Tag Archives: Black studies

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, October 5, 2019: Elaine Brown’s “Seize the Time” (1969)

Album cover of Seize the Time, by Elaine Brown, Vault Records, SLP-131 (LP), 1969
Back of album cover

The First Songs of the American Revolution

On a January evening in 1969, members of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) congregated in Los Angeles to mourn comrades Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, two UCLA students who had just been shot and killed on the campus during an altercation with black nationalist group US (aka Organization Us). The gathering was an extension of the funeral service held earlier that day, the gravity of which was punctuated by Elaine Brown’s performance of Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” David Hilliard (BPP chief of staff at the time) had already heard from Ray “Masai” Hewitt (Panther leader and minister of education) that Brown wrote her own revolutionary songs and was determined to hear them before heading back to Oakland. He had a piano brought in and asked everyone to gather around. Brown sang songs dedicated to Party members, including “The Panther” (in memory of Frank “Franco” Diggs), “The Meeting” (for Eldridge Cleaver), and “Assassination” (written for Bunchy and John during her incarceration at Sybil Brand Institute). By the end of the evening, Hilliard declared “The Meeting” as the Black Panther Party’s official anthem, which was to be memorized by all members. Brown was then ordered to record an entire album of her songs. 

These were the events surrounding the genesis of Elaine Brown’s first album, Seize the Time. Through its images, lyrics, and music, it negotiates relationships between masculine and feminine strength, violent and non-violent resistance, personal and collective action, and past and future challenges. Even more, its reception provides an opportunity to evaluate the racial assumptions that mediate how we listen to the album that The Black Panther newspaper called “the first songs of the American revolution.” 

Listen to the album Seize the Time, issued by the Rhino Entertainment Company on Spotify

Illustrated by BPP minister of culture Emory Douglas, the album’s striking front cover conveys the Party’s embrace of militaristic methods, investment in black youth, and status of the composer herself, who would go on to chair the Party from 1974 to 1977. A black figure, dressed in a purple jacket and holding a Soviet-made AK-47 (possibly a symbol of solidarity with the North Vietnamese), dominates the space. The fingers that grip the assault rifle’s lower handguard are painted purple, projecting a tone of feminine strength, and Brown’s authorial role is made explicit on the bottom left where a supporter carries a flag with the word “Elaine” running below her portrait.  

Cut-out images of fist-clenched children take various positions on the cover, collage-like, as they play-salute the cause. They reinforce the point that more than the Party’s bellicose ideology, which remains at the forefront of the popular imagination today, the cornerstone of its initiatives was community outreach programs like early morning breakfasts for underprivileged youths. The presence of the children should also bring to mind the work of Huggins’s widow Ericka, who was the editor of the Panthers’ newspaper and educational director of the Intercommunal Youth Institute, an elementary school run by the Party in East Oakland. 

While the album’s front cover emphasizes the Party, the “back cover” of the album is all Brown. Rather than song titles or lyrics, the only writing presented is Vault’s identification information, the composer’s name, the album title, and “Black Panther Party.” Brown’s face, eyes toward the ground, lies in the shadows; a more introspective side that reflects the personal nature of the songs’ contents.

The recording itself was the result of a collaboration with jazz musician and arranger Horace Tapscott who, as Brown writes in her book, A Taste of Power, “could sit down and orchestrate a song just as you sang it.” Brown’s connections to Vault Records allowed the album to come to fruition. To be sure, this was not the first time the Panthers had issued albums, which typically contained speeches, interviews, and court transcripts of Party leaders. Seize the Time was, however, unique among BPP-endorsed recordings at that point in that it contained only music. 

If the lyrical content of Seize the Time often made the Party’s violent defiance explicit (for example, “We’ll just have to get guns and be men” from “The End of Silence”), to some listeners it was sonically incommensurate with the immediacy, volume, ugliness, distortion, and disturbances—the grit and the funk—of an American revolution. The message may have been clear, but Brown’s interests in Bob Dylan and Western art music surfaced where many may have preferred something more along the lines of Betty Davis (which could have had something to do with the album’s failure to attain any kind of commercial success). 

