Elmer Keeton and His Bay Area Negro Chorus: Creating an Artistic Identity in Depression-Era San Francisco
Miller, Leta E., Black Music Research Journal
On June 25, 1939, a vibrant show, the Swing Mikado, opened at the Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco's Treasure Island. Featuring an all-black cast, the production was a "brashly irreverent" adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado (Hobart 1939b) with the locale changed from Japan to an unidentified "coral island" in the South Seas. The Swing Mikado preserved Sullivan's music intact--albeit with minor changes in lyrics to omit racist references and adapt to the changed geographical setting. Added to the score, however, were a half dozen swing arrangements and "specialty dances" that were greeted with immense ovation and that accounted for the sellout, standing-room-only crowds.
The Swing Mikado--which had originated in Chicago a year earlier--represented one of the most successful endeavors of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), one of four arts programs collectively called "Federal One" that were sponsored by the Works Progress Adminsitration (WPA), the federal government's massive employment effort of the Depression era. San Francisco's version of the show featured fifteen soloists, a "singing chorus" of about fifty, and a "dancing chorus" of about twenty. John Hobart, in the San Francisco Chronicle, characterized the singing group as "really magnificent.... After the anemic voices that usually make up the ensemble in G. and S. revivals," he wrote, "it is wondrous to hear this huge crowd of singers, with full-bodied voices, pitching into the music" (Hobart 1939b). This "singing chorus" was well-known to locals: under the inspired direction of Elmer Keeton, it had become one of the most prominent ensembles in northern California's Federal Music Project (FMP)--another Federal One unit. (The FTP and the FMP often collaborated on musical theater productions. The other two components of Federal One were the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers' Project.) Keeton's Bay Area Negro Chorus had been attracting large crowds and exceptional reviews for the previous three years.
Critics predicted that the Swing Mikado was in for a long run. Two weeks after its opening, however, Congress shut down the FTP, bending to conservative opposition to the WPA in general and to rumors of Communist influence within the Theatre Project in particular. "4100 Lopped Off Rolls; 'Mikado' Show Closed," lamented the Chronicle in a page 1 story the day after the closing ("4100 Lopped" 1939). The Music Project, which felt invested in the production because of Keeton's chorus, tried to convince WPA authorities to take it over from the defunct FTP, but to no avail (Ness 1939; "Music Project" 1939). A month later the Swing Mikado reopened under private sponsorship in the city and then went on tour. Thereafter, the chorus continued to perform concerts under Keeton's leadership, and was even featured in several nationwide broadcasts.
The story of Elmer Keeton and his "Negro chorus"--pieced together here from programs, reviews, WPA documents, and recordings--is one of musical artistry and success, but also of racial exclusion and marginalization. Keeton himself walked a tenuous line between tolerating the segregation of the WPA and promoting the extraordinary musical heritage of U.S. blacks. His nonconfrontational approach cultivated positive interactions with the white population, whose responses to his programs were for the most part appreciative, but also, at times, patronizing. With the exception of a small minority of white singers directly threatened by the group's success, Keeton and his chorus attracted well-deserved praise from the city's arts critics.
Keeton's quiet attitude toward racial issues stands in stark contrast to that of younger arrivals to San Francisco, among them one of the solo singers in his musical productions. Joseph James, featured in two theatrical presentations with the chorus, spearheaded a contentious legal battle that led to the integration of local labor unions. The contrasting approaches of Keeton and James to the discrimination they faced illustrates both a generational divide and a demographic realignment within the local population. Tension between blacks and whites in San Francisco before the Second World War was less virulent than in many other areas of the country, in part because of the small number of African Americans in the city, in part because the sizable Chinese population absorbed the brunt of racist sentiment. A tremendous influx of African Americans took place in the war years, however: San Francisco's black population increased from .8 percent to 5.6 percent between 1940 and 1950. Anti-black responses followed, particularly because many of the newcomers hailed from the southern states. The reaction of many long-time African-American residents (such as Keeton) was apprehension: Would the delicate relationships they had cultivated with the white majority devolve into overt racism in reaction to the unsophisticated rural culture introduced by many of the new arrivals? (1) Younger and newer residents (such as James), in contrast, tended to respond with resistance; and as we will see below, two of their legal challenges were supported by the courts.
A subtext of the Keeton story involves the ambivalent relationship between African Americans and Japan (the stated locale of the original non-swung Mikado). Widely expressed admiration on the part of U.S. blacks in the early part of the century for the world's most powerful nonwhite nation became severely compromised in the late 1930s, and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 placed its sympathizers in an untenable position. Keeton, like many others, responded with a virulent anti-Japanese outburst (in his case, a musical work that was broadcast nationally). Thus the tale of Keeton and his chorus represents, in many ways, a microcosm of the ambivalent position of U.S. blacks, not only in the arts, but also in the political arena, during the era leading up to World War II.
As one of many black leaders who struggled for artistic success during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Elmer Keeton managed to adjust with skill to shifts in the political winds, whether engendered by demographic reconfigurations, national cultural controversies, the impending war, or changes in musical preferences and expression. During his years in building and directing his ensemble, he adroitly enhanced his own and his chorus's musical artistry, often seeking new creative outlets for his talented singers. The result was an ensemble that left a mark of excellence and imagination on the local landscape.
William Elmer Keeton
W. Elmer Keeton (1882-1947) was born in Rolla, Missouri, and grew up in St. Louis. In OE903 he entered Northwestern University, where he studied for three years. Keeton was awarded a Certificate in Piano and Theory in June 1906 ("Graduates" 1906; Syllabus 1904 and 1905); photos in the school's yearbooks show that he also played baritone horn in the band (see Fig. 2). Published statements that Keeton was awarded a B.S. or a "doctorate with honors" are untrue (Crouchett 1987-88, 2; Fried 2996, 238; "Public Spirited Figures" 1929). In fact, Northwestern did not even offer a doctoral degree in music until 1954. In the years Keeton attended the university, music students could not even earn a bachelor's degree: the school offered only diploma and certificate programs. After his time at Northwestern, Keeton served as a military bandmaster in Illinois and an organist at several churches in St. Louis.
In 1921 Keeton moved to Oakland, California, where he set up a music studio. An ad in the weekly African-American paper The Western Outlook on October 22 of that year stated that he offered a wide range of instruction: not only piano and organ lessons but also "complete courses in [the] theory of music, harmony, counterpoint, form, analysis, history, composition, [and] instrumentation," as well as "expert arranging and copying" (Advertisement 1921). Judging from the musical works he would later compose, his skills in harmony, counterpoint, form, and arranging must indeed have been quite exceptional.
Over the next decade Keeton taught music, directed choral and operatic groups, and published (with Harold Powell) popular songs and pianovocal arrangements of spirituals. Example 1 shows the end of their setting of "Walk in Jerusalem Jus' Like John," which uses strategies typical of Keeton's later a cappella choral arrangements: responsorial effects (here manifest as unaccompanied solo passages answered by piano responses) and idiomatic harmonic colorations including added-sixth and eleventh chords, chromatic passing/neighbor tones, modal interchange on the subdominant, and suspensions. "Professor" Keeton built up an avid group of students and admirers who fondly dubbed him 'Fess.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
In December 1935 Keeton began to organize a "colored chorus" under the auspices of the Federal Music Project's Oakland branch. When WPA officials had set up Northern California's FMP in the fall of that year, San Francisco and Oakland were established as separate units because the absence of a bridge across the bay required slow and costly ferry travel. Two choral ensembles took shape in the Oakland unit: Keeton's Negro chorus and a (white) East Bay ensemble directed by John Fuerbringer. Such racial segregation was typical of most FMP units throughout the country. Separate Negro performing ensembles were established in areas with sizable black populations, including (in California) Los Angeles and Oakland, which in 1930 had 7,500 African-American residents (2.6 percent of the population). The two Oakland choral ensembles appeared together in a joint program on June 24, 1936. Keeton's group (Fig. 2) sang four spirituals in his own inventive arrangements, as well as other works, including a medley that used the largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony (called "Massa Dear") and Foster's "Swanee River." Fuerbringer's white chorus performed works by Brahms, Haydn, Liszt, Johann Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and others.
Keeton's programming was typical of his later concerts: spirituals (arranged by himself) formed the centerpiece of the programs, but more standard choral fare appeared as well, including several works by Mendelssohn. A particular favorite was Keeton's a cappella arrangement of the quartet "Bella figlia dell' amore" from Rigoletto, sung by soloists along with a "murmured choral background" (Mason 1938b). In addition, the lead male singer, Marcus Hall, typically performed German lieder and/or English songs by Purcell, Quilter, and others, with Keeton accompanying at the piano. Publicity in the programs and the press repeatedly linked Hall to Roland Hayes, who, according to one source, had "sent [Hall] to London" where he studied with George Henschel ("Colored Chorus" 1938).
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Crisis in the Northern California Federal …
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Publication information: Article title: Elmer Keeton and His Bay Area Negro Chorus: Creating an Artistic Identity in Depression-Era San Francisco. Contributors: Miller, Leta E. - Author. Journal title: Black Music Research Journal. Volume: 30. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2010. Page number: 303+. © 2008 Center For Black Music Research. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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