The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 7

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How black folk sang their sorrow songs in the land of their bondage and made this music the only American folk music.

“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”[1]

Around the Negro folk-song there has arisen much of controversy and of misunderstanding. For a long time they were utterly neglected; then every once in a while and here and there they forced themselves upon popular attention. In the thirties, they emerged and in tunes like “Near the lake where droop the willow” and passed into current song or were caricatured by the minstrels. Then came Stephen Foster who accompanied a mulatto maid often to the Negro church and heard the black folk sing; he struck a new note in songs like “Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Folks at Home” and “Nellie was a Lady.” But it was left to war and emancipation to discover the real primitive beauty of this music to the world.

When northern men and women who knew music, met the slaves at Port Royal after its capture by Federal troops, they set down these songs in their original form for the first time so that the world might hear and sing them. The sea islands of the Carolinas where these meetings took place “with no third witness” were filled with primitive black folk, uncouth in appearance, and queer in language, but their singing was marvellous. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Miss McKim and others collected these songs in 1867, making the first serious study of Negro American music. The preface said:

“The musical capacity of the Negro race has been recognized for so many years that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has hitherto been made to collect and preserve their melodies. More than thirty years ago those plantation songs made their appearance which were so extraordinarily popular for a while; and if ‘Coal-black Rose,’ ‘Zip Coon’ and ‘Ole Virginny nebber tire’ have been succeeded by spurious imitations, manufactured to suit the somewhat sentimental taste of our community, the fact that these were called ‘Negro melodies’ was itself a tribute to the musical genius of the race.

“The public had well-nigh forgotten these genuine slave songs, and with them the creative power from which they sprung, when a fresh interest was excited through the educational mission to the Port Royal Islands in 1861.”[2]

Still the world listened only half credulously until the Fisk Jubilee Singers sang the slave songs “so deeply into the world’s heart that it can never wholly forget them again.” The story of the Fisk Jubilee singers is romantic. In abandoned barracks at Nashville hundreds of colored children were being taught and the dream of a Negro University had risen in the minds of the white teachers. But even the lavish contribution for missionary work, which followed the war, had by 1870 begun to fall off. It happened that the treasurer of Fisk, George L. White, loved music. He began to instruct the Fisk students in singing and he used the folk-songs. He met all sorts of difficulties. The white people of the nation and especially the conventional church folk who were sending missionary money, were not interested in “minstrel ditties.” The colored people looked upon these songs as hateful relics of slavery. Nevertheless, Mr. White persisted, gathered a pioneer band of singers and in 1871 started north.

“It was the sixth day of October in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one, when George L. White started out from Fisk School with his eleven students to raise money, that Fisk might live. Professor Adam K. Spence, who was principal of the school, gave Mr. White all the money in his possession save one dollar, which he held back, that the treasury might not be empty. While friends and parents wept, waved, and feared, the train puffed out of the station. All sorts of difficulties, obstacles, oppositions and failures faced them until through wonderful persistence, they arrived at Oberlin, Ohio. Here the National Council of Congregational Churches was in session. After repeated efforts, Mr. White gained permission for his singers to render one song. Many of the members of the Council objected vigorously to having such singers. During the time of the session the weather had been dark and cloudy. The sun had not shone one moment, it had not cast one ray upon the village. The singers went into the gallery of the church, unobserved by all save the moderator and a few who were on the rostrum. At a lull in the proceeding, there floated sweetly to the ears of the audience the measures of ‘Steal Away to Jesus.’ Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds, shone through the windows upon the singers, and verily they were a heavenly choir. For a time the Council forgot its business and called for more and more. It was at this point that Henry Ward Beecher almost demanded of Mr. White that he cancel all engagements and come straight to his church in Brooklyn. . .

The New York papers ridiculed and sneered at Beecher’s “nigger minstrels.” But Beecher stuck to his plan and it was only a matter of hearing them once when audiences went into ecstasies.

“When the Metropolitan newspapers called the company Nigger Minstrels,’ Mr. White was face to face with a situation as serious as it was awkward. His company had no appropriate name, and the odium of the title attributed by the New York newspapers pained him intensely. If they were to be known as ‘Nigger Minstrels,’ they could never realize his vision; they were both handicapped and checkmated, and their career was dead. . . . The suggestiveness of the Hebrew Jubilee had been borne in upon his mind and with joy of a deep conviction he exclaimed, ‘Children, you are the Jubilee Singers’.”[3]

For seven years the career of this company of Jubilee Singers was a continual triumph. They crowded the concert halls of New England; they began to send money back to Fisk; they went to Great Britain and sang before Queen Victoria, Lord Shaftesbury and Mr. Gladstone. Gladstone cried: “It’s wonderful!” Queen Victoria wept. Moody, the evangelist, brought them again and again to his London meetings, and the singers were loaded with gifts. Then they went to Germany, and again Kings and peasants listened to them. In seven years they were able to pay not only all of their own expenses but to send $150,000 in cash to Fisk University, and out of this money was built Jubilee Hall, on the spot that was once a slave market. “There it stands, lifting up its grateful head to God in His heaven.”

For a long time after some people continued to sneer at Negro music. They declared it was a “mere imitation,” that it had little intrinsic value, that it was not the music of Negroes at all. Gradually, however, this attitude has completely passed and today critics vie with each other in giving tribute to this wonderful gift of the black man to America.

Damrosch says: “The Negro’s music isn’t ours, it is the Negro’s. It has become a popular form of musical expression and is interesting, but it is not ours. Nothing more characteristic of a race exists, but it is characteristic of the Negro, not the American race. Through it a primitive people poured out its emotions with wonderful expressiveness. It no more expresses our emotions than the Indian music does.”

Recently, numbers of serious studies of the Negro folk-song have been made. James Weldon Johnson says: “In the ‘spirituals,’ or slave songs, the Negro has given America not only its only folk-songs, but a mass of noble music. I never think of this music but that I am struck by the wonder, the miracle of its production. How did the men who originated these songs manage to do it? The sentiments are easily accounted for; they ar®, for the most part, taken from the Bible. But the melodies, where did they come from? Some of them so weirdly sweet, and others so wonderfully strong.

Take, for instance, ‘Go Down, Moses’; I doubt that there is a stronger theme in the whole musical literature of the world. “It is to be noted that whereas the chief characteristic of Ragtime is rhythm, the chief character istic of the ‘spirituals’ is melody. The melodies of ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,’ ‘I couldn’t hear Nobody Pray,’ ‘Deep River,’ ‘O, Freedom Over Me,’ and many others of these songs possess a beauty that is—what shall I say? Poignant. In the riotous rhythms of Ragtime the Negro expressed his irrepressible buoyancy, his keen response to the sheer joy of living; in the ‘spirituals’ he voiced his sense of beauty and his deep religious feeling.”[4]

H. E. Krehbiel says: “There was sunshine as well as gloom in the life of the black slaves in the Southern colonies and States, and so we have songs which are gay as well as grave; but as a rule the finest songs are the fruits of suffering undergone and the hope of the deliverance from bondage which was to come with translation to heaven after death. The oldest of them are the most beautiful, and many of the most striking have never yet been collected, partly because they contained elements, melodic as well as rhythmical, which baffled the ingenuity of the early collectors. Unfortunately, trained musicians have never entered upon the field, and it is to be feared that it is now too late. The peculiarities which the col laborators on ‘Slave Songs of the United States’ recognized, but could not imprison on the written page, were elements which would have been of especial interest to the student of art.

“Is it not the merest quibble to say that these songs are not American? They were created in America under American influences and by people who are Americans in the same sense that any other element of our population is American—every element except the aboriginal. . . . Is it only an African who can sojourn here without becoming an American and producing American things; is it a matter of length of stay in the country? Scarcely that; or some Negroes would have at least as good a claim on the title as the descendants of the Puritans and Pilgrims. Negroes figure in the accounts of his voyages to America made by Columbus. . . . A year before the English colonists landed on Plymouth Rock Negroes were sold into servitude in Virginia.”[5]

The most gifted and sympathetic student of the folk-song in Africa and America was Natalie Curtis, and it is scarcely necessary to add to what she has so carefully and sympathetically written. She has traced the connection between African and Afro-American music which has always been assumed but never carefully proven. The African rhythm, through the use of the drum as a leading instrument, produced musical emphasis which we call syncopation. Primitive music usually shows rhythm and melody of the voice sung in unison. But in Africa, part singing was developed long before it appeared in Europe. The great difference between the music of Africa and the music of Europe lies in rhythm; in Europe the music is accented on the regular beats of the music while in Africa the accents fall often on the unstressed beats. It is this that coming down through the Negro folk-song in America has produced what is known as ragtime.

Mrs. Curtis Burlin shows that the folk-song of the African in America can be traced direct to Africa: “As a creator of beauty the black man is capable of contributing to the great art of the world.

“The Negro’s pronounced gift for music is today widely recognized. That gift, brought to America in slave-ships, was nurtured by that mother of woe, human slavery, till out of suffering and toil there sprang a music which speaks to the heart of mankind—the prayer-song of the American Negro. In Africa is rooted the parent stem of that out-flowering of Negro folk-song in other lands. “Through the Negro this country is vocal with a folk-music intimate, complete and beautiful. It is the Negro music with its by-product of ‘ragtime’ that today most widely influences the popular song-life of America, and Negro rhythms have indeed captivated the world at large. Nor may we foretell the impress that the voice of the slave will leave upon the art of the country—a poetic justice, this! For the Negro everywhere discriminated against, segregated and shunned, mobbed and murdered—he it is whose melodies are on all our lips, and whose rhythms impel our marching feet in a ‘war for democracy.’ The irresistible music that wells up from this sunny and unresentful people is hummed and whistled, danced to and marched to, laughed over and wept over, by high and low and rich and poor throughout the land. The downtrodden black man whose patient religious faith has kept his heart still unembittered, is fast becoming the singing voice of all America. And in his song we hear a prophecy of the dignity and worth of Negro genius.”[6]

The Negro folk-song entered the Church and became the prayer song and the sorrow song, still with its haunting melody but surrounded by the inhibitions of a cheap theology and a conventional morality. But the musical soul of a race unleashed itself violently from these bonds and in the saloons and brothels of the Mississippi bottoms and gulf coast flared to that crimson license of expression known as “ragtime,” “jazz” and the more singular “blues” retaining with all their impossible words the glamour of rhythm and wild joy. White composers hastily followed with songs like “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and numerous successors in popular favor.

Out of ragtime grew a further development through both white and black composers. The “blues,” a curious and intriguing variety of love song from the levees of the Mississippi, became popular and was spread by the first colored man who was able to set it down, W. C. Handy of Memphis. Other men, white and colored, from Stephen Foster to our day, have taken another side of Negro music and developed its haunting themes and rippling melody into popular songs and into high and fine forms of modern music, until today the influence of the Negro reaches every part of American music, of many foreign masters like Dvorak; and certainly no program of concert music could be given in America without voicing Negro composers and Negro themes.

We can best end this chapter with the word of a colored man: “But there is something deeper

than the sensuousness of beauty that makes for the possibilities of the Negro in the realm of the arts, and that is the soul of the race. The wail of the old melodies and the plaintive quality that is ever present in the Negro voice are but the reflection of a background of tragedy. No race can rise to the greatest heights of art until it has yearned and suffered. The Russians are a case in point. Such has been their background in oppression and striving that their literature and art are to-day marked by an unmistakable note of power. The same future beckons to the American Negro. There is something very elemental about the heart of the race, something that finds its origin in the African forest, in the sighing of the night wind, and in the falling of the stars. There is something grim and stern about it all, too, something that speaks of the lash, of the child torn from its mother’s bosom, of the dead body riddled with bullets and swinging all night from a limb by the roadside.”[7]

  1. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, Chapter No. 14.
  2. W. F. Allen and others, Slave Songs of the United States, New York, 1867.
  3. G. D. Pike, The Jubilee Singers, New York, 1873.
  4. James Weldon Johnson, Book of American Negro Poetry, New York, 1922.
  5. H. E. Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs, New York, 1914; cf. also John W. Work, Folksong of the American Negro, Nashville, Tenn., 1915.
  6. Natalie Curtis-Burlin, Negro Folksongs, 4 books, 1918-19; Songs and Tales from the Dark Continent, 1920.
  7. Benjamin Brawley, Negro in Literature and Art.