Lyrical Blackface?

By Fred Bogert

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I love helping young choirs awaken the meaning of tried and true melodies in new and interesting musical settings. It’s fun to expose them to the original classic presentations of songs, hymns and anthems so they can become aware of the rich heritage we draw upon today. Then, by imaginatively recasting harmonies and rhythms around the melody and structure, we can add a level of creative ownership to a new version that the choir brings to life.

I was “beachcombing” the internet the other day in my search for new candidates for rearranging when I encountered something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I came across a variety of videos regarding a favorite song – “Give Me Jesus.” It has a classic melody and historic lyrics, just the thing for arranging for young voices. And then I opened a video of a fine soprano effortlessly floating through the melody accompanied by an earnest pianist. The arrangement was somewhat modern, carefully – crafted and well-performed. I was captured by the whole thing, until the third verse, when the singer sincerely sang, “And when I comes to die, and when I comes to die, and when I comes to die, give me Jesus.” The singer and the pianist were both white, and suddenly I was presented with what felt like lyrical blackface. I don’t understand why that incongruous moment was written into the arrangement.

Both performers were reciting, not improvising, so I’m guessing that “comes to die” are the lyrics of that score, but why?

As a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s I remember the riots, the protests, the busing, the social and political turmoil we went through as a nation seeking to grow beyond the tragic days of slavery and Jim Crow laws. And now we are seeing the issues that remain unresolved in our society when it comes to the de facto racism found in Hollywood, rebel flags, and Civil War Confederate memorials, not to mention red lining and gerrymandering.

But what about our choral music?

The rich cultural heritage of African American musicians has led to popular modern styles from bluegrass to the blues, instruments like the banjo, and the powerful choral voicings and structures of black gospel.

The question that lingers after my episode with “Give Me Jesus” is this: How can I responsibly present lyrics originally written in African American dialect in a way that doesn’t perpetuate overt or implied racism, while honoring the richness and value of African American music? If I change the original lyrics that in some cases have become offensive and even toxic, (think Stephen Foster), am I insulting the historical heritage of the composition?

[Editor’s Note: I recall in my elementary choir experience in Florida, “Old Folks at Home” by Stephen Foster was a must for our music class. Since 1935 it had been the official state song, we were taught it, many years before the official lyrical change in 2008, with lyrics changed by school’s choir director, who rightfully so, didn’t like the minstrel song origins and the lyrics of “Oh darkies how my heart grows dearer… et cetera,” and my recently-integrated fellow students would also have found it offensive, even if as five-year-olds we didn’t know about minstrel songs. Our director chose “darling” as a replacement for “darkies” and normalized the other words to de-minstrel them. We sang only the first verse and chorus.  – ML]

Obviously, there’s a different set of answers for each composition and arrangement. It is largely about context. There is a difference in producing “Porgy and Bess,” or other musicals, be they “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Oliver,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” or “The Whiz,” with contextual and even historic portrayals in context, and singing or hamming it up in minstrel dialect. Is there really a good argument for retaining minstrel-esque dialects outside of that context? Is it ever ok? I don’t think so.

I try to concentrate on the singers and their audience – what would be the best choices of lyrics that folks would be honored to sing and hear? If I encountered a “when I comes to die” moment that seemed out of context, I’d get rid of the “s” quickly. If the whole set of lyrics was African American or Welsh or some other English dialect, I’d be inclined to keep it and have the music point to the ethnic origins. How about you?

We arrangers and directors are at the forefront of the arts, hopefully reflecting honest perspectives of our society through the assembled young voices of our choirs. On a good day we develop materials that allow us to explore both contemporary and historical issues in ways that entertain and educate all involved, without perpetuating negative stereotypes.

My question to all my wonderful colleagues – is there such a thing as “lyrical blackface”? Do you ever encounter it on your podium? What happens when you do? I’d love to know your thoughts. Feel free to email me, fredb@fredbogert.com.

Composter/producer Fred Bogert has produced Grammy-nominated recordings and is the Highland Baptist Church Friday church director and minister of music – Ridgewood Baptist Church, both in Louisville, Kentucky. He operates studio recording and production services at Briarpatch Audio Productions. More info at fredbogert.com.

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