As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:
“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”
“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”
Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).
In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.
Names have power, in other words.
Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.
In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”
The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.
Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
John Lomax also collected some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:
Porter suggests here that Coltrane wasn’t truly improvising, but composing.
Is A Love Supreme a jazz example of word-painting, a compositional technique dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras?
An example of word-painting from the English Renaissance: Thomas Weelkes’s madrigal “As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending.” Note the way the vocal line travels downward on the word “descending,” for instance, and upward on the word “ascending.”
The fourth movement, entitled “Psalm,” is Coltrane’s note-for-word musical translation of his poem “A Love Supreme,” which was included in the liner notes of the LP. Coltrane described it as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.”
A Love Supreme I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related… all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be His name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations– all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way… it is so lovely… it is gracious. It is merciful–Thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God… everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear… believe… Thank you God. The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way… it is so wonderful. Thoughts–deeds–vibrations, all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful… Thank you God. Glory to God… God is so alive. God is. God loves. May I be acceptable in Thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of Thee, O Lord. Thank you God. God will wash away all our tears… He always has… He always will. Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God. To whom all praise is due… praise God. No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are all from one thing… the will of God… Thank you God. I have seen God–I have seen ungodly– none can be greater–none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us… He always has and He always will. It’s true–blessed be His name–Thank you God. God breathes through us so completely… so gently we hardly feel it… yet, it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION–ELEGANCE–EXALTATION– All from God. Thank you God. Amen.
In fact, as you can see in this video, which shows the handwritten poem, in “Psalm,” Coltrane plays each syllable as a note, making it a kind of recitative in the form of a prayer.
Listening to Coltrane work through his own challenge may well stimulate self-confrontation in the rest of us. Each listener, of course, will himself be challenged in a different way.
Listen to audio of one of Coltrane’s last interviews, in which he talks about hearing Malcolm X speak, about his thoughts on the connections between jazz and the civil rights struggle, and about how music is a sacred expression of the human experience:
After his death, John’s widow Alice Coltrane — a remarkable jazz pianist in her own right — became a religious leader in her own right. A convert to mystical Hinduism, Alice founded the Vedanta Center in Southern California. Her music became mystical as well. Listen to her 1970 piece “Something About John Coltrane,” a tribute to her late husband. Do you think it has something of the mesmeric quality of the music of Black Christianity, in which Alice was raised?
Handbill distributed by the Citizens’ Council of New Orleans, one of many such groups opposed to integration.
Early rhythm and blues was essentially what its name says: an uptempo version of the blues, with a strong emphasis on the kind of driving, propulsive beat popularized by jazz. It was marketed to black urban record-buyers as “race music,” until journalist Jerry Wexler (who later became a well-known producer) christened it “rhythm and blues” in Billboard magazine in 1949.
Some early examples.
Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” (1947):
John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun” (1949):
Lonnie Johnson, “Tomorrow Night,” an R&B ballad (1947):
Wynonie Harris, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (1947) — a song that was one of the first to use the term “rock” to describe a musical style:
Harris’s recording became a #1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts in 1948; a few years later, it would become a #1 hit on the pop charts for another artist:
Another feature of rhythm and blues was group vocals, a style borrowed from gospel quartets like the Jubilaires:
The group sound was adopted by male vocal harmony groups like the Ink Spots and the Orioles. Note the romantic, extremely emotionally-vulnerable vocal style of the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny and the Orioles’ Sonny Til:
R&B, in both its uptempo and ballad forms, was eminently danceable, and the new dance style was close. As Orioles member Diz Russell explained it, after World War II
People wanted to become close. Their loved ones were coming back from the war . . . The theme was trying to get close to each other. You can’t get close to nobody on the dance floor, jitterbugging, so ballads were the best medium . . . it put you in [the] frame of mind . . . to fall in love.
A historical recreation of Black social dance in the famed Roseland Ballroom, for Spike Lee’s 1992 film X: big band jazz in its essence.
In the late 1940s, jazz moved out of the popular sphere and into the echelons of avant-garde art music. You couldn’t even jitterbug to bebop, with its rapidly changing meters.
On the other hand, you could dance to R&B.
Slow dancing to Sam Cooke in the 1950s:
Uptempo R&B dancing:
Another male singing group, The Dominoes, with the uptempo “Have Mercy Baby” (1951):
Another Orioles song, “Crying in the Chapel,” consciously married gospel and R&B, both in musical style and in the text, about an individual religious experience:
Faye Adams joined female gospel vocal style with secular love lyrics (“Shake a Hand,” 1951):
Rhythm and blues emerged at the same time that jazz, with bebop and hard bop, was becoming music for connoisseurs and intellectuals. R&B stepped into jazz’s former position as the defining genre of popular black urban music. In a few short years, the crossover between R&B and the concurrent emerging style of rock and roll would be complete.
The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The title story is about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:
Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors), originally from North Africa, off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.
My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.
This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.”
In the past few months, classical music institutions have begun to recognize their need to reconceive the widespread impression of classical music as a strictly white and European art form. The #TakeTwoKnees hashtag in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an effort by Black classical musicians to address this.
The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:
Arguments for Beethoven’s “Blackness” are based on hearsay, speculation, and the reading of visual images. Are these reliable sources of evidence? If not, what sources of information would be more reliable?
Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Or is it something defined by affinity, that is, by what one loves, desires, or wishes to be?
Who gets to decide the racial identity of another?
Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it Black?
Which leads to even thornier philosophical questions:
What is Blackness? What is race?
The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.
Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.
Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.
Incidentally, Beethoven had a Black friend and colleague, George Polgreen Bridgetower, who was a famous Afro-European violinist and for whom Beethoven wrote a fiendishly difficult violin sonata. The original dedication to his friend reads, with fond humor:
Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
(Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, great madman and mulatto composer)
However, the two fell out while drinking together one evening, after Bridgetower suggested that the woman Beethoven was in love with had loose morals. As was his habit when his friends and idols displeased him, Beethoven scratched out the dedication to Bridgetower on the Violin Sonata no. 9 in A Major and replaced it with a dedication to another violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer, after which it became commonly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”