The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:
Joy, beautiful spark of God, Daughter of Elysium, We enter, fire-drunk, Heavenly, your holy sanctuary. Your magics bind again What custom has strictly parted. All men become brothers Where your tender wing lingers.
Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:
Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?
Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.
This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.
Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the end of the Ninth Symphony in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942 (starting at 1:59, following remarks by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich):
What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Nazi ideology?
It was also adapted by the brutal British colonial governor, Ian Smith, as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):
The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:
In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:
We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.
What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?
Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?
Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?
The San Francisco City School Board recently voted to scrape down a mural (one panel of which is shown above) from a wall of the city’s George Washington High School. The 13-panel mural, which depicts the life of our first president (the school’s namesake), was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-Jewish immigrant and committed Communist. At a time when the founders of our nation were uniformly portrayed as morally upright men, Arnautoff made the provocative choice not to shy away from the brutality of our nation’s founding: he painted paint Washington’s slaves picking cotton on his Virginia estate, as well as the corpse of a Native American victim of European expansion. Arnautoff intended his mural to shine a bright light on America’s difficult history. You can see more panels from the mural and read explanations of their iconography here.
Why does the San Francisco school board want to destroy this important work of art? Because its members believe the depiction of enslaved Africans and dead Indians will make students feel unsafe.
How is the destruction of a work of art that is critical of the injustices in American history “reparations”?
Dewey Crumpler, an African-American artist and professor of art history at the San Francisco Art Institute, disagrees. Crumpler himself painted a series of “response murals” at George Washington High School, inspired by Arnautoff’s murals, in 1974. Watch as he explains Arnautoff’s disturbing imagery and why it is so important.
Professor Crumpler refers to the legend, passed down from generation to generation of schoolchildren, that Washington could not tell a lie. Is it possible that Arnautoff’s murals are, likewise, an attempt to tell the truth about our history as a nation?
Do you think students need to be protected from painful imagery? Would destroying a work of art that contains such images protect them?
The Nazis also destroyed works of art that they believed were “degenerate,” because they were by Jewish or gay artists, or because they depicted “unpatriotic” scenes, like the painting above, “War Cripples” (1920), by Otto Dix, which shows a parade of grotesque-looking wounded German World War I veterans.
Do you think the impetus behind the pending destruction of the Arnautoff murals is different from, or similar to, the impetus behind the destruction of so-called degenerate art by the Nazis?
The author of a new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, suggests that censorship of disturbing images could have a damaging effect on the ability of students to contend with the inevitable challenges of adult life:
A commenter on the New York Times piece makes an important distinction when it comes to the interpretation of images, or any kind of historiography:
One problem common among those who seek to censor works of art, books, movies, etc. is that they cannot critically discern between the depiction of a thing and the endorsement of a thing. To look at this imagery and to conclude that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” is an example of how zealotry creates ignorance.
The commenter then adds: “This article makes me feel sick.”
Do you think that art should make us feel safe?
What about music?
What about education?
And a related question: Does avoiding exposure to painful topics actually make one safe? What is safety in the context of learning?
Porter suggests here that Coltrane wasn’t truly improvising, but composing.
Is A Love Supreme a jazz example of word-painting, a compositional technique dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque eras?
An example of word-painting from the English Renaissance: Thomas Weelkes’s madrigal “As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending.” Note the way the vocal line travels downward on the word “descending,” for instance, and upward on the word “ascending.”
The fourth movement, entitled “Psalm,” is Coltrane’s note-for-word musical translation of his poem “A Love Supreme,” which was included in the liner notes of the LP. Coltrane described it as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.”
A Love Supreme I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related… all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be His name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations– all paths lead to God. Thank you God. His way… it is so lovely… it is gracious. It is merciful–Thank you God. One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God… everything does. Thank you God. Have no fear… believe… Thank you God. The universe has many wonders. God is all. His way… it is so wonderful. Thoughts–deeds–vibrations, all go back to God and He cleanses all. He is gracious and merciful… Thank you God. Glory to God… God is so alive. God is. God loves. May I be acceptable in Thy sight. We are all one in His grace. The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement of Thee, O Lord. Thank you God. God will wash away all our tears… He always has… He always will. Seek him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday. Let us sing all songs to God. To whom all praise is due… praise God. No road is an easy one, but they all go back to God. With all we share God. It is all with God. It is all with Thee. Obey the Lord. Blessed is He. We are all from one thing… the will of God… Thank you God. I have seen God–I have seen ungodly– none can be greater–none can compare to God. Thank you God. He will remake us… He always has and He always will. It’s true–blessed be His name–Thank you God. God breathes through us so completely… so gently we hardly feel it… yet, it is our everything. Thank you God. ELATION–ELEGANCE–EXALTATION– All from God. Thank you God. Amen.
