Sunday, December 30, 2018

'American Negro Folk Songs' - Harvard University Press (1928)


Ironically, written by someone called Newman I. White (the Professor of English at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina), this book is obviously of its time in its usage of particular terminologies. Where it gets really interesting is in the chapter entitled ‘Religious Songs’ (online here) and specifically of the cultural sharing of music and hymns which took place between what the author terms ‘mountain whites’ and black people.

In our era, claims of ‘cultural appropriation’ between people groups insist that there must be a negative context - of the power of one group, who oppress and exploit another group -  for what would previously could well been regarded as 'cultural sharing'. This controversy over a statue of songwriter Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh provides one example of that.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to show that class is/was as much of a social issue as race - and that musically speaking, poor people shared songs and tunes and playing styles across imagined racial divides. White complains that often there was little distinction between the religious songs of the blacks and mountain whites. Exactly.

Marshall Taylor

African-American Kentucky Methodist minister Rev Marshall William Taylor published a volume of ‘Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies’ in 1883, which is online here. Taylor’s biography is fascinating:

“...Marshall William Boyd (alias) Taylor was born July 1, 1846, at Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky, of poor, uneducated, but respectable parents. He was the fourth in a family of five children, three of whom were boys, viz.: George Summers, Francis Asbury, and himself; and two girls, Mary Ellen and Mary Cathrine. He is of Scotch-Irish and Indian descent on his father's side. Hon. Samuel Boyd, of New York; Joseph Boyd, of Virginia; and Lieut.-Gov. Boyd, of Kentucky, were blood-relations of his, and all descended from the "Clan Boyd" of Scotland. His mother was of African and Arabian stock. His grandmother, on his mother's side, Phillis Ann, was brought from Madagascar when a little girl, and became the slave of Mr. Alexander Black, a Kentucky farmer, who at his death willed his slaves free…” - full bio online here

Poor people survive together. They fall in love together, make families together, they share life together. Cultures blend around the edges and so the races mix too. Music is one perfect example of that, as is Marshall Taylor’s complex ancestry - and above all, spiritual songs express a shared human condition, a shared hope, and a ‘for whosoever believeth on Him’ gospel. Here’s another Kentucky pastor - Claude Ely - with his raw and raucous 1934 composition ‘Ain’t No Grave’ that proves that fusion.