Brazilian Orphic Mysteries

Orfeu’s young friends singing “Samba de Orfeu” at the end of the film, Orfeu Negro.

A book I want to read that doesn’t exist, at least not in English, and I don’t know Portuguese: the story of the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus is deep and complicated, and information on the backstory is hard to come by, despite its fame and the prominence of its author and composer(s).

Some personal background, probably irrelevant, except to me: Seeing Black Orpheus (in Portuguese, Orfeu Negro) in college helped form my understanding of music and life. I only remember two things about the film, and it’s enough: the music in general, and the music in one specific scene. In general, the pervasiveness of the music. The film, directed by the French director Marcel Camus, sets the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice during Carnaval in a favela (shantytown) of Rio de Janeiro. And the music is pervasive, everywhere, always in the background.

And it’s glorious – exciting polyrhythmic Afro-Brazilian Carnaval percussion, sometimes with singing, sometimes with other instruments. Oh, and a few songs too, three of which became standards in North America. And while I love the songs – very much, please don’t let me be misunderstood – it was the percussion that opened new worlds of sound, and worlds of thinking about sound and story, to me. The one time I wrote a full-length play (33 years ago[!!!]), I asked the band to devise background music during many of the scenes. Although it wasn’t a percussion orchestra, Orfeu Negro was what pushed me to ask for that. (I wasn’t in the band though I wrote the play’s songs; I acted in the play instead.)

Movie poster for Orfeu Negro, after it won the first prize at Cannes.

I quickly became aware of the composers of the film’s songs: Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa. Though Jobim became the greater success, going on to compose “Girl from Ipanema” and a host of other standards, Bonfa composed the movie’s biggest hit and either its second or third most-often covered tune as well: “Morning of the Carnival” and the wordless “Samba de Orfeu,” the latter of which is key to the film’s most powerful and memorable scene. After Orpheus dies, you see, three little favela kids begin to panic – their friend Orfeu has always sung to greet the rising sun, and they worry that with him gone, nobody might sing to the sun, and the sun might not rise! And so one of them picks up a guitar, and this glorious music – “Samba de Orfeu” – comes out. Goodness, this is close to my religion.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned about Jobim’s frequent lyricist, on the Black Orpheus songs, “Girl from Ipanema,” and others – Vinicius de Moraes, who also wrote the screenplay to the film. Vinicius, as he’s known in Brazil to this day, not only wrote the lyric to the most famous Brazilian song and the screenplay to the most famous Brazilian film – he was primarily a poet, and highly regarded as such. The American poet and Portuguese translator Elizabeth Bishop, who lived much of her life in Brazil, included him in the 1972 anthology she co-edited, An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry. The poet, translator, and anthologist Selden Rodman included a chapter on him in Tongues of Fallen Angels, his 1974 book of interviews with prominent writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, and Ernest Hemingway. So back 50 years ago, Vinicius had a profile on the international literary scene. He doesn’t seem to anymore, except as a lyricist, and, oh, by the way, as the writer of a film.

Which hadn’t started out as a film.

Which is where it gets interesting and complicated.

The story Vinicius wanted to tell began life as a stage musical three years before the film, Orfeu de Conceicao (“Orpheus of the Conception” – huh?), with music by, yes, Antonio Carlos Jobim. With, apparently, maybe, none of the same songs that the film used. I can’t find any information on the net; all I know about the songs comes from a 2014 compilation from El Records in Association with Cherry Red Records (of London), Modernism and Bossa Nova, credited to Vinicius de Moraes, who appears on very few tracks, though he did make records as a singer and songwriter later in life – he wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs. The recordings date from 1956 to 1961, the first seven tracks coming from Orfeu da Conceicao. None of them were reprised in the film.

1956 theatrical poster for Vinicius’s play. Note that the performers, including guitarist Luis Bonfa, are included on the poster, while the composer, who became the biggest star of them all, Antonio Carlos Jobim, isn’t. Curious to know what role this production played in his career.

Not in the 1959 film, anyway. In the 1999 film Orfeu, a Brazilian director named Carlos Diegues told Vinicius’s story again, preserving Bonfa’s “Morning of the Carnival,” enlisting Caetano Veloso to write new songs, and bringing back two numbers from Orfeu da Conceicao. They’re lovely songs, “Se Todos Fossem Iguais A Voce” and “”Eu E o Meu Amor,” the latter of which gets played only as an instrumental in the film.

In Brazil, Vinicius got higher billing than Caetano Veloso or the director.

It turns out that Vinicius hated Orfeu Negro. Camus apparently threw out the poetic script that Vinicius had written, sticking with the colloquial speech of the favelas. And the film, it turns out, has a latter-day mixed reputation, after having won grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in ’59. It was Barack Obama’s mother’s favorite film, and Obama was disappointed when he saw it as an adult: he thought the film condescended to its Black characters, portraying them simplistically and as naïve people. The former president is not alone in this opinion.

The 1999 film advertises itself as “Based on the original play Orfeu da Conceicao by Vinicius de Moraes.” Veloso’s music is wonderful; I haven’t seen the film. Recently American directors have adapted Vinicius’ material to the American stage, sticking more closely to his stage script while keeping Camus’s title, and only getting to the script by translating a Spanish translation into English. Despite Vinicius’ reputation, it appears that his script has never been translated directly into English.

Nor is this the only mystery.

The music. Of the 1959 film. It’s fantastic. And three of the pieces have unknown personnel: gorgeously complex percussion of the Carnaval “samba schools,” they are credited to “Folklore trad.” Who played and sang this music? Who found them? Who hired them? Did anybody know the histories of the melodies at the time? Verve Records, which released the CD, has no info. The internet has no info. The film won first prize at Cannes, Jobim went on to become one of the most famous songwriters in the world, and . . . nothing. Not that I know of, anyway!

The interwoven stories of the evolution from play to movie to another movie, and the complex history of the music, could make for a good book. I couldn’t write it; I wish somebody would.

Why has nobody published an English translation?

Some Notes on the Paradoxical Egocentrism of John Cage

White American composer John Cage (1912 – 1992) had the insight that any sound could be perceived as music, a liberatory and liberating impulse that he confined in the conservative, even reactionary, framings of the Eurocentric traditions of “classical music” and “individual genius.”

Paradoxical, John Cage was. Hard not to fall into paradox when one desires the cessation of desire, as Cage did as a student of Buddhism. Regardless of his desire for desirelessness, he was tough and ambitious on behalf of his career.

The French-American composer Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965) had preceded Cage in the inclusion of previously non-musical sounds into the musical experience. Cage criticized Varèse from his purportedly Buddhist viewpoint in a 1958 essay: “Varèse is an artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds, he deals with them as Varèse.”

Cage certainly dealt with polemics as Cage. He also, paradoxically, dealt with sounds as Cage. As he put it in one of the dozens of very short stories that he compiled for his piece, Indeterminacy,

* * *

I        have        a        redeeming
                                                            I         was         
gifted         with         a         sunny         disposition.

* * *

And as he put it after a performance on TV of one of his Rube Goldberg-esque composition/contraptions, which elicited laughter from the audience, he preferred laughter to tears. How is that not an imposition of his ego and taste on his use of sound?

Although Cage preached indeterminacy and chance, he was more strict than most composers regarding his compositions. In many of his pieces, he did away with bar lines and replaced them with much more restricting stop watches. He disliked improvisation, and he seemed uninhibited in expressing his ego and taste regarding other people’s ego and taste.

Cage’s tiny anecdotes in Indeterminacy often allude to Zen and Hindu religious traditions, and they often baffle me with what seems to me to be their lack of compassion. I suppose it is normal to dislike things that disturb us and that we don’t understand. I dislike these stories.

* * *

[The Master said to the student], “You’ve been here three years, three months, and three weeks. Stay three more days, and if, at the end of that time, you have not attained enlightenment, commit suicide.”

* * *

Another        monk                        was        walking       
along                        when        he        came        to
a        lady
            who        was        sitting        by        the       
path                        weeping.

                                                      “What’s        the
             he        said.

                                           She        said,

                                    “I        have        lost

                                      my        only


                                                                 He        hit
    her        over        the        head                         and
     said,                                                  “There,
                                         that’ll        give        you
    something                          to         cry         about.”

* * *

Generally                  speaking,
                 is                  considered                  a
           all                  the                  disciples
      were                  very                  interested
      to                  hear
   what                  Ramakrishna                  would
       say                                                       about
        the                  fact                  that                  a
               four-year-old                  child                  had
                 just                  then                  committed

       Ramakrishna                  said
                      that                   the                   child
              had                   not                   sinned,

                 he                   had                   simply
       corrected                   an                   error;

                                    he                   had                   
been                  born                  by                  mistake.

* * *

A       depressed       young       man

                                                               came       to
Hazel       Dreis,


                                He       said,

                “I’ve       decided       to       commit       

         She       said,

         “I       think       it’s       a       good       idea.

                        Why       don’t        you        do        it?”

* * *

Cage came to mind because a town in Germany is in the process of producing a piece that Cage composed to last hundreds of years, with one note or one chord playing for years before changing. A note changed the other day for the first time in about seven years. Some of the articles have quoted another of Cage’s stories collected in Indeterminacy.

* * *

In     Zen                                                   they     say:

                   If     something     is     boring     after
 two     minutes,
  it     for     four.

       If     still     boring,

         try     it     for     eight,



                             and     so     on.

    Eventually     one     discovers     that     it’s     not
    boring     at     all
                                        but     very      interesting.

* * *

That may or may not be true, and it may also be a strategy for torture. In any case, given the authoritarian tenor and lack of compassion in some of Cage’s stories, I can’t help but conceive of a piece lasting hundreds of years as anything other than the most monstrous inflation of the Euro-centric ego.

Cage’s strictness about adhering to his scores may or may not have led him to an admiration for the totalitarianism of Mao Zedong; however he came to his admiration, he named Mao as one of his favorite people in his note on the title of his book, M. He also said, “The Maoist model managed to free a quarter of humanity: that gives cause for thought. Today, without hesitation, I would say, for the moment, Maoism is our greatest reason for optimism.”

All that said, I do like some of his music, and have enjoyed hearing performances of it. A piece lasting hundreds of years, with individual notes lasting for years, though – no thanks. And if people are inclined to admire his polemics, I would invite them to read more before weighing in. His polemics can be awful.  

* * *


Transcriptions from Indeterminacy:

Click on the asterisk to find another randomly chosen story. Here is more from the same source on Indeterminacy:

On Cage’s admiration for Mao:

On Cage’s title for M:

On the piece lasting hundreds of years changing notes the other day:

You’ve Got to Be Modernistic

Duke Ellington said he was the best. Fats Waller, his student, agreed. Even Willie the Lion Smith didn’t argue the point. And they all played his tune, “Carolina Shout,” a requirement to be admitted into the club of top pianists. Here’s James P. Johnson playing the signature tune of the stride piano school. You can find recordings of Ellington, Waller, and Smith playing it too.

And he was one of the great blues pianists, accompanying Bessie Smith and other leading blues singers on dozens of records in the 1920s. As if teaching Waller, influencing Ellington, and accompanying Bessie Smith weren’t enough, James P. Johnson was also a great songwriter. Among his titles are the ardent love ballad of 1926 whose dreamy melody belies Henry Creamer’s suggestive lyrics, “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight” (which line is followed by, “If I was free to do the things I might”). McKinney’s Cotton Pickers had their only Number One hit with it in 1930; Armstrong recorded an achingly longing version the same year; Kay Starr, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Ruth Etting, Helen Humes, Jolson, Louis Prima, Dinah Washington, Jack Teagarden, Mae West, Oscar Peterson, Amos Milburn, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Teddy Wilson, and the composer himself all recorded versions. The first recording had been by a blues singers whom Armstrong had sometimes backed, Eva Taylor, in 1927. The recordings ranged from jaunty dance music (Goodman) to dreamy ballad (Etting) to country-inflected (Starr) to jumping ‘50s R&B (Milburn). It was used in seven films over the years, from The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney(1939) and Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart (1942) to Southland Tales starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (2006).

Here is the great and sadly little-remembered band McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, with banjoist-guitarist Dave Wilborn singing, and an arrangement by the great and enormously influential Don Redman.

Here’s a sultry version by Ruth Etting.

And Louis Armstrong at his dreamiest.

Johnson wrote the lovely, bluesy ballad, “Don’t Cry Baby” and first recorded it with Bessie Smith in 1929. The recording exemplifies Smith’s versatile technique. The song, not formally a blues, features chromatic runs much more associated with pop and jazz than with blues. Etta James had a hit R&B version with it in 1961, and it has been recorded by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Erskine Hawkins, Queen Latifah, Jimmy Scott, and Madeleine Peyroux. Here’s Bessie, with James P. accompanying on piano.

Here’s Etta James.

Some of his songs exemplified the spirit of Afro-Modernism. The delightfully witty lyric, by the great Andy Razaf, to his jauntily swinging music, “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid,” uses the type of low-wage service jobs typically held by African Americans at the time to wield a double-edged celebration of love and a critique of the subservient jobs to which the large majority of African American people were limited at the time; “porter” and “chambermaid” were associated with African American jobs at the time. “I will be your dustpan / If you’ll be my broom. / We could work together / All around the room.” Delightful, witty, and biting – making work sound like dancing, somewhere between a metonymy and a metaphor for sex that became more explicit in the 1954 R&B hit by Hank Ballard, “Work With Me, Annie.” Johnson’s dance-friendly rhythm and catchy, wistful, lovely melody makes it sound like dancing – but the lyric is also all work, and all of the menial kind. “I will be your dishpan / If you’ll be my dish. / We’ll meet after meals, dear. / What more could you wish?” The song’s narrator and his beloved work such family-unfriendly hours that they can’t even eat meals together. The song ends after dinner, with the closing of the shades as the couple retires to bed in privacy. “I will be your window. / Be my window shade. / That’s a porter’s love song / To a chambermaid.” Though the song isn’t a blues, it’s imbued with the blues spirit as Langston Hughes described it in his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” when he cited the “incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.” The humor bespeaks a resiliency that Hughes called, with no little foreboding, in the same essay, “the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world.” Those tom-toms sound African, and that revolt whispers that it might not limit its target to weariness. In her essay “Blues and Jazz Modernisms,” Emily Lordi described an optimism that ran through the work of most of the African American modernists in the first third of the twentieth century. Johnson and Razaf’s porter suggests a few remarkable things. First, that at the end of the day, the weary laborers will have privacy and the freedom of sexual self-determination, which Angela Davis described in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Second, according to the porter, he and the chambermaid have the power to transform themselves into anything, with the hint that that power might not be limited to the list of objects used in menial labor that the song mentions. And third, maybe, sometimes, labor itself can be as pleasurable and sexy as dancing.

Here’s Johnson’s friend Fats Waller singing it.

Johnson also wrote the most paradigmatic flapper anthem, “Charleston,” a song that is so associated with the Roaring Twenties of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and stories that I still can’t help but picture white people in the flapper roles, even though I’ve known for many years that its composer was African American and that the dance was originally developed by African Americans. Here’s the Tennessee Tooters (a group I’d never heard of) in 1925 with it.

When I lived in Ann Arbor in the 1980s, my friend Arwulf Arwulf named his vintage college radio show after yet another Johnson song, here played and sung by Johnson, Waller, and a full band. I think it’s Johnson & Waller singing harmony with a third singer I haven’t seen listed anywhere. Without further commentary, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”

Can’t say enough about the great James P. Johnson, and this is only part of the story of his all-embracing musicianship. Another time!

The Joint Really Was Jumping

The memoir-biography of Fats Waller written by his son, Maurice, with co-writer Anthony Calabrese, is a loving and lovely, hilarious and amazing, detailed and personal portrait of the great jazz pianist-songwriter-composer-singer-organist-bandleader. So cinematic! So many scenes jump off the page and onto the screen of the mind’s eye where they unfurl in astonishing and vivid poignancy, drama, hilarity, racial strife, heartbreak, kindness — American life in the first half of the twentieth century. And — all that music!

Waller composed such delightful gems as “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” and “The Joint Is Jumping,” as well as numerous tasty instrumentals in the stride style, of which he was a master, and the early-for-jazz protest against color prejudice, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” A charming comic singer — “Lulu’s Back in Town,” the jesterish-ly disrespectful “Christopher Columbus,” the outlandish “Your Feet’s Too Big,” many others — and a masterful pianist with a unique blend of power, buoyancy, and delicacy to his touch — Waller defies overpraise.

Anybody can find examples of Waller’s charm, charisma, and extravagant skills online. A fave of mine, a short film of the song “The Joint Is Jumping,” depicts a rent party, a typical scene from Harlem of the 1900s through the 1930s, where someone charges admission for a party featuring a professional musician, or more than one. The musician gets paid, the host makes their rent, everybody has a ball — that was the idea, and it worked for decades.

