Black English

AmericanEnglishDialects

Map of American English dialects.

On July 5, The Nationa left-leaning magazine of politics and culture founded in 1865, published a poem on its website called “How-To.” The poem, a sly (and cynical) critique 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 contributions. The punch-line: it’s all about making donors feel good about themselves, further marginalizing the presumably black, possibly sick, and perhaps disabled beggar:

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:

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The backlash inspired The Nation’s poetry editors to publish an apology, claiming that they had

made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem . . . When we [first] read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization. We can no longer read the poem in that way.

The poet himself tweeted out:

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The Nation’s apology in turn caused a backlash-against-the-backlash. It was noted that the magazine had never before issued an apology for publishing a poem, even after the great American novelist

Henry James . . in 1865 wrote a damning review of Walt Whitman’s “Drum Taps,” calling the great poem “arrant prose.” Mistaken, yes, but it was James’s view at the time. And it was never retracted.

(You can read “Drum Taps” here. I’m going to go out on a limb, incidentally, and suggest that it’s a far better poem than “How-To.”)

The cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan saw the uproar over the poem and The Nation’s mea culpa as proof that

the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. . . When the poetry editors of The Nation virtuously publish an amateurish but super-woke poem, only to discover that the poem stumbled across several trip wires of political correctness; when these editors (one of them a full professor in the Harvard English department) then jointly write a letter oozing bathos and career anxiety and begging forgiveness from their critics; when the poet himself publishes a statement of his own—a missive falling somewhere between an apology, a Hail Mary pass, and a suicide note; and when all of this is accepted in the houses of the holy as one of the regrettable but minor incidents that take place along the path toward greater justice, something is dying. . . 

When even Barack Obama, the poet laureate of identity politics, is moved to issue a message to the faithful, hinting that that they could be tipping their hand on all of this—saying during a speech he delivered in South Africa that a culture is at a dead end when it decides someone has no “standing to speak” if he is a white man—and when even this mayday is ignored, the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to the end.

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:

Too many of us fetishize the artist, thus distracting from the art itself. Is the chef dynamic? Is the pop singer pretty? Is the painter a person of color? Is the writer politically correct?

The art must stand on its own, independent of the creator. Does it move us? Does it reveal something true? Will it last?

It is only through this lens that art can reach its ideal of illuminating and improving the human condition.

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? (Incidentally, this is a topic we discuss in Music 101 and Music 111: see here, here and here.)

The black linguist John McWhorter dismisses the uproar over the poem:

I suspect that many are quietly wondering just what Carlson-Wee did that was so wrong—and they should. . . .Whence the outrage among so many against black people depicted accurately speaking in a way that, well, a great many definitely do? . . . Black English . . .  is not a degraded variety of the language—it’s an alternate form of English. . . .Carlson-Wee, as a young white man dedicating a poem to a homeless black person’s suffering and trying to get inside her head, would seem to be displaying exactly the kind of empathy that we seek. “Feel it but don’t show it,” we tell him, instead. “Empathize, but block that empathy from your creative impulses, on the pain of hurting us by imitating us without our consent.”

There is logic here, but it is fragile.

What do you think?

I will tell you a personal story. The great black mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad was one of my voice teachers. She was a beloved mentor, and she even sang at my wedding — a great honor.

Barbara Conrad and me

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?

Here is Binghamton favorite, the beautiful Meroë Khalia Adeeb, singing “Deep River”:

Here is the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing it (notably, not in AAVE dialect):

I would give her a pass.

More on Barbara Smith Conrad:

 

 

Calinda

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The earliest-known published book of African-American music, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, is primarily devoted to the religious vocal music of the slaves of the eastern seaboard. However, there are several songs at the end that are of a very different nature. These songs are in French and were collected in Louisiana, and they are dance songs.

The editors say of these songs that:

The language, evidently a rude corruption of French, is that spoken by the negroes in that part of the State [Louisiana]; and it is said that it is more difficult for persons who speak French to interpret this dialect, than for those who speak English to understand the most corrupt of the ordinary negro-folk [dialect]. . . . The “calinda” was a sort of contra-dance, which has now passed entirely out of use.

Or has it? This is what it sounds like:

Louisiana planters imported slaves from the Caribbean, and it is believed that the Calinda was one of the dances performed by slaves in Congo Square in New Orleans on Saturday nights. It is still danced and played in Trinidad and Tobago, where it is also related to an Afro-Carribean form of martial arts called Kalinda.

The Trinidadian calinda performed above seems to be related, both lyrically and musically, to this sea shanty:

The calinda is mentioned in the story “La Belle Zoraide” by the nineteenth-century New Orleans-based novelist Kate Chopin.

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“La Belle Zoraide” is a story about the horrors of family separation in slavery, and about the hierarchy of color in Louisiana — which is told in part in the Creole language (referred to in Slave Songs of the United States as “evidently a rude corruption of French”). Read it here.

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The calinda even shows up in the work of English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934). While Delius is best known as a composer of English “pastoral” music, he managed an orange plantation in Florida briefly in the 1880s, where he heard and was influenced by African-American music. In 1904, he wrote an opera called Koanga, a tragic love story about slavery in the eighteenth century. This is Delius’s version of the calinda.

In a kind of full circle, Koanga was performed in Trinidad in 1995.

For more on Slave Songs of the United States and the earliest attempts at American ethnomusicology, watch this brief film.

Time and Space from Beethoven to 1913

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(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)

In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time —  a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.

The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.

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The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.

It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:

What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?

Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?

Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime. 

Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor (op. 111). In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.

If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?

The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?

Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing. What does it mean?

And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.

Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?

Intersectionality, part I: Julius Eastman

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Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.

In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, recordings of his music have been released, and a book of scholarly essays on Eastman, Gay Guerrilla, is currently #32 in classical music biographies on Amazon (you can find a review of the book and of some of these recordings, “Bad Boy from Buffalo,” in your course reading packet).

Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and went to conservatory for piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who

by 1970 [became] an underground hero, thanks to his electrifying performance as King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s music theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Imposing in his royal brocaded gown and furred cap, he created an astonishing impression of delirium, using his five-octave range to produce a clamor of squawks, cackles, roars, and cries. Eastman toured the piece throughout Europe and was nominated for a Grammy for the recording.

Listen to that performance here:

Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”

Listen to Crazy N*gger here:

In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that

Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.

The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.

The cradle that nurtured Eastman’s vast creativity was the music department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, legendary for its commitment to emerging and avant-garde music genres. In the 1970s, SUNY-Buffalo nurtured and sponsored the great new music group the SEM Ensemble, with which Eastman frequently performed.

One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:

In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.

As Marke B. describes the performance in A Song Books Showdown:

It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .

Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”

John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.

This raises the questions:

  • Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
  • Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
  • Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
  • Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity?

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Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.

Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, hw descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that

the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.

As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.

Adam Shatz has written further of Eastman:

Those who knew [him] well all speak of this waste of potential, the fact that he succumbed to his demons and drifted away—of his own volition—from what was a very promising career. This is a story of refusal of society’s categories, and there’s something brave and daring about it. But it’s also a story of fragility, deterioration, addiction, and, perhaps, of mental illness. Part of Eastman’s difficulty, to be sure, was that the avant-garde, particularly in classical music, was always defined as always already not-black, as the cultural theorist Fred Moten has argued. But this was not Eastman’s only source of difficulty. . .  to define [oneself], to find [one’s voice], and to move from thought to expression . . . is a struggle for all of us, not just artists. And in this, let us remember that, as Cecil Taylor beautifully put it, people are all, at some level, dark to themselves.

An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/46107428″>John Cage – Song Books (performed by S.E.M. Ensemble)</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/semensemble”>S.E.M. Ensemble</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

“Crazy” Blues?

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In the book Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow devotes a chapter to Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues hit “Crazy Blues.” The song is believed to be the first blues recording ever released, and was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Gussow’s concern, however, is not with the song’s history, but with its subversive subject matter — the wild grief of an abandoned woman, which makes her “crazy,” leads to suicidal ideation, and finally reaches its crescendo in her stated plan to kill a police officer.

I can’t sleep at night
        I can’t eat a bite
        ‘Cause the man I love
        He don’t treat me right.

        He makes me feel so blue
        I don’t know what to do
        Sometimes I’m sad inside
        And then begin to cry
        ‘Cause my best friend . . . said his last goodbye.

        There’s a change in the ocean
        Change in the deep blue sea . . . but baby
        I tell you folks there . . . ain’t no change in me
        My love for that man
        Will always be.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t got no time to lose
        I must find him today
        Now the doctor’s gonna do all . . . that he can
        But what you gonna need is a undertaker man
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

        Now I can read his letter
        I sure can’t read his mind
        I thought he’s lovin’ me . . .
        He’s leavin’ all the time
        Now I see . . .
        My poor love was Iyin’.

        I went to the railroad
        Hang my head on the track
        Thought about my daddy
        I gladly snatched it back
        Now my babe’s gone
        And gave me the sack.

        Now I’ve got the crazy blues
        Since my baby went away
        I ain’t had no time to lose
        I must find him today
        I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
        Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
        I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
        Now I’ve got the crazy blues.

Gussow notes:

In 1920 these were remarkable words for an African American singer to shout from the rooftops . . . .they supply a partial genealogy for the emergence, decades later, of NWA (“F*ck the Police”), Ice-T (“Cop Killer,” “Squeeze the Trigger”), and other beer-and-blunts-stoked gangsta rappers of the 1980s . . . . the black male lover whose absence [Mamie Smith] bemoans is associated not simply with faithlessness but with death, an inscription of his social fate in a white-policed public sphere where countless forms of “bad news” — lynching, race riots, vagrancy laws, back-alley murder — threaten to take him away for good. 

“Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first month alone, and its popularity was spread across the south when black Pullman porters set up a cottage industry of buying dozens of copies of the record for a dollar apiece in Harlem, and selling them for twice that much when their trains went down south.

Do you think “Crazy Blues” would have been so successful if it had been sung by a black man? Did Mamie Smith’s gender allowed her to express sentiments that would have been unacceptable if issued by a male singer?

It’s worth noting, too, that Smith’s threat to “do like a Chinaman . . . go and get some hop” is a drug reference — “hop” being slang for opium — as well as a racialized/racist one.

In 1924, the blues singer Josie Miles recorded another song about the urge to commit murder and mayhem, not specifically against the police, but perhaps against the violent injustice of society as a whole.

Wanna set the world on fire
That is my one mad desire
I’m a devil in disguise
Got murder in my eyes

Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Now I could see blood runnin’
Through the streets
Could be everybody
Layin’ dead right at my feet

Now man who invented war
Sure is my friend
The man invented war
Sure is my friend
Don’t believe that I’m sinkin’
Just look what a hole I am in

Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Give me gunpowder
Give me dynamite
Yes I’d wreck the city
Wanna blow it up tonight

I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
I took my big Winchester
Down off the shelf
When I get through shootin’
There won’t be nobody left

Josie Miles’s “mad mama” is certainly “mad” in the sense of insanity, but she is also “mad” in the sense of an overwhelming, righteous anger.

Lest it seem like these early musical-homicidal intentions went underground until  gangsta rap, check out Gil Scott Heron’s 1981 cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” While Gaye’s song is a despairing, if non-specific, cry against social injustice, Heron turns his spoken-word bridge into a tribute to the New Orleans cop-killer Mark Essex.

Heron’s spoken-word bridge:

Did you ever hear about Mark Essex and the things that made him choose to fight the inner city blues
Yeah, Essex took to the rooftops guerilla style and watched while all the crackers went wild
Brought in 600 troops, brand new I hear, to see them crushed with fear
Essex fought back with a thousand rounds and New Orleans was a changing town
Rat a tat tat tat was the only sound, yeah
Bring on the stone rifles to knock down walls
Bring on the elephant guns
Bring on the helicopters to block out the sun
Yeah, made the devil wanna holler cause 8 was dead and a dozen was down
Cries for freedom were a brand new sound
New York, Chicago, Frisco, LA
Justice was served and the unjust were afraid

Tracing the Sources

[Content warning: racist language and imagery in original sources.]

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In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.

Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:

It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.

Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:

“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).

Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:

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However, the tune is also known in England.

The first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians claims that the song was in fact a “plantation lyric,” brought to England in the 1830s by minstrel groups.

Indeed, the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black violence.

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The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).

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This genre of minstrel songs, which took as their subject the violence of black men, were usually performed by heavy-set white women known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.

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One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).

Indeed, in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:

Some of these earliest [ragtime] songs were taken down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned small fortunes. The first to become widely known was “The Bully,” a levee song which had been long used by [black] roustabouts along the Mississippi. It was introduced in New York by Miss May Irwin, and gained instant popularity.  

Karl Hagstrom Miller writes in Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow:

Newspaper critics went to lengths to call attention to Irwin’s . . . large body . . .”There are people who object to Mis Irwin as coarse, but that is a quality which she shares with many big, strong and natural things.” By inhabiting the “coarse” images of coon songs, Irwin transformed what many critics understood as her excessive, unrestrained body into a symbol of female strength and authenticity. . . White female artists such as . . . Irwin used coon songs to upset prevailing gender norms, exert their own personalities and sexuality, and expand the representation of women on New York Stages. They depended on the controversial violence and extreme racial stereotypes of 1890s coon songs to pull this off. These images remained dangerous, because many white listeners imagined them to be accurate depictions of black people. . . .White coon shouters converted the scandals of the coon song to serve their own ends, gaining an autonomous, even natural, voice, by perpetuating grotesque stereotypes of black people. 

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Before we assume that a folk song is something as innocent as a children’s going-to-bed song, we often need to examine it more closely.

Authenticity (part II)

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When you hear a musical recording that’s scratchy and distant, you might naturally assume it’s old: a relic from the early days of sound recording. But what would modern music sound like were it subject to the same limitations that musicians faced in those days? That’s the question posed by The 78 Project, which gives musicians the chance to record using 1930s technology.

I first heard about The 78 Project several years ago, and was intrigued. The project’s directors, filmmaker Alex Steyermark and music journalist/concert producer Lavinia Jones Wright, record contemporary musicians singing traditional ballads, using eighty-year-old direct-to-acetate recording technology.

The article quoted above suggests that the project is good for musicians, as it “gives [them] the chance to record using 1930s technology.”

And the project’s directors assert:

What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, [creating] living music inspired by ghosts.

Do you think that singing into an old mic in a sub-optimal recording space, with the result a single acetate 78 record, is an endeavor that would be positive for an artist?

How do you think working on either side of the mic in this project would affect you as a musician? As a sound engineer?

The project directors see themselves as the heirs of John Lomax and his son Alan, who drove through the United States beginning in the 1920s, recording rural people in farms, churches, and prisons singing traditional American music. The Lomaxes’ aim was  to preserve the songs in a rapidly-industrializing and -urbanizing nation, to store them up for future generations and prevent their irrevocable loss.

The 78 Project’s aim, on the other hand, is no such thing; after all, that ship sailed long ago. All the old songs have been recorded, transcribed, and catalogued at the Library of Congress. I see The 78 Project as an effort motivated by cultural loss and personal anxiety. The loss is of music as a tangible thing, preserved on a heavy shellac record that you can hold in your hand, for which you had to dig actual paper money out of your pocket and hand to someone in order to purchase. This music had to be played on a Victrola big enough to double as a piece of furniture, and as such required dedicated, concentrated listening.

The anxiety that I perceive in The 78 Project is what results from having nothing substantial to hold onto. Music in the cloud has no touchable, physical, graspable form. You can’t hold it or possess it the way earlier generations could a 78, an LP, or a CD. It has been cleaned up, sterilized, digitized, worked on, messed with, chopped and screwed, augmented. It is no longer performed by living musicians in a certain place and time. It is for all time, and it is not even performed.

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It would be hard to argue that the musicians recorded by the Lomaxes long ago would not have preferred today’s technology over what they had to work with. They were engaged in the project of preserving their music in its purest possible form before it disappeared for good. But what makes music “pure”? Is it accurate recording technology? Is it a pristine soundproof studio? Or is it the atmospheric presence of crickets chriping in the background, screen doors swinging, and the incidental voices of children as the musician plays on his or her front porch? Can the music be separated from its origins, from its place, and still retain its meaning?

