The DNA of American Folk Music

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Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

In 2018, in response to pushback against her frequent mentions 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.

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.

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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 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.

Classically Black, part III: Nationalism and Internationalism

As we’ve discussed in class, some black composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 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.

We’ve talked a little about the second Mrs. W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley Graham.

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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?

A page from the manuscript score of her 1932 opera Tom-Tom:

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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.

Samantha Ege

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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? 

Classically Black, part II: The Songs of Black Volk Playlist

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As we’ve discussed in class, W.E.B. Du Bois, above, who spent several years studying in Germany in the 1890s, greatly admired German classical music, and considered it a repertoire full of freedom and possibility for black performers. He especially loved the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the opera house in Bavaria where a festival of Wagner’s operas is put on every year. By this time, it was widely known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer: here is Hitler at the 1934 Bayreuth festival.

As Alex Ross describes the trip:

Du Bois was treated courteously in Bayreuth, but he could not avoid the ideological stench of the place. . . .Pervasive anti-Semitism left him aghast. Even so, he insisted on the universality of the Wagner operas. “No human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life,” he wrote, in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was the summer of the Berlin Olympics, of Jesse Owens’s victory, and Du Bois’s readers might have been awaiting his celebration of that feat. He was, however, suspicious of the cult of sports, and preferred to focus on achievements in science and art. Gazing at mementos of Wagner in a display case, he imagines a young black artist who will one day mesmerize the world with comparable genius. He dreams of a black Wagner, a sorcerer of myth.

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Inspired by Du Bois, and by the remarks made by historian Kira Thurman (above) in the “Studying the Lied” colloquy in the Summer 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, here is a playlist of most of the singers mentioned by Thurman, singing German repertoire. Read the colloquy here.

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A live recording of the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey from 1941 (starts at around 15:00; I couldn’t figure out how to cue the audio, so you may need to listen to a violin sonata by Paul Hindemith first).

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Tenor Roland Hayes, a native of Georgia and the son of former slaves, was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk while on tour, when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident:

Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!

Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
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Marian Anderson:

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Ellabelle Davis:

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Kenneth Spencer:

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Leontyne Price:

Simon Estes:

William Warfield:

Grace Bumbry:

Reri Grist:

Kathleen Battle:

Jessye Norman:

South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises some Zulu in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera:

Pretty Yende singing an aria from the same opera:

Tenor Russell More recalls being told “Too bad you’re black,” at an audition.

Thomas talks about his debut as Otello:

Thomas sings:

Schubertiades in a Police State

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Schubert’s room, as drawn by his friend Moritz von Schwind, 1821.

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Franz Schubert at age 16.

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Franz von Schober.

The Austrian poet Franz von Schober (1796-1882) was evidently the driving force behind the Schubertiades, the semi-private salon gatherings at which Franz Schubert premiered many of his Lieder. Schober was in fact such a close friend of Schubert’s that together they were known as “Schobert” among their circle of friends, a mashup of their names à la Javanka or Brangelina.

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Schubert’s setting of Schober’s poem “An die Music” (To Music) has become one of his best-loved Lieder. In the text, the poet addresses music as an allegorical figure of healing:

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

A historian-blogger known to me only as Richard has written an extremely engaging and wonderfully detailed history of the Schubertiades.  The entire series of articles is worth reading; here are some excerpts.

In January 1821 Schober invited some ‘good friends, preferably ‘spirited men’ to an evening at his house. Schubert himself would play a lot of ‘wonderful songs’ and afterwards ‘punch would be drunk’. The name Schubertiade had not yet been invented, but this event, programmatically mentioning Schubert and his music, can be considered the first of the series.

As far as we know Schober was the prime mover behind the Schubertiaden. It is presumed that it was he who came up with the name Schubertiade, that fine piece of branding that set Schubert and his music in the centre of the event. The word not only bound Schubert to the event, it also gave no indication to the [Viennese] secret police . . . that anything else might be happening. When the music stopped and the punch was drunk and the dancing started we know nothing of what was discussed in that round: in those dangerous times nothing of importance was written down, even in the most private diary. Viennese culture had become an oral culture long before this and as such its detail is lost to us.

. . .The present writer is convinced that Schubert gained no substantial advantage from these events apart from admiration, respect and a feeling of belonging. Well, we all like those. They may have been an important psychological gain for him and may even justify Joseph von Spaun’s opinion that the Schubertiaden had been essential for his development: Schubert would not have been Schubert without them. But the fact that Spaun feels the need to write this at all exposes the question: whilst accepting the psychological gain, what was the professional gain for Schubert?

As we wrote in [a] previous piece the Schubertiaden were fundamentally selfish events – they kept their house musician busy entertaining their guests, paid him nothing, gave him a buffet and some drink and kept the knowledge of his talent as a composer, his genius and fame, firmly bottled up in the febrile, self-regarding scene of the Viennese salon. The typical conclusion of Schubert’s salon appearances was a sausage supper, some drinking and then some dancing, as Schubert, the resident piano-player . . . would be expected to knock out gallops and ecossaises [social dances of the era] into the early hours of the morning. After about midnight the ladies would be escorted home and the men would then retire to a coffee-house for a nightcap and a smoke.

