AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
African Music Links to the Black West
FROM AFRICA TO THE AMERICAN WEST
Grammy award winning African guitarist Ali Farki Toure passed on early in March of 2006. Toure was known as the African version of famous African-American Blues-man John Lee Hooker. Toure preferred the perspective that African-American Blues reminded him of music from Africa, specifically Tamascheq music.1
Up until now I have never really considered a link between African music and American Blues. The general consensus is that the blues is a unique U.S. form of folk music, reflecting a newly created African-American culture forged by the country’s race laws and customs.2 With Ali Farki Toure’s recognition of African cultural remnants in American Blues, I have decided to test the “From Africa to the American West” theory for music in the historic Black West.
African musical links can be found throughout the Americas, Brazil, (the Samba) Haiti, (Vodou rhythms) Cuba (Rumba) Mexico (La Bamba) and the U.S. (Funk-from the Ki-Kongo African phrase Lu-fuki). The challenge is to follow African-rooted music across the Mississippi and onto the range of the Black Cowboy, into the homes and churches of the Black settlers, on the railroad crews to California and in the mines.
I have stated earlier, Africans in the Americas were not completely mind washed of their homeland cultures, though the African cultures in the Americas evolved adapting from others. I believe the prohibition of African-Americans to become literate enhanced the intellectual and artistic aspects of existing oral cultures from Africa through clandestine necessity. By the late 19th century, Composer Antonin Dvorak (New World Symphony) believed that Negro melodies provided "all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."3
African-Americans in the West weren’t defined solely by African-rooted music; they became musically literate classical singers and masters of European music and instruments. While Whites were finding fame in Negro music as Black faced Minstrels, African Americans brought fame to songs that we know today as Westerns such as “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”4 “Home On The Range”5 and “Good Bye Old Paint”6 and for the sake of the Western Confederate States of Arizona and Texas, I’ll include the Southern favorite “Dixie” 7
Several African-American artists known as classical musicians during the 19th century are worth mentioning. I’ll present them in as brief a manner as possible and encourage the reader to research further.
The first person presented is Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809–1876), also known as “The Black Swan.” Greenfield was reported to have a three and a half octave range, singing both soprano and baritone for audiences that included the Queen of England. Justin Holland (1819-1877) a free Virginia African-American and Oberlin College music student in 1841 was a classical guitarist known for La Prima Donna Waltz (1854) and considered one of the greatest contributors to classical guitar in the 19th century. Matilda Sissieretta Joyner (1869-1933) also known as the Black Patti, was a soprano who performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. James A. Bland (1854-1911) was considered one of the biggest contributors to American Folk music, taking credit for nearly 700 songs including "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny” as well as being disputably credited with adding the fifth string to the Banjo. Joel Sweeney is also credited with this act though others sources say slaves already used the five-string Banjo in the 1700’s before both men were born. Anna Madah Hyers and Emma Louise Hyers were opera performers taught by a German pianist and an Italian opera singer in 1850’s gold rush Sacramento, California.8
In the early 20th century three artists deserve mention, Carman Newsome and Zenobia Powell Perry and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Carman Newsome was a teenage Kansas Black Cowboy who became a noted jazz conductor in Cleveland, Ohio as well as a movie star appearing in the movie, “Lying Lips”(1939) which featured Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones.9 Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004) is the research subject of Dr. Jeannie Gayle Pool of the Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California. Zenobia Perry, born in the historic Black West town of Boley, Oklahoma, is credited with compositions performed by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, West Virginia University Band and Orchestra, and an opera titled “Tawawa House.” She applied her musical knowledge at universities in Colorado and Wyoming.10 English born classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, son of an African doctor and an English mother, made it as far west as Chicago, Ill. Milwaukee Wis., and Saint Louis , Missouri in a1906 tour of the U.S.11
There should be little doubt that Negro spirituals followed African-American Christians into the American West. Professor Will Ruff, who once played with Dizzy Gillespie, mentions how African-American spirituals and the practice of singing a psalm and the congregation repeating it, was a Gaelic influence into the Negro spiritual, a process called “precenting.” Gillespie also told Ruff of his parents’ recollection of Black slaves speaking the Gaelic language.12 Sacred Harp music among African American churchgoers is also believed to be an adaptation from European music with African cultural remnants. African musical remnants in the American West are found not only in song, but in musical instruments as well, the Banjo, Kazoo and Washtub Bass to name a few. White folk musicians adopted the African Banjo while Black folk musicians developed the blues with the guitar. Ali Farki Toure considered certain African stringed instruments similar to the guitar such as jurukele (single string guitar), n'jarka (single string violin) and n'goni (four string lute) “favoured instruments of the spirits”. 1
The benchmark for a Black Cowboy singer is the song “Home on the Range.” This song was passed on by a Black Saloonkeeper in Texas to John Lomax in 1910.13 It became the choice of President Theodore Roosevelt and the Kansas State song. “Home On The Range” began as a poem written by White Kansas country doctor Brewster Higley VI around 1873. “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” also began as a poem perhaps written by a Black soldier or someone pretending to be, and “Good Bye Old Paint” was popularized by a Black cowboy named Charley Willis who rode the cattle trail from Texas to Wyoming.6 This brings me to the point that the singing cowboy was not created by Hollywood, rather Hollywood was an example of art imitating life, and that Singing Cowboys were a critical element to the western cattle industry, which is exampled in the following excerpt:
“…In his book, "He Was Singing This Song", Jim Bob Tinsley mentions the fact that some cattle drovers actually hired singers or groups of singers to take part in the cattle drives. One such story involves a Kansas City cattle company by the name of Lang and Ryan who bought thirteen thousand head of cattle from eastern Oregon in 1882. To help keep the cattle quiet at night they hired an entire band of Negro minstrels to sing to the cattle on the long drive eastward to market.”14
The author doesn’t know whether the minstrel group was of African descent or Black-faced Whites, (some people don’t realize that there were authentic Negro minstrel performers pretending to be White performers in Blackface)15 but the cattle were probably too busy enjoying the music to care.
American folk music researchers John Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, recorded American folk songs on paper and cylinder from 1933 to 1946. One collection in particular being released by Rounder Records called “ Deep River of Song: Black Texicans - Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier ” deserves attention. The same researchers who introduced the world to Blues legend “ Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Oklahoma son of a cowboy, “Woody Guthrie” recorded songs in Texas believed to be from Black cowboys.16 Once you visit the site you have the option of actually listening to small snippets of the music with titles such as “Ranging Buffalo,” “Western Cowboy,” and “My Yellow Gal.” With titles such as these one might expect a European foundation to the music, but what I heard were variations of the Blues. If Ali Farki Toure is correct in connecting the Blues to Africa, than the Africa to American West link is established in the Lomax Black Cowboy recordings.
I have found that one of the biggest queries to Black West presenters is, “What did the Black Cowboys sing?” There was a symposium in 1994 that included University historians, members of the American Black Cowboys Association and descendents of Black ranchers and cowboys in the West. The goal of that Cowboy Song Symposium held in Cody, Wyoming was to share music, history and culture. Don Edwards was listed as a “nationally known cowboy music performer and student of traditional cowboy music, including that of the black cowboys.”17
In my conclusion it’s worth noticing that Blues legends Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded some of their greatest hits in the heart of Black Cowboy country, Texas. Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” was recorded in Dallas, Texas. Jefferson also started in Dallas before he went up-river to Chicago. He is buried in Wortham, Texas. Not only is Ali Farki Toure’s search for a musical connection with the African-Americans traceable to Black Cowboy blues in the West, he also grew up among the Mali cattle culture which perhaps might link him to the Black West in ways other than music, or in his fashion, link the Black West to him. I would like to close with an excerpt from a biography of Ali Farki Toure :
"…l knew the spirit who gave me the gift very well. And I remember that night in Niafunke (Toure's home village). A night I'll never forget. I was about thirteen years old. I was chatting with some friends. l had a monochord (single string guitar) in my hand. l was wandering playing ordinary songs, just like that. … Next day l walked to the edge of the fields. l didn't have my instrument with me. l saw a snake with a strange mark on its head. Only one snake. I still remember the colour. Black and white. No yellow, no other colour, just black and white. And it wrapped itself around my head. l brushed it off, it fell and went into a hole and I fled. Since then l started to have attacks."1
Somehow the black and white snake around the head of Ali Farki Toure to me was a symbolic notice that the musicians he would recognize as relatives in the future had both the music of White and Black people in their heads, the African-Americans.
Bibliography and selected notes
10 .‘…Zenobia Powell Perry is a precious and articulate link to a special moment in American culture of the 1920s and 30s. She is linked to a musical tradition born of early African-American life, particularly the Spirituals. Among her colleagues there have been black American musicians of earlier generations, some of whom made a living as virtuoso traveling performers with international concert careers.”