Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

Carolina Shout!

23 May 2020

Carolina Shout!


Carolina Shout

Invariably, Johnson’s most resolute ‘cut’ piece was his intricate showcase, “Carolina Shout.” A close analysis of the composition, as published in 1926 in sheet music form, should illuminate its profundity as well as Johnson’s desire to retain the call and response patterns, short melodic phrases, repeated motivic fragments, and fervent syncopation associated with his musical ancestry.

As written, “Carolina Shout,” is a jubilant composition which is built upon a series of strains. Johnson breaks from the conventional ragtime form of AABBACCDD and employs a form of: A1 (16 bars), A2 (16 bars), B (16 bars), C (16 bars), D (16-bar trio), E (16 bars), F (16-bar variant of D),  G (16-bar variant of D), Coda (7 bars). Using the published version, as scholar Henry Martin argues in his article, “Balancing Composition and Improvisation in James P. Johnson’s ‘Carolina Shout’,” “that [Johnson] be called a compositionally-oriented musician who elaborated his works at the piano in live performance.” The intimation is that while James P. did vary his performances of the tune, he essentially used what was written as a framework for his embellishments. Martin expounds on the use of variation, “in the case of ‘Carolina Shout,’ it is likely that Johnson developed variations in advance and then retained them for future performances if they were successful.”

Irrespective of the version used for analysis, Johnson invariably began ‘Carolina Shout’ with a four-bar introduction. The opening measure not only establishes the tonal center, tempo, and musical disposition of the piece but references the essence of the blues with “crushed” blue notes. The second bar moves away from the tonic by way of two predominant simultaneities, ii and IV. As expected, the dominant chord follows. Johnson adds some color on the third beat of measure three with a minor tonic triad via mode mixture (enharmonically spelled). The closing beat uses an applied or secondary dominant in the form of a leading-tone triad of the supertonic harmony. The downbeat of the final bar is a D7 chord, presaging a return to G major. However, James P. postpones this resolution by using a whole-tone cluster on the third beat—a foreshadowing of his 1929 composition, “You’ve Got to be Modernistic,” and perhaps represents what Houston Baker called for when suggesting, “a more inclusive ‘renaissancism’ defined as an ever-present, folk or vernacular drive that moves always up, beyond and away from whatever forms of oppression surrounding [it].” Thus, by conflating the vernacular language of the blues with a more “modernistic” harmonic practice, Johnson asserts his agency against the Eurocentric, elitist musical traditions and exposes the primitivist-modernist dichotomy of Harlem’s vogue in the 1920s.

Fig.Carolina Shout, James P. Johnson. MCA Sheet music edition, 1926. Author’s analysis.


Each of the primary strains, A through D, of the 1926 version comprises some aspect of Johnson’s pluralistic aesthetic—representing both the past and present—and is archetypal in its function to put the listeners back “in the alley” and “beyond and away from whatever forms of oppression surrounding [them]” simultaneously. This is evident from the onset of the composition.

The first strain, as shown below, begins with a four-measure thematic block, which David A. Jasen and Trebor Jay Tichenor astutely assert is reminiscent of the folk idioms used in ragtime pieces such as the first strains of Ted Snyder’s “Wild Cherries Rag” from 1908 and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Perfect Rag” from 1924. Johnson establishes the metric pulse with the left hand in the first two and a half bars but brilliantly turns it around using “backbeats” or “change-steps” to disrupt the organization of strong and weak beats. This metric dissonance is what Johnson was referring to when he described, “Breakdown music was the best for such sets, the more solid and groovy the better.”

Fig. 4-bar thematic block from “A” Strain, “Carolina Shout.” 1926.


Conventionally, in common time (4/4 meter), the first and third beats are stressed (labeled here as “S” for strong), whereas the second and fourth are not (labeled here as “w” for weak). Johnson’s use of “backbeats” or “change-steps” found in the third measure, forces an alteration to the established meter. This creates a metric displacement that he would characterize as “groovy” and it was invariably a delight to the audience.

In the second strain, Johnson uses a repetitive “groove” in the right hand that is supported by the traditional, striding left hand. Harmonically, he moves temporarily away from the tonic and towards the subdominant with a V7/IV to IV progression. In the third bar, he alters the metric pulse by returning to the backbeats. This is juxtaposed against a highly syncopated right hand which increases the rhythmic excitement of the composition.


Fig. B Strain, 1-bar thematic block. “Carolina Shout.” 1926.


Johnson musically induces the memory of the ring shout in the third section, the C strain, with an antiphonal pattern in the right hand. The change in register enhances the call and response effect—perhaps mimicking an impassioned preacher and a jubilant congregation. The fervent syncopation in the left hand engenders a jaunty, propulsion that is both infectious and technically demanding. The consequence of these two colliding, musical tropes besieges the feeble ideologies espoused by Locke and his ilk—embracing “the musical stuff of ‘high’ cultural and…European musical traditions” did nothing for the elevation of the African American community; they longed for their tradition and James P. was cognizant of it.


Fig. C Strain. “Carolina Shout.” 1926.


For the final primary section, the D strain, Johnson follows the ragtime model by modulating to the subdominant in the trio). The change of key and less dense textural treatment produces a lighter, overarching comportment and thusly balances the composition. The use of a thematic block has proven to be essential to James P.’s aesthetic. Here, he employs a two-measure phrase that is based around the dominant of the new key. Of particular harmonic interest is the simultaneity, labeled *, in the second bar, which is marked dynamically as sforzato and is highly syncopated against the change-steps in the left hand. Obviously, this was the focal point of the thematic block and has “modernistic” implications; it serves a secondary dominant function, V7/ii, however includes a flatted ninth—the B. The presence of an upper extension, along with the closely-positioned texture, portend the harmonic lexicon of stride pianists who would follow him, such as Art Tatum.  Moreover, Johnson chooses not to resolve the applied dominant to its anticipated harmony of D-minor but rather continues to concentrate on the dominant of the temporary new key.


Fig.D Strain. “Carolina Shout.” 1926.


“Carolina Shout” is a masterful exposition of a composer who is both fiercely innovative and reverent of his musical heritage. Being mindful of this duality, Johnson belies the need of the black intelligentsia to culturally transform vernacular music to an art of “loftier magnitude” and chooses to serve those whose spirits crave authentic black, American music.

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