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On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

Dennis McNally By

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On December 23, 1938, some of the very best black musicians in America played Carnegie Hall... —Dennis McNally
The following is an excerpt from the "Spirituals to Swing" chapter of On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom by Dennis McNally (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, 2014).

Danny Barker, who in the 1930s was Cab Calloway's guitarist, told a particularly revealing story of working at the Nest Club, a Harlem after-hours joint. Business would be dead when the doorman buzzed three loud rings to indicate that they had prospects coming. The band would strike up "Oh, Lady Be Good," the waiters, all smiles and movement, would start beating on their trays, and the unsuspecting party would enter "amid finger-popping and smiling staff. ('Make believe we're happy.')... and then the show on the stage starts... Whites would come to Harlem to see this massive act of put-on make-believe." Barker thought of Harlem as "special slave quarters."

In contrast, on December 23, 1938, some of the very best black musicians in America played Carnegie Hall. Though there was misinformation and the very act of selection was influenced by cultural bias, the music was legitimate and the audience was given a superlative tour through the history of African American music. It was the brainchild of John Henry Hammond, a man who would dramatically influence white America's knowledge and appreciation of black music from the 1930s on.

Born in Manhattan in 1910, he was raised in a six-story mansion in the East Nineties with two elevators, a ballroom, a squash court on the fourth floor, and sixteen servants. Hammond would also inherit his Presbyterian mother's ambivalence concerning the truly extraordinary wealth of the Vanderbilts, writing, "She inherited the guilt they never felt themselves" as he followed in her reformist footsteps. He also inherited her love of music and began listening to the servants' Grafonola record player, which introduced him to Paul Whiteman, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and what was called "race" music. On a 1923 trip to London he saw the African American stage show Dixie to Broadway, which starred Florence Mills and featured Sidney Bechet in the band. Once back home, John began going to Harlem, not far from his Ninety-First Street house, to buy "Worried and Lonesome Blues" by James P. Johnson and Bessie Smith's "Saint Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong.

By his early teens he was sneaking out to the Lincoln Theater in Harlem to see the cream of black talent. At Yale, in the fall of 1929, he became a prominent figure in the hot jazz movement and quickly came to understand the political implications of his good taste. "Despite the influence of early teachers, the books I read, and what I had seen for myself in the South, the strongest motivation for my dissent was jazz. I heard no color line in the music. While my early favorites were white players, the recorded and live performances of Negroes excited me more. The fact that the best jazz players barely made a living, were barred from all well-paying jobs in radio and in most nightclubs, enraged me. There was no white pianist to compare with Fats Waller, no white band as good as Fletcher Henderson's, no blues singer like Bessie Smith, white or black. To bring recognition to the Negro's supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of."

After dropping out of college and moving to Greenwich Village, he financed some recording projects and wrote about black musicians for the English journal Melody Maker, worked with John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson in support of striking miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, and then covered the trial of the Scottsboro Boys for The Nation. In the course of the trial he became acquainted with NAACP president Walter White and soon become a member of the NAACP Board. It was a comfortable fit for him as an aggressive but not doctrinaire civil rights activist.

Hammond's idea for a formal music history lesson at Carnegie Hall had a successful dry run earlier in the year with Benny Goodman's triumphant concert there, and now Hammond went all out. "From Spirituals to Swing" would be sponsored by New Masses, which promised not to use it ideologically—evidently, the NAACP was unsure about aligning itself with popular musicians.

The show came with a lengthy formal program, which included advertisements for the starving children of Spain, the Commodore Music Shop, and the Soviet Film Group. There were points in Hammond's essay "The Music Nobody Knows" that delineate the limits to his largely sophisticated and positive point of view. Noting that the music "has thrived in an atmosphere of detraction, oppression, distortion, and unreflective enthusiasm," he cites the Austin High Gang approvingly and maintains his purist hot jazz roots by calling it "the most important cultural exhibit we have given the world" even as he dismisses jitterbuggers and commercial swing.

That's largely a matter of taste. Certain misstatements of fact are more troubling. Though a number of knowledgeable people had contradicted his version of the death of Bessie Smith, he repeated the same misinformation he'd printed on deadline the year before. Thirty years later he would maintain that stance in his memoirs, never entirely conceding that he'd been mistaken. That Hammond was, as he noted in his memoirs, a virgin on his wedding night documents a certain puritan righteousness to his personality.

