Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?
Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?
If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?
Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.
Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?
What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?
The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:
The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.
These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?
Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:
The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.
Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.
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.
In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books, an organization working for diversity in the children’s and teens’ publishing industry. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
I’ve been thinking about A Fine Dessert, too, as I read the Michael Twitty book [The Cooking Gene]. . . It’s fascinating how that smile sits at the meeting point of two different arguments. On the one hand there is the myth of the happy Negro cook, a subtype of the happy slave, whose personhood is totally effaced, buried under the smile they put on for the white people: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Mask.” On the other hand there is as you say, that subversive element, the ability to make music, art, to find personhood in subversion, the need for transcendence. So there’s definitely a flashpoint there, the smile can be read both as the mask that is necessary to appease the white gaze, but also as the secret subversion, the We Could Fly moment dreaming of beauty and a secret inner life that the cruel reality of slavery cannot touch . . . [The] hard, uncomfortable truth [is] that at the root of much of American cooking in the South is slavery, that trauma that no one wants to acknowledge. And here’s a picture book for kids that dares to go there and a lot of people are uncomfortable going there and even thinking about it. On the other hand since it’s just one episode in a picture book that doesn’t give a greater context, maybe it isn’t contextualized enough to tell a nuanced story and that is worth pondering. . . does the smile support the stereotype of the happy Negro or subvert it? . . . I think that’s precisely why the book shouldn’t be canceled, but rather discussed, but the zeitgeist is to shy away from having those conversations and sweeping them under the rug, while claiming that of course we want to have the conversation.
The poem Melanie references, “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906):
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask!
This haunting reading of the poem by Maya Angelou, and her response to it, was brought to my attention by student Nicole Corbin.
Another valid criticism of the book is the way it portrays privilege. As Paula Young Lee notes, the book
doesn’t trace Blackberry fool (a “fine dessert” referenced by the title) as prepared by 18th century leather tanners, by 19th century prostitutes, and 20th century truckers living in rusted-out double-wides, to echo the chronological arc of the book. It doesn’t even feign the sentimentalized pauper’s kitchen featured in kid lit from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” No, the interpretative lens focuses on the social privileges of the leisured class, and that’s why the horrors of slavery are downplayed.
The beauty of ordinary, everyday life is one of the themes of the 2020 Disney Pixar movie Soul, which features a jazz musician who tutors an unborn soul in living on earth.
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.
In 2019, the Yankees cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.
The reason for the cancellations was that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:
Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That’s why darkies were born; Someone had to laugh at trouble, Though he was tired and worn, Had to be contented with any old thing, That’s why darkies were born; Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught All the white folks to do; Someone had to fight the Devil, Shout about Gabriel’s Horn, Someone had to stoke the train That would bring God’s children to green pastures, That’s why darkies were born.
It’s worth noting that, both in her appearance and in her singing style, Kate Smith followed in the tradition of the popular “coon shouters,” like May Irwin, of a decade or two earlier. These were women singers, usually full-figured and solidly built, who sang songs trading in vicious racial stereotypes, purporting to be from the point of view of violent urban Black men looking for a fight. The singing style of the “coon shouters” was loud and declamatory.
On the face of it, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” are incredibly offensive. However, there’s more to them, in the historical context, than meets the eye. Bear with me as I unpack them.
When the song was written, statements like the ones its lyrics make were not considered overtly racist. Why is that?
First of all, if you read through the lyrics a second time, you begin to realize that they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” Was the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggesting that the system of slavery was the thing that made the great musical traditions of African America possible? .
Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Is Brown being sincere here, or ironic? Even the most fire-eating pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work harder than that to justify their position that slavery wasn’t only a necessity, but even a positive good.
And finally, and most intriguingly, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?
Here Lew Brown is hinting at the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary to, the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — that appear in gospel music.
Of course, in the antebellum South, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.
Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?
The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is a song ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Is it a justification of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slaveryitself was necessary for whites’ redemption?
These are disruptive and troubling ideas, but they weren’t new in 1931. In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
(Du Bois is suggesting that “Annie Rooney,” below, is vulgar and inane.)
