Archive for the ‘American Music’ Category

by Dr. Michael Pratt

            Lowell Mason, who many people regard as the father of public school music education, was born in Medfield, MA on January 8, 1792 into a musical family. Both of his parents sang in their church choir and his father played the bass viol. At a young age Lowell learned to play several instruments, attended a singing school taught by Amos Albee and studied composition with composer Oliver Shaw. At the age of 16 he became the choir director of his church choir and two years later directed the Medfield town band.


            At the age of 20 Lowell moved to Savannah, GA (exactly why is unknown) where he worked and later became partner in a dry-goods store. After his partner’s death in 1817 Lowell became a successful banker. All-the-while pursuing a living, Lowell continued his musical career. Having led singing schools in Savannah, Lowell became choir director in 1815 of the Independent Presbyterian Church and five years later its organist. Establishing himself as a leader in his community Lowell was Sunday school superintendent at his church from 1815 to 1827 and, in 1826, opened the first Sunday school for black children in America. In 1818 Lowell was the founder of the Savannah Missionary Society.

            During this time Lowell continued to develop himself musically by taking composition lessons from German-born Frederick L. Abel who had immigrated to Savannah in 1817. Using as his model a collection of hymns set to tunes of Mozart and Haydn by William Gardiner entitled Sacred Melodies, Lowell set about writing his own collection of hymns (also set to tunes of famous composers) under the guidance of Abel. Rejected by publishers in Philadelphia and Boston, Lowell submitted the collection to Dr. George K. Jackson, organist or the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, who published the collection as The Handel and Haydn Society’s Collection of Church Music in 1822 without Lowell’s name as author (it was his wish to remain anonymous as a musician since his profession at the time was that of banker).

            To Lowell’s amazement his collection of hymn tunes became an instant hit (eventually encompassing over 20 editions and selling over 50,000 copies, an astonishing feat in those days). With this success Lowell negotiated positions as music director at three churches in Boston and returned there in 1826 (although still keeping his job as teller at the American Bank). Eventually the reputation of Lowell’s choirs at these churches grew to national proportions and in 1827 he revitalized the Boston Handel and Haydn Society as its president and musical director, a position he held until 1832 when he decided to devote himself to teaching. In 1829 Lowell compiled what is believed to be the first collection of Sunday school music entitled The Juvenile Psalmist and in 1831 followed that with The Juvenile Lyre a collection of school music for children. During this time he gave children’s vocal music classes at his churches, gave numerous children’s concerts, and started teaching music in private schools. About the same time a resolution was presented to the Primary School Board of Boston to introduce the systematic instruction of vocal music in the public schools. Apparently no action was taken and the matter was dropped.

            Agitation continued for the inclusion of vocal music in the public schools. Finally, to promote music education for the masses (as opposed to the “talented few”), in 1833 Lowell, George James Webb, and Samuel A. Eliot (among others) established the Boston Academy of Music to promote the art of singing, raise the standards of church music, and to promote the introduction of music education in the public schools. The academy was immediately successful and by its second year had enrolled over 3000 students. It offered vocal and instrumental instruction, developed both choral and instrumental ensembles, and gave public concerts (among them the first American performances of Beethoven symphonies). In 1834 Lowell published The Manual of the Boston Academy of Music which was an edited translation of G. F. Kuebler’s Anleitung zum Gesang-Unterrichte in Schulen (Stuttgart, 1826). This book, supposedly based on Pestalozzian principles, was used for many years by music teachers.

This book espoused seven principles of music education. The last principle, “To have the names of the notes correspond to those used in instrumental music”, was to have a profound impact upon American music. Prior to this time music in American was characterized by the music of composers like William Billings, Daniel Reed, and Justin Morgan who did not conform to the rigid European “rules of composition” but rather made free use of counterpoint and dance rhythms coupled with loose harmonic rules. This vigorous type of music coupled with “sacred harp” or “shape note” singing became an important part of early American music. Lowell Mason headed a movement labeled the “Better Music Movement” whose goal was to eliminate this type of music (which they regarded as “crude and lewd”). As a result of these efforts the music of original American voices like William Billings was largely suppressed. Many scholars while conceding Lowell Mason’s position as the “father of music education in the public schools” wish that his approach had been different.

Four years after the initial resolution to introduce vocal music into the Boston Public Schools, a special committee of the Board prepared a report to the full Board (based on a memorial from the Academy of Music) which recommended the inclusion of vocal music in the curriculum or the public schools of Boston. It is interesting to note the basis for the recommendation. “Let music be examined by the following standards – 1) Intellectually, 2) Morally, and 3) Physically” (this standard is especially interesting in that vocal music would “expand the chest and thereby strengthen the lungs and vital organs”). No mention of musical standards, aesthetic worth, or even why music is important to our lives. In 1837 Lowell Mason (volunteering his services and supplies) was accepted as the first music teacher in a public school in America in a one year experiment at the Hawes School of South Boston. There were exhibitions from time to time in 1838 at the Hawes school which satisfied the overseeing committee to the extent that in August, 1838 the school board passed a vote to the effect of establishing that vocal music would be taught in all the public schools of Boston. In its annual report of 1839 the Boston Academy of Music referred to this vote as the “Magna Carta of musical education in this country”. Lowell Mason was placed in full charge of the Boston Public School music program, a position he retained until 1841 when he retired to pursue composition and traveling.

Lowell traveled to England, Germany, Switzerland, and France meeting with many European musicians and educators. After returning to American he made New York his business headquarters and maintained an estate in Orange, NJ. His later years were occupied with occasional teaching and with publishing numerous articles and books. Among his more popular hymns were “Joy to the World”, “Nearer my God to Thee”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”. In 1855 Lowell was awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Yale University to whom he later gave his vast collection of books and music. Lowell Mason died August 11, 1872 in Orange, NJ.

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


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by Dr. Michael Pratt

1. Film Music as an American Art Form

Many people had a hand in the birth and early development of the motion picture in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in this country including Thomas Alva Edison who in 1887 invented the movie camera known as the Kinetograph in his New York studio with the help of his assistants and the movie projector known as the Kinetoscope. In 1888 George Eastman began to mass-produce celluloid roll film for still photography at his plant in Rochester, New York. In 1896 Edison brought the Vitascope to the market based on the Cinematopgaphe of the Lumière brothers and Auguste and Louis.[1] In 1903 one of the first milestones in the history of the motion picture was produced by Edison’s “Black Maria” movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey with the production of what is considered the first narrative film and the first film of the so-called “western” genre – The Great Train Robbery (based on an actual incident by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang).[2] By 1908 there were twenty movie producing companies in America and between 8,000 and 10,000 movie theaters (so-called Nickelodeons). “Feature films made motion pictures respectable for the middle class by providing a format that was analogous to that of the legitimate theatre and was suitable for the adaptation of middle-class novels and plays. This new audience had more demanding standards than the older working-class one, and producers readily increased their budgets to provide high technical quality and elaborate productions.” [3] The result was the emergence of the “movie palace”, one of the first of which was the 3,300 seat Strand in the Broadway district of Manhattan in 1914. By 1916 there were more than 21,000 such movies theaters in America, marking an end to the Nickelodeon era and the start of the Hollywood studio system of producing movies (dominating the industry through the 1950s). Literally thousands of films were produced during the silent film era between 1904 and 1927 giving rise to stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Fattie Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Lon Chaney. By the early 1920s there were forty million Americans attending movies each week. (ibid.)

