The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.
At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.
As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:
Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”
And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.
Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”
Dr. King watched the speech on television at a friend’s house in Selma, surrounded by his aides, including John Lewis, who would later become a long-serving congressman.
“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:
The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:
The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):
and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”
The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.
Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:
Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:
What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?
What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could this happen today? Should it?
And it gets more complicated: a recent lawsuit alleges that “We Shall Overcome” was pirated from a similar song, “If My Jesus Wills,” composed by Louise Shropshire, a friend of Dr. King. Read the allegations and watch video here.
In the chapter “We Shall Overcome,” from his 1969 book Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (in your course reading packet), former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary (and later prolific author) Julius Lester casts the song in an ironic light:
In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.
How does Lester engage with Dr. King’s philosophy of the “Beloved Community”?
“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
In addition to being a writer and activist, Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.
Recently, in Portland, Oregon, the white parishioners of St. Francis Catholic Church used the song in a protest against changes made by their more traditional African pastor.
What do you think of this use of “We Shall Overcome”? Is it appropriate? Is it ironic?
Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.
Maestro Antonio Pappano and the cast of the Royal Opera production discuss the rehearsal process.
English National Opera presented Butterfly two years ago with a puppet as Trouble, Butterfly’s son.
Do you think it works?
A short animated film to Butterfly’s Act II aria “Un bel dì vedremo.”
Glyndebourne Opera updated the story to 1950s post-World War II Japan:
Punk rock producer Malcom McLaren’s take:
The Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev singing Butterfly’s Act III aria in a Russian-language production of American playwright David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (which actually does not follow the plot of the opera at all, but concerns a relationship between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer
How did the poetry of Ossian (really, James MacPherson) influence Italian opera in the nineteenth century?
Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantic generation in Italy?
Could it be because these supposedly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe? In other words: because “Ossian,” as a Scottish poet, addressed issues of the time — including the longing for nationhood among diverse peoples — in a way that would surely have been censored or suppressed if the poems had been “modern”?
Ossianism, as a kind of cultural virus . . . spread quickly and widely. In Britain, which had recently suppressed a series of insurrections in Scotland and solidified its domain over the recently formed “United Kingdom,” these Ossianic characteristics . . . promoted Scottish nationalism and undermined English authority.
So, for all of his purported ancientness, Ossian is about resurgence, rebirth — risorgimento in Italian. The Italian Risorgimento was the political and artistic movement dedicated to Italian liberation and unification.
So we go from early Italian Romantic opera, like this:
to overtly nationalist and revolutionary Italian Romantic opera, like this:
When we talk about postmodernism in music, we’re generally referring to the period after World War II. Some of the hallmarks of postmodernism are an experimental approach to form, structure, and instrumental/vocal techniques, a distrust of historically-informed musical styles, and an aesthetic that borrows from and refers to popular music styles. Postmodernist music has taken on many different and sometimes-conflicting forms and philosophical narratives.
Composer Tania León (b. 1943) draws on her Afro-Cuban heritage and its syncretic music traditions in her art and concert music.
The aria “Oh Yemanya” is from her opera Scourge of Hyancinths, whose libretto she co-authored with the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka.
Harry Lewis Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company.
His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, one of whose participants is a “Voodoo queen,” Lolo. The New York Herald Tribune noted that the opera portrayed
typical Negro life in the days of slavery, while the music includes spirituals, chants, arias, tangoes and other dances, among these a ritualistic voodoo ceremony.
In 2015, the opera was revived for the first time since 1928 by the Harlem Opera Theatre, who performed it in a concert version at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.
Here, Janinah Burnett as Lolo performs the “ritualistic voodoo ceremony.”
Freeman was not, however, the first African-American composer of opera. The first known operatic work by a black composer in the U.S. was Virginia’s Ball by John Thomas Douglass (1847-1886), which had its premiere in New York in 1868. Unfortunately, the score has been lost. Below is an excerpt from his solo piano work “The Pilgrim.”
James Weldon Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), is best known for his setting of his brother’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem:
He was also a successful composer of light operas for the Broadway stage around the turn of the twentieth century.
In addition, Johnson was a singer, who performed the role of Frazier in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess — the most enduringly successful opera about black American life.
The English National Opera performed Porgy for the first time this month, with a cast of young black English singers.
By specification of the Gershwin estate, Porgy must only be performed by singers of African ancestry. This did not stop the Hungarian State Opera from performing it with white singers earlier this year, however. Read more:
Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), above, who wrote in a more “internationalist,” neo-classical style, also wrote operas. This is a score excerpt from his 1985 opera Frederick Douglass.
William Grant Still (1895-1978), above, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” wrote eight operas. His 1939 opera Troubled Island, about the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, was the first opera by a black composer to be performed by a major company, the New York City Opera.
A recent New York Times article discussed some of these works, as the Metropolitan Opera made the radical (for them) choice of opening their 2019-2020 season with Porgy and Bess. Read more here:
Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.
“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”
Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.
Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.
The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.
Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.
We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.
Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.
Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:
In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of
Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!”
Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”
And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that
white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”
This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.
Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.
What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?
UPDATE, October 2019:
Opera has lost one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, Jessye Norman. Read Kira Thurman’s appreciation of the diva here.
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 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.)