God. No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are all from one thing… the will of God… Thank you God. I have seen God–I have seen ungodly– none can be greater–none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us… He always has and He always will. It’s true–blessed be His name–Thank you God. God breathes through us so completely… so gently we hardly feel it… yet, it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION–ELEGANCE–EXALTATION– All from God. Thank you God. Amen.
In fact, as you can see in this video, which shows the handwritten poem, in “Psalm,” Coltrane plays each syllable as a note, making it a kind of recitative in the form of a prayer.
In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
What do you think? Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published? Do you think the illustrations should have been modified? Do you think the enslaved family should have been included? Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense? Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology? If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?
I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?
What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?
Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?
Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?
Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?
What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?
Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.