Back (and Forth) to Africa

A 1736 map of what would become Liberia a hundred years later.

As Michael Rosenwald observes in the Washington Post, the recent eruption of the disquieting chant “Send her back!” has a long history.

Read the article and all the links.

In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.

In America you get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle
And scuff up your feet
You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Everybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with m
e

*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.

The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:

Etta James:

Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:

Harry Nilsson:

The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:

Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?

Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?

What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?

What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?

It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”

Little Wild Rose in the Heather

Modern_music_and_musicians_-_(Encyclopedic)_(1918)_(14592892127)

(The manuscript of “Heidenröslein.” Schubert’s marking is “lieblich,” i.e. charming or lovely.)

Read through the score here:

IMSLP09270-SchubertD257_Heidenroslein

The song starts almost without starting: the voice and piano begin together, without any introduction. Although the song is a setting of a poem by the great German poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schubert has attempted to imitate a folksong. The song is strophic, cheerful, and deceptively simple. It’s as if Schubert is trying to evoke the naturalism of an actual folksong. Why does he do this?

Wild Rose

A boy saw a wild rose
growing in the heather;
it was so young, and as lovely as the morning.
He ran swiftly to look more closely,
looked on it with great joy.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
Said the boy: I shall pluck you,
wild rose in the heather!
Said the rose: I shall prick you
so that you will always remember me.
And I will not suffer it.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
And the impetuous boy plucked
the wild rose from the heather;
the rose defended herself and pricked him,
but her cries of pain were to no avail;
she simply had to suffer.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.

(English Translation © Richard Wigmore)

The opening statement of Schubert’s melody mimics Pamina and Papageno’s duet, “Könnte jeder brave Mann,” in Act 1 of Mozart’s 1791 opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute):

In a certain sense, Schubert’s elevation of the Lied to a high art was an act of resistance, a turning away from the rigors of “serious” musical form and towards greater simplicity and accessibility. His use of a folklike form in “Heidenröslein” — while setting Goethe, no less — seems like a deliberate and even a studied choice. What is more, the childlike strophic simplicity of the song highlights another aspect of Schubert’s compositional philosophy: irony.

What is irony?

This print, “The Hunter’s Funeral” by Schubert’s friend Moritz von Schwind, is a good example of irony.

Moritz

Another way that Schubert composes irony is in his frequent switching between parallel major and minor, as here, in his song “Lachen und Weinen” (Laughing and Weeping), where he moves between A-flat major and A-flat minor, in a kind of sonic illustration of the poem by Friedrich Rückert:

Laughter and tears

Laughter and tears at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the morning I laughed with joy;
And why I now weep
In the evening light,
Is unknown even to me.
Tears and laughter at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the evening I wept with grief;
And why you can wake
In the morning with laughter,

I must ask you, my heart.

(English Translation © Richard Stokes)

Schubert extends this technique to his instrumental chamber music. Listen to the beginning of his String Quartet in G Major. What makes it major, really?

His String Quintet in C Major:

Is it safe to say that Schubert, in his intermixing of parallel major and minor modalities, is expressing what cannot be said in words — emotional ambiguity? Why do you think he does this?

Incidentally, about 100 German composers wrote their own musical settings of “Heidenröslein.” The composer Heinrich Werner (1800-1833) set the poem in 1827, in a version whose popularity would make it almost a kind of folksong itself. Here it is arranged for four voices:

Read through the score here:

IMSLP233429-WIMA.96f6-Sah-ein-Knab-ein-Roeslein-stehn

The great German actress Marlene Dietrich sings “Heidenröslein” in the 1933 film The Song of Songs: