Needs for Research in Black-American Music

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Traditionally, the American musicologist engaged in historical research has concentrated upon the scientific study of art music in the western European tradition, focusing his attention primarily upon the "great musical work" produced by great masters for a relatively small elite audience and largely ignoring the more extensive body of popular folk music produced for and by the common people. Since early American music produced few masterpieces in the art tradition, but seemed rather to embrace popular and folk music traditions to an even larger extent than did European music, it was generally relegated to a low level in the hierarchy of music traditions. Only in recent years has American music been taken seriously enough to be included in the musicology curriculum, and this in relatively few colleges and universities. Only a handful of American scholars have supported the stand taken by Donald McCorkle, among others, that it is both possible and necessary to use the tools of music historiography in American-music research.1 In view of the uncertain status of American music as a legitimate area of musicological investigation, it becomes downright heresy to suggest that the study of Afro-American music should be of concern to musicologists. Here is a music rooted almost entirely in folk and popular traditions and, moreover, produced by a people on the lowest rung of the society in which they live. Nevertheless, I propose that research into Afro-American music must become the concern of musicologists if the definitive history of American music is ever to be written. And it is doubtful that European art music of the twentieth century will be thoroughly understood until the extent of the influence of Afro-American music upon its development has been made clear.

The first point should be obvious, for the contribution of the black man to the history of American music has made the United States the leading music nation in the world. Beginning as far back as Gottschalk, and perhaps even earlier, white composers of America and in America have continuously drawn from the rich, deep store of black-American music to obtain the wherewithal for infusing their European-oriented composition with freshness and vitality. The second point may not be immediately apparent, so permit me to cite one example to illustrate it. Probably the first of the great European masters to employ nonreligious black-music idioms in their works were Debussy and Stravinsky, the former in his Golliwog's Cakewalk from The Children's Corner (1905) and the latter in L'Histoire du soldat (1918) with its Ragtime movement.2 Now the cakewalk was an old slave dance which apparently first received widespread attention during the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia.3 There, one of the special shows was an exhibit of a plantation scene with ex-slaves and freeborn blacks singing old plantation songs and performing slave dances. The music used to accompany the cakewalk came to be known as ragtime. In 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago ragtime and cakewalking again attracted a great deal of public attention.

The cakewalk became a staple feature of black minstrel shows, and during the l890s the celebrated black vaudeville team of George Walker and Bert Williams introduced the dance to New York. Cakewalking was taken up as a fad by society, swept the nation and crossed the ocean into Europe. Debussy may have heard of the cakewalk in 1902 when a Walker and Williams show, In Dahomey, ran for seven months at the Shaftesbury Theater in London and made the cakewalk fashionable in both London and Paris.4 He could have heard ragtime during the Paris Exposition of 1900 when John Philip Sousa's band played My Ragtime Baby, a song written by black composer Fred Stone of Detroit.5 The question that must be asked here is how is it possible to ignore the presence of the Afro-American music idioms in the music of such pieces as Debussy's Cakewalk or Stravinsky's Ragtime? Amazingly, most music histories manage to by-pass the issue completely. Terms such as ragtime, blues, and jazz are used freely without explanation of their meaning and significance or recognition of the impact upon European music by the styles represented by the terms.

While the influence of Afro-American music upon the development of music in the European tradition is sufficient reason to indicate the need for musicology to give attention to Afro-American music research, the most compelling reason, of course, is that the music itself possesses intrinsic and historical value and therefore is worthy of study. To be sure, not all music produced by black Americans, now or in the past, is good; much of it is trite and commonplace, just as much of the music of their white contemporaries is trite. But the good music is so intense, so exciting, so special—whether it be an old spiritual, a rousing gospel chorus, an Olly Wilson work for electronic tape or an Isaac Hayes film-score—music scholars simply cannot afford any longer to ignore it if they would take seriously their responsibilities as explorers of the past and interpreters of the present. As for the mediocre music, it too deserves attention because it is a part of the American musical heritage, and investigation of it will help to shed light on the development of American music.

With regard to the present state of Afro-American music research, there are so many needs that to draw up a list in the order of their priorities becomes a formidable task. I suppose the primary and over-riding need is for music institutions to acknowledge the existence of Afro-American music. If this were done, college and university music departments would require discussion of it in their music appreciation, history and literature courses, would arrange for its performance by student groups and professionals, would recognize the validity of special Afro-American music courses. Symphony orchestras and opera companies would routinely include the works of black Americans on their programs. Concert artists would search for unusual works from the Afro-American repertory, just as they seek out novelties in the European repertory. Writers would discuss and analyze Afro-American music as a regular course of procedure in their music histories. Tentative steps have been taken in this direction by individuals and institutions, more so in the early decades of the century than now, but too small an amount of ground has been covered.