            Everything changed forever in 1927 with the release by Warner Bros. of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. For the first time the audience heard a voice and would never again be content with silent movies. Such was the demand for “talkies” that “The wholesale conversion to sound…took place in less than 15 months between late 1927 and 1929, and the profits of the major companies increased during that period by as much as 600 percent.” [4] Initially film scores were limited to Main Titles and Credits with all else being diegetic (sounds whose sources are visible on the screen or whose sources are implied to be present by the action of the film).[5]  It soon became apparent that a musical score was not only essential to a film but highly beneficial as well and soon non-diegetic scores began to appear (sounds whose sources are neither visible on the screen nor have been implied to be present in the action – ibid.). Dramatic scores appeared. Scores whose presence in sound made the film better (a premise in Hollywood among film composers is that a good score can make a bad film better and a good film cannot be hurt by a bad score). “In the hands of clever composers, a true musical drama is created. Erich Korngold persuaded you that Errol Flynn was really Robin Hood, Max Steiner told you what it was like for a Southern aristocrat to lose the war and a way of life, Miklos Rozza let you know how Ray Milland felt on a lost weekend, and Bernard Hermann terrified you as some weirdo butchered Janet Leigh in the shower. If you believed Dana Andrews really loved Laura, thank David Raskin; or if you shared Dana’s mind wanderings as he sat in the nose of a wrecked B-36, tip your hat to Hugo Friedhofer. If your heart went out to Gary Cooper as he waited for those gunmen at high noon, you might give a thought to Dimitri Tiomkin; and if you really thought Jennifer Jones saw the Virgin Mary, then light a little candle to the memory of the late Alfred Newman. And Joan Fontaine was absolutely right when she felt Manderley was haunted, but it wasn’t spirit of Rebecca – it was Franz Waxman’s music.” [6]

 2. Max Steiner’s Biography

 Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in Vienna on May 10, 1888 and died in Beverly Hills on December 28, 1971. His father and grandfather were theatrical producers who produced the operettas of Franz von Suppe, Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss. Max was a child prodigy studying piano with Johannes Brahms, orchestration with Richard Strauss and conducting with Gustav Mahler. After completing a four year course of musical study at the Vienna Conservatory in one year, Max worked throughout Europe from 1904 to 1914. Finding himself in London at the outbreak of World War I he was classified as an undesirable alien and quickly emigrated to New York where he worked on Broadway for the next fifteen years as a copyist and later as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor of musicals and revue shows, on and off Broadway. “These shows included the Gershwins’ Lady Be Good! (1924), Kern’s Sitting Pretty (1924) and Youman’s Rainbow (1928). His only Broadway show, Peaches, was composed during this period. He also worked extensively with Victor Herbert, arranging many of the composer’s dance numbers, and acting as the musical director for a touring production of Oui Madame (1920). Herbert’s influence can be seen in the attention to orchestration which characterizes Steiner’s film scores. For musical theatre he learned to combine small numbers of instruments to create the impression of a fuller orchestral sound, a skill which was to prove useful in the under-funded music departments of Hollywood.” [7]

In 1927 Steiner orchestrated a Broadway show called Rio Rita which was later purchased by RKO Pictures for the film. As a result of Steiner’s ability to create big sounding orchestrations with a small orchestra, he was hired by RKO to do the film version. The first original film score by Steiner was in 1930 for the film Cimarron. Steiner’s career as a film composer really took off when the thirty year-old David O. Selznick came to RKO in 1932. With the film Symphony of Six Million: “David said, “Do you think you could put some music behind this thing?” Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring – the producers were afraid the audience would ask “Where’s the music coming from?” unless they saw an orchestra or a radio or phonograph. But with this picture we proved scoring would work.” [8]

Steiner soon became known for his ability to depict things musically: Leslie Howard’s limp in Of Human Bondage, a dog walking along a corridor in Since You Went Away, or the water dripping in Victor McLaglen’s cell in The Informer. This technique, known as “mickey-mousing” proved to be quite effective for Steiner. The film that brought Steiner to everyone’s attention was King Kong in 1933. “In addition to composing scores, Steiner also acted as the arranger-conductor on many RKO musicals. He was the musical director on most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures.” (ibid.) In 1936 Steiner left RKO for Warner Brothers. “It’s doubtful if any composer in history worked harder than Max Steiner. In his first dozen years for Warner Bros. he averaged eight scores a year, and they were symphonic scores calling for forty and fifty minutes each. His peak year was 1939 when he worked on twelve films including Gone With the Wind, the longest score then written. Steiner’s career with Warner Bros. spanned almost thirty years and included scores for nearly 150 films.” (ibid.) A partial list of Steiner film scores would include King Kong, 1933; Little Women, 1933; Of Human Bondage, 1934; The Informer, 1935; The Three Musketeers, 1935; The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936; A Star is Born, 1937; The Life of Emile Zola, 1937; Jezebel, 1938; Gone with the Wind, 1939; They Died with their Boots On, 1941; Now, Voyager, 1942; Casablanca, 1943; Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944; Since You Went Away, 1944; Mildred Pierce, 1945; The Big Sleep, 1946; Life with Father, 1947; Johnny Belinda, 1948; Key Largo, 1948; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948; The Glass Menagerie, 1950; This is Cinerama, 1953; The Caine Mutiny, 1954; The Searchers, 1956; A Summer Place, 1959; The FBI Story, 1959; and Spencer’s Mountain, 1963. He received numerous Oscar nominations, winning the award three times for the films Now Voyager, The Informer and Since you Went Away. The last film scored by Max Steiner was Those Calloways in 1965. Steiner died in 1971 of cancer.

 3. The Score to King Kong (1933)

 RKO was in financial difficulties and nearing bankruptcy. It had already spent nearly a half million dollars producing a film about a fifty foot tall gorilla named King Kong.  Steiner was in charge of the music department at the studio in a time when a single film had a budget for a maximum of a three hour recording session with a ten piece orchestra. For King Kong it was decreed even this would not be allowed and that Steiner had to use music tracks from other recent film scores such as Little Women (!) The film’s director Merian C. Cooper was convinced of the potential for the film and the importance of a good score by Max Steiner. “Cooper said the magic words, which I quote: ‘Maxie, go ahead and score the picture … and don’t worry about the cost, because I will pay for the orchestra.’ And so he did, to the tune of fifty thousand dollars – an enormous sum to expend on music then; and to hear him tell it, it was worth every dime. The music meant everything to that picture, and the picture meant everything to RKO, because it saved the studio from bankruptcy…. The impact of King Kong on the movie going public was astonishing. It emerged into a country frightened, impoverished, in the grip of the Great Depression. Yet, on the very day when President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks and declared a moratorium – a period of grace on the repayment of debts – the following advertisement appeared in a New York City newspaper: ‘No money! Yet New York dug up $89,931 in 4 days to see King Kong at Radio City, setting a new all-time world’s record for attendance at any indoor attraction.’” [9] In a time when the average ticket price to a film was ten cents, the price of admission charged for King Kong by Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood was fifty cents to seventy-five cents for matinees and fifty cents to a dollar for evening screenings. Opening night was an incredible $3.30. The fifty foot gorilla may have been the initial draw but the Max Steiner score certainly contributed to the on-going success of the film over the years. “[Merion C.] Cooper was a strong supporter of [Steiner’s] work on his own The Most Dangerous Game, released several months before Kong, and he continued over the years to secure the services of Steiner whenever possible – sometimes undercover because of contractual conflicts (This is Cinerama, etc.). ‘So far as my experience goes he was the originator, the creator, the dramatist of music on the screen’, said Cooper.” [10]

