restricted access 9. Searching for "Authenticity" in Paul Bowles's Denmark Vesey
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9 Searching for “Authenticity” in Paul Bowles’s Denmark Vesey melissa j. de graaf In January 1938, Juanita Hall conducted the Negro Melody Singers in an unstaged performance of the first act of Denmark Vesey for the New York Composers’ Forum. The performance, featuring music by Paul Bowles set to a libretto by Charles Henri Ford, provoked thoughtful and pointed questions from listeners. The work—never completed—was based on the dramatic true story of a slave who purchased his freedom with lottery winnings and organized a violent slave uprising in 1822against the residents of Charleston, South Carolina. The insurrection was unsuccessful; authorities tried and executed thirty-six leaders and participants, including Vesey and his coconspirator, the African “conjurer” Gullah Jack. Despite common elements with other “race operas” such as stereotypes of gambling, superstition, voudon, and folk magic, Denmark Vesey’s incorporation of racial politics and Marxist allusions was unique, and in some ways superseded all other elements of the work.1 In the incomplete and unstaged Composers’ Forum performance, however, much of this would have been lost. Instead, audiences would most likely have been drawn to the language and music, which overwhelmingly emphasize Africanisms and African American folklore, much of it thoroughly researched and, in the white creators’ minds, authentic. The transcripts from this event, which was part of a series of concerts emphasizing composer-audience dialogue held under the auspices of the Federal Music Project, provide valuable insight into its artistic collaborators’ representations of “blackness” and their perception by the public. While the greater part of the opera has been lost, the libretto and recordings of three songs (“You Can’t Trust in Love,” “You’re Right the Day Ain’t Mine,” and “Think of All the Hairdressing”) have survived.2 These materials, considered in conjunction with the transcripts and other documents at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (including correspondence and copious notes) broaden our context for representations of race in the musical culture of the 1930s generally, while also exposing Bowles’s specifically political approach to race in the context of a work that Virgil Thomson once called one of the three best unperformed American operas. Character and Plot Synopsis The main characters in the opera are Denmark Vesey, the “conjuror” Gullah Jack, and Clarabelle, Denmark’s love interest. The characters in the chorus also play prominent roles throughout. At the beginning of the libretto, Ford describes the main characters in detail: Denmark is “a strong handsome man of 33 . . . Great personal magnetism, strong passion as well as a domineering temper. Intelligent, understands his race—their fervor, faith and superstition.” Gullah Jack, the “voodoo man,” is “artful, cruel, cunning, and diabolical.” The description of Clarabelle is rather one-dimensional: “a beautiful mulatto girl.” The chorus members first appear as Rabbit, Bear, Wolf, Fox, Cow, Possum, and Mule, sometimes with masks on, sometimes without. In act 1, scene 2, they have transformed into Peter Owl, Crow, Goose, Mockingbird, Hummingbird, Woodpecker, and Buzzard. In act 2, they appear as a congregation in a revival meeting tent, and in act 3 they dress as buzzards. The opera opens with Denmark counting his newly won lottery money, his back to the audience. The chorus enters wearing animal masks, forms a semicircle behind him, and warns him that his ill-begotten gains will bring him nothing but trouble. He seems to have won them over when Gullah Jack enters the scene and calls on Samunga, a being associated with the gathering of mud for the creation of “tricks,” or amulets. He instructs Denmark in the making of an amulet to ward off evil. As Denmark recites a Bible verse backward (traditionally done to prevent ghosts from entering one’s house), Gullah Jack calls out the names of various “conjure” roots, perhaps in the process of making the amulet.3 Jack leads the chorus in the call-and-response words of an African Calinda dance, then disappears.4 The chorus attempts to convince Denmark to use his winnings to buy Clarabelle fancy things, but Denmark is resolute: he will buy his freedom. Clarabelle enters and overhears him, and they argue. She exits, and he follows her, sadly counting his money. In act 1,scene 2, Denmark has purchased his freedom and is working in his shoe shop. The chorus appears in bird masks. They all complain about their lot in life, voicing impatience: “Oh, tell me how long do I have to wait?” (1.2...


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