Again about Black History Month, as it ends…
It’s hard to find ways to honor Black History Month in classical music, because the classical music mainstream hasn’t related much to African-American life.
A sad tale:
When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball — something now celebrated as a key event in American history — the Met Opera had never had a black soloist on stage. This was in 1947.
Jackie Robinson played in Brooklyn, across the river from the Met. So don’t think no one thought the Met might baseball’s lead. Someone went to Edward Johnson, who back then ran the opera house, and suggested it was time. No, said Johnson. “Don’t I have enough trouble already?” (I’m paraphrasing. Don’t have the exact quote in front of me. The source for this story is Irving Kolodin’s masterful, thorough, and immensely readable history of the Met, year by year from the founding to 1966.)
The Met didn’t have a black soloist until 1955. That 1947 conversation wasn’t a great moment for classical music.
While in pop music…
1947 came near the start of something unprecedented. What happened was the emergence — first gradual, then explosive — of African-American music into the pop music mainstream. And no, I’m not talking about the influence of African-American music. I’m talking about the music itself, sung and played by black musicians. Or by whites, doing what the black musicians did.
This was explosive. This was the arrival of rock & roll, which hit the pop world bigtime in 1954, the same year as the Supreme Court’s epochal decision banning the state-imposed segregation of the races in schools in the American south. Which of course was a key moment in the march toward racial equality, still in progress.
From that time on, we can map the black struggle — the civil rights movement, and everything else — against the history of American pop music. So much is reflected. Like the emergence of Motown Records early in the 1960s, again a major step toward equal black participation in American life. A stellar black-owned business…songs written, sung, played, produced, and marketed by African-Americans soaring on the pop charts. Never happened before!
You can read about Motown Records in a stellar (and, again, immensely readable) book by David Maraniss, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. About how Detroit’s peak years in the early ‘60s already bred the seeds of its decline. Motown Records is a big part of the story. The Detroit Symphony is barely mentioned, if at all.
Returning now to my main thread…
All of this is a longish intro to three songs I assigned in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. Three songs that show something missing in classical music’s links to our wider culture: Any close connection with African-American life.
This didn’t mean African-Americans didn’t care about classical music. Many did. In fact there was a lively classical music culture in black communities before World War II. But AFrican-Ameridans, the lives they lead, and their history — almost none of that was reflected in anything the classical music world did. Or in the music itself.
Remember my last post, with Aaron Dworkin talking about the performing arts not reflecting the lives of many people in our world? Pop music hasn’t had that problem. There were struggles — black music relegated to a “race music” (ugly term) category, before World War II. And then the pop music industry trying in various ways to suppress or limit or segregate it. But black music fought back. Emerged fully into mainstream view.
And, even when segregated, always was there to reflect black life and history.
The three songs:
Chuck Berry, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (1956) Sly song about how powerful, how potent black men can be. Because every time Chuck Berry says “brown-eyed” you know he means “brown-skinned.” Way ahead of its time in 1956! Lyrics.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1963). Cooke was a gospel singer who saw an opening for African-Americans in the pop world, when rock & roll came in. Wrote lilting, sweet songs for teenagers. Huge success. Then when the civil rights movement grew wrote and sang this haunting song — surely one of the greatest pop songs ever — about what the future could bring. Lyrics
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982). Urban black communities had serious problems. And this song — the first hiphop song with social commentary — told us the news, with a harsher sound and harsher words that the pop mainstream was used to. A shock — necessary, bracing shock — to hear it on pop radio. Lyrics.
Argue all you want about the deep inner strength of classical music. But for cultural power, in today’s world — and for relevance in Black History Month — we can’t match these songs. Can’t even come close.