To some, the issue was that Brown just didn’t sound black enough. As she explained in Ptolemaic Terrascope:

I think Huey Newton liked my music because its classical quality gave dignity to our movement, it wasn’t just dancing in the street, not that there is anything wrong with Martha and the Vandellas because we loved that…Someone accused me of not having a black sound and I wasn’t sure what that meant. I just wanted to make the most beautiful sound I could make and do the most beautiful thing I could do to honor our people.

The notion of Brown not having a “black sound” places her in a long history of criticism, directed towards singers from Ethel Waters to Ella Fitzgerald and countless others, that measures complex and multifaceted stylistic vocal traits against an imagined, static category that confirms socially constructed ideas of race. As Nina Sun Eidsheim writes in her listener-centered book, The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music:

[“B]lack voice” is an observation born from an encultured notion of sound that expects fidelity to a referent and listens for difference. When voices are reduced to fixed sounds and undergo assessment, they cannot help but be heard within binaries or scale degrees of fidelity and difference. Moreover, due to the ways vocal timbre has historically been aligned with and metaphorized as interiority and truth, the stakes and ramifications of such assessment involve more than just sounds. What is measured is a person’s degree of fidelity to and difference from a dominant category. 

In Seize the Time, Brown’s voice dominates, with five of the album’s ten songs arranged for voice and piano alone. Her voice is always front and center in the mix, allowing its poignant, crisp, articulate, vibrato-infused delivery to shine, particularly in songs like “One Time.” Brown’s detractors heard the Elaine Brown of the back cover—a sonic expression of interiority—more than the Elaine Brown that appears on the flag below the gun on the front cover. The false dichotomy, the reduction of timbral complexity to an unfaithfulness to culturally engrained notions of a “black female experience,” all in the context of what a black revolution “should” sound like—it says much about the preconceptions of listening communities and little about Brown as a musician and revolutionary.  

Tapscott’s contribution as arranger deserves much more attention than space permits here. But as an exercise for exploring the meanings that emerge in orchestration—and this collects issues surrounding vocal quality, orchestration, visual (re)presentation, and race construction—it is instructive to compare two live performances of “Seize the Time,” one performed by Brown (likely in Los Angeles around 1969 or 1970) and another covered in 1970 by Finnish singer Carola Standertskjöld for Scandinavian television. The video of Standertskjöld’s performance features the album artwork as well photos of Huey Newton. 

Elaine Brown (Los Angeles, circa 1969-70) performs “Seize the Time, “Very Black Man,” “Poppa’s Come Home,” and “The Meeting” (cut off)
Carola Standertskjöld’s performance of “Seize the Time” (1970)

Brown’s album revealed the potential of music to further a political ideology, and so The Lumpen (a BPP outfit of four rank-and-file members who sang while performing various Party tasks) was formed. They recorded an album of the same name, which featured two songs released by the Party itself, “No More” and “Bobby Must be Set Free.” Short for Lumpenproletariat—a class theorized by Karl Marx as too culturally marginalized to be effective in the struggle for class revolution—the group performed at BPP functions, often covering popular songs by Sly and the Family StoneJames Brown, and others. Elaine Brown provided not only a soundtrack for the revolution, but also offered a template for music’s role as a mobilizer of political action in the context of the Black Panther Party’s aims. 

On the cover of the album Huey Newton Speaks resides Newton’s quote, “In the new world the most important thing will not be a social status or a material possession, it will be love and harmony between men.” Elaine Brown’s Seize the Time, in the end, situates revolution in the context of love: love for her friends, Party members, and community. One is reminded of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. As it unpacks issues of violent and non-violent resistance, drawing on the music of Louis Armstrong, a scene from an imagined past materializes. A slave mother, an “old singer of spirituals,” mourns the death of her master (and father to her children), who she poisoned for her family’s freedom. The poison, she explains, spared him the pain of the lethal stabbing that her sons would have delivered. The protagonist proposes to her, “Maybe freedom lies in hating.” She responds, “Naw, son, it’s in loving.”

