Sunday, October 22, 2017

Negro Records (REDUX Originally Posted 9/16/11)

livebluesworld | Already in the antebellum period, plantation owners would use some slaves not (only) for field work or household services, but would also let them perform as musicians (Marshall Wyatt). The leading white class controlled the way that some blacks could perform their music as entertainment, not only for themselves; they were also encouraged to play for the dancing of their fellow slaves as well. Their music integrated African and European influences. Their instrumentation combined the European violin and the African banjo (banja), and the performance included polkas, marches, jigs and reels of European origin. The percussion and drums, so typical for the African music, were banned because of their potential for social upheaval. Drums and fifes could only be found, played by blacks as well as by whites, in the appropriate context of the colonial military organisations where marches were supposed to contribute to the patriotic feelings and military energy.

In later decades and during the Reconstruction Period, the minstrelsy was the way that the white population dealt with the black music. One can see minstrelsy and black faces as a covert way in which the whites expressed their latent recognition for the richness of the black musical culture. On the outside however, it came down to a comedian presentation of ridiculous and denigrating black stereotypes which was based on black music, but never represented the true spirit of it. The strength of the minstrelsy shows was such that even when black artists joined the shows they put black cork paint on their faces, just as the whites did ! It was the way that the blacks were accepted on stage. The popularity of the shows also within the black population testified of the efficiency by which the white population had succeed in having their control over the existing social order internalised with the people it oppressed (see also Scott Wilkinson – A Reassessment of the blues revival in America, 1951-1970, 1998, quoting Eric Lott : “The phenomenon of minstrelsy itself was an admission of fascination with blacks and black culture”. However, it did not represent the African-American culture at the time since the singing, dancing, and comedy performed at minstrel shows were, in reality, unique demonstrations of Americana in all of its multicultural glory” (pp. 11-12).

Once the African-Americans were freed as slave, the Reconstruction Period witnessed the popularity of the jubilee companies, groups of a Capella black singers who mostly had their social roots in the middle-class and black colleges. Some of them did some intensive touring, bringing them even on the international scene. The most famous are the Fisk Jubilee Singers that considerable contributed to funds raising for the Fisk University. Their repertoire was mainly spirituals, but also songs by the ‘Father of American Music’, Stephen Foster. Even though the aim of the jubilee groups was to offer a counterweight for the negative stereotypes that were promoted by the minstrelsy, they failed to build upon the culture that had grown on the fields and in the shacks. Their popularity was derived from a firm grounding of their style in the vocal harmonies of the European culture: university Jubilee groups presented folk material in a Western clas.... There was no indication of the promotion of the richness of the musical culture that had grown on the plantations.

The same can be said of Polk Miller, who is the first white person who aimed at reviving the older black music forms in an authentic manner. As the son of a plantation owner, he learned how to play the banjo from his father’s slaves. His career started out as a pharmacist, but turned to music in 1892, billing himself (without a black face !) as the “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro” . He toured with “The Old South Quartette”, a changing group of black vocalists. Their repertoire was black and white spirituals, coon songs, confederate war anthems (a capella or with banjo accompaniment). (Scott Wilkinson, 1998). His popularity however didn’t go without concessions to the constraints imposed upon him by the white population: it is said that he stopped from performing because he feared for the safety of his black musicians, who were sometimes even forced to perform behind a curtain, leaving Miller alone visible on stage.

In total respect for the achievements of Polk Miller, one cannot ignore the nostalgic perfume that surrounds his work and music. ” The show aimed at pure nostalgia, as seen in a 1910 brochure emphasizing that the Old South Quartette were “genuine” Negroes: “Their singing is not the kind that has been heard by the students from ‘colored universities,’ who dress in pigeon-tailed coats, patent leather shoes, white shirt fronds, and who are advertised to sing plantation melodies but do not. They do not try to let you see how nearly a Negro can act the white man while parading in a dark skin, but they dress, act, and sing like the real Southern darkey in his ‘workin’’ clothes. As to their voices, they are the sweet, though uncultivated, result of nature, producing a harmony unequalled by the professionals, and because it is natural, goes straight to the hearts of the people. To the old Southerner, it will be ‘Sounds from the old home of long ago’. . . . To hear them is to live again your boyhood days down on the farm.” (program brochHide allure quoted on . The premise of his show was that he was the judge of the real African American Culture. It is hard to put the suspicion aside that pure nostalgia about the old, ante-bellum social order, was not far away.