Many artists moved to Harlem, where they were free to cultivate the inner life.
Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:
The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:
I don’t want your Dixie, You can keep your Dixie, There’s no one down in Dixie Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem. Harlem has those Southern skies, They’re in my baby’s smile, I idolize my baby’s eyes And classy uptown style.
The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.
Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.
The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)
The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:
Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.
The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.
As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not “the kind of love that satisfies.”
Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:
In Harlem’s Araby You can’t tell “B” from “G.” There’s nothing in the Orient Like Harlem’s Araby.
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:
The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.
In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:
While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).
At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded as if they were derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.
Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house in the Chicago suburbs — Price’s, as it turns out — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.
As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:
Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.
Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.
So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?
In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:
In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, 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.
This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:
So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:
And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:
Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.
The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.
In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:
In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble and kind: Beware the day They change their mind! Wind In the cotton fields, Gentle Breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees!
And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:
So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.
American music is African–American music. This is no less true of American classical music.
Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
From 1970 to 1973, Motown, whose mainstream records were mostly apolitical, operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and radical Black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
In July 1967, Detroit underwent five days of brutal unrest following the police raid of an after-hours club. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing rioting.
While the unrest was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
In 1968, civic leaders initiated a summer program to repair the city’s reputation, called “Detroit is Happening.” Motown artist Smokey Robinson and the Miracles recorded a song for the City of Detroit, “I Care About Detroit”:
And Detroit Tigers left-fielder Willie Horton recorded a spoken-word jam over the Supremes’ song “It’s Happening,” to advertise the summer program.
Marvin Gaye’s great 1971 record What’s Going On took Motown’s first-string in a politically-engaged and socially-conscious direction. The album, influenced by a dark time in Gaye’s own life, was a “concept album” — all the songs were connected into a single overarching narrative, about a Black soldier coming home from Vietnam, based on the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie. Berry Gordy at first refused to release it, thinking it too political. Gaye refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy changed his mind. Gaye prevailed, and the rest is history.
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.
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:
What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?
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 YorkHerald 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 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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
(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.
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 isblack music.
Black music like this:
And all of this:
Here is Giddens singing two traditional Irish songs in Irish Gaelic, a nod to the mixed origins of American folk:
Rhiannon Giddens is not the only Black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.
Twenty-four-year-old banjo-and-fiddle player Jake Blount is dedicated to resurfacing old-time Americana music’s roots in Blackness.
Here is multi-instrumentalist Los Angeles native 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.
Nevertheless, on his 2007 album From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, Marsalis raps.
You got to speak the language the people Are speakin’ Specially when you see the havoc it’s wreakin’ Even the rap game started out critiquin’ Now it’s all about killing and freakin’ All you ’60s radicals and world beaters Righteous revolutionaries and Camus readers Liberal students and equal rights pleaders What’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders Where y’all at? (That’s what I’m talkin’ about) Where y’all at? (Where y’all at?) Where y’all at? Where y’all at? (Lord have mercy) Don’t turn up your nose It’s us that’s stinkin’ And it all can’t be blamed on the party Of Lincoln The left and the right got the country sinkin’ Knocked the scales from Justice hand and Set her eyes a-blinkin’ All you patriots, compatriots, and true Blue believers Brilliant thinkers and overachievers All you “when I was young We were so naïve’ers Y’all started like Eldridge [Cleaver] and now You’re like Beaver Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? We supposed to symbolize freedom and pride But we got scared after King and the Kennedys died We take corruption and graft in stride Sittin’ around like owls talkin’ ’bout “WHO? Who lied?” All you po’ folks victims of rich folks game All you rich folks gettin’ ripped off in the Same name All you gossips cacklin’ “It’s a dirty shame” And whistle blowers cryin’ ’bout who’s to blameWhere y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?Well, it ain’t about black and it ain’t about The white They’ll get together to make your pocket light. When you just keep on payin’ do your jaws Get tight? Taxes, that’s your real inalienable right All you afro-wearers and barbershop experts Cultists, sectarians, political disconcerts Big baggy pants wearers with the long White T-shirts The good man that counter what the Bad man asserts Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? After 9/11 the whole world Was ready to love us Now everybody can’t wait to rub us We runnin’ all over the world with a blunderbuss And the Constitution all but forgot in the fuss All you feminists and mothers, fathers And brothers I guess you’d pimp your daughters if you Had your druthers All you “It’s not me” it’s always others You watch the crimes, you close your shutters Folks watchin’ Fox and CNN News Seekin’ a cure for the Red, White, and Blues Well, it won’t matter which side you choose If we end up payin’ international dues All you “In my day it used to be” frauds All you “So what”s and “Leave it to the Lawd”s All you “I’ll just deal with whatever cards” All you extend adolescent American Bards Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at? Where y’all at?
He explains: “It’s rapping, but it ain’t hip-hop.”
What do you think?
It’s worth noting also
What about this famous song from 1970 by Gil Scott-Heron, known as the “Godfather of Rap”? Is it rap if it lacks flow, scansion, or rhymes?
How do you define rap?
How would you describe the difference between rap and hip hop?
Some of the music JumpJim describes hearing on his trip to buy old blues records with Chester Bly — a trip that has many unintended consequences.
Chester, knocking on doors, asking his monomaniacal question. Got any records? Under your porch, maybe? Pay a dime a piece.
Here are some of the records the two get hold of.
As the two leave Mississippi after Chester’s encounter with Miss Alberta, JumpJim hears a little boy singing the words “Pharaoh army sure got drownded.” This is from the spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Why do you think Kunzru includes this song?
And on Seth’s own southern journey, tracing the footsteps of Chester Bly, he refers to this song.
Willie Brown, whose legendary (and lost) recording, Paramount 13099, “Kicking in My Sleep Blues” b/w “Window Blues.”
This is “The Negro Laughing Song,” sung by George W. Johnson, the first Black American to be recorded. Kunzru alludes to this song near the end of White Tears.
In the novel White Tears by Hari Kunzru, which is about the haunting of a 21st-century sound engineer by the ghost of a forgotten early-20th-century bluesman, the allegorical figure of “Captain Jack” appears early on, in a quoted song lyric. The lyric is from Son House’s “County Farm Blues” (1941):
Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong Down South, when you do anything, that’s wrong They’ll sure put you down on the country farm
Put you down under a man they call “Captain Jack” Put you under a man called “Captain Jack” Put you under a man they call “Captain Jack” He sure write his name up and down your back
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade Wish to God that you hadn’t never been made
On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad On a Sunday the boys be lookin’ sad Just wonderin’ about how much time they had
The County Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Parchman Farm, a notoriously brutal, segregated prison, where black inmates
Bluesman Bukka White (1906?-1977) also did time at Parchman for assault. Folklorist John Lomax met and recorded him there. In 1940, White released “Parchman Farm Blues.”
Judge gimme me life this morn’in Down on Parchman Farm Judge gimme me life this morn’in Down on Parchman Farm I wouldn’t hate it so bad But I left my wife in mournin’
Four years, goodbye wife Oh you have done gone Ooh, goodbye wife Oh you have done gone But I hope someday You will hear my lonesome song, yeah
Oh you, listen you men I don’t mean no harm Oh-oh listen you men I don’t mean no harm If you wanna do good You better stay off old Parchman Farm, yeah
We go to work in the mo’nin Just a-dawn of day We go to work in the mo’nin Just a-dawn of day Just at the settin’ of the sun That’s when da work is done, yeah
Ooh, I’m down on old Parchman Farm I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah I’m down on the old Parchman Farm But I sho’ wanna go back home, yeah But I hope someday I will overcome.
Son House (1902-1988) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Rochester, New York during the Great Migration, where he gave up music, working as a porter on the New York Central Railroad. House was “rediscovered” in the 1960s by a group of young white record collectors (not unlike, perhaps, JumpJim and Chester Bly a decade earlier) who had searched for him fruitlessly for years in Mississippi.
Though he spent most of his life in upstate New York, House sang, in the song “Clarksdale Moan”: “Clarksdale, Mississippi always gon’ be my home.” The song also contains the lines, “Every day in the week, I go down to Midtown Drugs/Get me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of Alcorub.” Alcorub was rubbing, or isopropyl, alcohol, “alcohol of last resort for desperate alcoholics” during Prohibition (see also “Roll and Tumble”).
House had done a stint in Parchman for allegedly killing a man in a bar brawl in self-defense; he alludes to his sentence in “Mississipi County Farm Blues,” where Captain Jack is a symbol of the brutal prison wardens. After his release, he was advised to leave Clarksdale. He went to Lula, Mississippi, sixteen miles north, where he met Charley Patton. House would later perform with Patton, and traveled with him to Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930 to record at the Paramount music studios.
