ON JAMES MONROE TROTTER AND HIS “MUSIC AND SOME HIGHLY MUSICAL PEOPLE” (Part 1)

[This is the first in a series of posts of “blogified” short entries from the forthcoming second, enlarged edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music [Lanham, Maryland] — i.e., entries whose style is lightly adapted to make them more blog-friendly. When I submitted the manuscript for the first edition of this book it was nearly double the contracted length because I had included many composers, works, and topics that are typically omitted from such “historical dictionaries” — chiefly entries concerning women and composers of color, especially from Latin America. When the press asked me to prepare a second edition they specifically requested that it be “longer by about a third.” That’s an indication, I think, that my relatively inclusive approach in the first edition has been appreciated.

So the expanded second edition will include about 150 new entries, most of these devoted to BIPOC composers and topics, and to women. Because many, most, or maybe all readers of this blog won’t actually read that book, I’m sharing a few of these entries here over the coming year — two or three entries per month, generally, as time permits and occasion warrants. Because of the size/space restrictions of the book — it’s a one-volume dictionary, not an encyclopedia, or even book chapter — every entry is brief. My hope is that the entries will be “appetizers,” jumping-off points for further exploration by interested readers. If the entry leaves you wanting more, that is by design.

Today’s entry and tomorrow’s are on a remarkable individual and book: James M. Trotter and hi influential treatise Music and Some Highly Musical People. Enjoy!]

(Boldface text will be cross-referenced in the book itself.)

MUSIC AND SOME HIGHLY MUSICAL PEOPLE. Abbreviated title of a landmark history of African American music by James Monroe Trotter published in 1878 (Boston: Lee and Shepard), described by musicologist Eileen Southern as “the first time in the history of the [U.S.] that anyone, black or white, had attempted to assess a body of American music that cut across genres and styles” (Southern, 1997, 261). Its full title is Music and Some Highly Musical People: Containing Brief Chapters on I. A Description of Music. II. The Music of Nature. III. A Glance at the History of Music. IV. The Power, Beauty, and Uses of Music. Following Which Are Given Sketches of the Lives of Remarkable Musicians of the Colored Race. With Portraits, and an Appendix Containing Copies of Music Composed by Colored Men. That organization must have impressed contemporaries with its boldness — for Trotter adopts the same general organizational scheme familiar to from countless previous histories of music to discuss music and musicians that had never once been taken seriously in those histories, thereby contravening the widespread racist assumption that Black folk and their music were not worthy of the same scholarly treatment as non-Blacks. Nor did Trotter leave that refutation to inference: he stated (p. [324]) that “[t]he colored people of the South . . . might well be called . . . a race of troubadors, so great has ever been their devotion to and skill in the delightful art of music. Besides, . . . in certain of their forms of melodic expression is to be found our only distinctly American music; all other kinds in use being merely the echo, more or less perfect, of music that originated in the Old World.” He further buttressed this argument by supplementing the 353-page main text with a 152-page Appendix of thirteen musical scores by twelve Black American composers: William Brady, Jacob Sawyer, Justin Holland, J. T. Douglass, H. F. Williams, Edmund Dédé, Basil Barés, Lucien Lambert, H. F. Williams, Sidney Lambert, W. F. Craig, F. E. Lewis, and S. Snaer. The main text covered cultivated and vernacular musics (including Black minstrelsy and gospel) and provided biographical sketches of Black performers and performing groups.

Despite its intrepid advocacy for Black musicians and Black musical creativity, Music and Some Highly Musical People partook of some of the racist and classist arguments and verbiage that characterized White music historiography: it favored light-skinned Blacks, repeated phrenological pseudo-science about the relationships between the cranium and character; and favored cultivated musics over vernacular ones. Nevertheless, it was the first book of its kind, a milestone and benchmark for every subsequent scholarly exploration of Black music and musicians of the nineteenth century.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on May 17, 2022.

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John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.