Soul and the City

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, soul began to address the social and economic problems that faced Black Americans in the (mostly Northern) cities. The textual emphasis on this new wave of soul moved away from the genre’s earlier optimism, instead highlighting dystopian urban visions. This iteration of soul was, in a sense, a musical protest against the ambiguous legacy of the Great Migration and the dashed hopes of the Civil Rights era. Solomon Burke’s 1968 “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” is a good example.

Isaac Hayes, the producer and songwriter who co-led Stax Records in Memphis, the center of Southern soul, performing his Academy Award-winning theme song from the 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft at the Oscars that year.

John Shaft is a private detective trying to combat the Mafia’s control of the drug trade in Harlem. In a scene in which Shaft is doing a door-to-door search for his nemesis, Isaac Hayes’s song “Soulsville” plays in the background — a tender ballad describing the hardships of Black urban life:

Black man, born free
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be
Chains that binds him are hard to see
Unless you take this walk with me

Place where he lives is got plenty of names
Slums, ghetto and black belt, they are one and the same
And I call it “Soulsville”

Any kind of job is hard to find
That means an increase in the welfare line
Crime rate is rising too
If you are hungry, what would you do?

Rent is two months past due and the building is falling apart
Little boy needs a pair of shoes and this is only a part
of Soulsville

Some of the brothers got plenty of cash
Tricks on the corner, gonna see to that
Some like to smoke and some like to blow
Some are even strung out on a fifty dollar Jones

Some are trying to ditch reality by getting so high
Only to find out you can never touch the sky
‘Cause your hoods are in Soulsville

Every Sunday morning, I can hear the old sisters say
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, trust in the Lord to make a way, oh yeah
I hope that He hear their prayers ’cause deep in their souls they believe
Someday He’ll put an end to all this misery that we have in Soulsville.

Compare Isaac Hayes’s Oscar performance with H.E.R.’s 2021 Oscar-winning song, “Fight for You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah, about Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton. In what ways does H.E.R. draw on the music and aesthetics of late 1960s and early 1970s soul?

Contemporary blues-folk singer Ruthie Foster singing the Staple Singers’ song “The Ghetto,” which addresses the same social issues.

Marlena Shaw’s 1969 “Woman of the Ghetto” is a direct appeal to lawmakers to improve the living conditions in the urban core.


How do we get rid of rats in the ghetto?
Do we make one black and one white in the ghetto?
Is that your answer legislator?

Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” is about a migrant from the rural South to the urban North, where he is unjustly arrested and imprisoned. In the last verse, Wonder implores would-be migrants to the city to stay in their home places and make them better. As such, it’s an anti-Great Migration song.

I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder
If we don’t change, the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city
.

Pinned Post: Resources for Students

Simone Biles in Tokyo Olympics, July 2021 (AP)

As I write this, the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, has withdrawn from the women’s gymnastics team finals in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (delayed until 2021 due to the pandemic) because her mental health was suffering.

As someone wrote on Facebook:

If you need help, take a cue from the GOAT Simone Biles, and listen to your mind, body, and soul. If you’re struggling, please read the following.

(Adapted from the Colorado Healthcare Ethics Resource.)

The ways that each of us reacts to stress fall on a continuum.

You may feel little to no impact, or you may feel an increased stress response. When stress is ongoing or severe, this can lead to severe distress, burnout, or traumatic responses.

Personal experiences, support systems, coping mechanisms, external stressors, adverse childhood experiences, and the length of time we have felt increased stress can contribute to where we fall on the continuum. 

Expect that where you are on this continuum can change. It’s also important to remember that people will react differently to the same situation, and that is ok.  

Know that: 

  • What you are feeling and experiencing matters.
  • It’s likely that many people are feeling similar.
  • There are resources—and people—to help you.
  • Your professors care. Let us know if you need help, extensions on work, or a sympathetic ear.

This is a partial list of resources in our area. Remember: it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help when you need it. It’s a sign of STRENGTH.

Resources and Links

Mental Health

Local Mental Health Resources

UHS Outpatient Mental Health

33 Mitchell Avenue
Summit Building Suite G80
Binghamton, NY 13903
+1 (607) 762-2340
UHS Outpatient Mental Health Website

Lourdes Center for Mental Health

184 Court Street
Binghamton, NY 13905
+1 (607) 584-4465
Lourdes Center for Mental Health Website

Family and Children’s Society

257 Main Street
Binghamton, NY 13905
+1 (607) 729-6206
Family and Children’s Website

Community Treatment and Recovery Center (CTRC)

114 Clinton Street
Binghamton, NY 13905
+1 (607) 797-0680
Greater Binghamton Health Center

Comprehensive Psychiatric emergency Program (CPEP)

Binghamton General Hospital
10-42 Mitchell Avenue
Binghamton, NY 13903
+1 (607) 762-2302
+1 (800) 451-0560
UHS Website- CPEP

United Way

United Way 211 Website

National Resources

Suicide Prevention Life Line

1-800-273-TALK ( +1 (800) 273-8255 )
National Crisis Text Line Text: 741-741

Depression, Anxiety Online Tests


Domestic Violence

Local Resources

Crime Victims Assistance Center

377 Robinson St.
Binghamton NY 13904
24/7 crisis line: +1 (607) 722-2456
Text line: +1 (607) 725-8196
Office: +1 (607) 723-3200
Crime Victims Assistance Center Website

RISE: Comprehensive Domestic Violence Service

P.O Box 393
Endicott, NY 13761
Advocacy/Counseling: +1 (607) 748-5174
Administration: +1 (607) 748-7453
Hotline: +1 (877) 754-4340
RISE Website

A New Hope Center

20 Church St.
Owego, NY 13827
+1 (607) 687-6866
A New Hope Center Website

National Domestic Violence Hotline

1-800-799-SAFE ( +1 (800) 799-7233 )
National Domestic Violence Hotline Website

Relationship Violence

Domestic Violence Quiz Website


LGBTQ+

Local Resources

Southern Tier Aids Prevention Program (Stap)

22 Riverside Drive
Binghamton, NY 13905
+1 (607) 798-1706
STAP Website

National Resources


Alcohol and Drug

Local Resources

The Addiction Center of Broome County (ACBC)

+1 (607) 723-7308
+1 (800) 771-6402
Addictions Center of Broome County Website

United Health Services (UHS)

Drug Abuse Crisis Line: +1 (607) 762-2257
UHS Website

Inpatient Services

Fairview Recovery Services

  • Fairview Community Residence for Men +1 (607) 722-8987
  • New Outlook Community Residence for Women  +1 (607) 722-8987
  • Supportive Living, Shelter Plus Care, Housing Plus Care  +1 (607) 722-8987

Fairview Recovery Services Website

Helio Health

+1 (607) 296-3072
Helio Health Website

United Health Services (UHS)

New Horizons Inpatient Unit +1 (607) 762-2255

Outpatient Services

  • Addiction Center of Broome County (ACBC) +1 (607) 723-7308
  • United Health Services (UHS) +1 (607) 762-2200
  • New Horizons Outpatient Unit -+1 (607) 762-3288
  • Family and Children’s Society +1 (607) 729-6206

Other Services

  • Broome County SAFE line +1 (607) 778-6119
  • Broome County Sheriff Assisted Initiative  +1 (607) 778-1911, Ext. 1
  • Fairview Recovery Services Health Home Care Management +1 (607) 722-8987

Peer Services

Addiction Center of Broome County (ACBC) 

Family and Peer Navigator +1 (607) 422-4242

Fairview Recovery Services 

VOICES Recovery Center  +1 (607) 821-7811

Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier (MHAST) 

Peer Support Warm Line +1 (607) 240-7291

Narcotics Anonymous
+1 (607) 774-4900
Call for meeting times and locations

Alcoholics Anonymous
+1 (607) 722-5983
Call for meeting times and locations

Al-Anon & Alateen
+1 (607) 722-0889
Call for meeting times and locations

Co-Dependents Anonymous
+1 (607) 687-5620

Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP)
+1 (607) 762-2302 +1 (800) 451-0560
24-hour crisis hotline and confidential psychiatric advice.

