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Myths About Black Folk Music Dena J. Epstein THE MISSISSIPPI-BORN WRITER Irwin Russell lived only twenty-six years, from 1853 to 1879, yet he seems to have had a better grasp of black folk music than many of the scholars who have considered themselves authorities. His poem "Christmas Night in the Quarters" pictured a celebration on a plantation including dancing to the fiddle and banjo . The stricter evangelical churches would not have approved, but these musical occasions did take place and can be verified in other contemporary sources. More than that, Russell wrote two lines that could have been taken as a motto by many of the writers who have instructed the world about black folk music: We form our minds by pedants' rules; And all we know, is from the schools.* Performers and collectors of folk music take it for granted that folk music is a living, evolving body of music; that to understand it, you must first listen to it. But the early collectors , before the age of sound recording, were not able to recreate at will the performance itself. They had to transcribe what they heard into standard musical notation to preserve it for later study. And this act of transcription had great impact on the development of the theory that black spirituals were 151 152 M Y T H S AND H E R O E S based on earlier white spirituals, as traditional musicologists applied to folk music the same techniques they learned to use for classical music—studying the written notes as if they were the music itself. Many theories have grown up about black folk music in the United States, influenced by current fashions in sociology, anthropology, and history. Some of these theories have been enshrined in myths, the most influentialof which were these: Blacks arrived in the New World culturally naked. Black spirituals were wholly derived from earlier white spirituals. African instruments could not have been transported to the New World. The slaveshad no secular music. The banjo was invented by white men, either in New York or Virginia. Documentary evidence is now available to prove that each of these statements is untrue. Myth number two, that black spirituals were wholly derived from earlier white spirituals,isno longer widely believed, but it was accepted by a whole generation of musicologists, and vestiges of it linger on in the pages of some of our most prestigious reference books. Retracing its history may be instructive in helping us to understand how intelligent, responsible scholars of an earlier day could reach conclusions that seem so wrongheaded today. The pervasivenessof this theory in musical literature is demonstrated in the 5th edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians,still sitting on our library shelves. The article on "Spirituals, Negro" by George Pullen Jackson, reads in part: ". . . European scholars quickly recognized the African source idea for the myth that it was. . . . A close scrutiny of the black man's collected songs and their careful comparison with those of the far earlier [i.e., white] tradition showed about half of them to be variants, either in tune or words or both, of definite songs in the white Myths About Black Folk Music 153 man's stock . . . " The New Grove, now in press, will have a new article.2 When I was writing Sinful Tunes and Spirituals^ I saw my purpose as the presentation of contemporary primary source material, and set aside other matters. But through the years I had been curious about the origin and growth of this theory that had always seemed dubious to me. Who were the European scholars who changed the course of American musical history, and how did they become involved? For convenience, I used the chronology in the appendix, "The Negro-WhiteSpiritual," to D. K. Wilgus's book AngloAmerican Folksong Scholarship Since 1898. Wilgus, uncomfortable with the existing evidence, commented: "Early evidence is scanty and confused . . . the same evidence nourished both sides . .. .There isno trustworthy evidence before the Civil War. . ."4 Heoutlined known developments, beginning with the blackface minstrel songs of the mid-nineteenth century, continuing with the emergence of the Negro spiritual during the Civil War and the tours of the various Jubilee Singers—all accepted at the time and later as supporting an African Negro origin for the spiritual. The earliest dissenting opinion he cited was that of Richard Wallaschek in his Primitive Music of 1893. Wallaschek wrote before the wide use of sound recording, a pioneer in what...


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