Category: Old Time Music

  • Way Up North in Dixie

    “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 […]

  • Fare Thee Well/Careless Love

    In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from […]

  • More Call and Response

    The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances. As the Malinke people of West Africa say, “There is no movement without rhythm.” Notice that rhythm aids with the […]

  • Call and Response

    Call-and-response form is a structure imported to the Americas by enslaved African people in the seventeenth century. A brief history: A prison work song: (“Hammer, Ring,” Jesse Bradley and group, State Penitentiary, Huntsville, Texas, 1930s) A spiritual: “Talking ‘Bout a Good Time” (Moving Star Hall Singers, 1967) A sharecroppers’ work song: (“Arwhoolie,” Thomas J. Marshall, […]

  • Tracing the Sources

    [Content warning: racist language and imagery.] 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. […]

  • Authenticity (part I)

    The protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears, a young white recording engineer named Seth, describes days spent listening to music with his college friend, Carter Wallace: We worshipped music like [Lee “Scratch”] Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling […]

  • Cultural Appropriation or Cross-Cultural Encounter?

    Trigger/content warning: racist language, blackface minstrelsy. Rihanna wearing a Catholic bishop’s mitre at the gala for the Metropolitan Museum show “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The lines between cultural appropriation and a more innocent cross-cultural borrowing can be blurry. Are there rules for determining which is which? Is this cultural appropriation? (Watch the […]

  • Go Down, Moses

    The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn. The song had been known for at least 15 to 20 years prior to its […]

  • The Appropriation of Cultures

    Listen to a wonderful live reading of Percival Everett’s 1996 short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”: This is the song, “Dixie,” that Everett’s character Daniel sings. It was written in 1859, and was adopted, with additional lyrics, as the national anthem of the Confederacy. Perhaps the way that Daniel sings “Dixie” sounded something like jazz […]