Afro American Music Site at Carnegie Hall

This site provides excellent organizational resources for the analysis of the development of African American music.  It is authored by Portia K. Maultsby, who has also published a very useful book,  African American Music: An Introduction edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby and published by Routledge in 2006.

The book is plainly built upon the research of an entire field in these three or four decades since scholars have been systematically attempting to find words to describe the African American oral tradition.  In this case, the focus is on music largely to the exclusion of spoken forms of oral tradition.  But on its own turf, it comes the closest to providing what I, myself, was trying to construct for my own use in the Blues People Curriculum.

Doing this course again at the Ph.D. level or at the graduate level, I would use this book as the starting point for the literature and the images that make up the Blues Tradition.  Also in a more advanced context, I would emphasize music more because music is so dominant and has such great explanatory power  in African American culture.

On both the website and in the book there is a chart which provides a genealogy of African American music composed of three major categories--African American sacred traditions, African American secular traditions and African American Secular Traditions Instrumental.

The book contains chapters on the various relevant fields by the appropriate experts, among them Bernice Johnson Reagon, Dena J. Epstein, David Evans, Thomas I. Riis, Lawrence Levine and Mark Anthony Neal.


African American Literature: 30s through 60s--Jazz Life: A Journey for Jazz Across America in 1960

This photo graced the album Black Brown and Beige: Duke Ellington and his Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson released by Columbia Records in 1958.  These are two of the most elegant and most interesting people that the African American Blues tradition ever produced, two of the most famous and successful and unscathed by the racism and Jim Crow that were the scourge of the nation at the time.  I don't know as much as I would like to know about how they managed it but there's no question that they were birds of a feather (Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox) and they made a fine couple in this picture, which I have no idea who took it except that it was taken at the time they made the album together and there were other photos, which are included in the reissue package designed and compiled by the brilliant Phil Schaap although the print is so small I despair of ever finding the information I am looking for.  

We will be hearing from both of them in the Blues People Curriculum on various occasions.  Both are heard from via the audio recordings including in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature.  I fear not nearly enough but these are more musical questions. 

This is the same Mahalia Jackson we meet on the pages and in the magnificent albeit rarely seen photos of JAZZ LIFE: A JOURNEY ACROSS AMERICA IN 1960 described below, the same America.  People go to her house in Chicago and she cooks for them, probably something she learned to cook growing up in New Orleans.  

I found this photo on line and used it here, wanting the album but feeling as though it was an expense that I could spare myself.  Finally, I broke down and bought it (turned out to be very inexpensive) as much to learn more about the photograph and the historic collaboration as to hear the music.

 I already had had the experience of being disappointed by the fact that the wonderful performance of Mahalia Jackson at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, in which she is accompanied by Duke Ellington, is not really captured in all its musical richness either on the film make by Bert Stern, JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY, or on the Newport Jazz Festival recording released of it.  It seems it was rather common to re-stage performances for the albums that were released as Newport Jazz Festival performances.  Moreover, black artists were so subject to being corrupted.  Their sound, their look, and everything else about them.  You never knew and you still don't know what part is this and what part was something somebody just slapped on them on their way out of the door.

In fact, I am thinking of poor Louis at that very same festival singing his trademark "Sleepytime Down South" with that ragtag gang of All Stars he was hanging out with then. Not that I didn't cherish every bit of it but I could see the strain he was under.  I've gotten so I can feel every bit of the strain he was under because I at a age and at a point where I am feeling that strain myself.

 For all I know, the recordings that were released were actually made at the festivals, although maybe at some other point in performance.  All they had to sell was lps, which had very limited recording space.  Also, I don't know much about what remained on the cutting room floor although this version includes many unreleased cuts so there is a vault of some kind somewhere.  Whats in it I don't know.

Nor would there have been much point in miking every instrument back then since they didn't have the technical capacity to use all the tracks anyway yet.  Perhaps all the sound is kept somewhere for future generations but I don't suppose I will ever find out what it sounded like to hear the Duke Ellington band backing Mahalia Jackson in the open air of Newport, Rhode Island, or even to be at a Newport Jazz Festival.

   In my view, a recording made under studio conditions, even if it was Duke Ellington and his orchestra and Mahalia Jackson, could never touch a live performance.  The best I've ever seen for this period were made abroad.  For instance, Duke Ellington in Amsterdam in 1958 is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.  But what makes it so sweet is the way it looks (released as part of the Jazz Icon series on DVD), and my total inability to have imagined at the time (in the 50s or the 60s) that such a thing as such exquisitely beautiful, exquisitely elegant black men could ever exist on film.  I already knew it could never be made in America and lord knows I never had a clue taking classes at NYU in their Ph.D. program that film could ever result in anything so exquisite.

   It's interesting that George Wein didn't allow more film to be made at Newport, although if it had ever gotten out in technicolor the racial experiment that was going on there, it would not have been allowed to continue I should think. In the 50s, sliding right into 1960 with room to spare, the Newport Jazz Festival provided a utopian alternative racial space, one of the few in which blacks and whites of the highest caliber freely intermingled and associated with one another, thanks to the brilliant interventions of George and Joyce Wein, one of our most celebrated interracial couples.  It was still illegal in some states for blacks and whites to marry, and certainly there were still lots of white Americans who thought it should be illegal for whites and blacks to party together like that.  Yet George and Joyce were not only married but making history with some of the most brilliant performers in America in the brilliant summer sunlight.

  Anyhow I gather that somehow Duke Ellington (who was in my estimation one of the greatest purveyors of American folk culture/popular culture ever born) is just for brainy folk so I don't know how many of my acolytes in World Humanities Blues People will be able to catch on.  Words can't say. 

    But the whole point of this was to mention this wonderful supersize, heavily illustrated book of photographs by William Claxton and Interpretative Text by Joachim E. Berendt, which is entitled Jazz Life: A Journey for Jazz Across America in 1960, Taschen 2005.  It is composed of the pictures and information collected by Claxton and Berendt as they travelled across the United States seeking out the rich variety of African American musical culture taking place in the year of 1960.

Initially, the book was only published abroad, not in english, and was not well known but the book I have has German, French and English, and was signed by Claxton and sold to me for $200 by a high-end photography shop that had recently opened near me.  

The young man who waited on me kindly explained how Claxton's distribution worked.  As it turned out the shop was another outlet for the main shop in another location, which also functioned as a photographic gallery.  The book was, in essence, a collection of copyrighted photographs which you might use to make a selection of one or more prints that you might like to buy from Claxton, frame and put on your wall.  There was actually a market for such a thing, people buying individual prints of photographs for thousands of dollars that they could not obtain in any other way directly from the photographer or his representatives.  The runs were limited in number in order to ensure the increasing value of each print, just as would be the case with lithographs or other kinds of artistic prints.  

The book itself is reissued a number of times in limited printings with each printing going up in price, if demand continues to rise, or down if the demand falls off.  Also, Taschen, which is one of the publishers who participate in these arrangements, would simply stop making more copies at some point in order to facilitate the collectability and value of the original editions.  So the book, itself-- if carefully maintained without damage and so forth--could also end up being worth a fortune in some rare instances.  

Both Claxton and Berendt were white (Claxton recently died) while a considerable number of the photographic subjects of the book are African American.  The photographs are, in many cases, absolutely exquisite and more importantly not the same pictures you see all the time.  Indeed, I bought the book after leafing through it because I knew that it contained a documentation of the year of 1960 in the United States, including the relationship between whites and blacks, such as it would be impossible to find elsewhere.  

Moreover, this is clearly a more racially integrated version of the cultural milieu of 1960 than those of us who teach African American Studies are in the habit of employing.  I am eager to see how his musical inventory would match up with the one I have been able to reconstruct from archival sources.  

But I cannot legally reproduce a single one of these pictures, which is ironic.  I've got some juicy bits of 1960s history in my hot little hands.  I can tote it to class and let my students look at it--although I will certainly have to take a cab and just their breathing on it is likely to diminish its collectability (by which I mean its financial value).

There isn't even an image of a person on the cover, just lettering and the book, itself, is 600 pages.  


Bert Williams, A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

Bert Williams was one of our early Blues People.  Of the highest caliber.  Blackface and all!  In a proper chronology of Blues People, Bert Williams and George Walker, and their musical play In Dahomey, which derived from their experience of the Dahomey Village at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, would provide one of the crucial starting points of the Modern African American Century.

I have also included here a running copy of the only surviving film of a Bert William's performance in A Natural Born Gambler (1916), which I picked up from former student Chris's blog.  It works well although many of the other wonderful links have degraded to pictures.  Still wonderful commentary.

The film is from the Biograph Company, apparently produced written and starred in by Bert Williams. A man for the ages.  A black man in blackface par excellence. There is no equal.  I saw many of them as a child at the Apollo Theatre in the 50s and I am still laughing.


August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone

. . . a mythmaker who sees his basically naturalistic panorama plays as stages in an allegorical history of black America, Michael Feingold (1987)

There is a production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, which I just saw tonight.  I sat in the second row right under the stage, soaking up the mystical, allegorical palette of the set design and the way in which the characters are molded from Wilson's rhythmical, repetitive text.  I found it somewhat more comprehensible than I found it the first time I saw it on Broadway twenty or more years ago.  Not sure how well students in the class may be able to read it but it certainly relates very directly to a blues reading of African American history and the migration from the South to the North.

The play is entirely set at a boarding house in Pittsburgh run by a seemingly middle aged couple, both warm and nurturing people.  Part of the household is Bynum, an elderly man who also works roots and exercises at various times a power to move people around that goes beyond the visible and the concrete.  His powers, he says, are specifically to bind people together, to help people to find the one with whom they should be bound and then bind them.  Also in the household is a very young man who plays the guitar, a frisky kind of troublesome fellow just up from the South and given to womanizing.

Two women come to the house and each takes up with the young man in turn.  Meanwhile, Harold Loomis, a mysterious dark stranger arrives at the house with his daughter in tow.  He is looking for his wife whom he hasn't seen in 11 years.  As it turns out, he was kidnapped by Joe Turner and endured the horrors of forced labor and exploitation.  Loomis is presented as a man who wears the scars of his enslavement on his sleeve and who is holding onto the pain but in a manner meant to symbolize, I should think, the incorporation of a slave mentality for some black men in a manner making them particularly subject to violence against others and themselves.  

The coercive nature of his service is clearly meant to serve as a metaphor for the forced enslavement and transportation of the slave trade and of Jim Crow peonage.  In any case, I don't want to say too much more about this for fear of entirely ruining the pleasure of seeing the play for the first time, except to say that Wilson's text has aged well in my opinion.  Also that it continues to fascinate me that black authors regardless of the aesthetic tradition they practice all seem to embrace so much of the same resonant vocabulary having to do with drowning, water, dead rotting or floating bodies, bones, backbreaking physical labor--all of them drenched with the rhythms and preoccupations of the blues and African influenced religious practices.  In particular, watching this play I was struck by how much of it seemed to resonate with some the visual vocabulary of so many African American visual artists generally. 

The music was done by Taj Mahal, somebody who is a vigilant student of the blues and its roots in African music, which comes through the score although very little musical performance is incorporated into the show.  

I have invited those students who might be interested in my World Humanities version of Blues People to go to see the play and write about it as an assignment that could substitute for the mid-term, or provide extra credit.  Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone is set in the early teens, and all his plays are all devoted to portraying the history of the folk.

Also, the entire text of August Wilson's Joe Turner is included in the Norton Anthology.

In addition, Joe Turner is the subject of a number of blues tunes, having much to do with Wilson's choice of him as a subject for his play no doubt.  The ones I have in my musical collection, and which I play all the time they are so beautiful and mysterious are by Big Bill Broonzy, Ed Young and Hobart Smith, and Miles and Bob Pratcher, all of them coming from Alan Lomax's Blues Songbook Collection, a 2-cd set with a medley of classics from Lomax's copious collection of "folk" performance mostly in the rural South from the 20s through the 60s.  

According to these songs, Joe Turner is a mythological figure something like John Henry, except that in Turner's case he comes to your house when you are in need, without work and food, and then he makes sure you get what you need.  How this works in August Wilson's play is somewhat different.  Joe Turner seems to be a figure who occupies the symbolic position of the enslaver, the enforcer, the white kidnapper of black men.  

The play begins with this beautiful and poetic description, as a preamble to the action:

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911.  The sun falls out of heaven like a stone.  The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined sense of industry and progress.  Barges loaded with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard, gleaming steel.  The city flexes its muscles.  Men throw countless bridges across the rivers, lay roads and carve tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city.  Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrived dazed and stunned, their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing.  They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with the dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves in a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and illuminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy. (August Wilson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone)