Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the country was left in a state of transition and the future of the United States was uncertain. The South began a period of Reconstruction and sought to hold on to the establishment of slavery with the enforcement of Jim Crow laws. African Americans living in the South were left to find small pockets where they could celebrate their new-found freedom while still suffering the public effects of intense segregation. This paradox forced the growth of Black institutions that strengthened the cause of African Americans across the United States and lead to the emergence of new musical genres that were pivotal to the ever-changing landscape of American music in the years to come. This paper seeks to explore the impact of black institutions, black composers, and new music types that yielded from this period of intense historical transition. Although black musicianship held an important place in the institution of slavery, the period post-emancipation opened up additional opportunities for amateur musicians to receive professional training and recognition for their craft around the world (Ramsey). Education was supported and encouraged, and we see the development of musical practice into a few key categories: popular, art, traditional, and folk (Ramsey). In defining this space, African Americans were able to carve out both a public and a private perpetuation of their artistic ideals, representative of the changing climate in America (Ramsey).
Music moved in two directions for African Americans at this time – the first being an attempt to enter the established world of art and music by creating a unique sphere of importance and the second being, a recognition of the unique African American institutions and their importance at a community level. This transition period, from slavery to freedom, supported a transformation of musical culture. Leaders of the time developed their own institutions supporting a variety of artistic forms such as music schools and studios, opera companies, choral societies, and symphonies with the goal of growing both the performance and study of music in African American Communities (Ramsey). Will Marion Cook is an exemplary of this period of educated musicians. Cook came from the first generation of well-educated African Americans who were born free after the Civil War (Carter). Early on, he looked to folk music as source of inspiration for his compositions and his influence was critical in helping transition America from an avid enjoyment of the minstrel show to a more respectful understanding of the black musical (Carter). Cook’s primary background in music came from his training as a violinist. He attended Oberlin Preparatory and Oberlin College from 1884-1888, following in the footsteps of his parents (Carter). His studies were advanced thanks to the help of abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass who help organize a fundraiser for Cook to study in Germany (Carter). After returning home, he furthered his studies at the National Conservatory for Music where his teacher challenged him to “forge a new path using America’s indigenous music” (Library of Congress, Will Marion Cook). Turning to popular music, Cook produced Clorindy (The Origin of the Cake Walk), a black musical comedy and Broadway’s first black musical in 1898 that established him as a talented composer (Lefferts).
Minstrelsy continued to prevail as the preferred white pass-time and many black musicians would participate in order to discover opportunities in the performing-art space (Ramsey). After the Civil War, African American performers were eligible to participate in the theater in three potential forms as the performance stage transitioned: musical theater, minstrel shows, and vaudeville (Ramsey). Cook and others of his time sought to challenge this convention and open up opportunities for the African American performer in a space representative of their newly found freedom. Cook’s success in the popular musical arena opened opportunities for him to direct and compose for nearly 2 decades (Library of Congress, Will Marion Cook). In addition to Will Marion Cook’s involvement with black musicals, he invested himself in intermittently conducting The Memphis Students, the Clef Club, and the Afro-American Folk Song Singers among other institutional involvements (Library of Congress, Will Marion Cook). Later in his career, he organized the Southern Syncopated Orchestra which toured nationally and internationally promoted stylistic elements that were authentically black (Library of Congress, Will Marion Cook). His uncompromising personality combined with his assertion of black pride and consciousness allowed him to advance the status of black musicianship, preserve black folk elements within his compositions, and express the authentic views of African Americans through the collection of over 60 songs he composed (Library of Congress, African American Song) His ultimate challenge, much like others during this time, was to “try to destroy wrongs and at the same time write beautiful music” (Lefferts). Cook’s exploration of themes ranging from emancipation to nostalgia were present in his songwriting, conducting style, and exploration of the black musical space and his musical sentiments echoed the sentiments of others fighting for equality, recognition, and respect during this time. He sought to challenge the current dialogue in the country and develop a consciousness of music in a way that combined pleasure with a daunting reality (Library of Congress, Will Marion Cook). Although minstrelsy, musicals, and vaudeville continued to hold a place in American culture for quite some time, the African American experience helped promote and foster the emergence of genres such as ragtime, blues, and gospel music.
The proliferation of these music types brought about new attitudes towards musicianship, the strength of African American institutions, and the translation of traditional cultural elements to mainstream audiences (Ramsey). The institution of the Black Church continued to be central to both sacred and secular practices of African Americans. The tradition of spirituals combined with improvisational ideas towards hymns and accompaniments fostered the emergence of the Gospel music genre. As technology supported the ease of publicizing, producing, and mass distributing sheet music, new ideas towards religious music spread from urban to rural areas across the country (Ramsey). Gospel melded with ideas and elements of blues and ragtime and we began to see a confluence of cultural ideas, sounds, and rhythms spreading across the United States. Diving into the expansion of these genres further, ragtime absorbed the sounds and sentiments of the time to help transition the country from the sounds of minstrelsy to the early onset of jazz music (Library of Congress, African American Song). Emerging in the 1890s, “jig piano” simulated the familiar rhythms and melodies of the banjo and the fiddle on the piano. The genre had humble beginnings recognized as folk dance music that was typically played in the Mississippi valley region (Library of Congress, African American Song). Scott Joplin leveraged his talents to become a well-known and respected player and composer of ragtime. Conversely, the blues emerged from the familiar background of spirituals. Its existence perpetuated from the not-so-distant “moans, field hollers, and timbral qualities” and its first-person performance narrative addressed the raw human experiences, codified by a 12-bar harmonic form and an AAB poetic structure (Ramsey). The blues was performed and experienced in non-religious venues and public spaces where the performer could both interact intimately with his ensemble and his audience (Ramsey). The popularity of vaudeville at the time helped widely circulate the blues and the form is most known for its raw, intimate, and honest qualities exposing the struggles of the performer and creating opportunities for empathic connection (Ramsey). The end of the 19th century gave way to “an explosion of commercialized leisure, technological advances, cultural emergence of consumerism, and unprecedented black mobility” (Ramsey).
This paradox of black freedom and black bondage gave way to the emergence of new musical genres such as gospel, ragtime, and blues even in the midst of institutions such as minstrelsy. The promise of advanced education in the arts paired with other established institutions such as the Black Church helped African Americans solidify an influence in which they could actively participate and contribute in a society that for so long, discounted them. The contributions of conductors such as Will Marion Cook helped promote black opportunities in a sphere that was often limiting. New sounds emerged, new attitudes were shaped, and the musical landscape of the 20th century was forever changed thanks to the impact of both the individuals and the collective who decided to use their experiences and their history to share their story.
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