In this week’s posts, I would like to take a look into the significance of Black authorship in both past and present negro spirituals and protest songs. During my research into the history behind certain negro spirituals and their authors, I was surprised at some of their origins and initial motivations.
Given the circumstances surrounding original negro and slave spirituals, they had to be circulated and passed down orally. Typically, it was only when a curious or well-meaning white person chose to transcribe these songs that they were spread further and were able to be saved for posterity. Oftentimes, many of the original composers were left unnamed or uncredited. One example would be the well-known negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, whose original composer is speculated to be Wallace Willice, an African/Native-American freedman from Choctaw County, in Oklahoma. However, the first ever written record from 1909 is credited to Alexander Reid, a Scottish immigrant who was the superintendent of a learning academy in the Choctaw Nation Territory. Reid heard Wallace – along with another freed woman who worked at the Academy, Minerva – singing “Swing Low” and other spirituals such as “Steal Away to Jesus”, and chose to transcribe the songs for the Tuskegee Jubilee Singers, an African-American a cappella group from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Although Reid is reported to have been sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised Native-Americans and the recently emancipated slaves, it is necessary to recognize and remember that he received credit for and benefited from the lyrical creations of African-Americans and the African-American experience in general. A practice which is still noticeable today in the music and entertainment industry.
Another well-known spiritual/protest song written by a white composer about the African-American experience is the 1934 aria “Summertime”. The song was made famous by renditions performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sam Cooke, and remains one of the “most covered songs in musical history” (Wiki). The original lyrics were written by Dubose Heyward for his novel Porgy, and the aria was composed by George Gershwin for his opera Porgy and Bess, which was based on the novel. While the song was originally modeled after the traditional negro spiritual – it is also speculated that it was an adaption of the negro spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” – and the play was written to portray the authentic African-American lifestyle of the period, both were initially met with criticism. At the time, the play was considered racist due to its stereotypical portrayal of black people and likened to popular minstrel (black face) shows. Although the U.S version was groundbreaking because it employed an entirely black cast of performers, the foreign and European productions still consisted of all-white casts who performed in blackface. It is worth noting that both Gershwin and Heyward were aiming to illustrate the frustrating adversity and poverty many African-American’s faced at the time, in a way which was genuine and would garner sympathy; however, they still profited from framing and portraying the African-American experience.
In each of these circumstances, a white author/composer played a major role in the development of a “negro” spiritual, and despite the somewhat questionable motivations behind them, this involvement has allowed we in the present day to refer back to and treasure these songs.
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_Low,_Sweet_Chariot
- Wallace Willice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallace_Willis
- Alexander Reid: https://www.accessgenealogy.com/oklahoma/history-of-spencer-academy.htm (a bit biased and unconsciously racist in my opinion, read with a grain of salt)
- Summertime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summertime_(George_Gershwin_song)
- Summertime Meaning: http://www.shmoop.com/george-gershwin-summertime/meaning.html