            “Steiner used what would be considered for the time a large orchestra for film scoring – 46 players).” (ibid.)  Being a classically and European trained musician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Steiner fell under the influence of composer Richard Wagner (as did almost the whole of the musical world at the time). As a result he used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of composing for his film score. Steiner is often quoted as sayingIf Wagner had lived in this century he would have been the number one film composer“. 

 King Kong Orchestra

Max Steiner Conducting the King Kong Studio Orchestra [11]

Utilizing Wagner’s leitmotiv system of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events and using them developmentally in a symphonic fashion allowed Steiner to craft a film score which was both musically dramatic and story enhancing (to the same effect as Wagner’s usage in his Ring Cycle of operas). The “Main Title” music opens with King Kong’s three note motive; heard throughout the entire score in many sections and guises, but always identifying King Kong himself. King Kong’s leitmotiv is usually descending but sometimes rising (or a combination where the three notes descend but are repeated in a rising sequence, for example, as King Kong approaches).

King Kong's Leitmotiv

Scored in full brass and low strings these ominous three notes give the audience the expectation of what is to come in both scope and terror. Followed by a brief fanfare the “Main Title” music continues with the “Stolen Love” theme of the movie’s heroine, Ann Darrow. Eventually this theme refers not only to her love for First Mate Jack Driscoll, who saves her life, but also to her relationship to Kong himself, which is the core of the film (which ends with the famous line “It was beauty killed the beast”).

Ann Darrow's Leitmotiv

 The “Main Title” music continues with its third motive, the jungle dance seen on Skull Island when the main characters first land.

Jungle Dance Leitmotiv

After the jungle dance and a second fanfare, the Kong leitmotiv returns scored in a much more soft, lush, and romantic fashion. The listener is signaled that not everything with Kong will be terrifying. Steiner’s constantly evolving use of these motives not only dramatically underscores the action of the movie but makes the movie maker’s almost impossible task of turning a fifty foot tall gorilla into a sympathetic figure a realistic goal, achievable in large part by audience sympathy aroused by the musical score.            

Kong’s motive, utilized throughout the entire score, is heard in sections such as “The Entrance of Kong”, “Log Sequence”,  “The Cave”, “The Theater Sequence” (in New York), “Kong Escapes”, “Elevated Train Sequence”, “Aeroplanes”, and, or course, the “Finale”. The Stolen Love motive of Ann Darrow is heard in “The Sea at Night – Forgotten Island” with Jack Driscoll, and later in “The Cave” with Kong (it is largely through Steiner’s score that the fondness of the gorilla for a woman is portrayed). Christopher Palmer notes the three note Kong motive “greatly facilitates its contrapuntal inclusion in many different contexts. At one point it becomes the motif of Kong’s approach. Later it is transformed into the first phrase of the march played in the theater when Kong is put on public display in New York (doubtless a nostalgic backward look on Steiner’s part at his years in the pit on Broadway). A particular subtlety is the way in which at certain critical moments – notable in the finale, in which Kong falls to his death from the Empire State Building after depositing Fay Wray in a place of safety – the Kong theme and the Fay Wray theme [Secret Love] (which in its pristine state is a pretty waltz melody) actually converge and become one thus musically underlining the tale of Beauty and the Beast.” [12]  The Jungle Dance motive begins with the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance” and is heard later in the “Return of Kong”. In the “Aboriginal Sacrificial Dance”, when the leader of the tribe first sees the Americans he stops the dance and approaches them as they continue to film what appears to be some sort of ceremony. As he approaches them he walks with heavy and deliberate footsteps. Steiner’s score uses a descending scale in perfect synchronization with these footsteps. This deliberate use of music to not only underscore but mimic the action on the screen is Steiner’s first use of what would later be know as “mickey-mousing”.

            “Steiner composed this music in the full Wagnerian orchestral tradition…com[ing] up with compromises such as woodwind players being asked to play up to four different instruments within a given cue, or a viola player to run quickly (but quietly) over to the celesta and play a few notes, or even having some of the violin players change over to violas for some passages. Excerpts from Steiner’s score turned up in several subsequent scores, such as The Son of Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Last of the Mohicans, and Back to Bataan.” (ibid., The Complete 1933 Film Score)

            Noted film composer Danny Elfman says “I think it is important to remember that when Steiner set down to score King Kong there were almost no references. He was practically starting from a clean slate – uncharted territory. So many things that Steiner did we take for granted now that the language has been defined. Steiner really is the granddaddy of this wonderful art form.” (ibid.)

 4. The Score to Gone With the Wind (1939)

            In 1936 one of the most popular and best selling books of all time was published, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. David O. Selznick immediately acquired the rights to film the book and actual filming began after many delays in December 1938. In a memo in 1935 Selznick stated that “’he considered the right score a major element in the success of a picture…and there is no one in the entire field within miles of Max’ [Steiner]. Two months later Steiner was signed as musical director of Selznick International.” [13]  Two years later Selznick refers to the music for GWTW for the first time saying “My first choice for the job is Max Steiner and I am sure Max would give anything in the world to do it” (ibid.) The deadline for the premier was set for Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 1939. Steiner was busy completing the scores for We Are not Alone, Four Wives, and Intermezzo (three of the twelve movies Steiner scored in 1939 (!) including the longest score which had ever been written for a movie for GWTW). Steiner complained to Selznick that it was impossible for him to meet this deadline but Selznick discounted this “largely because Steiner is notorious for such statements and works well under pressure, and I am inclined to take that chance and drive him through.” (ibid.) About the process of writing, orchestrating and recording the music to GWTW, Hugo Friedhofer recalls “The whole thing had a really nightmare quality about it, because we were really under pressure. We never started recording until after dinner and then until two, sometimes three in the morning…then we would go home, grab a couple of hour’s sleep, write with orchestrators and copyists breathing down our necks, grab a bite before recording, and then start the whole thing over again. And this went on for I don’t know how many weeks.” (ibid.) According to Tony Thomas “Steiner says he managed to live through these weeks only with medical aid; a doctor came frequently to his home and gave him Benzedrine so that he could maintain a daily work routine of twenty hours at a stretch.” (ibid., Themes from The Vienna Woods)

            As was his practice, Steiner used Wagner’s leitmotiv method of assigning a theme for all of the main characters and events. In addition Steiner used patriotic tunes from the era (Civil War) and other Southern and popular songs (many composed by Stephen Foster). All eleven principal characters have their own motive. More important than all of them, though, is the theme for Tara, the O’Hara family plantation. Not only is this motive the theme which identifies the film, it has become an iconic musical symbol for the grandeur of the Southern, aristocratic way of life itself. Steiner masterfully uses the upwardly leaping octave to musically capture both the grandeur of Tara (and the South) and the huge scope of the topic (and of the motion picture itself). 

