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.
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.
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.
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  pp. 16–34).
Above, an undated photograph of Blake from the Maryland Historical Society; below, James demonstrates two florid cries.
During the Great Depression Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple made a number of films together in which narratives depict an America where black people are happy slaves or docile servants, Civil War (even southern) soldiers are noble Americans, and voracious capitalists are kindly old men. But within these minstrel tropes and origin stories designed for uplift, the films challenge regressive ideologies through Robinson and Temple’s incendiary dance partnership.
For example, while the stair dance in The little colonel is part of the story, it is bracketed as a time outside the movie’s narrative flow. This thrusts the dance through the fixity of Jim Crow social constructs to reveal them as constructs, demonstrating the layered and molten nature of race and gender, and offering moviegoers a vision of the sociological and existential structures of U.S. society reimagined.
This according to “Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple tap past Jim Crow” by Anne Murphy, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of screendance studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 731–47).
Today is Robinson’s 140th birthday! Above and below, the celebrated stair dance.
Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.
His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.
This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).
Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.
Since it emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s funk has played an important role in American music and culture, in its foregrounding of polyrhythmic interplay, improvisation, and community formation, and in addressing issues of discrimination and marginalization.
Recent scholarship has examined funk from a feminist perspective, highlighting female musicians’ participation in the creation of black feminist thought and in rejecting externally defined roles and identities. An expansion on these feminist approaches focuses on the particular ways that sound organization helps to address the gendered nature of funk performance and discourse; the concept of Afro-sonic feminist funk demonstrates how female musicians use the sonic and performative tenets of funk to complicate the gendered politics and discourses surrounding funk music.
This according to “Janelle Monáe and Afro-sonic feminist funk” by Matthew Valnes (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/3 [September 2017]).
Today is International Women’s Day! Above, Janelle Monáe’s Q.U.E.E.N.; below, her Tightrope. Both songs provide case studies in the article.
Each January, Cape Town’s sixty-plus minstrel troupes take over the city center with a sweeping wave of sound and color in the annual carnival known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar (the Second of New Year). The celebration’s origins are often linked with the December 1st emancipation processions of the mid-to-late 1800s that celebrated the abolition of slavery in 1834, and also with the annual slave holiday, the one day a year slaves could take off work.
The parading troupes, called Kaapse Klopse (Clubs of the Cape), use their bodies to collectively lay claim to Cape Town and access urban space through sonic and embodied performances, re-appropriating city space in relation to the black community’s colonial and apartheid experiences of dispossession, forced removals, and social dislocation.
Despite the increased formal recognition that the event has received in recent years as an important heritage practice, participants’ embodied claims continue to be undermined, contested, and policed. Through their affective experiences, participants memorialize places of significance and occupy the city; far from a form of escapist revelry, these sonic and embodied acts are practiced and disciplined choreographic moves that pose a challenge to Cape Town’s contemporary spatial order.
This according to “Choreographing Cape Town through goema music and dance” by Francesca Inglese (African music IX/4  pp. 123–45). Below, Kaapse Klopse in 2013.
Every year from Christmas to Epiphany, the communities descended from the African slaves who mined gold for the Spaniards celebrate the Adoraciones al Niño-Diós in the Andean valleys of Cauca in southwestern Colombia.
The celebrants sing and dance until dawn in front of a creche set up in one of the village houses. A group of six musicians, unusual because it includes violins, accompanies the women who are the singers and the leaders of the ritual.
The tradition is documented on the CD Colombie: Adoration à l’enfant-Dieu (Département du Cauca) (VDE-Gallo 1349 ). Below, a brief documentary on Auroras al Amanecer, the group featured in the recordings.
In the 1990s the term Afrofuturism emerged to describe a vein of science fiction-inspired art that repositions black subjects in a purportedly race-free future that is nonetheless coded as white. While ostensibly about the future, Afrofuturism in fact works dialectically with an equally overwritten past to critique the reified distance between racialized fictions of black magic and white science.
Three successive concepts— the experimental jazz bandleader Sun Ra’s myth-science, the funk bandleader George Clinton’s P-Funk, and the hip hop artist Kool Keith’s robot voodoo power—track a historical continuity of collapsing fictions of both past and future in Afrofuturist music, reflecting strategic versions of what Paul Gilroy refers to as anti-anti-essentialism. The robot voodoo power thesis thus recognizes in Afrofuturism a dialectical third way out of the double binds and unproductive debates about racial essence and non-essence.
This according to “The robot voodoo power thesis: Afrofuturism and anti-anti-essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith” by J. Griffith Rollefson (Black music research journal XXVIII/1 [spring 2008] pp. 83–109).
Above, Sun Ra in the early 1970s; below, Earth people by Kool Keith (as Dr. Octagon), one of the works discussed in the article.