In fact, as you can see in this video, which shows the handwritten poem, in “Psalm,” Coltrane plays each syllable as a note, making it a kind of recitative in the form of a prayer.
In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
What do you think? Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published? Do you think the illustrations should have been modified? Do you think the enslaved family should have been included? Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense? Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology? If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?
I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale. Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
What is the deeper cultural meaning of the conflict between Stagolee and Billy?
What accounts for the appeal of this legend to artists decades after the event, especially artists in commercial genres?
Why do you think artists with only minimal connections to African-American folk traditions would be attracted to this song?
Do you think such artists should record/perform it? What meanings do their recordings convey?
Does the spirit of Stagolee live in on black music of our own time?
What do you think Bobby Seale’s intention was in naming his son after Stagolee?
Bobby Seale and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale, in 1973.
Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.
Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Billie Holiday in 1959, the year of her death:
2. Which was sampled by Kanye West:
3. John Legend:
4. Jill Scott:
5. India Arie:
6. Operatic mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and guitarist Tyron Cooper:
7. Late guitarist Jeff Buckley:
8. Katey Sagal as Gemma in the series Sons of Anarchy:
9. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with the trio known as Harriet Tubman:
10. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for not mentioning the song’s topic of lynching when she did publicity interviews for the album on which it appeared.
Do these cover versions work? Why or why not? Can you find more covers of the song?
In 2018, in response to pushback against her longtime claims of Native American ancestry (including from President Trump, who refers to her mockingly as “Pocahontas”), Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had her DNA tested, and made the results public. The test indicated that Warren had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.
However, according to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), this does not make Elizabeth Warren an Indian:
What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?
In 1892, famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America at the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, New York — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train young American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New YorkHerald newspaper:
In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.
In another unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes at the conservatory. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.
“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.
“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.
Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.
Mother, shed no mournful tears,
But gird me on my sword;
And give no utterance to thy fears,
But bless me with thy word.
The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
A cause is to be won!
Mother, look not so white and wan;
Give Godspeed to thy son.
Now let thine eyes my way pursue
Where’er my footsteps fare;
And when they lead beyond thy view,
Send after me a prayer.
But pray not to defend from harm,
Nor danger to dispel;
Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
I fight the battle well.
Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
My heart and purpose strong,
My sword unsullied and ready to leap
Unsheathed against the wrong.
While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World” (written in New York City in 1893) was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual, migrating from the concert hall to public (and private) spaces less formally rigid.
Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take note of, and advantage of, “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).
The question one might ask about these composers and their work is one that will come up for us again and again in this class: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship with African-Americans? or in a spirit of opportunism, even of exploitation?
One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”
John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. In 1931, he founded a short-lived but influential Appalachian music festival in Virginia called the White Top Festival. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (standing, fourth from right) visited the festival in 1933.
John Powell was also an avowed white supremacist, and helped to draft Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, also known as the “one-drop rule.” This law legally classified anyone who had any amount of African ancestry (even “one drop”) as black, and hence subject to segregation under Jim Crow.
In spite of the fact that Powell had drawn upon African-American folk music themes in his “Rhapsodie Nègre,” he sought to promote the idea that American folk music derived exclusively from “Anglo-Saxon” sources, an idea that was disputed even in his own time. The White Top Festival was a public attempt to showcase this controversial idea: in other words, he harnessed folk music in the service of his social-political agenda.
Can you think of other historical examples of the co-opting of culture in the service of politics?
Powell was by no means an outlier in his attempts to whitewash the African roots of traditional American music. Around the same time that he was giving lectures on the “Anglo-Saxon” derivation of Appalachian music, Henry Ford (yes, that Henry Ford), a virulent racist and anti-Semite, was spearheading a square dance revival, in the hopes of counteracting the pernicious influence of jazz. What Ford neglected, probably out of ignorance, was the fact that square dancing, like Appalachian music, has deep roots in African-American culture.
(Howard University students square dancing in 1949.)
When we think of American folk music, especially fiddle-and-banjo music from the region of Appalachia, we tend to think of it as white people’s music, as in this famous scene from the 1972 film Deliverance.
She is an artist of color who plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music” for mainly white audiences . . . a concert for the prisoners at Sing Sing . . . was the first time she’d played for a majority-black crowd . . . Giddens [says], “. .. I would like to see more people from my . . . community at the shows and in the know” . . . The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens . . . But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest . . . to remind people that the music she plays is black music.
Black music like this:
And like this:
And all of this:
Rhiannon Giddens is not the only young black musician to focus on the traditions of American folk music.
Here is the multi-instrumentalist native of Los Angeles, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, who plays both country blues and Appalachian music, and even sometimes performs in the dress of a black Southern field hand.
Valerie June draws on Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues traditions in her music:
The New York City-based old-time string band The Ebony Hillbillies:
Toronto-born Kaia Kater:
As we think about and explore ideas of authenticity in American music, we would do well to remember that the DNA of American music in all of its genres has a great deal more than one drop of African ancestry.
Appendix: Read this article and watch this brief video documentary about the residents of an Appalachian town who identify as black, although they appear white.
In 1966, as young blacks were beginning to drift away from from what they saw as the accommodationism of the Civil Rights movement and starting to embrace a more radical vision, two Oakland activists, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party. The BPP was founded on what Newton and Seale called the “Ten-Point Program”:
We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.
We Want Full Employment For Our People.We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.We believe that if the White Landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
We Want Education For Our People That Exposes The True Nature Of This Decadent American Society. We Want Education That Teaches Us Our True History And Our Role In The Present-Day Society.We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States.We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
You may know that Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni (above) was a prominent member of the New York City chapter of the Panthers, and that she gave birth to her son in 1971, just one month after being acquitted, along with 20 other Panthers, of a conspiracy to plant bombs in various locations around New York. In the years following his untimely death in 1996, Tupac has himself been studied and analyzed by scholars of popular music, black studies, and American history alike. Some commentators see him as the legitimate heir of the traditions of black nationalism, a “Homegrown Revolutionary.” Others view Tupac’s prioritizing of money, his calls for black-on-black violence, and his misuse of women (he did a prison sentence for rape in 1995 and was killed in a drive-by just a month after his release) as a squandering of the legacy of his mother’s generation.
What do you think?
Tupac’s godmother was Assata Shakur (above), a Panther who escaped from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She currently lives in Cuba, and she remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Tupac dedicated the song “Words of Wisdom” off his 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now to Assata.
Another song off 2Pacalypse Now, “Trapped,” seems to rationalize violence as an appropriate response to systematic oppression, and even suggests that black-on-black violence has the transformative ability to earn respect for those who engage in it.
Tupac is, in a sense, a pivotal figure between the Black Power generation and the hip hop generation. His life and his work raise the questions:
Is it possible to be a conscious rapper and a gangsta rapper at the same time?
Have the politics of black liberation fizzled out in the general political apathy of the generations that came after the 1970s?
Did the radical social discourse of black revolutionary politics morph into the radical individualism of gangsta rap — from the uplift of the community to the glorification of the individual through money, violence, and sexual conquest?
And what about the aesthetics of black revolution? Take a look at the image above of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in their black leather jackets and berets, outfitted with guns and bandoliers. As Angela Davis recalled about seeing an image of the Black Panthers in a German newspaper while a graduate student in Frankfurt:
You may know that the Yankees have #cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only #cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.
The reason is that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:
Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That’s why darkies were born; Someone had to laugh at trouble, Though he was tired and worn, Had to be contented with any old thing, That’s why darkies were born; Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught All the white folks to do; Someone had to fight the Devil, Shout about Gabriel’s Horn, Someone had to stoke the train That would bring God’s children to green pastures, That’s why darkies were born.
Though they’re not what you would call great literature, the lyrics of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” are fascinating, and worth unpacking.
First of all, they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” According to the lyrics, slavery, and the music that it generated, make up a sort of self-fulfilling binary system.
Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Even the most fire-eating of pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work to justify their position.
And finally, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?
Here the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggests the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary, to the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — in gospel music.
Of course, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.
Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?
The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s specifically about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slaveryitself was necessary for whites’ redemption?
Is this an example of “love and theft”?
The great Paul Robeson also recorded the song in 1931.
How does Paul Robeson’s version of the song differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?
Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .
[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?
Do you think the PR teams for the Yankees and the Fliers were right to #cancel Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” on the basis of her also having recorded it?
A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, with such lyrics as:
Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs, Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes. Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies? Underneath the Harlem moon.
There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo; They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do: Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue, Underneath the Harlem moon.
In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”
Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:
What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?
Content warning: explicit language and situations.
Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:
Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.
Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.
A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:
Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.
In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.
As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:
Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind — he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .
The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.
There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.
It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind April the four was a hell of a time. When the news reached a seaport town that the great Titanic was a-sinking down. Now up popped Shine, from the decks below and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know. there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.” But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told, and go back down in that deep black hold.” Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine, But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine. There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.” So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.
The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:
The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:
Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975:
The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.
Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:
Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.
The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:
Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):
And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.
You know your daddy and he’s a faggot And your mother’s a whore He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . . He said, your granny, she’s a dyke And your other brother, he’s a faggot And your little sister Loo She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot
are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:
–Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”
– Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.