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Michael Lupo, Assistant Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM)

Bibliography

Brown, Elaine. A taste of power: A black woman’s story (New York: Pantheon, 1992). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1992-33690]

“I have all the guns and all the money. I can withstand challenge from without and from within. Am I right, comrades?” With these words, Elaine Brown proclaimed to the assembled leadership of the Black Panther Party that she was now in charge. It was August 1974. The Panthers had grown from a small Oakland-based cell to a national organization that had mobilized black communities throughout the country. The party’s achievements had won the support of millions of white liberals, but the violent assaults on the party by the police had brought death or imprisonment to many of its prominent members. Now its charismatic leader, Huey P. Newton, heading for refuge in Cuba, asked Elaine Brown to hold together a party threatened by internal conflict and the FBI. How she came to that position of power over a paramilitary, male-dominated organization and what she did with that power is an unsparing story of self-discovery. Growing up in a black Philadelphia ghetto and attending a predominantly white school, Elaine Brown learned firsthand the pain and powerlessness of being black and female. The Panthers held the promise of redemption. Elaine’s account of her life at the highest levels of the Panthers’ hierarchy illuminates more than the pain of sexism and the struggle against racism: The male power rituals she recounts carried the seeds of the Black Panther Party’s destruction. Nowhere was this undertow more evident than in the complex character of Huey P. Newton, who became Elaine’s lover and ultimately her nemesis. More than a journey through a turbulent time in American history, this is the story of a black woman’s battle to define herself. Freedom, Elaine Brown discovered, may be more than a political question. (publisher)

Eidsheim, Nina Sun. The race of sound: Listening, timbre, and vocality in African American music (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-7187]

Traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. The author illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. The author examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, the author untangled the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an under-theorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.

_____. “Voice as action: Toward a model for analyzing the dynamic construction of racialized voice”, Current musicology 93 (spring 2012) 9–33. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-21341]

Vocal timbre is commonly believed to be an unmanipulable attribute, akin to a sonic fingerprint. Because the voice arises from inside the body, quotidian discourse tends to refer to someone’s vocal sounds as inborn, natural, and true expressions of the person. What, then, are we to make of the common notion that a person’s race is audible in her voice? While it has been conclusively demonstrated that many of the physiognomic aspects historically employed as evidence of a person’s race—including skin color, hair texture, and dialect or accent —actually evidence nothing more than the construction of race according to the ideological values of beholders, vocal timbre continues to elude such deconstruction. Recent critical thought on the intermingling of the physical senses—including the so-called sensory turn in anthropology, “new materialist” philosophies, and recent advances in science, technology, sound studies, and media studies—underscores the need for scholarship that recognizes the voice and vocal categories as culturally conditioned material entities. Trends such as the metaphorical notion of “having voice” have to some degree obscured the material and multisensory aspects of voice. Conceived within the specific context of musicology and the general context of the humanities, this article seeks to demonstrate how the reframing of voice implied by sensory and material inquiries redraws the topology of voice. I believe that this exercise may offer a deepened understanding of racial dynamics as they play out in our interactions with voice. (author)

Pat, Thomas. Listen, whitey! The sights and sounds of Black power 1965–1975 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-36744]

Based on five years of research in Oakland, California and contacts made with members of the Black Panther Party, the author provides a history, and visual documentation, of rare recordings of speeches, interviews, and music by noted activists Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Elaine Brown, The Lumpen, and many others that form the framework of this retrospective. The book also chronicles the forgotten history of Motown Records; from 1970 to 1973, Motown’s Black Power subsidiary label, Black Forum, released politically charged albums by Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and many others. Also explored are the musical connections between Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Graham Nash, the Partridge Family (!?!), and the Black Power movement. Obscure recordings produced by SNCC, Ron Karenga’s US, the Tribe, and other African-American sociopolitical organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s are examined along with the Isley Brothers, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, Watts Prophets, Last Poets, Gene McDaniels, Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stanley Crouch, and others that spoke out against oppression. Other sections focus on Black Consciousness poetry (from the likes of Jayne Cortez, wife of Ornette Coleman), inspired religious recordings that infused God with Black Nationalism, and obscure regional and privately pressed Black Power 7-inch soul singles from across America. (publisher)

Vincent, Frederick Lewis. The Lumpen: Music on the front lines of the black revolution (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2008). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2008-47538]

Vincent, Rickey. Party music: The inside story of the Black Panthers’ band and how black power transformed soul music (Chicago: Lawrence Hill), 2013. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-19819]

Explores the culture and politics of the Black Power era of the late 1960s, when the rise of a black militant movement also gave rise to a Black Awakening in the arts—and especially in music. The relationship of soul music to the Black Power movement is examined from the vantage point of the musicians and black revolutionaries themselves. This book introduces readers to the Black Panthers’ own band, The Lumpen, a group comprised of rank-and-file members of the Oakland, California-based party. During their year-long tenure, The Lumpen produced hard-driving rhythm-and-blues that asserted the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers. Through his rediscovery of The Lumpen, and based on new interviews with Party and band members, the author provides an insider’s account of black power politics and soul music aesthetics in a narrative that reveals more detail about the Black Revolution than ever before.

Discography

Brown, Elaine. Elaine Brown. LP (Black Forum 458L-DJ, 1973). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1973-24747]

_____. Seize the time. LP (Vault Records SLP-131, 1969). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1969-16778]

Cleaver, Eldridge. Dig: Eldridge Cleaver at Syracuse. LP (More Records, Cleaver S-1, 1968). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1968-43352]

Newton, Huey, P. Huey!/Listen, whitey! LP (Smithsonian Folkways Records FD5402, 1972). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1972-13118]

_____. Huey Newton speaks. LP (Paredon 1004, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19048]

Seale, Bobby. Gagged and chained: The sentencing of Bobby Seale for contempt. 2 LPs (Certron CSS2-2001, 1970). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1970-19049]

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Filed under Black studies, Politics

The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, August 27, 2019: The Stinson Banjo

John H. Buckbee (manufacturer). Banjo created for Charles P. Stinson. Late 19th century. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Clark and Sarah Case Family.

The Banjo at the Crossroads

The banjo is an instrument that sits at the crossroads of American culture. The legend of the crossroads is often framed in terms of a Faustian bargain—a site where deals are struck with powerful yet potentially malevolent forces. This fable’s best-known manifestation is set almost a hundred years ago when bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have visited a road-crossing in rural Mississippi to have his guitar tuned by a mysterious figure, usually thought to be the Devil. At the crossroads, Satan grants Johnson an otherworldly talent, and access to worldly pleasures, in exchange for selling his soul. Although the story was never related by Johnson himself it will forever be seen as a crucial part of his legend, where the crossroads’ perceived power as a liminal, transformative space, a space of both possibility and danger, resonates with audiences to this day.

This resonance may have something to do with how the origin story above aligns with the origin story of America—and how flexibly the crossroads narrative can be interpreted by different individuals and social groups. In Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition, Adam Gussow describes how the Devil-at-the-crossroads legend was born out of a collision between cultures, religious systems, and musical traditions not accorded equal status:

Some of the confusion on this [origin story] has to do with the way two different folklore streams, one from Europe (featuring the biblical devil, Satan) and one from Africa (featuring a pair of related crossroads trickster deities, Esu and Legba), seem to have fused on American soil, coalescing into a folktale that was well known in African American communities below the Mason-Dixon line. A Christian/Manichean worldview that understands the devil as the wholly evil antagonist who claims wayward souls doesn’t smoothly align with and subsume an African worldview that understands Esu and Legba as figures of constructive disorder who are also, when properly petitioned, teachers and guides.

In historical terms, much more than the guitar, the banjo is the best example of an instrument that’s forever been caught between colliding vectors of American culture—black and white, masculine and feminine, rural and urban, among others. The instrument served as a means of preserving and syncretizing various African aesthetics and belief systems among African-Americans, and also served as an emblem of cultural crossover and collaboration with Anglo-Americans; but equally, it was used as a tool of cultural exploitation, serving as an emblem of racist slander and stereotyping through its use in blackface minstrelsy in particular.
The following bibliographic sources deal with these overlapping currents in all their complexity—from the banjo’s seemingly inescapable linkage with slavery, to the near erasure of this linkage through white appropriations of and claims to the instrument, to the never-ending series of revivals and reclamations that navigate this rocky terrain—an instrument that perhaps more than any other tells the story of America, its potential and peril represented equally across a span of centuries. As always, the devil is in the details.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Conway, Cecilia. “African banjo echoes in Appalachia: A conclusion”, From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, ed. by Kip Lornell. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall Education, 2010) 15–22. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-54]

The banjo has long signified at the crossroads of the South and today remains a symbol of the mountain musician. The 20th-century folk banjo tradition, indeed, has persisted most strongly among southern mountain whites who continue to play on homemade banjos. Importantly, this living tradition is the complex result of more than a century and a half of exchange between African Americans and others. But the early written records prove that, even a century before the exchange began, blacks had brought the banjo with them from Africa. With a homemade banjo, driving rhythms, and sliding notes, the distinctive aesthetic of African-American musicians shaped the playing styles and song forms of their identifiable repertory and influenced white musicians. Even though African Americans have played banjos for more than two centuries, researchers have located, interviewed, and recorded very few in this century. Thus, North Carolina musicians such as Dink Roberts, John Snipes, and Odell Thompson are historically crucial, for, like the African griots, they have been the “praise singers” and have carried on some of the most important aspects of traditional culture: genealogy, rites of passage, and healing. Their traditions and practices have provided a means for reaching beyond the written records to an understanding of a continuous strand of African-American musical culture, its impact upon white tradition, especially in the Southeast and in Appalachia, and its contribution to American folk music. (author)

Dubois, Laurent. The banjo: America’s African instrument (Cambridge: Belknap, 2016). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2016-935]

The banjo has been called by many names over its history, but they all refer to the same sound—strings humming over skin—that has eased souls and electrified crowds for centuries. This book invites us to hear that sound afresh in a biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments. Attuned to a rich heritage spanning continents and cultures, the author traces the banjo from humble origins, revealing how it became one of the great stars of American musical life. In the 17th century, enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America drew on their memories of varied African musical traditions to construct instruments from carved-out gourds covered with animal skin. Providing a much-needed sense of rootedness, solidarity, and consolation, banjo picking became an essential part of black plantation life. White musicians took up the banjo in the 19th century, when it became the foundation of the minstrel show and began to be produced industrially on a large scale. Even as this instrument found its way into rural white communities, however, the banjo remained central to African American musical performance. Twentieth-century musicians incorporated the instrument into styles ranging from ragtime and jazz to Dixieland, bluegrass, reggae, and pop. Versatile and enduring, the banjo combines rhythm and melody into a single unmistakable sound that resonates with strength and purpose. From the earliest days of American history, the banjo’s sound has allowed folk musicians to create community and joy even while protesting oppression and injustice. (publisher)

Eacker, Susan A. and Geoff Eacker. “A banjo on her knee. I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument”, The old-time herald: A magazine dedicated to old-time music 8/2 (winter 2002):http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-8/8-2/full-banjo-on-her-knee.html. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-26661]

In an article titled In praise of banjo-picking women published over 10 years ago in the pages of The old-time herald, Mike Seeger noted that in his fieldwork with “old-timers” in the Southern mountains, he had been told that their fathers and mothers played the banjo before the turn of the 20th century. Seeger went on to ask, “Why do we not have accounts of this—either visually or in the literature?” This article is a long overdue affirmation of Seeger’s findings and a response to his question. It was only after we began our research that we learned that most of these men had learned to play from a female relative. An extensive list includes such luminaries as Ralph Stanley, who learned to play clawhammer style from his mother, Lucy Smith. The fact that so many well-known old-time male musicians have been inspired and influenced by a female in the family should force us to rethink the ways in which banjo music in Appalachia has been promulgated and preserved. The evidence suggests that it was women who have historically kept old-time music—especially banjo and ballads—alive in the hills and hollers of the Southern mountains. The fact that 19th-century Appalachian women banjo players have remained invisible may be because mountain women and men were largely isolated and on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As social historians can attest, the marginalized leave few records, which may help to answer Seeger’s question of why such accounts are hard to come by. What’s more, ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp were keen on establishing a Celtic connection between Appalachians and their Northern European ancestors. To this end they sought after unaccompanied ballads with British bloodlines. The banjo was not a link in their musical canon and mountain men and women were discouraged from playing this indigenous instrument, instead encouraged to pluck the dulcimer, erroneously thought to have come from Great Britain. (authors)

Eyre, Banning. “Banjo adventure”, fRoots 31/9 (March 2010) 29–31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-20391]

