Composing Irony

“How the animals laid the hunter to rest” (woodcut, Moritz von Schwind)

The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”

In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.

How is this image an expression of irony?

In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired to play Jewish weddings, with whom Mahler would have been very familiar from growing up in the Bohemian shtetl, or segregated Jewish village — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.

A scene of a klezmer band playing at a shtetl wedding, from the movie Fiddler on the Roof:

What does Mahler mean by this? Is the klezmer music also an illustration of irony?

The music reminds me of the art of Mahler’s younger contemporary Marc Chagall, whose fantasy-like paintings of people flying above his hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus, suggests a freedom denied to the Jews who actually lived there.

Mahler himself wrote, in 1901, that this movement “is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.”

In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.

In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.

Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.

Linden or lime tree (tilia cordata)

Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?

The linden tree was also associated with the Virgin Mary in German folklore. This Marian motet from the Renaissance, “Es steht ein Lind in Himmelreich” (A linden tree stood in heaven) compares Mary to the beauty and purity of the linden.

And near the end of his life, Johannes Brahms published two volumes, without opus numbers (WoO), of his arrangements of German folksongs. This is one of the last, “Es steht’ ein Lind” (There stands a linden tree). The singer has lost his beloved, and all of nature mourns with him, including the linden tree, who helps him to weep.

This 1970 poem by Alice Notley captures and distills the failure of Romanticism’s program:

“I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, …”
I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, 
& every time the moment has conquered me. 
I’m strangely unhappy 
                                  because the pattern of my life 

is complicated, 
because my nature is hopelessly complicated; 
& out of this, to my sorrow, pain to you must grow. 
The centre of me
                          is always & eternally 
                                                            a terrible pain- 


a curious wild pain—a searching 
beyond what the world contains, something 
transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, 
I don’t think it is to be found.

It’s like passionate love for a ghost. 
At times it fills me with rage,
                             at times with wild despair. 
It’s the source of gentleness & cruelty & work

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.”

Love and Theft, redux: “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”

Content warning: racist language/imagery.

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Kate Smith Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 2019, the Yankees cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.

The reason for the cancellations was that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to plant the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary
and Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.

It’s worth noting that, both in her appearance and in her singing style, Kate Smith followed in the tradition of the popular “coon shouters,” like May Irwin, of a decade or two earlier. These were women singers, usually full-figured and solidly built, who sang songs trading in vicious racial stereotypes, purporting to be from the point of view of violent urban Black men looking for a fight. The singing style of the “coon shouters” was loud and declamatory.

Cover of the sheet music for “The Bully Song,” depicting a racist stereotype out of minstrelsy,
of a flashily-dressed Black man with a razor.

On the face of it, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” are incredibly offensive. However, there’s more to them, in the historical context, than meets the eye. Bear with me as I unpack them.

When the song was written, statements like the ones its lyrics make were not considered overtly racist. Why is that?

First of all, if you read through the lyrics a second time, you begin to realize that they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” Was the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggesting that the system of slavery was the thing that made the great musical traditions of African America possible? .

Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Is Brown being sincere here, or ironic? Even the most fire-eating pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work harder than that to justify their position that slavery wasn’t only a necessity, but even a positive good.

And finally, and most intriguingly, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?

Here Lew Brown is hinting at the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary to, the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — that appear in gospel music.

Of course, in the antebellum South, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.

Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?

The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is a song ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Is it a justification of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slavery itself was necessary for whites’ redemption?

These are disruptive and troubling ideas, but they weren’t new in 1931. In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

Already we [African-Americans] come not altogether empty-handed: there is to-day no true American music but the sweet wild melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales are Indian and African; we are the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal, dyspeptic blundering with the light-hearted but determined Negro humility; or her coarse, cruel wit with loving, jovial good humor; or her Annie Rooney with Steal Away?

(Du Bois is suggesting that “Annie Rooney,” below, is vulgar and inane.)

The great spiritual “Steal Away”:

Complicating things further, the great African-American bass Paul Robeson also recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” in 1931.


Why do you think Robeson, who was a prominent civil rights activist, recorded this song? How does his interpretation differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?

As Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen observe about Paul Robeson’s recording:

Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .

[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley [Tin Pan Alley was West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in New York City, where the writers and publishers of popular songs had their offices — “Annie Rooney” is a typical example of a Tin Pan Alley song] could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .

Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”

Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?

The notion of black Americans as essential to the salvation of all Americans will come up for us again when we study jazz. The composer and director Ed Bland, in his short film “The Cry of Jazz” (linked here), has one of his characters speak of “the terrible burden the Negro has of trying to teach white Americans to be human.”

The sentiment is also present in a 1947 children’s book by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward, North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.

An illustration by Lynd Ward for North Star Shining.

Swift writes:

I came to the New World empty-handed,
A despised thing, to be used and broken,
Yet I brought immeasurable gifts . . .
I brought to the New World the gift of communion.
I was the Negro who by many a lonely campfire
Learned to “steal away to Jesus” on wings of song. . .
Out of loneliness, need, and anguish
Was born the Spiritual,
A ladder of beauty leading straight to God.

Do you think Hildegarde Hoyt Swift is echoing the sentiments of Lew Brown, the lyricist of “That’s Why”?

A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, the children of the Great Migration. Some of the lyrics:

Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs,
            Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes.
            Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
            Underneath the Harlem moon.

            There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo;
            They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do:
            Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue,
            Underneath the Harlem moon.

In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”

 Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:

What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?

As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the introduction to The 1619 Project:

Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. For generations, Black Americans have fought to make them true.

In a certain sense, Hannah-Jones is making the same case that Lew Brown did in “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” — that without Black Americans, brought to these shores in bondage, America would be a bankrupt lie.

What do you think?

P.S. Your humble professor was interviewed about some of these issues on radio station WDEL-FM in Delaware in 2019. You can hear that interview here.

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: