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Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

The Music of African Americans

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.
Scott Joplin, composer. Maple Leaf Rag. 1911. Library of Congress Music Division.

The music of black Americans comes in a rainbow of colors. The immemorial spirituals show up in the Music Division in early Civil War publications, in the many editions of the Fisk Jubilee Singers' biography and souvenir books, in other collections of Jubilee singers before the turn of the century, and in many twentieth-century versions. These versions from our century include arrangements for voice and piano, the choral arrangements through which many of these spirituals are best known today, and new-wave collections like Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life, done with the aid of tape recorders, which try to fix in notation just how the folk from whom the spirituals were collected actually sang them.

Secular black music in the Division goes back as far as dances played by Francis Johnson's famous band of free blacks, which was the toast of Philadelphia early in the nineteenth century. The sounds of his band are forever gone, since we have the music only in the form of piano arrangements; but the toe-tapping tunes still remain. There is a great deal of music from the early minstrel stage, challenging the researcher in black music to decide what is bona fide borrowing from black originals and what is just white folks' jokes. (What can we trust from The Ethiopian Glee Book: A Collection of Popular Negro Melodies Arranged for Quartet Clubs by "Gumbo Chaff ... first banjo player to the King of Congo" [Boston: Howe, 1847]?)

African-American secular music speaks with its own voice in the rags which began to be published just before the turn of the century. The Music Division has all of Scott Joplin's rags in first edition, along with the rags of other pioneers of the genre--James Scott, Arthur Marshall, Joseph Lamb, and Artie Matthews.

As ragtime was starting its career, the black musical theater was beginning on Broadway. Shows with titles promising exotic locales--A Trip to Coontown, In Dahomey, Bandana Land--featured leading comics such as Bert Williams and George Walker and major singers such as Aida Overton Walker and Abbie Mitchell Cook (who was later to be the first to sing "Summertime" in Porgy and Bess).

Songwriters for this theater included James Weldon Johnson (later Executive Secretary of the NAACP), J. Rosamond Johnson, and Will Marion Cook. Cook was among the first black Americans to have his songs published by a major American "legitimate" (as opposed to popular-song) publisher; the Johnson Brothers, with Bob Cole, were the first black song composers to be accepted as part of the standard popular-music scene, writing ballads for general singing ("The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes") as well as racial material ("Under the Bamboo Tree"). This material is represented in the Music Division in myriad arrangements--song with piano, male quartet, mixed quartet, wind band, and potted-palm orchestra. There are even scripts for some of the shows--Abyssinia, In Dahomey, Jes Lak White Folks, and The Cannibal King--of which the first two are also represented in the sheet music published by Gotham-Attucks, the first successful black-owned music publishing firm. This firm, created in 1905 by the merger of the Gotham Music Publishing Company and the Attucks Music Publishing Company (the latter named for the black protomartyr of American freedom), also published such well-known songs as "Nobody," Bert Williams's trademark song, and the jazz standard "Shine." Later black-owned music companies such as Handy Bros. and Jobete--the latter the publishing arm of Motown Records--are also well-represented in the Music Division's collections.

The great monuments of jazz are generally considered to be recordings--located in the Recorded Sound Reference Center of the Library rather than the Music Division. Nonetheless, the paper trail of jazz is substantial. Books and periodicals on jazz and jazzmen are published in many languages (Jazznytt, a periodical published in Stockholm; Cutia de Rezonantã: Eseuri despre Jazz din Perspectiva Culturii Actuale, a book published in Bucharest in 1985). Discographies document the work of most major performers, and one epic forty-volume discography tries to document every jazz recording through 1967.


William Gottlieb, photographer. Portrait of Charlie Parker, Carnegie Hall. ca. 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

Jazz is finally represented by notes on paper as well. Many standard pieces were published in "stock" arrangements, sets of parts for bands to play. The Library has a wide if somewhat haphazard selection of such "stocks," not all of which were deposited for copyright. With them your band can attempt such standards as Jelly Roll Morton's "Milenburg Joys," King Oliver's "Sugar Foot Stomp," Earl Hines's "Salt Peanuts," and a whole bunch of Basie, ranging alphabetically from "Aces and Faces" to "Wiggle Woogie," and including such standards as "One O'clock Jump." Combo players can try their hand at Lionel Hampton's "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" or Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple: featuring the original Charlie Parker Alto Sax Solo."

More and more as the century wore on, black composers wrote for the concert hall. The Music Division has manuscripts of music by the pioneers of this group, including the seminal Afro-American Symphony of William Grant Still. (It also has Still's letters to the dedicatee of the symphony, Irving Schwerké) It has the manuscript of the "Rhapsodie Negre" of Florence Price, the first black woman to write a symphony performed by a major orchestra: the Music Division's photostat of Price's piano sonata, deposited for copyright, is the only known copy of this piece, which is now becoming something of a repertory work for pianists interested in African-American music. The Music Division also holds a large number of manuscripts of Ulysses Kay, and manuscripts of representative recent composers such as David Baker and Jeffrey Mumford.

As black composers made a bid for entry into the mainstream of American concert life, so did black performers. One of the symbols of this movement was the National Negro Opera Company, active between 1943 and 1962. The Music Division has programs, photographs, and papers of the NNOC.


A new kind of black sacred music, usually called "gospel" (as is another kind of music most often done by white performers), developed in the twentieth century. During its early years it was little-recorded, and songs in this style spread largely through printed copies. The Library of Congress is the only major music library to have an important collection of the early publications of such pioneering gospel companies as Martin & Akers. It has copies of the original editions of such gospel standards as "99 1/2 Won't Do," "God Specializes," "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There," and that arch-symbol of gospel, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."