Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:
The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:
I don’t want your Dixie, You can keep your Dixie, There’s no one down in Dixie Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem. Harlem has those Southern skies, They’re in my baby’s smile, I idolize my baby’s eyes And classy uptown style.
The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.
Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.
The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)
The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:
Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.
The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.
As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not “the kind of love that satisfies.”
Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:
In Harlem’s Araby You can’t tell “B” from “G.” There’s nothing in the Orient Like Harlem’s Araby.
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
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.
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:
What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?
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 YorkHerald 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 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.”
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.
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: 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?
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.
(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.
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 isblack music.
Black music like this:
And all of this:
Here is Giddens singing two traditional Irish songs in Irish Gaelic, a nod to the mixed origins of American folk:
Rhiannon Giddens is not the only Black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.
Twenty-four-year-old banjo-and-fiddle player Jake Blount is dedicated to resurfacing old-time Americana music’s roots in Blackness.
Here is multi-instrumentalist Los Angeles native 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.
Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.
In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and recordings of his music have been released.
Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and studied piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who
Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”
An excerpt from Evil N*gger, for four pianos:
In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that
Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.
The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.
One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. (For background on John Cage, browse over to this post and this post.) Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:
In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.
It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .
Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”
John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.
This raises the questions:
Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity? In other words, was John Cage, as a white gay man, offended by Julius Eastman’s black gayness?
Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.
Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, he descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that
the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.
As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.
An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman:
In June 2020, the Boston-based Black concert-music collective Castle of Our Skins collaborated on a Zoom performance of Eastman’s “Stay On It,” dedicated to essential workers of color during the coronavirus pandemic.