Monday, September 24, 2007

COMM 337: Spirituals, links to sound files

To hear brief sound clips of "Lay Down Body," "Row, Michael, Row," and "Reborn Again" from the album Been in the Storm So Long: Spirituals and Shouts, Children's Game Songs (which I have played in class), go to the University of Virginia website on Thomas Wentworth Higginson's 1867 article on singing by black soldiers he commanded during the Civil War. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still around, and clips from their latest album In Bright Mansions are available on Fisk's website. (I have also played songs from this album in class.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

HUM 223: Black spirituals, links and quotes

One of the most remarkable chapters in American music history was written by recently freed slaves and their children during the years after the Civil War. Taking a musical tradition with its origins in plantation life, they transformed it into a form of sophisticated art music and attracted the attention of one of the foremost European composers of the time.

They are the black spirituals, or "Negro spirituals" in the language of the day. Anton Dvorak, the Czech composer, used them as thematic material for his New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, 1893). And African American composers brought the spirituals to the same level of musical sophistication as the lieder (songs) of Schubert or Brahms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The African American spirituals grew out of "shouts" and ceremonies that were essentially religious, involving both singing and dance. Their history is sketched in briefly at the Spirituals Project website, a project of the University of Denver. More background, including sound files, is available from the Spiritual Workshop of Paris, France. Be sure to listen to "Heaven” by JoAnne Stephenson, accompanied by Lorna Young-Wright, to hear some pretty fine left- and right-hand syncopation in a classical piano style. All the sound files on the Paris website show how African American music was adapted to the styles of art music, but Young-Wright's playing has a "swing" to it you just don't get in a Schubert art song.

Central to the flowering of the black spirituals were the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who took their polished arrangments on the road during the 1870s to raise money for their school, Fisk University. They suffered poverty, ill health and initially hostile audiences, but they sang before Queen Victoria and they won over the musical intelligensia of their day. They are still around, and their website tells their story. A slightly more detailed history is available on the Primarily A Cappella website. It is as dramatic as a romance novel, but the story is true.

For some of the back story, we'll watch two segments of a local Nashville television show hosted by as Fisk history prof Reavis Mitchell and choir director Paul Kwami explain how the Jubilee Singers got started and what they contribute now to the college, the community and the world. (

W.E.B. DuBois, who studied at Fisk in the 1880s, was especially stirred by the spirituals. "Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past," he said. DuBois called them the "sorrow songs," and in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he said of them:
... by fateful chance the Negro folk-song — the rhythmic cry of the slave — stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
In the 1890s, Dvorak taught at a conservatory of music in New York City, and there he learned of the spirituals from Harry Burleigh, a student of his, whom he asked to sing them repeatedly. Burleigh went on to arrange "Deep River," which may have served as a theme for Dvorak's New World Symphony, and compose his own art songs. Burleigh wrote in 1917 of the values in his artistic arrangments of the spirituals:
Success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling. The voice is not nearly so important as the spirit; and then rhythm, for the Negro's soul is linked with rhythm, and is an essential characteristic of most all Folk Songs.

It is a serious misconception of their meaning and value to treat them as "minstrel" songs, or to try to make them funny by a too literal attempt to imitate the manner of the Negro in singing them, by swaying the body, clapping the hands, or striving to make the peculiar inflections of voice that are natural with the colored people. Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come and man - every man - will be free.
I haven't been able to find Dvorak's article on American music online, but a University of Texas feature story on the New World Symphony quotes from it:
[Dvorak] reveled ... in African American music, such as spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the likes of which he had never heard before. In fact, Dvorak recognized in black music the future music of America, and his prediction was borne out in the ragtime, blues, jazz and various forms of rock that would be so central to the music of the 20th century.