Tara's Leitmotiv

            In King Kong Steiner used orchestrations which were heavy with woodwinds, brass, and percussion and short, “punchy” themes for dramatic effect. In the score to GWTW he utilizes more string orchestrations, writing with a much more sweeping scope to the melodies. Some of the writing, for instance “In the Library” where Scarlet first meets Rhett Butler, contains many sections for solo violin.

Scarlett Meets Rhett Leitmotiv

            The 1939 Academy Awards nominations for best original score included twelve films including Of Mice and Men (Aaron Copland), Wuthering Heights (Alfred Newman), and Dark Victory and Gone With the Wind (both Max Steiner) with the award going to Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz (about the only category in which it beat GWTW). In 1942 Margaret Mitchell wrote to David O. Selznick “At the Grand Theater here in Atlanta, they play the theme music from Gone With the Wind in the interludes of the pictures and when the last performance of the night is over. Frequently I remain in my seat to listen to it because it is so beautiful.” (ibid.)          

An interesting footnote is that the huge fire created to simulate the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind was achieved primarily by burning the gigantic wall from King Kong.

 5. Max Steiner’s position as a landmark composer of American film music

            Ray Harryhausen (the creator of the magical effects seen in such films Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and, of course, King Kong) had the following to say about Max Steiner: “Steiner’s output varied to such extremes of filmed subject matter that it really boggles the mind…He was one of the few “Hollywood Greats” who could instantly inject “the spirit” of the screen story into the audio accompaniment thus enhancing the visual image many times over with emotional values only the ear can perceive…Steiner tackled these subjects with originality, dramatic charisma, and aplomb, indelibly enhancing our visual images to unforgettable proportions. His many imitators soon fell into oblivion.” (ibid., King Kong, Marco Polo)

            Ray Bradbury (author of The Martian Chronicles) says “At one of the Academy Awards broadcasts, an eminent composer said: ‘Thanks to the Academy, the members of the Academy, and to Tschaikovsky, Berlioz, Vivaldi, Moussorgsky, and Bach.’ My response to cinema music history would go like this: ‘Thanks to Max Steiner’” (ibid.)

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Motion Picture, History of the,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52136/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[2] Tim Dirks, “The Great Train Robbery (1903),” The Greatest Films, 1996, http://www.filmsite.org/grea.html. (accessed January 22, 2006).

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Pre-world War I American Cinema,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52140/ (accessed January 22, 2006).

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2006, “Conversion to Sound,” http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-52149/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[5] Bordwell-Thompsson & Reize-Millar, “Diegetic And Non-diegetic Sounds,” The Art Of Filmsound.org, 2006, http://www.filmsound.org/terminology/diegetic.htm#nondiegetic/ (accessed January 27, 2006).

[6] Tony Thomas, “What’s the Score?” [Page 5] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[7] Kate Daubney (with Janet B. Bradford), “Steiner, Max,” Grove Music Online, 2006, http://www.grovemusic.com/ (accessed January 28, 2006).

[8] Tony Thomas, “Themes from the Vienna Woods,” [Page 146] in Music for the Movies, (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1997).

[9] David Raskin, “Max Steiner,” American Composers Orchestra, 1995, http://www.americancomposers.org/raksin_steiner.htm. (accessed January 28, 2006).

[10] Max Steiner, “King Kong,” Original Motion Picture Sound Track, Turner Classic Movies R275597, 1933, CD.

[11] Max Steiner, “The Complete 1933 Film Score,” King Kong, Marco Polo B-223763, 1997, CD.

[12] Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood [Pages 28-9] (Great Britain: Marion Boyars, 1990).

[13] Max Steiner, “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” Gone With the Wind, Turner Classic Movies R272822, 1939, CD.

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by Dr. Michael Pratt


Colonial America was fertile ground for religious groups and sects from Europe seeking a peaceful environment in which to be free to pursue their unique brand of religion. One such example are the Pilgrims: coming to this country on the Mayflower, settling in what would become New England, and founding towns and communities based on their own brand of Puritanism.

Another, later, example would be The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly know as the Shakers. In the 1750s, Ann Lee, the daughter of blacksmith John Lees (she dropped the “s” when she came to America) in Manchester, England, became associated with a group know as the “shaking Quakers”, and eventually assumed a role of leadership in the group, after receiving strange visions and revelations. Ann Lee’s youth was spent in the textile mills and she lived everyday amid overwhelming poverty. After her marriage to Abraham Stanley and the death in infancy of their four children, Ann Lee’s early prejudice against sex developed into the obsession that sexual intercourse was the root of all sin. Thus celibacy eventually became one of the four tenets of the Shaker religion: confession of sin, celibacy, community property, and withdrawal from the world.

After being imprisoned in 1772 for preaching her doctrine of celibacy, Ann Lee was given the title “Mother” and accepted by eight disciples as the reincarnation of Christ’s spirit. In 1774, directed by heaven and funded by one of the disciples who was well-to-do (John Hocknell), the small group of nine left for the New World, where they purchased a small tract of land near Albany, New York (later Watervliet, New York). There they prospered and grew in numbers through conversion (as they were celibate). During the Revolutionary war Mother Ann Lee and some of the elders were imprisoned for pacifism and treason. After the end of the war and their release, they began a campaign of proselytizing and the forming of small groups of Believers which eventually grew into Shaker colonies all over New England and as far west as Minnesota, eventually reaching a membership of many thousands.

The Dayton, Ohio and Montgomery County Public Library have an extensive collection of Shaker books, magazines, pamphlets, music, and artifacts. Their collection web site speaks of the “scope and content” of the Shaker religion:

The Shakers were simple Christians with distinct beliefs, and this led to a unique experiment in association. The Shakers formed a significant chapter in American history, by virtue of their communal principles, their status as a separatist sect, and their diverse social and economic contributions. Their ideas and experiments attracted a lively contemporary interest and a continuing curiosity. Thousands joined their communities. The extensive literature about the Shakers, especially from the 1780’s to the present, is evidence of the attraction the movement had for people from various educational and economic backgrounds. [1]


The Society of Shakers evolved into a community dominated by the duality and equality of the sexes. Men and women lived and worked separately as Brothers and Sisters. Much of their architecture reflected the dual nature of their existence. Unlike other religious sects which kept to old-fashioned values and techniques, shunning any new technology which came along, the Shakers not only embraced modern technology and innovation, but were, in fact, regarded as leaders in this area. As a result large markets opened up for Shaker products and they became quite prosperous and respected.

