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Zora Neale Hurston Sings the Blues

sadmen:

imageDuring the Great Depression, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston traveled from Harlem to Florida to record folk songs for the Federal Writers Project’s Florida Folklife archive.

She left behind 18 amazing recordings, telling the story of individual folk songs and singing many of the tunes herself. I’ve linked to all the recordings below…

Follow this MP3 link to listen to her sing “Halimuhfack.” Here’s more about the recording: “A ‘jook’ song, learned on the East coast of Florida. After the song, Zora Neale Hurston describes how she collects and learns songs (including those she has published).”

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Audio clip of Zora Neale Hurston discussing Haitian zombies, 1943.

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The sheet music of the piece performed below as “A Lullaby.” From theAmerican Songbag 1927 by Carl Sandburg.

The sheet music of the piece performed below as “A Lullaby.” From theAmerican Songbag 1927 by Carl Sandburg.

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A Lullaby

This song is from American Songbag, a lengthy book of folk songs compiled by poet and activist Carl Sandburg and published in 1927. The piece is rather unfortunately titled “Jungle Mammy Song.” I prefer to call it simply, a lullaby. Sandburg’s inscription addresses the derogatory nature of the name and gives this background: 

"Margaret Johnson of Augusta, Georgia, heard her mother sing this, year on year, as the mother had learned it from singing, year on year, of a negro woman who comforted children with it. The source of its language may be French, Creole, Cherokee, or mixed. The syllables are easy for singing; so is the tune. It may be, as provisionally titled, a Jungle Mammy Song, in the sense that all mothers are primitive and earthly even though civilized and celestial."

As someone who is interested in eighteenth-century music of the afro-diaspora, I was intrigued to think that this piece might have been several generations old in 1927. The archive of music of afro-descendents in the 17th through early 19th century is quite small, although there are many descriptions of enslaved and free people performing. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to imagine some of the music that we have descriptions of — how to perform it, even, so I was excited about this piece despite the fact that it is mediated through the memories of several generations, of a white woman and then a compiler, Sandburg, who tries but I think fails to rise above a mammy-stereotype in his description. The piece may not be the most historically accurate item, but it is still so much more sonically historically accurate than many other descriptions available to the early american imaginary. We must listen to what we can!

I learned it quickly, eager to feel it in my voice. Oddly, I found myself singing it in a somewhat classical style, although I more frequently sing with more of a country and/or blues flavor. I didn’t want to over-sing or heavily stylize the piece because I wanted to let it happen to me, and in so doing, this version came out. How does one approach musical performance historically? This is something for me to continue to research. In any case, I just wanted to experience the song and I can say it is lovely to sing — a perfect lullaby.

It doesn’t seem to me very French and in asking some friends who speak Kreyol, that doesn’t seem right either. I don’t know much about Gullah dialect or cherokee, but that seems possible. The final line, “Nico lav mah lundee” makes me think that perhaps “Nico” is the perspective of the singer and she “loves” her baby… “lundee?”

I teach girls ages 7-14 a singing class once a week at a local non-profit children’s theatre and I taught them this song. We had a lot of fun learning it and they came up with some great (and funny) ideas about what the song could mean. I love exploring historical and musical topics with children because they often come up with really interesting ideas and have such an open perspective on what things can mean, how we can describe what we hear. Some of the singers are Spanish speakers and they giggled at one of the lines that sounds like a curse word.

Exploring this song has led me to try to perform and sonify other extant music that may originated from my eras of focus. More to come!

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Great album, great liner notes. This one’s a keeper!

