Classically Black, part II: The Songs of Black Volk Playlist

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W.E.B. Du Bois (above), who spent several years studying in Germany in the 1890s, greatly admired German classical music, and considered it a repertoire full of freedom and possibility for black performers. He especially loved the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the opera house in Bavaria where a festival of Wagner’s operas is put on every year. By this time, it was widely known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer: here is Hitler at the 1934 Bayreuth festival.

As Alex Ross describes the trip:

Du Bois was treated courteously in Bayreuth, but he could not avoid the ideological stench of the place. . . .Pervasive anti-Semitism left him aghast. Even so, he insisted on the universality of the Wagner operas. “No human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life,” he wrote, in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. It was the summer of the Berlin Olympics, of Jesse Owens’s victory, and Du Bois’s readers might have been awaiting his celebration of that feat. He was, however, suspicious of the cult of sports, and preferred to focus on achievements in science and art. Gazing at mementos of Wagner in a display case, he imagines a young black artist who will one day mesmerize the world with comparable genius. He dreams of a black Wagner, a sorcerer of myth.

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Inspired by Du Bois, and by the remarks made by historian Kira Thurman (above) in the “Studying the Lied” colloquy in the Summer 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, here is a playlist of most of the singers mentioned by Thurman, singing German repertoire. Read a transcription of the colloquy here.

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A live recording of the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey from 1941 (starts at around 15:00; I couldn’t figure out how to cue the audio, so you may need to listen to a violin sonata by Paul Hindemith first).

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The great tenor Roland Hayes, a native of Georgia and the son of former slaves, “fell in love with European art music as a student at Fisk University.” He toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and later studied music in Germany, making it his goal, as he wrote in his memoirs, “to establish myself throughout Austria and Germany as a singer in the great Lieder [German art song] tradition.” Nevertheless, Hayes asserted:

I may be old-fashioned, but I like to think that I am a better singer for having learned to plow a straight furrow when I was a boy in the [Georgia] Flatwoods.

Hayes explained:

The world must see that the raising of barriers between my race
and yours has robbed both of us, prevented each from realizing the
fullest contribution of the other. When I began my career I realized
that if I would speak to all men, I must learn the language and the
way of thought of all men. What good could I do if I knew only my
own ways and the thoughts of my own people? So I learned to sing the
songs of all people.

When he made his recital debut in Vienna, a critic observed that

No German could sing Schubert with more serious or unselfish surrender.

Back in the United States on tour, however, Hayes was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk in Atlanta when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident, which he later re-titled “A Warning”:

Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!

In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

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Ellabelle Davis:

Kenneth Spencer:

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Leontyne Price:

Simon Estes:

William Warfield:

Grace Bumbry:

Reri Grist:

Kathleen Battle:

The late, great Jessye Norman, who, in the tradition of Roland Hayes, devoted her artistic life to German music:

Why do you think Black American singers would have found a particular kind of artistic and personal freedom in German classical music?

Young Black singers of our own time: here, South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises in Zulu, her native language, in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera:

Pretty Yende singing an aria from the same opera:

Tenor Russell More recalls being told “Too bad you’re black,” at an audition.

Thomas talks about his debut as Otello:

Thomas sings:

Trinidadian soprano Jeanine de Bique singing an aria by Handel in a decidedly non-operatic setting:

Booker T. vs. W.E.B.

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(W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington)

I subscribe to the Poem-A-Day email offered for free by the Academy of American Poets. It’s nice to wake up to a poem before you start dealing with your to-do lists and putting out the various fires of everyday life.

During the week, the Academy sends out a recently-written poem every day, often written by poets who are members of  historically-marginalized groups. On the weekends, however, they dig into their archives and offer poems from around the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the weekend poems, first published in 1909 by the early-twentieth-century African-American poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr., pictured below:

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Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story.

Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave,

believed that it was economic independence and the ability to show themselves as productive members of society that would eventually lead blacks to true equality, and that they should for the time being set aside any demands for civil rights. These ideas formed the essence of a speech he delivered to a mixed-race audience at the Cotton State and International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. There and elsewhere, his ideas were readily accepted by both blacks who believed in the practical rationality of his approach, and whites who were more than happy to defer any real discussion of social and political equality for blacks to a later date. It was, however, referred to pejoratively as the “Atlanta Compromise” by its critics. And among them was W.E.B. Du Bois. . . .

Do you think the poet, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr., agrees with Washington, or challenges him?

On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, an excerpt from whose 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk you have read, believed that the struggle for equal opportunity and civil rights came first.

At the time [the turn of the twentieth century]. the Washington/Du Bois dispute polarized African American leaders into two wings–the ‘conservative’ supporters of Washington and his ‘radical’ critics. The Du Bois philosophy of agitation and protest for civil rights flowed directly into the Civil Rights movement which began to develop in the 1950’s and exploded in the 1960’s. Booker T. today is associated, perhaps unfairly, with the self-help/colorblind/Republican/Clarence Thomas/Thomas Sowell wing of the black community and its leaders. The Nation of Islam and Maulana Karenga’s Afrocentrism derive too from this strand out of Booker T.’s philosophy. However, the latter advocated withdrawal from the mainstream in the name of economic advancement.

In a grossly simplistic terms, it can be said that Booker T. Washington’s argument was for separatism, while W.E.B. Du Bois’s was for full integration and participation in the mainstream of American society.

Read the blog post “Race, Class, Art, and Consumption” and tell me what you think. Do you think the Carters  are advancing the Du Bois or the Washington model?

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Jay-Z has said, “Generational wealth, that’s the key.” Generational wealth refers to the assets passed down from grandparents to parents to children. It’s by now well-known that there’s a huge gap in generational wealth between blacks and whites in America, largely due to redlining, a phenomenon that followed on the heels of the Great Migration. Redlining was the practice of banks and homeowners’ insurance companies of denying mortgages to blacks who wanted to buy a house. The term comes the color-coded city maps devised by urban planners, with the redlined communities considered high-risk for loan default (mainly because blacks and immigrants lived in them).

“Undesign the Redline” is a recent traveling interactive exhibit that invites participants to explore policy alternatives to redlining. View the exhibit brochure/toolkit here:

Do you agree that generational wealth is the key to full participation in American society? What if you don’t have access to it?

Jay-Z and Beyonce have both used their wealth in the service of causes they believe in. Jay-Z, for instance, helped get Meek Mill released from prison, and Beyoncé has donated to HBCUs. However,

In the context of the Carters’ philanthropy, and their palpable concern for the communities they represent, [do] the watches and diamonds on [their new album] Everything Is Love feel less like the album’s point and more like decorations [?]

Have the Carters become the system?

When Jay-Z asks, “What’s better than one billionaire?” Twitter responds: “No billionaires.”

Do you agree?

Who was right, Booker T. or W.E.B.? Neither? Both? Have things changed in the past century? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse?

It’s worth nothing that John Lomax admired Booker T. Washington, calling him “wise, tolerant, a gifted orator, a great leader of his people.” It’s likely that Lomax saw the separatism advocated by Washington as an asset when it came to preserving black folk music (and, as you know, Lomax held to some old racist ideologies).

What do you think?

Advanced reading: Travis Gosa and Erik Nielsen explore the political and economic ramifications of rap during the Obama presidency. A quote:

Jay Z, the consummate free-market hustler, [maintains a] hustler image [that] appears to represent a counter-hegemonic force, operating beyond the law and dominant norms . . . [but which instead reinforces them] . . . When Jay Z spends a career branding himself as a hustler defined exclusively through economic interest—as he put it in 2005, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man”—any sense that he may be positioning himself outside traditional notions of economic production becomes questionable. His nonstop, 24-hour devotion to self-corporatization makes him a true capitalist, the ideal bootstrapper . . . and an important illustration of [the] point that rap narratives can simultaneously criticize and serve mainstream interests.

The Sorrow Songs

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W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It remains a classic in the fields of both sociology and African-American literature.

Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” that defined the African diaspora in America, and, in a kind of meta-narrative, he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of the musical notation of each of these songs, all of them spirituals. In the last chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of these musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of Black Americans contains a power that transcends the social-historical conditions of the practitioners of that music.

Du Bois also suggests that Black music can’t truly be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents it from being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the standard signs used to symbolize sounds. He does attempt to transcribe his memory — perhaps an imagined cultural memory — of a west African song, though neither the language or the meaning of the words have yet been identified.

Du Bois’s notation of the song he says his great-great-grandmother
“often crooned . . . to the child between her knees.”

Du Bois, born free in Massachusetts, went to college at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black university founded at the end of the Civil War to educated emancipated slaves. He was inspired in his writing by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the school’s renowned choir, which toured the world to raise funds for the university. As he writes in “Of the Sorrow Songs”:

When I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.

Years later, when the Fisk University Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the music critic for the New York Times gave them a bad review. He wrote that the “hymns and spirituals” sung by the choir lacked the emotion that he associated with Black expression, and he advised his readers instead to attend

a real religious revival up in Harlem . . . [where you] will hear hymns and spirituals [that] have an emotion that was not to be felt [at the Fisk concert] last night. That was one thing. Quite another thing is the wildness, the melancholy, the intense religious feeling communicated when Negroes sing in the sacred spirit and the uncorrupted manner of their race.

Du Bois countered, in the pages of The Crisis, the newspaper of the NAACP (of which he was co-founder in 1909), that the critic

really means . . . that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive . . . any attempt to sing Italian music or German . . . leads them off their preserves and is not “natural.” To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural . . . The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.

The Times‘s critic echoes what John Lomax wrote a year later in his essay “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”:

The Negro is going farther in becoming “mo’ lak white folks,”
than merely to modify his beautiful spirituals. Under the leader-
ship of his preachers, his teachers, and his men of education,
he is abandoning them as unworthy of perpetuation entirely.
During the past summer, Manassas, Virginia, was recommended
to me as a likely place to find genuine Negro spirituals. I made
a long drive to reach the church, only to be greeted, when the sing-
ing began, by a surpliced choir that marched into the church
to slow waltz-time music, derived from a book of cheap, white
revival-tunes.

What white critics expected from Black artists did, and does, not always align with the art and the artists themselves.

Here are recordings of most of the songs Du Bois references in “The Sorrow Songs,” in the order in which he mentions them in the chapter.

Lay This Body Down (The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island):

You May Bury Me in the East (The Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (Paul Robeson):

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Roll, Jordan, Roll (Topsy Chapman, from the film Twelve Years A Slave):

Been A-Listening (Five Blind Boys of Alabama):

My Lord, What a Morning (Marian Anderson):

My Way’s Cloudy (Marian Anderson):

Wrestling Jacob (Sunset Jubilee Singers):

Steal Away (Barbara Conrad):

Bright Sparkles (an Indian choir):

Dust, Dust and Ashes (Eschatos Bride Choir):

I Hope My Mother Will Be There (A bunch of people sight-reading and killing it):

Two of what Du Bois calls the “songs of white America [that] have been distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody”:

Swanee River (also known as “Old Folks at Home”) by white composer Stephen Foster. TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY. It’s worth reading Michael Friedman’s article “Can’t Escape Stephen Foster” for some context.

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.

no more rain

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 little well, but I don’t drink of it”):

There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):

Michael Haul (or Row) the Boat Ashore (Glory Gospel Singers):

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.

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