On 29 April 1900 the engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones died in the wreck of the Illinois Central’s Cannonball, the fast passenger express from Chicago to New Orleans. No one else was killed or even seriously injured in the accident, a fact generally ascribed to Jones’s skillful but self-sacrificing actions.
The myriad versions of the song commemorating this incident—formally known as The ballad of Casey Jones—stand at the crossroads of the African American and Anglo-American ballad traditions.
Nine years after Jones’s death, Casey Jones (The brave engineer), a vaudeville song by T.L. Seibert and E. Newton, became widely popular. It is generally accepted that Seibert and Newton based it on a song that they had heard among African Americans in New Orleans, which had been composed by Wallace Saunders—a Black roundhouse man who knew Jones personally. “Wallace had a gift for improvising ballads as he labored at wiping engines or shoveling coal” one source reported. “He would sing in rhythm with his muscular activity; and one of his creations, as innumerable witnesses agreed, was the original version of Casey Jones.”
Turning a song deeply rooted in African American traditions into a popular hit involved merging its attributes with those of Anglo-American broadside ballads, which were more characterized by a semi-journalistic recounting of events than by verses extemporaneously arranged around an underlying narrative. Over time, the traditional and popular versions naturally influenced each other, resulting in an uncommonly rich demonstration of pop and folk interactions.
This according to “Casey Jones: At the crossroads of two ballad traditions” by Norm Cohen (Western folklore XXXII/2 [April 1973] 77–103; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1973-2351).
Today is Casey Jones’s 160th birthday! Above, CaseyJonesPortrait (public domain); below, a performance by Furry Lewis, who first recorded the song in 1928, followed by Johnny Cash’s classic recording.
In 1963 Eunice Waymon, a classically-trained pianist who had recently achieved recognition as a jazz singer under the stage name Nina Simone, learned that four young African American girls had been killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama.
She immediately wrote the song Mississippi Goddam “in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.” The lyrics—filled with anger and despair in stark contrast to the fast-paced and rollicking rhythm—vehemently rejected the notions that race relations could change gradually, that the South was unique in terms of discrimination, and that African Americans could or would patiently seek political rights. Simone also challenged principles that are still strongly associated with liberal civil rights activism in that period, especially the viability of a beloved community of Whites and Blacks.
With both her music and her self-presentation, Simone offered a vision of Black cultural nationalism within and outside the U.S. that insisted on female power. Her story demonstrates how events and issues from the 1960s that are often treated as separate were in fact deeply intertwined—the development of Black cultural nationalism, the role of women in Black activism more generally, and the emergence of second-wave feminism.
This according to “‘I don’t trust you anymore’: Nina Simone, culture, and Black activism in the 1960s” by Ruth Feldstein (Journal of American history XCI/4  1349–79; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-23369).
Among the Gogo people of Tanzania music is an essential factor in societal cohesion, comprising the central link between earthly and spiritual life. Gogo music is concerned with ethics, not aesthetics, and it is governed by direct connections between performance circumstances and musical parameters.
For example, the polyphonic section linked to the performance of cipande functions as a way to relieve pain during ritual male circumcision. After the song has begun, the men surround the boy who is about to be circumcised and, on a signal, break into vocal polyphony as they project their voices toward him; the women continue to sing just outside the ritual circle. The information saturation generated by the dense polyphonic texture acts as a natural anesthetic, as the distracted boy is unable to process the aural complexity.
Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by Black men.
The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.
The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38971).
Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.
Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.
Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.
In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.
In the mid-1950s Charles Mingus embraced the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz and the ecstatic worship and singing rituals of the Black Pentecostal church— two historical African-derived approaches that emphasized group expression.
Mingus used these two approaches to advance both musical expression and political and spiritual ideas, charting a trajectory toward group oneness. His recordings from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s progressed from short sections of collective interplay and group improvisation reminiscent of early jazz to longer forms of ecstatic ritual. This latter practice—in the form of solos, band, and audience participation—was a direct invocation of the spiritual communion or Holy Spirit possession that he had witnessed in Pentecostal church services as a youth.
This according to “Mingus in the workshop: Leading the improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal trance” by Jennifer Griffith (Black music research journal XXV/1 [spring 2015] 71–96; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-87883).
Today is Mingus’s 100th birthday! Below, Wednesday night prayer meeting (1959), one of the recordings discussed in the article.
Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.
Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that Blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by Blacks for Blacks.
Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the Black man always ready to ravish white women.
This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).
Today is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.
Distinguished for his achievements in both the jazz and classical worlds, Joe Wilder performed as lead trumpet and soloist with Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie.
He was also a pioneer who broke down racial barriers. Wilder was a founding member of the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the U.S., where he played first trumpet; the first African American to hold a principal chair in a Broadway show orchestra; and one of the first African Americans to join a major network studio orchestra
Wilder’s modesty and ability to perform in many musical genres may have prevented him from achieving popular recognition, but his legacy and contributions to music and culture are far-reaching.
This according to Softly, with feeling: Joe Wilder and the breaking of barriers in American music by Edward Berger (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014).
Today is Wilder’s 100th birthday! Above, performing in 2006 (photo by Professor Bop, licensed under CC BY 2.0); below, playing the jazz standard Cherokee in 1956.
The toyi-toyi is a high-kneed, foot-stomping dance, rhythmically punctuated by chants and call and response. It can be observed at almost any kind of protest in South Africa and Zimbabwe today.
Many people associate it with the South African township protests of the 1980s, when young men toyi-toyied as they confronted police or attended political funerals and protests. But its origins are in fact much further away, and they tell us about a much longer, global history of political and military struggle. This story played out across Africa, moving from north to south, all the way from Algeria to South Africa, with stops in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, and Zimbabwe along the way.
Nearly a half century after her death in 1972, Mahalia Jackson remains the most esteemed figure in Black gospel music history. Born in the backstreets of New Orleans in 1911, during the Great Depression Jackson joined the Great Migration to Chicago, where she became a highly regarded church singer and, by the mid-fifties, a coveted recording artist lauded as the world’s greatest gospel singer.
This “Louisiana Cinderella” narrative of Jackson’s career during the decade following World War II carried important meanings for African Americans, though it remains a story half told. Jackson was gospel’s first multi-mediated artist, with a nationally broadcast radio program, a Chicago-based television show, and early recordings that introduced straight-out-of-the-church Black gospel to American and European audiences while also tapping the vogue for religious pop in the early Cold War.
In some ways, Jackson’s successes made her an exceptional case, though she is perhaps best understood as part of broader developments in the Black gospel field. Built upon foundations laid by pioneering Chicago organizers in the 1930s, Black gospel singing, with Jackson as its most visible representative, began to circulate in novel ways as a form of popular culture in the 1940s and 1950s, its practitioners accruing prestige not only through devout integrity but also from their charismatic artistry, public recognition, and pop-cultural cachet. These years also saw shifting strategies in the Black freedom struggle that gave new cultural-political significance to African American vernacular culture.
This according to Mahalia Jackson and the Black gospel field by Mark Burford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
Today would have been Jackson’s 110th birthday! Below, performing in 1962.
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