Indigeneity and secularity:

America’s music

posted by Tracy Fessenden

Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonOn December 4, 1987 both chambers of the 100th United States Congress passed a “resolution expressing the sense of Congress respecting the designation of jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.” No opposing votes were cast. The Jazz Preservation Act (JPA), as the bill came to be known, defined jazz as “an indigenous American music and art form” rooted in “the African-American experience,” and as “a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic, and age differences in our diverse society.”

How do claims of indigeneity made on behalf of jazz, as in the text of the JPA, help to negotiate these competing representations: jazz as black, born of dispossession, and jazz as every American’s birthright? As this forum’s editors suggest, claims of indigeneity are at least implicitly claims about religion and race. Appeals to indigeneity permit race to enter into discussions of national identity and religiosity to appear in secular space. As a figure for race, religion, or both, indigeneity exerts a particular push-pull in relation to the secular.

Secularism, says Vincent Lloyd, “names the regime that determines what does and does not count as appropriate religion for a particular sphere.” As Hussein Agrama usefully puts it, the “state is always drawing a line between the religious and the secular,” “promoting an abstract notion of ‘religion,’ defining the spaces it should inhabit, authorizing the sensibilities that are proper to it,” and then disciplining religion to fit those sensibilities and spaces. Lloyd points to the ways that the regime of race functions similarly. Racialization, Lloyd suggests, operates to fix the meanings of race, construct lines between races, define the spaces different races should inhabit, and authorize racial sensibilities appropriate to each. In these ways what can be seen and heard of religion, under secular rule, is managed in part through the operations of race. What can be seen and heard of race is managed in part through the operations of secularism.

The packaging of jazz as an indigenous American art form makes a fruitful site for reflecting on the ways secularism and racialization join forces in the making of American identities and American things, and how these operations might look, feel, and sound.

One example of how the joint operations of secularism and racialization might sound is From Spirituals to Swing, a legendary concert of black gospel, blues, and jazz talent staged at Carnegie Hall in 1938 by millionaire producer John Hammond and sponsored by the Marxist journal the New Masses. Hammond was a Yale dropout and Vanderbilt scion whose trust-fund fortune, ear for genius, and zeal for self-mythologizing fostered some of the most remarkable musical recordings of the twentieth century.

In 1933 Hammond heard seventeen-year-old Billie Holiday in a Harlem speakeasy and put her in the studio with fledgling clarinetist Benny Goodman; it was the same studio where he’d recorded Bessie Smith’s last tracks in the session just before. From Spirituals to Swing was Hammond’s case for popular music’s African American pedigree and, in joint confirmation, his own curatorial power. Hammond’s Carnegie Hall concert gave African American music a plotline and allowable range, spirituals-to-swing, and mapped it to the geography of the Great Migration. It linked black musicality to a persistent religious primitivism marked by innateness, irreducibility, and unshakeable spiritual power, and it coined this power “authenticity,” a new form of secular cultural capital. “In this concert we aim to show you what the real thing is by presenting some of its best negro practitioners,” Hammond promised his audience. “What you will hear is the most sincere and valid representations our researches could find.”

Like appeals to indigeneity, claims of authenticity encapsulate an implicit origin story. In his 1977 memoir Hammond explained the genesis of From Spirituals to Swing:

For several years I had wanted to present a concert in New York which would bring together for the first time, before a musically sophisticated audience, Negro music from its raw beginnings to the latest jazz. The concert should include, I thought, both primitive and sophisticated performers, as well as all of the music of the blacks in which jazz is rooted. I wanted to include gospel music, which I listened to in various storefront churches wherever I traveled, as well as country blues singers and shouters, and ultimately the kind of jazz played by the Basie band.

In the advance billing of the New Masses, the concert would present “all the significant trends, all the roots [of] Negro music” including sounds presumably “known only to explorers like Hammond and Alan Lomax” in the order of “their proper chronology.” It was to be, in short, an “evening of great discovery.” Spirituals to Swing opened to the sounds of “wild African chanting” obtained from “scientific recordings made by the H. E. Tracy expedition to the west coast of Africa.” The program listed “African Tribal Music” first, followed by “Spirituals and Holy Roller Hymns,” blues, early New Orleans jazz, and finally swing.

The tribal overture did double duty in the organization of From Spirituals to Swing. On one hand, black music’s “raw beginnings” anchored an archaic past away from which modern musical and religious sensibilities had evolved. As Gayle Wald suggests, From Spirituals to Swing registered in its very name a story of “African American social development expressed in musical form: from spirituals sung by ‘unlettered’ musicians to the swinging rhythms of ‘sophisticated’ dance bands, from South to North, from folk functionalism to mass entertainment, from the sounds of slavery to the music of modernity.”

On the other hand, primitive sounds were for Hammond the vitalizing core of all genuine Negro music. Sacred songs and their inchoate cognate, “wild African chanting,” came first in Hammond’s musical program because, in the logic of the program, they lay closest to the essential Negro reality the event as a whole intended to convey. What sounded most audibly in the program’s sacred and archaic sounds was the primitive depth dimension that ran like a plumb line through the program in its entirety, from spirituals to swing. The Holy Roller Hymns of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Hammond recalled in his memoir, were the evening’s “surprise smash.” She “knocked the people out,” for her “singing showed an affinity between gospel and jazz that all fans could recognize and appreciate.”

Jazz pianoHammond’s production of musical authenticity required a great deal of hands-on management of performers’ bodies and lives. To collect his musicians Hammond traveled the back roads of the South with his car radio tuned to the tinny low-watt stations that relied on in-house broadcasts of local talent. “As soon as he reaches a potential refuge of talent,” the New Yorker reported of Hammond’s expeditions, “he buys all the newspapers, especially the Negro ones. From the amusement section he picks out the dives that appear to be the most barrel-house and goes there. If he finds a number of men he likes, he herds them into a nearby studio and makes some records.”

His scouting treks brought Hammond not only into barrel-house dives but into churches and “backwoods shack[s] with no electricity and no running water,” and he presented his finds on the Carnegie Hall stage in their talismanic, originary glory. “They represented in their concentration, true musical feeling, integrity and unaffectedness Negro music in its pristine aspects,” the New York Times reported of Mitchell’s Christian Singers, who came onstage in the “Spirituals and Holy Roller Hymns” segment of the concert. “Their singing is done after the day’s work. They have no formal teaching, they do not use fancy arrangements . . . . The music and verse are so real to them that they act it out, almost like an ancient miracle play.” Perceptible religious feeling, made credible a deep connection to place, was black authenticity’s marker.

To consider the management of race and religion in service to authenticity in From Spirituals to Swing is also to consider the complex and varied responses of the managed. Mitchell’s Christian Singers performed the requisite sacred feeling that secured their place in Hammond’s lineup, even as their charismatic bass, Sam Bryant, was an erstwhile blues guitarist who’d taken the Christian gig at the urging of the white agent who introduced him to Hammond. Having managed that, Bryant told a reporter for Time, his next stop might be Hollywood. The Carnegie Hall concert was Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s springboard to crossover fame as a gospel-blues-rock trailblazer; Tharpe contributed the term “rock-and-roll” to the lexicon by way of Billboard’s description of her Holy Roller hymns. The Golden Gate Quartet, jubilee singers who joined Tharpe and Mitchell’s Christian Singers in Hammond’s lineup, went on to assume the decorous mantle of civil religion in performances at the Roosevelt White House and as Cold War-era ambassadors on the State Department’s tours. When the Quartet made an African tour with Louis Armstrong in 1962, an embassy report noted that the program included the gospel hymn “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”1 The “name ‘Joshua’ can be considered as a real symbol in America,” the report continued, “where the trumpet of Armstrong, Gillespie and others has brought forth from the depths of the suffering Negro people the heartrending tones which, under the name of jazz, have caused several walls of racial discrimination to break down.”

The program billed From Spirituals to Swing as “the music nobody knows,” and Hammond’s memoir relates that the critics “in the Times and the Trib hailed it as unlike anything ever presented in New York before.” The music was hardly unknown and the concert was not the first of its kind; ten years before Spirituals to Swing W. C. Handy produced a Carnegie Hall concert of spirituals, work songs, blues, jazz, and James P. Johnson’s orchestral “Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody.” Sixteen years before that, James Reese Europe’s all-black Clef Club Orchestra played a Carnegie Hall concert of spirituals, ragtime, and early jazz, all by African American composers. The difference is that Hammond’s concert specifically presented black music to urbane white listeners as their musical heritage. “Stars were born that night,” said Hammond, “as sophisticated jazz fans heard at last the sources of their music.”

What Hammond sold to audiences as “the music nobody knows” was the privileged identity of the knower, the connoisseur, and with it the patina of an elite anti-racism. As the Jazz Preservation Act would do half a century later, From Spirituals to Swing packaged jazz as a rare and valuable national treasure, in which all who recognized its value shared ownership. (“By the way,” asks Ishmael Reed, “why is crime black and Jazz American?”)

Not everyone Hammond sought to enlist in his staging of jazz as America’s indigenous music played along. Billie Holiday did not appear in the concert at all. Her only mention in the program comes in a note that vocalist Helen Humes “stepped into Billie Holiday’s shoes as feminine singer with the [Count Basie] orchestra and has been at the peak ever since.” Holiday was touring with Basie when Hammond dropped her; he would later say it was her drug use that made her unmanageable. Certainly Lady Day would not be managed in the ways From Spirituals to Swing required her sound to be managed. Holiday would not sing the part of the Southern Negro in service to Hammond’s project. What she offered in the way of American roots music was “Strange Fruit,” the searing witness to lynching that Hammond found distasteful and refused to record. Basie’s drummer Jo Jones said that Hammond wanted Holiday “to sing the blues. He wanted her to be a colored mammy.” But Billie refused, Jones said, “so John Hammond fired her from the band.”

Composer Irene Kitchings, Holiday’s friend, said she and Lady Day attended the Carnegie Hall concert together. “John wanted everybody to do the blues, John did,” Kitchings recalled of the performance.2 “That’s the reason he went down there and brought back Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He brought these people right out there from Florida . . . . John wanted them to be pure Southern boom-boom. Lady and I attended the concert, and Lady said ‘uh-uh.’”


  1. Memo dated March 19, 1962 from American Embassy Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, to the U.S. Department of State, quoted by Penny von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 77.

  2. Irene Kitchings interviewed by Linda Kuehl, Collection #MC-079, Institute of Jazz Studies, Dana Library, Rutgers University-Newark, box 1, folder 9.

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