Tag Archives: Black studies

Celia Cruz’s (trans)nationalism

celia cruz

Celia Cruz’s diverse musical repertoire served as a performative locus for the negotiations of both her Cubanness and her broader Latin American identity.

Likewise, her construction of blackness as an Afro-Cuban woman transformed and was transformed by her collaborations with African American musicians and singers, in styles ranging from jazz to hip hop.

Cruz also crossed racial and cultural boundaries by collaborating with Anglo musicians and by tropicalizing rock music. Her staged persona and her body aesthetics also reveal the fluidity with which she assumed diverse racial, national, and historical identities while simultaneously asserting her Cubanness through the use of Spanish onstage.

This according to “The blackness of sugar: Celia Cruz and the performance of (trans)nationalism” by Frances Aparicio (Cultural studies XIII/2 [April 1999] pp. 223–236).

Today is Celia Cruz’s 90th birthday! Below, Cruz performs with the Fania All-Stars in 1974.

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Filed under Black studies, Popular music, Women's studies

Sarah Vaughan crosses over


Aided by her extraordinary voice, technical proficiency, and mastery at adopting multiple performing personas, Sarah Vaughan obscured conventional divisions between jazz and pop, masculinity and femininity, and blackness and whiteness. By transcending these binary oppositions, she crafted a vocal identity that was commercially viable, artistically satisfying, and which undermined racial stereotypes. In so doing, she reconfigured how American audiences understood the black female voice.

In American jazz criticism of the 1940s and 1950s, discourses on vocal timbre became a means to maintain boundaries between style, race, and gender, and anxiety was expressed by critics when a voice did not match the expectations created by the body that produced it or vice versa. Given that Vaughan’s voice was constructed as neither distinctly black nor white, and neither distinctly jazz or pop, this provides some explanation for her dramatic transformation, including plastic surgery, to create a physical appearance appropriate for her voice.

The roles of recording technology, the suburban home, and the contrasting domain of the nightclub all must be considered in terms of the politics of crossover in  Vaughan’s career.

This according to To bebop or to be pop: Sarah Vaughan and the politics of crossover by Elaine M. Hayes, a dissertation accepted by the University of Pennsylvania in 2004.

Today is Vaughan’s 90th birthday! Above, the singer in 1946; below, in 1958.


Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Popular music

Swinging at the Savoy

Savoy Ballroom 1

The development of the Lindy hop must be understood within the context of Depression-era black culture and the Savoy Ballroom in New York City.

For some young black dancers the Savoy became a way of life, and for serious Lindy hoppers the crucial part of the evening was showtime, when the best dancers took the floor and tried to eliminate each other. The improvisational section—known as the breakaway, when couples broke into solos—spawned many new steps and maneuvers that were subsequently incorporated into the dance.

This according to “Swinging at the Savoy” by Barbara Engelbrecht (Dance research journal XV/2 [spring 1983] pp. 3–10). Above, a moment at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s; below, a tribute to the great Frankie Manning includes vintage footage from the Savoy.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, Popular music

Songs of Sam Lucas

sam lucas

Songs of Sam Lucas by Sandra Jean Graham is an open-access resource that streams recordings of 12 songs attributed to Lucas (ca. 1840–1916), one of the most celebrated entertainers of his generation, supplemented by a background essay, extensive liner notes, and illustrations.

Lucas created a significant body of black popular song that serves as an important window into the post-Civil War era. His songs illustrate a range of strategies: conformity to minstrel stereotypes, an attempt to recuperate the dignity of black traditional song, and ultimately liberation from minstrelsy through the adoption of white popular song style.

Recordings of Lucas’s songs are extremely rare; this site gives the public a chance to become acquainted with the music of this performer whose career spanned minstrelsy, variety, vaudeville, theater, and silent film.

Above, a newspaper photograph of Lucas from 1911; the full article is here.

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Filed under Black studies, Popular music

Cholly Atkins and American vernacular dance

cholly atkins

Charles “Cholly” Atkins was a tap dancing star before the bottom dropped out for the genre in the 1940s.