So, while The 78 Project bills itself as a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” it seems to me that they are coming at it backwards. Rather than going to the mountains, hollers, farms, and prisons to record the music in its “home places,” they engage emerging and established artists to sing the old songs in a spot of their choice into a single direct-to-acetate recorder. This is a project of imitation, not one of authenticity. The conditions of the Lomax recordings can’t be duplicated, because the old songs no longer live in their home places. The music of the mountains, farms, and prisons today is mass-produced, commercial, homogeneous, and globally distributed. The Lomaxes got there right on time. Their moment has passed, and no amount of Roseanne Cash singing a Tennessee ballad in her Upper West Side apartment can bring it back.

I understand the nostalgia for the past. Perhaps all recording is a project of nostalgia. The word “record” comes from the Latin recordare, which means “to remember.”

As British author Hari Kunzru notes in his novel White Tearsabout white collectors’ obsessive quest to find the rarest and earliest blues 78s:

When you listen to an old record, there can be no illusion that you are present at a performance. You are listening through a gray drizzle of static, a sound like rain. You can never forget how far away you are. You always hear it, the sound of distance in time. But what is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?

Authenticity (part I)

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The protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears, a young white recording engineer named Seth, describes days spent listening to music with his college friend, Carter Wallace:

We worshipped music like [Lee “Scratch”] Perry’s but we knew we didn’t own it, a fact we tried to ignore as far as possible, masking our disabling caucasity with a sort of professorial knowledge: who played congas on the B-side, the precise definition of collie. . . . The actual black kids at our school, of whom there were very few, seemed to us unsatisfactorily preppy or Christian or were basketball jocks doing business degrees . . . It seemed unfair. We were the ones who wanted to be at a soundclash in Kingston. We knew what John Coltrane was searching for when he overflew his tenor in the middle section of A Love Supreme. . . .We really did feel that our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness.

(Lee Perry’s legendary Kingston studio, Black Ark.)

Carter, a white trust-fund baby, has schooled Seth in black music:

He began with Jamaican dub. From there, he introduced ska and soca, soul and RnB, seventies Afrobeat and eighties electro. He spun early hip hop and Free Jazz and countless regional flavors of Bass and Juke music. Chicago, London, Lagos, Miami. I had not known there was such music . . . He listened exclusively to black music because, he said, it was more intense and authentic than anything made by white people.

What do you think Seth and Carter mean by authentic?

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(John Lomax recording Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, at Angola State Prison in Louisiana in the early 1930s.)

In the early 1900s, the pioneering musicologist John Lomax began collecting old American songs and ballads. To “collect,” in this context, means to go “into the field” to transcribe or record people singing and playing traditional music. The “subjects” who performed in these circumstances were usually not professional musicians, but rather ordinary people in rural America who had learned the music from their parents and grandparents. Lomax and his son, Alan, had a special interest in preserving the legacy of African-American music born of slavery. In the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization during the Great Migration, as people moved en masse from the country to the cities, old customs, traditions, and music were inevitably being lost (in addition to collecting songs, Lomax directed the U.S. government’s Depression-era project to interview and transcribe the narratives of former slaves, many of whom were still alive). Among the Lomaxes’ most important work were their recordings of the music of the black inmates of Southern prisons, which they believed, due to their isolation, helped incubate an environment that allowed the prisoners to retain the old songs in their purest possible forms, without any corrupting influences from the world outside.

Although the Lomaxes were committed to the preservation of traditions that were in danger of dying out, their legacy has been re-examined in recent years.

[Patricia] Turner and some other scholars have come to question [Alan] Lomax’s influence. Lomax’s emphasis on the blues, they believe, presented a distorted and stereotypical picture of blacks. Karl Hagstrom Miller, the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, says when Lomax arrived in a black community, he didn’t ask for “‘the songs that you enjoy singing.’ He asked for them to find songs that fit into his idea of old time folk songs.”

This raises questions about whether the music the Lomaxes transcribed and recorded was truly authentic, or whether it was cherry-picked based on their notions of what black music should be.