“In the [N]egro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay, or what you will…. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”
Most of the influence of black American music has been in blues, jazz and rock. But I think it's important to remember some of it was sung before the crowned heads of Europe and flourished at the highest artistic levels, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

HUM 223: "Sounds of Slavery" -- mp3 files

Sound files of 18 field recordings of African American musicians of the 1930s are available on Beacon Press' website for a book called The Sounds of Slavery by Shane White and Graham White. They are, as the authors note, as close as we'll ever get to the roots of African American music. And there's no charge for downloading them.

The sound files go with the book, which can be ordered from Beacon Press or online vendors like It's simply one of the most interesting books I've ever read. WNYC, the classical music radio station in New York City, has an online excerpt from the first chapter of the book that describes the recordings, many of which were made by 1930s-vintage musicologists John and Alan Lomax:
The African Americans whom the Lomaxes auditioned and then recorded on what John Lomax called their “portable-machine for electrical sound-recording”28—on the 1933 trip the machine weighed 350 pounds—were the children and grandchildren of slaves. Unlike earlier collectors, whose transcriptions of performances depended on the transcriber’s skill and judgment, the Lomaxes relied on technology to secure what they believed was the unmediated original. After one field trip, John Lomax described the 150 tunes with which he had returned as “sound photographs of Negro songs, rendered in their own element, unrestrained, uninfluenced and undirected by anyone who has had his own notions of how the songs should be rendered.” But like the photographs to which Lomax compared his recordings, they contain ambivalences. Recordings, too, can strike a pose. For even though the Lomaxes used machines, they saw themselves as being in pursuit of subjects whom modernity had passed by. And this vision, in turn, shaped both their journeys and the sounds they enshrined. In search of an older, more “authentic” African American culture—in our terms, one closer to the time of slavery—the Lomaxes rummaged through the “eddies of human society” in remote cotton plantations, lumber camps, and, most famously, segregated southern prisons. Part of the reason they were so excited by their “discovery” of the talent of Leadbelly was that they felt that the great blues singer’s “eleven years of confinement had cut him off both from the phonograph and from the radio”—the fact that Leadbelly felt otherwise was beside the point.29 What is exciting about listening to the material from the field trips into the South of the 1930s is that the folk artists whose voices one hears reveal ways of singing and talking that had been heard from the lips of former slaves. It most definitely is not as though a tape recorder had been left on in the woods near the plantation on which Frederick Douglass toiled as a slave, but these recordings bring us about as close as we are ever going to get to hearing some of the familiar— and to white ears often “weird” and “unforgettable”—sounds of slavery.

Friday, September 14, 2007

HUM 223: A new citation generator

Here's a citation generator that will help you get the commas and quotation marks right in both MLA and APA citations. It's put up on the Web by Calvin College of Grand Rapids, Mich.

To demonstrate how it works, let's do my faculty page in MLA format. Open a new window, and follow these steps:

1. In the ribbon on the left, underneath the Calvin College seal, click on "MLA" under the heading Citation Styles.

2. Just below it, click on "Electronic" under the heading Source Type.

3. Under the heading Resource, scroll down to the Website subsection and click on "Entire Site."

4. You'll get a screen headed "Citing a Website Document in MLA Format." Just fill in my name in the fields under "Author Name."

5. Under "Web Site Title," type in "Faculty page."

6. Go to my faculty page, highlight my address (or URL, which stands for Uniform Resource Locator) in the address field and copy it.

7. Go back to the Calvin College page and paste the address into the field that says "Full URL."

8. Other parts of the citation, including the punctuation and the date of access, will be filled in automatically. So you just click on the button that says "Submit."

9. A new page will appear, with the following citation under the heading MLA Works Cited Entry:
Ellertsen, Pete . Faculty page. Springfield College/Benedictine University. 14 Sep. 2007 <>.
Highlight it, copy it and paste into your Works Cited list in alphabetical order.

10. Check to make sure there aren't any extra commas or apostrophes hanging there, and marvel at the wonders of modern technology. It's easier to do it than to read about how to do it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

HUM 223: Live music, 'Sacred Harp,' etc.

