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

Appendix B: Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, suggests that those who use the language of identity politics and wokeness are in fact the ones in power.

What do you think?

Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Content warning: explicit language and situations.

Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:

Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.

Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.

A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:

Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.

In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.

You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.

As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:

Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .

The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.

There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.

It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind
April the four was a hell of a time.
When the news reached a seaport town
that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.
Now up popped Shine, from the decks below
and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know.
there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.”
But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told,
and go back down in that deep black hold.”
Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine,
But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine.
There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea
this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.”
So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim
and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.

The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:

The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:

Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975:

The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.

Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:

Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.

The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:

Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):

And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.

The lyrics

You know your daddy and he’s a faggot
And your mother’s a whore
He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . .
He said, your granny, she’s a dyke
And your other brother, he’s a faggot
And your little sister Loo
She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot

are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:

Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”

Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:

Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.

Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.

Etc.

The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.

For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.

UPDATE: In August 2019, Netflix is dropping a biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy (which seems pretty meta). Watch the trailer below.

The Voices That Have Gone: Blues Ghosts

The only known photograph of Delta bluesman Charley Patton.

Cartoonist R. Crumb’s portrait of a Jim McKune-like collector.

Hari Kunzru based his portrait of mid-twentieth-century collectors of early blues recordings on a loosely-knit real-life group of blues enthusiasts — made up almost entirely white men — who called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” The character of Chester Bly in particular was inspired by the legendary record collector James McKune, described by John Jeremiah Sullivan as:

twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances.

A séance is a gathering at which people attempt to make contact with the voices of the dead. Do you think that this is a fitting metaphor for listening to old records?

Amanda Petrusich elaborates:

McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. . . . For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture.

. . . I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.

. . . In January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s [record shop on W. 47th Street] and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg [the shop’s owner] and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [blues scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

Charley Patton was a Mississippi-born guitarist of mixed ancestry, allegedly the son of a former slave. What do you think it was in his voice and guitar-playing that galvanized Jim McKune?

Read more about McKune here.

Jim McKune’s real-life blues epiphany is echoed in JumpJim’s story in White Tears about hearing Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” for the first time:

That sound, my God. Like it had come out of the earth. 

JumpJim begins to search for rare blues recordings:

But the sound I craved wasn’t easy to come by. Patton, Son House, Wille McTell, Robert Johnson, Willie Johnson, Skip James, John Hurt . . . the names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about [the musicians]. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.

. . . I’ve not seen a second copy of this, Chester would say, pulling out yet another incredible record another forgotten performance by a lost genius.

“Laid down last night just trying to take my rest
My mind got to rambling like wild geese in the west”

(This lyrical excerpt is from “I Know You Rider,” also called “Woman Blues.” John and Alan Lomax transcribed this traditional song on their southern journey and published it in their 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs, attributing it to “an eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder,” they had heard singing it in the south. It has been covered by countless artists — mainly white folksingers — and was a staple of the Grateful Dead’s live shows.)

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s long article about two musicians who got lost, “The Ballad of Geeshee and Elvie: On the Trail of the Phantom Women Who Changed American Music and Then Vanished Without A Trace,” and listen to the six songs embedded at the end of the article — recorded, like many early country blues recordings, at the Paramount Furniture Store studio in Grafton, Wisconsin (read the article to find out why).

The lyrics of one of the six songs, “Skinny Leg Blues”:

I‘m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
I’m a little bitty mama, baby and I ain’t built for speed
Aaaaaaah and I ain’t built for speed
I’ve got everything that a little bitty mama needs

I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got little bitty legs, keep up these noble thighs
Aaaaaah, keep up these noble thighs
I’ve got somethin’ underneath them that works like a boar hog’s eye

But when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
And when you see me comin’, pull down your window blind
You see me comin’, pull down your window blind
So your next door neighbor sure can hear you whine

I’m gonna cut your throat, baby, 
Gonna look down in your face. 
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard 
Be your resting place.

 Are the blueswomen Geeshee Wiley and Elvie (L.V.) Thomas suggesting the murderous outcome of a love gone wrong? Or are they describing sadistic, gratuitous violence? Are they talking about the logical results of “not knowing right from wrong”? Or maybe the logical results of a social system that erodes morality itself?

Authenticity, part III: White Tears

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As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.

Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?

In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:

The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.

What does Kunzru mean by “cultural capital”?

Read this fascinating interview with Kunzru on the research he did on the histories of blues recording and record collecting.

And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.

The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:

And possibly also to this country blues song:

Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:

Old Furry sings the blues

Propped up in his bed

With his dentures and his leg removed . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you

lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel

But there was one song he played

I could really feel . . . 

Old Furry sings the blues

He points a bony finger at you and says

“I don’t like you”

Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke

But it’s true

We’re only welcome for our drink and smoke . . . 

W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey

And I’m not familiar with what you played

But I get such strong impressions of your hey day

Looking up and down old Beale Street . . . 

