Encores & Curtain Calls: ‘The Black Man in Song’
“When I studied in conservatories as a young man, I absorbed the traditions of music. Then, when I became a pupil of Edgar Varese, my horizons broadened and I wrote in a very dissonant style. Then I began to feel that this idiom was not fully expressing me, so I composed quite a few works expressive of Afro-Americans, consciously using Negro musical idioms. There then came a period when I considered this to be a limited objective, so I began to write in a more universal idiom.”
— William Grant Still, American composer
For those who may have missed or overlooked their luminous performance at the Old Deerfield Sunday Afternoon Concert Series, tenor Irwin Reese and pianist Julia Bady will be reprising their tuneful and moving solo recital “The Black Man in Song,” a title largely descriptive of Reese’s selection of spirituals and art songs by black composers. It also includes what may perhaps be considered the program’s centerpiece, “The Letters,” a song-cycle based on George Washington Carver’s letters. Commissioned by Reese, it is the work of Richard Pearson Thomas, an admired and living white composer.
Reese, prior to his Deerfield performance of the work, said “I told him, ‘Feel free to write whatever music you feel like. The only thing I ask is that, whatever you write, that it have beautiful melodies.’ I think he more than did that.’”
And, given this hearer’s experience of the work, Thomas obliged his patron by summoning a largely lyrical, compelling creation.
On Saturday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m., Friends of Music at Guilford presents “Lucy Terry Prince & The Black Man in Song” at Guilford Community Church, 38 Church Road, Guilford, Vt. (with a snow date on Sunday, Feb. 23).
Co-sponsored by Guilford Historical Society, the event includes a talk by Linda Hecker on early Guilford resident Lucy Terry Prince, who “grew up as a slave in the Ebenezer Wells household of Deerfield, Mass. Considered the earliest African-American literary figure, she authored a poem about a 1746 Indian attack on Deerfield that was handed down orally for many years before its first publication. She married Abijah Prince, a free Black and raised a large family on land they bought in Guilford.”
The recital opens with “Three Dream Portraits” by Margaret Bonds and other art songs by William Grant Still, J. Rosamond Johnson, John W. Work Jr. and Camille Nickerson. The final concert segment includes works in the style of traditional spirituals composed or arranged by James Miller, Virginia Lewis, Hall Johnson and Edward Boatner.
However, to be sure, it is not purebred black culture that we experience in these works, but the hybrid art that emerged in black creators who lived their lives amidst the nexus of white culture, with its myriad roots in European art music, other international musical implants, regional folk genres and even the reigning voices of popular contemporary musical icons such as Stephen Foster and various voices from venues such as Tin Pan Alley, minstrel shows and vaudeville.
Lest cultural elitists be tempted to take offense, it is simply beyond question that, in as a culturally pluralistic society as ours, no one regional or racial faction can hope to pretend that they and they alone have somehow managed to maintain their artistic DNA pristine and unaffected by the many-flavored stew of American society at large. In the relatively tight-knit island of Manhattan, new immigrants of every pedigree, even while living in enclaves of their own nationality, could not help rubbing shoulders with every other imaginable culture, whether they sought to or not.
Russian Jews were hearing lowdown Dixieland and African-Americans were hearing Klezmer; Anglos were hearing Italian opera and street songs and Hispanics were hearing Chopin. Dance master Fred Astaire cruised up to Harlem to get the secret of black Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s tap step. Everyone was going to the movies, the theater and the opera and hearing everything from Paul Robeson to Enrico Caruso. The Great Cross-Fertilization — still gaining momentum to this day — began in earnest.
Had, heaven forbid, this cultural cross-seeding not occurred, we would never have had the young genius of a Gershwin spouting the “Rhapsody in Blue,” with its jagged, bluesy cross-rhythms. He would have merely gone on to write fancier or more timely highbrow music. On a similar note, the unquestionably black William Grant Still would never have produced his hallmark icons of American impressionism, clearly inspired by the masters of Europe even while espousing black or ostensibly Native American subject matter as its thematic content. Indeed, one can easily imagine him, with his gentle and refined musical sensibilities, perhaps turning an offended nose up at the unruly street-urchin Gershwin who, ironically, stole the rhythm prize at an ad hoc “shouting” contest from a local black champion in South Carolina. Nor, for that matter, would Gershwin and his brother, Ira, together with novelist DuBose Heyward, ever have penned the penultimate gold mine of black musical theater: “Porgy and Bess.”
While it’s been a lesson slow and sometimes painful in the learning, it becomes inescapably clear that we simply cannot escape our interdependence and shared American root system.
Lest there be any doubters left among my readers, I would ask only that you betake yourself to the nearest copy of the 1930s master-hit “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by a centenarian songwriter, idiot savant and genius named Irving Berlin (he could not read or write a note of music and only played a special piano he had made for him in one key — that of F sharp),
Within two bars of the start of this wizardly tune, Berlin manages to do the impossible, displace the beat more surely and compellingly than any tribal shamanic drummer. It literally turns from Anglo to African or, in less politically correct language, from “white” to “black,” in the most miraculously seductive way. Knowing, as I happen to, what is actually occurring on a technical level, there is only one explanation for Berlin’s infectious brilliance because, trust me, there are no antecedents to this rhythmic aberration in Berlin’s legacy of Russian Jewish musical art. He absorbed, through pure osmosis and, due to his sponge-like musical intelligence, the many cultural flavors in which he was immersed and they became a part of him.
What then, the moral of my sermon? That Black History Month is not merely an occasion for learning what the African-American experience may or may not have been but, rather, far more. Much as we struggle to embrace the fact, we, indeed, truly are each other.
Admission is $10 per person at the door and includes a colonial-style tea reception.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.