Hammond's description of Johnson in the program as shy, that "I don't believe that Johnson had ever worked as a professional musician anywhere," can be attributed to Don Law, his (and everyone's, at this point) primary source. God only knows who made up the melodrama that Robert Johnson "died last week at the precise moment when Vocalion scouts finally reached him and told him that he was booked to appear at Carnegie Hall," so perhaps that wasn't Hammond's responsibility. But his later description in his memoirs of how Bill Broonzy, "who farmed in Arkansas with a pair of mules, shuffled out and sang about a dream," was not consistent with a man who'd been in Chicago for nearly twenty years. And Hammond's reaction to Ida Cox, who was a huge hit in the 1939 follow-up show, wearing "heavy make-up and false eyelashes, not exactly what I thought a blues singer should look like," was another example of a paternalistic as well as puritanical tinge to his mentality.

The major flaw with "Spirituals to Swing" was who was missing. The greatest black musician in America, Louis Armstrong, didn't get invited, presumably because his act was too pop and didn't comport with Hammond's idea of blackness. Apparently, more or less the same is true of Duke Ellington. It's certainly true that Hammond controlled the narrative, although how this music could have gotten to the mainstream public in anything resembling genuine form without someone like Hammond is a mystery.

What the above-capacity audience did get was rich. He opened the evening by playing a recording of African drumming before giving way to Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson playing jumpingly percussive boogie-woogie piano, the "Honky Tonk Train Blues." Next came gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Rock Me" and "That's All," her swinging, shouted vocals backed by her own guitar and James P. Johnson on piano. Bessie Smith's niece Ruby stood in for the fallen Empress—the evening was dedicated to her—with "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Mitchell's Christian Singers ended the spirituals segment with powerful call-and-response, solo/ensemble interplay on three songs, including "What More Can My Jesus Do?" Sonny Terry's "Fox Chase" demonstrated the remarkable range of the harmonica.

The music turned to New Orleans. James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney Bechet, Dan Minor, Jo Jones, and Walter Page (the last three from Basie's band) performed "Weary Blues" and two other songs as the New Orleans Feetwarmers. The rhythm section and Minor stayed on stage, joined by Buck Clayton, Lester Young, and Leonard Ware on electric guitar as the Kansas City Six, doing more recent jazz classics like "Oh, Lady Be Good." Bill Broonzy, backed by Albert Ammons on piano, Jo Jones on drums, and Walter Page on bass, gave the audience his tragicomic "It Was Just a Dream" to close the first half of the show.

Fronted by his vocalists Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes, Count Basie brought his band out and tore the place apart with a set that included a jam session with James P. Johnson and Sidney Bechet and a reunion with former Basie band member Hot Lips Page. The show closed with Basie's hit song, "One O'Clock Jump," and the audience went home exceedingly happy. But the music didn't stop there.

After the show, many followed Hammond down Broadway to the opening of a new nightclub in the Village, Café Society, which that evening featured Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, comedian Jack Gilford, and a boogie-woogie group. Hammond, who would book the entertainment there, had met the owner Barney Josephson that summer. They shared a desire for an integrated, politically hip nightclub, what Josephson would term "The Wrong Place for the Right People." The club was groundbreaking in its politics and managed to keep a high standard in its art. Holiday would debut her haunting antilynching anthem "Strange Fruit" there; Hammond thought it too polemical and wouldn't record it, although he allowed her to go to another label to do so.

"Spirituals to Swing" had yet another significant spinoff. A month after the Carnegie concert, a refugee from the Nazis named Alfred Lion and his friend Francis Wolff started Blue Note Records to record Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis, fueling a boogie-woogie fad that (along with Tommy Dorsey's 1938 "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie") would bubble through the next several years.

"Spirituals to Swing" was a major event in the introduction of black music to white people in New York, but, of course, it did not burst forth into a vacuum. Though jazz was by now a popular music—the popular music—the white people who first listened to black jazz saw it at least in part as folk music. Another example of this confused blurring of pop, folk, and race came with the introduction of Huddie "Lead Belly" (Lead Belly spelled his name as two words) Ledbetter to the city a few years before Hammond's concert, in 1935...

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