A frequent complaint of some who state their willingness to use Afro-American music is that it is difficult to find appropriate materials, musical and literary. This suggests a second important need in the historiography of the music: the need to disseminate information about the resources that are on the market. There are several music histories appropriate for college classroom use, for example, that discuss the contributions of black musicians effectively and with dignity (i.e., without being patronizing); most notable among the books, William Austin's Music in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1966). The Art of Sound by Jack Sacher and James Eversole (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970) is an excellent book, appropriately written to include the music of black composers in a natural way, along with excellent pictures, for the general music appreciation class. At least one of the popular texts for appreciation classes has a chapter on jazz in its latest edition. Articles about various aspects of Afro-American music by such top-notch scholars as Robert Stevenson and Dena Epstein are appearing with increasing frequency in American scholarly music journals. During the last three years more than seventy books devoted solely to some aspect of music in the black tradition have been published, to which can be added no fewer than fifteen doctoral dissertations completed or "in progress."

Where does one find out about this material? Notes, the Journal of the Music Library Association, and the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology regularly include listings of relevant materials and reviews of significant books, music and recordings. The Newsletter of the Institute for Studies in American Music, edited by Wiley Hitchcock, reports on important publications in the field, and the present author's new journal, The Black Perspective in Music, makes a special effort to keep readers informed of the latest developments through its lists of new books, music and recordings.6 The ideal solution to the problem of finding out what is available and how to locate it is to compile bibliographies on literary and musical materials. A publication of the Black Music Center at Indiana University, Black Music in Our Culture edited by Dominique-René de Lerma (Kent, Ohio, 1970), represents an admirable step in the right direction. Also to be recommended is a report published by Howard University, edited by Vada Butcher, Development of Materials for a One-Year Course in African Music for the Undergraduate Student (Washington, 1970). Many more such books are needed! The format for the proposed bibliographies has been established in the works of Merriam (his bibliography on jazz), Gaskin (his bibliography on African music), and Duckles (his monumental work on European music)—to cite but a few models. Scholars interested in providing solutions to the problem have only to research the facts and emulate the models in assembling their facts.

A third lacuna in Afro-American music historiography calls for more vigorous action on the part of American scholars: the need for making available more materials for use by teachers and performers. There is an ample supply of primary source materials in various places of the country—in private collections, in rare-book rooms of public libraries, in private libraries and special collections, in the libraries of city and state historical societies, in church libraries, etc. All that is necessary is for researchers to search out these materials, put them in order and record the information they provide. Among the literary documents are local histories, travel books, letters and other kinds of personal narratives, town and court records, newspapers and periodicals, legislative journals, missionary reports and fiction. Space does not permit a lengthy discourse on how each of these kinds of documents can be used to best advantage; a few examples will suffice to indicate the richness of the lot.

Beginning with the first permanent newspaper in the United States, the Boston News-Letter in 1704, the advertising columns of colonial newspapers regularly carried lists of slaves and indentured servants offered "for sale" or "for hire" by the day, week, month or indefinite period of time. Invariably these advertisements called attention to special talents of the human merchandise being exploited, for the more useful the slave the more money that would accrue to his owner in the business transaction. I have collected hundreds of such ads and other newspaper items, enough to document the history of black musicians during the early period of our nation's development. My investigation has barely grazed the surface, however, for here is a virgin field for exploration. All newspaper items from the important newspapers of the nation should be collected and codified. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such material would include press notices, critical reviews, coverage of musical events and feature stories about individual musicians. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the "Black Swan" (ca. 1819-1876); Francis Johnson, the celebrated bandmaster (1792-1844); blind Tom Bethune, the child prodigy (1849-1908)—these musicians and hundreds more received a tremendous amount of press coverage during their careers. Here is a challenge to music researchers!

Other kinds of primary sources are equally lucrative. It is an established practice among music historians to draw upon personal narratives and local histories for information about the musical activities of white musicians during the early years of American history because of the lack of musical documents. The same sources can be used to provide information about black music makers. Many of the early writers were surprisingly color blind as compared to modern writers. Diarists recorded the experiences of their black servants and friends with the same candor and explicit detail as they used in writing about their white fellowmen; local historians recorded the activities of the black citizenry in their chronicles and frequently set aside special chapters for this purpose; travelers made special note of the activities of the blacks, often leaving the company of their white hosts to watch some special event in the black community. If newspapers are excellent sources of factual information about black musicians, local histories and personal writings are the necessary supplements that breathe life into the skeletal information culled from the newspapers. As a first step in making use of the kinds of primary sources listed above, bibliographies should be compiled on various topics. A natural outgrowth would be the writing of biographies, regional studies of "schools" of black musicians, studies of characteristic events such as the slave festivals, studies of development of such special genres as the spiritual, the gospel song, the rag repertory, etc.