In 2005 Béla Fleck traveled around Africa with his banjo and recording gear, inserting the instrument into music from its point of origin. The trip resulted in a Grammy-winning album, Throw down your heart: Africa sessions (2008), and transformed Fleck’s philosophy of music-making. Fleck has also toured under the banner of the Africa Project, performing with a host of musicians he met in Africa. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Gussow, Adam. Beyond the crossroads: The devil & the blues tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2017-28092]

The devil is the most charismatic and important figure in the blues tradition. He’s not just the music’s namesake (“the devil’s music”), but a shadowy presence who haunts an imagined Mississippi crossroads where, it is claimed, Delta bluesman Robert Johnson traded away his soul in exchange for extraordinary prowess on the guitar. Yet, there is much more to the story of the Devil and the blues than these clichéd understandings—linked to culture, the struggle against racism, and the syncretization of European and African religions (especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans). Thanks to original transcriptions of more than 125 recordings released during the past 90 years, the varied uses to which Black Southern blues people have put this trouble-sowing, love-wrecking, but also empowering figure are exposed. A bold reinterpretation of Johnson’s music and a provocative investigation of the way in which the citizens of Clarksdale, Mississippi, managed to rebrand a commercial hub as “The Crossroads” in 1999, claiming Johnson and the Devil as their own. (publisher)

John, Emma. “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’: Meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior”, The guardian (July 23, 2018):https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/23/white-people-are-so-fragile-bless-em-rhiannon-giddens-banjo-warrior-cambridge-folk-festival. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-4111]

A profile and interview with the banjo player, fiddle player, and formally-trained opera singer. On her most recent album, Freedom highway, Rhiannon Giddens pours fire and fury into powerful songs that target everything from police shootings to slavery, the civil rights era, and Black Lives Matter. Musically, the album reveals the breadth of her musical influences—including soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and zydeco—building on and expanding out from Giddens’s work with her Grammy-award winning group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an interview, the musician reveals all about her mission to put the black back in bluegrass (and Shakespeare). She also describes her investigation into the history of minstrelsy, hoping to reclaim a genre that has become associated, in both the US and the UK, with blackface performance: “When you look into the minstrel band in the US and you see banjo, fiddle, and tambourine, you might think they’re all ‘white’ instruments. But the banjo is from Africa, there are one-string fiddles all over the world, and the tambourine comes from frame drums that were brought up from north Africa through the Middle East and Italy. That’s world music right there. Musical and cultural ideas have been crossing over forever. My projects are all going towards the theme, ‘We’re more alike than we’re different’.” (author)

Marks, Ben. “Strummin’ on the old banjo: How an African instrument got a racist reinvention”, Collectors weekly (October 4, 2016): https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/how-the-african-banjo-got-a-racist-reinvention.

“What’s the difference between a banjo and a lawnmower? You can tune a lawnmower.” “What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the middle of a road and a dead banjo player in the middle of a road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” There are entire websites devoted to such banjo jokes, and though they may produce casual chuckles today, these jokes are actually rooted in the racist put-downs that were once directed at black banjo players in America. The latest banjo revival arrives at a weirdly bipolar moment in Western cultural history. On the one hand, the five-string banjo has never been more popular. Winston Marshall of Mumford & Sons plays sold out concerts with a top-of-the-line Deering banjo strapped over his shoulder, as does Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers. On Broadway, Bright star, which was co-written by the funniest banjo player alive, Steve Martin, enjoyed a spirited, if brief, run. At the same time, racism in the United States hasn’t been so naked in decades. What, you might ask, does racism have to do with the banjo, an instrument that for most people is no more controversial than the banjo-heavy theme song for The Beverly hillbillies? Race is actually central to any conversation about banjos, or at least it should be. That’s what makes the banjo so relevant in 2016. This article traces the history of the banjo, and the ways the instrument became bound up with both African-American identity and with the country’s virulent history of racism. (author)

McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s hammer ring: Moving beyond black and white images of Appalachian music”, Kaleidoscope of cultures: A celebration of multicultural research and practice, ed. by Marvelene C. Moore and Philip Ewell. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010) 93–99. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-14904]

Sometimes I feel that I have been put on this earth to teach people one simple fact; the banjo is from Africa. Or, more accurately, the roots of the modern American banjo are traceable back through early African-American instruments to instruments from Africa. It is a simple fact about a well-known American artifact, so simple that it seems it would be common knowledge. But perhaps because the banjo is primarily associated with styles of music such as bluegrass, which are played by mostly white musicians, its origins have been shrouded from the American consciousness. In fact, I am constantly amazed as I teach college classes and travel to public schools across the heart of Appalachia how many students (and teachers!) are not aware of this fascinating and provocative piece of American history. In my work, I am often called upon to talk about the history of Appalachian music or to perform “traditional” music from the region. These seem simple enough tasks on the surface, but simply knowing about the banjo’s origins complicates things. When I pull out my banjo or mandolin, I am often met with comments such as, “I love bluegrass. It sounds just like Celtic music. Doesn’t it?” Well, yes and no. This article examines how this comment misses the mark in a number of ways. (author)

Murphy, Con. “Stone & Sissoko”, fRoots 31/5–6 (November–December) 19. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-22415]

A profile of the duo–Jayme Stone, Canadian banjo player, and Mansa Sissoko, Malian kora player. Their collaboration on the LP Africa to Appalachia is part of a recent movement returning the banjo to its assumed African source. The record brings together a series of updated West African melodies and occasional bluegrass standards. While it was released with little fanfare in early 2009, it has proven to be one of the year’s long-fuse albums, its subtle charms and subtle melodies creeping up and working their way into the imagination over the ensuing months. (author)

Shea, Andrea. “The banjo’s beauty, and its cultural baggage, is on display in a new digital museum”, WBUR: The ARTery (April 17, 2019):https://www.wbur.org/artery/2019/04/17/banjo-project-digital-museum. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-2091]

Marc Fields and his production team are inside historian and collector Jim Bollman’s storied Arlington home. Bollman sits patiently on a stool with his rare, pre-Civil War banjo balanced on his knee as they set up their shot. “This room has more banjo history packed per square inch than any place on earth,” Fields said. “It’s a place I came to when I first started this project and realized how much there is about the banjo which people don’t know about and which people should know about.” Fields said Bollman’s trove of 200-plus instruments, banjo-related artifacts, and cabinets of research provide a unique portal into America’s past. For more than 15 years, Fields has been on a quest to capture, share, and contextualize banjo history. Now his work is on display in a new museum. But you don’t need to leave the couch to visit because Fields’ archive-in-the-making, called The Banjo Project, is all online. The site celebrates the banjo’s beauty while tackling its cultural baggage. As ethnomusicologist Greg Adams puts it, “You can’t talk about the history of the banjo, if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation,” but the instrument has also been a tool for liberation, as scholar Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture points out. Examples of the latter include the careers of Gus Cannon, Lotta Crabtree, and Rhiannon Giddens. (author)

Winans, Robert B., ed. Banjo roots and branches. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6748]

The story of the banjo’s journey from Africa to the Western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. This anthology presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument’s West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti, while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo’s introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. On the whole, a wealth of new information is offered to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados. (publisher)

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Instruments, North America

Norman Lewis’s “pure eye music”

The African American artist Norman Lewis’s artistic background was similar to those of the abstract expressionists; but with abstract expressionism defined chiefly by white male artists and critics, Lewis’s contributions to the movement were ignored.

Abstract expressionism valued originality apart from European influence, yet Lewis borrowed ideas from Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, and Kandinsky to recontextualize into his work. Lewis also changed styles frequently. From Musicians (1945), through Jazz musicians (1948, above), to Jazz band (1948, below), a development can be traced—from depicting overt human forms merging with musical instruments, through human forms gradually more abstracted, to emphasis on visual interpretation of musical lines, sound, embellishments, and rhythms (called “pure eye music” by the critic Henry McBride).

While Lewis’s blending and recombining of many artistic influences may have run against the abstract expressionism aesthetic, his recontextualizing of styles parallels the innovative borrowing from standard tunes and chord substitution that were characteristics of bebop.

This according to “‘Pure eye music’: Norman Lewis, abstract expressionism, and bebop” by Sara K. Wood, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 95–119).

Today would have been Lewis’s 110th birthday! Below, a brief documentary chronicles his artistic development, including references to his jazz-influenced works.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art

Competitive krumping

 

Krumping, a 21st-century incarnation of break dancing, embodies both competitive and spiritual dimensions that manifest in the circle harkening back to the African American ring shout. Krumping is a type of serious play that combines aspects of street fighting, moshing, spirit possession, and even striptease, wherein dancers may confront anger, pain, and sadness.

