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 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 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.
Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)
Having served as a beloved anthem during the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, Kumbaya now serves as an easy punch line in jokes about naïve idealism. Various theories regarding its provenance have circulated, including a report that it was collected by missionaries in Angola and a claim by Marvin V. Frey that he composed it in 1939.
Archival documents at the American Folklife Center illuminate the real story. The earliest known evidence of the song is in a manuscript sent by Julian Parks Boyd to the Archive’s founder, Robert W. Gordon, in 1927; Boyd had noted it from a former student the previous year (transcription above; click to enlarge). The song’s structure matches that of Kumbaya, and its refrain is “Lord, come by here”. Further archival evidence demonstrates that the song was well known among African Americans by the 1940s, and that dialect performances gradually transformed “come by here” to “kum ba ya”.
This according to “The world’s first Kumbaya moment: New evidence about an old song” by Stephen Winick (Folklife Center news XXII/3–4, pp. 3–10). Below, Joan Baez performs Kumbaya in France in 1980.
From spirituals to symphonies: African American women composers and their music by Helen Walker-Hill (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007) challenges the assumption that black women’s only significant musical contributions have been in the worlds of blues, jazz, pop, and traditional music.
The book includes detailed discussions of the lives and works of Undine Smith Moore (left), Julia Perry, Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Valerie Capers, Mary Watkins, and Regina Harris Baiocchi, all of whom have combined the techniques of Western art music with their own cultural traditions and individual gifts.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.
Below, Tichina Vaughn performs Dream variations, Bonds’s setting of the poem by Langston Hughes.
In 2008 the technology and publishing executive Joel Bresler created the multimedia website Follow the drinking gourd to share his research into the origins and history of the U.S. song, which was popularized by The Weavers and has been recorded some 200 times and reprinted in over 75 songbooks.
While providing ample documentation of the song’s reception history, this unusual resource probes persistent questions regarding the song’s provenance—not least, whether there is any basis for the idea that it was sung by African Americans during the Underground Railroad era. The site presents discussions by authoritative folklorists exploring such questions, and concludes with an invitation to collaborate by supplying further documentation.
Above, the first known publication of the song (Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1928).
Blues magazines like Living blues, Real blues, and Blues revue attest to the continuing vitality of a genre that dates at least back to the 1910s, when the first blues songs were published. Unlike the recording companies that capitalized on the “blues craze” of the Roaring Twenties, these magazines are interested in all forms of African American roots music—including sacred and other secular traditions—and their modern counterparts, including zydeco, gospel, and so on, fostering a thriving community of enthusiasts.