However, as the sociologist B. Brian Foster has noted local backs usually don’t attend them, because “that’s for the white folks.”
Charley Patton also referred to Parchman in his song “Hammer Blues”:
They got me in shackles wearing my ball and chain And they got me ready for that Parchman train
Who is “Captain Jack”?
“Captain” is a loaded word in African-American history. The first “captains” with whom Africans had to contend were the actual captains of slave ships. In the early 19th-century poem “The Sorrows of Yamba,” John Riland wrote of the widespread practice of “dancing the slaves” during the Middle Passage in order to force them to exercise:
At the savage Captain’s beck Now like brutes they make us prance; Smack the cat [i.e., whip] about the deck, And in scorn they bid us dance.
Plantation overseers were later called “Captain.” After Emancipation, white work gang leaders took their place. As the best-known version of the John Henry ballad tells it:
John Henry said to the Captain [of his work gang] “A man ain’t nothing but a man, But before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord, I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
It is worth noting that there are “rebel” versions of the John Henry ballad as well — versions in which the text is not sanitized to suggest that John Henry is battling a machine rather than an entire system of oppression. James P. Hauser has documented many examples, including one that includes this verse:
Blues singer Sippie Wallace recorded “Section Hand Blues” in 1925, thought to be the first recording by an African American to make reference to John Henry, in which she sang:
If my captain ask for me Tell him Abe Lincoln done set us free. Ain’t no hammer on this road Gonna kill poor me. This ole hammer killed John Henry, But this hammer ain’t gonna kill me.
Leadbelly also recorded a song that might be considered a “rebel version” of the John Henry ballad, “Take This Hammer.”
By the time the Southern prison system was well-established in the 1920s, the “Captain” was the prison warden.
The white collector Lawrence Gellert transcribed and recorded black chain gang songs in the rural south in the 1920s and 1930s, publishing them in two anthologies, Negro Songs of Protest and Me and My Captain. His transcriptions of some of the lyrics appeared in the Communist weekly the New Masses in the 1903s. Read an example here:
Gellert’s recordings were later released on LP. An example:
We’ve talked about how the modern sampling of prison songs can change the meaning of the original text/song. How do you think covering these songs, as an earlier generation of Black concert singers like Harry Belafonte did, might change their meaning?
Belafonte singing one of the songs collected and published by Lawrence Gellert in Me and My Captain, “Look Over Yonder”:
And the famous song “Old Man River,” from the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, is a kind of sanitized version of a prison/work song. Here is the scene from the 1936 film of the show, sung by the great Paul Robeson and an anonymous chorus of black riverboat stevedores.
Watch the 1966 documentary Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison, made by folksinger Pete Seeger along with his wife Toshi and son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson.
Addendum: a feminist take on the John Henry legend: the hero in this version is his wife, Polly Ann.
Pianist, singer, and activist Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of the song “Feeling Good” was used in a fascinating 2018 ad for a Buick model made in Shanghai.
The song begins with Simone’s unaccompanied voice, and gradually adds instrumental parts verse by verse, becoming a big-band anthem with a full horn section. The Buick ad uses an instrumental clip from the song around the 1:00 mark.
The ad uses documentary footage of China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, including images of Mao Zedong, student Communist rallies, and so-called “struggle sessions,” during which “enemies of the Revolution” were forced to publicly admit to various crimes against the state while crowds beat and humiliated them. Ominous music plays in the background as a raspy-voiced narrator refers in vague language to those dark times, saying that “after those trials, we all rallied around what was right . . . all that matters now is what lies ahead,” as video of vibrant street life and various homegrown small entrepreneurs — an old woman carrying a bundle, various outdoor vendors — is shown. Then, to the text “Wealth is back,” a Buick GL8 goes speeding out of a garage as the Nina Simone song plays.
Why do you think Buick’s advertising executives juxtaposed a song by a controversial African-American artist with disturbing images of China’s troubled past, to sell a luxury car to the emerging Chinese upper classes? Is this a good choice? What does black music mean in this context?
And, going from the particular to the universal: do you think that appropriating sources and remixing them fundamentally changes their meaning? Or does the meaning of the original sources stay the same? Is the song “Feeling Good” fair game for remixing for the purpose of injecting capitalism into a Communist country?