“Dixie,” or “Dixieland,” are names used to refer to the American South. The song “(I Wish I Was In) Dixie’s Land,” more commonly known just as “Dixie,” was written in 1859 and published by a white blackface entertainer named Daniel Emmett. However, the book Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem (Howard and Judith Sacks) suggests, there is strong evidence that “Dixie” was written by a Black musician from Ohio, Thomas Snowden.
This is especially ironic since “Dixie,” with some additional lyrics, was adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy in the Civil War. There is a variety of viewpoints about whether the song should be performed today.
Nevertheless, some modern-day African American musicians are reclaiming the song’s Black roots. As jazz singer René Marie says:
And multimedia artist John Sims (above) has produced an album called “The AfroDixie Remixes” which he describes as “playing ‘Dixie’ in the key of black.”
Some Black artists are working to reclaim the music and instruments of minstrelsy. Rhiannon Giddens explains why she plays a replica of a minstrel banjo.
Rocker Gary Clark, Jr.’s 2020 song “This Land” is a response to and an argument against the kind of reclamation project that Giddens and other musicians are involved in. As Clark notes, this land belongs to African Americans.
The important 19th-century Black American guitarist and composer Justin Holland (1819-1887, above), who was also a civil rights activist, wrote “Variations on Dixie’s Land” for guitar. I can’t find any videos of it, but music professor Paul Sweeny has performed it.
Why do you think he did this?
Here’s a video of a performance of another of Holland’s arrangements, the Rochester Schottische, originally written for piano and about Rochester, New York, where Holland’s friend Frederick Douglass lived.
Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt*; Alle Menschen werden Brüder* Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen Eines Freundes Freund zu sein; Wer ein holdes Weib errungen Mische seinen Jubel ein! Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Brüsten der Natur; Alle Guten, alle Bösen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur. Küsse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod; Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn, Freudig, wie ein Held zum siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen. Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity [or: of gods], Daughter of Elysium, We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, thy sanctuary! Your magic binds again What custom strictly divided;* All people become brothers,* Where your gentle wing abides.
Who has succeeded in the great attempt, To be a friend’s friend, Whoever has won a lovely woman, Add his to the jubilation! Indeed, who even just has one soul To call his own in this world! And who never managed it should slink Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy At nature’s breasts. All the Just, all the Evil Follow her trail of roses. Kisses she gave us and grapevines, A friend, proven in death. Salaciousness was given to the worm And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly through the heavens’ grand plan Go on, brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory.
Be embraced, Millions! This kiss to all the world! Brothers, above the starry canopy There must dwell a loving Father. Are you collapsing, millions? Do you sense the creator, world? Seek him above the starry canopy! Above stars must He dwell.
Its most famous setting:
This video shows some of the text and translation, along with the vocal passages to which each textual phrase is set.
The great African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976) sings it in English translation in the 1930s (it’s worth noting that Robeson was an outspoken supporter of communism and the Soviet Union).
If you look on Youtube, you will find numerous versions of Beethoven’s setting, including many updating it to contemporary genres. Here’s a performance on Coke bottles:
Schubert’s setting of “Ode to Joy,” from 1815 (nine years before Beethoven’s):
The earliest known setting is by the dedicatee of Schiller’s poem, Christian Gottfried Körner, from 1786. You can hear Körner’s complete list on the playlist “An die Freude” on NAXOS.
An 1800 collection of fourteen settings of Schiller’s ode by the important Austrian and German composers of the day. The volume was published by Jacob Böhme of Hamburg, who would become one of the most important music publishers of the nineteenth century. Most of these are as yet unrecorded.
The sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?
The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.
Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.
And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.
So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.
As the early nineteenth-century music theorist C.F.D. Schubart wrote:
The entire forest stops and heeds when the sonorous horn is sounded. Deer lie at the spring and listen; even the frogs slip out of the water; and sows lie nearby in sweet slumber, while their piglets suckle in 3/8 time. . . A horn call summons the dogs, that they might brave the frightful forest and pit themselves against the jaws of the boar . . . But the same all-powerful horn, ringing out in gentle tones from forest hills, compels the deer lying by the mossy spring to raise up its antlers and, as it were, to soak up the sound.
The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.
Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses.
Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.
And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?
(The title page of Beethoven’s manuscript of his third symphony, with the dedication scratched out.)
In October 1803, Beethoven’s friend, student, and acolyte Ferdinand Ries wrote to the music publisher Simrock:
[Beethoven] wants to sell you [his new] Symphony for 100 gulden. In his own opinion it is the greatest work he has yet written. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed. He is very much inclined to dedicate it to [Napoleon] Bonaparte, but because [Beethoven’s patron Prince] Lobkowitz [will have sole rights to it] for half a year and will give 400 gulden [for that privilege, after that time period Beethoven] will entitle it “Bonaparte.”
The scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell proposed the existence of a universal “mono-myth” that transcends time, place, and culture: the hero’s journey. According to his theory, every culture in human history has a core story: that of a hero — usually, at first, someone who appears unlikely and ill-equipped for the task — who is called to a quest, goes on a journey, undergoes a crisis, wins a decisive victory, and returns transformed.
Do you think that this template can be applied to the symphony Ries refers to above, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 in E-flat Major, the “Eroica” (Heroic)?
A hobgoblin is, in European folklore, a spirit of the hearth or fireside (the “hob”). Hobgoblins are considered meddlesome and mischievous beings.
In the universe of Marvel Comics, the Hobgoblin is one of Spiderman’s nemeses.
In his well-known 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” by which he meant that one should not conform to the fashion of the age, but should rather be original in all that one thinks and does from one day to the next.
In fact, it was Wagner who, in 1846, first coined the term “absolute music.” He meant it in the most pejorative way possible, calling music that was disengaged from the meanings and energies of daily life, history, and the imagination “a hobgoblin in the brain of our aesthetic critics.” Indeed, according to Mark Evan Bonds, Wagner believed that
The notion of an artwork unconnected to the world around it . . . was quite literally inconceivable.
In other words, to Wagner, music could never be abstract, referring only to itself, existing in a realm untouched, unaffected, and unadulterated by any gesture or fact outside of itself.
In matters of absolute vs. program music, Wagner’s nemesis would be not The Hobgoblin, but Brahms.
The earliest-known published book of African-American music, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, is primarily devoted to the religious vocal music of the slaves of the eastern seaboard. However, there are several songs at the end that are of a very different nature. These songs are in French and were collected in Louisiana, and they are dance songs.
The editors say of these songs that:
The language, evidently a rude corruption of French, is that spoken by the negroes in that part of the State [Louisiana]; and it is said that it is more difficult for persons who speak French to interpret this dialect, than for those who speak English to understand the most corrupt of the ordinary negro-folk [dialect]. . . . The “calinda” was a sort of contra-dance, which has now passed entirely out of use.
Or has it? This is what it sounds like:
Louisiana planters imported slaves from the Caribbean, and it is believed that the Calinda was one of the dances performed by slaves in Congo Square in New Orleans on Saturday nights. It is still danced and played in Trinidad and Tobago, where it is also related to an Afro-Carribean form of martial arts called Kalinda.
The Trinidadian calinda performed above seems to be related, both lyrically and musically, to this sea shanty:
The calinda is mentioned in the story “La Belle Zoraide” by the nineteenth-century New Orleans-based novelist Kate Chopin.
“La Belle Zoraide” is a story about the horrors of family separation in slavery, and about the hierarchy of color in Louisiana — which is told in part in the Creole language (referred to in Slave Songs of the United States as “evidently a rude corruption of French”). Read it here.
The traditional Cajun song “Allons danser Colinda” (Let’s dance, Colinda) was also influenced by the Afro-Carribean Calinda. Cajuns are a mostly white, French-speaking ethnic group that settled Louisiana after being expelled from Canada by the British in the eighteenth century.
The calinda even shows up in the work of English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). While Delius is best known as a composer of English “pastoral” music, he managed an orange plantation in Florida briefly in the 1880s, where he heard and was influenced by African-American music. In 1904, he wrote an opera called Koanga, a tragic love story about slavery in the eighteenth century. This is Delius’s version of the calinda.
In a kind of full circle, Koanga was performed in Trinidad in 1995.
For more on Slave Songs of the United States and the earliest attempts at American ethnomusicology, watch this brief film.
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:
And the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black-on-black violence.
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).
In fact, many American children’s songs and folksongs have their origins in minstrelsy, including “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Who’s That Knocking.”
And not just children’s songs: American children’s literature has also been influenced and informed, both consciously and unconsciously, by stereotypes descended from blackface minstrelsy. Read Philip Nel’s provocative article “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?”
The genre of minstrel songs such as “Such a Gittin’ Upstairs,” which took as their subject violence committed by 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.
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 will argue that blackface minstrelsy took place so long ago and that these children’s songs no longer represent that racist history. That history, however, was not that long ago: The last generation born in the segregated South still lives among us today. Black Americans won the right to vote a mere 50-odd years ago. The fallout from slavery and Jim Crow manifests itself today in the form of voter suppression, housing segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, and poverty. . . .
Yet others will argue that music exists on its own, immune to history or context. Music and history, however, are inextricably tied. You need no more proof of the power of music in shaping thought and history than in the very name for America’s system of segregation — “Jim Crow” — as having come from the first blackface minstrel character. . .
Minstrel songs belong where their historical role can be explored in depth — in museums and history classrooms of higher education. Or they belong reclaimed by African American artists like Rhiannon Giddens, who is reinterpreting minstrel songs while exposing their troubling roots.
Have minstrel stereotypes persisted in black music? 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?
This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.
Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:
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
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 in the world in 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.)
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:
In 2019, the ensemble Roomful of Teeth was criticized by Inuit women on Twitter for incorporating Inuit throat-singing practices, uncredited, into one of their pieces, “Partita for 8 Voices,” by award-winning composer Caroline Shaw:
Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices”; the movement with the throat-singing begins at 10:18:
As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:
“Oh, Susannah” was written for a blackface minstrel troupe, the Ethiopian Serenaders.But the song used to be sung by most American schoolchildren. Here is the Canadian folk ensemble The Be Good Tanyas’ version.
What about this, more in the original context?
We’ll be discussing these things at length this semester.
For now, the least offensive choices for opera producers are to 1) cast singers whose race/ethnicity matches the race/ethnicity of the character they are playing, or 2) if that’s not possible, cast the best singer available of any race/ethnicity, and update the plot/setting to make the mismatch less important.
The Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo was long considered the greatest Otello of the past half-century.
(This is how he looks without makeup.)
While opera companies have addressed the issue of blackface (the Metropolitan Opera has pledged not to use it in Otello), not as much attention has been paid to the practice of “yellowface.”
(These are Mao Zedong’s three secretaries in one of my favorite operas, Nixon in China by John Adams. The characters are Chinese; the singers playing them are white.)
There is a growing number of world-class Asian singers on the opera scene, many of them from South Korea. Sometimes a company staging a production of an opera set in Asia will have the good fortune of being able to hire one of them. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, in its 2011 production of Nixon in China, hired the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim to sing the role of Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), and Kim was a force of nature in the role:
In this disturbing scene, Madame Mao disrupts the performance of a ballet put on for the Nixons, The Red Detachment of Women, to glorify her own power and her part in China’s Cultural Revolution. A riot ensues over Madame Mao’s new interpretation of the revolution: who is revolutionary, and who is counter-revolutionary? The scene ends with a confrontation between Madame Mao and her longtime political rival, Chou En-lai. You will notice that Chou is played by a white dude (Canadian baritone Russell Braun, to be precise). As are most of the members of the chorus (though the Met was fortunate enough to be able to cast the ballet with Asian dancers).
The role of Madame Mao was first sung by a white soprano, Trudy Ellen Craney; at the opera’s premiere in 1987, all the Chinese characters were performed by white artists in yellowface. In fact, all the Chinese characters in the Met’s 2011 production, with the exception of Madame Mao, were also sung by white artists.
Could a purist quibble that because the soprano Kathleen Kim is Korean, and Madame Mao was Chinese, even the Asian-to-Asian casting is not okay?
In the 1960s and 1970s, African-American sopranos like Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo (below) often sang the title role — a Japanese woman — in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Here is Arroyo singing Butterfly’s famous Act II aria, “Un bel dì.”
Arroyo also sang the title role in Puccini’s opera Turandot, in which she played a Chinese princess:
Leontyne Price (one of the greatest opera singers who has ever lived), also was a famous Butterfly. Her she sings Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria in a concert performance.
Should only Japanese sopranos sing the role?
Here the Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura sings the role, but her servant, Suzuki (also Japanese in the opera), is played by a white singer, Victoria Lambourn, who is not made up or wigged to appear Japanese.
As early as 1915, Japanese sopranos have been singing Cio-Cio-San. Here is the first, Tamaki Miura (1884-1946):
Another Japanese soprano, Hizi Koyke (1902-1991), who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, was also a noted Cio-Cio-San. I was unable to find audio of her singing the role, but did find her singing Yum-Yum in the comic operetta The Mikado (1885) by the English team of Gilbert and Sullivan. You can hear Koyke singing an excerpt on this recording starting at 2:04.
Here, the great African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens plays General Leslie Groves in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic:
This is what General Groves looked like in real life:
As you can see, it’s complicated.
Ask yourself the following questions:
What is permissible in art? What is permissible in everyday life? Should art be a place where our cultural ideas of race — ideas which some people believe are totally constructed — are lain aside? Should art be a place where people get to try on new identities? Should opera casting be “racially accurate” or color-blind? Is art a meritocracy? Is art a place where anything is possible?