Furry sings the blues

Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true

Fallen to hard luck

And time and other thieves

While our limo is shining on his shanty street

Old Furry sings the blues

In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,

The genre of the laughing song comes from the 19th-century. These songs start with a black performer singing about the racist things white people say when they see them. Then the song dissolves into rhythmic laughing. It’s the laughter of somebody who is trying to diffuse a potentially violent situation. There is such a horror to the laughter. The laughter is a window into what it felt like to be a black man on the street at sun down in the south during segregation. 

The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:

I specified to the publisher that I wanted it to run as spread so that the reader turns the page and has “ha ha ha” on the left and right side. To me that is the heart of darkness, or the heart of whiteness, in the book. It’s the kind of horror that can’t be described and just exists in this contentious laughter.

A remaster of the original 1891 recording of  “The Negro Laughing Song” by George W. Johnson:

Another suggested playlist for the book is here.

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As you know, I love this book. On the other hand, my brother, the music critic George Grella (above), who wrote this book about Miles Davis, said about White Tears on GoodReads:

This is a terrible book.

. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.

Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).

This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.

Fighting words. What do you think?

Fare Thee Well

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In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from drinking and fighting on Saturday nights. As Lomax writes in his 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs:

It was not long before every man had a woman in his tent to wash his clothes, cook, draw water, cut firewood, and warm his bed. Dink was one of these women.

In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax fleshes out his narrative:

I found Dink scrubbing her man’s clothes in the shade of their tent across the Brazos River in Texas. . . But Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. “Today ain’t my singin’ day,” she would reply to my urging. Finally a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of gin soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man’s dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her man when she needs him most — a very old story . . . While Dink sang this song . . . as she washed her temporary man’s clothes, her little two-year-old nameless son played in the sand at her feet. “He ain’t got no daddy, and I ain’t had time to hunt up a name for him,” she explained.

Lomax wrote elsewhere of Dink’s song:

The original Edison record of “Dink’s Song” was broken long ago, but not until all the Lomax family had learned the tune. The one-line refrain, as Dink sang it in her soft lovely voice, gave the effect of a sobbing woman, deserted by her man. Dink’s tune is really lost; what is left is only a shadow of the tender, tragic beauty of what she sang in the sordid, bleak surroundings of a Brazos Bottom levee camp.

Lomax published the music and lyrics of “Dink’s Song” in American Ballads and Folk Songs. He suggested that the song was an African-American variant of the white Tennessee mountain ballad “Careless Love,” whose lyrics are almost identical (the lyrics about wearing one’s apron low, and then high, refer to out-of-wedlock pregnancy).

The repetition of the statement “fare thee well” can be found in many English ballads, going back at least to the eighteenth century.

Some examples:

The phrase “Fare you well” is also reminiscent of certain spirituals — like this one, recorded in 1937:

https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200196400?embed=resources

The earliest-known recording of “Dink’s Song” is sung by the white actress Libby Holman, with the accompaniment of the black guitarist Josh White:

During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, “Dink’s Song” became a staple of the repertoires of (primarily white) folksingers, who mined the past for the authenticity they found in old ballads.

“Dink’s Song” was also featured in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, with actor Oscar Isaac doing his own singing and guitar playing:

“Careless Love” sung by Tennessee folksinger Jean Ritchie:

Sung by Leadbelly:

Sung by Indian musician Arko Mukhaerjee and his band, Fiddler’s Green:

The blues singer and guitarist Gene Campbell — another “blues ghost,” about whom nothing is known except his surviving 78s — referred to the levee-camp practice of women setting up their own tents to wash the men’s clothes and sell sex in “Levee Camp Man Blues” (1930):

Men on the levee hollerin’, “Whoa” and “Gee”/And the women on the levee camp, hollerin’, “Who wants me?”

More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.

You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).

A Hausa call-and-response:

Maasai schoolgirls in Kenya.

In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.

In Avengers Infinity War, T’challa leads the Dora Milaje in a call and response. Do you think the filmmakers did their research?

What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?

Call and response in the folk spiritual “Job, Job.”

Another version:

Call and response in a work camp song.

Call and response in a prison work song.

David Guetta and Nicki Minaj sampled “Rosie” in their song “Hey Mama.”

The song was also recently adapted by three white folksingers, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, who perform together as I’m With Her, as “Be My Husband.” What do you think about this usage?

In August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson, a character speaks of his stint in Parchman and sings a work song.

August Wilson was inspired to write his play, set in 1936, by this painting, “The Piano Lesson,” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

You can read the complete play here.

Call and Response

Call-and-response form is a structure imported to the Americas by African slaves in the seventeenth century.

A brief history:

A prison work song:

(“Hammer, Ring,” Jesse Bradley and group, State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas, 1930s)

A spiritual:

“Talking ‘Bout a Good Time” (Moving Star Hall Singers, 1967)

A sharecroppers’ work song:

(“Arwhoolie,” Thomas J. Marshall, Edwards, Mississippi, c. 1930s).

Some children’s songs:

(“Who Are the Greatest?” John’s Island children, South Carolina, 1973)

(“Miss Mary Mack,” John’s Island children)

(“May-Ree Mack,” Ella Jenkins and children, c. 1970s)

“John the Rabbit,” which probably dates from the nineteenth century, is so widespread across the English-speaking world as a children’s song that its origins in Black American folklore are largely forgotten. John, who turns the tables on the farmer by making off with his vegetables, may be an example of Br’er Rabbit, who is, in turn, a mutation of the classic mythological figure of the Trickster.

This version uses only voices and drums.

This one makes a nod to African-American traditions by using gospel-stye piano accompaniment:

And here is a veddy veddy English version:

Calinda

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The earliest-known published book of African-American music, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, is primarily devoted to the religious vocal music of the slaves of the eastern seaboard. However, there are several songs at the end that are of a very different nature. These songs are in French and were collected in Louisiana, and they are dance songs.

The editors say of these songs that:

The language, evidently a rude corruption of French, is that spoken by the negroes in that part of the State [Louisiana]; and it is said that it is more difficult for persons who speak French to interpret this dialect, than for those who speak English to understand the most corrupt of the ordinary negro-folk [dialect]. . . . The “calinda” was a sort of contra-dance, which has now passed entirely out of use.

Or has it? This is what it sounds like:

Louisiana planters imported slaves from the Caribbean, and it is believed that the Calinda was one of the dances performed by slaves in Congo Square in New Orleans on Saturday nights. It is still danced and played in Trinidad and Tobago, where it is also related to an Afro-Carribean form of martial arts called Kalinda.

The Trinidadian calinda performed above seems to be related, both lyrically and musically, to this sea shanty:

The calinda is mentioned in the story “La Belle Zoraide” by the nineteenth-century New Orleans-based novelist Kate Chopin.

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“La Belle Zoraide” is a story about the horrors of family separation in slavery, and about the hierarchy of color in Louisiana — which is told in part in the Creole language (referred to in Slave Songs of the United States as “evidently a rude corruption of French”). Read it here.

The traditional Cajun song “Allons danser Colinda” (Let’s dance, Colinda) was also influenced by the Afro-Carribean Calinda. Cajuns are a mostly white, French-speaking ethnic group that settled Louisiana after being expelled from Canada by the British in the eighteenth century.

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The calinda even shows up in the work of English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). While Delius is best known as a composer of English “pastoral” music, he managed an orange plantation in Florida briefly in the 1880s, where he heard and was influenced by African-American music. In 1904, he wrote an opera called Koanga, a tragic love story about slavery in the eighteenth century. This is Delius’s version of the calinda.

In a kind of full circle, Koanga was performed in Trinidad in 1995.

For more on Slave Songs of the United States and the earliest attempts at American ethnomusicology, watch this brief film.

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery.]

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In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

https://www.loc.gov/item/afcreed000244/?embed=resources

However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

And the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black-on-black violence.

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

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This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the stereotyped violence of black men, were usually performed, paradoxically, by heavy-set white women, known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully,” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and thus sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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The takeaway: before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.

A recent, widely-shared article on Medium contends:

Some will argue that blackface minstrelsy took place so long ago and that these children’s songs no longer represent that racist history. That history, however, was not that long ago: The last generation born in the segregated South still lives among us today. Black Americans won the right to vote a mere 50-odd years ago. The fallout from slavery and Jim Crow manifests itself today in the form of voter suppression, housing segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, and poverty. . . .

Yet others will argue that music exists on its own, immune to history or context. Music and history, however, are inextricably tied. You need no more proof of the power of music in shaping thought and history than in the very name for America’s system of segregation — “Jim Crow” — as having come from the first blackface minstrel character. . .

Minstrel songs belong where their historical role can be explored in depth — in museums and history classrooms of higher education. Or they belong reclaimed by African American artists like Rhiannon Giddens, who is reinterpreting minstrel songs while exposing their troubling roots.

Do you agree? Why or why not?

For more on the racist roots of some well-known American children’s songs, read through the website Decolonizing The Music Room.

Have minstrel stereotypes persisted in black music? Writing in 2001, music critic Nick Tosches asked rhetorically:

Does “Cop Killer,” fine and wonderful an entertainment as it is, differ from “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” except that it traffics in another stereotype, sells a different and more [modern] candy? There is, in fact, in all of late-twentieth-century rap music, no pose more bloodthirsty, razor-slashing, swaggering, and deadly, no performance more nastily and vehemently free with and full of the word “nigger” as epithet, nor with and . . . menace as ethos, than that of “The Bully,” a coon-song hit of 1907 by the coon-song shouter May Irwin . . . Ah, but to hear “The Bully” done up anew today, in full technological violence, by, say, the Wu-Tang Clan — now that would be something.

Do you agree with Tosches that late-twentieth-century rap is a latter-day version of the “coon songs” of old? Why or why not?

From the Village to the Concert Hall

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Bartók recording folk music. His subject sings into the horn of an Edison phonograph, which incised a cylinder disk with a needle.

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Bela Bartók was one of the earliest ethnomusicologists.

Here is a field recording he made of Romanian folk dances.

Here is his piano composition entitle Romanian Folk Dances.

Here is a folk song he recorded:

The same piece, transcribed for two violins:

A piece by Bartók, based on a folk song he transcribed in Slovakia: