Throughout his life, the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man finds solace, creative expression, and social status through music: because of its emotional power, it is perhaps the only thing in this book (besides the protagonist himself) that crosses the otherwise rigid boundary between the white and black worlds. The narrator becomes an expert in the racialized registers of white classical music and black ragtime and slave hymns, and eventually he decides to combine them, “ragging” classical pieces and seeking to translate vernacular music into classical forms. While this might seem like a way to at least symbolically unite the conflicted halves of his identity and American society, it actually furthers the white appropriation, commodification, and distortion of black culture, which deprives its original producers of the fruits of their creative labor.
In this book, music is deeply tied to emotion, which allows it to cross the color line: it is perhaps the most important site for black creative expression and one of the few domains in which whites can take black culture seriously. At a party in Jacksonville, the narrator first observes the cake-walk and sees it as an example of black creative genius—two of his other three examples (the Jubilee songs and ragtime) are also musical. In fact, he notes that, lacking the United States’ sharp division between black and white culture, Europeans simply call ragtime “American music.” The narrator’s success in both classical and black music comes from his ability to “play with feeling,” putting his whole body into his performance. He also always finds love through music: his earliest crush is the violinist he accompanies, he woos the rich widow by playing the piano, and he both meets and reunites with his eventual wife because he was playing the piano and she was singing. The narrator’s experience at the “big meeting” centers on the emotional effect of music: the preacher John Brown is effective not because of what he is saying but because of the way he modulates his voice for dramatic effect—the sermon is closer to song than speech. “Singing Johnson” organizes people around the country through collaborative call-and-response songs and manages to choose appropriate hymns to reinforce the most emotionally charged moments of John Brown’s sermon. Music again becomes a way for black characters to make sense of their history of oppression and find the strength to fight against the incredible obstacles they continue to face from white supremacy.
Because he recognizes that music can translate across the color line, the narrator makes a career out of combining two genres from opposite social worlds: classical music and black vernacular music. Music is an integral part of the narrator’s upbringing; from his earliest days, his mother would play the piano many evenings, and he started playing it himself in his early youth, imitating her songs by ear. In Connecticut, the narrator is trained to play classical music, but he later learns ragtime and manages to switch between the two depending on the social context and his desired effect—at the millionaire’s party, he starts with a classical tune to signal the party’s refinement and later impresses the guests with the “unique entertainment” of ragtime. There is also a contrast between the way classical and folk musicians learn their craft: the former undertake formal training and the latter learn by ear. Although the narrator had formal lessons from an early age, his earliest forays into music were learning to play his mother’s piano songs by ear. In fact, he believed that, had the pianist at the “Club” been formally trained to play, he would be restricted by the conditions of his training and “would not have been so delightful.” He would have been derivative, either copying the “masters” or trying to supersede them by rejecting harmony. But the most important musical moments in the text come when the narrator combines the two forms—he composes his own ragtime tunes by adapting classical tunes he already knows, and has his epiphany about his calling—to collect Southern folk songs—when he sees a German musician turn his ragtime back into a classical form.
The white absorption of black music into mainstream American culture also commodifies and exploits it, however. The narrator notes early on that ragtime is increasingly commodified and exploited by white musicians (who publish others’ songs under their own names) and audiences (who appreciate it for its “exotic” qualities without acknowledging the performers or social contexts that created it). Indeed, the narrator also does both of these—he approaches ragtime more as a white performer than a black one. He becomes an “exotic” performer for the millionaire and the project that convinces him to leave Europe is precisely about taking credit for vernacular music that he did not create, publishing it under his own name and bringing it into the refined, documented register of white “culture” without acknowledging its actual creators. He does not combine black and classical music as equals, but rather subsumes the former to the latter.
At the “big meeting” in Georgia, the narrator emphasizes that the spirituals are an anonymous, collective, cathartic experience tied to the particular institution of the black church and its particular responses to black oppression; were he to adapt it to classical form, it would lose the historical and emotional context that actually made it revolutionary and unique. In a sense, the narrator’s decision to abandon his project ultimately ends up preventing black vernacular music from going the way of ragtime and becoming decontextualized under the control of white musicians, producers, and distributors. In contrast to the narrator’s attempt to subsume slave songs to “classic musical form,” the author and his brother actually tried to document the same music on its own terms, creating transcriptions adequate to the songs’ original contexts and methods of performance—they adapted form to the genre, not the genre to form.
Music, Emotion, and American Culture ThemeTracker
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
American musicians, instead of investigating ragtime, attempt to ignore it, or dismiss it with a contemptuous word. But that has always been the course of scholasticism in every branch of art. Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is spoken of as not worth the while. The fact is, nothing great or enduring, especially in music, has ever sprung full-fledged and unprecedented from the brain of any master; the best that he gives to the world he gathers from the hearts of the people, and runs it through the alembic of his genius. In spite of the bans which musicians and music teachers have placed upon it, the people still demand and enjoy ragtime. One thing cannot be denied; it is music which possesses at least one strong element of greatness: it appeals universally.
I began to wonder what this man with such a lavish natural endowment would have done had he been trained. Perhaps he wouldn't have done anything at all; he might have become, at best, a mediocre imitator of the great masters in what they have already done to a finish, or one of the modern innovators who strive after originality by seeing how cleverly they can dodge about through the rules of harmony and at the same time avoid melody. It is certain that he would not have been so delightful as he was in ragtime.
My glance immediately turned into a stare. Yes, there he was, unmistakably, my father! looking hardly a day older than when I had seen him some ten years before. What a strange coincidence! What should I say to him? What would he say to me? Before I had recovered from my first surprise, there came another shock in the realization that the beautiful, tender girl at my side was my sister. Then all the springs of affection in my heart, stopped since my mother's death, burst out in fresh and terrible torrents, and I could have fallen at her feet and worshiped her. They were singing the second act, but I did not hear the music. Slowly the desolate loneliness of my position became clear to me.
He seated himself at the piano, and, taking the theme of my ragtime, played it through first in straight chords; then varied and developed it through every known musical form. I sat amazed. I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. The thought came across me like a flash—It can be done, why can't I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy.
“My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man. Now, why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle, of the black people of the United States? Then look at the terrible handicap you are placing on yourself by going home and working as a Negro composer; you can never be able to get the hearing for your work which it might deserve. I doubt that even a white musician of recognized ability could succeed there by working on the theory that American music should be based on Negro themes. Music is a universal art; anybody's music belongs to everybody; you can't limit it to race or country. Now, if you want to become a composer, why not stay right here in Europe?”
I sat often with the tears rolling down my cheeks and my heart melted within me. Any musical person who has never heard a Negro congregation under the spell of religious fervor sing these old songs, has missed one of the most thrilling emotions which the human heart may experience. Anyone who can listen to Negroes sing, “Nobody knows de trouble I see, Nobody knows but Jesus,” without shedding tears, must indeed have a heart of stone.
As yet, the Negroes themselves do not fully appreciate these old slave songs. The educated classes are rather ashamed of them and prefer to sing hymns from books. This feeling is natural; they are still too close to the conditions under which the songs were produced; but the day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro.