Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895

By Lowry, Peter B. | Western Folklore, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895


Lowry, Peter B., Western Folklore


Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895. By Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. Pp. xvii + 510, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, photographs, musical notation, appendices, notes, index. $75.00 cloth); Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. By Tim Brooks. Appendix by Dick Spottswood. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. x + 634, preface, acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, photographs, tables, appendix, notes, discography, bibliography, index. $65.00 cloth)

Before the invention and spread of recording technologies, and particularly before the record-marketing revolution that began in 1920, our window onto African American music of all sorts is very small; but by tapping various contemporary resources usually considered ancillary to recording, such as newspapers and other archival material, our authors have produced two books that enlarge that window, for which we may be thankful.

Out of Sight, by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, takes a rather narrow slice of time and trawls the Black American press of the time with a broad and deep net. As has been shown in previous works (Lotz and Pegg 1986, Lotz 1997), very soon after the end of the Civil War, by the 1880's, African American musical performers had already toured the world and were already leaving their mark. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the earliest and most influential groups and so the book begins with their travels, which took in much of the United States and Canada, then the Caribbean, Europe, Africa-there is a strong line of development from the Fisks through to Ladysmith Black Mambazo today-Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific-Fisk Singers books, originally sold on site after performances, are still to be found in used-book stores in Australia and New Zealand, and to this day the choral singing of Cook Island shows the influence of the Fisks. Besides exposing the world to a new music, the Fisks created new markets for Black performers long before the advent of the phonograph.

Out of Sight (the title is a Black vernacular expression that dates back at least to the mid-1880's, with the same meaning as today) is a chronological assemblage of newspaper accounts, connected with explanatory bits from the authors' own exhaustive knowledge. It sounds dire-but this book is both serious and a great read, an important and coherent collection of stories about the African American musical experience-good, bad, and ugly. The book is broken into five chronological chapters, beginning with 1889 with "Frederick J Loudin's Fisk Jubilee Singers and Their Australasian Auditors, 1886-1889," which lays out the back-story of this famed group's world travels, setting the stage for jubilee groups to be markers in the spread of African American music. Another thread in the warp and weft of developing popular culture during the late nineteenth century is the rise of Black performers on the minstrel stage; here the ironies of Blacks imitating Whites imitating Blacks are not ignored, either by the authors or by their African American journalistic sources. Other subjects are treated with depth and continuity through the book, ending with the nascency of ragtime as it pointed toward the beginnings of blues, jazz and gospel, each with its worldwide impact. …

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