Gomez thinks Ravel is too Caucasian-focused. Mirabeau reminds him that France was welcoming to black performers when they were still forced to use separate entrances and facilities in America. The US has an uneasy relation to race, from the Founding Fathers, many of whom owned slaves, to the immigration crackdowns of present-day Arizona. Usually, when people become fearful about something else (the economy, for example), they wind up scapegoating “other” people. It’s not one of humanities prettier attributes.
Now, I hear some of you saying “But we have a black president!” Yes, it’s true, black children may now aspire to the highest office in the land with some evidence that it is possible (at least this time), whereas before it seemed that either rap music or basketball were the main alternatives for massive wealth, visibility, and street respect. There always was a “tolerance” for entertainment as a “harmless” avenue for “those people” even when they were being denied basic civil rights.
So, today, I wish to praise the little-known contributions of African-American songwriters to the popular American songbook of the earliest years of the twentieth century.
If you’ve ever heard a “blues,” danced the Charleston, or “sat right down and written yourself a letter,” you are enjoying the fruits of these songwriters. They sometimes had rather short lives that ended in poverty despite great successes at one time. Copyright was not well-organized law, and publishers were often unscrupulous. In a pre-recording age, sheet music sales for home use were the big money makers. Then it was on to the next novelty.
The evolution from slave work-songs, mixing with Protestant hymning and African rhythm to the blues, ragtime and jazz is an important part of our heritage, patchwork nation that we are. European composers from Dvorak to Ravel all extolled the virtues of the so-called “native” music of our shores. Syncopation, the “displacement” of the beat that adds a rhythmic “frisson” is one of the major markers of this music. Our classical notions of syncopation are really oversimplified, when compared to the intricacies of African drumming (and many other non-Western cultures’ music making).
The “blue note,” a naturally occurring part of the overtone series, is approximated in our notation by the “flat seventh” scale degree, though it really is “micro”tonal, occupying a space somewhere “between” the crude half-steps of our pianos. These notes lend the characteristic “wailing” tone so essential to a true blues.
At one time there were “minstrel shows,” now regarded as highly racist and condescending, introducing the character of “Jim Crow.” The performers were either white people in blackface or actual blacks, but even the blacks had to further blacken their faces (with burnt cork) to be permitted on stage.
There were many genres of black songs, including the politically “incorrect” “coon song,” the “tearjerker,” and the cakewalk.
But let’s just list a few of the better known songs, and revel in the cornucopia of tunes that we seem to know so well we forget “where” they came from.
“St Louis Blues”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” (the basis of a 1978 Broadway musical)
“I’m Just Wild About Harry”
“Memories of You”
“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing”
“The Darktown Strutters’ Ball”
“Sweet Georgia Brown”
“In the Mood”
“Lulu’s Back in Town”
And their creators:
WC Handy (1873-1958), Thomas Wright (“Fats”) Waller (1904-1943), Andy Razaf (1895-1973), James Hubert (“Eubie”) Blake (1883-1983), James A Bland (1854-1911), Gertrude (“Ma Rainey”) Pridgett (1886-1939), Bessie Smith (1894-1937), Harry T Burleigh (1866-1949), William Mercer (“Will Marion”) Cook (1869-1944), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Cecil Mack (1883-1944), Shelton Brooks (1886-1975), Maceo Pinkard (1897-1962).
Great material for a summer investigation, no?
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs