Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

In what way would the music of savages be inferior to that of civilized man? – Hugues Panassie (Locke vs. Baraka).

7 May 2020

In what way would the music of savages be inferior to that of civilized man? – Hugues Panassie (Locke vs. Baraka).

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Locke’s condescension of the spiritual’s inherent worth reaches its apogee when he claims the musical genre received its “highest possible recognition” when employed as thematic material for Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, Op. 95:

[T]he spirituals and even the secular Negro folk melodies and their harmonic style have been regarded by most musicians as the purest and most valuable musical ore in America; the raw materials of a native American music. So gradually ever since, their folk quality and purity of style have been emphasized by real musicians.

Locke’s supposition is easily confuted. In Antonín Dvořák: Letters and Reminiscences, Otakar Šourek, a Czech writer and authority of Dvořák, wrote:

…before I  set out with the score, the Master wrote at last minute on the  title-page “Z Nového světa” (“From the New World”). The title “From the New World caused then and still causes today, at least here in America, much confusion and difference of opinion. There were and are many people who thought and think that the title is to be understood as the “American” symphony, i.e. a symphony with American music. Quite a wrong idea! This title means nothing more than “Impressions and Greetings from the New World”—as the Master himself has more than once explained.

Dvořák substantiated Šourek’s claim in a letter from February 1900 to Czech violist, composer, and friend Oskar Nedbal, “…I am sending you Kretschmar’s analysis of the Symphony, but the nonsense—that I made use ‘Indian’ and American [Negro] motifs—leave out, because it is a lie, I only sought to write in the spirit of these American-folk melodies.”

 The melody in question lies in the first movement and second theme of Dvořák’s symphony: 

Fig. Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, Op. 95. First movement, second theme.

Locke, and others, have likened the above them to the “Negro” spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

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Fig. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Negro” spiritual.

A close analysis of the two musical examples above will illuminate that the similarities are inconsequential. Firstly, each melodic line consists of obvious syncopated figures. While syncopation, the use of accents on beats or parts of beats that are not traditionally accented, is what Amiri Baraka would refer to as an “Africanism” or African retention, and certainly common within the context of the spiritual, it is not the sole property of African or African American culture. In fact, early use of syncopation in the Western European canon can be found in the refrain “Deo Gratias” from the 15th-century English Agincourt Carol: 

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Fig. “Deo Gratias” from the 15th-century English Agincourt Carol, Anonymous.

Melodically, Locke might speculate that the consecutive pitches, which bridge the distance of a descending minor third followed by a descending major second in the opening two measures of the Dvořák (G4–E4–D4) were derived from measure two of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (F4–D4–C4). Likewise, the sequence of ascending pitches in measures three and four of the Dvořák (G4–B4–D5–D5–D5) were appropriated from the spiritual’s third and fourth bars (F4–A4–C4–C4–C4); each line arpeggiates an ascending major triad and repeats the penultimate and ultimate pitches. The commonplace, melodic movement of each line makes Locke’s theory suspect, at best. 

According to Locke, “The Negro’s own natural reaction back to gaiety and humor and way from the intense reactions of his enforced sorrow and seriousness gave birth to the second strain of Negro folk music—light, mock-sentimental and full of pagan humor…it has become the principal source and ingredient of American popular music.” Locke cites the insipid, minstrel-like tune, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” by white, vaudeville musician, Wendell Hall from 1923 as a paradigm of this style. One might ask, “How does a musician who is not African American, compose ‘Negro’ folk music?” Moreover, why would a leader of the “New Negro” movement choose that musician as emblematic of the style? It is evident that Locke, when unable to use classical, European models as representative of the Harlem Renaissance, opts to highlight a white musician in hopes of pandering to his constituents and disseminating his agenda. 

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 Fig. It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’. Wendell Hall. 1923.

The third class of Locke’s stratification of “Negro” music is a “strictly formal or classical type…properly styled Negro music only when obviously derived from folk music idioms or strongly influenced by them.” He cites “classical jazz” as an example of this strain and uses George Gershwin’s 1924 composition Rhapsody in Blue as evidence. Locke expands his conception of this category by including what he deems as “straight” classics such as Still’s Afro-American Symphony, William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s oratorio, Hiawatha. These are most perplexing choices. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue cannot be considered “Negro” music, like the aforementioned tune by Hall, because the composer was white. Dawson, on the other hand, was an African American composer, but his Symphonywas written in 1934 and thusly falls beyond the temporal parameters of the Harlem Renaissance. Coleridge-Taylor, a black London composer who was dubbed the African Mahler, completed his oratorio in 1899—again falling outside the temporal bounds of the “New Negro” movement. Moreover, the composer was not American. 

This site, to evince a model that repudiates any predilection to debase the import of black vernacular music to American cultural history, subscribes to the ideology espoused by the late Amiri Baraka. In a 2007 panel discussion at Jazz at Lincoln Center entitled Race in Jazz Academia, Baraka declared, “What does America have of value in the arts that it created except Afro-American music? Now the refusal to accept it as that—black music by black people, you understand, is no different from the status that we’re regarded in everything.” This is a poignant sentiment and commentary on present-day cultural perspectives. In nearly eight decades after the close of the Harlem Renaissance, the success of the movement is dubious; the spirit of black America is still being subjugated and the ownership of their culture in question. Baraka exclaims, “I mean [white] people think that tap dancing started with Fred Astaire!” The allusion is that white America discounts and disregards the cultural capital put forth by the African American community; in this case, Baraka reminds people that black dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the progenitor of tap dancing.

 In 1963, Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones, published a ground-breaking text on the role of race in the development of music in America. It was entitled, Blues People: Negro Music in White America and represented a staunch standpoint that was diametrically opposed to the Eurocentric ideologies of Locke. Regarding the origins of “Negro” music, he declared:

That there was a body of music that came to exist from a people who were brought to this side as slaves and that throughout that music’s development, it had had to survive, expand, reorganize, continue, and express itself, as the fragile property of powerless and oppressed People [sic].

The “body of music” to which Baraka is referring is the slave song, which included the field holler, work song, and spiritual. Its expansion and reorganization fostered the developments of two most profound examples of vernacular music in America’s history…the blues and jazz.

 



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