S Program (STAP)
+1 (607) 798-1706
Excellent education and free harm reduction supplies

New York State Office of Addiction Supports And Services (OASAS)

Hopeline + 1 (877) 846-7369

Broome County Resources

Broome County Resources Website


Virtual Library on Mental Health topics

Virtual Library on Mental Health Topics Website

Online Questionnaires

Local Resources

Online Resources/Screening Tools

The Sadness of the New World

Dvorak and his family.

In 1893, Dvorak and his family traveled from New York to Chicago by train to visit the World’s Fair. From Chicago, they went to Spillville, Iowa, a farming community of Czech immigrants. While in Spillville, Dvorak met and heard the music of Native Americans for the first time. As his son described it, they were:

“medicine men” belonging to a tribe of thirty or so Iroquois who lived in tents “south of town, across the creek. … My father was interested … in their songs and instruments… Father received photos from the Indians. These photos were among my father’s prize possessions.” 

The songs the Iroquois sang for the composer may have sounded like this:

Or this:

And, as you know, Dvorak was deeply influenced by Black American folk spirituals. If you listen carefully, you will hear this one in the first movement of the Symphony no. 9, played at a brisk tempo on the flute (Beyoncé in a scene from the movie The Fighting Temptations). Dvorak’s assistant Harry T. Burleigh had introduced him to the tune.

A beautiful analysis of the extra-musical program of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 by writer Joseph Horowitz.

Some of the sources Horowitz references:

  1. Paintings of the American West
With the Eye of the Mind, Frederic Remington
Indians Spear-Fishing, Albert Bierstadt
Comanche Feats of Horsemanship, George Catlin

2. The Song of Hiawatha, a book-length poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based on Ojibway legend. The full text can be found here.

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19/19-h/19-h.htm

British music educator Jonathan James makes the case for the Symphony no. 9 as a conflict between the old and new worlds — the old world of Dvorak’s longing for his Bohemian home is the world of nostalgia, that Romantic yearning for a home which was never the way memory pictures it.

What do you think?

While in Spillville, Dvorak wrote his “American” String Quartet, in which he drew on some of the Native American and African-American sounds he encountered. The fourth movement, here, also evokes the speed and dynamism of travel by steam train across the wide, flat open plains of the Midwest:

PUBLIQuartet improvising on Dvorak’s “American” Quartet, in answer to their question: What would the American Quartet sound like if Dvorak had come to the New World in 2019 rather than 1893?

Crack Playlist

Although crack sales and addiction were ramping up in 1983, when Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel recorded this song, they’re referring to the powder cocaine of the 1970s, not to rock cocaine (crack). Note that Melle Mel portrays a Baron Samedi-like character in the video.

“Dopeman,” N.W.A., 1988

Too Short, “The Ghetto,” 1990, which draws on conscious soul music of the 1960s:

Nas, “Represent,” 1994.

Jay Z, “Rap Game/ Crack Game,” 1997

Immortal Technique, “Dance with the Devil,” 2001

The Clipse, “Virginia,” 2002

Kanye West, “Crack Music,” 2005: he argues that Ronald Reagan cooked crack in order to destroy black radical politics.

Ghostface Killah, “Columbus Exchange (Skit) / Crack Spot,” 2006

Gucci Mane, “My Kitchen,” 2007

Jay-Z, “Blue Magic,” 2007: he takes up Kanye’s theme, above.

Ka, “Up Against Goliath,” 2012

Killer Mike, “Reagan,” 2012: Killer Mike charges that Reaganomics is the basis of the destructive whirlwind unleashed by crack, and that Reagan’s illegal Iran-Contra exchange brought crack into the black community.

The late Capital Steez, also 2012, “Free the Robots.” He also suggests that the policies of Ronald Reagan, as well as pressure from unseen forces, have destroyed the Black community through crack.

Classically Black: #TakeTwoKnees

TW/CW: disturbing imagery of Transatlantic slave trade and police brutality.

Anthony McGill

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (and the only African-American principal in that illustrious orchestra), recorded himself in his living room playing a mournful, mixed-tonality version of “America the Beautiful,” and posted the video on YouTube.

In the last 15 seconds of the video, McGill knelt down with his head bent, holding his clarinet behind his back. His posture evokes many conflicting images: not only prayer, but also bondage:

And arrest:

McGill wrote:

The great tenor Lawrence Brownlee responded by singing the spiritual “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names” on both knees, both the song and his posture an allusion to the death of George Floyd.

Other classical musicians across race and ethnicity took up the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees in support of black lives and against police brutality.

Do you think classical music is an effective tool for protesting against injustice? Why or why not?

Season 3 of the Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle featured an episode called “Not Yet Titled,” in which the fictional orchestra, based on the New York Philharmonic, plays a concert at Rikers Island under the direction of their charismatic Mexican conductor Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Bernal). The episode was filmed live at Rikers, and the audience was made up of real inmates. Watch it here. Do you agree with the inmates interviewed about the power of classical music?

Lush Life

[This post was written by student Zerin Jamal as her final project for this class in Spring 2020. All text (c) Zerin Jamal.]

Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane’s rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”

William (referred to as Billy) Thomas Strayhorn was best recognized for being Duke Ellington’s collaborator and for working with Ellington to produce many classics, such as “Take The ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Isfahan.” Although he had an aptitude for penning timeless pieces, by which he set some of the world’s most distinct jazz standards, and was a musical genius, Strayhorn spent most of his career in the shadow of Ellington. Ellington even encapsulated Strayhorn’s genius with, “Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.” Albeit primarily being recognized on pieces he collaborated with Ellington on, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was possibly his most soul-stirring and famous independent song. The song was impressibly composed by Strayhorn while he was in his teens. When he released it to the public, the song was instantaneously a hit as critics marveled at his capacity to compose a song of such caliber, one that also demonstrates maturity and a complex range of emotions that was explored by many after its release, at such a young age.

Duke Ellington was highly regarded as “the great jazz composer” and bandleader of all time as he wrote several of jazz’s biggest standards. His music often incorporated a mastered fusion of “Afro-American sounds and more modern influences including Latin, Oriental, and expressionist sounds” and he aspired to “lengthen current jazz songs, bring new forms to the hitherto malnourished and largely ignored genre that was jazz music.” This must be noted as Billy Strayhorn not only made an absolute assimilation of Ellington’s form and technique but he also integrated his own distinct talent in musical composition; thus, Strayhorn, too, established several jazz standards. While commending Strayhorn, Ellington once declared, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.

“Lush Life” was widely acclaimed for good reason as it had numerous valuable qualities. The song illustrates Strayhorn’s ability to interlink the elegant harmonies of classical music into the vibrant and strong swing of jazz. It also demonstrates his musical inclination as the lyrics and the melody of the song both simultaneously work together to evoke great emotional responses from the audience. The song ‘moves’ and amazes the listeners by communicating the level of depth and maturity Strayhorn possessed as a teenager. Strayhorn’s composition of this piece was also groundbreaking due to the time it was written in.

“Lush Life” was written during the Harlem Renaissance but was released after the renaissance began to fade away. The Harlem Renaissance was a critical period in black history; it was a time in which African Americans obtained jurisdiction over the depiction of black culture and experience, all while bestowing them a position in Western high culture. During this time, Harlem flourished with cultural and artistic expression; artists and writers strengthened the African American spirit by developing phenomenal literature and works of art that showcased the resilience, intelligence, and fortitude of their people. One of the defining arts of the Harlem Renaissance was jazz as it dominated the musical genre, enabling African Americans to communicate their difficulties, frustrations, pleasure, and pride — all of which came with being black in America. “Lush Life” was particularly valuable since Harlem provided a haven for gay African-Americans despite it being frowned upon. Although homophobia was prevalent, artists, such as Billy Strayhorn, were inspirational since they were uncloseted and extremely successful. Harlem as a community granted refuge for gay African Americans due to artists like Strayhorn having a massive influence; hence, their successes created a safe space for other gay African Americans.

