Classically Black, V: Playlists for “Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter era” by Kira Thurman and”Home” by Langston Hughes

1.

Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D Major, which Kira Thurman imagines Draylen Mason playing:

Two of the pieces Kira Thurman played for her music school audition:

The piece that Thurman says she is “obsessed with playing and listening to”:

An excerpt from Cycles of My Being by Tyshawn Sorey:

The Spark Catchers, by British composer of African descent, Hannah Kendall:

Essay by artist and critic “Coco Fusco, Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” which Thurman cites on p. 244:

Dana Schutz, “Open Casket” (2016), in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

2.

In Langston Hughes’s short story “Home,” Roy Williams plays the following pieces in his mother’s house when he returns from Europe:

The most famous of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms (called “The Gypsy Dances” by Hughes):

Roland Hayes singing “The Crucifixion” (for more on Hayes, including the poem Langston Hughes wrote on the assault on the great tenor in Georgia, see here):

The “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet:

It’s worth noting in the context of the Hughes story that, in the 2018 film Green Book, composer and pianist Don Shirley does not play classical music for white audiences, but rather his own jazz-classical hybrid form, a choice that makes white listeners more comfortable with the separation between him and themselves; in a sense, Hughes tells us, it’s the blurring of race and musical genre that leads to Roy’s death. For Don Shirley in the film, it’s only in a black bar that he’s finally allowed to play the music that he loves the most.

For more about the real Don Shirley, the subject of the film, read this.

What do Kira Thurman’s essay and Langston Hughes’s story tell us about the experiences of black classical musicians?

X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:

“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”

“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”

Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.

Names have power, in other words.

Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”

The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

No to Joy

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 artist is a critic of society”

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.

One of the [school board] commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools” . . . Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, [said] that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost [estimated to be $600,000], he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

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?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed precious centuries-old statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan because the statues offended the sensibilities of their new Islamist republic. Do you think this act of destruction was different from, or similar to, the proposed destruction of the Arnautoff murals?

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:

If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when [students] go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on.

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?

A Love Supreme

Coltrane’s bare-bones score for his masterpiece, the four-movement suite A Love Supreme, which was recorded in one session in December, 1964:

Coltrane has noted in the manuscript that the piece should be played “in all keys together.” As his biographer Lewis Porter says, at the end of the first movement (titled “Acknowledgment”):

Coltrane’s more or less finished his improvisation, and he just starts playing the “Love Supreme” motif, but he changes the key another time, another time, another time. This is something very unusual. It’s not the way he usually improvises. It’s not really improvised. It’s something that he’s doing. And if you actually follow it through, he ends up playing this little “Love Supreme” theme in all 12 possible keys . . . To me, he’s giving you a message here. First of all, he’s introduced the idea. He’s experimented with it. He’s improvised with it with great intensity. Now he’s saying it’s everywhere. It’s in all 12 keys. Anywhere you look, you’re going to find this “Love Supreme.”

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.

With A Love Supreme,

Coltrane was reaching a much broader audience than people realized. Coltrane, far and above other jazz artists perhaps with the exception of Miles, was alone in the way that he reached listeners beyond the normally accepted jazz audience or jazz cognoscenti. He was reaching also a very young audience — black and white. The way that he spoke to [listeners across race and class] in a way parallels the way white suburban youth were embracing Public Enemy a couple of decades later. Not just because of the music, and not just because of its soul, but because of the inherent sort of danger in it. Even though Coltrane and his many defenders talk about how his music was not angry, the perception of anger or the perception of frustration that black America had with its situation was something that definitely appealed to white listeners, especially white youthful listeners. . . .As such, Coltrane’s music was a bridge not only between musical styles but also across the racial divide.

Listen to the entire album here.

And watch a documentary about Coltrane’s obsessions and the obsessions of his fans here:

And read some of the comments on Youtube:

“This album got me sober, thank you Coltrane.”

“This album helped me survive a Dark Night of the Soul.”

“This reaches something that is beyond our existence.”

As critic Martin Gayford put it,

A Love Supreme marks the point at which jazz – for good or ill – ceased for a while to be hip and cool, becoming instead mystical and messianic.

In fact, there’s an entire religion based around the album, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, which hosts a monthly meditation on A Love Supreme.

As jazz writer Nat Hentoff put it:

Listening to Coltrane work through his own challenge may well stimulate self-confrontation in the rest of us. Each listener, of course, will himself be challenged in a different way. 

Blackberry Fool

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:

a fascinating picture book in which four families, in four different cities, over four centuries, make the same delicious dessert: blackberry fool. This richly detailed book ingeniously shows how food, technology, and even families have changed throughout American history. 

In 1710, a girl and her mother in Lyme, England, prepare a blackberry fool, picking wild blackberries and beating cream from their cow with a bundle of twigs. The same dessert is prepared by an enslaved girl and her mother in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina; by a mother and daughter in 1910 in Boston; and finally by a boy and his father in present-day San Diego. 

As a confirmed children’s book junkie, I bought A Fine Dessert for my own kids when it came out. It even has a recipe for blackberry fool in the back. We made it, and it was delicious.

Soon, however, a controversy erupted over the book in the high-stakes world of children’s book publishing. The controversy was over depictions of the enslaved mother and daughter smiling.

One reader wrote:

I am so troubled by this book. . . What information is portrayed about slavery through the depiction in the book A Fine Dessert? . . .
1) That slave families were intact and allowed to stay together.
2) Based on the smiling faces of the young girl…that being enslaved is fun and or pleasurable.
3) That to disobey as a slave was fun (or to use the reviewers word “relaxed”) moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment.

The illustrator, Sophie Blackall, countered:

1) . . . Evidence shows that many mothers were able to keep their children nearby, usually because it suited the plantation owners to increase their workforce. Historian Michael Tadman estimated that one third of enslaved children in the Southern States experienced family separation, which suggests that two thirds did not. Jennifer Hallam writes, in Slavery and the Making of America, “The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale.” This does not imply that those relationships were not constantly under threat. But it seemed reasonable that we might show a mother and daughter working together. I believe the author, Emily Jenkins came to the same conclusion. There is no father to be seen.
By showing an enslaved mother and daughter together, it is certainly a more positive portrayal of slavery than showing them wrenched apart. But it is not inaccurate. And the book is about different families making blackberry fool over four centuries.


2) I thought long and hard about these smiles. 
In the first scene, the mother and girl are picking blackberries. I imagined this as a rare moment where they were engaged in a task together, out of doors, away from the house and supervision, where the mother is talking to her child. It is a tender moment, but the mother is not smiling. The girl has a gentle smile. She is, in this moment, not unhappy. I believe oppressed people throughout history have found solace and even joy in small moments.

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,

I’m . . . discomforted by Emily Jenkins’ apology for A Fine Dessert, at the same time that I respect and admire it. . . . To me [her apology] ties into the White Lady tears phenomenon somehow, though I can’t quite put my finger on exactly how this is all working.

One thing that both the naysayers and the apologists are overlooking is that happiness can be resistance. Listen to this song by Our Native Daughters:

Here is a collection of essays, articles, and statements on the book.

Check out the Twitter hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile.

More on cancel culture in children’s and YA literature:

It’s not just writers who ought to be worried. The logical [conclusion] of a prohibition on cultural intercourse is a future in which each person is allowed to document only his or her precise subjective experience. A future, in other words, where fiction is history. And that sounds like a very dreary prospect for us all.

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.

Stagolee Shot Billy

Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.

Stack Lee (drawing by Timothy Lane).

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.

Seale (left) and Newton.

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:

On Christmas Day, 1895, a local pimp named “Stack” Lee Shelton walked into a St. Louis bar wearing pointed shoes, a box-back coat, and his soon-to-be infamous milk-white John B. Stetson hat. Stack joined his friend Billy Lyons for a drink. Their conversation settled on politics, and soon it grew hostile: Lyons was a levee hand and, like his brother-in-law—one of the richest black men in St. Louis at the time—a supporter of the Republican party. Stack had aligned himself with the local black Democrats. The details of their argument aren’t known, but at some point Lyons snatched the Stetson off Stack’s head. Stack demanded it back, and when Lyons refused, shot him dead.

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.

This is a beautifully-drawn graphic-novel treatment of the story. The pages are out of order because they’re meant to be printed and bound, but check it out.

Pastoral Scene of the Gallant South

Content warning: images of racial violence.

“Strange Fruit” was written by longtime DeWitt Clinton High School English teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937 (shown above with his sons Robert and Michael, the biological children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom Abel and his wife adopted after the Rosenbergs’ execution). The text was first published as a poem in a New York City teachers’ union bulletin.

Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.

The words:

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:

Other versions:

  1. Nina Simone:

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?

The DNA of American Folk Music

Pocahontas, 1992.40

Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

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.

Chuck-Hoskin-Jr

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:

Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and [their] legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music — of American music in particular?

Jeannette_Thurber_as_a_young_woman

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 York Herald 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 response to his pronouncement,

Black musicians were ecstatic. The Freeman [a black-owned newspaper] recalled Dvořák’s statements as “a triumph for the sons and daughters of slavery and a victory for Negro race achievements,” referring to him as “Pan [father] Antonín Dvořák, our greatest friend from far across the sea.” According to the late William Warfield, the distinguished bass-baritone and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians, this bond with Dvořák “lives on in black music circles.” 

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.”

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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.

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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.

The “one-drop rule,” however, exempted anyone who claimed to be descended from the real Pocahontas, as many of Virginia’s “finest families” claimed to be.

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?

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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.

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(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.

As John Jeremiah Sullivan describes Rhiannon Giddens, one of the contemporary black artists attempting to reveal the black roots of American folk music:

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 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.