Black voice finds its pitch

Stars in de Elements
October 18, 1996

"Negro music is the result of the ways and the experiences of the Negro.'' The chief difficulty in assessing Willis Laurence James's posthumously published essay lies less in the ethnic anachronism of "Negro'' as in the more basic anachronism of his methodology and his theoretical apparatus.

Stars in de Elements here receives its first publication almost 50 years after it was written, and three decades after James's death. An Alabaman, who studied music and, as a teacher, pioneered jazz teaching at the State Normal College, he had a considerable reputation as an arranger of traditional musics, mostly for choral performance, an interest that fed research for his book.

Sensitive to the wishes of James's widow, who died two years ago, Jon Michael Spencer has been devotedly noninterventionist in his editing of Stars in de Elements, to the extent, one fears, that he leaves the text, apparatus and appendix material, in which there are some lacuanae, virtually untouched. It reads oddly, coming across a reference to W. C Handy glossed with the brief biographical note "(1873- )'', as if the great blues and jazz pioneer were still thriving at the age of 123, but such oddities do serve to remind the reader that this is not a contemporary text and that its oddly reactive model for black American folk music - "the result'', not the shaped expression "of the ways and experiences of the Negro'' - predates a more self-determining cultural model. James's essay is much less sociological than Alain Locke's The Negro and His Music and more musically literate than Maud Cuney Hare's rather anecdotal Negro Musicians and Their Music, both 1936. In the decade separating them from James's final manuscript, criticism of American popular culture moved from the proletarianism of the New Deal and Popular Front years, and benefited from a toughening of the bourgeois sub-utopianism afflicting discussion of the "New Negro''.

James is a valuable teacher. Not only does he assert the centrality of rhythm, he makes explicit the ways in which black music uses the cadence of speech and of labour processes, the way it incorporates natural tonality into song, and he offers one of the best explanations available to us of the musical integration of cries and hollers that has become a central and perhaps definitive component of black music. He is also a valuable source on the poorly documented - certainly relative to market phenomena like "race'' records - publication of "shape-note songs''. These were collections, like the Shape-Note Hymn Book, in which ordinary notation is replaced by readily identifiable symbols, rather like runes, to make pitch-reading accessible to musically illiterate singers. The question of ability to read words is not addressed.

Concentrating largely on lyric content, James also offers valuable insights into the transmission of black folk songs. He looks at the role of academic institutions, Fisk, Tuskegee and Atlanta, and draws on the pioneering work of John and Alan Lomax, on R. Nathaniel Dett's Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro and on George Pullen Jackson's White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands,. He offers a well-substantiated background to one main themes: that the "Negro'' musician's "creative incentive'' was not dependent on white forms and norms, but autonomous. This is contentious, but convincing, and, though the prose and outmoded terminology of Stars in de Elements are obstacles, they are overcome by James's powerfully stated findings and conclusions.

Brian Morton is a writer and broadcaster and author of five books on music.

Stars in de Elements: A Journal of Theomusicology

Editor - Jon Michael Spencer
ISBN - ISSN 0143 9455
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £11.00 an issue £18.95 special issue

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