In 1953 he was hired to coach the Cadillacs on their stage presentation, and he was so successful that he was given a steady job at Motown Records in the early 1960s; he went on to coach and choreograph for their top groups, including The Supremes, The Temptations, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, almost single-handedly keeping much of American vernacular dance alive for a new generation.

This according to “‘Let the punishment fit the crime’: The vocal choreography of Cholly Atkins” by Jacqui Malone (Dance research journal XX/1 [summer 1988] pp. 11–18).

Today is Atkins’s 100th birthday! Below, rehearsing with The Temptations in 1986.

BONUS: A performance with Charles “Honi” Coles from the early 1950s.

Related article: James Brown’s Deleuzian idiocy

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Filed under Black studies, Dance

Tuk revived


Tuk, a syncretic fife and drum tradition of Barbados, may have roots stretching back to the first stationings of British troops there in the 17th century; it was the music of the black plantation slaves until Emancipation in 1838.

Two specific functions for tuk developed subsequently: as entertainment for the working classes and as the music of Landship, a music and dancing society. The tradition declined during the 20th century due to several cultural factors, but a revival began in the 1970s, and in the 1990s the government started to promote tuk as a uniquely Barbadian tradition.

This according to “Tuk music: Its role in defining Barbadian cultural identity” by Sharon Meredith (European meetings in ethnomusicology VIII [2001] pp. 16–25).

Above, a tuk band and their stock character Mother Sally interacting with their audience; below, a tuk band at a local festival, first in a parade and later joined by dancers (ca. 4:50).

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, West Indies

Gandy dancers

gandy dancers

Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by black men.

The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.

The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994). Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.


Filed under Black studies, North America

Shine and the Titanic

Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.

Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by blacks for blacks.

Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the black man always to ravish white women.

This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).

Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.

Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)

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Filed under Black studies, Humor

Love in the top 100

On this Valentine’s Day, let’s look at an article that analyzes the 100 most popular songs between 1958 and 1998 for performer demographics and expressions of love.

In the 1990s women and black artists recorded more hits than in earlier periods; over time, references to love in lyrics performed by women artists decreased. References to sex in lyrics peaked between 1976 and 1984, when women used sexual references five times more than men; however, between 1991 and 1998, men used more sexual references.

Later songs and songs performed by white female artists expressed greater selfishness; the quality of love expressed in the lyrics remained the same.

This according to “Expressions of love, sex, and hurt in popular songs: A content analysis of all-time greatest hits” by Richard L. Dukes, et al. (Social science journal XL/4 [2003] pp. 643–650). Below, the Beatles—with a little help from their friends—provide further analysis.

Related article: Sexual attraction by genre

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Ragtime rants

A pair of brief unattributed articles appeared in the July 1901 issue of American musician to articulate opposing viewpoints on ragtime, which had become increasingly popular since the late 19th century.

War on ragtime denounced the genre in no uncertain terms: “The ragtime craze has lowered the standards of American music as compared with other countries…we will not give way to a popular demand that is degrading.”

Suppression of ragtime expressed a more lighthearted view:

“Last week a national association of musicians in convention at Denver solemnly swore to play no ragtime, and to do all in their power to counteract the pernicious influence exerted by Mr. Johnson, My ragtime lady, and others of the Negro school…

“But the people do not want to be educated all the time…Their great desire with music is to be pleased—to forget for a time that there is anything in this world but sunshine and laughter, and birds and flowers and purling brooks.

“And they find all those things in the homely and catchy pieces that quicken the heart-beats and make the nerves tingle with delight; yes, in ragtime, bubbling, frothing, sparkling; as light as a summer breeze and as sweet as woman’s kiss.”

This courtesy of “War on ragtime and Suppression of ragtime” in From jubilee to hip hop: Readings in African American music, edited by Kip Lornell (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2010), pp. 23–25. Below, Jelly Roll Morton plays the ragtime classic Shreveport stomp via piano roll.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Popular music, Reception