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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 115-118

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Narrating Black Music's Past

Ronald Radano

Judging from the mainstream of scholarly musical commentary, the history of black music is a rather straightforward thing, a story developing from clear matters of fact. Black music's past, the predominant view suggests, amounts to a plain view of details that inform a central, stable (if evolving) legacy: who played what, where, when, and how. The various stages of this historical drama are perhaps commonplace enough to require the briefest summary. African drumming serves as the centering background, giving way to camp singing, shouting, and spirituals. Into the modern, black music assumes a variety of forms, from jubilees and gospel to blues, ragtime, jazz, and a host of other styles. Despite this proliferation of genres and trends, however, the integrity of a discernibly "black music" somehow remains, a position commonly affirmed by musicians themselves. Witness, for example, the recent PBS film, American Roots Music, which succeeds in large part because of the way it develops its story from the opinions of leading blues and folk artists. In their telling of the historical outline, black music achieves a signature status in the larger context of American culture, while also remaining distinctively and racially black. The music defines America as it stands paradoxically separate and apart from the broader complex of interracial experience.

Across the historiography of black music, we find various renderings of this standard tale. It informs the Civil War-era portraits of the spirituals as racialized emblems of blackness and reunion as well as the characterization of jazz as a form of urbane cosmopolitanism grounded in a vernacular blues essence. It also provides the backdrop for presentations of rock 'n' roll as a genre whose rootedness in black traditions collides with the analysis of the music as a contemporary popular phenomenon [End Page 115] . Despite the contradictions, tales of music cast simultaneously in blackness and whiteness, in difference and sameness, trace across the map of musical scholastics. They do so in large part, I think, because few writers have bothered to critically analyze the standard interpretations that undergird black music's most basic narratives. How often, for example, have we heard the interpretation of the spiritual "Steal Away" as a call for escape? This reading of the lyric, while certainly reasonable and grounded in historical evidence, has become an authoritative definition for the broad landscape of antebellum black music, as if there could be a single experience representative of the entire African American slave population. In an effort to speak to music's social significance, such interpretations lessen the appreciation of its import, reducing the extraordinary capacity of musical meaning to a single determination. The story of black music becomes a tired cliché.

If we are to test the viability of the standard narratives, we need to turn to the original sources that document the legacies of black performance in North America. Significantly, when we do so, we find no great cache of documents, but what more accurately constitutes a body of elision and indirection, a fragmentary accumulation of passing references, brief descriptions, and literary inventions that slowly grows in number as we read across the nineteenth century. In the annotated bibliography, African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920 (Greenwood, 1990), Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright provide an invaluable compilation of the references to black performance across the history of North America. And yet for the entire period from 1600 to 1800, the compilers list a total of sixty-four sources, which typically consist of brief snatches of musical references to hymn singing, fiddling, performances at funerals, and the like. References begin to increase in the antebellum period, particularly after camp meetings and the rise of blackface minstrelsy encourage the perception of a discernible "Negro music." What we must rely on, however, remains necessarily partial, limited by the extent to which white writers acknowledge an actual black musical practice.

A review of the evidence, then, not only calls into question assumptions about the authority of the standard views. It also challenges the very act...


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pp. 115-118
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