Birmingham Sunday

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This past Saturday was the 55th anniversary of the KKK’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four children died.

The (white) folksinger Richard Fariña wrote a song to commemorate the tragedy, “Birmingham Sunday”:

The tune of Fariña’s song is taken from the Scottish folksong “I Loved A Lass.”

Fariña attended Cornell University, and wrote a comic novel about his time there called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, whose title he took from a song by Furry Lewis:

Incidentally, Furry Lewis’s song, “Turn Your Money Green,” was covered by other white folksingers.

Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” was made famous by his sister-in-law, Joan Baez:

Rhiannon Giddens covers it on her recent album Freedom Highway:

Giddens’s arrangement of the song begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major:

Why do you think Giddens references Mozart in her version of “Birmingham Sunday”?

Why do you think that, until Giddens, only white artists recorded the song?

 

“Ethiopian” Songs

[Trigger/content warnings: Blackface minstrelsy, racist imagery, racist language, and racist depictions of African-Americans in the linked audio of minstrel songs.]

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In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.

In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:

And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.

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In the early nineteenth century, however, white entertainers in the United States began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, apparently was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,

used to croon a queer old tune, with words of his own, and at the end of each verse would give a little jump . . . The words of the refrain were:

Wheel about, turn about,
Do jus’ so,
An’ ebery time I wheel about,
I jump Jim Crow.

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(Rice as “Jim Crow.”)

Minstrel shows, known as “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” became wildly popular in the big cities of the new nation. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show

offered up a random selection of songs interspersed with what passed for black wit . . . the second part (or “olio”) featured a group of novelty performances . . . and the third part was a narrative skit, usually set in the South, containing dancing, music, and burlesque.

In spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist, some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences might also have been attracted to minstrelsy’s connection to black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that

It was cross-racial desire that coupled a nearly insupportable fascination and a self-protective derision with respect to black people and their cultural practices, and that made blackface minstrelsy less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure.

Recall, too, that W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by Stephen Foster — in his explanation of the development of black American music, which suggests that the racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they appear at first glance.

What is more, there were also all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Can you think of some reasons why that might have been?

Whatever the case,

The Ethiopian vogue . . . swept over the United States . . . the public clamored for Ethiopian melodies, and songwriters gave it such songs as Old Dan Tucker, Dandy Jim from Caroline, Zip Coon, Jim Along Josey, Coal-Black Rosie [and others].

Old Dan Tucker:

Dandy Jim:

Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow”):

Jim Along Josie:

Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:

Coal Black Rose — here sung as a sea shanty (Remember “Go Down, You Blood-Red Roses”?):

Boatman’s Dance, attributed, like “Dixie,” to Dan Emmett:

The twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland made a popular arrangement of “Boatman’s Dance” for baritone and orchestra. American baritone Thomas Hampson sings it here, with a hint of an AAVE accent:

Rhiannon Giddens reclaims the song:

Giddens with her old band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

 

Blackvoice

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You know what blackface is.

Is there such a thing as blackVOICE? What is it?

Historically, we might call “blackvoice” one of the performative tools of blackface minstrelsy. In the days when minstrelsy was considered an acceptable form of entertainment, blackface and blackvoice existed simultaneously in the same performance/performer.

What about now?

Iggy Azalea is only one of the most obvious white adopters of a “blaccent” in her work. The practice is of long standing, however.

This is Alison Moyet, a white English “blued-eyed soul” singer from the 1980s.

Covering this classic hit:

Is it blackvoice?

Is this?

Is this?

This raises the question: Is there such a thing as whitevoice?

In this 1980 performance of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem), African-American soprano Reri Grist sings the role of Blonde (which means “Blondie” in German), an English maid who, with her mistress, has been taken captive in a Turkish harem. The gruff harem guard, Osmin, takes a shine to her; she tweaks him, telling him that women like to be treated with kindness.

What do you think?

 

 

Don Giovanni Goes to Prison

Two years ago, Pier Paolo Polzonetti, an Italian-born music professor at Notre Dame University, wrote an essay about teaching Don Giovanni to a music history class that he taught inside a maximum-security prison. His essay, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” was published on the blog Musicology Now, run by the American Musicology Society (AMS), the most prestigious academic association for music scholars.

Polzonetti’s blog post ignited controversy among music scholars and students across the internet. He was accused by some of condescension, colonialism, and racism for opining that his inmate-students were more familiar with the “blatant lyrics and pounding beats” of rap than they were with opera, and for suggesting studying opera could help prisoners gain emotional self-control. He was defended by others, who in turn accused Polzonetti’s accusers of political correctness.

Here is a Reddit dialogue with comments by the opposing factions.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s detractors.

Here is a post by one of Polzonetti’s defenders.

What do you think?

 

Don Giovanni in the Hood

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All the trigger warnings.

“Here’s how Peter Sellars describes his [updating of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni]: ‘There’s a rape and a murder in the first 90 seconds of Don Giovanni … It’s probably the greatest opera ever written. … Don Giovanni is an opera that, 200 years later, we’re still struggling to try to understand.'” (From a 1991 review: read the whole thing, “Peter Sellars’s Streetwise Don Giovanni,” here.)

Another review: “Sellars’ Don Giovanni Wallows in Gore and Grime of a Bronx Slum.”

In fact, even the tamest, most traditional production of Don Giovanni could probably do with a trigger warning.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III: