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.

Classically Black, part II: The Songs of Black Volk Playlist

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As we’ve discussed in class, W.E.B. Du Bois, above, who spent several years studying in Germany in the 1890s, greatly admired German classical music, and considered it a repertoire full of freedom and possibility for black performers. He especially loved the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the opera house in Bavaria where a festival of Wagner’s operas is put on every year. By this time, it was widely known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer: here is Hitler at the 1934 Bayreuth festival.

As Alex Ross describes the trip:

Du Bois was treated courteously in Bayreuth, but he could not avoid the ideological stench of the place. . . .Pervasive anti-Semitism left him aghast. Even so, he insisted on the universality of the Wagner operas. “No human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life,” he wrote, in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was the summer of the Berlin Olympics, of Jesse Owens’s victory, and Du Bois’s readers might have been awaiting his celebration of that feat. He was, however, suspicious of the cult of sports, and preferred to focus on achievements in science and art. Gazing at mementos of Wagner in a display case, he imagines a young black artist who will one day mesmerize the world with comparable genius. He dreams of a black Wagner, a sorcerer of myth.

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Inspired by Du Bois, and by the remarks made by historian Kira Thurman (above) in the “Studying the Lied” colloquy in the Summer 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, here is a playlist of most of the singers mentioned by Thurman, singing German repertoire. Read the colloquy here.

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A live recording of the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey from 1941 (starts at around 15:00; I couldn’t figure out how to cue the audio, so you may need to listen to a violin sonata by Paul Hindemith first).

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Tenor Roland Hayes, a native of Georgia and the son of former slaves, was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk while on tour, when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident:

Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!

Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
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Marian Anderson:

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Ellabelle Davis:

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Kenneth Spencer:

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Leontyne Price:

Simon Estes:

William Warfield:

Grace Bumbry:

Reri Grist:

Kathleen Battle:

Jessye Norman:

South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises some Zulu in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera:

Pretty Yende singing an aria from the same opera:

Tenor Russell More recalls being told “Too bad you’re black,” at an audition.

Thomas talks about his debut as Otello:

Thomas sings:

Can A White Girl Sing Selena?

Selena-Quintanilla

April 16 is a state holiday in Texas: Selena Day.

Who was Selena?

Selena was, is, and, were I to guess, will remain for eternity the most beloved female of all time in the Latino community. (Second place is the Virgin Mary, if you’re looking for context.) . . . She looked like (a more attractive version of) us.

This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.

Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:

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Some cried foul. One Facebook commenter noted:

“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I’m a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain’t Latina.”

Choffel was defended, on the other hand, by Rachel V. González-Martin, a professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who

[defines] cultural appropriation as what happens when [a] community with significant resources takes as its own the expressions of a community with fewer resources.

But, [González-Martin] said, cultural appropriation can be hard to identify.

“Once people are exposed to culture, it’s out there . . . That’s why cultural appropriation is so difficult. To say, ‘You’re not Latino, so you’re not allowed to like Selena’ is ridiculous, and it’s bigoted, and it’s small-minded.”

What do you think?

To put it in a certain context: this is one of the best-known songs by Flaco Jiménez, a Texas-born singer and accordionist, like Selena a master of the Tejano style.

Every year on his birthday, these two white Dutch guys make a video of themselves covering it as a tribute to Jiménez. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it cultural appreciation?

What about the Japanese group Orquesta de la Luz, considered one of the best salsa bands of the 1980s and 1990s?

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.

Professor González-Martin’s idea that once culture is out there, it’s out there, is not true just for the cultural expressions of historically-oppressed or underresourced groups. In recent years, for instance, Richard Wagner’s operas have been adopted as required listening by American white supremacists who probably never took Music 101. (If they had taken it with me, I like to think, they might have emerged with a little more love for their fellow man.)

For instance, the famous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre was used as the opening theme music for a white supremacist radio show in Florida.

And at a speech at a rally in Sweden, white supremacist Lana Lokteff asserted that:

“lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” would inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.

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Someone else used Wagner’s music as a sonic pun in an endless loop of alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer getting punched at Trump’s inauguration:

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:

I made my song a coat 
Covered with embroideries 
Out of old mythologies 
From heel to throat; 
But the fools caught it, 
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise 
In walking naked.

From Black Nationalism to Black Intergalacticism

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The visionary free jazz musician and Afro-Futurist Sun Ra was a visiting artist and professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1971. Here is fascinating audio from a lecture he gave in his Spring course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”

The reading list for his course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Radix: A New Way of Making Logarithms.

Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky.

The Book of Oahspe.

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones.

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People, eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow, 1968.

David Livingstone: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro.

Archibald Rutledge: God’s Children.

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971) — a black literary journal published byTemple University in Philadelphia.

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It’s At, United States Information Agency.

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books, 1972.

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press, 1921 (originally published 1791).

The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (Ra’s description; = The King James Bible).

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956.

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944.

Blackie’s Etymology.

As Ra said:

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true.  But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing.  My job is to change five billion people to something else.  Totally impossible.  But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible.  And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’.

In 1972, a feature-length Afrofuturist/blaxploitation film, Space is the Place, was made based on Sun Ra’s Berkeley lectures. You can watch the complete film on Youtube.

 

Poem: “Black Boys Play the Classics”

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(Photo: Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897.)

Another example of “complicating” the repertoire.

Is this poem about cultural appropriation or cross-cultural encounter?

Black Boys Play the Classics

The most popular “act” in
Penn Station
is the three black kids in ratty
sneakers & T-shirts playing
two violins and a cello—Brahms.
White men in business suits
have already dug into their pockets
as they pass and they toss in
a dollar or two without stopping.
Brown men in work-soiled khakis
stand with their mouths open,
arms crossed on their bellies
as if they themselves have always
wanted to attempt those bars.
One white boy, three, sits
cross-legged in front of his
idols—in ecstasy—
their slick, dark faces,
their thin, wiry arms,
who must begin to look
like angels!
Why does this trembling
pull us?
A: Beneath the surface we are one.
B: Amazing! I did not think that they could speak this tongue.
(Toi Derricotte, “Black Boys Play the Classics” from Tender. Copyright ©1997 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, http://www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.)
Brahms did not actually write any string trios, i.e. pieces for two violins and a cello. Perhaps the boys the poet describes were playing one of his piano trios, with the piano part transcribed for violin.