The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.
The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves, and were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:
Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:
A ring shout:
The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:
Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).
Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.
George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).
A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:
The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.
“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”
“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:
“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?
While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).
At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.
Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house — Price’s, as it turns out, in the Chicago suburbs — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.
As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:
Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.
Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.
So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?
In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:
In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, 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.
This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:
So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:
And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:
And William Grant Still, whose opening theme echoes Dawson’s:
Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.
The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.
In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:
In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble and kind: Beware the day They change their mind! Wind In the cotton fields, Gentle Breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees!
And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:
So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.
American music is so largely African-American music, and this is true also of American classical music.
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 is black music.
Black music like this:
And like 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 A: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.
Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”
If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?
Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:
One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.
The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.
Content warning: racist, disturbing language and imagery.
The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out–if not in the word, in the sound;–and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:–
“I am going away to the Great House Farm!
O, yea! O, yea! O!”
This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,–and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.”
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.
— From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)
(Wedgewood china plate, early 1800s.)
In 1960, black folksong collectors Alex Foster and Michel LaRue (above) released an album called Songs of the American Negro Slaves. Listen to the entire album here; each song is very short.
Downbeat magazine called Foster and LaRue the leaders of “an organization of enthusiasts known as the Drinking Gourd Society” — a reference to the slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which gives coded directions to escape on the Underground Railroad.
You will notice that many, though not all, of the songs recorded by Foster and LaRue are spirituals. One of the earliest known forms of the African-American spiritual is the ring shout, which syncretized West African dance forms with Christian worship.
Watch “The Ringshout and the Birth of African-American Religion.”
For more on Southern pro-slavery theology, read this.
Some presentations of slave songs from films:
A work-song from 12 Years A Slave. Notice the similarities to the later prison work-songs of just a few generations after, with which you are already familiar.
Later in the film, a the community of slaves sings the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” after burying a fallen comrade. The River Jordan is a powerful and common metaphor in spirituals. In the Bible, the Jordan is the last frontier the Israelites must cross before they reach the Promised Land; for enslaved African Americans, the Jordan represents the last barrier to freedom — in this case, the freedom from slavery that comes with death. The main character, Solomon Northup, a free man who’s been captured and sold into slavery, struggles with his emotions and begins to feel himself a part of the community of enslaved people. His vivid emotional struggle suggests the emotional effects of enslavement on the interior life of the enslaved person.
“Run, N—–, Run,” here sung mockingly by the brutal overseer, was, according to John Lomax, an actual slave song. It first appeared in the 1830s after the Nat Turner Rebellion, when the consequences for escape became even more severe. The “patty-roller” is the patrolman.
The song survived well into the twentieth century. Here it is performed by a prisoner in a work-camp in Texas, from a field recording of the 1930s.
Here it is performed as an up-tempo dance by the early bluegrass ensemble the Skillet Lickers in the 1920s.
How does the meaning of the song change based on the time, place, and performer?
Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” of the African diaspora to America, and he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of musical notation from a spiritual. In the last chapter, “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of the musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of black Americans contains a power that transcends the social and economic condition of the practitioners of that music.
Du Bois also suggests in this essay that black music can’t really be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents its being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the signs and symbols of sounds. He also attempts to transcribe his impression of a west African language, though the language and the meaning of the words have not yet been identified.
Old Black Joe (also by Foster, sung by Paul Robeson):
No recording, but sheet music for the quotation:
Dere’s no rain to wet you, Here’s no sun to burn you, Oh, push along, believer, I want to go home.
Keep Me From Sinking Down (Robert Sims):
Poor Rosy (William Appling Singers)
The German folksong Du Bois quotes, “Jetzt geh’ i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net” (Now I go to the title well, but I don’t drink):
There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):
Michael Haul the Boat Ashore (Liberty Lines singers; starts at 3:15)
This song became a hit during the folk music revival of the early 1960s:
Incidentally, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a composer and musicologist. She wrote an opera called Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, about the African diaspora, which premiered in Cleveland in 1932. Unfortunately, none of her music has been recorded.
On July 5, 2018, The Nation, a left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, meant to be an ironic critique of the limits of white liberal compassion, uses what is called, in the field of linguistics, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to set out a list of rules, offered by one homeless person to another, on how to maximize their contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled panhandler:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower themselves to listen for the kick. People passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know you is. What they don’t know is what opens a wallet, what stops em from counting what they drop. If you’re young say younger. Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.
The poem caused an uproar on Twitter, because the poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, looks like this:
The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, claiming that they had
In your opinion, is the poem “How-To” problematic? Do you think that Carlson-Wee’s use of AAVE is cultural appropriation? Is it a form of poetic blackface/blackvoice? Is it racist? Should white poets/musicians/artists/random guys on the street be “allowed” to use it? What do you think of the statement by a letter-writer to the New York Times, who maintains:
Regardless of the relative merits of Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem, can we — should we — regard art as being separate from the artist, as having its own life and mission? (Some of you will recall this as a topic we discussed in Music 101 and Music 111: see here,here and here.)
In addition to her work as an opera soloist and teacher, Barbara was involved in the creation of the Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals at the University of Texas, her alma mater. She believed that spirituals were a legitimate genre of art song, like German Lieder or French mélodies. And, just as one sings Lieder in German or mélodies in French, she believed that one must sing spirituals in the accent of AAVE. I remember her coaching me in Harry T. Burleigh’s great song “Deep River,” and correcting my English: “Say ‘Jerdan,’ not ‘Jordan.'” Barbara told me that I had to sing the repertoire of spirituals. “You have that pathos in your voice,” she said. Indeed, she believed that this repertoire belonged to the world, and that all singers, not just singers of color, should perform it.
It is worth noting that some prominent black poets of the twentieth century wrote both in Standard American English and in AAVE. In doing so, they were not trivializing Black English, but, rather, promoting it as a legitimate language full of nuance and meaning, as Barbara Smith Conrad strove to do with her teaching of spirituals. James Weldon Johnson, for instance, best known for writing the text of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” also wrote poems in dialect, like this one, “Sence You Went Away”:
Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright, Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light, Seems lak to me der’s nothin’ goin’ right, Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me de sky ain’t half so blue, Seems lak to me dat ev’ything wants you, Seems lak to me I don’t know what to do, Sence you went away.
Seems lake to me dat ev’ything is wrong, Seems lak to me de day’s jes twice es long, Seems lak to me de bird’s forgot his song, Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me I jes can’t he’p but sigh, Seems lak to me ma th’oat keeps gettin’ dry, Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye, Sence you went away.
Johnson meant this poem to be a kind of folk expression of sorrow elevated to the level of poetry, just as serious as, say, a lament of the Greek poet Sappho (630-570 BCE):
He is dying, Aphrodite; luxuriant Adonis is dying. What should we do?
Beat your breasts, young maidens. And tear your garments in grief.
What do you think?
The Fisk Jubilee Singers performing “Steal Away” from an early recording (“Steal Away” was the first number on the program of their first concert tour of the United States, in 1871):
Barbara Smith Conrad singing it in a 1997 recording:
The US Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club singing it:
The National Taiwan University Chorus singing it:
Which version do you like the best? Why? Do you think your reactions might be different if you gave the various performances a “blind listening”?