In the short film, which Maurice describes as having been made and subsequently lost, has since been found. Waller sings one of his best, and it’s self-descriptive, “The Joint Is Jumping.” Next line: “The piano is pumping.” Couples dance. A dancer grabs a drink from Fats. Fats breaks up a fight. There’s a rap on the door. The police! The party’s busted up — that’s the worry. But — not to worry! Three women approach the three stern policemen and — start dancing with them! Hilarious, charming, utopia, like a hobo fantasy from the 1930s of there being no police in heaven (“Hobo’s Lullaby”), or the cops having wooden legs on “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” except in this paradisaical vision, the police assimilate into the loving community without fuss. Check it out.

Maurice, who apparently had no idea of the content of the short film, other than that it existed, and it featured the song, inadvertently reveals that it was based on a true story when he describes an almost identical scene as having happened at a rent party where his father played. The police came to bust up a rent party and ended up enjoying themselves to much that they simply joined in.

‘Tis a pity that more of Maurice’s memoir doesn’t exist on film. The whole thing could make an eye-popping, heartbreaking, hilarious period piece and biopic. With myriad “set piece” scenes:

Waller was playing a Chicago club during Prohibition. One evening, a group of his regular well-dressed male fans pulled out machine guns and ordered everybody to freeze as they searched the room for their “friend.” Once they found him, they ordered everybody — a large group — into the men’s room. Maurice: “Dad was the first in and had to be persuaded to come out after the police arrived.”

A few nights later the thugs were back. Waller played a set, worried — no incident. After his set, no incident, relieved, he’s out looking for a place to get dinner, when, pow, the point of a pistol greets his gut. Terror. Has he inadvertently said something he shouldn’t? Has he offended people without meaning to? Ordered into a car, he gets in; they drive a while, to what looks like a hotel, and order him in, through a crowd of people, and to a piano. Play! It’s Al Capone’s birthday party, and Waller is their surprise “gift” to the boss. The boss, a Waller fan, is delighted! Fats stays for 3 days, enjoys his first taste of champagne, and finally gets driven home, “several thousand dollars richer.”

Another set piece: Waller has been jailed for failure to pay alimony to his first wife, Edith, with whom he had a son, whom Maurice didn’t learn of until his father died. (Fats raised Maurice and his third son with his second wife, Anita.) Waller’s friends — the great songwriters Spencer Williams, Andy Razaf (lyricist on many Waller gems, including “The Joint Is Jumping”), Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford — spread across Harlem to raise the exorbitant bail of $500 to spring him from the Brooklyn jail. Everybody loves Fats (except Edith); they raise the money and arrive to find Fats surprised and a little alarmed to see them. “Save your money, fellas. I’ve decided to serve my full sentence.” Waller’s been assigned a room with a millionaire who’s in for the same offense and who loves good piano playing. The millionaire has bribed the guards into bringing a piano into their cell, as well as regular steak dinners and “plenty of good whiskey.”

Another, in Maurice’s words: “Uncle Larry had come to the club to see Dad, and during a break between sets the two of them were outside the club enjoying a cigarette and some family gossip. Two white couples came out of the club and the women approached Dad for his autograph. Their dates didn’t approve and began cursing the women and Dad with equal fervor. My father didn’t want to create a scene so ignored their comments, but when the men began to slap the two women around, Uncle Larry intervened. One of the men drew a .22 pistol and fired at Uncle Larry, wounding him the leg. Infuriated, Dad charged the man with the pistol and proceeded to beat him unconscious. Somebody from the Yacht Club whisked Dad inside before the police or an ambulance could arrive. The incident was kept out of the newspapers because the people involved wanted neither a court appearance nor the attendant publicity.” The incident was “so ugly, in fact, that nobody in the family would talk about it. (My sources are Buster Shepherd [Waller’s longtime driver and roadie] and Harry Beardslee.)”

That’s some courage. Not the stereotype associated with Waller.

Waller died young — Hollywood likes that in jazz stories — but not particularly from self destruction — a probable Hollywood turnoff. Still, his end was cinematic. He died on a train, on his way home, having finally earned enough as a songwriter and recording artist to retire from touring, which he was looking forward to doing. A blizzard held the train up in Kansas City (“It’s blowing like Hawkins out there,” Waller said to his manager, referring to his friend the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins), and Waller was unconscious by the time they pulled in. His manager called a doctor, who pronounced Waller dead; an autopsy ruled pneumonia. In almost too-cinematic a coincidence, Waller’s good friend Louis Armstrong was stuck at the Kansas City railroad station on the next track, held up on his westbound journey. He saw the police and crowds on the next track and inquired about the cause. Maurice: “Louis told my mother that he cried all night long. He couldn’t believe that Dad was dead at thirty-nine.”

Tons more in the book — family scenes from Waller’s childhood, and even his parents’ childhoods — a thumbnail social history. Waller’s friendships with Joe Louis, George Gershwin, the eminent pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Reverent Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Waller using his days off on tour to play for American troops, no matter where he was. Great scenes of Waller as a parent. Waller touring Europe, spooked by the Nazis. Waller playing organ in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, having been invited because of his gorgeous organ recordings of spirituals — the first — still the only? — jazz musician to have been so invited. Way too much for a movie, no doubt. PBS should do a mini-series.

Mostly, though — his music. Here’s to the great Mr. Waller, and to his loving son, and here’s to his deathless music.

Autumn Songs

Resting from the Harvest, by Alfred Glendening, 1861 – 1907.

For Meredith, and in memoriam Danny.

I’ll begin this little survey of music for Autumn with a pair of people who may never have met but who crossed paths artistically: lyricist-singer-composer Johnny Mercer and composer-arranger-pianist-singer Michel Legrand.

Mercer wrote English lyrics to the great French song ”Les Feuilles mortes,” by Hungarian-French film composer Joseph Kosmo (who scored a bunch of famous films by Renoir and others, which I haven’t seen), lyrics by the French poet and lyricist Jacques Prevert (whom Lawrence Ferlinghetti translated for his own City Lights Pocket Poet series). Mercer Englished the French “dead leaves” as “Autumn Leaves. And Michel Legrand recorded it at least twice, both beautiful versions, and both featuring prominent violin.

The first comes from Barbra Streisand’s 1966 album of French songs, Je m’appelle Barbra, arranged and conducted by Legrand. A terrific album, with a moodily elegant black & white Richard Avedon photo for the cover. The violin soloist is uncredited.

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He Who Knew

Everybody agrees that Chuck Berry was the master* of rock ‘n’ roll’s most defining guitar lick and the writer of five or six (or thirty) of its foundational songs. But he doesn’t get enough credit as a lyricist or a recording artist. That he borrowed some of his lyrics from long dead, little-known poets only makes him more interesting.

            True as the consensus assessment regarding Chuck Berry might be, it doesn’t come close to the scope of his achievement. One of rock’s greatest lyricists – perhaps its very greatest – he has sometimes felt so strongly about his lyrics that he has recited rather than sung them. Reciting poetry had been a mainstay of popular American culture in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Berry, by his own account, was part of that tradition. And sometimes, like his follower Bob Dylan, he presented other people’s words as his own.

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When Malindy (or Aretha) Sings: The Complex, Haunting Presence of Paul Laurence Dunbar in American Music

[I presented this paper at the Pop Conference at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture, April 12, 2019. The conference theme was, “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife.”]

1. Dunbar

I’m going to talk about a few poems and songs by Paul Laurence Dunbar and their implications for music history and the Civil Rights movement. From his first book in 1893 Dunbar's books of poetry

to his death at age 33 in 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six books of poetry, four novels, and four collections of short stories, in addition to his activities as a musical-theater lyricist and librettist. Unusual as it might seem now, he was best known for his poetry. When he wrote, and for many decades before and a few decades after, poetry was popular culture. There were poetry stars. People memorized poems to recite at parties. Actors could make a living barnstorming from town to town reciting poetry; Dunbar was one of the poets whose work professional actors recited. The

Dunbar's books of fiction.PNG actor Edward Sterling Wright, who played Othello professionally, recorded four Dunbar poems for Edison Records in 1913.

Dialect verse was popular. James Whitcomb Riley wrote best sellers as the “Hoosier poet,” writing in the dialect of rural, white Indianans. Charles Leland wrote a popular volume in a parody of the dialect of German immigrants – Hans Breitmann’s Ballads.


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Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together

James Weldon Johnson and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m slowly working on a book on African American music and literature from the 1890s to about 1930, from the Ragtime era through the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson is the central figure, having been a major Ragtime songwriter and historian of Ragtime, as well as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist, poet, essayist, Civil Rights activist, and social historian. Paul Laurence Dunbar appears to be the second most important figure in the story I want to tell, even though he died in 1906, because his work is so tremendous and his influence in American culture runs so deep and broad and has been so long-lasting; he might end up dominating the first section of the book. (When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, the actress Cicely Tyson paid tribute to her by reading a Dunbar poem; another tribute to Franklin quoted another Dunbar poem; rockabilly bands were playing a song based on yet another Dunbar poem into this century and for all I know still might be.)

