The Sorrow Songs

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W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It remains a classic in the fields of both sociology and African-American literature.

Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” that defined the African diaspora in America, and, in a kind of meta-narrative, he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of the musical notation of each of these songs, all of them spirituals. In the last chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of these musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of Black Americans contains a power that transcends the social-historical conditions of the practitioners of that music.

Du Bois also suggests that Black music can’t truly be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents it from being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the standard signs used to symbolize sounds. He does attempt to transcribe his memory — perhaps an imagined cultural memory — of a west African song, though neither the language or the meaning of the words have yet been identified.

Du Bois’s notation of the song he says his great-great-grandmother
“often crooned . . . to the child between her knees.”

Du Bois, born free in Massachusetts, went to college at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black university founded at the end of the Civil War to educated emancipated slaves. He was inspired in his writing by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the school’s renowned choir, which toured the world to raise funds for the university. As he writes in “Of the Sorrow Songs”:

When I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.

Years later, when the Fisk University Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the music critic for the New York Times gave them a bad review. He wrote that the “hymns and spirituals” sung by the choir lacked the emotion that he associated with Black expression, and he advised his readers instead to attend

a real religious revival up in Harlem . . . [where you] will hear hymns and spirituals [that] have an emotion that was not to be felt [at the Fisk concert] last night. That was one thing. Quite another thing is the wildness, the melancholy, the intense religious feeling communicated when Negroes sing in the sacred spirit and the uncorrupted manner of their race.

Du Bois countered, in the pages of The Crisis, the newspaper of the NAACP (of which he was co-founder in 1909), that the critic

really means . . . that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive . . . any attempt to sing Italian music or German . . . leads them off their preserves and is not “natural.” To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural . . . The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.

The Times‘s critic echoes what John Lomax wrote a year later in his essay “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”:

The Negro is going farther in becoming “mo’ lak white folks,”
than merely to modify his beautiful spirituals. Under the leader-
ship of his preachers, his teachers, and his men of education,
he is abandoning them as unworthy of perpetuation entirely.
During the past summer, Manassas, Virginia, was recommended
to me as a likely place to find genuine Negro spirituals. I made
a long drive to reach the church, only to be greeted, when the sing-
ing began, by a surpliced choir that marched into the church
to slow waltz-time music, derived from a book of cheap, white
revival-tunes.

What white critics expected from Black artists did, and does, not always align with the art and the artists themselves.

Here are recordings of most of the songs Du Bois references in “The Sorrow Songs,” in the order in which he mentions them in the chapter.

Lay This Body Down (The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island):

You May Bury Me in the East (The Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (Paul Robeson):

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Roll, Jordan, Roll (Topsy Chapman, from the film Twelve Years A Slave):

Been A-Listening (Five Blind Boys of Alabama):

My Lord, What a Morning (Marian Anderson):

My Way’s Cloudy (Marian Anderson):

Wrestling Jacob (Sunset Jubilee Singers):

Steal Away (Barbara Conrad):

Bright Sparkles (an Indian choir):

Dust, Dust and Ashes (Eschatos Bride Choir):

I Hope My Mother Will Be There (A bunch of people sight-reading and killing it):

Two of what Du Bois calls the “songs of white America [that] have been distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody”:

Swanee River (also known as “Old Folks at Home”) by white composer Stephen Foster. TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY. It’s worth reading Michael Friedman’s article “Can’t Escape Stephen Foster” for some context.

Old Black Joe (also by Foster, sung by Paul Robeson):

No recording, but sheet music for the quotation:

Dere’s no rain to wet you,
Here’s no sun to burn you,
Oh, push along, believer,
I want to go home.

no more rain

Keep Me From Sinking Down (Robert Sims):

Poor Rosy (William Appling Singers)

The German folksong Du Bois quotes, “Jetzt geh’ i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net” (“Now I go to the little well, but I don’t drink of it”):

There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):

Michael Haul (or Row) the Boat Ashore (Glory Gospel Singers):

Incidentally, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a composer and musicologist. She wrote an opera called Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, about the African diaspora, which premiered in Cleveland in 1932. Unfortunately, none of her music has been recorded.

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Spirituals, Black English, and the Sonic Color Line

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Map of American English dialects.

On July 5, 2018,  The Nationa left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, meant to be an ironic critique of the limits of white liberal compassion, uses what is called in the field of linguistics African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to set out a list of rules, offered by one homeless person to another, on how to maximize donations from passers-by. The punchline: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves and center themselves in the narrative of the homeless person they walk past on the street — further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled panhandler. Here is the poem:

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.  

The poem caused an uproar on Twitter, because the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, looks like this:

anders__morning

The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, in which they said that they had

made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem . . . When we [first] read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

The poet himself tweeted out:

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The Nation’s apology in turn caused a backlash-against-the-backlash. It was noted that the magazine had never before issued an apology for publishing a poem, even after the great American novelist

Henry James . . in 1865 wrote a damning review of Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” calling the great poem “arrant prose.” Mistaken, yes, but it was James’s view at the time. And it was never retracted.

(You can read “Drum Taps” here.)

The cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan saw the uproar over the poem and The Nation’s mea culpa as proof that

the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. . . When the poetry editors of The Nation virtuously publish an amateurish but super-woke poem, only to discover that the poem stumbled across several trip wires of political correctness; when these editors (one of them a full professor in the Harvard English department) then jointly write a letter oozing bathos and career anxiety and begging forgiveness from their critics; when the poet himself publishes a statement of his own—a missive falling somewhere between an apology, a Hail Mary pass, and a suicide note; and when all of this is accepted in the houses of the holy as one of the regrettable but minor incidents that take place along the path toward greater justice, something is dying. . . 

When even Barack Obama, the poet laureate of identity politics, is moved to issue a message to the faithful, hinting that that they could be tipping their hand on all of this—saying during a speech he delivered in South Africa that a culture is at a dead end when it decides someone has no “standing to speak” if he is a white man—and when even this mayday is ignored, the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to the end.

You can read the full transcript of the speech Obama made at the 2018 Mandela Day celebration in South Africa, which Flanagan references, here, or watch it here (the speech begins at 2:17:30):

Is the poem “How-To” problematic? Do you think that Carlson-Wee’s use of AAVE is cultural appropriation? Is it a form of poetic blackface/blackvoice? Is it racist? Should white poets/musicians/artists/random guys on the street be “allowed” to use it?

What do you think of this statement by a letter-writer to the New York Times, who maintains:

Too many of us fetishize the artist, thus distracting from the art itself. Is the chef dynamic? Is the pop singer pretty? Is the painter a person of color? Is the writer politically correct?

The art must stand on its own, independent of the creator. Does it move us? Does it reveal something true? Will it last?

It is only through this lens that art can reach its ideal of illuminating and improving the human condition.

Regardless of the artistic merits of Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem, can we — should we — regard art as being separate from the artist, as having its own life and mission?

The black linguistics scholar John McWhorter dismissed the uproar over the poem:

I suspect that many are quietly wondering just what Carlson-Wee did that was so wrong—and they should. . . .Whence the outrage among so many against black people depicted accurately speaking in a way that, well, a great many definitely do? . . . Black English . . .  is not a degraded variety of the language—it’s an alternate form of English. . . .Carlson-Wee, as a young white man dedicating a poem to a homeless black person’s suffering and trying to get inside her head, would seem to be displaying exactly the kind of empathy that we seek. “Feel it but don’t show it,” we tell him, instead. “Empathize, but block that empathy from your creative impulses, on the pain of hurting us by imitating us without our consent.”

There is logic here, but it is fragile.

What do you think?

I will tell you a personal story. The great black operatic mezzo-soprano and Civil Rights activist Barbara Smith Conrad was my voice teacher. She was a beloved mentor, and she even sang at my wedding — a great honor.

Barbara Conrad and me
Barbara Smith Conrad and me on my wedding day.

In addition to her work as an opera soloist and teacher, Ms. Conrad was involved in the creation of the Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals at the University of Texas, her alma mater. She believed that spirituals were a legitimate genre of art song, like German Lieder or French mélodies. And, just as one sings Lieder in German or mélodies in French, she believed that one must sing spirituals in the accent of AAVE. I remember her coaching me in Harry T. Burleigh’s great song “Deep River,” and correcting my English: “Say ‘Jerdan,’ not ‘Jordan.'” Ms. Conrad told me that I had to sing the repertoire of spirituals. “You have that pathos in your voice,” she said. Indeed, she believed that this repertoire belonged to the world, and that all singers, not just singers of color, should perform it.

Here is Barbara Smith Conrad singing it:

Here is Binghamton favorite, the beautiful soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb, singing “Deep River”:

Here is the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing it (notably, not in AAVE dialect):

It is worth noting that some prominent black poets of the twentieth century wrote both in Standard American English and in AAVE. In doing so, they were not trivializing Black English, but, rather, promoting it as a legitimate language full of nuance and meaning, as Barbara Smith Conrad strove to do with her teaching of spirituals. James Weldon Johnson, for instance, best known for writing the text of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” also wrote poems in dialect, like this one, “Sence You Went Away”:

Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright,
Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light,
Seems lak to me der’s nothin’ goin’ right,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lak to me de sky ain’t half so blue,
Seems lak to me dat ev’ything wants you,
Seems lak to me I don’t know what to do,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lake to me dat ev’ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me de day’s jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird’s forgot his song,
    Sence you went away.

Seems lak to me I jes can’t he’p but sigh,
Seems lak to me ma th’oat keeps gettin’ dry,
Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,
    Sence you went away.

Johnson meant this poem to be a kind of folk expression of sorrow elevated to the level of poetry, just as serious as, say, a lament of the Greek poet Sappho (630-570 BCE):

He is dying, Aphrodite;
luxuriant Adonis is dying.
What should we do?

Beat your breasts, young maidens.
And tear your garments
in grief.

What do you think?

The Fisk Jubilee Singers performing “Steal Away” from an early recording (“Steal Away” was the first number on the program of their first concert tour of the United States, in 1871):

Barbara Smith Conrad singing it in a 1997 recording:

The US Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club singing it:

The National Taiwan University Chorus singing it:

More on Barbara Smith Conrad: