Too often history of any form, whether political, social, or, in this case musical, is a chronicle of preferences and consequences of elites.
Two recent concerts gave a musical voice to masses of Americans whose song has too long remained dormant, but whose musical message of the heart resonates powerfully in the 21st century.
On March 2, a performance entitled Narrative of a Slave Woman: A Concert of Negro Spirituals was presented at Northern Recital Hall on the WTAMU campus, co-sponsored by the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the University Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Amarillo Opera, along with support from the University Guest Artist Committee.
Chamber Music Amarillo, on March 9 at the Fibonacci Space, featured a special program entitled A Celebration-Music of the Parlor, Saloon, Stage, and Screen, with artists Twyla Robinson, assistant professor of voice at TCU and Jerome Tan, now one of the most sought-after piano accompanists in the country.
The music at each venue shared common characteristics. In the first place it was the sound of America’s hinterlands and rural pathways, the voices of those ignored by eastern urbanity and plantation mastery.
Both forms were cathartic, a cry of released pain from social and political realities over which the individual had no control.
And, in each was hope of escape. In the case of slaves it was literal. In the farmlands and townships that proliferated across middle America in the pre-radio/phonograph era, it was the only entertainment.
The vocalists have each made a cause celebre of bringing these songs to a greater public awareness. Dr. LaToya Lain, from the University of Minnesota, whose rich soprano was a mixture of Leontyne Price and Jesse Norman, framed her songs within the narrative of Maggie Davis, born in 1806 but who lived through Emancipation.
Dr. Robinson’s quest began with the discovery of boxes of a grandparent’s cassette tapes, on which he, late in life, recorded all the songs his friends and family sang around the parlor piano out on the Colorado Plains.
She related that she was most taken with how Americans dealt with war, often with humor to mask the pain, like the innocence of the WWI songs His Buttons Are Marked US and They Were All Out of Step But Jim.
Pain was paramount in the slave spirituals. The program opened with LaToya singing, acapella and with wrenching anguish, Lord How Come Me Here? containing the lines I wish I never was born!
Then, with piano played by Dr. Casey Robards from the University of Illinois, the artist sang Watch and Pray with a child asking “Momma, is Massa gonna sell us tomorra?” Maggie would have two children taken from her, such was the evil what blighted our land.
We cannot atone for the sins of our forefathers, but in honoring the songs of those oppressed, we dignify their humanity, something foreign to our ancestors.
In both song cycles courage was depicted and enjoined. The message of Steal Away and Wade in the Water spoke of hope for a better life through escape. Just “follow that drinkin gourd!”
And, at the Fibonacci Space, much of the program focused on the composer Carrie Jacobs Bonds who rose from sleeping-on-the-bare-floor-one-meal-a-day poverty to owning a multi-million dollar music publishing company. Her most famous song, A Perfect Day written in 1909, sold over twenty fivc million copies. Called by President Hoover “America’s Gallant Lady of Song,” she certainly broke the glass ceiling, an example to hold up for International Woman’s Day!
One of the highlights was Jerome Tan playing the Maple Leaf Rag. Who says the Fazioli 278 is just for concertizing in the great halls? The touch of Tan gave this piece all of the barroom bounce Scott Joplin could have wanted.
Our thanks to David Palmer of CMA and Robert Hansen, Dean of the WTAMU School of Music who were pivotal in arranging these events in such meaningful proximity. The combined effect was to provide a valuable insight into the heart of a bygone era, helping many of us to connect with our past.
For its only by knowing our origins that we can truly come to know ourselves and move forward to make a better world.
For such enlightenment and uplift, we strongly assert, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!”