Music and dance played a large role in their peculiar type of worship service. Edward Demings Andrews describes a Shaker meeting as follows:

 In Shaker worship the songs, tunes and dances of the sect were inseparable forms of expressing praise, joy, yearning or union. The first believers were seized by such ecstasy of spirit that, like leaves in the wind, they were moved into the most disordered exercises: running about the room, jumping, shaking, whirling, reeling, and at the same time shouting, laughing or singing snatches of song. No form existed: someone would impulsively cry out a line from the psalms or part of a hymn, or a phrase – perhaps in an unknown tongue –bespeaking wild emotion; someone might prophesy; another would exhort his listeners to repentance; another might suddenly start whirling like a dervish; then, as in a Quaker meeting, all for a time would be silent. After an order of worship was instituted, songs were sung without movement and dances paced without songs, but usually the procedure deliberately duplicated what had originally been involuntary: songs were danced, and the measures of the dance accentuated by the rhythms of the song. [2]

Shakers Dancing

Shakers near Lebanon, New York

Lithograph by A. Imbert, New York, c. 1830


Withdrawal from the world was one of the four main tenets of the Shaker religion, as a result of persecution and religious conviction. The covenant of the early Shaker church in New England contained the following articles:

Non-conformity to the world. Christians are commanded not to conform to the world in its customs, fashion, and idle conversation.

Liberality. They are to be good to all, communicate to the Church Stock, and admonish the covetous.

Pride. True Christians cannot “bear carnal weapons….”

Business. They should not follow the customs of the world in trade, but do as they would be done by, and not as they are done by. [3]

 It became the common way of life for the Shakers to “possess as though you possessed not. It was agreed that no one should buy or sell in the Church, nor trade with those not of the Church, except by the Union of the Trustees.” (ibid.) In 1778 a covenant was ratified at a general Church gathering which specified the principles of communism and the religious basis for “Joint Interest”. This covenant further specified that Brothers and Sisters were not only equal in the community but would rule equally with each member receiving “one Joint Interest as a Religious right.” (ibid.)

The term “family,” in Shaker usage, referred to a group of brethren and sisters living in the same dwelling, autonomous as regards their industrial pursuits, and organized under the dual leadership of elders and eldresses (usually two of each sex), deacons (or trustees) and deaconesses, who had charge of the “temporalities,” and “caretakers” of children, also of each sex.  The family was the socioeconomic unit ranging from as few as 25 to as many as 150. (ibid.)

Through a process of constant recruitment of new members, the Shakers not only maintained but increased their numbers. It was customary for new members to transition gradually to the Shaker way of life.

The relinquishment of all personal and private property and of the right to receive wages for his services was the accompaniment of the individual’s reception into the church or “covenant relationship.” It was customary for the prospective member to remain for a time with his or her family. While maintaining this partial relationship to the society, the individual retained full control of any property possessed and the freedom to withdraw at any time. Entrance into “church relation” involved not only freedom from all involvements, but a full dedication of all personal property. (ibid.)

 Even though it was a main tenet of the Shaker religion to live apart from the rest of the world, the Shakers understood that they could not exist economically apart from the rest of the world.

It was the economic policy of the society which, more that any other factor, formed a bridge of understanding between the society and the world. The Shakers were not economic separatists. They realized that subsistence, indeed survival, depended on industry and trade. They sought to erect barriers against worldly contamination, but at the same time welcomed the opportunity to produce goods which the world needed, and which would excel what the world could produce. (ibid.)

The Shakers soon became known for the high quality of their craftsmanship and work. They became highly skilled at tanning, blacksmithing, shoe making, coopering, clothiering, tailoring, hatting, saddle-, button-, buckle-, dipper-, and whip-making, joinering, and carpentry. In addition they founded a garden seed industry, dried sweet corn and dried apple industries, a medicinal herb industry, and bottle, jar, and label industries. Machine shops produced everything from tea pots to oil cans. They produced brooms, brushes, pails, tubs, churns, casks, barrels, dippers, boxes, buttons, cheese hoops, spinning wheels, sieves, baskets, pipes, and all types of clothing items, hats, and garments. The Shakers produced almost literally every single item they used in their personal, community, and daily life. Even though they had taken a vow of celibacy, they did not take a vow of poverty. Thus they became very profitably in their commerce with the outside world, which they avoided in their personal life.


One of the biggest problems that the Shakers faced in their relation to society at large was their response to the need for a common defense of all, in other words, the military. Mother Ann Lee’s successor was Brother Joseph Meacham, who gave the following instructions regarding the military:

As we have received the Grace of God through Jesus Christ, by the gospel, and are called to follow peace with all men, we cannot, consistent with our faith and conscience, bear the arms of war, for the purpose of shedding the blood or any, or doing anything to justify or encourage it in others. But, if they require, by fines or taxes of us, on that account, according to their laws, we may, for peace sake, answer their demands in that respect, and be innocent so far as we know at present. (ibid.)

 For a time the Shakers were successful in their approach of “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and were thereby exempted from their obligation to participate in the defense of the state-at-large, for the common good of all, by the paying of such fines. “Up to 1815 the New Lebanon [New York] society alone paid $2000 in such fines.” (ibid.) Soon, however, states began to pass laws forbidding the practice (of paying a fine to avoid military service) or voided already existing laws allowing for such exemptions. New York being such a state, many Shaker communities there moved to Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Ohio where the laws still allowed the Shakers to practice their brand of “conscientious objection.” Ohio had a particularly interesting provision of allowing military exemption in return for a like amount of service on the public highways.


Although a tenet of the Shaker religion was celibacy, and Brothers and Sisters were not married, and thus there was no “family life” as is normally thought of, there were children in Shaker communities. They existed as a result of new converts to the church which were previously a family with children. The marriage no longer existed between the new Brother and the new Sister but the children were still there to be raised. All of the children that existed in a community were raised communally with trustees of both sexes appointed to be caretakers for the children.

This procedure worked well enough when both partners in a marriage came into the Shaker settlement together and of their own free will. The problem arose when one of them came into the Shaker settlement with the children against the will of the other partner. Many times this involved the Shaker settlement in a legal battle with the world they were avoiding, over the custody of the children. The official Shaker position was:

No believing husband or wife is allowed by our rules to separate from an unbelieving partner, except by mutual agreement: unless the conduct of the unbeliever be such as to warrant a separation by the laws of the land. Nor can any husband or wife who has otherwise abandoned his or her partner, be received into communion with the Society. (ibid.)

 Like all such statements, this was subject to interpretation. It is also interesting to note the wording of “unless the conduct of the unbeliever be such”, thus automatically assuming that the conduct of the believer would not be such. The Shakers were embroiled in many such legal battles, the most notable of which were Eunice Chapman in 1815 (which Chapman won against the Shakers) and Mary Dyer in 1818 (which the Shakers won against Dyer).


Since the Shakers were largely untrained musically and ignorant of music theory, they developed their own unique style of music notation, based somewhat on the shape-notation prevalent at the time.

