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Understanding African American Racism through Black Music Essay Sample

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Understanding African American Racism through Black Music Essay Sample

Black Music in the backdrop of White Music

During the late Victorian era, American culture all but demanded that African American musicians re-evaluate their place in society and decide how best to position themselves for the future. The post-emancipation era scramble to dominate new representations of the meaning of blackness and whiteness would ensure that any attempt by black musicians to nurture their personal commitments to their art would involve public negotiation with various pre-conceived notions of the meaning of black bodies, black culture, black art and black entertainment.

In this era, when the very notion of an “American” national style of music was in its infancy, the prevailing American image of African Americans’ musical culture derived from several unflattering stereotypes, all of which involved white re-affirmations of racial hierarchy. On the blackface minstrel stage, grotesquely caricatured depictions of failed black manhood were presented in comic sketches which served to assure working class white audiences that blacks’ dreams of equality as freedmen would surely be unfulfilled (Mahar 62). In the realm of popular song, the “Ethiopian Songs” of Stephen Foster, with their dark subjects pining for the antebellum plantation South, remained a dominant source of white Americans’ image of black culture throughout the century.

Both blackface minstrelsy and Stephen Foster’s melodies originated primarily within northern white antebellum working-class culture. After the Civil War, however, African American performers blackened their own faces and toured in minstrel troupes whose repertoires only gradually featured less stereotypical routines (Wondrich 21). Meanwhile, African American songwriters such as James Bland proved adept at writing songs in Foster’s vein. When African Americans did receive an opportunity to perform on the concert stage, as was the case with the Fisk Jubilee singers and antebellum sensations “Blind Tom” Bethune and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, white Americans generally received them as curiosities whose talents for music were seen as an “uncanny” natural phenomenon rather than as harbingers of future African American artistry (Southern, 103-106).

“Sticking with the Music of My Own People”: Manhattan Ragtime and the Quest for Racial Authenticity in Black Musicianship

African-American popular composers shared the ambition of rising above the “coon song” genre. Among them was Scott Joplin, a Midwestern composer billed as “the King of Ragtime”. In May 1903, Will Monroe Cook was in London touring with his musical; Joplin was in St. Louis rehearsing a 32-member cast for a production of the first genuine ragtime opera. While newspaper advertisements and sheet music covers of the era frequently touted “coon songs” with the facetious label of “ragtime opera”, Joplin’s A Guest of Honor was the genuine article. While the libretto and most of the music from this opera has been lost, Joplin’s biographer has established that the “Guest of Honor” of the title was most likely Booker T. Washington, and his celebrated 1901 White House dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt was most likely the subject of the libretto. Unfortunately, despite hints in a Sedalia, Missouri newspaper that Joplin had obtained the backing of “a strong capitalist who for many years has been a manager and proprietor of several well known high class operas”; the opera had no sponsor (Mahar, 121). As happened frequently when large African American musical troops traveled from city to city, Joplin’s tour with his self-financed opera company proved to be short lived, a victim of an unscrupulous local agent who disappeared with a night of the company’s door receipts and left the tour in a financial shambles.

The failure of A Guest of Honor, however, was not the end of Joplin’s dream of producing grand opera. He arrived on the Manhattan scene in 1907, where he eventually became a regular contributor to the activities of the Colored Benevolent Vaudeville Association (CVBA). Here, he worked on the music and libretto for a new three-act opera, Treemonisha. The opera’s title character, after attaining an education from a white woman, rises to uplift and lead the newly freed slaves on her Arkansas plantation. The score and libretto for Treemonisha, completed in 1910, was well received by music critic Lester Walton of The Age, who never failed to encourage Joplin’s efforts to produce the work.

Treemonisha further benefited from a re-write based on advice Joplin received from fellow black composer Harry Lawrence Freeman in 1912. However, Joplin failed to find either a publisher for the music or backing for a production. Lacking this support, he published it on his own and attempted to mount a production relying solely on his royalties from his “classic” piano rags. The closest the opera came to production in Joplin’s lifetime was a presentation of the second act’s ballet in the 1915 annual benefit concert of the Martin-Smith Music School in Manhattan. In the spring of 1917, Joplin died of what was then called dementia paralysica, a manifestation of the tertiary stage of Syphilis. His death went nearly unnoticed. Lester Walton, however, included a tribute on the entertainment page of The Age, in which he linked Joplin’s madness to his inability to produce Treemonisha.

The Naissance of Ragtime

Ragtime developed and matured as a musical form between 1890 and 1910. There are several stages in the development of ragtime, and, accordingly, several different styles. A clear-cut definition would be an over-simplification, since ragtime music is a combination of a variety of musical e1ements and social influences. It has been described however, as “a substy1e whose chief characteristics are duple meter (2/4 or 4/4); functional harmony stressing tonic, dominant, subdominant, and applied dominants in a major tonality; compounded song form structures with 16 or 32-bar periods and shorter introductions, vamps, and codas; a syncopated treble melody which operates in opposition to a harmonic and non-syncopated bass line; and a bass line which moves approximately at half the speed of the me1ody” (Tirro 368-369). Eubie Blake, one of the great ragtime pianists, said that “anything that is syncopated is basically ragtime, whether it’s Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” or Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”.

While syncopation seems to have been the main criterion for ragtime music, it was only one of several characteristics. Other devices that were used included the break, Stoptime and complex bass patterns that went beyond the usual march bass line. A “break” is an abrupt cessation of the basic rhythm and the bass line, with a single line interpolated as a contrast to the regular progress of a syncopated melody with a march-like accompaniment. “Stoptime” refers to a broken rhythmic pattern of single note figures separated by rests, accenting the sound through the repeated silences. It was used as a standard accompaniment for dances (Wondrich 47).

The origins of ragtime include several types of black dance music, such as “coon songs”, cakewalks, and folk rags. The lyrics of those black folk melodies called “coon songs”, along with the minstrel shows, generally created crude racial stereotypes, but with the element of syncopation it was sometimes hard to distinguish a “coon song” from ragtime. These songs became very popular in the 1890s and remained standard fare in vaudeville and musical revues throughout the early 1900s.

Treemonisha: Ode of Black Musicianship

Treemonisha is a composition of several ragtime music sheet composed by Joplin in order to depict racism among African-Americans. This music sheet serves to illustrate that redefinition of musicianship is of necessity because the current definition of music is loaded with prejudices against Black musicality. Treemonisha challenges the prevalent definition through incorporating a philosophy that music is encapsulated of being true to oneself, and accepting it without any concept of color and gender (Wondrich 53).

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (1911) had crowned his own musical aspirations and epitomized then widespread African American nationalist ideologies. John Stark’s publication of his Maple Leaf Rag (Mahar 74) propelled ragtime into the forefront of American popular music and simultaneously established Joplin as its leading exponent. Although Joplin certainly reveled in the success of his ragtime compositions, without income from them he could not have spread his wings, he wished to fly higher. Having already composed one opera, A Guest of Honor (1903, no longer extant) before moving to New York, he now set his sights on an opera combining European traditions with aspects of the African-American experience in a synthesis that would merge the formalities of the operatic tradition with the vigorous novelties of ragtime. Treemonisha would in one stroke vindicate Joplin as a first-rank composer and validate ragtime as worthy “art” music.

Treemonisha mirrors a myriad of early 20th-century musical and cultural concerns, several of which merit close attention. African Americans held widely differing opinions on the subject of ragtime at the turn of the century. African-American performers for the most part embraced ragtime; the Williams and Walker vaudeville team helped popularize the genre by incorporating ragtime songs into their routines. In the meantime middle-class African Americans, seeking legitimacy for African-American music and prestige for a truly African-American musical idiom, deplored the saloon origins of ragtime. Thus, ragtime further contributed to American music while alienating some African-Americans from the music itself. Ragtime’s tentative acceptance by African-American scholars is reflected in the comprehensive histories of music written by African-Americans; it is Euro-Americans scholars who have most readily embraced ragtime.

In addition to validating ragtime as an significant musical genre, Treemonisha fell heir to 19th-century African performing traditions, established by works produced at New York’s African-Grove Theater as early as the 1820’s and 1830’s by 19th-century African-American performers of art music (ranging from Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield to the Hyers Sisters) and by blackface minstrelsy. Treemonisha is also nationalist music that despite lack of proper recognition during Joplin’s lifetime now speaks to African Americans and other Americans alike.

Classic ragtime has been described as “a form with the style of musical composition which was created and developed by Scott Joplin, combining the folk music of the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys with the European tradition in Classical music of the nineteenth century” (Tirro 373). The term “classic” was used in the sense of “best of its type” and was promoted vigorously by John Stark in publishing the main works of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries. The purpose of such vigorous promotion was to offset the widely held conception of ragtime as a low-class and shoddy musical product.

Joplin’s idea was to develop the rag as a composed music emphasizing thoroughly worked-out harmonies, voice-leadings and other rhythmic considerations as well as the necessary syncopation. He was the most influential ragtime composer of all time, mainly because he wrote the first popular ragtime hit, “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). Joplin combined the traditions of Afro-American Folk music with nineteenth century European romanticism he collected the black mid-western folk rag ideas as raw material for the creation of original strains. Thus, his rags are heavily pentatonic, with liberal use of “blue notes”. This combination of syncopated folk art and European composition, along with the march form, resulted in the Classic rag. Scott Joplin’s work can be divided into three periods according to Jay Trebor Tichenor:

  1. The early period (1897-1904), characterized by simple, flowing melodic lines of great beauty and much folk inspiration, such as “Weeping Willow”, “Easy Winners”, and “The Entertainer”.
  2. The peak period, which started about 1904 with “Cascades”, when his rags began to strut; his conceptions are more expansive and there is a new grandiose quality “Fig Leaf” is a masterpiece of this period and
  3. The experimental period (1909-l9l4), characterized by rags with bolder harmonies and more elements of romantic classical music1 “Euphonic Sounds”; and his opera Treemonisha are in line with the third period and the few rags of this period may be offshoots from his work on the opera.

Before and after the revival, the distancing of the African-American educated and literate elite from ragtime allowed Euro-American historians and performers almost total control of the revitalization of ragtime. Euro-Americans have penned almost all major histories of ragtime since 1950, and most of the important revival performers have been Euro-American. In the wake of Joshua Rifkin’s successful recordings, ragtime has even made appearances in the concert hall. In a curiously belated sense, Joplin’s hopes for ragtime have been thoroughly realized; ragtime now stands shoulder to shoulder with jazz in most respected discussions of American music. And Treemonisha successfully established black musicianship, through shattering limitations that has been imposed to it. Such limitations to ragtime music produced by African-Americans like Treemonisha are less sponsorship from publication and recording companies due to color scheme, publicities are greatly controlled by White Americans who espouses segregation and censorship among black community’s music.

Works Cited

Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 2nd ed: New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Tirro, Frank. “Jazz.” Dictionary of Contemporary Music. Ed. John Vinton: New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1974.

Wondrich, David. Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924. Chicago Review Press, 2003.

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