The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.
The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves. Because of their relative isolation, freedman and their descendants were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:
The most well-known Gullah song, recorded in 1926 for the first time:
Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:
A ring shout:
The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:
Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).
Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.
George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).
A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:
The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.
Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?
Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?
If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?
Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.
Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?
What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?
The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:
The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.
These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?
Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:
The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.
Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.
Harry Lawrence Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company.
His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, one of whose participants is a “Voodoo queen,” Lolo. The New York Herald Tribune noted that the opera portrayed
typical Negro life in the days of slavery, while the music includes spirituals, chants, arias, tangoes and other dances, among these a ritualistic voodoo ceremony.
In 2015, the opera was revived for the first time since 1928 by the Harlem Opera Theatre, who performed it in a concert version at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.
Here, Janinah Burnett as Lolo performs the “ritualistic voodoo ceremony.”
The Columbia University library also owns Freeman’s collected papers; this would be a great place to start for anyone who wants to do more research on Freeman, his work, or his life and times during the Harlem Renaissance.
Freeman was not, however, the first African-American composer of opera. The first known operatic work by a black composer in the U.S. was Virginia’s Ball by John Thomas Douglass (1847-1886), which had its premiere in New York in 1868. Unfortunately, the score has been lost. Below is an excerpt from his solo piano work “The Pilgrim.”
James Weldon Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), is best known for his setting of his brother’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Black National Anthem.” You will recall that he also did the choral arrangements for the short Bessie Smith film St. Louis Blues.
In July 2020, the NFL has promised to have “Lift Ev’ry Voice” sung along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games when it’s safe to let the season resume. Not everyone is happy about this decision — and not just white supremacists:
John Rosamund Johnson was also a successful composer of light operas for the Broadway stage around the turn of the twentieth century.
In addition, Johnson was a singer, who performed the role of Frazier in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess — the most enduringly successful opera about black American life.
The English National Opera performed Porgy for the first time in 2018, with a cast of young black English singers.
By specification of the Gershwin estate, Porgy must be performed by singers of African ancestry. This did not stop the Hungarian State Opera from cynically performing it with white singers earlier this year, however. Read more:
Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), above, who wrote in a more “internationalist,” neo-classical style, also wrote operas. This is a score excerpt from his 1985 opera Frederick Douglass.
William Grant Still (1895-1978), above, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” wrote eight operas. His 1939 opera Troubled Island, about the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, was the first opera by a black composer to be performed by a major company, the New York City Opera.
A recent New York Times article discussed some of these works, as the Metropolitan Opera made the radical (for them) choice of opening their 2019-2020 season with Porgy and Bess. Read more here:
An excerpt from the 1987 opera Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry (above; 1908-2004), a composer who was the granddaughter of slaves.
An excerpt from the 2014 opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, by Nkeiru Okoye:
Anthony Davis’s 2019 opera, The Central Park Five:
Finally, for the first time in its 138-year history, the Metropolitan Opera presented a work by a Black composer, Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Terence Blanchard. Fire opened the house on September 27, 2021, after it had been shut for 18 months during the COVID pandemic.