Jubilee: An Overview of the Song Literature of African American Women Composers

By Baker, Sonya G.; Strempel, Eileen | Journal of Singing, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview

Jubilee: An Overview of the Song Literature of African American Women Composers

Baker, Sonya G., Strempel, Eileen, Journal of Singing

THE AMERICAN ART SONG CANON continues to reidentify and rearticulate its borders and boundaries, and this organic process underscores the importance of including the works of a wide array of composers, including African American women. As scholar Helen Walker-Hill notes in her book, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music, the first published songs by African American women appeared in 1870, but over a century later these works are woefully underrepresented in the repertoire. It is our hope that this brief introduction to some of the composers of this literature, spanning a broad spectrum from Florence Price to Nkeiru Okoye, will inspire inclusion of these songs into voice studios and performances.

This rich oeuvre of music by African American women song composers is best contextualized within the complex social as well as musical experiences of African Americans. Africans were forcibly brought to this country under the institution of legalized slavery, which was established in the seventeenth century and only abolished in the 1860s. The religious folk songs referred to as Negro Spirituals, or sometimes simply Spirituals, are believed by scholars to have their origin near the end of eighteenth century. Spirituals were sung communally by enslaved Africans, often in a call and response pattern typical of African music. Through these songs, slaves could experience a God who would affirm their humanity even when whites would not, a God who could set them free spiritually and physically. Spirituals served several additional functions for slaves. These songs often highlighted the individual's responsibility to the community as a whole, as exemplified by songs such as "He's Got the Whole World In His Hand." This sense of community was a strong African tradition maintained by slaves in America. Spirituals also inspired religious feeling at meetings of slaves, which often combined music with dancing and drumming, aspects of the African tradition largely prohibited by slave owners in the United States. The strong rhythmic drive of some spirituals facilitated their use as "work songs" in the fields. Perhaps most importantly, Negro Spirituals expressed a longing for freedom, encoding messages in lyrics that frequently referenced the Underground Railroad. For example, "De Gospel Train" celebrated the Gospel and it celebrated the train of slaves escaping northward. Just as slaves sang spirituals to express their desire for freedom, they also sang to express their oppression and to celebrate life. In an interview with PBS, musicologist Horace Boyer stated, ". . . the negro spiritual itself is a religious folksong of the slave era, which expresses basically two thoughts. One is liberation, and the other is sorrow. For example, 'Go down Moses' is a sorrow song. 'In that Great Getting Up Morning, Fare ye Well' is a jubilee. That's a liberation. We're going to get out of this situation, one way or another."1

This dichotomy of sorrow and liberation is evident throughout the literature of music composed by African American women. While this bifurcation is not exclusively due to the influence of Negro spirituals, musical elements characteristic of spirituals-pitch approximation, repetitive melodies, rhythmic drive and complexity, call and response, and occasional communal participation-helped to create jazz (often considered the first truly American music), blues, and gospel music.

While slaves were singing spirituals in the fields and in church, free blacks established educational, civic, and cultural organizations, hoping to achieve a status equal to that of whites. Most of our nation's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established during this time. Many of the HBCUs followed the example of Fisk University-with their renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers-who harnessed the fund-raising potential of spirituals by successfully touring concert halls around the world. In her article, "Black Women in Art Music," Teresa Reed writes:

Despite developing their own communities, blacks in the Northeast sought equal status with whites, and some of their cultural and educational efforts were designed to foster their assimilation into mainstream society. The desire for assimilation motivated many to reject distinctively African aesthetics to adhere, instead, to the European cultural value adopted by many white Americans. Their involvement in clubs and organizations designed to provide blacks with classical music training constituted their effort to "uplift the race."2

At the turn of the previous century, this idea of assimilation was greatly debated by African American leaders, most notably Booker T. Washington, who argued for temporary acceptance of segregation and strengthening labor skills and economic power for the black community, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who called for first class citizenship of African Americans. In 1895, Washington was invited to speak before the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta and gave what became known as his famous Atlanta Compromise address. There, he suggested that African Americans would be content living "by the productions of our hands" and that whites had nothing to fear. Du Bois supported Washington in 1895, but just a few short years later, Du Bois called for a traditional liberal arts education of what he called "the Talented Tenth," whereby the most educated African Americans would lead and elevate the status of the race. In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois also presented the idea of a "double consciousness" among African Americans. He writes, "One ever feels his two-ness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."3

This "double consciousness" is apparent in the literature examined here, not only in terms of the music (with its clear western European and African influences), and the texts (with the "unreconciled strivings" of Harriet Tubman), but also in the genres of music selected. This article examines the spiritual in its current solo form as art song, not merely "arrangement," and, perhaps a challenge to Du Bois's elitist viewpoint, includes jazz and blues songwriters, although their music is often held apart from (and considered lesser than) the world of classical art song. This is not all music by or for "The Talented Tenth."

At the same time African Americans were defining their place in American society, a broader sense of American Nationalism was emerging in music across the nation. The founding of American orchestras and the establishment of conservatories coincided with Charles Ives's composition of Variations on America in 1891, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" of 1897 and, a year later, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." It was against this cultural backdrop that Booker T. Washington made his famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise address and composer Antonin Dvorak declared, ". . . the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. This must be the foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."4

Dvorak's call for the inclusion of Negro melodies in American music was perhaps inspired by the instruction of his composition student, Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), often referred to as "The Father of the Spirituals." Burleigh, the grandson of slaves, was best known for crafting the spiritual as art song. He had sung spirituals for Dvorak, who then utilized portions of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in his iconic New World Symphony. 1895 also marked the birth of William Grant Still, who would later be known as the "Dean of African American music." His Afro-American Symphony was the first work by an African American performed by a major orchestra in 1931. And in the early twentieth century, the first successful African American female composer came to prominence.

Florence Price, born in 1888 in Little Rock, Arkansas, received her early training from her mother and became both an accomplished soprano and pianist. She graduated from New England Conservatory in 1906, where, ironically, she had been enrolled as a Mexican to avoid racism. Her teachers at NEC included noted American composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Price married and returned to Arkansas to teach at Shorter College, and later moved to Chicago in 1926 as the racial climate in Arkansas degenerated and a lynching occurred in a black, middle-class neighborhood. She moved into a thriving Chicago musical community at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Inspired, Price composed her Symphony in E Minor in 1932, and the performance of this work by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the 1933 World's Fair marked the first performance of a composition by an African American woman by a major orchestra, affording Price national and international acclaim. Price's compelling compositional style fused western European ideals and structure with African American idioms, exemplified by her Symphony in E Minor's third movement, "Juba Dance," where the title references a plantation dance from western Africa. In the model of Burleigh, Price also set a number of spirituals for the concert stage, many of which appear in volume published by Hildegard entitled, Art Songs and Spirituals by African American Women.5

Also well known for her spiritual compositions is Jacqueline Hairston, born in 1938 and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina.6 This Oakland/San Francisco-based professional pianist, teacher, composer/arranger, and vocal coach, received her musical training at Juilliard, Howard University, and Columbia University. Hairston's works have been recorded by the London Symphony and the Columbia Symphony Orchestras and have been performed by renowned singers such as Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Jubilant Sykes, and Denyce Graves. Hairston's only song cycle, On Consciousness Streams, is published in Wagner and Simmons's New Anthology of Art Songs by African American Composers, a collection that includes six women composers.7 This cycle is firmly rooted in the Western tradition, with strong impressionistic influences and occasional jazz chords. These art songs utilize sophisticated texts, lyrics that at times approximate a "stream of consciousness," and celebrate life much like the "jubilee" spirituals.

Any examination of notable contemporary composers surely must include Cuban-born Tania León. An Afro-Cuban "label" might at first glance seem to be a helpful point of entry or useful descriptive of León (and thus her music), but the composer herself notes this "label" omits the rich cultural layering of her Cuban heritage: the indigenous Amerindians; the Spanish conquest; the forced labor imported from Africa; the Caribbean migrations of Haitians (along with their French influence); as well as the turn-of-the-century migration of the Chinese. León's Harlem immigrant experience, and its effect on her music, is only one additional layer of the complexity evoked in her strata of polyrhythmia and her harmonic palate.

León characteristically mines the text as rhythmic wellspring, as a vital, propulsive musical force, and as the unifying gesture. This approach properly focuses our attention on the meticulous metric detail of León's scores. Her strong sense of pulse is placed within a surprisingly malleable framework of structure. Interestingly, this mutability of form holds true whether inherent in the genre or not. This flexible quality lends her music a sense of organic sincerity, spontaneity, as well as brute honesty. It also provides the reflective musical space to appreciate León's distinctive compositional voice. León acknowledged this herself, commenting:

One of the things, before I set something, I look for the syntax, the rhythm within the lines. Because it informs me what my approach is going to be for creating the musical lines, the contour of the piece. And how the pieces are going to flow from one into the other. So if you listen to the different gestures I use in the songs, from the very first one to the last one, there is a correspondence there. I link them (musically speaking) for the cycle. There is that invisible thread that spoke to me.8

The rhythmic syntax of León's songs corresponds to her structural organization. Her free reimagination of the blues in her Atwood Songs encourages reflection on categorization, especially when articulating where the convoluted boundaries might lie not only with genre and musical forms, but also among accent, dialect, and language. León, in an interview with Jenny Raymond, asserts "I think that labels-going back to the Afro-Cuban thing-is selling short what the whole thing is about.9 The categorization of composers-especially women composers, and women composers of color-sets limits and boundaries as it positions artists on (or outside of) the mainstream, and thus negatively impacting the likelihood of our hearing their compositions.

Because of her frustration with such labels, Tania León declined to be included in the seminal Helen Walker Hill book From Spirituals to Symphonies cited above, but it was through this resource that the work of Regina Harris Baiocchi was raised to greater prominence. Composer Regina Harris was born in Chicago during July of 1956, the third of eight siblings. Her mother was a teacher, and her father worked as a truck driver as well as a church minister. She grew up in the Robert Taylor Home Projects, and attended the oldest black Catholic church in Chicago, St. Elizabeth's Church. She was encouraged to write music by her high school music teacher Dr. Willie Naylor, who was a former basketball star turned music professor. While in high school, she met her husband Greg Baiocchi, and they married five years later.

Harris Baiocchi's music is eclectic. She prefers to set her own poetry, and combines jazz, gospel, blues, classical European, and folk elements quite literally with her own voice, believing that if she can sing it, "then a trained jazz or opera singer can do it."10 Her compositional process includes draft versions of songs that emerge first as jazz lead sheets, and then are later realized for voice and piano.11 Her rich harmonic language is suffused with expressive textual responsiveness, a signature aspect of her work.

Another contemporary composer profiled by the African American Art Song Alliance is Nkeiru Okoye, who has received numerous awards for her compositions including an ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Award.12 Born of African American and Nigerian parents, Okoye received degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Rutgers University. Her composition teachers and mentors have included Noel DaCosta, Adolphus Hailstork, Wendell Logan, and Robert Sirota. Her works have been performed by the Philadelphia, Detroit, Virginia, Grand Rapids, and Indianapolis orchestras, among others, recorded by the Moscow Symphony and Prague Radio Orchestras, and published by Oxford University Press.

Okoye fuses her composition with traditional western European, pop, African, and African American idioms. She extends the Du Bois "double consciousness" to multilayered consciousness, as evidenced in her cycle Songs of Harriet Tubman. The first song of this cycle has an eerie, modal sonority harking back to medieval church music, while the third is "in gospel style," clearly church music of the twentieth century. Okoye's web site features a phrase that exemplifies much of what makes her music so appealing: "creating music, bridging cultures, enriching communities."13 Okoye's music is a rich embodiment of this ideal.

The art music composers discussed above have roots in a popular musical tradition primarily known through its performers. Indeed, talented composers such as "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday are best known for their singing. Although their celebrity status rests primarily on their performances, their underrecognized work as composers provides an important model of what has been frequently termed "the gender problem in jazz." As historian Neil Leonard observed, "Women function in secondary roles as pianists, singers, dancers, den mothers, homemakers, breadwinners, and sex objects, but seldom are first-line musicians."14 Leonard's comment tellingly omits the possibility that women in jazz might also be accomplished composers. Recognition of these African American composers' contributions is compounded by the assumption that blues and jazz are considered lesser than the world of classical art song.

Against this backdrop, "Ma" Rainey's career positioned her as one of the first American professional blues singers, and certainly the artist who popularized the genre for mass audiences. Born as Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia to minstrel show artist parents, "Ma" Rainey's solo career began at the age of fourteen as a member of a traveling vaudeville troupe, The Rabbit Foot Minstrels. In 1904 she married Will "Pa" Rainey, and for years they toured together as a songand-dance team. (This notable troupe also included another singer/composer of the early twentieth century, the young Bessie Smith.)

Although she never learned to read music, "Ma" Rainey composed at least twenty-four of the songs she performed.15 One of the most famous of these songs was "See See Rider," which was recorded by Paramount in 1924 with Louis Armstrong. The title is a metaphor for a sexual partner, although it originally referred to the guitar hung on the back of the traveling bluesman. Underpinning flirtatious and witty lyrics is a classic twelve-bar blues pattern. Despite her compositional talents, and her illustrious performance career, Leonard's quote above seems prescient, as "Ma" Rainey's death certificate lists her occupation as merely "housekeeper."16

If "Ma" Rainey was considered the first blues singer, Billie Holiday was considered by many to be the first true jazz singer. The lineage between the two composers is a point of interest, as Billie Holiday's musical education comprised of listening to records featuring Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong during the time she worked as a messenger for a madam in Harlem. Holiday's oeuvre may not be large, but it includes such well known favorites as "God Bless the Child," "Lady Sings the Blues," and the classic composition, "Don't Explain." Covered by artists ranging from John Coltrane to Natalie Cole to Sarah Vaughan, the song's rondo form embodies the repeated request of a lover not to contrive excuses for his infidelity; the singer accepts his unfaithfulness despite the pain it causes. Composed and recorded in 1944 by Decca in a big band arrangement, Holiday wrote her composition while married to Jimmy Monroe. More than likely, this song is the autobiographic retelling of a point in her stormy marital relationship, and this perhaps contributed to the lack of compositional attribution of the song to Holiday.

From Billie Holiday to Nkeiru Okoye, Bessie Smith to Florence Price and Jacqueline Hairston, the music of African American women composers deserves to be sung, heard, discussed, and shared. The musical contributions of these artists embody and affirm the varied experience of African American women as composers. Without inclusion of their works in the teaching and performing canon by singers of all races and ethnicities, students are offered scant evidence to contradict the impression that only spirituals are worthy of inclusion on a recital program, that no other stylistic possibilities for performance are available, and that only African Americans might appropriately sing music by African American composers. Programming choices, both inside the studio and on the stage, visibly and powerfully attest to the viability and value of music African American women composers for everyone.


1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/filmmore/reference/interview/boyer01.html (accessed 21 November, 2008).

2. Teresa L Reed, "Black Women in Art Music," in Eileen M. Hayes and Linda F. Williams, eds., Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 179-180.

3. Ibid., 19.

4. Joseph Horowitz, "Dvorak and the New World: A Concentrated Movement," in Michael Beckerman, ed., Dvorak and His World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 96.

5. Vivian Taylor, ed., Art Songs and Spirituab by African-American Women Composers (Bryn Mawr, PA: Hildegard Publishing Company, 1995).

6. Jacqueline Hairston is the cousin of Jester Hairston, also famed as a spiritual preservationist.

7. Margaret R. Simmons and Jeanine Wagner, eds., A New Anthology of Art Songs by African American Composers (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004).

8. http://esm.rochester.edu/wmf/2007_video_highlights.php, (accessed 2 September, 2008).

9. 13 November 1998, New York City.

10. Helen Walker Hill, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 334.

11. Regina Harris Baiocchi was commissioned by Eileen Strempel to compose her cycle Three Love Lyrics for the 2008 NATS convention in Nashville.

12. http://www.darryltaylor.com/alliance/okoye.bio.html (accessed 29 August, 2008).

13. http://www.nkeiruokoye.com/ (accessed 29 August, 2008).

14. Karin Pendel, ed., Women & Music: A History, second edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 467.

15. Ibid., 464.

16. Ibid.

[Author Affiliation]

Soprano Dr. Sonya G. Baker is currently Professor of Voice and Assistant Dean of the College of Humanities & Fine Arts at Murray State University. Her debut recording, She Says, featured art songs of American Women composers and was released in 2004, a year after she made her Carnegie Hall debut with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and appeared as soloist with the Yale Alumni Chorus tour to Moscow, singing at the Kremlin. Noted for her performances of American music, Baker regularly appears with the American Spiritual Ensemble and her lecture recital on Marian Anderson's historic 1939 Easter Concert has been presented nationwide. Baker is a member of the Leadership Kentucky class of 2010, serves as board member for the Kentucky Arts Council, and recently completed two terms as Kentucky Governor for the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Baker is also a former faculty member with both the Kentucky and Virginia Governor's School for the Arts.

A Presidential Scholar in the Arts, soprano Eileen Strempel made her debut with the New York Philharmonic Chamber Music Series, sang the role of Violetta in La traviata at the Bolshoi Opera, and the Bach B Minor Mass in Avery Fisher Hall. She has sung at the Skaneateles, Chautauqua, and Berkeley music festivals, and has won first prize of the Loren Zachary, both Sullivan Awards, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, the Liederkranz, and Enrico Caruso Vocal Competitions. Her numerous recordings include: love lies bleeding: Songs of Libby Larsen (prepared with the composer); With All My Soul; and Songs of Innocence. A contributor to The New Historical Anthology of Music by Women, she also regularly writes for The Classical Singer, Journal of Singing, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Journal of the International Alliance for Women In Music. Her recent Centaur Records release, (In)habitation: Settings of Margaret Atwood Poetry by American Women Composers, features work composed expressly for the her by some of the top female composers of our time, including Libby Larsen, Lori Laitman, Amanda Harberg, Ellsenda Fábregas, Tania León, and Judith Cloud. A specialist in the music of women composers, Strempel is managed by Sciolino Artist Management. She is Assistant Vice President/Associate Professor at Syracuse University, and is a recent awardee of an Enitiative eProfessorship by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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