Two more opportunities to write a paper on a musical event. The first is a Sacred Harp "singing convention" Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15-16, in Taylorville. It's a kind of old-fashioned gospel singing. Very old-fashioned. In fact, technically it predates gospel. The white people who were shown in Bill Moyers' show "Amazing Grace" singing in a Primitive Baptist church in Georgia were Sacred Harp singers (in fact I know some of them). The other is the tribute to Jerry Garcia Sept. 23 in Douglas Park.

I like the papers I've been getting back from the blues festival in downtown Springfield and last week's bluegrass festival at New Salem. Some suggestions reproduced below from earlier blogs and assignment sheets. And some more on the Sacred Harp singing at the bottom of this page.

Writing about music

I'll link to a couple of handouts I've written and posted to my faculty webpage on how to do different types of writing assignments.

Not sure how to write a profile? Read my handout on profiles for English 111 and newswriting [COM 209] students. Basically, here's what you do. Go there. Look around. Talk to people. Listen to the music. Take notes. Go home. Write it up. We'll talk some in class Monday about how to do it. The other handout your need to read is my HUM 223 assignment sheet on how to write a listener response paper on music. Here's the part you need to know now:
In doing reflective response papers, I want you to start with your own reaction to the music. But I want you to go beyond that and focus on the music. Here's how. As you listen to it, ask yourself these questions:

1. What about this piece of music and/or performance stands out in my mind?
2. What in my background, values, needs and interests makes me react that way?
3. What specific things about the work trigger that reaction?
We'll do this in class, too. Get in the habit of asking yourself these questions. They're basic. You'll even find they get you into the analysis part of your term project.

Here's something else that's helpful when you write about music or any of the arts, and it'll be part of the term project assignment, too. It's a "cookbook" formula for writing an essay about your response to any of the arts. It has three parts, too:
Circumstances. Give a one- to three-paragraph introduction to your essay (and it can go longer for a term paper). Start by describing the concert, or if you're reacting to a recording by saying what's on your mind, where and why you're listening to the work - or listening to it again - what your first reaction was, how you feel about it now, what you had for dinner, what the weather's like, anything that sets the stage.
Background. Here's where you give the necessary information about the piece. Title, artist, style of music. Example: "Uncle Dave Macon was one of the most popular performers in the early days of the Grand Ole Opry. He started out in traveling medicine shows and made the jump to the record industry and radio during the 1920s. His 'Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm' is still a favorite tune among Appalachian dulcimer players."
Analysis. As always, argue a thesis. Support your thesis by quoting passages from the lyrics and analyzing the music. Check those suggestions from Dartmouth again. They'll tell you what to look for. Find some reviews on the internet and quote them. Agree with them, or disagree with them. And say why. Remember, in college-level writing, an unsupported thesis is sudden death!
It's in the same assignment sheet as the three questions.

Sacred Harp singing'

Here's the press release on the singing convention in Taylorville. I plan to be there Saturday (I'm on the arrangments committee).


23rd Illinois Sacred Harp Convention in September

The public is invited to the 23rd annual Sacred Harp Singing Convention from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, and Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Christian County Historical Museum in Taylorville. Beginners are welcome to join in as well as to listen, and loaner books will be provided.

Sacred Harp singing has been defined as “a non-denominational community musical event emphasizing participation, not performance.” It gets its name from the songbook used, “The Sacred Harp.” First published in 1844, the book includes 18th-century New England hymns, upland spirituals and camp meeting songs of the 19th century, as well as newer compositions in the old style. Singers at the Illinois Convention will also use the 2005 edition of “The Missouri Harmony,” published in St. Louis.

“Singers sit facing inward in a hollow square” at a Sacred Harp singing, according to musicologist Warren Steel of the University of Mississippi. “Each individual is invited to take a turn ‘leading,’ i.e. standing in the center, selecting a song, and beating time with the hand. The singing is not accompanied by harps or any other instrument.”

A potluck, or dinner on the ground, will be held at noon both days, and guests are invited to bring a dish to share.

Taylorville is 30 miles southeast of Springfield on Ill. 29, and between Litchfield and Decatur on Ill. 48. The Historical Museum is near the junction of Ill. 29 and 48.

