Is Our DNA Our Identity?

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Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

The question of whether one’s innate identity is determined by DNA has come up recently in the feud between Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Trump about whether or not Warren has Native American ancestry. Trump, as you may know, has mockingly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas.” Warren had her DNA tested and published the results, which show that she had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

Does this make Warren an Indian?

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According to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), no.

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. 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 its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music?

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

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, 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 an unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes. 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,” was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual in the popular imagination.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take 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: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship? or one 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.”

John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. He was also a white supremacist who helped to draft Viriginia’s “Racial Integrity Act,” also known as the “one-drop rule” — which legally classified anyone with any amount of African ancestry as black, and hence subject to Jim Crow.

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As a music historian with a particular interest in these things, it’s hard not to view Senator Warren’s insistence on an Indian identity, based on her DNA test results, as (unintentionally) evocative of the efforts and beliefs of figures like John Powell.

And what about this? In 2013, an Afrofunk band, Shokazoba, was booked to play at the elite Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. The gig was cancelled, however, when it was found out that many of the band members were white.

This is a fascinating story about a black woman whose DNA test revealed many hidden truths about her identity.

What is identity? How is it expressed in music? How should it be expressed?

Spirituals, Black English, and the Sonic Color Line

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Map of American English dialects.

On July 5, The Nationa left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, a sly (and cynical) critique 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 contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled beggar:

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:

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The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, claiming 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. I’m going to go out on a limb, incidentally, and suggest that it’s a far better poem than “How-To.”)

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.

In your opinion, 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 the 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 relative 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? (Incidentally, this is a topic we discuss in Music 101 and Music 111: see here, here and here.)

The black linguist John McWhorter dismisses 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 mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad was one of my voice teachers. She was a beloved mentor, and she even sang at my wedding — a great honor.

Barbara Conrad and me

In addition to her work as an opera soloist and teacher, Barbara 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.'” Barbara 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:

Which version do you like the best? Why? Do you think your reactions might be different if you gave the various performances a “blind listening”?

More on Barbara Smith Conrad:

 

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.