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  • Plantation Song:Delius, Barbershop, and the Blues
  • Vic Hobson (bio)

Discussion around the racial origins of US music has a long history. In 1893, Richard Wallaschek claimed African American songs were “mere imitations of European compositions which Negroes have picked up and served up again with slight variations.”1 George Pullen Jackson held a similar view, arguing “Negro Spirituals” were “‘interpretations’ of the White Spirituals.”2 When ragtime was published in the late 1890s, it was composed, performed, and enjoyed by Americans of all races.3 More than a century later, the extent to which ragtime owes its heritage to African American musical practice is still contested.4 The blues first appeared in published sheet music in the early twentieth century.5 Despite the significance of the blues in popular music, the origin (or origins) of the blues remains unknown. Although it is widely believed that the blues began among African Americans, many of its earliest composers and performers were white.6 The racial origins of jazz are also contested. The first to record jazz were the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and they claimed to be its creators.7 Generally, writers accept that the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and jazz are of African origin.8 There is also consensus that African Americans introduced blue notes—flattened thirds, sevenths, and other intervals—to US popular music.9 On the other [End Page 314] hand, commentators generally believe that the harmony of the blues and jazz is of European origin.10

Popular music in the United States often uses harmony that extends chords beyond the basic triad. Allen Forte has argued that “it is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that if the seventh chords were expunged from the repertoire of classic American popular song, the character of that repertoire would be utterly destroyed.”11 How this type of harmony developed is not known, but it has been suggested that this characteristic four-part harmony could have derived from European “parlor style.”12 Asserting that “the Romantics invented various ways of decorating the final tonic chords of phrases with sevenths, sometimes major and sometimes minor,” Peter van der Merwe comments on harmonic extensions in the blues, saying that “in its essence, blues harmony is based upon the three primary triads, though these may be decked with sevenths, sixths, and even more outlandish additions.”13 And he makes the observation that chords extended to include the seventh are “evocative of the barbershop.”14 Winthrop Sargeant wrote that “the Negro musician shows … a distinct preference for the plagal cadence, for pseudo-dominant seventh-chords on the subdominant, for the type of close harmony loosely termed ‘barber-shop,’ and so on.”15 Consistently, writers have commented on the tendency of jazz and blues musicians to use barbershop harmony but they have not considered these harmonic features African American in origin. Part of the reason for this is that before the publication of “‘Play That Barbershop Chord‘: A Case for the African American Origin of Barber Shop Harmony” (1992), it was thought that barbershop harmony was principally a white musical tradition. Instead, Lynn Abbott convincingly argued—using documentation from the period—that by the 1890s and early 1900s, “for the male population, at least, [barbershop] was nothing less than a black national pastime.”16 It is clear that barbershop singing was widespread among African Americans in the late nineteenth century, and there is some evidence to suggest that barbershop harmony could have been used to harmonize the spirituals.

The Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák arrived in New Jersey in September, 1892, to take up a position as the director of the recently established National Conservatory of Music of America.17 Dvořák began work on From the New World in January, 1893.18 In a newspaper article that appeared just a few months later in the New York Herald on May 21, 1893, Dvořák was quoted as saying that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. … There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source.”19 However, he probably...