“Lush Life” lyrics

The song opens with “I used to visit all the very gay places.” Although the word “gay” was commonly used to refer to “happy” during this period and did not signify homosexuality, jazz music, and especially the Harlem Renaissance, largely consisted of maintaining a sense of individuality and granted sexual freedom. Seeing as Strayhorn was publicly out-closeted and was in a long-term relationship with Aaron Bridgers, it is plausible that Strayhorn was aware of the both meanings of the term and intentionally incorporated it. Most likely, however, Strayhorn utilized the word to note places in which he felt cheerful, relaxed, carefree, and especially gay as well. “Lush Life” reflects Strayhorn’s ability to freely and openly be gay as a result of Harlem acting as a sanctuary for homosexuals.At this time, it would have been difficult to have sexual freedom and to openly display one’s sexual orientation if they were not straight. However, due to some blues singers already implying their homosexuality and his off-stage part in Ellington’s orchestra, it was possible for Strayhorn to openly display their sexual orientation due to both his absence in the limelight and Harlem’s tight-knit community looking out for one another.

Upon further analysis of the lyrics, Strayhorn describes night life as enervating after being unsuccessful at romance. He refers to a bar as a place, “where one relaxes… to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails,” and narrates that he was familiar with dispirited women who had “been washed away by too many through the day twelve o’clock tales.” He details finding a lover that he believed was going to be a “great love” for him before unfolding,

Ah yes! I was wrong

Again, I was wrong. Life is lonely again,

And only last year everything seemed so sure.

Now life is awful again.

The piece reflects how night life was and still is part of American culture. Strayhorn describes women feeling dejected as a result of their failed romances which led them to indulge in alcohol, just as the Strayhorn, for relief. The song describes how many live luxurious and lavish lives to mask their true loneliness. Oftentimes, many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their feelings of grief and sorrow. These social values still hold for our time seeing as many turn to substances as they believe it will help them better cope; however, they, ultimately, suffer more as a result of substance abuse. This song also highlights the dangers of the overly glorified nightlife scene as it can lead to individuals falling subject to peer pressure, resulting in many drinking and trying drugs they initially were against. 

“Lush Life” reflects the contributions of Black Americans to national culture since jazz was heavily influenced by several African American musical forms. Jazz evolved from slave work songs, African American spirituals, blues, and also ragtime. When listened to carefully, one can hear the mixed influences of ragtime, blues, and the piano which was part of band music. People should listen to this piece of music as Billy Strayhorn was also responsible for making great contributions to jazz, alongside Ellington, with pieces of such caliber. When listening to “Lush Life,” people should attempt to hear the syncopated rhythm (influenced by ragtime), Strayhorn’s distinct musical structure, and his moving lyrics.

Billy Strayhorn singing his own masterpiece “Lush Life” live in 1964.

Gullah/Geechee Resources

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).

https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/

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.

What makes this a complicated endeavour?

Blood Memory in Porgy and Bess

Alfred Walker as Crown in Porgy and Bess

Over the weekend, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful new production of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown, below, was interviewed backstage about the dances she created for the production. She spoke about drawing on the performers’ “blood memory.”

In a recent TED talk, Brown explained that:

Movement has always been a part of the African tradition. So, when you look at the Middle Passage and how the culture of the African people, they attempted to strip them of their culture, but somehow it was still living in their body and we call that a blood memory. That idea of movement being a way of expressing ourselves is something that is traditional and it’s a heritage that continues to be passed down. It’s just something that is innate, in black people specifically. So, you’re tapping into something when you’re moving your body that I believe is very spiritual. 

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.

A few of the countless cover versions:

As one critic noted, Porgy and Bess is

a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner [Dubose Heyward], scored by a New York Jewish composer [George Gershwin], written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism.

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.

The Happy Heaven of Harlem

The Migration Series, Panel 1 (Jacob Lawrence, 1941):
“During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans”
“Why Stay in Dixie?” Political cartoon by Black artist Romare Bearden
in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, June 20, 1936

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:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger, with lyrics by Fats Waller. As Anthony Tommasini notes:

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.

Black Girls’ Handgames

The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:

The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.

In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:

In black girls’ play, “black” may be symbolically associated at some level with one’s ethnic identity — dressing oneself in blackness, so to speak.

R&B singer Rufus Thomas remixed “Mary Mack” into “Walking the Dog” in 1963:

Black Girls Handgames Project’s version:

For more, see the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s blog, here:

https://festival.si.edu/blog/black-girls-handgames-project

And the BGHP’s Facebook page, here:

https://www.facebook.com/handgamesproject/