Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

The Misguided Principles of the Harlem Renaissance.

6 May 2020

The Misguided Principles of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays (1990), edited by Floyd, places music at the epicenter of this period of cultural change. He argues that while the Harlem Renaissance may have been literary in origin, music became the most decisive vehicle by which to achieve its goals of racial uplift and equity. However, with the exception of a seminal article written by the late Ellington scholar, Mark Tucker, on Ellington’s formative years, Floyd’s anthology is a prime example of how, in the perspectives of the Harlem Renaissance leaders and in contemporary American cultural history, the vernacular music of the African American community was suppressed in favor of that which embodied a classical, high art sensibility. In the opening to the collection, “Music in the Harlem Renaissance,” Floyd establishes those who were in the forefront of the movement as well as their intentions, “The primary artistic leaders of the Harlem Renaissance were a group of intellectuals…Jessie Redmond Faucet, Charles S. Johnson, Casper Holstein, Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson; they aspired to high culture, as opposed to that of the common man, which they hoped to mine for novels, plays and symphonies.

The essays in Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance, keeping with the position of “high culture,” largely focus on composers who crafted works based on established Western European classical models such as the symphony, concerto, sonata, opera, and oratorio. This is evidenced in “Vocal Concert Music in the Harlem Renaissance,” an article by Rawn Spearman, where the author maintains, “composers and performers alike turned toward the musical stuff of ‘high’ cultural and steeped themselves in European musical traditions.” While some thematic materials employed by the Harlem Renaissance composers were based on the “Negro” spirituals, and at times, the blues, their essence was diluted by a non-indigenous, classical treatment. Locke, seeing this approach as an artistic elevation, lauded several composers:

The credit for turning this tide goes principally to a convinced group of Negro musicians in New York City, all of them with formal conservatory background, but a deep faith in the dignity of Negro folk music. Two of them, J. Rosamond Johnson and Will Marion Cook, projected a Negro Conservatory of Music and another, Harry T. Burleigh, was destined to dignify and popularize the spiritual by winning a place for them [sic] in the general repertory of the concert stage.

The upward artistic mobility, as Locke and his contemporaries would likely see it, of the African American spiritual is emphasized once again in the fourth chapter of Floyd’s anthology, “Harlem Renaissance Ideals in the Music of Robert Nathaniel Dett,” by Georgia A. Ryder.

The “Chariot Jubilee” for tenor solo, eight-part chorus and mixed voices and orchestra, which I wrote for the Syracuse Festival Chorus, and which was performed by them and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, with Mr. Lambert Murphy as soloist, Keith’s Theatre, Syracuse, May 9, 1921, marks, so far as I know, the first attempt to develop the spiritual into an oratorio form.

In her essay, “William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson: Echoes of the Harlem Renaissance,” Rae Linda Brown perpetuates the “New Negro” modus operandi of elevating “Negro musical idioms to a position of dignity and effectiveness in the field of symphonic and operatic music.” Like Dett’s treatment of the spiritual, Still, in his Afro-American Symphony, aspired to demonstrate, “…how the Blues [sic], so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”

Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance supports Locke’s perspective of absolute music–art for art’s sake. In his essay, “Vindication as a Thematic Principle in the Writings of Alain Locke on the music of black Americans,” Paul Burgett posits, “[T]here clearly was a tendency among Negro intelligentsia that sought the cultural transformation of black folk culture into a formal or high culture–an art of greater value.” Nathan Huggins in, Harlem Renaissance, reflected that, “Harlem intellectuals promoted Negro art, but one thing is very curious, except for Langston Hughes, none of them took jazz—the new music—seriously.” This edict illuminates the divisive dogma that delineated intellectuals from “show people.” Composers who crafted works of a high art sensibility would be among the former classification, while the latter was reserved for jazz and popular music entertainers.

In his text, The Negro and His Music, Locke stratifies “Negro” music in three strands: folk, popular, and classical music. The first layer, folk music, is categorized by its rudimentary development. It is “[p]roduced without formal musical training or intention” and is a product of “emotional creation.” An example of this, as per Locke, is the spiritual—a form of slave song that rose from the blood-stained soil of the antebellum South. The impetus for its development was the deep suffering and oppression of the enslaved. What Locke failed to realize is that the spiritual was both sacred and secular, hallowed and profane. The lyrics were an explicit prayer to God to save them from their earthly Hell, but also served to covertly communicate with other slaves. 

A quintessential spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” embodies the pluralistic functionality of the slave song. The text of the spiritual is clearly Bibical; it references Exodus 8:1 of the Old Testament, “And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me,” in which the Lord commands Moses to order the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Implicitly, the song provided a coded meaning of escape, which was propagated among the slaves. In Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, Sarah Bradford’s authorized biography of Harriett Tubman, she affirms this as the trailblazing abolitionist disclosed that “Go Down Moses” served as a form of communication fugitive slaves used when fleeing Maryland. While these songs were an essential aspect of the oral tradition of early African American culture and thusly did not require to be formally notated, as Locke submits, their functionality was much more complex than he suspected.

Velma Maia Thomas buttresses this contention in her book, No Man Can Hinder Me: The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song: “You take a Negro spiritual like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ This is a metaphorical expression of movement. The chariot represents the conductors of the Underground Railroad as they bring the enslaved northward to freedom.” The use of double-meanings is not only representative of what Henry Louis Gates defines as signifyin’ but is central to the African American musical aesthetic for “it allows individuals to demonstrate intellectual power while simultaneously obscuring the nature and extent of their agency.”


 



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