Out of Sight (book)

The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895
by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

UPM American Made Music Series, ISBN 1-57806-499-6
510 pages, 150 b&w photographs, cloth, $75.00

The story of the rise of African American popular music is, as we all know, the story of the origins of the global music industry.  It would be an oversimplification to suggest that contemporary popular music is rooted in African American culture, but perhaps not a gross one.  The present reviewer claims no expertise in pop music of the 21st century, but what is absorbed by the osmosis of living in the modern world (and perhaps especially, of sharing a home with young consumers) suggests that at the pop end it still owes much to Rhythm and Blues (rhythms, vocal styles, subject matter) and, to a lesser extent, jazz (chord sequences, lyrical formulae), while rock music still harks back to the blues (guitar, bass, drums; variations on a 12-bar format).

At one level, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is a story that is pretty thoroughly explored.  There are now enough books on ragtime, blues, jazz etc, to fill a library on their own.  Cover picture - yes, it is this way up.This makes it all the more remarkable to find a book that is massive in size and hugely substantial in content, while covering areas of investigation which have been largely untouched in the past.  And yet it encompasses a period of only 6 years.  The premise of Out of Sight is that this comparatively short period, 1889-1895, was pivotal in the birth of African American music.  During these years, as the press release with the book says, 'the fire that would ignite almost every American popular music style was sparking.  These were some of the worst years in American race relations, yet they witnessed the emergence of ragtime and the birth of an African American popular entertainment industry.'  As the book begins, in 1889, the jubilee singing troupes are captivating audiences all over the world, on their long international tours, and as it ends six years later, we are witnessing the birth of ragtime, or at least the first published references to it.

Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott have spent years in libraries and archives across the USA, excavating the remaining documented records of black music - authentic contemporary evidence, in the form of references from the African American community newspapers of the day, and other sources.  These references take the form of quotes, organised both thematically and chronologically, with extensive and detailed explanatory notes, including historical and cultural contextualisation, as well as a large number of illustrations - photographs, reproductions of advertisements and articles, sheet music, maps, etc, etc.  This enables us to begin to understand the development of the variety of music in this period, as well as to meet the personalities, the challenges they faced - racial and environmental as well as personal - all set in the context of historical events and their attendant social, political and cultural changes.

Out of Sight is a beautifully constructed work, right down to its very deliberate choice of title.  To begin with, it works as an indication that for much of the following 100 years, this history has remained outside of the view of both the music enthusiast and the historian.  But it is also a reference to the fact that much of this dynamic cultural activity was going on out of the sight of the mainstream of American society of its day - a point all the more fascinating when you consider just how much its eventual manifestations were to engulf the world.  In their introduction, the authors also make the point that what we think of as 20th century verbal expressions can be traced back as early as the late 19th - and one example is "out of sight".  As a hip expression of approval, it might smack of bebop and soul to us (and modern slang dictionaries also make this mistake) but Seroff and Abbott find references in Black newspapers dating as far back as 1890.

Far from a dry, historical record, Out of Sight makes utterly compulsive reading, and throughout the book there will be many echoes for people, like me, who have spent years immersed in the better documented eras of Black music, in the first half of the 20th century.  Here are just two examples, plucked at random:

June 15, 1889 Sin Killer Griffin is organising a Gospel Army of colored Baptists at Denison Texas, for the invasion of Africa.
This brief note is fascinating in itself - you can't help wondering just how were this army intending to arrange the invasion of an entire continent, from an obscure town in the deep south?  What did they think they were going to do when they got there?  Does the phrase invasion of Africa have some figurative meaning that is now lost to us?  However, it's all the more fascinating when you know that in 1934, a Sin Killer Griffin was recorded by the Library of Congress, at the state prison farm in Texas.  Seroff and Abbott know this, of course, and suggest that it is likely that the two were the same.  A few tracks from Griffin were released by the Library of Congress, and so are now available on a Document CD (Field Recordings Vol.5, DOCD-5579).  If you track it down, you can imagine as you listen to it, what this man might have sounded like as he tried to rouse the citizens of small town Texas to join him in his Back to Africa campaign at the tail end of the 19th century.

And another example, from June 23 1893 in the Kansas City American, is this quoted piece of stage dialogue about the blues:

What s the matter with you today, are you downhearted?
I ve got de blues
The blues - what do you call the blues?
...  You see the blues am dis when you get up in de mawnin you feel worse, you put your clothing on, mope about and you feel wus, den you go down to yer brekfust and you can't eat...
This is very close to an introduction that Leadbelly recorded to his song Good Morning Blues half a century later.

These are just two examples of what must be hundreds, from explicit references to distant echoes.  But it would be quite wrong to suggest that the value of this book is simply in offering some prehistory to the well-explored territories of blues and gospel.  It goes much further than that, and in a way, its greatest contribution might even be in laying the foundation for the documenation of other aspects, such as the careers of the great black prima donnas, the journeys of the troupes of spiritual singers, the "authentic" African American minstrels, such as the companies managed by the near legendary Orpheus McAdoo and Samuel T Jack, and other now obscure corners of black community music-making of the day.

The fact that there was a Black Patti is now fairly well known (i.e. that the singer Mme Sissirietta Jones was given this title in reference to the famous white opera singer of the day, Adelina Patti), if only because a record label that issued blues in the 1920s was named after her.  But how many of us knew that there was a Colored Jenny Lind (Miss Flora Batson) or even a Black Vesta Tilley (Florence Hines).  There was also a Brown Patti (Marie Selika), and one newspaper lampooned the notion, wondering when the Yellow Patti and the Green Patti were going to come along.  All this reflects an underlying tension that is apparent throughout the book.  As African Americans began to assert their own culture, one of the ways they chose was to do it in terms that related directly to white, European-based culture.  This is perhaps inevitable, as one of the aims was respectability and assimilation, but it could, of course, militate against the aim of establishing distinctive cultural values.  It may have been inevitable, but it may also have been potentially damaging, as it set up a dichotomy between those who saw respectability solely in terms of harmonisation with the dominant culture, and those who wanted to establish an African American (not that this is an epithet they would have used then) identity with its own authentic characteristics.