The great spiritual “Steal Away”:
Complicating things further, the great African-American bass Paul Robeson also recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” in 1931.
Why do you think Robeson, who was a prominent civil rights activist, recorded this song? How does his interpretation differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?
Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .
[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley [Tin Pan Alley was West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in New York City, where the writers and publishers of popular songs had their offices — “Annie Rooney” is a typical example of a Tin Pan Alley song] could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?
The notion of black Americans as essential to the salvation of all Americans will come up for us again when we study jazz. The composer and director Ed Bland, in his short film “The Cry of Jazz” (linked here), has one of his characters speak of “the terrible burden the Negro has of trying to teach white Americans to be human.”
The sentiment is also present in a 1947 children’s book by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward, North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.
I came to the New World empty-handed, A despised thing, to be used and broken, Yet I brought immeasurable gifts . . . I brought to the New World the gift of communion. I was the Negro who by many a lonely campfire Learned to “steal away to Jesus” on wings of song. . . Out of loneliness, need, and anguish Was born the Spiritual, A ladder of beauty leading straight to God.
Do you think Hildegarde Hoyt Swift is echoing the sentiments of Lew Brown, the lyricist of “That’s Why”?
A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, the children of the Great Migration. Some of the lyrics:
Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs, Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes. Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies? Underneath the Harlem moon.
There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo; They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do: Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue, Underneath the Harlem moon.
In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”
Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:
What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?
As Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the introduction to The 1619 Project:
Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. For generations, Black Americans have fought to make them true.
In a certain sense, Hannah-Jones is making the same case that Lew Brown did in “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” — that without Black Americans, brought to these shores in bondage, America would be a bankrupt lie.
On the new album Our Native Daughters, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (above), there is a banjo tune titled “Barbados,” believed to be the first western notation of a slave song in the new world. The melody was transcribed by one D.W. Dickson in Barbados in the 18th century. Giddens writes in the liner notes:
This scrap of melody has of course been through a lens – the man who wrote it down would have had a firm western sense of melody and rhythm, and most likely would have corralled any kind of partial tone to fit the western scale; and if he didn’t write it down on the spot [upon hearing a slave sing or play it], he was then relying on the imperfect human memory . . . that being said, it is still a portal, however imperfect, to a time long ago, and to a people whose lives often passed unmarked and unmourned by the society around them.
The song is bookended by two poems about slavery. The first, “Pity for Poor Africans,” an ironic 1788 anti-slavery verse by the abolitionist English poet William Cowper:
I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves, And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, For how could we do without sugar and rum? Especially sugar, so needful we see; What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes, Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains: If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will: And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.
The second poem is by the album’s co-producer Dirk Powell, updated for the modern age:
I own I am shocked at prisoners in the mines, And kids sewing clothes for our most famous lines What I hear of their wages seems slavery indeed It’s enough that I fear it’s all rooted in greed
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium The garments we wear, the electronics we own What – give up our tablets, our laptops and phones?
Besides, if we do, the prices will soar And who could afford to pay one dollar more? Sitting her typing, it seems well worth the price And you there, listening on your favorite device
This bargain we’re in – well it’s not quite illict So relax my friend – we’re not all complicit.
What do you think? Are we, in fact, all complicit?
(Incidentally, Furry Lewis’s song, “Turn Your Money Green,” was covered by other white folksingers.)
Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” was made famous by his sister-in-law, Joan Baez:
Rhiannon Giddens covered it on her album Freedom Highway:
Giddens’s arrangement of the song begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major:
Why do you think Giddens references Mozart in her version of “Birmingham Sunday”?
Why do you think that, until Giddens, only white artists recorded the song?
Two months after the bombing, John Coltrane recorded his response to it, “Alabama.”
Nina Simone’s response to the bombing and other Southern atrocities:
Poet Dudley Randall wrote “Ballad of Birmingham” about the bombing. His poem mirrors the form of British folk ballads: a dialogue between two characters, in this case, the mother and child, followed by a narrative of the ironic events befalling the unsuspecting protagonists (the irony, in this case, because the mother believes her daughter will be safe in church).
We tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement taking place in the form of marches and protests, and being litigated in the courts. When we think of the segregation that the Movement worked to dismantle, however, we need to remember that it existed in all public and private spaces that Black people lived, worked, studied, and worshipped in.
[Trigger/content warnings: lots of racist and ableist imagery and language.]
In 1768, English playwright Isaac Bickerstaffe and Charles Dibdin — librettist and composer, respectively — presented their comic opera The Padlock at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. Dibdin portrayed the role of Mungo, a black slave from the West Indies, and his aria “Dear Heart! What a Terrible Life I am Led” became a popular hit. The song, though a lament, was an up-tempo, marked allegro.
In the late eighteenth century, “Dear Heart” and a number of other “Negro songs” were published in American song collections. These songs were meant to be sung by white singers “in character” — i.e., in blackface makeup and tattered clothing — but their texts were in general sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved. For instance, “The Desponding Negro” tells the story of an African caught and transported in the Middle Passage:
And “Poor Black Boy (I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy),” from another English comic opera called The Prize (libretto by Prince Hoare, music by Stephen Storace, whose sister Nancy was the celebrated soprano who created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozzle di Figaro), is sung from the perspective of a repentant white slave-dealer.
Performing in blackface was a practice of long standing in Britain. Morris dance, a traditional form of English folk dance that emerged in the Middle Ages, derives its name from “Moorish,” i.e. African; the dancers were imitating what they believed to be exotic African dances, and the custom of blacking up persists, though it is now frowned upon by folk dance enthusiasts:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, blackface was a theatrical convention for white actors portraying characters of African heritage, and was not considered denigrating or disrespectful. This began to change (slowly) in Britain in the nineteenth century, when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge made a sensation in England and on the European continent for his portrayal of the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In early nineteenth-century America, on the other hand, white entertainers began to produce comic songs for the concert and stage, in which blacks were treated as figures of ridicule and contempt. The so-called “Father of American Minstrelsy,” Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as “Daddy” Rice, claimed that he was inspired to create the genre when he came upon a disabled black stable-hand who, as he worked,
When Childish Gambino’s “This is America” dropped in 2018, some critics saw the pose he strikes early in the video, when he shoots the guitar player, as a reference to minstrelsy.
Minstrel shows, or “Ethiopian minstrelsy,” as the genre was called, became wildly popular in the big northern cities of the new nation, and some of the most popular minstrel troupes crossed the ocean and toured to great success in England. The white dancers and singers in blackface accompanied themselves with “Ethiopian instruments” — the fiddle, the banjo, the tambourine, and the “bones.” The typical minstrel show
In an 1848 article in his newspaper, The North Star, Frederick Douglass described the blackface actors as:
The filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that such entertainments were flagrantly racist — portraying white northerners’ corrupted ideas of the lives of southern blacks and making them into figures of fun — some scholars of minstrelsy have theorized that white audiences were attracted to minstrel shows not only because minstrelsy propped up white supremacy, but also because of itsconnectionto black culture, however degraded the minstrels’ version of black culture may have been. Even nineteenth-century writers, such as Margaret Fuller, recognized that what was original and innovative in American culture came from black music: white American culture, she wrote, was still an imitation of British culture, while
All symptoms of invention [in America] are confined to the African race . . . [unlike “Yankee Doodle,”] “Jump Jim Crow” is a [song] native to this country.
[Remember that Rice had essentially ripped off the song that the stablehand was singing, a theft that Fuller seems to acknowledge here.]
And another critic wrote in 1845 about the infusion of black music into the culture at large:
Ironically, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who had catapulted to fame playing a racist, ableist stereotype of an enslaved man, later played the sympathetic slave character Tom in a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin — although, as Nick Rugnetta suggests here, it was probably one of the many bowdlerized, even pro-slavery, versions.
In his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott suggests that
Or, as Julius Lester noted in Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!:
The minstrel shows were a pathetic attempt by whites to try to get some of the vitality of blacks into their own strait-jacketed lives. (Whites would still be dancing the minuet if blacks weren’t around to invent every dance from the Charleston to the Boogaloo.) They had to masquerade as blacks to get outside the strict mores of their society.
W.E.B. Du Bois, in his essay “The Sorrow Songs,” included two minstrel songs — “Swanee River” and “Old Black Joe,” both by white composer Stephen Foster — in his historiography of black American music, which suggests that the cross-racial encounters of the minstrel show were more complex than they may appear.
After emancipation, there were even all-black minstrel troops, who nevertheless still “blacked up” for their performances. Interestingly, black minstrel shows were very popular among black audiences in the northern cities. Why do you think this might have been?
Zip Coon (a “zip coon” was a derogatory slang term for an urban black man, the citified counterpart of the rural “Jim Crow,” who liked to dress in flashy clothes and get into razor fights with his cohort):
Jim Along Josie:
Which later, with some changes, made its way into the children’s song repertoire:
[Shocked] is using the album to argue that blacks and whites who performed in blackface in the 1800s, imitating what they believed to be authentic black culture, are the founders of today’s popular music. Musicians who do not acknowledge this tradition are exploiting it, she says.
In particular, Shocked focuses on bluegrass, a style commonly believed to have been invented by Bill Monroe . . . she says Monroe learned the basis for bluegrass from a black fiddle player named Arnold Schultz.
”There is a very common misconception about this music that, say, it comes from Celtic influences-say, Irish music-and that it was brought over to this country and maybe it went through the Appalachians and Kentucky and became Americanized, and now let’s call it bluegrass or mountain music,” Shocked says.
But you can tell a story a hundred different ways. The way I’m trying to tell the story is that this music was as much a black invention as a white one, but that the black part of the history has been written out.
This is certainly true (see this post. and this one too). But it’s still more than a little unsettling to hear a white woman, however well-meaning, sing these words:
Jump Jim Crow. Jump Jim Crow How do you, do you walk so slow Like a little red rooster with one trick leg Looks like you the one laying the egg I don’t know when but it’ll be real soon Going down the road by the light of the moon Going to the city to see Zip Coon
Hip Zip Coon you sure look slick How do you do that walking trick You got a woman on your left A woman on your right You all dressed up like a Saturday night Strolling down the street, feeling fine Tipping your hat, saying “Howdy, Shine” If I knew your secret I would make it mine
Tarbaby, Tarbaby, tell me true Who is really the jigaboo? Is it the white man, the white talking that jive Or the black man, the black, trying to stay alive? You can’t touch a tarbaby, everybody knows Smiling all the while wit de bone in de nose That’s the way the story goes
Perhaps Shocked’s efforts are an example of love and theft, like Joni Mitchell’s forays into blackface:
Mitchell used this black male persona, which she named “Art Nouveau,” in several contexts. The black man on the left of the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is Joni, in blackface drag.
On her 1979 “Shadows and Light” tour, Mitchell even used film to transpose “Art’s” face over hers at the end of the song “Furry Sings the Blues,” about her encounters with the dying blues musician Furry Lewis in Memphis (at the 4:14 mark):
In 1980, Joni made a short film, “The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks,” in which she transforms herself into “Art.”
What are the implications of a white woman taking on a black male persona? “Furry Sings the Blues” is not only a self-revelatory tale of cross-race cultural appropriation, but also of cross-class appropriation: Mitchell describes Lewis’s crumbling neighborhood in Memphis, notes that if you “bring him smoke and drink,” Lewis will sing for you, and ends with the admission that her “limo is shining on his shanty street.”
Is blackface ever permissible? Is it a different thing entirely when an innovative and admired artist like Joni Mitchell uses it? Or not?
Blackface has also been in the news in the past few years. The governor of Virginia (the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War) faced pressure to step down when it was revealed that he appeared in blackface in his medical school yearbook from the 1980s, along with a classmate dressed as a klansman.