Come Life Shaker Life

“Come Life, Shaker Life”
from a Shaker manuscript in letter notation
(Courtesy: The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio) [4]

 The Shaker legacy of music, both for singing and for dancing, however, is as rich as can be. Daniel W. Patterson states:

During Ann Lee’s lifetime and for the rest of the eighteenth century the Shaker song repertory probably numbered less than two hundred tunes, most sung without words. The Believers’ acceptance of worded songs in 1805, however, started an outpouring of new songs that would flow for more than a century. . .[There is] a manuscript in the Music Division of the Library of Congress entitled “A Record of Spiritual Song” [containing] some 2400 songs compiled by Elder Russel Haskell of the Shaker Society of Enfield, Connecticut organized according to the Shaker’s own classification system. [5]

 Early Shakers followed the tradition of preferring unaccompanied unison singing (as did early Baptists and Methodists). More than likely this was because of the unavailability of musical instruments and the lack of skill in producing them. As time went on this changed. Witness the invention by Brother Isaac N. Youngs of Hancock of the “tone-ometer” in 1833.

Set it upon some hollow thing such as a chest or a box or even upon a table [and] it sounded very well. . .place the little square block to the line of the letter you wish to sound with your finger on the wire [and] press it snugly, with the other hand you can touch the wire giving it a quick motion and it will give you the correct sound. (ibid.)

Patterson further states:

But as other churches crept gradually into more elegant musical tastes, the Shakers came to regard their own monophonic song as a badge of their separation from the world. During the 1840s divine injunctions were even received against “picking up the songs of the world, and singing after their manner, carrying their parts.” As long as the Shakers held an essentially folk outlook they resisted part-song. It was not until the 1870s that the Shakers began to purchase organs and pianos, get music teachers from the World, study the songbooks of other denominations, and regularly compose hymns with four-part harmony. (ibid.)

Of the many thousands of dances, songs, hymns, and anthems composed by the Shakers, probably the most famous is Simple Gifts.

This song gave a title to Edward D. Andrew’s pioneering study of Shaker songs and a theme to Aaron Copland’s ballet suite “Appalachian Spring.” These men made it the most widely known of the Shaker spirituals. It also had popularity among the Shakers. More than fifteen manuscripts preserve the tune, and it survives in oral tradition. (ibid.)

Simple Gifts

The manuscripts identify the song as a Quick Dance, but give conflicting word of its origin. One written at Lebanon says that it was received from a Negro spirit at Canterbury. Andrews reports seeing it described as “composed by the Alfred Ministry June 28, 1848.”. . .Several manuscripts record the song from the singing of Elder Joseph Brackett and a company from Alfred, who visited a number of societies in the summer of 1848. Mrs. Olive H. Austin heard that it was Elder Joseph’s own song. Eldress Caroline Helfrich there remembered seeing him sing it in a meeting room, turning about “with his coat tails a-flying.” (ibid.)

In Edward D. Andrews landmark study of Shaker music and dance, he identifies a number of categories of Shaker songs such as

  1. Songs on the themes of simplicity, humility, or repentance
    1. “Tis the Gift to be Simple”
    2. Wake up, Stur [sic] about”
    3. “Mother’s Child”
    4. “Lowly is the soul”
  2. Songs relating to spiritual freedom and “freedom from bondage”
    1. “Come life, Shaker life”
    2. “Holy Power”
    3. “My Carnal Life , I Will Lay Down”
    4. “An Indignant Shake”
    5. “Come, Come Turn Away”
    6. “Dismission of the Devil”
    7. “Keep the Fire A-burning”
    8. “I Hate the Old Deceiver”
  3. Songs in the imagined tongues of various races
    1. “Shiney Mudder”
    2. “Te he te haw, te hoot, te te hoot”
    3. “Black Bills Wonderment”
    4. “Hiang tron doo”
  4. Songs in unknown tongues
    1. “Niskarara senego”
    2. “O calvin criste I no vole”
  5. Ritual songs
    1. “Mother Ann’s Sweeping Gift”
    2. “Midnight Cry”
    3. “Decisive Work”
    4. “Sweep. Sweep and Cleanse Your Floor”
  6. Dance songs
    1. “Pretty Birds”
    2. “Come Dance and Sing”
    3. “Come Little Children All Unite”
  7. Gift songs
    1. “Mother’s Love”
    2. “Basket of Treasures”
    3. “A Cup of Love”
    4. “A Fan to Blow”
  8. Songs of spiritual love and union
    1. “Heavenly Love”
    2. “Hear ye, Hear ye”
    3. “Come, Sister, Come”
  9. Miscellaneous songs
    1. “drinking” songs
    2. bird songs
    3. songs of welcome or departure
    4. shepherdess songs
    5. songs without words
    6. prayer songs
    7. special songs

 Andrews records:

[while] a group of young girls [were] dancing, shaking, and whirling, some of the number lapsed into unconsciousness and began to sing “new and beautiful songs.” Similar phenomena were reported about the same time in other communities. When the subjects awoke from their trances or visions, the songs were carefully recorded, sometimes by the one who had received the “gift”, sometimes by a “scribe” or instrument who had overheard it or to whom it was sung again. The gift songs usually came from Mother Ann Lee or other departed Shaker saints. [6]

 For introducing the dance into their worship, the Shakers suffered severe criticism and persecution. They were charged with indulgence in the wildest orgies: with fiddling, telling fortunes, playing cards, drunkenness, and, most often, dancing naked. But they held steadfastly to the doctrine that dancing was the highest expression of joy and thankfulness – “a figurative manifestation of the manner in which the true followers of Christ were to be called to worship God, and manifest their joy in the latter day, for their victory over the powers of darkness.”

In content simple and direct, and seemingly artless in character, the dance songs of the Believers were true spirituals, tokens of the inspiration which uplifted and united this peculiar people. (ibid.)

 Patterson (1979) identifies a number of Shaker dance categories:

  • The back manner
  • The holy order
  • The skipping manner
  • The turning shuffle
  • The regular step
  • The drumming manner
  • The walking manner
  • The quick dance
  • The round dance
  • The square step
  • The hollow square
  • The circular march
  • The square march
  • The changeable march
  • The compound march
  • The heavenly march
  • The square check
  • The antediluvian square shuffle
  • The quick march

The famous song Simple Gifts is an example of a quick dance. Below is a description of the dance steps used for the eight phrases of the song. [7]

Simple Gifts Dance


During Mother Ann’s lifetime the Shakers erected no structures: they lived in farmhouses and often worshiped in fields and woods.  In 1785, however, just one year after Lee’s death, James Whittaker, who had followed her from England, and Joseph Meacham, who led a congregation of Baptists in New Lebanon, New York, before converting to Shakerism, launched a program to establish organized Shaker communities. The first project was to build a meetinghouse a Mount Lebanon, New York. (ibid.)

 Edward D. Andrews (1940) sums up Shaker existence best:

Simplicity was one of the most pervasive of the Shaker virtues. In their “travel” towards perfection, the conduct of the Believers, particularly in the processes of worship, was invested with a curious primitivism and child-like innocence. Often their ways were naïve and unworldly. But “gospel simplicity” appeared in aspects more mature: as Christian humility, the product of self-discipline and self-denial; as singleness of purpose, giving vitality to work and deed; as a doctrine of purity, affecting the labor of the hands. Speech and dress bore the impress of plainness. Thought and policy were honest and direct. In various guises the quality was ever-present, an essential attribute to the unity, harmony and consecration of a unique religious order.

In the late 20th century the last of Shakers died out in New England, ending a one hundred and sixty year old experiment in American communism and unique religious identity which helped shape the values and identity of this nation as a whole. The Shakers are remembered with fondness and studied with great dedication by scholars around the world for their invaluable contribution to human culture.

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] Elli Bambakidis, “The Shakers Collection,” Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library, June, 1991, 1991, http://www.dayton.lib.oh.us/archives/shakers.htm/ (accessed June 12, 2006).

[2] Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1940).

[3] Edward Deming Andrews & Faith Andrews, Work and Worship Among the Shakers (Toronto, Ontario: Dover Publications, 1974), 16.

[4] Roger Hall, “Shaker Music History,” American Music Preservation, http://www.americanmusicpreservation.com/shakerhistory.htm. (accessed June 14, 2006).

[5] Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual (Mineola, New York: Dover Publication, 1979).

[6] Edward D. Andrews, “Shaker Songs,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 23, no. 4 (October 1937): .

[7] Touchstone Sacred Dance Library, “Simple Gifts – Shaker Dances,” http://www.sacredcircles.com/THEDANCE/HTML/DANCEPAG/SIMPLEGI.HTM. (accessed June 15, 2006).

[8] Julie Nicoletta, “The Gendering of Order and Disorder: Mother Ann Lee and Shaker Architecture,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 74, no. 2 (June 2001)

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by Dr. Michael Pratt

The ancestors of almost virtually 100 percent of African-Americans originally came to the United States as slaves, most of them from West Africa. These slaves, brought here against their will, were allowed no freedom of expression and used religion as a means to speak out against their oppression and for their hopes and dreams of freedom. The white masters allowed these slaves religious freedom because they thought that they could use religion to better control them. Preachers were bought into the plantations to preach to the slaves on such “evils” as disobeying masters and theft of self (running away). The slaves had a natural tendency for musical expression, brought with them from their native Africa, and expressed themselves in the only allowable form, by singing: thus developing the African-American spiritual. The spiritual, which had been in existence almost from the time the first slaves came to America in 1619, came to public attention around the time of the Civil War with the publication of an anthology called “Slave Songs of The United States”. [1] The songs documented in this landmark anthology showed songs with melodies of great beauty and sophistication. No less a musical giant than Antonin Dvorak, while on a teaching tour of the United States in 1893, and while doing research on indigenous American music, gave an interview to the New York Herald in which he is quoted as saying:

In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, bold, merry, gay, or what you will. There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source…I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called the Negro melodies. [2]

 Dvorak also told Harry Thacker Burleigh, who studied with Dvorak in New York and introduced Dvorak to countless Negro songs, that Go Down, Moses was “as great a melody as any Beethoven wrote.” [3]

In addition to singing at religious gatherings the slaves were allowed to sing “quiet songs” as work songs as long as they did not sing anything against their master. So the slaves began to sing songs using code words and containing secret messages for each other. Many early slave songs yearned for escape to a free country. To them a “home” was any place they could be free and safe. So singing about “Going Home”, while ostensibly about going to Heaven, was in reality an expression of yearning to live in a free land. The way these slaves envisioned traveling “home” was by a chariot or a train. Songs like “Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were actually references to the Underground Railroad. Crossing the River Jordan referred to crossing over the Ohio River into the North and gaining freedom. In addition to expressing their suppressed feelings, the slaves, through spirituals, could also express their African roots, which they were otherwise forbidden to do.

After a regular worship service, congregations used to stay for a “ring shout”. It was a survival of primitive African dance…The men and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring. [4]

 Many African-American spirituals have a beauty of melody which far out shines the words, which were highly repetitious and in a slave dialect which was completely uneducated at best and unintelligible at worst.

I stood on de ribber ob Jerdon
To see dat ship come sailin’ ober
Stood on de ribber ob Jerdon
o see dat ship sail by

O moaner, don’ya weep,
When ya see dat ship come sailin’ ober
Shout, “Glory, Hallelujah!”
When ya see dat ship sail by

O, sister, ya bettuh be ready
To see ..
Brother, ya bettuh be ready
To see …

O preacher …

Deacon … [5]

The slave’s lack of education forced them to concentrate on the melody and the rhythm of the spiritual, the inherent parts of their musical background from Africa, while the text expressed the reality of their existence. For example, their dread of family separation was expressed in such songs as “Is Massa Goin’ To Sell Us Tomorrow?”, “Farewell To My Only Child”, and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. Such a great body of musical expression has emerged from the African-American spiritual, as a truly unique and beautiful American art form, that Dr. Alain Locke of Howard University has said that:

Although the Indian possessed a goodly store of folk songs, he failed to become the fount of America’s folk music, because the Negro’s greater rhythmic swing and melodic freedom produced music with a more widespread appeal. Then, too, the more varied emotional life of the Negro slave ranging from light-hearted irresponsibility to gaunt tragedy motivated a richer more diverse folk song. [6]

 The African-American spiritual came to public attention with the end of the civil war and the founding in Nashville, Tennessee of the Fisk Free Colored School. With the school quickly coming to a foundering status, the school’s leader, George White, sent out a small group of singers, still in their teens, to perform a series of concerts featuring the slave songs of the South. Taking the school’s last forty dollars and only the clothes on their backs, the “Jubilee Singers” set forth on a concert tour which eventually lasted for almost seven years and traveled to all parts of the United States and Europe (even performing for Queen Victory herself). The group eventually returned home with over twenty-thousand dollars to save the school (latter renamed Fisk University) after making the African-American spiritual a well known musical art form in the world. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a well-respected African-American proponent of the spiritual to this day. [7]


 The success of the African-American spiritual encouraged the imitation of the form by white composers like Stephen Foster and songs like “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground” and “De Camptown Races (Gwine to Run All Day)”. As the African-American spiritual developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a counter part developed as an outgrowth of the “camp meeting” movement which had become very popular, starting in Kentucky. The call-and-response format of Black spirituals and White camp meeting songs were very similar. George Pullen Jackson applied the term “White spirituals” to these camp meeting songs and tried to imply that since both Blacks and Whites attended camp meetings together it was the Whites who originated the form of the spiritual at these camp meetings and the Blacks who simply imitated the Whites. [8] Jackson’s arguments were largely refuted several years later by Samuel P. Bayard after his exhaustive study of British-American folk songs. To the question of the African-American spiritual’s truly original African origin (as opposed to some sort of synthesized, European, white-influenced origin) Bayard replies:

The large mass of folk tunes sung by North American Negroes appears, on the whole, to be an independent creation of that people. The influence of imported European (mostly British) folk music is plainly discernable in Negro folk melody, and Negro repertoires are shot through with versions of the principle British folk airs and other popular tunes; yet we cannot help recognizing in the music of this people a fund of song tunes generally distinct from that current among whites. [9]

John F. Garst goes on to say of Jackson’s position that the African-American spiritual is a mere imitation of the White camp meeting song:

He made two fundamental mistakes: (1) He followed a false principle of exclusion and insisted on attributing to the European heritage all characteristics of spirituals found in both the African and European traditions. (2) He went out of his way to deny that certain “racial emphasis” (rhythms, mode preferences, and performance styles of blacks) are African in origin. [10]

 Finally, noted musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel notes in his landmark study of African-American folk song:

Negro spirituals are traceable to Africa…After analyzing 527 Negro spirituals [he] found their identical prototypes in African music, concluding that intervallic, rhythmical and structural elements of these songs came from the ancestral homelands. [11]

The call-and-response format of many African-American spirituals is rooted in West African culture where call-and-response is used in public gatherings, religious rituals, and vocal and instrumental musical expressions. The slaves brought this format with them to the new world and utilized it in their lives in much the same way as they did in Africa, including religion, sporting events, children’s rhymes, and, notably, in African-American music including spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. They also brought musical instruments with them from Africa which they utilized in their music as well, such as drums, the banjo, the xylophone, and the marimba. An example of the call-and-response African-American spiritual would be “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

Leader:        Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        Swing low, sweet chariot
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        If you get there before I do
Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home
Leader:        Tell all my friends, I’m coming too

Chorus:        Coming for to carry me home

An excellent on-line bibliography of resources on the African-American spiritual can be found at http://www.artofthenegrospiritual.com/e-book/index.html. Click on “Bibliographic Resources, General” and use the password “ahhjay”.


Some people are of the opinion that white performers should not attempt to perform African-American music, such as spirituals, because they do not have the proper background to understand the context in which the music was created, the true meaning of the music, or the true manner in which the music should be interpreted and/or performed. No less an authority that contemporary African-American choral conductor and composer Rollo Dilworth of the North Park University in Chicago refutes this. In a lecture at an ACDA convention in Indianapolis, Indiana in the summer of 2005 which this writer attended, Mr. Dilworth made a compelling argument that this music could be learned, properly understood and performed by a choir of any color, White, Black, Yellow, Brown, or Red. He pointed out that Black choirs have the appearance of being a more natural proponent of this music simply because it is in their heritage and they have grown up with it from a very young age. Choirs of all backgrounds, especially White choirs, should be taught spirituals and encouraged to perform them.

A simple way to begin would be to use national standard #9: understanding music in relation to history and culture. The MENC web site contains many relevant documents and lesson plans for the national standards and for the implementation of standard nine in association with understanding the African-American culture of the slave era. [12] Another natural linkage would be the month of February: African-American history month. The MENC web site also contains a wealth of materials which could be used in the classroom to pursue the teaching of this music such as “Play and Discuss the ‘American Saga’ by Hilliard” or “Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in American”. In addition there are links to a wealth of other informational sites such as  “The Center for Black Research”, “African and African American Studies”, “The Gospel Highway”, and “Negrospirituals.com”. Also listed are MENC suggested readings and professional resources. [13]

For the African-American spiritual in a cappella choral format, the most recent proponent of the genre was Moses Hogan. With a large number of arrangements in print, including “The Oxford Book of Spirituals”, a large number of available recordings for reference, and a choir of his own founding that has toured extensively, Mr. Hogan established himself as the frontrunner in promoting the African-American spiritual. Even though he had an untimely early death in 2003, Mr. Hogan has left a rich legacy of spiritual interpretations for the choral director to use in promoting, understanding and performing the African-American spiritual. Other “big name” proponents of the genre which are also available for study and performance are William Dawson [14] and Brazeal Dennard. [15]

The study and performance of African-American spirituals does not need to be relegated only to the classroom or the chorus. These venues can come the closest to recreating the authentic spirit and flavor of the genre and helping the students understand the culture in which the music arose and gain insight into the proper techniques for the respectful recreation of this music, but other ensembles such as the band and the orchestra should not be left out either. Even without the text, which is so meaningful in the creation of this music, and performed by instruments which were not in use by the original proponents of this music (with some exceptions, such as the “fiddle”) the music can have impact and carry meaning to the students, especially if they are instructed in the history and culture from which the music emerged. Examples would include: “Fantasy on an African-American Spiritual” by Bruce Preuninger and “On an American Spiritual” by David Holsinger. Even chamber ensembles have made use of the African-American spiritual in their arrangements. For example, The Canadian Brass and their rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Me”.

There is a PBS film available titled “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory” which was produced in 2000 by WGBH in Boston and which details the concert tour of the young ex-slaves who introduced the African-American spiritual to the world at the end of the civil war. The web site contains extensive information about the film as well as a teacher’s guide, extended interviews, and further reading. [16]

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


[1] William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of The United States (New York: A. Simpson, 1867).

[2] Alec Robertson, Dvorak (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1947), 170.

[3] Artsong Update, 2006, “Anton Dvorák, Harry T. Burleigh And The Origin Of African-American Art Song,” http://www.artsongupdate.org/Articles/DvorakBurleigh&ArtSong.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[4] negrospirituals.com, “Songs,” Official Site Of Negro Spirituals, 2006 http://www.negrospirituals.com/song.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[5] negrospirituals.com, “I Stood On The River Of Jordan,” Official Site Of Negro Spirituals, 2006, http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/i_stood_on_the_river_of_jordan.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[6] Regina Dolan, “Chicken Bones: A Journal,” Negro Spirituals and American Culture, April, 1958, http://www.nathanielturner.com/negrospirituals.htm. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[7] Primarily A Cappella, 2006, “Fisk Jubilee Singers,” http://www.singers.com/gospel/fiskjubileesingers.html. (accessed October 14, 2006).

[8] George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and “Buckwheat Notes” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933).

[9] Samuel P. Bayard, “Prolegomena to a Study of the Principal Melodic Families of British-American Folk Song,” Journal of American Folk Folklore 63 (1950): .

[10] John F. Garst, “Mutual Reinforcement and the Origins of Spirituals,” American Music 4, no. 4 (Winter 1986): .

[11] Henry Edward Krehbiel, Afro-American Folk-Song: a Study in Racial and National Music (: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2006).

[12] MENC, “Standard 9: Understanding Music In Relation To History And Culture,” The National Association For Music Education, 2006, http://www.menc.org/guides/patriotic/9c.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[13] MENC, “African American History Month,” The National Association For Music Education, 2006, http://www.menc.org/guides/aahistory/AfricanAmericanHistory.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[14] Alabama Music Hall Of Fame, 2006, “William L. Dawson,” http://www.alamhof.org/dawsonwl.htm. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[15] Primarily A Cappella, 2006, “The Brazeal Dennard Chorale,” http://www.singers.com/choral/brazealdennard.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

[16] PBS, “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice And Glory,” The American Experience, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/index.html. (accessed October 15, 2006).

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