The Lomaxes’ recordings fueled a new interest in traditional American music. In the 1940s and 1950s, listeners who were tired of the commercial values of the burgeoning music industry began turning to the Anthology of American Folk Music, a set of multiple LPs of the blues, gospel, and folk songs the Lomaxes had recorded. The Anthology  was so influential that it became something like the Bible of the folk revival . . . Bob Dylan wouldn’t have been possible without it.”

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One of those jaded 1950s listeners was Joan Baez (above, with Bob Dylan), the daughter of a nuclear physicist, who in her teens became a star of the folk revival movement. At the March on Washington in 1963, Baez, who is of Scottish and Mexican descent, led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”

It was the most powerful song of the 20th century. It started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” might be some of the most influential words in the English language.

“We Shall Overcome” has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, S.C., sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. Its verses were sung on protest marches and in sit-ins, through clouds of tear gas and under rows of police batons, and it brought courage and comfort to bruised, frightened activists as they waited in jail cells, wondering if they would survive the night. When the long years of struggle ended and President Lyndon Johnson vowed to fight for voting rights for all Americans, he included a final promise: “We shall overcome.”

In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:

Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:

the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday”:

(which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):

and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”

The song was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in organizing. Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.

Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:

The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ . . . In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s. . . And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy [Seeger] who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it, . . And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.

Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:

What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome” and “teaching” his version to black activists?

What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it?

Could this happen today? Should it?

Rebirth of a Nation

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[Content warning for disturbing, racist, and violent film imagery.]

As we’ve discussed, the way that music and image interact can change, enhance, or even contradict the meaning of both the music and of the image.

We are all familiar with the ability of image to define, revise, and re-write not only past history, but even the present moment. One of the earliest examples of visual culture in the service of cultural revisionism is the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras with the Ku Klux Klan as the good guys. The Birth of a Nation was considered controversial even at the time of its release. It presented destructive and tired racist tropes about African-Americans — most of whom were played in the film by white actors in blackface — and portrayed the Klan as a patriotic and heroic force for good.

In spite of its objectionable content, the film itself is considered groundbreaking for the innovative dramatic and visual techniques used by its director, D.W. Griffiths. Equally innovative was its score. Silent films were accompanied by pianists or organists who were hired by movie theaters, and the film score for Birth of a Nation, in a piano reduction, was sent to every theater that screened the film so that the theater musicians could play along, aligning the music with cues in the score. The film’s composer, Joseph Carl Breil, wrote original music, as well as making arrangements of popular songs and Civil War-era ballads and using excerpts of works by Beethoven and Wagner, including the Ride of the Valkyries (in a scene that portrays the KKK as a liberating force). Breil and Griffiths wanted the music to underscore and enhance the dramatic force of such scenes and to evoke an emotional response from the audience.

Inspired by this innovative use of music to enhance the emotional charge of a visual narrative, Francis Ford Coppola also used “Ride of the Valkyries” in his 1979 Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, in a scene in which U.S. Army helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village.

(And of course, you’ve seen this.)

Since the early 2000s, composer, multimedia artist, and turntablist DJ Spooky has been performing his own version of Birth of a Nation, entitled Rebirth of a Nation. Spooky calls Breil’s original score “an early, pivotal accomplishment in remix culture” for its use of both original and received music. In his remixed version, Spooky has manipulated the film, shuffling scenes and adding new visual footage, and has also contributed a new score.

You can watch a live performance of Rebirth here.

Do you think that DJ Spooky’s visual and sonic remix changes the meaning of D.W. Griffith’s film?

Affrilachia

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A chart of the major themes of country music.

Country music may seem like the whitest of music genres, and has even been called “The White Man’s Blues.” Songs like Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy” certainly advance that narrative.

But is that narrative reliable?

It’s true that some of the major themes of country music have traditionally been closed to black musicians. “Driving on the open road,” for instance, has historically been, and still can be, downright dangerous for black Americans.

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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.

One of the great Appalachian fiddlers of the twentieth century was Kentucky-born Bill Livers, a black man. You can hear his astonishing playing here.

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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 also have deep ties to the rural landscapes of the American south.

Affrilachia (a poem by Frank X Walker)

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

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(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)

More genre-bending from Valerie June.