Kenan Thompson addressed this in a hilarious SNL skit in 2019:
The design brand Gucci became the subject of controversy for introducing a black sweater/ski mask that mimics the exaggerated makeup of blackface.
White Instagram models have been slammed for striving to appear black.
Is it ever okay for a non-black artist to portray a black person onstage or in other media?
What about the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (this guy):
Playing Othello in Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Otello?
It was commonplace for white tenors to play Otello in blackface as recently as 2015, when the Metropolitan Opera officially did away with the practice. The Met’s statement:
This creates a conundrum for an opera company wanting to cast the best talent available. Only a handful of tenors in the world can sing the role at the highest level, and most (though by no means all) opera singers are white. The tragedy of Othello — his destruction at the hands of his jealous white servant, Iago — is very much based on his “otherness.” If everyone on stage is the same color, the drama is lost. Here is Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Met’s Otello; he’s the heavyset guy in the uniform. It’s hard to tell him apart from the rest of the cast.
There are other ways to stage Othello to preserve its dramatic and artistic integrity. For instance, in 1997, Sir Patrick Stewart played Othello without blackface in a highly-acclaimed production that became known as the “photo-negative Othello“: Othello was white, and all the other characters were black.
In 2015, the Washington Post hosted a roundtable discussion of black opera singers on their feelings about blackface in Otello and other roles. The singers’ feelings about these practices may not be what you would expect:
The critic John Szwed has suggested that an artist like Mick Jagger essentially performs blackface without blacking up. What does he mean? Do you agree?
Nas accuses some hip hop artists of playing to minstrel stereotypes in order to make money for their record companies:
Public Enemy’s 1990 “Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” which blasts minstrel stereotypes in the movie industry:
Spike Lee commented on blackface in his 2000 film Bamboozled, about a black television producer who creates a contemporary minstrel show. The show is meant to be ironic, but ends up being a hit. Lee used the following montage in the film.
A meta-narrative from the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays an actor who plays a Black character, explaining method acting to Ben Stiller. TW: in addition to racism, the r-slur is repeatedly used.
Other artists, like Rhiannon Giddens, have subverted the minstrel ethos and reclaimed it. Giddens plays a replica of an 1850s minstrel banjo. She describes how she repurposed a minstrel song, probably “Blue-Tail Fly,” and turned it into a history of the Reconstruction movement for Black education (as well as an exhortation to students today):
Questions for discussion:
Is blackface ever permissible in our day and age? If yes, what would be the circumstances that would make it so?
Why do you think white performers have found it so irresistible to “black up”?
Do you think that minstrel songs should be “reclaimed” by Black artists?
Should they continue to be taught in school music classes?
But the other themes are pretty universal. Yes, including trucks.
And certainly failed relationships.
What is not widely known is that country music has been integrated since its earliest days. Although early recording labels divided their catalogs into “hillbilly” and “race” records, the recording sessions were often integrated. In fact, the so-called “Father of Country,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), recorded with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.
As multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens notes, the assumptions that (1) all country music begins in Appalachia, and (2) there were no black people in Appalachia, are patently false.
The facts are that Appalachia is not a racially homogeneous region, and that American blacks have deep ties to the rural histories and landscapes of the American south, and to the roots of traditional American folk music. For more, read the transcript or watch the video of Rhiannon Giddens’s 2017 speech before the International Bluegrass Music Association, here:
thoroughbred racing and hee haw are burdensome images for Kentucky sons venturing beyond the mason-dixon
anywhere in Appalachia is about as far as you could get from our house in the projects yet a mutual appreciation for fresh greens and cornbread an almost heroic notion of family and porches makes us kinfolk somehow but having never ridden bareback or sidesaddle and being inexperienced at cutting hanging or chewing tobacco yet still feeling complete and proud to say that some of the bluegrass is black enough to know that being ‘colored‚ and all is generally lost somewhere between the dukes of hazard and the beverly hillbillies
but if you think makin‚’shine from corn is as hard as Kentucky coal imagine being an Affrilachian poet
(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)
Many American folk songs were performed by both Black and white singers.