By: Jared Silverstein
At the turn of the 20th Century, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois composed his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, in which the chapter entitled “The Sorrow Songs” grapples with the long-debated theme of black musical expression and its intentional or unintentional impact on social and political perception. The sorrow songs of which Du Bois writes are the melancholy albeit optimistic Negro Spirituals, stemming from the work songs and Christian hymns sung during the Slave era (Brown 45).
The latter half of the 19th Century revealed a highly complex mechanism by which black music was critiqued, appropriated, and exploited in the commercial atmosphere. Not only was the African American’s artistic endeavor exploited, but it was consistently perceived and generalized as a political attempt to influence the public’s perception of black culture as a whole, which in some cases it certainly was; in other words, racial perception was inseparable from individual artistic expression (Gilbert 44).
During this time, renowned American songwriter Stephen Foster popularized the sentimental ballad song form among common American households, which was often secular though sometimes directly taken from Church hymnals (Key 153). As his compositions became staples of contemporary minstrel shows, Foster was crucial in first altering the public’s view of African Americans, as the minstrel songs transitioned from a folk and rural influence to one stemming from European classical ballad styles (155). This effectively stirred black sociologists and musicians alike to critically assess what music was being played, and how it would be perceived by the public in relation to the African American community.
At a time when black popular songwriters such as Ernest Hogan were institutionalizing white supremacy with hit minstrel songs such as “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” the popularization of Negro Spirituals represented a more constructive intention among black musicians to represent their people in a positive political light (Gilbert 28).
Music educator James Monroe Trotter in Washington D.C. envisioned the African American’s path to validation and equality as being paved by the demonstration of technical mastership of one’s instrument and theoretical knowledge of European classical styles. He denounced the use of spirituals as an appropriate method for representing the modern self-disciplined black American, as he feared they would only perpetuate the stereotypes of blacks being overly passionate and emotional (Gilbert 36).
Du Bois’ writing is an endorsement for the use of the Negro Spiritual as a means of accurately portraying the authentic black American experience:
And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (The Souls of Black Folk).
He sees spirituals as a sonic extension of a people fighting for their citizenship, lamenting over the injustices of the past, as opposed to an uncouth song form that simply lacks the technical virtuosity of something more closely affiliated with the European classical tradition.
The content of the spirituals themselves dealt largely with existential despair, plight, and varied religious aspects, which are themes that when popularized and made explicit among the general public would reshape the attitude towards African Americans into one of empathetic understanding and universal inclusion, Du Bois hoped. He speaks of the themes present in the spirituals, writing:
Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins (The Souls of Black Folk).
Du Bois was compelled to mention the Fisk University Jubilee Singers here, as they were an instrumental organization in spreading the sound of the spiritual to audiences across the world. While this represented an unprecedented achievement in portraying the authentic history of the Black American, the fact that the Jubilee Singers were presenting these folk songs in the style of classical European choral music was an aesthetic element that at this time did not go without critique.
Fisk Jubilee Singers. Courtesy of Kalam.com. Here the original Jubilee Singers from Fisk University are shown in formal European attire posing for what would be used as a press photo for their upcoming American tour.
A prevailing theme at this time in the dilemma of black expression and social representation was the extent to which black musicians should rely on appealing to Eurocentric ideals of high-art to appear sophisticated in the eyes of whites. Composer and instrumentalist Will Marion Cook was someone who had his own struggles and reservations regarding this. As someone who had studied European techniques with Czech composer Dvorák, Cook often necessarily flaunted his credentials and classical training in order to secure performance opportunities at major concert houses (Gilbert 26).
As his career progressed, Cook, like Du Bois began to see the importance of an authentic, though not fetishized, portrayal of Negro folk culture by means of the Spiritual. While both men considered the act of relying on European classical techniques to demonstrate the intelligence of the musician dubious, they agreed that it should not entirely be dismissed. Rather, doing so intelligently broadens the spectrum of those who will even pay mind to the music itself in a discriminating commercial marketplace.
The success and recognition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers exemplified the perfect extent to which the public would receive a blend of folk elements and European sophistication. Though regardless of either methodology used to influence the public’s perception of black Americans, caricature portrayal and minstrel shows continued to undermine the political effort (39). As Du Bois notes:
Caricature has sought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the air with many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real” (The Souls of Black Folk).
Here Du Bois points to the fragility of the positive perception whites can have of African Americans, as their ignorance of their own country’s past and impressionable minds do not allow them to discern between authentic black tradition and simple commercial exploitations. It is as critical as ever to understand the way in which miscegenation and political agenda influence social perception during a modern age, and Du Bois was certainly keen of this at the turn of the 20th Century.
Gilbert, David. “A New Musical Rhythm Was Given To The People: Ragtime and Representation in Black Manhattan.” In The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, 16-46. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.