The stirring “Ride of the Valykyries” opens Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Eight of the nine Valkyries, the warrior daughters of Wotan, ride their horses onto the battlefield to gather up the dead heroes and take them to Valhalla, the home of the gods. They await their sister Brünnhilde, who arrives with Sieglinde on her horse.
Blind Blake (1896-1938) recorded “Detroit Bound Blues” for Paramount in 1928. It’s a kind of miniature record of at least some of the impetus behind the Great Migration.
I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job I’m goin’ to Detroit, get myself a good job Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob
I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place I’m goin’ to get a job, up there in Mr. Ford’s place Stop these eatless days from starin’ me in the face
When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around When I start to makin’ money, she don’t need to come around ‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound
Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Because they got wild women in Detroit, that’s all I want to see Wild women and bad whisky would make a fool out of me
But working on an assembly line could be soul-crushing. As Joe L. Carter sang, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
Motown operated a sub-label called Black Forum, which was dedicated to recording spoken word, poetry, and black thought for posterity. Here are some recordings from its archives.
The last recording released by Black Forum was an album of consciousness-raising songs composed and performed by Black Panther leader Elaine Brown (who was a fantastic singer as well):
Documentary footage from Detroit’s five days of civic upheaval in July 1967:
While the rioting was still underway, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to study the problem. The commission concluded:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . .What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
You can view and read the report here.
A brief history of the rise and fall of the auto industry in Detroit.
Large swathes of Detroit, abandoned for years, have been reclaimed by nature, which has led to an urban agriculture movement.
Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt*; Alle Menschen werden Brüder* Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen Eines Freundes Freund zu sein; Wer ein holdes Weib errungen Mische seinen Jubel ein! Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Brüsten der Natur; Alle Guten, alle Bösen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur. Küsse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod; Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn, Freudig, wie ein Held zum siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen. Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity [or: of gods], Daughter of Elysium, We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, thy sanctuary! Your magic binds again What custom strictly divided;* All people become brothers,* Where your gentle wing abides.
Who has succeeded in the great attempt, To be a friend’s friend, Whoever has won a lovely woman, Add his to the jubilation! Indeed, who even just has one soul To call his own in this world! And who never managed it should slink Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy At nature’s breasts. All the Just, all the Evil Follow her trail of roses. Kisses she gave us and grapevines, A friend, proven in death. Salaciousness was given to the worm And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly through the heavens’ grand plan Go on, brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory.
Be embraced, Millions! This kiss to all the world! Brothers, above the starry canopy There must dwell a loving Father. Are you collapsing, millions? Do you sense the creator, world? Seek him above the starry canopy! Above stars must He dwell.
Its most famous setting:
This video shows some of the text and translation, along with the vocal passages to which each textual phrase is set.
The great African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976) sings it in English translation in the 1930s (it’s worth noting that Robeson was an outspoken supporter of communism and the Soviet Union).
If you look on Youtube, you will find numerous versions of Beethoven’s setting, including many updating it to contemporary genres. Here’s a performance on Coke bottles:
Schubert’s setting of “Ode to Joy,” from 1815 (nine years before Beethoven’s):
The earliest known setting is by the dedicatee of Schiller’s poem, Christian Gottfried Körner, from 1786. You can hear Körner’s complete list on the playlist “An die Freude” on NAXOS.
An 1800 collection of fourteen settings of Schiller’s ode by the important Austrian and German composers of the day. The volume was published by Jacob Böhme of Hamburg, who would become one of the most important music publishers of the nineteenth century. Most of these are as yet unrecorded.
The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.
And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.
Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?
“White” Woodstock, in the meantime, was perhaps the last gasp of optimism of the 1960s counterculture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Nixon was in the White House and had begun secretly bombing Cambodia.
Just a few months later, another massive music festival would try — and fail catastrophically — to carry on the spirit of Woodstock.
At the Altamont Speedway in northern California, the Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security for $500 worth of beer (more than $3000 worth in today’s money). As the crowd got restless and the Angels got drunk, they began beating concertgoers with pool cues and motorcycle chains, and kicked and stabbed an eighteen-year-old black audience member, Meredith Hunter, to death during the Rolling Stones’ set.
As rock critic Greil Marcus, who was at the festival, succinctly put it:
The murder was caught live on camera and included in the documentary Gimme Shelter as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” (warning: this footage contains the actual murder of Meredith Hunter — watch at your own risk).
As gospel singer Merry Clayton famously sang on the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”
A purple glow shines from afar, Golden now the bright day sinks, One by one the silver stars Awaken in the skies. And the Queen of the Day Bows her head and goes to sleep; One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
Shadows cover the broad earth, Night lies on the meadows. Pray be still now, poor heart, That the day has wearied so! O appear, gently, mildly, Sweet image in my dreams. One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
Ah, hot tears run down my cheeks; Now a feeling of bliss, Now a painful, fearful longing Is set to break my heart. Only dreams can restore That happiness too quickly vanished. One more greeting, now goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
When I gaze into the dusk, And the sun sets, I think of all the pain That I have endured. Ah, perhaps the morrow Will banish all cares. So be of good cheer! Goodbye! No farewell! No departure!
What Romantic themes can you identify in the text and in the music?
One of the reasons that we think of country as a white genre is that country music has connotations of Southern rural life, wide open spaces, and farming.
Southern rural life was decimated by the Great Migration, and wide open spaces have not always been safe for black people. What is not widely known is that, before the Great Migration, blacks were also disproportionately represented among American farmers. Not only during slave days, but also up until the early years of the twentieth century, black people were the farmers, at least in the South.
There’s a movement to revive black farming. Here Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, near Albany, explains her mission.
Penniman is also featured in this documentary by Binghamton-native musician Taína Asili:
Watch a documentary about efforts to reclaim the urban decay of Detroit and repurpose it as farmland:
In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.
In America you get food to eat Won’t have to run through the jungle And scuff up your feet You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day It’s great to be an American
Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake Everybody is as happy as a man can be Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with me
*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.
The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:
Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:
The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:
Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?
Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?
What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?
What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?
It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”