I finished a draft of the first chapter this week (of a projected . . . 16?; I have pieces of several other chapters in various stages of draftiness), and I threw out an unsupported claim (remember, my audience, at that point, consisted of my eyes only) that The Great Gatsby has been a plausible candidate for the Great American Novel. After saying that, I decided to see whether it might be true, and like any curious 14-year-old, I searched on the web. Which led me to several articles as well as a whole book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by NPR commentator and English professor Maureen Corrigan, who argues what I suspected that people were arguing: that Gatsby is the Great American Novel.

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“The Guitar Was Almost Unknown”: James Weldon Johnson and the Remoteness and Irretrievability of the Past



Our story begins in the 1890s. James W. Johnson attends Atlanta University, the oldest university in the nation serving predominantly Black students. White activists had founded it for that purpose in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like other schools of its provenance, Atlanta University has had to figure out how to survive without government funding, endowments from wealthy alums, or a large population of middle-class families who can afford sufficient tuition to meet the institution’s needs. Necessity has been an inventive mother. Students from the Negro colleges sing, not for their supper, but for the capital with which to build their campuses. They perform the spirituals from slavery days, the sorrow songs that gave voice to the slaves’ hopes for a better life “across the Jordan,” whether the Promised Land might have signified heaven, or the North and freedom, or both.

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers inaugurated the tradition in 1871, few white northerners had heard anything like their singing. Many of the songs that the Fisk chorus had introduced to public performance have stayed with us: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Deep River,” “Didn’t the Lord Deliver Daniel,” “I Want to Be Ready (Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John).” Musicians, professional as well as amateur, have performed and recorded Fisk songs thousands of times since, in styles from wailing gospel to hot jazz to blistering rock to stomping blues to keening bluegrass to deep funk to starchy European-style classical. Infinitely flexible, the spirituals constitute one of the cornerstones of American music.

Other schools followed Fisk University’s example, among them Atlanta University. Writing about forty years after his 1890s tour, in his memoir Along This Way, Johnson gave us a glimpse of his life as a young musician touring under the watchful eye of a professor. He paints a picture of a life that would scarcely be recognizable to us, with details both evocative and hauntingly incomplete.

When the University decided to send out a quartet in the summers to interest people in the school and raise funds, Mr. Chase was chosen to take charge of the boys. I sang with the original quartet; the other members were George Towns, my classmate — in our Senior year we were roommates — and two younger students, Robert Gadsden and Joseph Porter. In the course of time we sang, I should say, in ninety-five per cent of all the inhabited spots in New England. We sang in churches, hotel parlors, private drawing-rooms; in fact, wherever there was a promising opening. Our programs consisted mainly of spirituals. George Towns and I made short talks about the school, and Mr. Chase made the appeal for funds. I filled two other spots on the program: I used to play a couple of solo pieces on the guitar — the instrument was almost unknown in many of the smaller places — and recite a story I had written about my experiences with a Georgia mule. This latter feature proved to be a very popular one.


An independent clause jumps out from the narrative: The guitar was almost unknown in many of the smaller places.

The remoteness of the recent past! The guitar was almost unknown.

And not only the remoteness of the past, but its irretrievability, and its tantalizing missing details. What music did Johnson play on his guitar? Spirituals? Waltzes? Ragtime? Sentimental parlor songs of Tin Pan Alley? A Spanish fandango? I’d love to know! Nowadays the touring student guitarist would put his performances on the internet for his friends and family back home to watch.


How “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” reminded me of “The Great Gatsby,” and why I prefer it

ex-colored man[1]Gatsby___1A[1]

A couple months more than a year ago I went to my first high school curriculum night as a parent. The English Dept. had their plan laid out for my elder son’s four years. Impressive, engaging, informed, passionate – I liked the teachers. But I was disappointed by one of the books on the list.

Why teach F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when you could teach James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man instead?

I didn’t suggest it. But I want to now.

I had read Johnson’s 1912 novel for the first time only a couple of years before. It reminded me of Fitzgerald’s 1925 book right away – except it’s better. The basic theme of the transformation of identity, and the overlapping milieu of the New York underworld of gambling and music, but 30 years apart (most of The Autobiography appears to take place in the 1890s), made the books siblings for me. With one of the siblings older and considerably wiser.

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