Category Archives: Musical Instruments

Ethiopian serenade; Burlesque

Ethiopian Serenade

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  Ethiopian Serenede; Burlesque

Composer: Puerner, Charles

Publisher: Wm. A. Pond

Year & Date:  1883, New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-477

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0477

Basic Description
A man plays what appears to be a fretless banjo and sings with a far-off look in his eyes. He has dark skin but it is not clear if he is a representation of an African American man or a minstrel playing a role. The man is dressed in a top hat and a dignified, if modest suit. His eyes are disproportionately large, especially in comparison with his tiny nose,  and his lips are parted to reveal two rows of small, perfectly formed white teeth.

Personal Description
The instructions to play the “Ethiopian Serenade” on piano prompt the question of why this man is strumming a banjo. The implication seems to be that this is an authentic “Ethiopian” song that has been musically adapted for safe consumption in white middle class parlors. Words like “burlesque” and “serenade” would be clues that the rough, vernacular music of the African (played on the banjo, an instrument with African roots) had been tempered with the civility of European musical influences. The dignified yet childlike man with his banjo functions simply as a hollowed-out symbol of African American culture converted into a safe consumer amusement.

Reality Check

Ebenezer D. Bassett (1803-1908)
Ebenezer D. Bassett was appointed U.S. Minister Resident to Haiti in 1869, making him the first African American diplomat.  For eight years, the educator, abolitionist, and black rights activist oversaw bilateral relations through bloody civil warfare and coups d’état on the island of Hispaniola.

Born in Connecticut on October 16, 1833, Ebenezer D. Bassett was the second child of Eben Tobias and Susan Gregory.  Bassett was the first black student to integrate the Connecticut Normal School in 1853.  He taught in New Haven and befriended Frederick Douglass.  Later, he became the principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (ICY).

During the Civil War, Bassett helped recruit African American soldiers for the Union.  In nominating Bassett to become Minister Resident to Haiti, President Ulysses S. Grant made him one of the highest ranking black members of the United States government.

During his tenure, Bassett dealt with cases of citizen commercial claims, diplomatic immunity for his consular and commercial agents, hurricanes, fires, and numerous tropical diseases.

Upon the end of the Grant Administration in 1877, Bassett submitted his resignation as was customary with a change of hands in government.  When he returned to the United States, he spent an additional ten years as the Consul General for Haiti in New York City. Prior to this death on November 13, 1908, he returned to live in Philadelphia, where his daughter Charlotte also taught at the ICY.

(Source: http://www.blackpast.org)

My Home in Alabam’

My Home in Alabam'

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  My Home in Alabam’

Composer: Putnam, James S.

Publisher: John F. Perry

Year & Date:  1881, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music#  B-666
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0666

Basic Description
A man sits on a wooden chair in a sparse garret bedroom with a banjo on his lap and his head in his hand. He stares at the viewer with a distant, troubled look, in a pose like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The town-like setting in the window contrasts with the plantation scene above— a dream space corralled by a dense frame of cloud-like circles.  The cracks and exposed bricks in the wall, along with the jagged hemlines of the man’s pant legs set depressing tone.  Rather than being integrated with the picture, the title text is set in the white space around the image. Two title options, “My Dear Savannah Home,” and “My Home in Alabam” are listed in sober typeface.

Personal Description
Each title option can lead to a different and contradictory interpretation of the image. Interestingly, this pamphlet includes two song sheet covers for other “plantation melodies” printed by the same publisher. This imagery makes light of the plantation experience, showing caricatured African Americans dancing or filling pails with berries. Like the song illustrated on the main cover, these songs also have two titles each that contrast oddly with each other. “De Huckleberry Picnic”  implies a recreational activity at one’s own free will but “Since I Saw de Cotton Grow” suggests the forced labor of slavery or the exploitation of sharecropping.  “My Dear Savannah Home” implies that the seated man is nostalgic for plantation life. But “My Home in Alabam” is vague, allowing the plantation memory invading the scene to be interpreted not as a cherished dream but rather an oppressive nightmare.

Reality Check

Edward Alexander Bouchet
(1852-1918)
Edward Alexander Bouchet was an educator and scientist who was born in New Haven Connecticut. His family was a member of the Temple Street Congregational Church, a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.

In 1868, Bouchet was accepted into Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution that prepared young men for the classical and scientific departments at Yale College. He graduated first in his class at Hopkins and graduated from Yale in 1874, ranking sixth in his class. In 1876, he completed a dissertation on geometrical optics,  becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from an American University and the sixth American of any race to earn a PhD in Physics.

Bouchet moved to Philadelphia in 1876 to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth, the city’s only high school for African American students.  Bouchet gave public lectures to his community in Philadelphia on scientific topics and was a member of the Franklin Institute, a foundation for the promotion of the mechanic arts, chartered in 1824.

In 1908, he became principal of Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained until 1913, when an attack of arteriosclerosis compelled him to resign and return to New Haven. He died in his boyhood home in 1916.

(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004.

WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN

When Sousa Comes to Coon-Town

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “When Sousa comes to coon-town”

Composer:  Jim Vaughn & Lemonier

Lyricist:  Alex Rogers

Publisher:  Shapiro, Bernstein and Company

Year & Place:  1902, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-184

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0184

Basic Description

The scene in this two-color (red and blue) lithograph is an outdoor parade, dominated by the banner “WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN.”  Underneath the banner is an orchestra of regimented white men, marching in unison in blue uniforms and led by a baton-wielding man with a beard and spectacles.  Surrounding the band are an enthralled audience of caricatured, white-lipped, beady-eyed, black people.  Most prominent among the caricatured throngs are: a top hat-wearing elderly man (on the far right); a bandanna- and apron-wearing rotund woman (parallel to the bandleader); and, just underneath the bandleader, six grotesque children who seem to be imitating him.

Personal Description

The inset box in the sheet music’s lower left corner, featuring formal photographs of African American performers Bert Williams and George Walker (along with titles and accolades), creates a fascinating counterpoint to the sheet music’s comical and stereotypical illustration.  Although the photographs convey a conceptual truth about these specific African Americans, the illustration does not operate without its own “truths” (i.e., the drawn “portrait” of the legendary bandleader John Phillip Sousa).  So the dilemma this sets up for viewers is: do these real portrayals in any way counter the adjacent images of absurd and degenerative African Americans?

Reality Check

jamesreeseeurope

The Clef Club Orchestra (with James Reese Europe), circa 1910

The Clef Club was a part fraternal organization, part union for African American entertainers at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The building it purchased on West 53rd Street served both as the club’s headquarters and as an office for theatrical bookings.  Legendary bandleader and musician James Reese Europe was the Clef Club’s first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.

The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912.  They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914.  The Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society and, as a result, they regularly performed at elite functions in New York, London, and Paris.  The club functioned as a clearing-house not only for musicians, but for all types of entertainers and, under Europe’s leadership, it was actively involved in improving the working conditions for African American entertainers.  When an act was booked through the Clef Club, the musicians were considered professionals and received a good salary, transportation expenses, room, and board.  The club proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at the height of its popularity.

One Clef Club Orchestra performance boasted 150 musicians, although not everyone who was on stage in some shows could actually play an instrument. Some were purely window-dressing, taught just enough to get them through performances, while others simply pretended to play their instruments.  In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned as its leader and Ford Dabney took over his spot as bandleader.

WHISTLING RUFUS

WHISTLING RUFUS

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Whistling Rufus”

Composer:  Kerry Mills

Publisher:  F.A. Mills

Year & Place:  1899, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #571 no. 5

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  no571.5

Basic Description

A black man, wearing a top hat, a formal jacket with tails, and gaily-patterned trousers,  is shown seated behind palm plants in a chair on a stage, strumming a guitar, tapping his feet and, ostensibly, whistling through large, white, pursed lips.  In the far distance five, similarly white-lipped couples, hand in hand, form a dancing line in this dance hall-like setting.  The two color (black and yellow-orange) lithograph breaks up the monotony of this otherwise stark, graphic rendering.

Personal Description

After seeing stereotypic image after stereotypic image, one gets pretty inured to the pictorial put-downs and racial aspersions after a while.  The visual jokes that are supposedly contained in representations of big lips, over-attenuated musical and rhythmic acumen, and in minstrel absurdities are somehow emptied of their poison after multiple viewings, eventually becoming empty symbols of racism and derogation.  The fault line that the stereotype frequently tumbles over is a reiteration that, without reinforced confirmations from the culturally illiterate or knowingly racist, implode upon themselves and, thus, communicate nothing but foul air.

Reality Check

harrytburleigh

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)

Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the development of American art song, having composed over two hundred works.  He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals.  In addition, Burleigh was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh received his first music training from his mother.  After discovering Burleigh’s musical talent, his mother’s employer gave Burleigh a job as a doorman at the musicales she hosted in her home.  This afforded Burleigh the opportunity to hear guest performers such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini.  In 1892, Burleigh received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

The years Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career, mostly due to his association and friendship with Antonín Dvorák, the Conservatory’s director.  After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own compositions.  In turn, Dvorák’s use of the spirituals “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”).  In addition, Burleigh served as copyist for Dvorák, a task that prepared him for his future responsibilities as a music editor.

In 1894, Burleigh auditioned for the post of soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York.  To the consternation of the congregation, which objected because Burleigh was black, he was given the position.  However, through his talent and dedication (he held the appointment for over fifty years, missing only one performance during his tenure), Burleigh won the hearts and the respect of the entire church community.

In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston; a son, Alston, was born the following year. That same year, G. Schirmer published his first three songs.  In 1900, Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi.  His success was enhanced through the publication of several of his compositions, including “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), a collection entitled Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916), and his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), for which he is best remembered.  Burleigh died in New York City in 1949.

The Coal Black Rose

The Coal Black Rose

The Coal Black Rose

Location:                 Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:          The Coal Black Rose

Composer:              Snyder, White

Publisher:               J.L. Frederick

Year & Place:        1829; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B. 128, no. 28

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:   hasmsm.009

Basic Description

In the diminutive image here embedded amongst text and musical notation, an anthropomorphized rose appears.  The petals are arranged to constitute the face of a person approximating a pair of eyes, eyelids and eyebrows in darker hatching and a pair of lips.  Inserted between the eyes is a nose.  Framing this sexually ambiguous “flower-face” is an array of six leaves.  A second image appearing on another page of this sheet music shows a man with a banjo.  The contour lines of his body and the slight coloration suggest a cursory sketch.  Wearing a dark hat, the subject stands with head turned towards the viewer and his accentuated buttocks and calf protrude.

Personal Description

Among the numerous words to describe this image, ‘odd’ and ‘creepy’ seem particularly apt.  One has only to describe it as an “animated face-plant” to understand this.  Shrouded in ambiguity are any identifying or contextual features or characteristics.  What is clear is that artist is relocating the viewer in different visual realm.  This image’s illusion is conveyed by the lack of a connecting body, or any other visual cues that reference the real.  The second image then, should stand in striking contrast as the full body of a male banjo player is visualized.  Furthermore, the facial features of this man resemble those of the rose. Still, this image is also illusionistic for its curious lack of details and corporeal distortion.  Finally, its placement of the banjo where the male phallus might be is suggests an eroticism that might be derivative of the eras latent sexual deviancies displayed in other art forms such as minstrelsy.

Reality Check

Reverend Richard Allen

Richard Allen was the leading figure in events that produced the independent black church movement and led to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He also served as one of the early bishops of the AME church.  Allen saved enough money to purchase his freedom from his delaware master in 1777, the year in which he also was converted.  Within a few years he was preaching and winning the favor of Bishop Francis Asbury, the founder of American Methodism.  In 1786 he moved to Philadelphia, where he began to hold prayer meetings for his own people.  His proposal to set up a separate place of worship was opposed by whites and some blacks.  It was only after the officials of St. George’s Church, where he frequently preached, proposed to segregate the large number of blacks who came to hear him that it became clear to him and others that blacks should have a separate church. Allen was able to organize and dedicate Bethel Church in 1794.  In 1799 Bishop Asbury ordained him deacon and later he was elevated to the status of an elder.  His church became known as the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Ethiopian Quadrilles, Danced and Sung by the Virginia Minstrels

Ethiopian Quadrilles

Ethiopian Quadrilles

Location:               Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:        Lucy Long; De Boatman Dance; Massa Is A Stingy Man; Old Dan Tucker

Composer:            OnyQjva A. Nagerj

Publisher:             Firth & Hall

Year & Place:      1843; New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                Music B.154, no.7

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:   hasmsm.007

Basic Description

This cover shows an array of figures clustered in vignettes that are separated by zoological and botanical frames. Two at the top are surrounded by a snake while a third scene is framed by various botanical forms as well as corn and a possum-like animal. Those on the bottom, however, are framed by two long catfish. In clockwise order from the top, central vignette the following is visualized: a man in tattered clothes throwing his hands above his head in a spirited; one male holding a banjo while another figure in the background tries to corral two cows; one male walking in a perplexed manner while another offers no help as he tends to his leg; one man striking a pose;  a man with a protruding, rotund belly striding diagonally across the space while another male figure plays the banjo; one male dancing in pajamas while his partner plays a banjo; two men in a boat on a river attempting to kill an alligator using their banjo as a weapon.

Personal Description

The title of the music tells the viewer that the songs are part of show that would be performed by minstrels.  Thus the image’s humor, hodge-podge, collagish, and cryptic nature all make sense within this context.  The ambiguity of conceptual connections between the different portraits also ceases to be an issue as they may be an advertisement for separate skits that might have constituted one show.  Ethiopian Quadrilles combines a wide variety of elements such as snakes, banjos, a crocodile, plants and catfish.  While some vignettes are simple renditions of music and dancing, other more complex ones display individual moments from what promise to be longer narratives.  The elements of stereotype and caricature that are present also make sense within the context of minstrelsy.  This includes the distorted body of the male figure with the protruding stomach.  The most humorous scene, that in which two men purport to “knock out” a crocodile with a banjo, similarly, conveys to be a derisive message about intellect (or lackthereof).  This becomes clearer when one notices that the animated-crocodile is in no way menacing.

Reality Check


Peter Ogden and The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows

In 1842, the Philomathean Literary Society, an association of blck men and boys interested in literature, oratory and music became a lodge within the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.  Peter Ogden, a black Jamaican sailor living in New York City, who became odd fellow while in England, took their petition to Victoria Lodge in Liverpool after white odd fellows in the United States refused to initiate black men.  This became one of the major black fraternal organizations maintaining a large membership body.  When Ogden died in 1852, there were 32 lodges.  By 1863 there were 50 and by 1900, there were 2,253 with over 70,000 members.  The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows continues to this day and have a headquarters in Philadelphia.

(Source: Dodson, Howard, Christopher Paul. Moore, and Roberta Yancy. The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology. New York: John Wiley, 2000.)

The title of the music tells the viewer that the songs are part of show that would be performed by minstrels.  Thus the image’s humor, hodge-podge, collagish, and cryptic nature all make sense within this context.  The ambiguity of conceptual connections between the different portraits also ceases to be an issue as they may be an advertisement for separate skits that might have constituted one show.  Ethiopian Quadrilles combines a wide variety of elements such as snakes, banjos, a crocodile, plants and catfish which, do not in themselves seem to fit together.  While some vignettes are simple renditions of music and dancing, other more complex ones display individual moments from what promise to be longer narratives.  The elements of stereotype and caricature that are present also make sense within the context of minstrelsy.  This includes the distorted body of the male figure with the protruding stomach.  The most humorous scene, that in which two men purport to “knock out” a crocodile with a banjo, similarly, conveys to be a derisive message about intellect (or lackthereof).  This becomes clearer when one notices that the animated-crocodile is in no way menacing.

Dixie’s Land

Dixie's Land

Dixie's Land

Location:         Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:  Dixie’s Land

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  bsvg200749

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  bsvg200749

Basic Description

A small band of men play music behind a dancing couple.  Their uniform attire of long coats and striped pants is punctured by one man who wears an cap crowned with an object reminiscent of a clock.  They play the triangle, an accordion, cymbals the banjo and flute.  Deviating from the grandeur of the scene, suggested by the panels of the wall in the background and the chandelier, the female partner of the couple has one bare arm while the other is covered by a long sleeve.

Personal Description

The lack of details and dark nature of the render that makes faces pictured anonymous detracts from any possibility of perceived individuality.  Additionally, there is a symmetry in both groups rendered with six musicians in the back and a pair dancing in the foreground.  Finally, both the dancers and musicians face an unidentified and unvisualized third party.  Together, these elements suggest that this image constitutes a type of performance.  In this way, the uniform attire of the band members might be understood as costumes.  Similarly, they seem to stand on an elevated platform or stage.  This image, thus recalls the shared culture of performance amongst blacks and whites, which took place both inside theater houses and in front of commercial store fronts.

Reality Check

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1866

Fisk University opened in Nashville in 1866 as the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” Five years later the school was in dire financial straits. George L. White, Fisk treasurer and music professor then, created a nine-member choral ensemble of students and took it on tour to earn money for the University. The group left campus on October 6, 1871. Jubilee Day is celebrated annually on October 6 to commemorate this historic day.

They broke racial barriers in the US and abroad in the late 19th century.  In 1870, the group performed a concert of spirituals in New York City to raise for their home institution in Nashville.  The singers introduced ‘slave songs’ to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving the unique tradition known today as Negro spirituals.  During their long and distinguished history, they entertained Kings and Queens in Europe while simultaneously raising money for their university.

In 1999, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were featured in a PBS award-winning television documentary series, produced by WGBH/Boston.  In July 2007, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went visited Ghana at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy.   There the ensemble joined in the celebration of the nation’s Golden Jubilee, the 50th independence anniversary.  In 2008, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were selected as a recipient of the 2008 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artists and patrons of the arts.  The award was presented by President George W. Bush during a ceremony at the White House.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers continue the tradition of singing the Negro spiritual around the world. This allows them to share this rich culture globally while preserving this unique music.

(Source: http://www.fiskjubileesingers.org/about.html)