It is essential that research in the area of black-American music include study of the roots of the music traditions, that is, of the African heritage. Without exception, contemporary accounts of slave festivals and jubilees in the New World stress the African character of the activities. Fortunately, there are extant sources that provide information about West African music during the slave-trade period, thus enabling comparison of practices on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans who traveled in West Africa recorded their impressions of the people and their cultures in journals, travel reports and personal writings. Some included translations of the songs they heard; at least one talented observer, Edward Bowdich, wrote down African melodies in European notation.7 Here is another need: bibliographies of relevant sources should be compiled to be used as bases for research in early West African music, whose traditions underly the music of the New World Africans.

The end of the eighteenth century begins a new phase in the history of black-American music. For the first time historical and musical documents emanating from black men begin to appear on the scene, and from that period on the observations of white writers can be tempered and supplemented by direct evidence obtainable from the black music makers themselves. Understandably the colonial black man produced few written records, enslaved as he was with no opportunities to master the basic tools of expression in the arts. The Phyllis Wheatleys, Jupiter Hammons, Newport Gardners of the eighteenth century who were fortunate enough to have indulgent masters and patrons who allowed them to develop their talents represent rare exceptions to the rule. But during the last decades of the century, more and more blacks begin to win their freedom, and with freedom came the opportunity to develop latent talents.

By 1830 slavery had been practically eradicated in the North. An emergent black middle-class chose education as the route to what they hoped would be first-class citizenship and respectability. From these people came the early concert artists, the music teachers and the composers, whose music was printed by established publishing houses. The blacks left the white churches, beginning as early as the 1770s, and set up their own congregations where they could worship as they pleased and, significantly, sing the kind of music they wished. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the role of the Negro Church in the history of black-American music. Like the Catholic Church of pre-Reformation Europe, the Negro Church was at once a religious temple, a social center, a school, a preserver of culture and tradition and, above all, a patron of the arts. It is no accident that the large majority of the nation's revered black leaders have been churchmen, that many celebrated musicians began their careers in the church.

There is a need to investigate the literary documents of the early black writers—the church historians, hymn collections, social histories, slave narratives, and other kinds of writings. These works came from men and women who, for the most part, had been slaves and had escaped or earned their freedom in other ways. A number of the writers discuss music, among them, Olaudah Equiano in his autobiography of 1789; Frederick Douglass in his three autobiographies; and the violinist Solomon Northrup, whose narrative was a best seller in 1853. Black writers report on music activities as participants rather than watchers; they report on the condition under which the slaves sang their songs and played their fiddles; they explain why music was so important to a people bogged down in hopelessness and despair. Just as important a source of information is the writing of blacks after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment brought freedom for all slaves throughout the nation. The newly freed people discovered to their sorrow that freedom on paper meant just that—freedom only on paper! Black writers began to record the facts of their musical history, beginning with the epoch-making book of James Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston, 1878). For the first time musicians began to keep records of their careers, which would develop into autobiographies (such as those of W.C. Handy and Tom Fletcher), and to establish publishing houses in order to publish their own music. In 1919 the National Association of Negro Musicians was organized "to discover and foster talent" among black youth. Its records kept over the past seventy-four years cannot fail to hold much of great value to the music historian. In summary, the primary literary documents needed for investigation of black-American music are extant and, in several instances, easily available in reprint editions. The need is for American scholars to set to work.

With regard to musical documents, black music needs the same attention that white American music needs. The music of individual composers, of special groups among the population, of special "schools" should be collected, edited and published. Scott Joplin's music has been gathered together and published in a handsome format with a scholarly introduction and illustrations.8 Many other black composers are worthy of similar treatment, beginning with Frank Johnson, who wrote over 300 works, and certainly including the giants of the nineteenth century, James Bland and "Blind Tom" Bethune. In instances where composers may not have been so prolific, the music of "schools" of composers could be published in collections. The great talent of Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), for example, should not be allowed to become obscure; his musical gems might be collected in a volume (or several volumes) along with works of others in his circle, particularly John Rosamond Johnson. A later figure whose music should certainly be collected into easily accessible volumes is William Grant Still. A recent publication, William Grant Still and the Fusion of Cultures in American Music edited by Robert Haas (Los Angeles, 1972), includes a complete list of the works of this great composer, but how does one get at the music?