Your gloomy author exaggerates, as so often? On the 26 March 1818 Franz Schubert gave a ‘Private Concert’ in the hall of the Austrian Music Society in Vienna. At last! we murmur, at last! The hall was packed, the audience reception ecstatic, the reviews equally so. The net income for Schubert was 800 florins W.W. (= 320 Gulden, fl. K.M.). On the downside, he did not get free sausages to eat or punch to drink and he did not need to spend a couple of hours afterwards playing dance music for the guests. He still got to go to the coffee-house afterwards.

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The concert program from Schubert’s only public concert, 1828.

For most of Vienna, at least those people who had even heard of him, Schubert had just been a passing phenomenon. His music was hardly published, scraps of manuscripts accumulated in drawers throughout Vienna and Germany. By the beginning of 1829 Schubert had gone and it would be more than another 20 years before anyone tried to remember him or rediscover who this ‘Franz Schubert’ was. . .

It was Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who started the process – that is, it was a musical resurrection: Schubert was reborn through the quality of his music. After that, some biographers attempted the rediscovery of the life. The first one of these biographies (Kreißle’s) appeared more than 37 years after that winter day in 1828. For a hundred years after his death people were still finding manuscript scores in drawers and tucked into books.

That is the trajectory of Schubert’s life. . . . The modern modish word ‘depression’ is not correct here. Schubert never seems to have evidenced the classical characteristics of the depressive’s checklist: no listlessness, no apathy, no black moods or sleeplessness (that we know of). On the contrary, he was driven by an almost superhuman work-ethic. He never succumbed. But, in Die schöne Müllerin and the Winterreise, in the late trios and piano sonatas, we cannot fail to hear it. The roots of that melancholy are easy to find.

 

Death and the Maiden

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The theme of Death and the Maiden comes from the Middle Ages, where the visual motif of the danse macabre or Totentanz (the dance of death) was a popular decoration in painting and architecture. The danse macabre usually shows the allegorical figure of Death leading an unsuspecting group of the living in a round dance which ends in the grave or with a plunge from a cliff. The dancers generally include all ages and social classes, showing the universality and inevitability of death. Here, Death compels a prince and a bishop to dance.

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The sub-allegory of Death and the Maiden adds an erotic element:

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Schubert wrote a Lied called “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” to a poem by Matthias Claudius. In translation:

The Maiden:
Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, fierce man of bones!
I am still young! Go, dear,
And do not touch me.
And do not touch me.

Death:
Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Later, he used the Lied as the basis for an entire string quartet:

Why do you think he was so interested in this theme?

Night and Dreams

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1830).

Words and images you will encounter over and over again in the Lieder of the Romantic era: night, dark, moon, dream — in German, Nacht, dunkel, Mond, Traum (German nouns are capitalized).

Think of the thick, dark (dunkel), overgrown forests in which so many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm take place, and recall that the Brothers Grimm were philologists (linguists) as well as folklore collectors. The brothers’ other great project, in addition to their folktale collecting, was the publication of what is still today the most comprehensive German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch.

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In the Wörterbuch, the Grimms provide another meaning for dunkel, in addition to “dark”: dämmerndmeaning dusky, dim, like twilight, the indeterminate time of day when the light yields to the dark. This haziness and indeterminacy is another prominent idea in Romanticism, in which imagination and what it produces have a greater value than reason and what it measures.

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Rocky Landscape in the Elbe (Friedrich, 1823).

In his song “Mondnacht” (Moonlit Night), notice how Schumann begins with a feeling of indeterminacy in the piano, and how, when the voice enters, it appears to be singing just a fragment of a melody. The poem is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The text in translation by Richard Stokes:

It was as though Heaven
Had softly kissed the Earth,
So that she in a gleam of blossom
Had only to dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

And my soul spread
Her wings out wide,
Flew across the silent land,
As though flying home.

Here is Brahms’s setting of the same text.

How are the two musical settings different? Which do you think is more effective in capturing the “night” feeling of Eichendorff’s poem? Why?

 

He Who Knows Longing

Johann_Heinrich_Wilhelm_Tischbein_-_Goethe_in_the_Roman_Campagna_-_Google_Art_ProjectJohann Wolfgang von Goethe in a traveling robe on a trip to Italy.

In 1795, Goethe published his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), a Bildungsroman (novel concerned with the growth of the individual human spirit) about a young merchant who, dissatisfied with his life in business, goes off to join a group of traveling street performers. He meets Mignon in their midst, a vulnerable and melancholy young singer and actress with a shadowy past. Goethe gives Mignon several memorable songs, written in verse, to sing in the course of the novel’s narrative. These few verses in a now largely-forgotten novel would become generate some of the greatest Lieder of the nineteenth century.

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Mignon by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, 1836.

Mignon, it is eventually revealed, is the product of an incestuous union between a brother and sister who had not been raised together and met later in life. She has been kidnapped from Italy and taken to wander the German-speaking lands with the other performers. She is in early adolescence, androgynous (other characters in the novel don’t know at first whether she’s a boy or girl), a creature seemingly on the threshold of this world, who longs for another one.

Mignon’s song “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only he who knows longing) was set to music hundreds of times, both in German and in various translations, throughout the nineteenth century. Here are several settings.

Schubert:

Schubert again:

Schubert again, in a setting for Männerchor:

Beethoven:

Schumann:

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel:

Which of these do you think best expresses Sehnsucht?

Cultural Appropriation or Cross-Cultural Encounter?

Trigger/content warning: racist language, blackface minstrelsy.

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Rihanna wearing a Catholic bishop’s mitre at the gala for the Metropolitan Museum show “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

The lines between cultural appropriation and a more innocent cross-cultural borrowing can be blurry. Are there rules for determining which is which?

Is this cultural appropriation? (Watch the whole thing.)

What about this?

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“Oh, Susanna” is sung from the point of view of an African-American man, apparently free and wandering with a banjo from Alabama to Louisiana (in 1846!). He sings in a thick dialect that is Foster’s own invention, and the second verse, which is never sung today, contains the unforgettable line:

I jump’d aboard the Telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber
De lectrie fluid magnified and kill’d five hundred Nigger.

“Oh, Susannah” was written for a blackface minstrel troupe, the Ethiopian Serenaders.But the song used to be sung by most American schoolchildren. Here is the Canadian folk ensemble The Be Good Tanyas’ version.

What about this, more in the original context?

We’ll be discussing these things at length this semester.

Go Down, Moses

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The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn.

Harriet Tubman (nicknamed “Moses” for having led hundreds of slaves to freedom) is supposed to have used “Go Down, Moses” as coded instructions for planned plantation breakouts, but music historian Dena J. Epstein calls this into question, noting:

“Go Down, Moses” was not a safe song to sing in the South, with its refrain of “Let my people go.”

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One of the earliest known recordings of the song, performed by a vocal quartet from the Tuskegee Institute in 1914, can be heard at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox Project website.

The song was made popular by the great African-American bass Paul Robeson, in an art song arrangement probably by Harry T. Burleigh.

” Go Down, Moses” was used in the 1941 movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” in a scene where the protagonist has found himself on a prisoners’ chain gang during the Great Depression. The scene has many layers of meaning, resonance, and irony, as the story of the Hebrew slaves in Egyptian bondage is sung by a black congregation — the near descendants of enslaved people themselves — for a group of prisoners in chains.

In the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” the young Sidney Poitier leads a group of high school students in a rendition.

(Does this remind you of your high school?)

In the 1950s, “Go Down, Moses,” became popular as a jazz standard. In this 1958 recording, Louis Armstrong uses elements of both gospel and jazz.

Another twist:

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It has also long been sung at American seders during the Jewish holiday of Passover. A black convert to Judaism writes:

The first time I heard a live rendition of “Go Down, Moses” was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by “O Freedom,” another classic negro spiritual.

A recording from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1950s is affecting on a whole other level.

Clair de lune

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Nuit du carnaval (Henri Rousseau, 1886).

In an art song, there are many layers of meaning.

There is the meaning of the sounds of the music.

There is the meaning of the words of the text.

There is also the meaning of the sounds of the words themselves.

Listen to the sounds of the text read in French.

Another reading, with a poetic translation into English in the subtitles.

“Clair de lune” (Paul Verlaine, 1869)

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

In translation:

Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques*
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.

*Masks = masked players; bergamasques = dancers of a rustic peasant dance called the bergamasque or bergamask, supposedly derived from Bergamo in northern Italy (you can see here a reference to the migration of commedia dell’arte from Italy to France). The bergamasque is supposed to be an awkward, clumsy, buffoonish dance.

Debussy’s first version of the song, written in 1882.

A live performance by South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Debussy’s second version, written in 1891.

Debussy also wrote a piano piece called “Clair de lune” as part of his Suite bergamasque (bergamasques again!) in 1891 (he revised it for publication in 1905).

The piece has been orchestrated many times. This version was cut from Disney’s classic 1940 film Fantasia.

Here is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem, written in 1887, in between Debussy’s two versions.

“Au clair de la lune” is an old French folk song in which the protagonist takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself unexpectedly (talk about “la vie opportune”!)

800px-Au_Clair_de_la_Lune_children's_book_2

“By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon
Likeable Lubin
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!

By the light of the moon
One could barely see.
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.

Debussy quotes the melody throughout his 1881 song “Pierrot”:

The text is a poem by Theodore de Banville.

In translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.