The DNA of American Folk Music

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Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

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However, according to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), this does not make Elizabeth Warren an Indian:

Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and [their] legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?

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In 1892, famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America at the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, New York — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train young American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New York Herald newspaper:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, 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.

In response to his pronouncement,

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman [a black-owned newspaper] recalled Dvořák’s statements as “a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements,” referring to him as “Pan [father] Antonín Dvořák, our greatest friend from far across the sea.” According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvořák “lives on in black music circles.” 

In another unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes at the conservatory. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.

“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.

Mother, shed no mournful tears,

But gird me on my sword;

And give no utterance to thy fears,

But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!

A cause is to be won!

Mother, look not so white and wan;

Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue

Where’er my footsteps fare;

And when they lead beyond thy view,

Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,

Nor danger to dispel;

Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm

I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep

My heart and purpose strong,

My sword unsullied and ready to leap

Unsheathed against the wrong.

While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World” (written in New York City in 1893) was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual, migrating from the concert hall to public (and private) spaces less formally rigid.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take note of, and advantage of, “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).

The question one might ask about these composers and their work is one that will come up for us again and again in this class: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship with African-Americans? or in a spirit of opportunism, even of exploitation?

One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”

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John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. In 1931, he founded a short-lived but influential Appalachian music festival in Virginia called the White Top Festival. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (standing, fourth from right) visited the festival in 1933.

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John Powell was also an avowed white supremacist, and helped to draft Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, also known as the “one-drop rule.” This law legally classified anyone who had any amount of African ancestry (even “one drop”) as black, and hence subject to segregation under Jim Crow.

The “one-drop rule,” however, exempted anyone who claimed to be descended from the real Pocahontas, as many of Virginia’s “finest families” claimed to be.

In spite of the fact that Powell had drawn upon African-American folk music themes in his “Rhapsodie Nègre,” he sought to promote the idea that American folk music derived exclusively from “Anglo-Saxon” sources, an idea that was disputed even in his own time. The White Top Festival was a public attempt to showcase this controversial idea: in other words, he harnessed folk music in the service of his social-political agenda.

Can you think of other historical examples of the co-opting of culture in the service of politics?

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Powell was by no means an outlier in his attempts to whitewash the African roots of traditional American music. Around the same time that he was giving lectures on the “Anglo-Saxon” derivation of Appalachian music, Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford), a virulent racist and anti-Semite, was spearheading a square dance revival, in the hopes of counteracting the pernicious influence of jazz. What Ford neglected, probably out of ignorance, was the fact that square dancing, like Appalachian music, has deep roots in African-American culture.

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(Howard University students square dancing in 1949.)

When we think of American folk music, especially fiddle-and-banjo music from the region of Appalachia, we tend to think of it as white people’s music, as in this famous scene from the 1972 film Deliverance.

As John Jeremiah Sullivan describes Rhiannon Giddens, one of the contemporary black artists attempting to reveal the black roots of American folk music:

She is an artist of color who plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music” for mainly white audiences . . . a concert for the prisoners at Sing Sing . . . was the first time she’d played for a majority-black crowd . . . Giddens [says], “. .. I would like to see more people from my . . . community at the shows and in the know” . . . The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens . . . But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest . . . to remind people that the music she plays is black music.

Black music like this:

And like this:

And this:

And all of this:

Rhiannon Giddens is not the only young black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.

Here is the multi-instrumentalist native of Los Angeles, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who plays both country blues and Appalachian music, and even sometimes performs in the dress of a black Southern field hand.

Valerie June draws on Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues traditions in her music:

The New York City-based old-time string band The Ebony Hillbillies:

Toronto-born Kaia Kater:

As we think about and explore ideas of authenticity in American music, we would do well to remember that the DNA of American music in all of its genres has a great deal more than one drop of African ancestry.

Appendix: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.

We Shall Overcome

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At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.

As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”

It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.

“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”

In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:

Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.

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Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”

Dr. King watched the speech on television at a friend’s house in Selma, surrounded by his aides, including John Lewis, who would later become a long-serving congressman.

“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:

The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:

The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):

and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”

The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.

Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:

The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?

What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could this happen today? Should it?

And it gets more complicated: a recent lawsuit alleges that “We Shall Overcome” was pirated from a similar song, “If My Jesus Wills,” composed  by Louise Shropshire, a friend of Dr. King. Read the allegations and watch video here.

In the chapter “We Shall Overcome,” from his 1969 book Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (in your course reading packet), former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary (and later prolific author) Julius Lester casts the song in an ironic light:

In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.

How does Lester engage with Dr. King’s philosophy of the “Beloved Community”?

As the King Center describes it:

“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks

In addition to being a writer and activist, Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.

Recently, in Portland, Oregon, the white parishioners of St. Francis Catholic Church used the song in a protest against changes made by their more traditional African pastor.

What do you think of this use of “We Shall Overcome”? Is it appropriate? Is it ironic?

Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.

Jazz 59

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, the biggest-selling jazz record in history.

Pay special attention to the spaciousness in the sound, and the minimalist approach to the solos.

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um.

Pay special attention to the virtuosity of the solos and to Mingus’s compositional and arranging genius.

Ornette Coleman: playlist of all the tracks on The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Pay special attention to the balance between absolute freedom and “controlled chaos.”

Ornette Coleman’s style would come to be called “free jazz.” Some critics linked his sound with the struggle for civil rights. Nevertheless, as one critic put it:

The free jazz movement sprang from musical sources, not social forces. . .were there free jazz players who made music to express anger over civil rights struggles? Yes. . . Did [all of them] abandon [traditional jazz] chord changes because of the civil rights-related anger? No. The free-form approach came first. Were there avant-garde musicians who protested via music without abandoning preset chord changes? Yes. Charles Mingus was one (for instance, “Original Fables of Faubus,” with lyrics about Orville Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Nevertheless, pianist Mal Waldron, who played with Mingus

was . . . eager to embrace the new freedoms [of free jazz]. As [Waldron] saw it, they went hand in hand with being a black musician in the era of civil rights. The bar lines in a song were, he recalled, like “going to jail for us.” “We were talking about freedom, and getting out of jails…. So everyone wanted to escape from that.”

UPDATED, SEPTEMBER 2019:

The Sounding Out! blog is publishing a special series on the 60th anniversary of Mingus Ah Um. Check it out here.

Classically Black, part IV: Postmodernism

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When we talk about postmodernism in music, we’re generally referring to the period after World War II. Some of the hallmarks of postmodernism are an experimental approach to form, structure, and instrumental/vocal techniques, a distrust of historically-informed musical styles, and an aesthetic that borrows from and refers to popular music styles. Postmodernist music has taken on many different and sometimes-conflicting forms and philosophical narratives.

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Composer Tania León (b. 1943) draws on her Afro-Cuban heritage and its syncretic music traditions in her art and concert music.

The aria “Oh Yemanya” is from her opera Scourge of Hyancinths, whose libretto she co-authored with the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka.

León says of this aria:

[Yemanya] is the same deity that my grandmother and my mother — if we were sick, then they would pray to this deity. If I had an exam, if I got to play in front of the public, everything was geared toward — all the sanctity and the blessing of this deity. Then this man has sent me something where this mother is praying to the same deity my family prayed to? This is the piece!

She is currently writing an opera about the Little Rock Nine, with a libretto by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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León with Soyinka (right) and Gates.

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Anthony Davis (b. 1951) has written several operas, including X, about Malcolm X:

His operas also include Amistad, about the 1839 slave-ship uprising, and The Central Park Five, premiering in summer 2019 at Long Beach Opera. 

Is Davis’s music syncretic? Does it incorporate styles of black music outside of the classical tradition?

George Walker (1922-2018) and his son Gregory T.S. Walker (b. 1961 and also a composer) talk here about George’s work; Gregory performs his father’s violin piece Bleu:

The complete talk:

Anthony Braxton (b. 1945) incorporates elements of free jazz into his classical compositions:

Classically Black, part III: Nationalism and Internationalism

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some African-American composers working in classical music chose to compose in the standard forms of the European classical music traditions. William Grant Still, for instance, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” could be considered an “internationalist.” Among many other works, Still wrote five symphonies — the large-scale, multi-movement orchestral form that dominated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European musical output. Nevertheless, Still infused much of his formal orchestral writing with what we might call “nationalist” feeling.

His 1937 Symphony no. 2 in G minor, for instance, is subtitled “Song of a New Race,” and uses black folk themes as melodic and rhythmic material. The second movement is marked “Slowly and deeply expressive.”

Does it remind you in any way of the second movement of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”?

Still’s 1956 concerto for harp and piano is called Ennanga, which is the name of a small Ugandan harp. Again, the piece combines internationalist form and nationalist themes.

W.E.B. DuBois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was also a composer.

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Sadly, little of her music has been published or recorded. Here is a short piano piece. Does it sound nationalist or internationalist to you?

She was the first black woman composer to have an opera performed, Tom-Tom, which was staged at the Cleveland Stadium before an audience of 25,000 in 1932. Tom-Tom’s subject matter is the history of the black experience in America from enslavement onwards. The score was thought to be lost, but in 2018 the unpublished manuscript was found in Ms. Du Bois’s papers by a Harvard undergraduate.

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Read more here.

A great deal of belated attention has been given lately to the heretofore almost forgotten composer Florence Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. In 2009 a collection of scores by Price was found in a dilapidated old house in St. Anne, Illinois that was undergoing renovation, and the music world responded with overdue excitement.

Price’s Symphony no. 1 in E minor:

An art song by Price, “At the Feet o’ Jesus.” Note that Price is using the internationalist form of the art song/lied, and, like the great nineteenth-century lieder composers, set an existing poem by a great poet, in this case Langston Hughes. Again, she negotiates the boundary between nationalist and internationalist forms, and between high art and folk art: the song sounds like a folk spiritual, after all, and yet it’s a new composition to a poem by a major poet — a poem that Hughes wrote in African-American Vernacular English, no doubt in the same spirit as Florence Price’s composition.

At the feet o’ Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.

Another Price/Hughes collaboration, “Song to the Dark Virgin”:

Would 
That I were a jewel, 
A shattered jewel, 
That all my shining brilliants 
Might fall at thy feet, 
Thou dark one. 

II 

Would 
That I were a garment, 
A shimmering, silken garment, 
That all my folds 
Might wrap about thy body, 
Absorb thy body, 
Hold and hide thy body, 
Thou dark one. 

III 

Would 
That I were a flame, 
But one sharp, leaping flame 
To annihilate thy body, 
Thou dark one.

Read British pianist and scholar Samantha Ege’s account of her (complicated) experience giving the Australian premiere of Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor in 2018.

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In 1933, pianist and composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), above, was the first black woman to perform with the Chicago Symphony, in the same concert at which Price became the first black woman to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

Bonds was also a composer; one of her best-known works is “Troubled Water,” a piano piece that draws on the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

Bonds also collaborated with Langston Hughes on many art songs.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song, 
You do not think 
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth 
Is wide with laughter, 
You do not hear
My inner cry? 
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing, 
You do not know 
I die? 

Black Opera

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Harry Lewis Freeman (1869-1954).

Harry Lewis Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company.

His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, one of whose participants is a “Voodoo queen,” Lolo. The New York Herald Tribune noted that the opera portrayed

typical Negro life in the days of slavery, while the music includes spirituals, chants, arias, tangoes and other dances, among these a ritualistic voodoo ceremony.

In 2015, the opera was revived for the first time since 1928 by the Harlem Opera Theatre, who performed it in a concert version at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.

Here, Janinah Burnett as Lolo performs the “ritualistic voodoo ceremony.”

Freeman was not, however, the first African-American composer of opera. The first known operatic work by a black composer in the U.S. was Virginia’s Ball by John Thomas Douglass (1847-1886), which had its premiere in New York in 1868. Unfortunately, the score has been lost. Below is an excerpt from his solo piano work “The Pilgrim.”

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James Weldon Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), is best known for his setting of his brother’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem:

He was also a successful composer of light operas for the Broadway stage around the turn of the twentieth century.

In addition, Johnson was a singer, who performed the role of Frazier in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess — the most enduringly successful opera about black American life. 

The English National Opera performed Porgy for the first time this month, with a cast of young black English singers.

By specification of the Gershwin estate, Porgy must only be performed by singers of African ancestry. This did not stop the Hungarian State Opera from performing it with white singers earlier this year, however. Read more:

 

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Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), above, who wrote in a more “internationalist,” neo-classical style, also wrote operas. This is a score excerpt from his 1985 opera Frederick Douglass.

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In performance by New York’s Opera Ebony:

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William Grant Still (1895-1978), above, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” wrote eight operas. His 1939 opera Troubled Island, about the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, was the first opera by a black composer to be performed by a major company, the New York City Opera.

A recent New York Times article discussed some of these works, as the Metropolitan Opera made the radical (for them) choice of opening their 2019-2020 season with Porgy and Bess. Read more here:

Authenticity, part V: Tribute or Appropriation?

As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1943, where he became a highly-influential, internationally famous blues musician, one of the first to use electric guitar.

The first song Waters recorded with Lomax was “Country Blues.” Note the extreme rhythmic freedom of Waters’s style, which Alan Lomax called “patently African.”

Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” provided the name of the British band, who admired him greatly.

In fact, when the Stones were on tour in the 1981 they visited the legendary Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, where Waters was playing a club date. Waters was gracious enough to invite them up onstage with him.

More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. (Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.)

A few years later, Kurt Cobain paid a similar tribute to Lead Belly by performing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Do you think that the sound of the music changes when performed by a white artist?

What about the meaning of the music? Alan Lomax called the blues:

the only song form in English that allows the singer . . . to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. Musically speaking, the first phase of the blues raises a question-it often ends on a high note, leaving the problem unresolved, the question unanswered. The clinching phrase usually descends to a low note roundly concluding the matter. There are [other] such improvisatory forms [in the folk music of other cultures] . . . but there was none in English till the muleskinners and blues singers of the Delta filled the poetic gap, which none of the great poets of the English tradition had done. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life.

Is this “magical property” retained when sung by white artists?

Ragtime, part 1

TW/CW: Racist imagery.

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One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.

The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”

Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.

The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazine called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s song attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.

A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.

Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.

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Scott Joplin also wrote an opera, Treemonisha, in 1911, which included ragtime numbers. The opera didn’t receive its first full performance until 1972, and Joplin received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition posthumously for the opera in 1977.

Here is one of the opera’s most famous numbers, “A Real Slow Drag,” from the finale.

The trailer for a 1977 biopic of Joplin, featuring Billy Dee Williams as the composer.

What is the Blues?

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(W.C. Handy)

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed the famous bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

Alan Lomax wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged mister-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, Alan Lomax and his father, John Lomax, describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music.” Steven Garabedian concludes that:

They were opposed politically, but they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Leadbelly on their first trip in 1933, and, in 1941, first recorded Muddy Waters, who was working as a tractor driver in Mississippi.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.