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.


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