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jmjohnso:

yauotikaua:

Brazilian 17th century armed slave

Actual caption: “Omem Negro.”  The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas website notes:

Titled, “Omem Negro” (a corruption, according to the translators, of the Portuguese “homen negro” [black man]). “These blacks,” Wagener writes, “are brought to Brazil, from the neighboring and adjacent territories to Guinea, Angola, Cape Verde, the Congo river and others, taken from their home regions. They have great wars between themselves, using swords, shields, and long assagai … . Most are sold to the Portuguese … who immediately bring hundreds of them to Brazil to trade them for a high price with the wealthy sugar factory owners” (vol. 2, p. 174). Wagener/Wagner was a German mercenary for the Dutch West India Company. In 1634, at the age of about 20, he went to northeastern Brazil where he stayed for 7 years. He probably copied this painting from one done in 1641 by Albert Eckhout/Eeckhout, a Dutch painter who lived in Brazil from 1637 to 1644 (R. P. Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise [Amsterdam, 2006] p. 130). The Eckhout painting is published in Antonio Riserio, Uma Historia de Cidade da Bahia (Salvador, Bahia, 2000), p. 121; the original hangs in the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. See also image NW0319 on this website. (Thanks to Ana-Lucia Araujo for her help.) (Click for more)

jmjohnso:

yauotikaua:

Brazilian 17th century armed slave

Actual caption: “Omem Negro.”  The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas website notes:

Titled, “Omem Negro” (a corruption, according to the translators, of the Portuguese “homen negro” [black man]). “These blacks,” Wagener writes, “are brought to Brazil, from the neighboring and adjacent territories to Guinea, Angola, Cape Verde, the Congo river and others, taken from their home regions. They have great wars between themselves, using swords, shields, and long assagai … . Most are sold to the Portuguese … who immediately bring hundreds of them to Brazil to trade them for a high price with the wealthy sugar factory owners” (vol. 2, p. 174). Wagener/Wagner was a German mercenary for the Dutch West India Company. In 1634, at the age of about 20, he went to northeastern Brazil where he stayed for 7 years. He probably copied this painting from one done in 1641 by Albert Eckhout/Eeckhout, a Dutch painter who lived in Brazil from 1637 to 1644 (R. P. Brienen, Visions of Savage Paradise [Amsterdam, 2006] p. 130). The Eckhout painting is published in Antonio Riserio, Uma Historia de Cidade da Bahia (Salvador, Bahia, 2000), p. 121; the original hangs in the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. See also image NW0319 on this website. (Thanks to Ana-Lucia Araujo for her help.) (Click for more)

(via valchanelle)

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A wonderful documentary about a tremendously inspiring black opera singer from East Texas who faced discrimination at the University of Texas in the 1950s. Will make you want to sing while crying and smiling. A beautiful and important story of a courageous woman with deep talent and drive. Watch it streaming on Netflix!

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Genre Trouble: A #FiddleFridays Exclusive Part II, the Multi-Media Edition

Had the pleasure of studying under this band at RockyGrass Academy this past summer.

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Punch Brothers are one of those acts that help define the dividing line between what is and isn’t bluegrass music. Folks who embrace the oft-denigrated “big tent” philosophy see them as a direct antecedent to what Bill Monroe started nearly 60 years ago, while traditionalists see their music as a deviation, if not an abomination, from the tried and true path.

Clearly, their music reflects a very strong bluegrass influence, and in fact, most of them started out as dedicated grassers. They display all the virtuosity expected from a top bluegrass band, and using the proper instruments – with techniques built directly on what has been handed down from the early pioneers – Chris Thile and his Bros craft modern acoustic-pop music with sincerity and passion.

Their music may sound different from the Original Bluegrass Band, but they have stayed true to Monroe’s string band vision, never once bringing in percussion or outside musicians to add a modern gloss to the product. In their own way, Punch Brothers are as uncompromising and demanding of themselves as ever Big Mon was of his outfit back in the day.

But should you ever doubt where they come from, check this video from a show in Montreal last week. When called back for an encore, the boys approached the edge of the stage to offer an unamplified version of Groundspeed as a tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Watch how banjo man Noam Pikelny kicks the song in true Scruggs fashion, followed by gradually more adventurous solos from the rest of the group, only to come back around again for the classic bass ending.