In krumping competitions, one dancer sits in a chair while the other performs to the seated opponent with boastful moves of intimidation. Though the dancers are not allowed to touch each other, they get as close as they can—close enough to feel their opponent’s breath and sweat, to make their blood burn and boil. As a locus of spirit possession, krumping competitions become contests of physical and emotional revealing.

This according to “The multiringed cosmos of krumping: Hip-hop dance at the intersections of battle, media, and spirit” by Christina Zanfagna, an essay included in Ballroom, boogie, shimmy sham, shake: A social and popular dance reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, pp. 337–53).

Above and below, excerpts from Rize, a documentary from 2005.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance

Les Ballets Nègres

 

Europe’s first all-black dance troupe, Les Ballets Nègres, dazzled audiences for eight years. Founded by the Jamaican dancers and choreographers Richie Riley and Berto Pasuka, the London-based group aimed to create a new dance language, fusing classical ballet’s emphasis on physical and technical discipline with the undulating pelvic movements and relaxed, flexible limbs of black Jamaican traditional dance.

Les Ballets Nègres sought to convey aspects of the Afro-Caribbean experience to a white audience, working with Leonard Salzedo’s scores for piano, tom-toms, and maracas to develop works including Market day, a joyous, dramatic recreation of the Jamaican market-place, and They came, which depicted the racial clash between Christianity and indigenous religion, but advocated the possibility of racial harmony.

Most critics were simultaneously impressed and baffled by the company’s first performances in 1946, and, as if lacking the vocabulary to comment on the dancing, focused more on the “tribal tom-toms”. The public, however, needed no convincing; the group’s first season was such a triumph that Les Ballets Nègres embarked on a tour of Europe. Still, plagued by persistent economic difficulties, the group—in Riley’s words—“went to sleep” in 1953.

This according to “New dawn for the ballet that went to sleep” (unsigned; The telegraph 31 July 1999).

Above, the group performs for the BBC in 1946; below, excerpts from the dances that were filmed that day.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance

“Shuffle along”

 

In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.

Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.

The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.

Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.

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Filed under Black studies, Dramatic arts, New editions, Popular music

Lead Belly and the folklorists

When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.

This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.

This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).

Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.

 

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Filed under Ethnomusicology, Humor, Jazz and blues, North America

African pianism and musicology

 

The African pianism developed by the Nigerian composer Akin Euba (above) is not well-suited to the research style of traditional musicology, and the limitations of conventional musicological perspectives and analytical models for research on this cultural phenomenon are obvious.

Ethnomusicology and other disciplines such as cultural anthropology may provide approaches and viewpoints that can be adopted in musicological research on African pianism.

This according to “My understanding of African pianism/我对非洲钢琴艺术研究的一些认识” by Li Xin, an essay included in Dialogues in music: Africa meets Asia/亚非相遇: 中非音乐对话 (Richmond: MRI, 2011, pp. 59–68, 345–353).

Below, Kingsley Otoijamun performs an excerpt from Euba’s Scenes from traditional life.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa, Curiosities

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream

The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.

A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.

This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).

Below, Coltrane’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Performers, Reception

Eubie Blake and the florid cry

Writing in 1945, Willis Laurence James recalled giving a lecture demonstration attended by Eubie Blake:

I sang a florid Negro cry. Eubie Blake leaped halfway from his seat and yelled “Oh, professor, professor, you hit me, you hit me!”

He placed both hands over his heart and continued with great emotion: “You make me think of my dear mother. She always sang like that. I can hear her now. Thaťs the stuff I was raised on.” He sat down quietly, except for a deep sigh that had no audible competition from anyone.

Blake was a living testimony to the influences that had made him musically unique even without formal training (which he did not acquire until he was old and famous and did not really need it). He knew all along that it was the cry that had guided him.

Quoted from “Cries in speech and song” by Willis Laurence James (Black sacred music IX/1–2 [1995] pp. 16–34).

Above, an undated photograph of Blake from the Maryland Historical Society; below, James demonstrates two florid cries.

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