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RARE Discusses the Birth of American Popular Music from The 1619 Project

/ April 30, 2024

On March 11, 2024, seven of RARE’s board members met on Zoom for the third discussion of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project.  Chapter 13, entitled Music and authored by Wesley Morris was the focus.

Before any questions or points were discussed, the group noted that within a year of Hannah-Jones winning a Pulitzer Prize for The 1619 Project, bills were introduced in 27 Republican-led state legislatures that sought to ban the book from being taught or discussed in schools. Governor Ron DeSantis signed two bills into law banning the seminal work in Florida.

RARE members agreed that in a 21st century democracy, discussing a book far outweighs banning one.

Wesley Morris begins his chapter by taking the reader back to a week in 1963 when four school-aged children, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair, were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Robbed of their lives, they never experienced the “euphoria” of the fourth biggest song in America that year, “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas.

“Heat Wave”, “You Really Got  A Hold On Me”, and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, were just a few of the countless hit songs coming out of what Morris called the “earthquake” that was Motown in the early 1960’s. He noted that it just wasn’t the sound that took American’s youth by storm, but that the music “shook with the insistence that the people who made it ought to be embraced as irreducibly human.”

That was not always the case. Morris notes that up until the 1830’s, when American stages had been “fat with imported culture…operas and waltzes from Europe”, Black music was heard almost exclusively in the fields and in Black churches. It was music that at its core evoked hope, love, sorrow, pain, and most of all, freedom. White America was mostly oblivious to it.

What changed, and what became the birth of American popular culture that the “common man” could enjoy, was Black minstrelsy.

Although field music, also known as spirituals, sung by the enslaved with traditions brought from Africa, had been part of America’s birth, it was a white man who made it the country’s rage throughout the middle decades of the 19th century. Thomas Dartmouth Rice was an unemployed actor who, according to legend, saw an old Black man singing while grooming a horse on property owned by the Crow family.

A “light went on” in Rice’s head. He donned blackface and took in “the tune and the movements” of the old man whom Rice would name Jim Crow in his first minstrel song. Rice sang in the “grotesque approximation” of Black folks to white audiences who reveled in their joy and condescension. Many white acts followed.

So did racist connotations. Morris contends that minstrelsy’s “grotesquerie deluded white audiences into feeling better about themselves.” It also cemented negative caricatures of African Americans such as laziness and licentiousness that most whites took to heart.

Blackface minstrelsy was so popular that Black musicians, in desperate need of work, would often put on blackface and pretend to be Black in order to get hired. White America seemingly embraced Black culture only when performed by whites masquerading as Black – or Black performers donning blackface. (Minstrelsy’s legacy haunted future Black musicians, a “taint”, Morris claims, that at times “dogged” such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Whitney Houston who were at times “deemed” as sell-outs.)

That changed in 1871 when spirituals performed by Black artists gained national fame and changed the culture. One of the facilitators of that change was the Fisk University Jubilee Singers who went on the road in 1871 to fund raise for their school with a goal of $20,000.  While touring near the birthplace of the KKK, the Fisk Choir faced repeated hazards. Slurs were directed at them, often in anger and ridicule for singing “white music”.  At times they were denied lodgings.

During a stop in southern Ohio when the choir was confronted by a white mob, the students, in desperation, broke into song. Singing a spiritual entitled “Steal Away”, the mob became entranced. Its leader was so affected by the music he was reduced to tears before asking the group to sing another song.

The Jubilee Singers, some of whom were born into slavery, would make spirituals the core of their performances where the mostly all-white audiences had similar reactions, often overwhelmed and moved to tears. They were also moved to donate. The Fisk Jubilee Singers raised over $100,000. As Morris referenced nearly a century later in regard to Motown’s breakthrough, the audiences not only embraced Black culture, but they also recognized Black humanity.

Spirituals, born in the fields worked by enslaved labor and sung in Black churches throughout the country, were, according to Morris, America’s “original first folk music…work songs (that) pleaded for deliverance and were sung in defiance of atrocity.” They embodied traditions of rhythm, movement, call and response and were passed down through the years, celebrated and replicated by musicians such as Robert Johnson, Cab Calloway, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, The Isley Brothers, Aretha Franklin, The Ronettes, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Nirvana, and more.

It is music whose roots go back to 1619. Music that is irreducibly American.

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The two links below in order are a NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe’s interview with Vann Newark of The Atlantic regarding his article on The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and a podcast featuring Woody Morris talking about Chapter 13 and the birth of American music. Both are delightful listening. Both come with transcripts.

https://www.npr.org/2023/11/19/1214042422/how-a-reconstruction-era-singing-tour-changed-popular-music

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html


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