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June 4, 1904
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

June 4, 1904

Guest post by Lucy Caplan, PhD candidate in American Studies and African-American Studies at Yale University.

In the June 4, 1904, issue of the Indianapolis Freeman, the musical and theatrical critic Sylvester Russell published a moving meditation on the life of a man he called “our greatest musical friend from far across the sea”: composer Antonin Dvorak. What had Dvorak done to merit this appellation? According to Russell, the Czech composer’s influence on African-American music had been profound. It affected musicians across a variety of genres, from operatic vocalists to Tin Pan Alley songwriters. In its assessment of Dvorak’s wide-ranging legacy, Russell’s article suggests that for many African-American musicians in the turn-of-the-century United States, everyday musical experience stretched across both lines of genre and lines of race. (Click to view PDF of article.)

Russell’s article begins with a brief biography of Dvorak that emphasizes the composer’s ascent from “humble parentage” to a place of preeminence in the transatlantic world of classical music. In 1892, at the height of his success as a composer, Dvorak was recruited by philanthropist Jeannette Meyers Thurber to serve as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. It was while serving as the conservatory’s director that Dvorak made his now-famous pronouncement that black and Native American vernacular music, particularly the spirituals, could serve as the foundation of American music. “The new American school of music,” he told an interviewer, “must strike its roots deeply into its own soil…I am now satisfied that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants.”106 Dvorak’s prestige and foreign background, Russell argues, enabled him to make claims about the value of black music that white Americans would not otherwise accept. “He asserted that the music of the Negroes was America’s original music,” Russell surmises. “This fell upon the ears of the American white people like a heavy clap of thunder. It was truth by assertion. There are those in America who do not like to hear the truth about the original American music, and that is why the voice of a foreigner with superior musical knowledge resounded.”

Dvorak put these ideas into practice in his own music. Listen here to the second movement of his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which includes a melody so clearly inspired by the spirituals that many listeners assumed it was one. In fact, one of Dvorak’s African-American students, Harry T. Burleigh, later arranged Dvorak’s melody as the song “Goin’ Home”; listen here to Paul Robeson’s rendition of Burleigh’s song. Although musicologists have called into question the extent of Dvorak’s exposure to black and Native American musical traditions, revealing that his knowledge derived largely from white-authored, heavily mediated sources, Dvorak’s commitment was nonetheless remarkable, and his influence, as Russell demonstrates, profound.107

The second part of Russell’s article is especially interesting for the far-reaching legacy that it attributes to Dvorak. Noting the composer’s popularity among critics and audiences alike, Russell expresses confidence that “his death will be a living death.” He first describes the musical successes of Dvorak’s African-American students at the National Conservatory, who, in addition to Burleigh, included singers Theodore Drury, Desseria Plato, and Margaret Scott. More surprisingly, Russell goes on to note that Dvorak’s influence extends to those working in “a lower grade of Negro catchy music”: genres including vaudeville, musical theater, and popular song. In particular, he mentions the songwriters Rosamond Johnson, Sidney Perrin, and Shepard Edmonds.

By emphasizing that Dvorak had as much of an effect on popular songwriters as he did on classically trained singers, Russell challenges conventional notions of classical music as distinctly separate from other musical forms, instead providing evidence of mutual influence across various genres. Much like Dvorak himself claimed space for the spirituals within the realm of classical music, Russell claims space for Dvorak’s musical ideas within the realm of black popular culture.

The wide range of Russell’s musical references suggests that as a critic and listener, he experienced music in a way that was not limited by genre or by the racial background of its creators. In one sense, the breadth of his musical taste seems akin to that of today’s listeners: in our era of curated playlists, YouTube, and Spotify, we can move with ease across various genres and styles. Russell’s article suggests that, although their modes of access were of course quite different, turn-of-the-century African-American listeners experienced music in much the same way. Because much scholarship on American music tends to be organized along lines of race and genre, however, this aspect of how music functioned in everyday life has often been obscured. A closer look at the work of critics like Russell reveals a more nuanced sense of how African-American listeners experienced music in their everyday lives, and indicates that there is exciting scholarly work to be done in rethinking the categories typically used to study the American musical past.