For information, contact Berkley Moore in Springfield, telephone (217) 793-2400, email berkleymoore7195@sbcglobal; or Janet Fraembs in Charleston; telephone (217) 345- 6873, email

# # #

Monday, September 10, 2007

HUM 223: African roots (Nigeria)

While it is impossible to generalize meaningfully about music in a continent as diverse as Africa, some observations that Bristish anthropological consultant Roger Blench makes in his Grove Encyclopedia survey of Nigerian music illustrate traits that were carried over to America.

Of Nigerian music in general, Blench says:
Music in Nigeria cannot easily be divorced from the society that produces it; all music has a function, and it is not usually conceptualised as an art in the Western manner. Well-played music does not garner applause, especially in the case of instrumental performance. The appropriate use of text is a cause for admiration, rewarded by ‘spraying’ the musician (i.e. placing a monetary gift against his or her forehead). Music almost invariably accompanies life-cycle rituals, weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies, political rallies and all types of work. As a result of this, solo performance is relatively unusual, although older people and children play instruments for their own amusement. The importance of music in agricultural societies is such that performance is strongly linked to seasons or activities such as planting or harvest; in the semi-arid regions it is common to find prohibitions on particular instruments during part of the year, for example when the crops are growing. Utterances in musical form frequently have a privileged status; something said in plain speech that would be considered offensive, can be sung without the hearer being socially permitted to take offence.
A few specific comments that carry over strongly to African-American music:

  • Work is frequently accompanied by music, both in terms of keeping the rhythm of a particular activity and more generally to encourage physical labour, especially in the fields or in housebuilding. In the riverine areas, paddling songs were used to keep the pace of canoes. Groups of women frequently pound yams in large mortars that require extremely accurate co-ordination, and elaborate rhythmic patterns with ornamental flourishes accompany the pounding songs. Apart from this, in most of the regions north of the forest, the seasonality of rainfall requires farmers to work collectively on each others’ farms. The host farmer is usually expected to bring musicians to entertain the labourers, although not to duplicate the rhythms of farming directly.

  • The idiom of dance pervades most musical performance in Nigeria; only praise-music and some types of ceremonial are not conceptualised in these terms. In many languages, the word for ‘song’ and ‘dance’ are either exactly the same or closely related. The repertoire of solo instruments played for amusement, such as the sansa or the raft-zither, generally consists of dance songs. The most energetic dances are found in the forest area, while those in the north tend to be more restrained, a possible result of Islamic influence. Dancers frequently wear rankle on their arms or legs which are sounded rhythmically in time with the dance, and women frequently play gourd-rattles in more southern areas. Masquerades frequently perform quite elaborate dances, a notable feat in the sometimes cumbersome costumes.

  • European [i.e. Christian] musical traditions were imported in the 19th century but seem to be melded with musical styles brought by ex-Sierra Leoneans (descendants of freed slaves who became entrepreneurs along the coast). Some instruments associated with Christianity in Nigeria, such as the frame-drum, seem to reflect New World influence. On the coast, older Anglican churches still reproduce faithfully an English style of service, but in general even established churches use African instruments in services. A typical ensemble consists of the frame-drum, the gourd net-rattle, the large struck pot, and the smaller hand-held struck pot. Typically these instruments have spread from the coast, and remain alien to the cultures of people who play them. There is a lively tradition of writing church music among academic composers, while oral hymn composition flourishes in some communities in the south.

    The other aspect of mission culture relevant to music was the destructive prohibition of any type of performance associated with ‘paganism’. During the early colonial period, converts were discouraged from taking part in any ceremonies that seemed to have non-Christian overtones. In some areas, masquerades and instruments were physically burnt, and even today it is not uncommon to come across Christians who eschew even secular dancing and music. These stern prohibitions must in part be responsible for the large number of independent churches, most of which actively encourage the use of traditional musical instruments.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Dulcimers/"Squirrel Heads and Gravy"

Copied from the email message I sent out tonight to people on my Prairieland Dulcimer Strings and New Salem dulcimer email lists, so I don't lose the information on what has become my favorite fiddle tune that I garnered from the Irish website cited below. Along with the information I summarized in the message, it has the tune in standard notation (in Gmaj) and an online forum with comments on songs, barbecued or stewed squirrel, "tree rats" and a cover of the song by the Piney Creek Weasels. Much too good to lose.

Hi everybody --

Two events coming up:

1. Our regular monthly meeting of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at Atonment Lutheran Church. (Some exciting news, well, I think it's exciting, below.)

2. The Traditional Music Festival, which everybody calls the "Bluegrass Festival," at New Salem Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 8-9. Several of us from the Prairieland Dulcimers group will be there Satuday from 10 or 10:30 a.m.

Up at the Dickson Mounds gathering today, which was a small but very nice dulcimer festival, Mike Anderson gave me permission to copy the tab to "Squirrel Heads and Gravy" in his book for the Prairieland group. It's a wonderful fiddle tune, in spite of the title (or maybe because of it. Mike says his dulcimer kids think it's really gross and therefore love it)! Composed in the 1970s by an old-time fiddle player named Chris Germain, who made it up as sort of a goof on old-time fiddle tunes. More about it on an Irish traditional music website called The Session. Link at

It's usually played in G, and I learned it in DGD tuning, but Mike has tabbed it out in D for DAD tuning. A very lively, toe-tapping tune that is in the public domain (apparently Germain didn't copyright it) and is rapidly going into the oral tradition. I have a version of it played on a Galax-style dulcimer on a CD featuring bands at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Va., three or four years ago. [It's also on The Family Album CD by the Wright Family, which I forgot to mention.]

-- Pete

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Career advice for journalism students

Cross-posted to all my blogs.

Found while surfing The San Francisco Chronicle's website SFGate, a "30 piece" by outdoors writer Paul McHugh with a bit of advice for any young people considering making journalism a career." He sums it up in three words:
Go for it!
The column, which ran in the print edition Thursday, was McHugh's last. He's retiring after 22 years on the outdoors beat.

"I'm about to fold my tent and take a hike," said McHugh. "And yes, I do mean that literally."

Like many journalists, McHugh said he's proudest of the stories that exposed abuses and helped correct them:
One great part of a newspaper job is that it awards permission to ask questions and seek answers. I've focused on trying to wield that power well, particularly while facing folks who didn't seem inclined to answer. This job hasn't been only about fun; I've striven to address real resource and public-access issues.

On a few occasions, I've been able to perform investigative work that's at the heart of our journalistic mission. I broke up a cabal of the heedless and malfeasant, helping Asilomar become a well-managed funding source for our state parks department. I ushered an abusive administrator out the door of the California State Parks Foundation, and helped that organization to revive. Fighting for the public felt fabulous. If any of you young folks out there should feel tempted to join the right honorable crusade of journalism, here's my best advice: Go for it! You are needed. Especially if you have the insight and multimedia skills to help journalism re-invent itself for this new century.
McHugh says, "Humanity's age of exploration, of adventure and of existential challenge is far from over," even though the present isn't very inspiring. Again, his advice sums up in three words: Go for it! He adds:
History's overarching lesson, as far as I can tell, is that a time of ease ought to be used in steady preparation for times of hardship or calamity ahead - which will come to us in their turn, as surely as sunrise. If periods of ease are used only to grow soft and indolent, then after calamity returns, you'll have to shoulder more blame than you might want.
Something worth thinking about.

But what's a "30 piece?"

Back in the days when newspapers received their news over the telegraph, the custom grew up of keying in "30" at the end of a transmission. So "30" came to stand for the end of the story, and a "30 piece" came to stand for a writer's last bylined column. Nobody ever types "30" at the end of a story anymore (except occasionally an overeager public relations intern ending their first press release), but it's a bit of nostalgia that still lingers. Like this:

-- 30 --