In these modern times, discographies are as important as bibliographies. Implicit in all of my discussion is the need for discographies on the same subjects as require bibliographies. As a matter of fact, discographies are even more important than bibliographies in some areas, for much black music has never been published and can be investigated only through use of recordings. Not only is this true in the areas of jazz, folk music and popular music, but surprisingly also in the area of concert music of black composers. A large amount of black concert music is performed from manuscript copies, and is simply not available from publishing houses. The enterprising music researchers should include in their discographies both recordings and tapes from both commercial sources and private collections. The Schwann catalogues can be used as the initial sources of information; from there it will be necessary to move to special collections (as at the Schomburg Library in New York or the Black Music Center at Indiana University) and to college music departments, especially of black colleges in the South. Some of the best recordings of black music have been made "in the field;" I think particularly of the recording of R. Nathaniel Dett's celebrated oratorio, The Ordering of Moses, recorded at Talladega College in Alabama during its Centennial Arts Festival with professional soloists, guest conductor William Dawson and the Mobile Symphony Orchestra.

While the various needs outlined above do not constitute a complete list of necessary tasks to be undertaken, they do indicate the enormous amount of work to be done. This should be a challenge to American musicians and scholars. The field of Afro-American music is almost virgin territory; whoever stakes out a claim will be richly rewarded with discoveries of colorful historical data and exciting music. The same tools used for research in western European music may be employed, although some modifications in approach and procedures will be necessary because of the strength of the African tradition in black Americana. In addition to possessing the innate curiosity of the genuine music researcher, those who work in the area of Afro-American music should be eager to ferret out the unknown in the past (ignoring those who proclaim that the black man had no past in the New World) and to establish relationships between the already known and the newly discovered. In dealing with musical documents, special care must be taken to avoid using a double standard in evaluating the musical worth of black-American music. The music should be identified as American music and compared to other American music produced during the same period. Why should Frank Johnson, for example, be expected to produce music on the level of a Franz Schubert when none of his white contemporaries were doing so—indeed, few of Schubert's contemporaries in Europe were doing so?

A few other admonitions are in order for would-be researchers in Afro-American music. While the musical document is of great importance, of equal significance is its cultural and historical function. The musical score can provide only a limited amount of information about the actual musical sound of a piece of music, as is well known, and particularly is this true with regard to music in the black tradition. The researcher should begin his work well armed with an understanding of African, European, and American history, cultural and social. He will be working with human beings as well as documents, so he must be sensitive, imaginative and perceptive. He must be receptive to innovation, for he will hear music performed by musicians who defy all of the rules and yet produce good music. He will study scores wherein all of the established rules of good writing are broken and yet the music itself is good. Undoubtedly, he will have to establish a few procedures of his own, based on bitter personal experiences where he missed out because of over-zealousness, insensitivity, a patronizing attitude or impatience.

I cannot help but be optimistic about the future of Afro-American research, despite its many serious lacunae. Slowly American scholarship is discarding its long-held feelings of inferiority about the merit of American music, and Afro-American music cannot help but benefit from this change in attitude. Led by the Europeans, Americans are beginning to develop an appreciation for the music of the black Americans that has been taken for granted for so long a period of time, except as a music to be exploited. If there are few colleges and universities that now offer special courses in Afro-American music, there are institutions that are making plans for the future inclusion of such programs in their curricula. It is the responsibility of the American musician and scholar to insure that music institutions will be properly equipped for the task of according to Afro-American music its due acclaim and dignity.


1See Donald M. McCorkle, "Finding a Place for American Studies in American Musicology," Journal of the American Musicological Society, XIX (1966), 73-84; also Edward E. Lowinsky, "Character and Purposes of American Musicology," JAMS, XVIII (1965), 222-234.

2Dvorak was the first of the great European masters, of course, to consciously use Negro folk idioms in his works, the spirituals. An opera composed by Frederick Delius in 1897, entitled Koanga, used as subject matter themes associated with slavery and also used slave song and dance tunes. According to the evidence, it was the first opera to deal with the black man in the United States.

3Tom Fletcher, 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (New York, 1954), p. 103.

4See further in James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York, 1930), pp. 104-106.

5 Fletcher, op. cit., p. 145.

6The Institute for Studies in American Music is located at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11210. The Black Perspective in Music is published by the Foundation for Research in the Afro-American Creative Arts, Inc., Box 11049, Cambria Heights, New York 11411.

7Excerpts from three books are included in Eileen Southern, Readings in Black American Music (New York, 1971).

8The collection can be ordered from the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts. Music Division of the New York Public Library. 111 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10023.

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