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

 

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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

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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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