Tapping deep roots for Black History Month

Black History Month, which began as Negro History Week, organized in 1926 by the historian Carter G. Woodson, is each year’s premier occasion for revivals and re-evaluations of the culture and artistry of Black Americans.

In classical music for many years, it also was a calendar ghetto into which performances of works by Black composers were packed. (January’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has been used similarly.) In the wake of the recent racial-justice movement, the music finally is being freed from those mid-winter bonds.

In any case, it’s productive and rewarding to spend Black History Month exploring in some depth a musical culture that over the past century has become so deeply embedded that much of what we hear as “American” in music – popular, classical and most every sound in between – is substantially African-American in its DNA. (As are our language, food, fashion and numerous other cultural manifestations.)

Classical critics and media typically spend this month acquainting listeners with music by Black composers, from William Grant Still and George Walker (whose centenary is being celebrated this year), to long-neglected figures such as Florence Price and Julius Eastman, to living creators such as Adolphus Hailstork and Jessie Montgomery.

Worthy endeavors – but this month I’ve decided to take a different path: Collecting 10 examples that tap deep roots of Black American music, folk and vernacular source matter for many composers writing for orchestras, chamber groups and recitalists.

In the following audio clips, you’ll encounter some familiar names – the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson; but most of the performers and pieces that I’ve chosen are little-known outside of specialist circles. Six of the 10 are of religious music, which shouldn’t be a surprise – most African-American musical styles can be traced back to the church. More surprising, perhaps, are the number of selections that came from or passed through Virginia, an under-appreciated seedbed of Black music.

In making my choices, I listened for musical essences: Instrumental and vocal techniques and expressive effects, treatments of phrasing, rhythm, tone-color and dynamics, solo-and-group interactions, that musicians and listeners – of all races around the world, by now – almost reflexively recognize as Black American.

Here’s what I came up with:

Blind Willie Johnson: “Dark Was the Night” – Johnson (1897-1945), a blues and gospel singer-guitarist from Texas, made this recording in 1927. Closely related to the field holler, the spontaneous, wordless solo vocalizing of rural Black Southerners, the song can serve as a primer in the phrasing, note-bending and contrasting rhythms (here, quite subtle) characteristic of some West African music and many styles of Black music in the Americas. Plucked from obscurity during the 1960s blues revival, “Dark Was the Night” has become a practice or warmup piece for many guitarists, rather like the Bach solo sonatas and partitas are for violinists. Picked up since the ’70s by some major musical influencers, notably the Kronos Quartet and Ry Cooder, the song has become a Black aural lode-star for contemporary musicians working in a variety of genres:

Traditional spiritual: “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” – A 1909 recording by a male quartet from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the ensemble from Fisk University in Nashville that introduced the spirituals to US and European Whites in the decades following the Civil War. Treble elaborations atop close-harmony group melodizing became standard practice in Black gospel song and its stylistic inheritors in rhythm and blues. Something quite like this also can be heard in trumpet, clarinet and other horn solos of the first generation of jazz musicians, and in the works of classical composers influenced by jazz in the 1920s and ’30s:

Charles A. Tindley: “The Storm Is Passing Over” – Tindley (1851-1933), a Philadelphia Methodist preacher and musician, wrote two songs that are foundational in American music: “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which evolved into the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome;” and “The Storm Is Passing Over,” published in 1905, considered by many to be the first modern Black gospel song. The Donald Vails Choraleers’ 1976 recording became so popular and widely imitated that Vails is sometimes mistakenly identified as the song’s composer:

Scott Joplin: “Magnetic Rag” – Joplin (1868-1917) was the greatest of the ragtime pianist-composers of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. This is his last and most ambitiously scaled piano rag, subtitled “Synchopations Classiques,” composed in 1914, three years after he completed his opera “Treemonisha.” Joplin made a piano roll of the piece, which sadly sounds stiff and uninflected – a chronic shortcoming of that medium. Here instead is the 1979 recording by Joshua Rifkin, the pianist and musicologist who led the modern revival of Joplin’s music:

Arizona Dranes: “Crucifixion” – Dranes (1889/91?-1963), a Texas singer and pianist, was one of the first Black Pentecostal musicians to make records, and one of many church musicians of her generation to adopt the ragtime piano style – as did the “Piedmont” blues artists in the southeastern US, who in turn would influence White country and bluegrass musicians in the region. (Ragtime changed everything in American music.) This rare solo-piano recording by Dranes, made in the late 1920s, is an example of the “church march” processional that is traditional in many Black Pentecostal services:

The Sparkling Four: “They Won’t Believe in Me” – From the 19th-century flowering of Creole culture in New Orleans and other Southern port cities to the present day, Black musicians in the US frequently have inflected their styles with Caribbean and Latin-American accents, widely employed in jazz and some classical works. Here, more unusually, musical cultures cross in a Caribbean-accented Black gospel song by The Sparkling Four, one of many male quartets active in the Hampton Roads ports of southeastern Virginia in the early 20th century. The group recorded the song for Okeh Records, at the time a leading US label for “race” and regional/subcultural musics, during 1929 sessions in Richmond:

Thomas Wiggins: “The Battle of Manassas” – Sui generis in Black American music, arguably so in this country’s music generally, Wiggins (1849-1908), born blind and enslaved in Georgia, billed as “Blind Tom, the Eighth Wonder of the World,” was one of the most popular musicians in mid- and late-19th century America. A sometime Virginia resident and superstar of Richmond’s music halls in the 1860s, Wiggins was famed for his piano virtuosity and prodigious memory, said to retain thousands of tunes. His compositions range from dance pieces and marches to tone poems. The Civil War-vintage “Battle of Manassas,” an American echo of the venerable European battaglia genre, is perhaps his most venturesome work, couched in a harmonic language years ahead of its time – as if Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” had been re-imagined by Charles Ives. Here’s the 1999 recording by John Davis, the pianist who launched a modern revival of Wiggins’ music:

R. Nathaniel Dett: “His Song” from “In the Bottoms” – Dett (1882-1943) was a Canadian-born composer, pianist, arranger of spirituals and choral director at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) from 1926 to 1932, among other academic posts. “His Song,” the second movement of the 1913 suite “In the Bottoms,” immerses a tune that could be a prototype of the bluesy torch song in the harmonies and tone colors of the then-current French impressionist style. It’s played here by Clipper Erickson from his 2015 collection of Dett’s solo-piano works:

James P. Johnson: “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” – Johnson (1894-1955) was the master of stride piano, the energized and elaborated offspring of ragtime. In retrospect, he may rate as the most influential US musician of the 1920s: He wrote “Charleston,” the decade’s theme song; his technique and compositional style resonates in much of George Gershwin’s music, as well as that of generations of jazz pianists. Here’s Johnson playing “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” introduced in 1929, recorded the following year:

Maggie Ingram: “Richmond, Virginia Flood” – Ingram (1930-2015), a daughter of Georgia sharecroppers, was a widely traveled gospel singer who ultimately settled in Richmond in the 1960s. She wrote this testimony-in-song in response to a 1985 flood, and recorded the piece a year later with her family ensemble, the Ingramettes. It’s a classic of oration that segues into or alternates with song (recitative and aria, in opera parlance), a widespread practice in the Black church, especially in Pentecostal congregations, that has migrated into jazz poetry, rap/hip-hop and various experimental or avant-garde genres:

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