The DNA of American Folk Music

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Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

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.

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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:

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 [their] legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?

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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 York Herald 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 response to his pronouncement,

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman [a black-owned newspaper] recalled Dvořák’s statements as “a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements,” referring to him as “Pan [father] Antonín Dvořák, our greatest friend from far across the sea.” According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvořák “lives on in black music circles.” 

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.”

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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.

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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.

The “one-drop rule,” however, exempted anyone who claimed to be descended from the real Pocahontas, as many of Virginia’s “finest families” claimed to be.

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?

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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.

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(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.

As John Jeremiah Sullivan describes Rhiannon Giddens, one of the contemporary black artists attempting to reveal the black roots of American folk music:

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 is black music.

Black music like this:

And like this:

And this:

And all of this:

Rhiannon Giddens is not the only young black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.

Here is the multi-instrumentalist native of Los Angeles, 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.

Appendix: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.

Black Opera

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Harry Lewis Freeman (1869-1954).

Harry Lewis 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.”

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.”

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James Weldon Johnson’s brother, J. 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:

He 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 this month, with a cast of young black English singers.

By specification of the Gershwin estate, Porgy must only be performed by singers of African ancestry. This did not stop the Hungarian State Opera from performing it with white singers earlier this year, however. Read more:

 

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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.

Emancipation

In performance by New York’s Opera Ebony:

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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:

Spirituals, Black English, and the Sonic Color Line

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Map of American English dialects.

On July 5, 2018,  The Nationa left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, meant to be an ironic critique of the limits 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 their contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled panhandler:

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? (Some of you will recall this as a topic we discussed 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:

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery.]

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In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

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However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

And the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black-on-black violence.

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

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This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the stereotyped violence of black men, were usually performed, paradoxically, by heavy-set white women, known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully,” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and thus sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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The takeaway: before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.

Writing in 2001, music critic Nick Tosches asked rhetorically:

Does “Cop Killer,” fine and wonderful an entertainment as it is, differ from “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” except that it traffics in another stereotype, sells a different and more [modern] candy? There is, in fact, in all of late-twentieth-century rap music, no pose more bloodthirsty, razor-slashing, swaggering, and deadly, no performance more nastily and vehemently free with and full of the word “nigger” as epithet, nor with and . . . menace as ethos, than that of “The Bully,” a coon-song hit of 1907 by the coon-song shouter May Irwin . . . Ah, but to hear “The Bully” done up anew today, in full technological violence, by, say, the Wu-Tang Clan — now that would be something.

Do you agree with Tosches that late-twentieth-century rap is a latter-day version of the “coon songs” of old? Why or why not?