The latter received an incaculable boost in 1893 with what has come to be known as The Dvorak Statement .  The great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent several years in New York, where he occupied the position of head of the National Conservatory of Music, and he reflected his musical experiences there in some of his best known compositions - his Symphony No.5 (From the New World) and his superb String Quartet No.9 (American) being the best known examples.  Dvorak was captivated by the melody and harmony of the jubilee quartets, so much so that he used some of them directly - the largo from the Symphony No.5, which has been used in everything from pop songs to advertisements for brown bread, was said to have derived from a spiritual tune he had heard during this period.  In May 1893, he was interviewed for an article published in the New York Herald, entitled The Real Value of Negro Melodies, in which he asserted "I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies...  In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music....  There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source".

Dvorak's position was enormously influential in the development of Western art music in the USA; many subsequent composers would use traditional melodies in their works.  That this view persisted half a century later is evident from the quote from Alain Locke I transcribed in my recent review in Musical Traditions of the Bridge Records CD Freedom: the Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White at the Library of Congress 1940, where he says "[The spirituals] promise to be one of the profitable wellsprings of native idiom in serious American music...  and properly appreciated and used, can be - should be - will be, a part of the cultural ties that bind us".  But there were others whose lives work was deeply influenced by the spirit of what Dvorak had to say - people like W C Handy, Scott Joplin and others, as Abbott and Seroff point out, as well as most significantly, perhaps, Duke Ellington.  As the twentieth century advanced, it was to become more and more apparent that the future music of the USA (and beyond) certainly was to be founded on "Negro melodies", but it was hardly to be in the sense that Dvorak had imagined.

Americans at this period - both black and white - knew very little about Africa and its music, but that did not stop them pronouncing on the continuity between African music and the music of African Americans.  Others found ways of using the connection to develop novelty entertainments.  For example, there's an ad for a performance by Leroy Bland and Claybourn Jones, blithely confusing geography in the name of art, " in their Zulu Travesty entitled A Dream of Dahomey".  However, this period did also see the appearance in the USA of musicians who actually had come from Africa.  A variety of African Princes performed on stage and in travelling circuses.  While some of these appear to have been phoney ("The Prince seems to be a South Carolina man who learnt of Africa from a showman...", Kansas City American Citizen) others were the authentic article - such as Prof Ulato Monszaro, Boneo Moskego (Orlando Gibson), and the almost Irish-sounding Jave Tip O Tip.  One Prince Oskazuma "African Warrior, Lecturer, Mimic, Fire Fiend" became a feature in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.  The various references here to a Dahomean Village which appeared at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, point up the whole range of tensions inherent in this question.  On the one hand, there is Frederick Douglass complaining bitterly that Black culture is represented by "barbaric rites", and at the other extreme, there is a white journalist writing that seeing the African musicians suggested to him that "the only thing the white man has taught his black brother is to wear clothes and play the slide trombone".

Each year is taken in a separate chapter, and each chapter begins with a significant cultural event or development of that year.  In 1892, for example, it's "a rash of cake-walk extravaganzas".  The cake-walk was controversial - on the one hand seen as being an authentic and distinctive representation of black culture, on the other as exploitative and caricaturing.  A New York Times article went to the extreme edge of the former view, proposing it as demonstrating continuity with images to be seen on Assyrian sculptures and Egyptian mural decorations, while the Detroit Plaindealer showed the other side, reporting that "A colored preacher in Chicago thinks the cake-walks disgraceful to the colored race.  They make themselves cheap and ridiculous for the amusement of the white people...".  Indeed, it seems evident that some white Americans first came to Black music and dance to scoff, but as one newpaper in Cincinnatti, related "... a large number of fashionable people in the packed auditorium went with the view of ridiculing the affair, but soon after the walk began they joined in the general applause and admiration".  Again, this whole affair reflects the ever present tension between expressing cultural values in black terms or in white.  It also reflects the backdrop of prejudice and hostility against which these historic musical developments were taking place.  The extracts from newspapers in this book are all, in some respect, music-related, but as you read through it, you cannot avoid the frequent references to discrimination, ridicule, violence and even murder.

This review can only scratch at the surface of this extraordinary work of research.  It's difficult not to reach for the cliches, like "labour of love" and "tour de force", if you are to do justice to the mid-boggling amount of hard work that has gone into it, the depth of its coverage and the potential impact of what it reveals.  What's more, it functions as a magnificent memorial to so many people whose stories have never been told before.  Here, for example, is a congregation refusing to sing America and adopting John Brown's Body as an alternative anthem, in honour of the famous abolitionist.  Here is a band of orphan brass musicians from South Carolina stranded in London because their manager had been misled into making the journey, only to find that laws would not allow such young children to perform in public.  Here is Blind Tom, a blind piano player, born into slavery and now "famous for his ability to reproduce instantaneousy, after just one hearing, any passage played for him on the piano."  And hundreds more.  We may never hear their music (in fact, very little of what is described in these pages can be heard on records, so it is not just Out of Sight), but from these pages we can get some feel for what it might have sounded like, and we can marvel at how these people defied the horrors of racism and poverty to leave their small mark on history, and to lay the foundations for a musical revolution that would sweep the world.

The book is available, price $75.00, from the University Press of Mississippi, 3825 Ridgewood Road, Jackson, MS 39211-6492, USA.  E-mail: press@ihl.state.ms.us

Ray Templeton - 28.5.03

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