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. Because of their relative isolation, freedman and their descendants were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:
The most well-known Gullah song, recorded in 1926 for the first time:
Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:
A ring shout:
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).
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.
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.
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.
Many artists moved to Harlem, where they were free to cultivate the inner life.
Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:
The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:
I don’t want your Dixie, You can keep your Dixie, There’s no one down in Dixie Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem. Harlem has those Southern skies, They’re in my baby’s smile, I idolize my baby’s eyes And classy uptown style.
The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.
Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.
The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)
The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:
Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.
The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.
As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not “the kind of love that satisfies.”
Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:
In Harlem’s Araby You can’t tell “B” from “G.” There’s nothing in the Orient Like Harlem’s Araby.
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
One of your first 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, places, and cultures. This post is a compendium of the forms he mentions.
Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”
On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.
Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites (we will be studying minstrelsy in depth in a couple of weeks):
Amos N’ Andy:
Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:
3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:
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.
Respond to the following questions in a comment on this blog post, using your first name only.
1. Amos and Andy were black comedy artists. Why do you think John Szwed includes them in his list of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy?
2. What does Szwed mean when he calls Mick Jagger a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface”?
3. On p. 30 of his article, 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 he’s referring to here, in general, is the appropriation and consumption of black music — the “lower [socio-economic] group’s cultural pool” — by the “elite of society,” i.e. those who enjoy economic and cultural privilege. Szwed sees the irony of black music — a unique expression of a particular culture — going corporate/mainstream. The process of the commodification of black music has been going on ever since black music began to be recognized as a distinct style and genre in the nineteenth century, as we will see later.
Give an example of the process of conversion Szwed describes — of black American music or culture into national American music or culture — from your own lifetime. Name a specific song/artist/genre.
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:
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 as if they were 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 in the Chicago suburbs — Price’s, as it turns out — 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.
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:
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 African–American music. This is no less true of American classical music.
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 to play Jewish weddings, with whom Mahler would have been very familiar from growing up in the Bohemian shtetl, or segregated Jewish village — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.
A scene of a klezmer band playing at a shtetl wedding, from the movie Fiddler on the Roof:
What does Mahler mean by this? Is the klezmer music also an illustration of irony?
The music reminds me of the art of Mahler’s younger contemporary Marc Chagall, whose fantasy-like paintings of people flying above his hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus, suggests a freedom denied to the Jews who actually lived there.
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.
Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?
The linden tree was also associated with the Virgin Mary in German folklore. This Marian motet from the Renaissance, “Es steht ein Lind in Himmelreich” (A linden tree stood in heaven) compares Mary to the beauty and purity of the linden.
And near the end of his life, Johannes Brahms published two volumes, without opus numbers (WoO), of his arrangements of German folksongs. This is one of the last, “Es steht’ ein Lind” (There stands a linden tree). The singer has lost his beloved, and all of nature mourns with him, including the linden tree, who helps him to weep.
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 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.
Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.
While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:
And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.
Marvin Gaye’s great 1971 record What’s Going On took Motown’s first-string in a politically-engaged and socially-conscious direction. The album, influenced by a dark time in Gaye’s own life, was a “concept album” — all the songs were connected into a single overarching narrative, about a Black soldier coming home from Vietnam, based on the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie. Berry Gordy at first refused to release it, thinking it too political. Gaye refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy changed his mind. Gaye prevailed, and the rest is history.